I have many good friends who are youth pastors. This post is not about bashing them, or anyone else who has been called to work with youth. This post is about looking at what’s happening in our youth groups in churches and how we need to adjust quickly to save the next generation coming up behind me. I want to make this clear because we should be looking for solutions, not pointing fingers. But before we get to solutions, we need to address the problems. So, here we go.
Most (not all) youth groups are run the same way. Usually, the youth group meets once a week outside of the Sunday morning service. They meet in a room that is designed to be visually attractive to youth. Video games, tv’s, ping pong, music, couches, posters, things like this usually adorn the room in an attempt to make the youth feel like the Church understands them, that the Church is reaching out to them on their terms. For the first half hour to hour, everyone just hangs out. Sometimes music is blaring in the background and the place takes on more of a party atmosphere. After that, the worship band usually comes on and plays a bunch of high energy songs (sometimes accompanied by a full blown light show), with kids jumping around and singing as loud as they can. The band will end with a slower song, one that is more emotionally gripping while the speaker makes his way to the stage, after a half hour sermon about something “relevant to them” (Usually a topical, watered down message), the pastor dismisses the group and it’s back to loud music and video games, occasionally they throw in pizza. Parents then come by and pick up their kids, and repeat the process the following week.
Clearly, there are more aspects to a youth group than just the once a week meeting. Missions trips, events to theme parks or big Christian youth rallies are also part of the youth group. But for the sake of this post I’ll be focusing my energy on the youth group service. Also, I most definitely generalized my take on what happens in youth groups. Not all youth groups run this way, but most do. Most run with a format similar to what I just described.
I bring this up because we are doing something wrong. How do I know this? Because according to the Voddie Bauchman author of Family Driven Faith, 80% of youth walk away from the church by the second year of college. Here are some other statistics courtesy of the Barna Group
A Barna survey focused on finding out how teens beliefs differ from their parents found that:
63% don’t believe Jesus is the Son of the one true God
58% believe all faiths teach equally valid truths.
51% don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead.
65% don’t believe Satan is a real entity.
Let those numbers sink in. They should be cold water on your face (especially if you work with youth in the Church). What we are doing, is not working.
And why would it? Let’s face it, a lot of times our youth groups look like glorified baby sitting clubs. Devoid of parents (in fact a lot of times parents are encouraged to let their teens participate in church functions separately), devoid of solid Biblical training, devoid of intimate discipleship and mentorship. It’s no wonder our youth groups are failing.
Look, I’ll be blunt. The Church in this regard decided to compete with the world for the hearts of the youth. We decided to make our youth meetings full of fluff, emotional feelings, and games. We traded that for sound teaching, discipleship, mentorship, and training on how to defend their faith. So many youth really don’t even understand what they believe (See above statistics) and it’s a major problem.
We must rethink how we approach youth ministry. Because we are missing them. They are coming out mostly unchanged, and no different from the culture around them. And how can we expect them to be different when we take cultures approach to youth and apply it in our churches? I think we really misunderstand teenagers. We think that they want to be fed light hearted things. We assume that they don’t have questions that are tough, and we think that if we get too theological that we will lose their ear. This can’t be further from the truth, if done in a relational way. We live in a culture where many, many teens are growing up without a mom or a dad. Teens are hurting, they are looking for someone older to reach out to them and just listen to them. Contrary to popular belief, teens do look up to their parents, and teens do desire mentorship from not only their piers but also from people older than them (I’m talking to you people in your mid 20’s).
So what’s the solution? Well there is no one solution, depending on your local church it will look different. I do have one particular example in mind for a solution however, and I’ll share it with you.
I had a great opportunity to work with an amazing youth group last year. Contrary to the popular way of doing youth group, this youth pastor was much more interested in getting his teenagers to open up and discuss hard things that they are going through. Essentially, he wanted them to feel safe during youth group. So he ditched the typical youth format. Instead of meeting in a youth room they met in his apartment, instead of leading the youth by himself, he recruited 10 people in their 20’s and early 30’s, instead of flashy services, they met in a small living room with some snacks. Instead of video games there was conversation. Instead of people pairing off, there was one group, functioning together. I think we were all a little worried about how the teens would react to this change. I’m happy to say that not only were the youth more than thrilled, often begging us to not end the discussion time, our youth group exploded in a matter of weeks. Soon they were bringing their friends and we were cramming 50 people in to a tiny living room. What was our secret? Relational mentorship. You know, how Jesus modeled His life for us. I was blown away at how open these teens were, and how honest they were. They had genuine questions that often lead us in to deep water. The trinity, how to love their friends who lived lifestyles they disagreed with, how to love people who were bullying them, how to respect their parents, how do we know the Bible is true. These weren’t things that the leaders were bringing up, these were things the teens were bringing up! By the way, let me also mention that the ratio to leaders and students was roughly 1 leader to every 3 students. This was key in building solid relationships with the youth. One guy can’t handle an entire youth group, it takes a team that devotes their time to relationally engaging them.
Ravi Zacharias said “In our modern day philosophies of church growth we are unhealthily preoccupied with programs and I suggest to you programs are always a secondary to people. God prepared a person before he implemented a program, we create a program and then find a person”. We have done this to youth groups and we are reaping the consequences. We have taken reaching youth and turned it in to a formula, we have turned it in to a program, and we missed the youth in the process. We are sometimes so concerned with making sure that our program runs smooth that we haven’t taken the time to even examine if the program works! It doesn’t.
I can’t tell you how many people I know that I’ve met recently or that I’ve grown up with that were at one time, active youth group participants and have walked away from the faith. Our common way of having youth group is mostly not working, and anyone who I have met that loved their youth group always tells me that it was because of a deep relationship that got them through. I have yet to hear someone tell me that because of the youth group program, their life was changed. I hear instead, that because of someone reaching out to them, being their friend and mentor on a personal level, that they came to know Jesus in a more relational and intimate way.
Jesus discipled not by going through a curriculum, or by teaching his disciples the 3 steps to a better life. But by living life with them, and teaching them in life, having discussions with them, eating a meal with them, and physically teaching them the ways of the Kingdom. If we want to reclaim the next generation we have to take the time to invest in to them. One hour, once a week, with a static format, is not going to cut it.
In part 2, I’m going to be addressing the parents role in this. Thanks for reading!