It seems about this time every year, I begin to see a lot of blog posts about how Youth Ministry is killing the church, how Youth Ministry is fundamentally flawed, and how students are leaving the church in record numbers. Youth Ministry is always the scapegoat in this conversation, the sacrificial lamb to blame for all of the woes plaguing the church.
I will be frank and tell you that this trend of blaming Youth Ministry for the mass exodus of young people from the faith is honking me off. While I see the trend, and am disheartened whenever I see one of my former students straying from the faith, I am not convinced that Youth Ministry is the root cause for the decline. I’d like to offer some rebuttals to the idea that Youth Ministry is the root of all evil, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Here are some questions I think need to be asked.
1. What would the statistics be WITHOUT Youth Ministry?
While studies like Sticky Faith and Barna continue to show the alarming trend of students leaving the church, I wonder if those numbers would be exponentially worse without Youth Ministry in the mix. If you follow the same logic many do when it comes to Youth Ministry, you could have some interesting conclusions. For instance, people are dying of obesity-related illnesses in large quantities. Clearly, doctors are killing America. We should get rid of doctors and start over. You see the absurdity of such logic, as it doesn’t really get to the root cause of the issue at hand. I argue that Youth Ministry is not the root cause of students leaving the church. It may simply be a symptom of the greater disease. I contend there are other factors.
2. What about the culture around us?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this isn’t 1950 anymore. Wally and the Beav are long gone. Shows like Dick Van Dyke and My Three Sons have been replaced with the Real Housewives and Modern Family. But the list of cultural changes isn’t limited to our entertainment. Absentee fathers, single parenting, gay marriage, and a plethora of other “hot button issues” are waging war on our students. Many well-respected pastors, researchers, and social commentators have even called this a “post-Christian society.” Are we so naive to think that these other factors don’t contribute to the droves of students leaving our churches?
We aren’t living in an age where families just “attend church together” every Sunday as part of their normal family tradition. There isn’t a standard expectation in our society to attend church. Many of the students in our ministry at Hazelwood come to church without their parents. A number of them have no positive spiritual influence to speak of outside of youth group. To assume that Youth Ministry is somehow the reason these students don’t “stick with it” is to miss a lot of other contributing factors altogether.
3. What about all the success stories?
I’ve seen too many amazing spiritual transformations in Youth Ministry to believe it is beyond repair or without merit. Each year, we watch about 15-20 students give their lives to Christ and follow Him in Christian baptism. Many of these students, as I mentioned earlier, have no real spiritual connection outside of our Youth Ministry. I’ve seen students answer the call of God and follow Him into full-time ministry. Many students from our church are currently serving in other ministries around the country and even around the world. Through our ministry, students have had opportunities to serve on mission fields in various states, countries, and places of need. In Youth Ministry, students meet every week to encourage, pray for, and laugh with one another in Christian community. How can we throw out the baby with the bath water here?
Five years ago, a young lady went on a trip with us for the first time. She met Jesus there, and her life was never the same. I watched her pursue Christ faithfully despite adverse conditions spiritually in her home, and financial difficulty at every turn. Our Youth Ministry often helped pay for her registrations so that she could continue to go with us and grow in Christ. This past year, she came into my office with a smile on her face. She had a job her senior year, and had saved her money so she could pay for her own way on our Adventure Trip. She walked into my office, and gave me THREE stacks of cash. The first was for her trip. The second was for her sibling. And the third was to pay for another student who couldn’t afford to go. Youth Ministry isn’t completely broken.
4. Isn’t there another solution?
One of my biggest complaints about most of the “Youth Ministry Stinks” articles is that they rarely offer solutions. While I don’t think Youth Ministry is to blame for our loss of students entirely, I do think we need to make strides forward, and take Youth Ministry to the next level. This is where I appreciate solutions-based research like Sticky Faith. It gives tangible, proven ideas that I can implement in my ministry in the hopes of hanging on to more students in the future.
By connecting our students to the larger body, giving students opportunities to wrestle with questions of faith, and more effectively partnering with parents in ministry, we can make Youth Ministry even more productive in the future, and hopefully watch more students remain faithful after high school.
Is Youth Ministry responsible for the exodus of students from the church? I’m not so sure. Can it be better and more effective? Absolutely. And that, my friends, is something I think we can ALL agree on. So let’s get out there and change the world…one student at a time.