Smells Like Teen Spirit
At last June’s Founder’s Conference, Roy Hargrave delivered a powerful message that got me thinking about why so many churches lose their young people. (That wasn’t the theme of Dr. Hargrave’s message, but he brought up the subject in one of the points he made.)
Here’s a really brief summary of some of my thoughts on the matter:
The very strategies many churches adopt to try to keep their young people involved in the church are the main reasons they lose so many of them. The dominant philosophies of youth ministry today are spiritually lame or worse—and almost completely counterproductive.
Specifically, it’s time we faced the fact that systematically dumbing down the teaching ministry and ramping up the party atmosphere while isolating our young people from the rest of the body is not a very good strategy for increasing the rate of retention among our youth.
Think about it: Youth ministries (not all of them, of course, but the vast majority of squidgy evangelical ones) deliberately shield their young people from the hard truths and strong demands of Jesus. They tailor their worship so worldly youth can feel as comfortable in the church environment as possible. They squander the best opportunities of those formative student years by minimizing spiritual instruction while emphasizing fun and games. They let their teens live with the false notions that believing in Christ is easy, sanctification is optional, and religion is supposed to be fun and always suited to our liking. They fail to equip their high school students for the rigorous defense of the faith they will need in college. They neglect to integrate them as young adults into the adult community of the church.
And then they wonder why so many young people abandon the church about the same time they leave home.
How hard can it really be to understand why the “Youth Specialties” approach to student ministry has been such an enormous failure?
Given that I spent my first few years of ministry in youth ministry primarily (both hearing and Deaf), I can only say that Phil is absolutely correct. In 14 years of involvement with youth ministry, I have seen no examples contrary to what Phil describes above. Challenging your teens with the Gospel is implicitly forbidden. Why? Because the leadership of many youth ministries are convinced that they will lose young people if they do not distract them with “fun and games.”
One incident that I experienced reflects this sad trend. I gave a message at one of our Deaf teen events using the wedding festival of Matthew 22:1-14, focusing on verses 1-10. I changed the “characters” in the story to reflect our ministry; the “host” was the leader of the ministry, the “servants” were those leaders who directly worked with the teens, and of course the teens were the “invited guests.” Acting this story out in front of our teens, I used many of the excuses the teens themselves had given us for not going to church or attending our events in place of the wedding guests’ excuses. Then I reached the crucial point. When the “king” in the story sent servants out to bring the “uninvited” guests, the people on the street; I referred to those people as hearing teenagers!
Very predictably, when the teens realized what I had just said, they were upset! Then I delivered the punch line: “Is that how you treat Jesus? Is that how you treat church? Is that how you treat this ministry? Other things are ‘more important’ than Jesus? You have been invited to the greatest thing you could ever experience, a ministry just for you. You have been invited to receive the greatest thing you could ever have, Jesus as your savior and lord. But if you continue to ignore Jesus, he will find someone else who wants him. If you continue to ignore this ministry, you will go on to college and get nothing out of this, and those who come after you will get the benefit, not you. Don’t ignore the blessings you have here!”
Several of the teens present that night immediately got my point, and for the next few months I had many conversations with them about our ministry and spiritual things. I do not yet know what has resulted from that, but I pray that seeds were planted and watered, and that God harvested them.
In stark contrast, the leadership of the ministry was outraged that I would think to challenge the teens like that. I was bluntly told that I “can’t do that,” as I would apparently “scare the teens away.” I was told that kind of teaching “did not connect” with teenagers, and that what we did was “develop an opportunity to present the gospel through one on one relationships.” We were to “attract” the teens with our events in order to “provide openings to share the gospel in that context.” I was also told that any future messages I gave were to be reviewed by the leadership for approval.
That was the moment I realized that particular ministry was a failure, and that my time there was limited. When you cannot challenge young people with the Gospel, something is dreadfully wrong. Our (and by “our” I mean Christianity in general) entire philosophy of youth ministry is wrong. There is nothing wrong with being relational, but to be relational at the expense of the Gospel is a great and evil sin, and directly contradictory to the Great Commission.