Has Youth Ministry Really Failed?

There is an emergency in the church. Youth are graduating from high school and dropping the church faster than CBS dropped Charlie Sheen. And it’s not just a few; it’s quite nearly all of them – depending on who you ask. Josh McDowell claims 69% of teens are leaving church after high school. Dave Wheaton says it’s 50%. George Barna claims 67%. Glenn Schultz sets the mark at 75% and Ron Luce at 88%. Meanwhile, there are 50,000 less baptisms of teenagers per year in the Southern Baptist Convention than there were in 1971. This has led many to argue that youth ministry in the church has failed. A recent internet documentary entitled “Divided” pits modern youth ministry against experts who claim it is not only flawed but unbiblical and pagan. Books, conferences, bloggers, and speakers are beating on youth ministry with the angst of Ralphie attacking Scut Farkas in A Christmas Story. Has youth ministry failed? Let’s examine it from the perspective of the statistics and the Scriptures.

I have to admit, those statistics are scary. I’ve even used them in sermons and studies to frighten parents and deacons to focus on teenagers. But the statistics don’t agree. One expert claims 88% are leaving the church while another claims 50%. Which is it? Furthermore, who do these statistics measure? Evangelicals? Catholics? Mainline denominations?  Does it include liberal churches that have abandoned the gospel or independent fundamentalist churches that live in a compound?

What do these statistics mean? There is a difference between raw data and the interpretation of that data. Many in the Southern Baptist Convention have lamented the decline in teenage baptisms and have assumed it is because we are failing to reach teens. But could effective children’s ministries be reaching teens before they’re teens? Could the thoughtless dunking of “converts” who prayed a prayer be giving way to more theologically rigorous discipleship? Could changing American culture which is more pluralistic and hostile to Christian faith be responsible? A problem with youth ministry is only one possible cause among many.

Consider the findings of Christian Smith, sociologist at Notre Dame, who completed one of the most comprehensive studies of religiosity among teenagers of our time:

“Nor do our findings support the idea that the coming of emerging adulthood entails an overall massive decline in religion… What we have found instead is…a little more than half of emerging adults remain quite stable in their levels of religious commitment and practice or lack thereof.  A certain portion of highly religious teenagers remains highly religious as emerging adults, as do significant groups of moderately religious and not very religious teenagers.”

He also observes the trend over the past decades:

“Most emerging adults have since 1972 either remained stable in their levels of religiousness or have actually increased somewhat.”

The situation may not be as dire as is commonly claimed, nor is it worse since the advent of youth ministry. Here are two things worth considering. First, the transition from teenager to emerging adult is difficult and involves a great deal of self-discovery. We should not be surprised some of our youth will experience a decline in their faith during these years. However, many churches are full of young couples and singles who, after experiencing a decline in faith, discover it matters to them and re-engage the church. Second, if youth ministry must make every child a devoted, life-long follower of Christ to not be labeled a “failure”, then it has an unachievable goal. Even the best churches cannot turn everyone who walks through the doors into an unwavering believer for life. We desire all of our teens to follow Christ, but that is never promised in Scripture and Jesus taught that those who receive the same gospel will respond to it differently (Matt. 13). I am still waiting to see if churches who have done away with youth ministry are reaching more teens for Christ.

Much has been made of the lack of youth ministry in the Scriptures. This is not a problem unless you hold to a strong regulative principle (that we can only do what Scripture specifically prescribes). Sunday school, small groups, Wednesday services, publishing books, blogging, conferences, church buildings, associate pastors, sound systems, Christmas celebrations, and pianos aren’t in the Bible either yet few are bothered by our use of these. The passage at the center of debate is Deuteronomy 6:

6And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

Deuteronomy 6 teaches parents are responsible to disciple their children to love and obey the Lord. This is all it teaches. Moses does not tell churches how to deal with teenagers. He does not say parents are the only ones to disciple children. It is worth noting that in Hebrew culture a child became an adult at 12 years old. To claim a 16 year old should only be discipled by a parent is to take this passage, mix it with American culture (which sets the age of adulthood at 18) and apply it in a way the text does not require. Was Jesus wrong to take his disciples – some were teens – out of the home? Was Eli wrong to take Samuel from Hannah and Elkanah and raise him in the house of the Lord? Jesus called the church to make disciples of everyone (Matt. 28:19-20); not just those who pass a culturally defined age.

Youth ministry has made mistakes over the decades. We now know:

Youth ministry does not replace the ministry of parents; parents are primarily responsible to disciple their children. Youth ministry should support and encourage parents in their task. Ministries that viewed parents as a problem or left them out were wrong.

Youth ministry founded upon games, pizza, theme parks, and short devotions is foolish. Our task is to make disciples, not to be cool and gather huge crowds. Sure there are a few ministries that spend their time having pointless fun, but many have matured into teaching the Word to a unique segment of the church’s population.

Youth ministry cannot be conducted apart from the church. Some youth ministries become cool churches in themselves so that when youth graduated they have nowhere to go; the rest of the church was foreign. Many now integrate with the church so teens are ready to transition into effective and committed members.

How do we face the challenge of youth leaving the church after they graduate from high school? We equip and exhort parents to take seriously the task of discipling their children and come alongside them with effective youth ministries. We teach students the Bible and the doctrines of the faith, seeking to disciple them to passionately follow Christ. We prepare them for a lifetime of service in the church so when they graduate they are ready. When I went to a large public university, I discovered the students who were still following Christ had been part of strong youth ministries. This was not a coincidence, but evidence that when we take seriously the His call, God may use us to make disciples whether they’re 60 or 16 years old.  If we can avoid the extremes of throwing out youth ministry or turning it into glorified baby-sitting then we can create something God can use for His glory.


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Christians Vacation: Is Jesus Lord of Your Leisure?

President Obama was ridiculed in August for taking his third family vacation to the affluent island community of Martha’s Vineyard since his inauguration. The wisdom of taking such a lavish vacation while America is in the midst of a financial crisis was questioned by many. The President’s approval rating of his handling of the economy hit a new low at 26% en route to his vacation destination. Failure to unveil a plan for resuscitating the economy and creating jobs coupled with his excursion possibly contributed to the DOW plunge on August 18th. Why is this significant? There is a shared, unspoken sense of appropriateness in how one approaches their leisure time. This appropriateness should be carefully considered by Christians through the lens of God’s word.

Getting away to recharge your batteries, bond with family and see the world are important, taken-for-granted blessings. In fact, such blessings are no longer special treats for many, but the major cogs on which life turns, even for Christians. Careers, salaries and family schedules are positioned to accommodate and maximize hobbies, weekend trips, multiple weeks of vacation and all the toys needed to enjoy every minute. How we spend our spare time and money communicates a great deal about our passion for the gospel of Christ and His kingdom.  Assuming that because we have the time and money we can do whatever we like whenever we like is failing to bring everything under Jesus’ lordship. While you cannot find “vacation” and “leisure time” in your concordance, these are not forgotten issues in the Bible. Are vacations and leisure activities sinful? No. What must be considered is the purpose of and approach to them.

Vacations and leisure are composed of time, money, rest and entertainment. Jesus taught clearly about the first three but spoke very little about entertainment…it seems He didn’t have much time for it. He preached about money more than any other topic:

“Any of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

“Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags…in the heavens” (Luke 12:33).

Jesus’ focus in these verses is holding money with loose hands, being ready to bless others and to seek personal treasure in eternity. Scripture also speaks to how we use our time:

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:15-17).

“How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man” (Pr. 6:9-11).

“For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (2 Thess. 3:11).

Time is a resource given to all Christians. God’s desire is that we use all of it for Him. Idle hands and pleasure-seeking detract from God’s glory while rest does not. Jesus Himself communicated the value of time away during His earthly ministry:

“And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31).

Clearly it is vital to the health of the Christian to rest physically, mentally and socially, but we should not get too comfortable. In Acts 6, the apostles were concerned that serving widows would tear them away from time spent preaching the gospel.  If they were concerned that one act of godly service would steal time and energy from preaching the gospel, it’s hard to imagine they spent lots of time entertaining themselves. Sure they rested, but they valued kingdom work and eternal rewards over temporal earthly pleasures.

The author of Ecclesiastes addresses entertainment and pleasure. He tells of his pursuits of land, possessions, servants and gold. At the end, he was left wanting. None of it satisfied. He laments:

“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure.; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this was also vanity…And whatever my eyes desired, I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after the wind , and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 9-11).

In defense, we might be tempted to say, “But God has blessed me with this money and this time. I’ve worked hard and earned it.” Just because He’s given it to you doesn’t mean it’s for you. “Well, I give generously to our church, so God must be okay with how I spend the rest of it.” Jesus never taught this. “I attend church way more than most people and am very committed to certain ministries. Being gone isn’t such a big deal.” When our leisure consistently pulls us away from the body of Christ and kingdom service, we demonstrate the true treasure of our hearts is pleasure and not the gospel.

God doesn’t want to be King over some of your money or time. If the question is: “what can I do to get by and still do all the fun things I want?” we are approaching God, His purposes and resources unbiblically.

President Obama is in need of time away now and then, but he would be wise to consider the timing and nature of his vacations as President. Christians must approach leisure time as Christians, not Americans. Are vacations wrong? No. Weekend trips? Absolutely not. Only when our lives sing a greater, louder song for leisure time than the gospel is there an issue: constant vacations and constant play sing the song of “Jesus Isn’t Enough For Me.” John Piper puts it well in his book, Don’t Waste Your Life:

 “In other words, if we look like our lives are devoted to getting and maintaining things, we look like the world, and that will not make Christ look great. He will look like a religious side interest that may be useful for escaping hell in the end, but doesn’t make much difference in what we live and love here. He will not look like an all-satisfying treasure. And that will not make others glad in God.” (pg.108)

“Why don’t people ask us about our hope? The answer is probably that we look as if we hope in the same things they do. Our lives don’t look like they are on the Calvary road, stripped down for sacrificial love, serving others with the sweet assurance that we don’t need to be rewarded in this life.” (pg. 109)

Why are non-Christians so unimpressed with Jesus? Maybe because Christians don’t live like we need Him, want Him and don’t seem all that impressed ourselves. Christians can be thankful for the gifts of rest and leisure, realizing they are blessings from God given for refreshment and enjoyment.  However, Christians cannot allow these gifts to take the place of the Giver.


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What Would Jesus Do? Can We Know?

This little phrase began with Charles Sheldon’s 1896 book In His Steps which has sold an estimated 30 million copies. In this piece of inspirational fiction, the question Sheldon asks as he deals with the social issues of his time is, “what would Jesus do?” For Sheldon, the core of Christianity was the life of Christ. Jesus was our moral example and to follow “in his steps” meant to embrace the social gospel and to work to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. He believed “the entire passion and purpose of Jesus’ life centered about the human being.” Thus, the phrase “what would Jesus do” emerged from a picture of Jesus as a social revolutionary who came to end oppression, care for the poor, and bring about economic justice.

Ironically, a phrase born in the mix of liberal theology and socialism would eventually find a home among largely conservative evangelical Christians in the 1990s. The WWJD movement spread from Michigan to engulf the nation with its catchy merchandising and widely accepted push for Christians to live out their convictions in their everyday lives. Now believers could be spotted by the colorful bracelets they wore reminding them to stop being jerks and to treat people decently.

While the marketing trend has faded, “what would Jesus do” remains a popular question.

During the debt debate, Rep. Charlie Rangel asked “what would Jesus do” about the U.S. debt crisis at a press conference on Capitol Hill. According to Rangel, Jesus – through the voices of spiritual leaders – would want us to cut spending but not if it affects the homeless, jobless, and helpless including the “aging that are sick or those depending on social security, Medicare, and Medicaid.”

In an article found in the New Statesman on the politics of Jesus, entitled “What Would Jesus Do”, author Medhi Hasan wrestled with the question. He decided Jesus would support the redistribution of wealth, oppose the financial and political elite, back a living wage, defend free access to health care, and bring the soldiers home.

When Albert Pujols was holding out for more money before renewing his contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Today columnist Tim Townsend posted an article titled: “In Pujols’ Case, What Would Jesus Do?” He questioned whether Jesus would hold out for money like Albert Pujols, a Christian.

In response to Nancy Pelosi’s statement to the Catholic Community Conference that she pursues public policy in keeping with the values of Jesus, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote: “what would Jesus do? Vote against Nancy Pelosi for starters.”

It would take a full length book to catalogue all of the times the question “what would Jesus do” has been raised and answered.  What would Jesus do about illegal immigration? Would Jesus celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden? Would Jesus support using horses for human consumption? Would Jesus burn the Koran? Would Jesus support coercive interrogation of terrorists? What would Jesus do for a Klondike Bar?

As you read the gospels, you realize Jesus was routinely doing the opposite of what everyone expected. Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, only to rebuke Him six verses later because he was expecting a triumphant Messiah and not a suffering one (Matt. 16). After the resurrection, the disciples still think Jesus will put Israel on top of the food chain but instead He intends for them to be His witnesses (Acts 1). Everyone knows Jesus will rush to heal his friend Lazarus, yet He waits until Lazarus has died (John 11). When Jesus comes to John the Baptist, he shocks John by insisting John baptize Him (Matt. 3). Later, when John doesn’t see Jesus doing what he expected, he dispatches messengers to find out if Jesus really is the One (Matt. 11). After healing many Jesus withdraws and when the people find Him, instead of healing more like they assumed He would, He leaves to preach to other towns (Mark 1, Luke 4).

The problem with asking, “what would Jesus do” is we don’t know what Jesus would do, anymore than the disciples, Pharisees, Romans, and His own family knew. God says of Himself in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” What God thinks and what God does are so far beyond us that claiming we know what Jesus would do is a bit like a two year old claiming they know what their parents should do when they file their taxes – we’re just not going to figure Him out.

Instead of trying to do what Jesus would do – which is impossible considering He is God and walking on water isn’t going to work for us – we should stand in awe of what Jesus did and obey what He said. If we reduce Jesus’ life down to an ethic we should follow than He becomes just another social revolutionary who achieved less than Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. But if in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we find life, salvation, and the power to live for the glory of God than we have a Savior worth our worship.

So what would Jesus do? Who can know that? But we’re not left there. We have a gospel that will transform us, we have what Jesus said to guide us, and we have what Jesus did to inspire us. If we can acknowledge Jesus can’t be crammed into the mold of a conservative capitalist or a liberal socialist and that our views, as sinners, would probably be affirmed, rebuked, and challenged by Jesus than we have a good place to start humbly following the Son of God. It may not be a fashion trend, but humbly worshiping, obeying, and following might just be what Jesus wants us to do.


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Does Religion Deserve a Role in Politics?

In a column published on August 25th Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, took issue with the religious beliefs of the Republican presidential candidates. He began by comparing belief in Christianity with belief in aliens – not the best of starts. He then goes on to question every one of the candidates’ religious associations under the assumption these influences will define their years in office. He wants to know if Rick Perry wants a government “firmly rooted in biblical principles” and for Christians to control the nation. He wants to know if Michele Bachmann believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, thinks homosexuality is an abomination, claims slavery wasn’t so bad, and is suspicious of non-Christian ideas. He has similar concerns about Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman.

Of course, his concerns don’t extend to Barack Obama’s Christianity, nor Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s Catholicism, Harry Reid’s Mormonism, or Hillary Clinton’s Methodism. Perhaps he views their religious choices as inconsequential since they largely agree with him. The problem seems to be the fusion of conservative faith with conservative politics. Someone who sees the world differently from him and who believes in the Bible as the Word of God may not be fit to run the country. He says:

But I do want to know if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country. It matters to me whether a president respects serious science and verifiable history — in short, belongs to what an official in a previous administration once scornfully described as “the reality-based community.” I do care if religious doctrine becomes an excuse to exclude my fellow citizens from the rights and protections our country promises.

In other words, conservative religious believers may not be part of the reality-based community. They’re living in a fantasy world where there are angels and demons, where God speaks through prophets, and where Jesus is actually Lord over stuff. It’s okay to have religious faith, just not okay to follow it religiously.

The funny thing is, I actually agree with Keller’s overall premise. We DO have a right to know the worldviews and beliefs that underlie a candidate’s positions and policies. If their faith is real, a candidate will make decisions differently if they are a Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, atheist, or Unitarian. The problem with much political discourse in our country is the debate is only surface-level. News channels will dissect debts, limits, and spending without touching the philosophical principles about the nature of man, the role of government, and our ethical obligations which undergird the issue. Pro-life and pro-choice forces will wage a war of sound bites and protests while never dealing with the assumptions about humanity, rights, and authority which give rise to their differing positions.

Where I would disagree with Keller is in his position – implied by the religions and politicians he takes issue with – that only conservative religious believers have underlying beliefs which will drive their decisions. The idea that only a few Republicans are guided by un-provable faith commitments while the rest of civilized society exists in a realm of scientifically demonstrable reality is laughable. Everyone – whether atheist, agnostic, or Catholic – is guided by philosophical commitments that define their worldview and cannot be empirically proven. Furthermore, no law can be passed or policy decision made without these faith commitments. Let’s look at two examples: racism and the environment.

If I want to make a law to prohibit race-based discrimination, I must do so on the basis of a belief which cannot be scientifically proven – that all people are created equal and have inherent value. A Christian will derive this belief from the book of Genesis which teaches that men and women are created in the image of God. An atheist, on the other hand, will have a harder time with racism as revealed in the title to Darwin’s famous work on evolution: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In an evolutionary view of the world, it is conceivable that some races may be superior to others. This does not mean atheists are racists. Merely that, if they believe racism is wrong, they do so on the basis of an un-provable faith commitment about the equality and value of humanity.

The same is true of caring for the environment. We have created an entire government agency – the EPA – to do just that. But why? A Christian can support an EPA because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1) and God has called us to care for it (Gen. 2:15) because He will one day remake it in glory (Rom. 8:21). Whereas an atheist knows someday the sun will burn out and the earth and all of man’s accomplishments will come to an end. Yet they decide to care for the environment because they love their children and perhaps have an evolutionary desire to pass on their genes and need a healthy planet to do it. The reasoning for or against the creation and funding of an EPA rests on un-provable faith commitments – whether Christian or atheist – about the value of the planet.

Keller is concerned religious doctrine may be used to deny rights to citizens. Is he equally concerned about Marxist doctrine doing the same thing – as it is today in China, Cuba, and North Korea? Is it better to have candidates guided by faith in Marxist principles or biblical principles? All of us, no matter our religion or lack thereof, have a worldview with philosophical principles that rest on faith and not on scientific proof. That worldview may be based on the writings of Karl Marx, the apostle Paul, Charles Darwin, or the prophet Mohammed. So we should do as Keller suggests and ask the tough questions about the faith of our candidates. But let us not be naïve and assume only conservative Christians are guided by un-provable ideas. Let’s live in a reality-based community that realizes every person who has ever written or passed any law or policy is guided by their own un-provable beliefs and ideas. Maybe then we can start understanding and appreciating one another’s different views, even if those views include alien visitors (Tom Cruise anyone?).


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