Last year, I was surprised and humbled to be contacted by the Gospel Advocate and asked to write on the issue of young people leaving the church. What you read below is my offering, which was published in the May issue.
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, and statistician Flavil Yeakley, focusing 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.
This alarming trend has developed despite the increase of full-time youth ministers on the staffs of our local congregations and the increased availability of Bible class materials and other resources for teaching our young people. So the question needs to be asked: why aren’t our youth ministries more effective when it comes to developing a lifelong faith in our young people?This is a complex question with multiple answers and a big problem with no quick fixes, but I do think there are some simple and important principles that we need to embrace on a congregational level to begin to combat this epidemic:
(1) Follow a More Biblical Model in Youth Ministry.
I am a youth minister. I like youth ministers and think that youth ministers have a vital place in the work of the church. That being said, today’s youth ministry has become mixed up: where do we get the idea that the task of discipling our young people should be removed from the family and congregation and outsourced to a youth minister instead? Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 6.4-9 and Ephesians 6.4 make it evident that parents are responsible for teaching the ways of God to their children, and in Titus 2.4-8, Paul extends the task of fostering spiritual formation in young people to the entire congregation. Older Christians need to be involved in mentoring and training those who are younger. Youth ministers should be figures who help to equip parents and the congregation as a whole to raise their children in the Lord; they should not take over that task themselves.
(2) Change the Way You Measure Success.
Typically, we measure success in youth ministry the same way we measure it in our churches: numbers. How big is your youth group? How many seniors did you graduate this year? How much has your youth group grown over the last five years?
Keeping track of numbers isn’t a bad thing—Luke certainly seemed to think it was worth noting the numerical growth of the church in the beginning chapters of Acts—but it shouldn’t be the main way we measure success in youth ministry. Rather than a primary focus on numbers, we ought to focus on helping our young people develop a mature faith that will stay with them all of their lives. In this regard, a youth ministry of eight teenagers may be more successful than one of eighty if the eight all grow up to be faithful Christians while half of the eighty fall away. As long as we judge the success of our youth ministries by how many people we are getting in the door, then we are likely to neglect the importance of long-term faithfulness and also try some questionable methods to get them to show up in the first place, which directly ties into the next principle.
(3) Be Careful How You Attract Young People.
It has been said, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” Basically, the idea is that if you get lots of people to come to your church by building a really nice building, then you haven’t really brought in a lot of disciples, you’ve brought in a lot of people who appreciate comfort and architecture and aren’t necessarily opposed to Jesus. If you get lots of people to come to your youth group by having lots of fun and exciting events, then you’re really just building a group of people who like to have fun—even if it’s good clean fun—rather than a committed group of disciples. But if you get people to come to your church or your youth group by teaching them about Jesus or offering genuine Christian community, then you’re building a group that is focused on learning about Jesus and trying to follow Him and live as His church.
(4) Pay Attention to Young Adults.
The years after high school are challenging ones. During this time the influence of parents diminishes, and young people really begin to determine for themselves what kind of people they are going to be and what they will believe. This isn’t a time when young people should just be graduated from a youth group and ignored, but rather a time when they should be specifically targeted and ministered to. Develop challenging Bible classes targeted at young people in this age bracket. Encourage them to continue their involvement in the youth program as chaperones, teachers, and helpers. For those students who are going off to college, make every effort to connect them to a church or campus ministry group. Most vibrant congregations arevibrant because they have found a way to retain and develop their young adults; most declining congregations are ones which have no young adults to speak of.
Ultimately, I think that youth ministry comes down to an issue of stewardship: as congregations, what are we doing with the young people that God is entrusting to our care? The statistics have shown that our track record has not been very good, but with a few changes in the way we think about youth ministry, a lot of hard work, and God’s grace, our future can be greater than our past.
Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011): 15. 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.”
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.