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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Hey, Where are You Going?

It's no secret that the church is not retaining teenagers after high school. All kinds of statistics verify this fact; that as teens hit the college campus, they're leaving the church. Somehow, we overlooked this fact until it became about a decade long trend. Why is this happening?

Greg Stier will tell you it is because students have not been raised to be missional. A teenager is taught (directly and indirectly) that Christianity is just something for them to soak up, not to send out. I agree with Greg that any time we evangelize, our personal walk is strengthened as well. A person takes a deeper level of ownership, as well as comprehension, when they try to convince someone else of their faith. However, I do not believe this alone can be the reason. Unfortunately, our churches are full of disobedient believers who are not sharing their faith. They aren't leaving, so why can we say that's the issue for teens.

First of all, let me say that I don't believe their is just one issue. I believe we have to acknowledge a host of factors, some which reside in the actions of the church, some which reside in the heart of the individual. No efforts a church makes can control the intercession on behalf of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, I John tells us that some walk away because they never really were part of us. There are some things we can do to control this problem (ie. make sure we are accurately presenting the gospel, avoiding the false hope of "one time decisions" with zero repentance or trust in Christ), but it is an unavoidable phenomenon. Sadly, their will be wolves in sheeps' clothing. Yet, there will also be genuine believers who may struggle in their walk because the church didn't disciple the person as well as it could.

Back to youth ministry then. I have another theory about why teens are leaving. Again, it's not all inclusive. But I think it's a larger factor than some will acknowledge:

OUR YOUTH MINISTRIES TYPICALLY LOOK NOTHING LIKE THE REST OF THE CHURCH. We go out of our way to keep things fun. We build up our ministry constantly with big events. Our meetings are filled with entertaining elements, seeking to keep them glued to what is happening. Our teaching is centered around "hot topics" that teenagers deal with, trying desperately to show that Christianity can be relevant to their world.

Then they graduate. The church is filled with diverse peoples who have their own families, activities and hobbies. There just aren't as many "fun events" as people have enough going on in their lives. The graduate gets whiplash, as worship was geared toward them for years, and now they are instructed to celebrate diversity and "put up with" the music they may not like. Maybe the pastor is teaching a series on marriage, and the college freshman can't see any relevance for his life. As they've graduated and left high school behind, it also just seems natural to leave the church behind as well. They just don't seem to fit anymore.

Does this mean we cease to hold events? Of course not. But can we offer events without it becoming all about the events? Do we cease relevant worship? Obviously, that would be a mistake. Do we never teach topically? No (though I think it is a temptation to do it far more often than is necessary). But can we offer student ministries that feel less like a program or a machine, and more like a fluid body.

Can we show students that though some of the methods may change (Can you imagine playing buck-buck as a Sunday morning icebreaker in the service) who we are does not? Rather than the pillars of our ministry being cool activities, exciting meetings, hot button topics, could we make evident that our core is being a Biblical, missional, obedient worshipper?

If we could do that, would it keep some of them from walking away?


  • At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    If we are going to keep our kids I think we need to give them two things:
    1) Relationships. If they are tightly woven into the relational fabric of the church they will be more likely to stay or return.

    2) Influence If they feel that their needs and opinions matter they will be more likely to stay. If they are just there to serve the old people until they die off, then they'll bolt for freedom the first chance they get.

    Geography also plays a factor. If they leave for school, is there a place saved for them when they return?

  • At 3:26 PM, Blogger anthony said…

    That's an interesting take on the subject. I myself followed the exact pattern you discussed. Once i left home for college after high school, i left the church as well. Maybe i can offer my perspective as to why this happens.
    The biggest thrill for me my freshman year was obviously being on my own for the very first time. It was quite liberating. It meant that i could make my own decisions and choose my own path without my parents watching my every move. I felt i was becoming my own man. With this came a sense of rediscovering the world around me. I was learning from my peers different perspectives on life and my classes were challenging me in my views of everything from politics to basic psychology. In a nutshell, i was learning that my parents weren't right about everything and that living at home and attending school with the same group of friends for eight years had put me in a bubble. I was ready to burst that bubble. This included leaving the church and questioning my faith.
    Some may say i abandoned God, but in retrospect, i truly believe God was helping me find my own way back to him. While living at home, i had come to accept certain truths. now, i believe in these truths, and the difference is real.
    It is important to instill an understanding of God into the souls of the youth of a church. It is just as important, i believe, for a church to let go of its youth and allow them to find their own way back home, not matter how difficult it may be.

  • At 2:02 AM, Blogger Dan said…

    I really agree with you on this!

  • At 7:59 PM, Blogger Gary Underwood said…

    I think the cold, hard truth behind a lot of this is money.

    A strong youth program brings in money as the parents of teens give money.

    When people are in the age bracket of 18-25, they simply have little money to give. Churches, therefore, don't see these people as a viable consumer.

    Unfortunately, that's the reality behind all the church strategy stuff. Most churches plan staff around meeting the needs of the "family" because, well, families give money.

    Any church willing to invest time and resources into the 18-27 crowd can pretty much expect to flush those resources down the toilet.

    Do I agree with this approach? Not at all. It's terrible, and it's why many young people leave - there's nothing for them because churches don't invest in them (staff, time, resources, events, etc.). Churches don't invest in them because they don't see the returns in the short run (and usually the long run).

    Young adults are becoming an unreached people group. That is, unless they form their own churches.

    Or, unless we churches start investing intentionally to reach them.

  • At 8:25 PM, Blogger danny2 said…

    bleak view wailer.

    i can think of tons of churches that staff like crazy and spend tons of money...and don't make or keep disciples.

    i agree that some creative staffing could help, but have you been to a college campus lately? they have some of the most progressive, exciting para-church ministries available to students. but they aren't JUST leaving the church...they're leaving the faith. they're not getting involved in those activities either.

    some may be about resources...but not much. otherwise, america would be the only country losing this age group, instead of poorer countries doing a better job of retaining them.

  • At 8:29 PM, Blogger danny2 said…

    i meant america wouldN'T be one of the only countries losing this age group.

    by the way, our youth ministry has a large percentage of students whose parents never darken the door of our church...thus, we don't see a dime from.

    we're praying that mom and/or dad may eventually come, but not because we need their money.


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