Is the way we are doing youth ministry emptying the church?

My “Cool Church” post has become a love it/hate it item on the internet. One critique is that I am simply wrong in the premise students drop out of church when they leave our youth groups.

What does the data say? Back in 2009 Brett Kunkle gave a good summary of what is now undeniable: 7 separate studies say the same thing – Youth abandon the church after high school. If you doubt him, how about David Kinnaman’s new book about 2o somethings abandoning church, “You Lost Me.”

Youth worker: Cowboy up! We have to face the facts. It is easy to blame the church, the parents, and the culture. But look at the data carefully:

-61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back. (Time Magazine, 2009)

-78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church. (Lifeway, 2010)

Think about it: All students leave church at 61%. Students in youth programs leave at 78-88%.  Implication: Students attending a church with NOTHING for them attend church at a 50% higher rate in their 20’s than if they went to a church with one of our youth programs!

Youth pastors, we might actually be harming the numbers for churches without youth programs. We are giving our lives to students and it turns out that NOTHING might have been better for their participation in the body of Christ as an adult. If that doesn’t make the hair on your neck stand up then nothing will.

Please hear me: I am NOT saying we should fire youth pastors and disband youth groups. We know from history and common sense that unled things die. I am also not one of those saying that youth ministry is “unbiblical.” Greg Stier wrote a good rationale for why YM is both biblical and vital;

However, if we have integrity we will look honestly at way students are leaving the church when they leave our ministries. We need to look at…

-The unproductive segregation of youth away from parents, the larger body of Christ and leadership in the main worship service-something most of us who are pastors would never risk because “excellence” would suffer. We need to help our students become participants, “givers” to the community of faith; not just “consumers” of religious services.

What we count. Do you count “decisions”? “Attendance?” When I was on Young Life staff I kept a copy of all of the numbers our national organization gathered from us: clubs, campers, and conversions. I noticed that there was a fourth number that actually accounted for the other three: the number of leaders we had that went into the world of students. I found a ratio in effect: For every leader that would go to the campus to meet students in September, we had 7 students in “club” by December, 4 campers in June and 1.5 “commitments” by July. Our stellar Regional Director, Marty Caldwell, looked at several years of this data and immediately pointed out a truth: We become what we count. We need to count disciples who make disciples. We need to count the right things if we wish to develop the right things.

Our failure to resource parents – the ones God has actually given “our” students to. Two resources: Steve Wright: ReThink and Rob Reinow: Visionary Parenting.

We can do better. We can teach our students to love doing the things Christians have spent 2000 years loving doing: To read the Bible, study it, live it. To love and serve their friends, and talk about their life and their faith…their convictions and even their doubts. We can model for them participating in and building real faith communities. We can build students who know how and why to pray…who worship and walk with God. We can make students who live grace-filled lives towards others and make different decisions for themselves than they would have because they are amazed at God’s goodness and mercy and love for them. There are good resources for this out there. Ken Moser’s, Programs to Go will give you 18 youth group meetings to get you started. I have a “What we do in a discipleship group” that I can email you.

To quote Paul, there is “a still more excellent way.” It is an ancient way. A rooted way. A connected way. A way that resources parents and makes leaders “soul friends” to students and helps them live lives of faith and love as they walk with God and serve the church and the world.

Big changes take a great deal of courage and effort. But the fruit will be eternal. And that will be so worth it.


18 thoughts on “Is the way we are doing youth ministry emptying the church?

  1. Isn’t youth ministry a development and off shoot of Sunday School, which according to the reading I have done did not start until the mid 19th century, and was such a controversial idea at the time that churches divided over whether to have it or not? Correct me if I am wrong, but it also seems that youth ministry did not exist before the mid 20th century, which also corresponds with a growing awareness of adolescence in the culture. Before the 20th century whoever considered, wrote about or catered to the needs or desires of teenagers? So, what did we do before youth ministry and Sunday School?

    Which brings me to the point you raised last – the involvement of parents. Either parents don’t care about teaching their children faith values and beliefs, want to but don’t know how, or the structure of the church encourages them not to. As you pointed out, church, as conventionally experienced, mostly creates consumers of religious services, not disciples, and it starts with the adults. I would blame the modern church for much of this. Church’s survive on the money they collect from parents from providing these services so that parents can outsource and not worry about the religious education of their children. Money and programs are a hard addiction to break. But, if we want to fix the problem long term we need to start with the parents, especially those of small children. The problem is not with youth ministry per se, it is with ourselves.

    • Indeed!
      I actually think that youth ministry in the church is an outgrowth of the parachurch movements of the 40’s & 50’s co-opted by the church in the 60’s and 70’s. Youth Specialties started when they sold the YL skit book to the church. Young Life was using skits with a theological purpose. The church, not knowing the subtle rationale for YL methods, saw YL’s success, was envious and imitated badly rather than partnering for discipleship- which was what YL people wanted all along.

      The problem is that today’s churches are run by yesterday’s youth pastors. Many not only do not know how to resource a parent, it doesn’t occur to them. Our leaders have not set the expectation to people to raise their children in the Scriptures and the church. We are too busy doing church to the unchurched.

      • My fear is that we are looking at something larger than parents willing to “outsource” the spiritual raising of their children. I fear that we are seeing fruit of little going on spiritually in adults who happen to also be parents. I come from a denomination that is “very focused” on the first half of the “great Commission.” What I mean by that resonates with Matt’s last sentence–“We are too busy doing church to the Unchirshed.” I don’t want to minimize to call to extend the Gospel message of redemption, but the Church can’t fully realize the potential of being God’s perfectly designed tool unless we are made up of transformed lives–a living picture of Christ.

  2. Interesting thoughts on the previous post and this post. I was raised in church but never attended youth group and for all intents and purposes stopped going to church as soon as I left home.

    Looking back on why I left, I thought the world was a much cooler place to be. I thought that I would be happier living by its rules than I would Gods. I still believed in God but I rationalized every sin that I wanted to live in by saying that the bible was not meant for today, it was too old, God didnt know how different things would be in this century, etc etc etc. All the stupid things we say because we dont want to do what we know we should.

    Thankfully I had a praying mother who fasted once a week for us girls while we were growing up. And after about 20 years of living in the world, God finally brought me back.

    My thoughts on why youth leave, the enemy is roaming about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour! The young are easy targets. The young are easily swayed. The young are more open minded, The young think they know everything and adults know nothing! The young think they have rights! The young want to have fun and find “happiness”! The young are easy targets for the enemy to steal, kill and destroy!

    How do we save our young? We, the church, need to spend more time learning ourselves about the tactics of the enemy and then prepare our children. Nobody likes to talk about the devil and the world has made him into some cartoon character so nobody feels threatened by him but he is no cartoon character! He wants to bring every person he can down to hell with him for eternity! As long as the church keeps trying to be politically correct we will continue to throw our children and our youth to the lions because they will be unprepared to fight the spiritual battle. We are told that we do not battle against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. ephesians 6:12

    When we accept that and we put it as a priority in what we preach and teach, then maybe we might save our children.

    • Thank you for weighing in “all the way”,

      The inability to be clear about spiritual issues is a result of doing anything at all to build numbers. As Dave Wright, South Carolina youth minister says, “what we win them with, we win them too.”

    • Hi allthewaydoc,
      Thanks for posting. I am certain that you are right about both “the enemy prowling like a lion seeking whom he may devour” (after all Peter tells us it is so), and that there is amazing power in a praying mom. I would also say that awareness of the enemy is one thing and obsession is another. I am told that the way they train Treasury agents to spot forgeries is to have them handle piles of real money…that the more familiar they become with real money the more obvious the fake is. I would rather teach students and their families to know the Scriptures, to surrender their lives to God daily, to live in a community of real faith and support, to serve others and share the reality of God’s work in their life than focus on the work of the enemy.

      • There are two things that the bible tells us not to be ignorant of- the schemes of the devil and the gifts of the Holy Spirit and yet they are the two most ignored topics in the church today! I wonder why that is? Maybe because they make people uncomfortable and because people dont fully understand them and therefore they neglect them.

        The new testament is full of stories of demons being cast out of people and yet how often does one hear teaching on demons? Why is it that we want to teach about the love of God and all the warm fuzzy stuff but not the devil and the demonic as it appears in the word?

        One should never be obsessed with the devil but a strong working knowledge of his ways and his works should be a must in every christian! Being a counterfeit is only a very small part of the way he tempts people and gets them into sin.

        • Hmmn. I am certain that you are right, the devil is not preached on in many churches…nor is sin, death or many other uncomfortable topics.

          I am not sure that I would say the New Testament is full of demons. The gospel of John is silent on demons except for the accusations that Jesus had one.

          I am wondering, do you give all credit for temptation to the devil? What of the world’s system and our own sinful nature? I am leery of giving the devil too much due-it abrogates my personal responsibility for following Christ and surrendering my life to the Holy Spirit’s control.

  3. Evaluation is KEY to being able to move forward, this post is a fantastic example of working very hard to make sure that we don’t repeat mistakes and that we indeed move forward. Thanks for taking a strong stance on a hard topic!

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  7. I attended every youth group possible and every adult sermon possible as a high school teen. I was actively involved, and was termed a student leader at our church. Yet, when I went to college I stopped attending church altogether.

    I remember hearing the statistics about college students leaving church, and thought to myself “that will never be me.” But I did, and I believe that those who try to solve the problem of high schoolers dropping out of church once they go to college can’t really see outside of the box.

    I still believe in God and I am a helper of people as a social worker and therapist. I stopped attending church simply because I took on the concept of church that many college students do. Church itself can be a controlled atmosphere where we often find that people live their lives so differently than they do at home. Also, people at “church” are so focused on getting people to church that they forget how to be human to other humans and just have a human conversation. We always have to worry about getting them to church … Where we mostly live our lives much different than we do at home. Church started to looked like a big show where we all act fake.

    The world is so big when you graduate high school and go on to be your own individual. You want to explore, try new things, and find out who you are and what you can contribute to the world. I honestly felt in college that the church was so focused on numbers and evangelizing that no one could have a human conversation without trying to add another number to the church. Every church was competing.

    You realize in college that’s theres more than just the one religion that you were subjected to your whole life, and those religions are all competing for numbers (and your money) as well. You make new friends and find out that they have a different religion. So what do you do? Tell them their religion is wrong because you grew up learning a different religion in youth group? We both believe in God, we both believe in the greater good of humanity and treating others with love and respect. Yet, both of our churches want more numbers and more people. Our churches both felt they were the right ones and wanted to convert those who didn’t believe exactly what they believed to the “right” religion.

    Eventually we gave up trying to find the “right” religion and resorted to being everything we could be which included getting good grades, helping people solve bigger problems like abuse, neglect, and hunger, and accepting each other as we were (instead of trying to change others and add another number to whatever church wanted it most.)

    In the end, we both believed in God and that Jesus died on the cross to save us from sin. Yet, instead of going to church to sing some songs, shake hands, and give money in the offering…we studied, we found out who we were as people, and enjoyed living life without the stress of people breathing down our necks if we weren’t in church every single week as another number giving money.

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