Over the past year I’ve conducted dozens of interviews with 20-somethings who have walked away from their Christian faith. Among the most surprising findings was this: nearly all of these “leavers” reported having positive experiences in youth group. I recall my conversation with one young man who described his journey from evangelical to atheist. He had nothing but vitriol for the Christian beliefs of his childhood, but when I asked him about youth group, his voice lifted. “Oh, youth group was a blast! My youth pastor was a great guy.”
I was confused. I asked Josh Riebock, a former youth pastor and author of mY Generation, to solve the riddle: if these young people had such a good time in youth group, why did they ditch their faith shortly after heading to college?
His response was simple. “Let’s face it,” he said. “There are a lot more fun things to do at college than eat pizza.”
The usual youth ministry model is broken. In fact, I think it’s never been anything but broken. It won’t be fixed with a tune up or an overhaul. It has to be redesigned from the ground up.
In the end, pizza and video games don’t transform lives. Young people are transformed by truth clearly presented. They’re drawn to a cause to live and die for. In other words, they want the unvarnished gospel. When we present that gospel, with all its hard demands and radical implications, we’ll be speaking the language they long to, and need to, hear.
The goal isn’t to get the kids to like church, class, or attending youth events. They have to learn to love Jesus — and they learn that from adults who love Jesus.
Thankfully there are youth ministries trying to turn the tide. Faithbridge church in Houston, Texas, is one example. “We don’t pour much effort into planning big hoorah events,” says lead student pastor Dylan Lucas. “We’re really focused on the Word and leadership training.”
The ministry pairs small groups of five to seven teens with adult leaders, and then provides those leaders with intensive training. “We equip these leaders to teach. The youth pastor can’t do it all,” says Lucas.
Follow-up is another focus. “Our job doesn’t end at graduation,” Lucas says. “We call that ‘Day One.'” Each graduate leaving for college receives a $10 Starbucks gift card with the following instructions: go find a spiritual mentor on campus to take out for coffee.
“We keep tabs on them,” Lucas says. “We have relationships with their families, and we bring them back to help lead the next generation.”
Now, before we consider how to fix youth ministry (not that I pretend to have all the answers), we need to dismiss some wrong ideas —
* The goal isn’t big numbers. Yes, it’s better to create many disciples rather than few disciples. But getting a crowd shouldn’t be confused with creating disciples. Discipleship isn’t about going to a party in a church building. Numbers only matter if we’re doing the right thing with the people those numbers count.
* Leadership training isn’t mainly about how to conduct the assembly. The old-fashioned form of leadership training was to teach boys how to lead a public prayer, pass out communion, lead singing, and even preach a sermon. Christianity was focused on the 5 acts of worship, and the assumption was that the most important kind of leadership needed was the leadership needed to conduct the assembly.
There was a good result from this, however. When you teach teenage boys how to lead in the assembly, you are communicating the message that we expect you to mature and take on adult responsibilities. Rather than prolonging adolescence, we’re preparing our children for adulthood. The problem is that being an adult Christian is about much, much more than those things. But at least the kids got the message that they were expected to grow up and take their place among the adults.
* Girls shouldn’t be trained in leadership. Now, the fact is that many of the most valuable — indeed, essential — leaders in our church are women. And that’s true in every congregation everywhere. Women need real leadership instruction. Even if girls would would never, ever preach, lead a communion meditation, or lead a song in your church, they’ll still become leaders. The choice is whether they’ll be good leaders. Train them.
* Theology is boring. It’s a fact that many teens have had their fill of school and don’t want another class come Sunday morning. But many teens are desperate for deeper, richer instruction — and teen ministers tend to teach down to the least motivated students. Find a way to teach the Bible.
Now, by “teach the Bible” I mean teach what the Bible actually says. Kids who can pass algebra are fully capable of understanding the Kingdom, the character of God, the story of scripture, the life of Jesus … There’s no reason to limit the lessons to sexual abstinence and not being in cliques. Those are good lessons that ought to be taught, but they’d carry far more weight if taught from within the framework of why God is doing what he is doing.
I remember that, when my oldest two sons were teens, the youth minister taught a verse-by-verse class on Monday nights. It was my job to drive the kids to class and then pick them up an hour later. I soon learned to pick them up an hour and half later, because the classes always ran long because the kids wanted to keep on studying and discussing.
Not all kids attended the in-depth studies, but most did. And because it was voluntary, the youth minister could teach at an in-depth level without the kids complaining. They didn’t have to be there. They chose to be there.
* Kids don’t want to be with their parents. Countless youth ministries attempt to create a sub-congregation where the teens are isolated from most adults, and where they even worship separately from the rest of the congregation. They have their own events, their own ministries, their own mission trips, and even their own buildings.
There is nothing remotely natural or healthy about this approach. It gives the youth minister great autonomy and makes his job easy — because he doesn’t have to deal with the rest of the church — but it’s not the natural or right way for children to grow up.
Rather, children need and want adult role models. Adolescents want and need some time apart from adults, but keeping them almost entirely separate is unnatural and prolongs adolescence. How can a kid grow up if he’s rarely around grown ups? How can a kid become an adult disciple if he is rarely close enough to adult disciples to see how they behave?
* They aren’t our problem after they graduate. When a teen graduates from high school, he goes from having a week largely planned by his school and his youth minister to nearly complete autonomy, even if he’s in college. An adolescent typically leaves his parents’ influence, the influence of his youth minister, and even his friends, to go to college somewhere else. And other than his parents, no one follows up with him.
It’s a lot to ask of a youth minister, but if a teenager finds himself completely disconnected from his Christian support network when he goes to college, he may just begin to wonder how much how those smiling volunteers at the youth events really loved him.
* The role of parents is to order and serve the pizza. Some youth ministries exclude the parents altogether. Some use the parents as drivers, food preparers, and chaperones. Few use the parents as role models.
Now, it may be that the parents are lousy role models. But if so, then we need to fix the entire church, right? Of course, there will always be some kids whose parents aren’t even Christians or who are going through spiritual struggles. Nonetheless, most kids in church should have parents who are examples to be followed. If not, then we have to focus on fixing the adult ministries as well.
* Mentors sit around in a room and talk. Many youth ministers want the parents to “build relationships” with the teens. This is done through playing games and talking. And I’m good with playing games and talking. But neither is a particularly Christian endeavor. Pagans play games and talk. Why not build relationships while demonstrating how to live the life of a Christian.
Grab a kid and go clean up a creek. Or serve food in a soup kitchen. Or shop for someone who’s lost his house to fire or tornado. For that matter, go to the church building and stuff bulletins or fill the communion trays with grape juice. Do what Chistians do — and bring a teenager along.
I’ve had youth ministers get upset when parents had their daughters help them teach two-year olds in Bible class rather than attending the youth class. Well, adult disciples prepare lessons for two-year olds, giving up their Saturday nights to prepare to the teach the children of other people, just because they love them. It’s a pretty good lesson for a teenage girl to learn.
* The adults who matter to the kids are just their parents and maybe some young couples. Most youth ministries have a 20-something minister, some childless young couples, and some parents, all who work together to make the ministry happen. Do you notice someone missing?
We live in an age where grandparents are usually in a different city. Kids today grow up in an environment with very little gray hair. And us graying old people have very little contact with actual teenagers. And this is unnatural and unhealthy.
Children need to see what faith looks like when lived out for 70 or 80 years. They need to see marriages that have lasted for half a century. They need to experience the wisdom of old age.
But old people aren’t good at ping pong and four square. They don’t much like pepperoni pizza. And they hate loud CCM music. And so we figure there’s nothing in youth ministry that might be attractive to them — because we’ve forgotten what it means to be a disciple.
(John 13:34-35 ESV) 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Teens can’t love people they’re rarely around. Our older members can’t love the teens if they spend their weekends taking bus trips with other old people to old-people resorts. Love requires action and it requires being together. And so long as we age-segregate our churches, we won’t be able to mature our children into disciples.