I’ve jokingly told my youth ministry students for years that if senior pastors would run their churches like youth pastors run their youth groups, we’d have growing churches all around the world. I’m being somewhat facetious, of course, but I’ve often wondered why our churches tend to develop one style of ministry for students and a totally different ministry approach for adults. Then a veteran youth pastor mentioned a concept to me the other day that I want to examine with greater scrutiny. In fact, I would love to get feedback on this theory from youth pastors, lead pastors, students, and former student participants in various local church youth groups. (Keep reading. I will tell you about this particular conversation in just a few moments.)
Why don’t churches operate like youth groups? Maybe the answer to this question is more important than any of us could ever imagine.
You’ve heard the statistics. The number one time for people to quit going to church is immediately following high school graduation. The published drop out rate has been reported to be anywhere from around sixty percent to close to seventy-five percent. (I tackle this problem and offer proactive, practical, and salient solutions in my interactive Next Generation Seminar from RBP Student Ministries. See
http://www.rbpstore.org/about/rbpTrainingng.cfm. I am currently in the process of scheduling other seminar dates and locations around the country. Check back to that Web site often for more specific details – or contact me directly for more information on how you can be involved in one of these seminars.)
This brings me back to the conversation I had a week or so ago with an experienced and knowledgeable youth pastor who serves in a balanced and respected church in the northern Midwest. We engaged in a lengthy discussion about why this exodus from church is happening among college age adults who were once actively engaged in various church youth groups. We talked about the facets of traditional youth ministry which may lead to this scenario occurring so universally in various denominations and fellowships of churches. Our conversation led us to discuss possible causes and potential solutions to this crisis facing so many of our churches. I began to rehearse some of the common characteristics of conventional youth groups that undoubtedly lead to a migration from church once the energy and enthusiasm of youth ministry had faded into the typical adult world of the church.
My friend than made a comment which has challenged my thinking ever since. “Perhaps we’ve got it all wrong,’ he mused. “What if it’s the other way around? What if our kids leave the church because traditional adult is irrelevant, boring, and impractical to them? We’re blaming youth group, but it might be the church as a whole that’s the problem.”
I am very seldom at a loss for words, but that afternoon the questions from this veteran youth worker stopped me in my tracks. What if he was right? Maybe, just maybe, we are doing things right in youth group. Maybe we’re on to something there that the church as a whole should embrace and adapt. Maybe the characteristics of a typical youth ministry are exactly the things that would keep students in church. The common reaction to this departure from church is to blame the youth ministry and to assume that the adult world in our churches is organized and structured correctly.
We hear the above quoted statistics and tend to blame student ministry for its weaknesses. We cite our failure to develop healthy and growing intergenerational relationships and the lack of clear Biblical teaching as the reasons our kids walk away from church. But, what if the church as a whole would adopt a “youth group approach” to ministry? And, what if our churches would implement a holistic and comprehensive ministry strategy that would seamlessly transition our children into youth ministry and then our teenagers into adult ministry?
My friend’s question drove me to begin a process of outlining the basic ingredients of a successful and effective student ministry. I want to flesh these things out in future writing projects, but I will list some key items here in an effort to help readers crystallize their thinking on this subject:
- Effective ministry MUST be based on a Biblical and practical philosophy of ministry that includes a clear and concise mission statement and practical, specific, and all-inclusive means of reaching the objective (2 Timothy 3:10-17.)
- Effective ministry MUST develop a complete educational strategy (commonly referred to as a “scope & sequence’) that defines key attributes of spiritual maturity through the Word of God (Ephesians 4:11-16.).
- Effective ministry MUST include instruction in basic spiritual disciplines (such as daily devotions, Scripture memory, and prayer) and MUST include practical ways to implement those habits in life (James 1:22.)
- Effective ministry MUST support and equip parents as the primary influence upon the lives of their children (Ephesians 6:1-4.)
- Effective ministry MUST call for a commitment to Christ that includes an invitation to personally accept Christ as personal Savior and the willingness to completely follow the will of God (Romans 10:9-10.)
- Effective ministry MUST include ways for believers to genuinely experience worship of the Lord Jesus Christ in daily life (John 4:21-24.)
- Effective ministry MUST feature some extended time away from the stress of everyday life in order to people to commune with their Lord (Mark 6:31-32.)
- Effective ministry MUST provide various ways for believers to have real fellowship with other believers (1 John 3:16-17.)
- Effective ministry MUST implement a strategy for equipping believers for successful global outreach (Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8.)
- Effective ministry MUST provide a way to equip every believer to serve the Lord in significant and meaningful ministries (Ephesians 4:11-16) which includes the development of the believers’ spiritual gifts.
- Effective ministry MUST include a means of Biblical accountability that develops a positive peer pressure (Hebrews 10:24.)
- Effective ministry MUST develop healthy and growing intergenerational relationships (1 Thessalonians 2:8)
- Effective ministry MUST result in intentional and specific discipleship where spiritually mature leaders are discipling younger emerging leaders for on-going next generation ministries (2 Timothy 2:2.)
The real question now, of course, is what do we do about this? Let’s agree that this premise requires at least a response of some kind. Some, I'm sure, will read this, think it through - and yet come to the conclusion that although the above listed mandates make sense, it really is the youth ministry's fault that kids are leaving the church when they graduate. Much of the current debate about the subject of kids leaving the church is leaning in that direction. So many people are saying, “It is the youth group’s fault, so let’s fix the problem there.” But, please, I beg you; don't blow this off without honestly and intentionally thinking it through! I could list here the numbers that prove this point right now - one way or the other. But, you know how statistics work, right? We can find research to prove almost anything. As you know, this whole scenario has become one of the most heavily researched issues in modern church life. You guessed it: senior pastors and older people tend to blame student ministry and, of course, kids and many youth workers accuse the adults.
It’s time to get serious about this. Our traditional dualistic approach to ministry (where our youth groups are operated one way and our church as a whole is organized in a totally different manner) must cease. I’m convinced that if we’d run “big church” like a youth group there would be positive and continued growth over the long haul.