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The Trouble With Youth Ministry

Youth ministry in the American church is often diagnosed as an increasingly ill patient. Some are even suggesting the patient is terminally ill.

Researchers and influential spokespeople report that a large majority of young people drop out of church after high school and rarely return. And they point out that the faith of Christian teenagers lacks depth and theological integrity.

I too am concerned by what I see happening among our young people. I’ve watched the spiritual trends ever since I founded Group, the youth ministry magazine, in 1974.

Though many of the trends are troubling, I find some of the pundits’ analyses of the causes and the cures to be rather puzzling. Some say church youth ministry was weakened by the attraction-oriented influence of the old parachurch organizations such as Youth for Christ and Young Life.

Others propose that the real disease here is the entire genre of a ministry specifically designed for teenagers. They say that segregating teenagers for specialized ministry defies biblical models of ministry. And that, they say, has led to spiritual malaise.

Others blame the media, consumerism, technology, youth ministry books, training events, parents and senior pastors.

Some of these things may contribute to the exodus of the church’s youth. But they’re not the primary culprits.

The real problem is much simpler. And it’s not a uniquely teenage problem. While adolescents have been drifting away, the same trend infects the American population at large. Adults too are drifting away. The fastest growing religious affiliation among adults is “none.”

So, why are our young people losing faith in the church and God? It’s a relationship problem. They don’t think of Jesus as their friend. He’s a concept or an historical figure. He’s an academic subject that their churches teach. And once they graduate from youth group, they forget about the Jesus subject—just as they forget about their other high school subjects. Jesus gets left behind with algebra and early American literature.

Ironically, many youth ministry analysts suggest that the cure to the young’s exodus is . . . more academic religious knowledge. They insist what’s really needed is “deeper study,” “stronger biblical teaching,” and “more robust theology.”

Thorough Bible knowledge is a good thing. I’d like to see more of it. My organization publishes Bibles and Bible resources. But kids aren’t walking away from the church because they lack an adequate accumulation of Bible facts.

They lack relationship. And relationships—of any kind—rarely grow and bond primarily due to the accumulation of data. Relationships—with people and with God—develop through demonstrations of unconditional love, building of trust, forgiveness, reliance, and tons of two-way communication.

Relationships built on these things endure. And grow. And actually develop a craving to learn more.

Where do we begin? Any relationship begins with the simple discovery that someone really exists, is real, is present, is truly alive. It’s hard to fall in love with someone you don’t believe exists. So, we can afford to spend more time showing the present-day Jesus, rather than only teaching about the historical Jesus. We can devote more time to hearing and encouraging peers who tell how God acts and intervenes in their lives—today, each week.

We can provide more opportunities for the real present-day Jesus to shine through genuine relationships with mature believers who ooze the unconditional love of Christ.

We can plan more deep experiences, such as community service opportunities, where kids can witness God’s love in action.

We can provide meaningful times of personal introspection, conviction, and immersion in the miracle of God’s forgiveness.

We can devote more quiet time for kids to engage in personal two-way communication with God.

In short, building a true and enduring relationship with Jesus looks a lot like building a relationship with another person.

If we desire to see this generation of young people embrace their faith and remain loyal to the Body of Christ, we must help them become friends of God.

12 Responses to “The Trouble With Youth Ministry”

  1. I’m wondering how the wounds of divorce and separation play into the ‘relationship’ aspect (both with Jesus Christ and other people) of this great escape from the body of Christ. It is difficult to initiate or continue relationship with young people who only know disappointment and heartache from those who God ordained to relate to them (mom and dad) from the beginning. Although there is a desire for connecting with others, the hurdles of truly trusting anyone remains primary. There is a tendency to use technology as an excuse for ‘look alike’ relationship. Resisting sounding churchy, I also believe the concept of Jesus being ‘friend’ is realized by those who know Him first as a loving Savior, Redeemer, and Lord.

  2. Hi Thom,

    New poster, long-time reader.

    Thanks for your thoughts here! I agree so much about the relationship idea for youth ministry. So many of my youth pastor peers are still caught up in the attractional mode of youth ministry: big events, big technology, big show. The more kids that they can get there the better.

    However, I’ve been quite the opposite. I’ve invested my budget in far fewer events and more in quality media, curriculum, and food for meetings (no joke, a carry-in per month). My reason of thinking is that if I can get the kids to invest in their relationships with each other and with Christ they will get to the point where they are the ones bringing new students to youth group (and hopefully Christ) rather than leaving this up to big concerts and events. You know, “It only takes a spark…”

    Many of them think I’m wasting my time. I mean, some of them have 50-100+ students while I’m hovering between 20-30 students. However, as mine are graduating they are returning to be youth sponsors, starting Bible studies in their secular dorms, and seeking out Christian colleges as opposed to the secular ones they got scholarships for. On the other hand, most of them don’t really see/hear from their students once they leave for college.

    I certainly don’t have “conclusive” proof, but I feel strongly convicted about this method. I agree with you. If we can get students to discover their own relationships with Christ and begin investing in that relationship, then I feel very strongly about not losing as many of them to the World. Hopefully this idea will catch with many of the more traditionally minded youth pastors.

    Great post!!

  3. K.I.S.S – Keep It Simply Spiritual. We spend time, money, and efforts trying to make Jesus and the bible attractive when we clearly miss the point. Keeping it centered around Jesus and His love for us and others is just one of the vital signs needed with teens, along with having fun, but not all the hype – making it real and practical. God already designed us all for relationships, and it is in these relationships of fellow peers who are spiritually grounded will also encourage and disciple each other within their peer groups for the good. It will be THESE teens who will help nurture and grow other ministries as they move into the next chapter of their lives – local youth ministry, campus, or working full-time. It can and also affect our faith as well. Choices and the future of God’s Kingdom. Teens are hungry more than ever searching and seeking the truth. Not only to find the trust we adults (leaders) bestill and presuade to them, but also the questions they have of Life and how to get these answers; and for some, if not now, maybe and hopefully later on. And it will be in those times they can reflect from what is right or wrong in making or learning to make the correct choices – foundation of basic knowledge of the scriptures. I have found also, the most effective and growing teen ministries also starts with communicating well with the teens parents, and getting the parents/guardians involved to some degree. Truly an amazing ministry to not only to see teens growing in their relationship w/ Jesus and with their parents, but also their parents being impacted, as well as families being transformed and united with Christ. Not an easy ministry, but i believe one of the key ministries of impacting any church or community. We all can be mentors in some way or capacity in someone else’s childs life.

  4. Thom, you said, “Any relationship begins with the simple discovery that someone really exists, is real, is present, is truly alive. It’s hard to fall in love with someone you don’t believe exists.” I’ll add, or even know about.

    Ironically I have been investing a lot of thought and many sleepless nights trying to understand how LifeTree Café works with a family. How can I involve everyone? I believe the Holy Spirit has been teaching me to look at my own childhood, what did I like?

    In all honesty, the same as my children, the bible stories. Think about this for a minute. Children today are taught in sound-bites. I don’t like it but it is what it is. Isn’t it a little more than coincidental God wrote the bible in sound-bite size stories of heros and heroines?

    Hearing the stories engaged my thoughts and opened me up to asking at least a few questions. (Still does today I might add.) My teachers even allowed us to help answer other kid’s questions, we were able to participate! The facilitator/teacher controlled the amount of input one student could have and directed the conversation into the right conclusions.

    All those stories are about relationships with other people and between God/Jesus and us . The answer is in the bible, just become great at sharing the stories! I know there are organizations that do just this but I think sometimes we make things too formal and less relational. Just read the story and pause, wait for the questions to start. Slow down your life and allow God to create teachable moments with the little ones in your circle of influence.

    Just my 2¢ worth

  5. i agree that the problem is simple and not unique to teens. i also agree that the problem is relational. however, i don’t agree that it isn’t because teens (or adults for that matter) don’t see Jesus as their friend. i believe it is because teens don’t see Jesus as their King. the problem is a small gospel – a gospel that doesn’t take into account the entire story of Israel and the fulfillment of this story in the life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. instead we’ve confused the gospel with the plan of salvation(a la Scot McKnight). we’ve asked teens (and again adults for that matter) to repent, believe and follow without also communicating through our words and actions that following means to live as though Jesus is the King of our lives.

    • This is one of those lessons that is clearly taught in all the bible stories, especially the Old Testament. I couldn’t agree with you more!

  6. I wonder if there is a relationship issue in the church as a whole; as in we do not have relationships with each other as well as Jesus. We come to church but are not church, are not a body dependant on one another. Especially in larger churches, but in even in the small church where I am a member there is a limited commitment to relationship without the estabished groups. The mens grp just talked about the lack of fellowship event — events for no other reason than simply building relationships. We have men’s/women’s mnistry on Wednesday (a time of study) Sunday School and Worship Sunday AM (study based) when do sit around and get to know each other? Also most churches I have been a part of in the last 20 years have done away with Sunday Evening time when the “Testimony time” was. Just wondering; would this have anything to do with a lack of people having a today vs historical Jesus?

    • Good observation, likely true. I was just talking with a new friend about how people today, myself included, have become so busy with “things” that we no longer save time for others. We don’t want to get “dirty” with the other issue people have or may even show us in our own lives.

      Ideas for how to solve it?

      Do we not read the Bible and allow the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out? Do we not choose what we know is right? Is the world just getting so bad that we have no chance to right was is wrong? Perhaps it starts with me, “it just takes a spark to get a fire going.”

  7. This is right on. I have saying this to our church and youth leadership team for years.

    I especially like these words:

    “Where do we begin? Any relationship begins with the simple discovery that someone really exists, is real, is present, is truly alive. It’s hard to fall in love with someone you don’t believe exists. So, we can afford to spend more time showing the present-day Jesus, rather than only teaching about the historical Jesus. We can devote more time to hearing and encouraging peers who tell how God acts and intervenes in their lives—today, each week”

    That is why we began the year with a series of discussions called iBelieve leading up to our talk on what it means to have a real and beneficial relationship with God.

  8. Tom,

    Insightful and true. I just returned from a confirmation retreat with 12 youth. I introduced them to the practice of Care Cards which I learned at Group Workcamps. We connected this to Jesus Christ and his loving relationship with us. They really seemed to understand this. Building and strengthening relationships to each other and God are absolutely essential.

    Another item I would like to add is the concept of eco-systems. A lot has been made of the Apple eco-system and how consumers “live” inside the suite of products that Apple creates and relationally integrates. It is a unified experience which reinforces the connection of the consumer to Apple. If we turn this thinking toward faith communities we see that they have historically created cultural eco-systems that reinforces connections and relationships, resulting in a distinct “environment”.

    I believe that our youth live in a radically different “eco-system” than that of the traditional church. It is not that they are “lossing their religion” as much as “lossing their eco-system”. In exile the Israelites created their own eco-system to build and sustain their community and faith. Minority groups have always had to create their own eco-systems.

    For generations, Protestant Americans have depended upon a generally reinforcing cultural eco-system. As it disappears what is the church to do? Relationships are built and sustained by reinforcing eco-systems. Personally, I believe that the problem with youth and adults leaving all faith communities is due to a loss of relationship building eco-systems.

    When youth leave the church after high school, how do they retain their faith in a foreign land (i.e., eco-system)?

  9. As an Australian we have been in a post-Christian youth ministry for over 20 years. Young people weren’t attracted by anything the Church did for 20 years and now are so “unchurched” that just doing “churchy” things is attractional.
    – Instead of the noise in the World, the Church can be a place for quiet.
    – Instead of hundreds of Facebook friends, the Church can be a place for real relationship
    – Instead of unlimited choice, the Church can the place for one choice – Jesus
    – Instead of having to have an answer for everything, the Church can provide a place to allow exploration of the Mystery of God.

    Youth Ministry in Australia is in a great place because we know we need something new and are trying things out; the attractional “cool youth pastor” model hasn’t worked for 20 years.

  10. I agree with the relationship issue and I often find it is being hendered at the highest levels of leadership in chuches today. There this concept of “big church” and “little church” that is seperating our youth from the relational aspect which is vital to them becoming more mature christians. The church is the body of Christ, no matter the age. We should be concerned about our youth and take a more active role in mentoring, discipling, building a relationship that has meaning. The more we seperate our youth from the the functions and elders in our churches the more we are telling them they are not really a part of our church. This, I think, is one danger and the cause of alot youth abandoning church after they graduate from high school. Having been a youth leader/director I have battled with pastors and church leaders to take more of an interest in the future of their church and start making disciples. Jesus warns us about being the stumbling block for ones such as these and it is not good. Allow our youth to whorship, be lead by christian mentors, lead in church services and become intrical members in our churches and we see youth staying and becoming tomorrow’s soldiers for Christ and leading many others to a saving relationship with Him!

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