Youth Ministry Refocused

By Wednesday, March 28, 2012 2 0

And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. -Malachi 4:6

Picture me just over 10 years ago: I’m sitting on the couch in our high school room, stewing. And pouring my bitter heart out to my youth leader. Fighting with my parents is so exhausting! Why don’t they just trust me?

I pray constantly that I would not forget that feeling, because today it’s the same. Fads and certain problems come and go in the lives of teenagers, but the extreme emotions, the need for a caring adult to lend an ear, exerting independence, that never changes. Our response to it, however, must, because the circumstances have changed.

Our leadership team recently spent some time discussing the future of our youth ministry. The statistics are alarming, and point to a dire need for change in the way we minister to young people and to cross-generational churches in general (p.s. if you go to a church that doesn’t desire to be cross-generational… consider finding a new one).

  • 88% of children raised in Christian families leave church at the age of 18, never to return (SBC).
  • A majority of adults no longer consider Christianity America‚Äôs default faith (Barna).
  • 64% of decisions for Christ are made before the age of 18, and 77% are made before the age of 21 (Barna).

But more than that, the scriptures point to a flaw in age-segregated ministry in general: the Israelites didn’t do it, and Jesus didn’t do it. For example, a simple search for the term “little ones” in the ESV reveals the children of the people of Israel: they go along, they are sent, they are protected, they stand before the Lord along with their parents, they inherit blessing, they possess land.

Besides Jesus, it seems that Peter was the only adult among the apostles, in that he was required to pay a temple tax, which came with age. So, it could be said that Jesus led the first youth group. Maybe so. It became the foundation for the first church, which was not all young people (obviously).

I’m not arguing against bringing young people together regularly, but for refocusing on why we do that, and for doing what we can to ensure that kids who meet Jesus in middle school don’t abandon Him in college.

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  • Katie

    You make a good point about the cross-generational thing, but is another reason that maybe youth groups have done their job too well, previously? That once a teen leaves youth-group and joins the regular congregation, the difference between that and a great youth-group is too big of a gap to cross? I mean, youth groups are usually much smaller in number, as you’d expect, maybe 20% of the size of the main congregation or smaller. In that environment, with a few leaders in the team, they get lots of attention and support, whereas in a main congregation, there’s the pastor and maybe a pastoral support team, but it’s generally less people able to offer some care in any kind of formalised way, spread out over a much larger group of people needing their time. I don’t mean particularly that teens are after being the centre of attention in a drama-queen way, but in the loving supporting way that we all do, like family. Especially until they begin to build up other relationships in the church, it is a big drop. The teens themselves are also perhaps used to spending a lot of time together and are happy to organise social events four times a week in an informal way, etc., whereas with average members of the congregation, that’s unrealistic. Even once a week outside of church is unrealistic. Once a month outside of church only just seems reasonable. Also, from what I’ve seen of youth-groups, which I admit isn’t masses, the level of emotional honesty in those kinds of environments is really high – which is great and is how the church should be! – and it forms tight tight bonds with the rest of the group. But most main church services that I’ve seen don’t come anywhere near it – not even on the same scale, often. As I’m sure you know, it can be very easy to just sit in the pew if you want to. Then add in other, less important but still real, factors, like, losing the ability to make the sung-worship part feel more like a nightclub, and (in general) losing the ability for creative, collaborative worship, which I have noticed that youth groups tend to be better at than main congregations, although there’s no particular reason why they should be…. and, it just adds up to a very big culture shock, imo.

    You said yourself that 64% – nearly two thirds! – of decisions made for Christ are before the age of 18 – so clearly, youth-groups are working! They are bearing fruit, maybe of trees that were planted decades ago. And maybe the problem isn’t the age-segregation itself, because clearly, it is reaching teens, but, about bridging that gap so it isn’t such a shock. Which, honestly, I think needs to come more from the main congregation looking more like the youth group, than the youth-group looking more like the main congregation. Just my thoughts.

    • That’s what I mean by cross-generational; it shouldn’t be a shock to leave one type of setting because you’ve graduated out of it. It should come naturally and be something you look forward to. And perhaps the failure sometimes lies in college ministries, which are usually so segregated from the church Christian college students give up on Sundays altogether.