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.