In case you aren’t aware, the recognition of the limitations of youth ministry being a viable means of instilling and growing faith in our youth is among the most discussed topics in youth minister over the last few years. This conversation is a direct result of the explosion of articles and books on the mass exodus of young adults from churches. No one likes seeing this generation walk away from church, much less walk away from faith. People are searching for more than theory…they want real solutions that can work in real churches and real youth ministries. That is why we have asked Joel Singleton (this being his first in a series of 4 articles) and Duncan Campbell (whose articles have already been posted) to write about their experience in how they have actually made this shift.
The popular opinion of modern youth ministry is divided. On one side, several authors and church leaders are dramatically demanding the death of youth ministry altogether. They are using phrases like, “youth ministry is a 50-year failed experiment”1, or youth ministry is “a weed in the church”2 that must be pulled immediately. On the opposite side, many churches have not stopped long enough to evaluate whether they still believe in traditional youth ministry. They routinely fill the youth ministry position merely because their history drives them toward a normative path. It is between these two divergent perspectives that we have found a brighter path for modern youth ministry.
I have been doing youth ministry at the same church for 9 years. My first 5 years were rooted in what I would call traditional youth ministry. I led an event-based, peer-focused, fun-seeking youth ministry with a strong element of biblical teaching. In my last 4 years our church made major shifts in the way we approach youth ministry. I’m not saying we have found all of the answers. We have not arrived at a perfect model for a new season of youth ministry, but my prayer is that our journey away from the traditional model can help you find the first few steps toward the discovery of a brighter future for raising a young generation of faith.
I was asked to speak at a neighboring church about our transition toward a more family-focused youth ministry. After I had finished my third talk for this church I was approached by a woman who served me a loaded question.
She asked, “What do your teens think about your new-found focus on families within your youth ministry.”
I replied, “Most of them are ‘okay’ with it, a couple of them don’t like it at all, but several actually prefer it.” The woman I was speaking with liked the “idea” of a more family-focused youth ministry, but she didn’t think the teens would like it at all!
She objected by saying, “What if they don’t like it and they don’t come back?”
(I entered into full-blown analogy-mode)
I asked, “If you gathered a group of four-year-olds and gave them cookies and Kool-Aide each week and told them to invite their friends do you think they would come?”
“Yes, they would probably beat down your door,” she replied.
I continued my line of questioning by asking, “If you suddenly stopped giving them sugar and explained that it isn’t good for them, would they be upset?”
“Yes, you might have a full blown mutiny on your hands,” she exclaimed!
I guessed at a possible reaction and asked, “We would probably see those kids stop coming over time huh?”
“Yep,” she quickly responded as if I had just made her point.
I inquired further, “What if those kids weren’t getting any food at home; would it be right to keep feeding them only candy each week?”
“Oh no, “the mother inside of me would not let that happen. We would have to get those kids a home-cooked-meal,” she explained as she beamed with pride.
I pushed her thoughts a bit further by asking, “They would love that for one day of the week, but what about the other days? What about for breakfast and lunch too? It seems like there is no way we could keep up with all that cooking, could we? If we are going to keep them fed we might even need to purchase a couple of snacks, too! What could we do?”
Overwhelmed by the thought of feeding a large group of children on a daily basis she paused briefly to explore my question. “If those kids weren’t getting fed at home I would call their parents!”
“And what would you say to them?” I asked, itching to make my point.
“You need to feed your kids at home! All we are giving them at church is sugar, and you can’t expect us to feed them every day of the week! We can give them a solid meal here and there, but you cannot expect us to be the only ones who feed them!” She stopped briefly for air and continued, “You can come to church and get food from the pantry, if you need to, but you need to feed them at home!”
I paused to see if she had just realized that her last outburst had made my point for a family-focused ministry. It finally “clicked” for her. She realized that we could give spiritual nourishment one or two days of the week, but the real spiritual nourishment had to come from home. She understood that many teens wouldn’t like the change, but the goal isn’t to make christianity likable, it is to raise a mature generation of faith by providing enough spiritual nourishment for them to grow.
I explained to her that, “We have been raising several generations in youth ministry who have been fed spiritually on cookies and Kool-Aide one or two days a week. Even if youth ministry works hard to provide steak once a week, it still is not enough. Students are starving and, in some cases, are dying spiritually. If we are going to raise a generation of faith, we have two options. Option one, we can call home and convince moms and dads to regularly feed their teens spiritually at home. Option two, we can raise up around the teens a multi-generational community of faith (the church) that loves them, cares for them, and leads them to become life-long disciples of Christ.” She thanked me for my thoughts and we parted ways.
SETTLING FOR OPTION 3
Later I began thinking about how most churches try to raise a generation of faith. Most churches are pursuing a third option . . . youth ministry. Youth ministry was never intended to be the primary way by which we raise a generation of faith. It was designed as a supplement for what happens at home. It should be at least third on the list of options. If the church continues to rely solely on youth ministry, it will fail to raise a generation of faith. Youth ministers are typically young and inexperienced and in extreme cases their job description is to spiritually feed a generation of young teens nearly on their own. Armed with a budget, a few volunteers, and a 4 year degree they are often asked to mentor the most vulnerable group in the church. This is not realistic, biblical, sustainable, nor is it working.
I am by no means an alarmist. I do not think the sky is falling and everything will fall apart unless . . . (fill in the blank). However, if churches do not begin to wake up to the reality of the modern-day family, and to the limitations of youth ministry, we will see the continuance of a steep decline in young Christians who develop into life-long believers. Below are striking statistics about generations whose primary source of spiritual nourishment was provided by youth ministry.
“In fact, the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings – 61% of today’s young adults – had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying). Only one-fifth of twentysomethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences.”3 These percentages are among the most optimistic; others studies suggest between 60 to 90 percent of youth involved in church reject the Christian faith when they are young adults.4
“We discovered that in a typical week, fewer than 10 percent of parents who regularly attend church with their kids read the Bible together, pray together (other than at meal times) or participate in an act of service as a family unit. Even fewer families–1 out of every 20– have any type of worship experience together with their kids, other than while they are at church during a typical month.”5
After examining our church’s youth group retention rates I found that over 90% of our students whose families had some sort of faith-at-home routine were still faithful years later. While slightly over 30% of our students whose families did not have a faith-at-home routine remained faithful. This clearly outlined a new job responsibility for our youth ministry. If the job of the youth minister is to raise a mature believing generation of Christians, the answer was not found in event-based, peer-focused, fun-seeking youth ministry. The best way for youth ministry to retain a generation of faith was to make it more likely that families would pass down their own faith to their own children.
The next several posts will further outline: (1) a new role for youth ministry including a biblical theology that supports this new perspective, (2) A tested multi-year strategy to implement a more family-focused youth ministry.,(3) Tools that will help families improve their spiritual family environment, (4) as well as two stories from our experience that illustrate the success of this new perspective.
2. Scott Brown, A Weed in the Church, (Quotation above is a reference to the title)
3. Barna Group, “Most Twentysomthings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” http://www.varna.org/barna-update/article/16-teennext-gen/147-most-twenty–somethings-put-christianity-on-the-shelf-following-spiritually-active-teen-years (accessed January, 2012)
4. Mark Holmen, Church + Home (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2010), 28
5. George Barna, Transforming Spiritual Children into Spiritual Champions (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 78