Depending on the article or book you might read, recent research is reporting that anywhere from 40—70% of teenagers who are connected to a youth group will abandon their faith after they graduate from high school. These same studies present that only half of these “Christian dropouts” will return to their faith and the church later in life. The most common reaction to the “dropout statistic” is to criticize the church and youth ministry by saying they are not doing their job. In part, this criticism is valid. After all, if a youth group were worth a dime, wouldn’t it be churning out modern day Apostle Paul’s? But because half or more youth group kids are dropping out of church and abandoning their faith the implication is that youth ministry and the church is failing. Only in major league baseball is heralded for doing their job (hitting the ball) one-third of the time!
Youth ministry is a fairly new movement in the life of God’s church. Beginning in the 1940’s a ministry called “Young Life” was birthed by Jim Rayburn to reach students with the gospel at local high schools. This movement birthed national rallies across the US followed by Bible clubs that spun off these rallies. In the 1970’s local churches began to notice the need for specialized ministry to teenagers. “Youth ministers,” many from the Young Life and Youth For Christ (similar to Young Life), were employed in local churches to lead strategic ministry focused on junior and senior high students. These youth ministers brought the same mentality they held with YL and YFC, employing efforts in the local church to reach masses of teenagers with the gospel. Any and every effort that would attract a crowd was used, thus the introduction of “attractional youth ministry.” In the 1980’s when MTV and other entertainment outlets begun, youth ministry shifted its attention toward entertaining students. By the 1990’s and 2000’s youth ministry was growing, often without a biblical identity. Many youth ministries used the attractional and entertainment models of the 1980’s.
And then the statistic. The fact that 40-70% of teenagers are dropping out of church and abandoning their faith upon graduation from high school is proof that ministry to teens is not effective when it is attraction and entertainment driven. Even when students, and often their parents, plea for “fun” and “relevance” history proves that when the church pursues such “ministry” it ends in spiritual failure. Though youth groups have matured beyond the gimmicky attempts of the 1990’s and early-2000’s, in its place is bright lights, fog machines, fashion trends, watery messages of personal opinion (not the Bible), and technology just to name a few. Why are so many youth group graduates leaving their faith and the church? Because many churches and youth groups have failed to gain and live out a biblical identity; rather they pursue contemporary relevance which is a repackaged version of attraction and entertainment driven youth ministry.
Youth ministry—what’s the point? God has mandated the church and all Christians with these purposes as derived from Matthew 22:37—40 and Matthew 28:19—20: worship, evangelism, fellowship, discipleship, and ministry. There is a place for youth ministry, one that is neither specifically mandated nor denied. So if a church has a youth ministry it must exist for this: to foster an atmosphere whereby the church comes alongside families to lead their teenagers to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ by helping them embrace and pursue God’s (Biblical) purposes for their lives. At this point it must be understood that parents/families of teenagers have primary responsibility to spiritually guide their children (Deuteronomy 6:4—7). The church is an extension of a parent/families ministry to their children. In circumstances where no Christian parents/families exist over a teen(s), the church must step up to the plate and take on additional responsibility much like the Bible mandates for orphans and widows (James 1:27).
The dropout statistic is high because youth ministry and the church have built upon the wrong foundations and accepted the wrong identities. While being attractional and entertaining have their time and place in youth ministry, they cannot be the grounds for operation. Rather, churches, youth ministries and parents/families must view the church’s role in teens lives’ as that of claiming, teaching, and pursuing the purposes of God and using things such as attraction and entertainment only to aid in accomplishing His purposes. While this is not a guarantee that the dropout statistic will be reduced to zero, it is a guarantee that a youth minister and ministry will place themselves in the hands of God to be used for His will in the lives of teenagers.
“Youth Ministry—What’s the Point? 1 (Introduction)” is part 1 of forthcoming seven part series written by John Howard, Minister to Students at First Baptist Church, O’Fallon Illinois.