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.