Thursday, May 5, 2011
Would Your High School Grads Stay If "Big Church" Was More Like Youth Ministry?
Of course, the root of this situation lies within the family. Parents are the primary influence over their children even as the kids age into their late teenage years. But, ecclesiastically-speaking; what if the problem actually rests on “big church”? Maybe today’s students love and profit greatly from youth ministry; and because “big church” is nothing like the youth ministry, the kids hate it and therefore walk away looking for something else. Maybe youth ministry has it right. Let’s not forget that most people accept Christ and make lifetime spiritual decisions when they are young. Teenagers go on more short-term missions trips than adults – and more Christian teens share their faith than do Christian adults. I have wondered for years why we don’t manage our churches like youth groups. In fact, I have told youth ministry students somewhat factiously for years that if senior pastors would run their churches like youth pastors run their youth groups we would have more growing churches.
Please don’t dismiss this premise without thinking it through! I am absolutely convinced that this problem is serious enough that we should carefully examine the phenomenon from all sides of the issue. We must not dismiss a God-honoring, Biblically-based, and culturally-relevant ministry like youth work due to a prejudicial hypothesis or because of an over-reaction to statistics. A careful and historical look at youth ministry will reveal some amazing results from what now is being called “traditional youth ministry.”
I must admit however, that I have seen significant weaknesses in some local church youth programs. I have identified 5 of those deficiencies below. But, before we unilaterally accept these flaws and believe the idea that traditional youth ministry is failing, let’s also take a look at the kind of church youth ministry that is “working” and is producing Godly high school graduates who greatly desire to go on for Christ as adults. In my next post I will list 5 characteristics of effective youth programs, which can work in harmony with their entire churches to develop spiritually mature young people over the long haul.
5 Things: Here Are Some Reasons Why High School Graduates Might Walk Away
There may be certain common denominators within some churches that seem to lead to the mass departure of young people following high school graduation. Here are some of my observations:
1. Activity Based.
If the church's youth ministry is based upon programs and activities your graduates will probably walk away after they graduate. Young adults can and will find their entertainment elsewhere. The appeal of amusement parks and hayrides fades away fairly quickly. In fact, many youth workers tell me that some of their high school juniors and seniors are actually dropping out of youth group for the same reasons. (Youth workers, please be carful of running the same activity schedule year-after-year, so that your seniors have the same basic schedule as ninth graders. Believe me – they’ll get bored and frustrated with that kind of programming.)
2. “Program” Based.
Another reason why high school graduates walk away from regular involvement in church is if the youth group has been characterized by the rigid structure of a "boxed" youth program. These canned approaches are, in fact, designed to be terminal programs, with a specific, publicized ending point. There tends to be one final step or one top award to earn. That's the point. The students finish the program and they're done. What else is there to do? In the program-based approach to youth ministry it is very difficult to transfer the loyalty generated throughout the years of dedication to the program to the church as a whole. It's no wonder they walk away.
3. Personality Based.
A common indictment of many church youth ministries is the tendency to center the ministry around the strong personality of a charismatic and magnetic youth pastor or youth leader. Strong personalities may attract impressionable high school students - and it seems to make sense for churches to do that; until the inevitable transition between personalities. If the teenagers are attracted to and ministered to by the presence of one strong personality it will be very difficult for them to transition to into the ministries of the church as a whole without the involvement of that strong personality or other equally strong personalities.
4. Generationally Based.
A church is making a mistake if it totally separates its youth from the overall life of the church. In the long run this hurts students because they do not develop significant relationships with a number of influential adults. I have spent a long time specializing in local church youth ministry and I am a strong proponent of peer ministry. Christian kids need friendships with other Christian kids. Plus, teenagers have always been better than reaching their peers than adult youth workers. However, a balanced youth ministry must feature strong inter-generational connections alongside traditional peer-to-peer youth groups. Dr. Chap Clark has stated that in order for graduating teens to stay in church following gradation, they will need positive relationships with 6 adults other than their parents.
5. Narcissism Based.
Akin to the "activity based" youth ministry is a narcissistic approach where churches seek to entertain teenagers by providing almost everything they want. If the kids want to go skiing - they go on ski trips. If the kids want to go swimming - they take them to the beach. This approach will ultimately produce self-absorbed and self-centered graduates who believe the church is all about them. When they are asked to transition into the church's adult ministries, they'll struggle to fit into a program that is not centered around entertainment and narcissism. The undeveloped youth mindset may respond positively to an entertainment based approach, but adult maturity realizes there’s more to life than getting everything I want.
We’ve all seen youth programs like the ones I have described above. The tendency is to look at these flaws and come to the conclusion that all youth ministry isn’t working. Yet, it is imperative and essential to look at both sides of this issue.
I'll finish this article in my next post and will suggest "5 Characteristics of Church Ministries That Can Help Young People Go On For God."