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.