Most churches invest far more in youth ministry than men’s or recovery ministries. Why? Many pastors cite Jesus’ deep love of children. Others would say, “Children are our future”. Yet in strategy sessions and staff meetings, discussions center around a different objective – the critical role of youth ministries in getting parents to come to church.
On the surface, attracting parents by engaging children appears reasonable and harmless enough. What’s wrong with rejuvenating an aging church by adding more young families? Why not convince a few “nones” and “dones” to give church another shot? The problem lies in seeing ministry to youth as a strategy rather than a mandate. Inevitably, that line of thinking leads to decisions which ultimately undermine the God-given mission of the church – to build disciples of Jesus Christ who are…
1. Faithful to God, not an Organization
Kids in America today aren’t loyal to institutions, clubs, parties or groups. They’re job hoppers with attention spans best measured in nanoseconds. The disheartening number of young adults who walk away from church after adolescence isn’t surprising in light of a clear misalignment – churches structured around membership versus youth who aren’t “joiners”. Youth programs designed to attract parents are about building a “church”. A far better strategy is to build disciples who ARE (the personification of) church. Young people who truly know Jesus as their Savior, who’ve surrendered their lives to Him, may not join a church but they won’t walk away from God – and that should be the overriding concern. Trying to make church fun and engaging has backfired – youth don’t head to college with faith that’s deep enough to withstand secular teachings and don’t see a reason to return to the church of their childhood.
2. Committed to a Cause, not a Leader
Whatever America’s youth lack in loyalty to organizations, they make up for in dedication to causes. They will charge the hill alongside any group that’s fighting for a cause they hold dear but won’t relegate themselves to a single organization, following blindly up the next hill its leaders decide to climb. A church’s brand, growth and reputation today are inextricably linked to the popularity, personality and perception of its senior pastor. Churches utilizing youth ministry as a growth strategy perpetuate that pastor-centric culture, which has little allure for young adults. Churches courageous enough to prepare youth to pursue the greatest cause known to mankind – making Christ famous – will see those young adults not only returning to church but dramatically extending that church’s reach.
3. Engaged in Life Change, not Activities
Some of the most disengaged millennials are those who were most involved in youth group as kids. They rarely missed a retreat, lock-in or social event yet want little to do with church once they finish high school. Consuming all that a youth ministry has to offer does not require or necessarily even promote a saving, sold-out relationship with Jesus Christ – particularly if the ministry’s primary intent is to grow the church. We’ve seen hundreds of churches gradually replace Bible studies with bowling nights, memory verses with video games, and one-on-one mentoring with team sports. We’re witnessing the steady decline of personalized discipleship – less immersion in scripture and more entertainment – under the misguided perception that children value fun more than purpose. Like students at underperforming public schools who still can’t read, many teenagers “graduating” from youth group are spiritually illiterate.
4. Fulfilling a Mission, Not a Role
Any survival instincts or growth aspirations will pervade nearly every aspect of a church, including youth ministry. For leaders of any type of organization, thoughts of sustaining or expanding operations turn attention inward. Pastors step up recruiting of volunteers to fill needed positions within the church – it’s all hands on deck. Meanwhile, as we mentioned earlier, youth in America are looking for an external cause. Young men and women, especially those who love Jesus, want to help the homeless, orphans, elderly and address other pressing social issues. They want to share the Gospel – born-again Millennials share their faith more than any other generation today. Nearly two-thirds (65%) have presented the Gospel to another within the past year, in contrast to the national average of about half (52%) of born-again Christians. Youth won’t be satisfied simply with being a greeter, usher or child care worker. They’ll go looking elsewhere for a cause if the church doesn’t provide adequate (external) outlets that produce meaningful (Gospel and social) impact.
5. Hungry for Real Relationships, not Socializing
Making youth group more entertaining and communal may lure kids next Sunday, but will compromise efforts to make them disciples of Jesus. Group events and activities enable youth to blend in with the Crowd or to conceal their lack of a personal, abiding faith within the larger Community. Even those considered part of the Core arrive at that status more for the quality of their leadership skills than the depth of their relationship with Christ. Today, we appear to be seeing greater appetite for smaller congregational life among young churchgoers. Active participants in youth group for years are feeling lost in the crowd and community. They want to share their deepest questions and concerns – those they fear disclosing to their parents; however, youth groups aimed at attracting parents are not providing safe and personal forums for those conversations.
6. Desire for Truth, not Relevance
Young kids are smart – they hope and pray for the supernatural, yet recognize strategies and programs modeled after the natural. When they are part of attractional youth ministries, deep down they understand it’s a cheap imitation of what Christ intended, and they lose faith – maybe not in Him but in church as they know it. They see through a prepackaged, reconfigured gospel designed to appease. Youth groups leaders try to act cool and run cool events – but the problem is that they’ll never be as “cool” as their non-Christian friends and activities. Kids in America today are lost – looking to mentors for answers and truth, not for cool and funny. Youth ministry “grads” go to college ill-equipped to withstand the secular onslaught because they weren’t discipled and prepared adequately to confront those realities. As they look back at their youth group experience, they realize that leaders and programs were modeled after whatever was popular at the time – to make kids feel comfortable. If they lost hope and faith in the “real world” of college, they can’t expect to regain hope and faith in a church that attempted to look like the world. Only truth, which is uncomfortable, can restore hope in a seemingly hopeless world.
7. Ready to be Released, not Retained
Ask most young adults to define “church” and they’ll describe it as a place they went as a kid or they’ll talk about the pastor and youth leaders. Youth are being conditioned to adopt an Americanized definition of “church” and not the actual biblical meaning. If the goal of youth ministry is to attract parents, it serves the institution to centralize around a building rather than to teach children that they are the embodiment of church. However, that strategy unravels when those kids finish college because “church” never became internalized for them. Maybe it worked to get their parents and kids to show up at church when they were adolescents, but mis-defining church (as a place and pastor) isn’t getting young adults to return to church. Creating that attractional environment is the very thing that’s keeping churches from graduating kids to high levels of spiritual maturity – those that will live out GC² (the Great Commandment and Great Commission) in their 20s and beyond.
It’s Your Turn
Is it possible for a church to challenge youth with truth and discipleship such that they don’t lose their faith in college? Is it worth the risk to lose some kids (and their parents) to a church down the road that has a more fun and entertaining youth ministry?