It is well documented that a large percentage of teenagers who are active in church life and have committed their lives to Christ walk away from that commitment after graduating from high school and their youth groups. A study done in conjunction with the Fuller Youth Institute suggests that 40-50 percent of teenagers will leave their faith behind during their college years[1], and statistician Flavil Yeakley, who focuses in particular on Churches of Christ, presents a similar figure, saying that only 58 percent retain their church affiliation after growing up and leaving home.[2]

Extending Society’s Problems To The Church

Although there are certainly several factors at play in this low retention rate, one problem which ministry experts and researchers have cited repeatedly is age segregation, or, the way “…churches have systematically isolated young people from the very relationships that are most likely to lead them to maturity.”[3]

This is part of a larger societal issue, where teens have less frequent contact with adults than ever before (including their parents), and what contact they do have tends to occur in “…role-specific ways with adults who are paid to spend time with them.”[4] One particularly disturbing study illustrates the extreme unavailability of adults in teenagers’ lives, revealing that teens spend less than seven percent of their waking hours with any adults.[5] In churches, this age segregation is played out in a number of ways, including Bible classes divided by age group, having separate worship for children and teenagers (sometimes in a separate building), paying a youth minister to interact with teens so parents and other adults do not need or have to, and frequent youth trips which physically and emotionally remove young people from the rest of the congregation.

The net result is that by the time teens have graduated from high school, they have spent a vast amount of time doing “church activities” with the youth group, but have had little real interaction with the church at large.[6] In a sense, the youth group becomes almost a parallel congregation,[7] so it is no great surprise that when teens graduate from the youth group, they struggle to remain loyal to the larger congregation or to their faith. As John Roberto observes, “Teenagers do not leave the church; the church and teens were never introduced!”[8]

In most traditional youth ministry programs, this age segregation extends to families as parents are typically separated from their teens and the task of spiritual formation is outsourced to a youth minister. This divorce of parents from the task of discipling their children is extremely unfortunate: it is not only a departure from biblical example, but also research overwhelmingly indicates that parents are the “primary spiritual influencers of their children.”[9] Parents do not simply have more spiritual influence on their kids than the church does; they have more influence over them than any group does.[10] To put it another way, regardless of the efforts of a youth minister to help the process of spiritual formation in teens, if parents are not also engaged in the process they are unlikely to be effective since children are so greatly influenced by what their parents do.

No Youth Ministry At All?

Observations and realizations such as those mentioned above have led some to conclude that youth ministry should be done away with altogether, and I’ve seen some go as far as to say that these results aren’t surprising since the Bible doesn’t authorize youth ministry in the first place.

But I don’t buy that. From a sociological and developmental perspective, adolescence didn’t even exist when the Bible was written, and the reality is that teenagers are developmentally very different from adults, and therefore, need special attention.

So the solution to the problem of bad youth ministry isn’t no youth ministry, it’s good youth ministry!

And I think good youth ministry would seek to disciple children by combining the strengths and efforts of the local congregation (including the youth minister) and the family. If we can learn to work together to do that, I think we’ll see a dramatic change in the long-term faith of our young people.[11]

[1] Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011): 15. Other sources suggest different percentages. Kendra Creasy Dean, “Proclaiming Salvation: Youth Ministry for the Twenty-First Century Church,” Theology Today 56, no. 4 (January 2000): 525, states that “more than half of those confirmed as adolescents leave the church by age seventeen.” Wesley Black, “Youth Ministry That Lasts: The Faith Journey of Young Adults,” Journal of Youth Ministry 4, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 19, cites a Southern Baptist Convention study which found that “88 percent of the children raised in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18, never to return.” Although the findings of these studies differ, they all point to the fact that an alarming number of young Christians are leaving the church after high school.

[2] Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 2012): 39. Yeakley’s findings are somewhat more hopeful than the others upon closer examination: while fifty-eight percent remain affiliated with Churches of Christ, only twenty percent abandon their faith in Christ, with an additional twenty-one percent joining denominational groups. Even still, these findings are less than ideal.

[3] Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry, Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004): 36.

[4] Don C. Richter, Doug Magnuson, and Michael Baizerman, “Reconceiving Youth Ministry,” Religious Education 93, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 349. This would include the specific roles played by teachers, coaches, and youth ministers.

[5] DeVries, 37-38. Later, speaking of this same trend, DeVries, 91, astutely and sadly observes, “It has become a novelty for a teenager and an adult to have more than a passing conversation.”

[6] There is certainly a place for age-specific groupings, but they need to be kept in balance with intergenerational interaction.

[7] Carol Duerksen, Building Together: Developing Your Blueprint for Congregational Youth Ministry (Newton, KS: Faith & Life Resources, 2001): 42.

[8] John Roberto, “Our Future Is Intergenerational,” Christian Education Journal 3rd ser., 9 (Spring 2012): 110.

[9] Brenda Snailum, “Implementing Intergenerational Youth Ministry Within Existing Evangelical Church Congregations: What Have We Learned?” Christian Education Journal, 3rd ser., 9 (Spring 2012): 173.

[10] Reggie Joiner, Think Orange: Imagine The Impact When Church And Family Collide (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009): 85-88, estimates that churches only have about forty hours of influence a year with a young person, while the average parent has approximately 3,000 hours a year to spend with their children. Wesley Black, “Youth Ministry That Lasts: The Faith Journey Of Young Adults,” Journal of Youth Ministry 4 (Spring 2006): 20, “Many facts contribute to the development of religious involvement among youth, but parents easily constitute the strongest influence, whether positive or negative.”

[11] Joiner, 24-27.