“We must address the problem the body of Christ has in becoming impotent in attracting and keeping young people.”
This quote from David Olshine’s new book Youth Ministry: What’s Gone Wrong & How to Get it Right” jumped off the page at me. I agree with Olshine, we MUST address this problem; and I seriously wonder, is the church as a whole failing the next generation?
I’m not “crying wolf” here about the possibility of an imminent failure to fulfill what the Lord left His church here to do. My theology won’t let me go there. Christ Himself put it this way, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” I don’t believe that at some point in the near-distant future the church will simply cease to exist or will somehow limp into a total futility and a premature demise. The church is God’s plan for this age – and His bride will triumphantly join Him for all eternity in the place He has prepared for her! That is emphatically NOT my point in saying that the church is failing our youth.
Maybe Olshine’s analogy is a better way of saying it. Through our own human frailty, have we shaped an “impotent” or unproductive church that has lost its ability to disciple members of emerging generations into life-long, devoted followers of Christ?
There are two distinctive cultural trends that have received a great deal of attention recently which seem to give credence to this possibility. The first trend is the epidemic of high school graduates departing from the church following active involvement in youth group, and the second is the rise of “nones” – the “religiously unaffiliated” young adults who claim to have “no particular religious affiliation” with any specific church or denomination.
Even a cursory acknowledgement of these two deficiencies demonstrates the idea that the traditional American church is perhaps failing its’ youth. These trends are significant enough to warrant our attention but, our actions need to follow as well. It’s time for the church to make a real commitment to the next generation – which includes an intentional plan to effectively disciple young people over the long haul.
I’m sure that many readers will respond to my appeal by claiming that their churches already make youth ministry a priority in their programming, staffing, and budgetary efforts. It’s probably true that many churches make youth ministry A priority, but I’m wondering if it is a true commitment of life-long discipleship toward spiritual maturity. I’m wondering if most churches are truly intentional about helping emerging generations come to Christ, grow up in Him, and go on living for Him as they mature from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. If this life-long process is a legitimately a commitment, then I’m convinced that the departure statistics following high school and the “nones” lack of any real attachment to a particular faith tradition would be eradicated.
A genuine commitment to youth ministry would look much differently than remodeling the church basement into a trendy coffee house, hosting a once-a-year youth service, or hiring a recent seminary graduate to serve as a part-time youth director. In fact, I want to identify 3 fairly obvious characteristics of a church that may be actually failing its’ youth:
1. An aging population of church members.
Church leaders, have you even taken a demographic survey of your church? Is the average age of church membership getting older? If the average age of your attendees and participants are getting older and older, the chances are good that your church epitomizes the two above-mentioned cultural trends. From my experience in visiting dozens of churches over the past several years; the older the median age of the church, the less effective that church’s youth ministry is likely to be. Of course, there are exceptions; but, the likely scenario is this – as the average age of church members increase, there is less likelihood of a significant ministry to youth and young adults.
I am absolutely convinced that churches must make the commitment to intentionally “get younger”. This is accomplished by making youth ministry a top priority. Another new book promotes this very idea. In Mark Cannister’s Teenagers Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in the Church, this veteran youth worker and college professor says this, “When teenagers matter, everything changes! But, it takes boldness to make teenagers a priority in the church.”
This commitment to “get younger” must be intentional or it will not happen. Of course, an aging membership happens naturally. So, it makes sense that there must be a deliberate strategy to include younger generations in the big-picture plan for the church.
2. No real inter-generational connections in the church.
Churches are also failing emerging generations by not connecting them with other age groups in the church. In preparation for my recent book, Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for the Church, I visited several churches of all sizes from around the country. One very clear observation emerged from those visits. If the church isolates the generations (especially if the church segregates teenagers from adults), the more likely that teenagers will leave church once they graduate from high school. It’s no wonder they don’t feel the necessity to stay involved in the church as young adults. The church didn’t model those inter-generational connections for them.
This dichotomy also seems to be evident with senior citizens, the oldest generation in the church. I asked church leaders in Point 1 above if the demographic make-up of your church is getting older. Here, I’ll ask another perhaps-convicting question: do your church’s senior citizens feel like they have been “put out to pasture” by the church? Why not solve this problem by recruiting Godly “senior saints” to actively mentor emerging adults? Those inter-generational relationships will grow into bonding connections that can have a profoundly positive impact on the entire congregation.
3. The attitude that treats young people as second-class citizens.
Perhaps the greatest way a church can fail its’ youth is simply by treating teenagers like “the church of tomorrow” instead of as an integral part of the church of today. Certainly, the coming generations will be “the church of tomorrow” – and will unquestionably reinvent church structure over and over again. However, we must not keep them in some kind of “holding tank” until their “time has come” sometime in the future. Far too many churches treat teenagers that way – keeping them out of sight, isolated from the rest of the church, until they are finally fully-mature adults who have paid their dues along the way.
Friends, that attitude is a big mistake. We fail the next generation by keeping them in the basement until we let them out when they get to be adults. No wonder they leave the church. Who would want to be a part of a church who treats young people that way? We must give younger generations the opportunity to get actively involved in their church.
I pray that our churches are not “becoming impotent in attracting and keeping young people”. It’s time to reverse the trend. We must not fail our youth!
 Youth Ministry: What’s Gone Wrong & How to Get It Right?, by David Olshine (p. 19), published by Abington Press, Nashville, TN, 2013.
 Teenagers Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in the Church, by Mark Cannister (xiv), published by Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2103.