The Changing Focus of Youth Ministry

Earlier this week I was reading the blog of a prominent youth ministry guru who leads large teen conferences across the country. His focus in a recent post was to encourage churches to keep youth ministry a top priority and I couldn’t agree more with him that our teens need to be an important part of the ministry of our churches if we are going to have a church in the future. However, we divide over the nature of what actual teen ministry will look like in the future. After years of watching teens in traditional church ministry I’m struck by the following…

Percentage wise, the majority of kids in these hyped up weekly youth meetings leave church by the time they are 21. Statistics say between 60-80% of them are gone by adulthood.

The cost to run such a ministry is staggering. When you take into account the amount of volunteers, equipment, and buildings needed for this type of weekly gathering, it’s easy to see that only larger churches can afford such extravagances.

The average teen congregates where ever there is social activity. Many of these kids have no desire to grow in their faith but they put Mom and Dad in a tough spot when they tell them they want to go to “this” church because their youth program is so much better then somebody else’s. The truth is they will leave that program as soon as a majority of their friends do. I’ve seen this occur more than once when one church invests in a jazzed up program and then a few years later abandons it. The kids move somewhere else. It’s what is popular and NOT what is being taught.

Recently, the very large Mars Hill church in Seattle did away with their weekly youth gathering in favor of more informal in-home micro groups. Why did they do this? They were tired of investing large sums of money into the program and not getting the disciples they anticipated. the relatively small number of kids who actually grew under this type of program seemed to do just as well in the new system without nearly the cost or need of facilities. I know some youth pastors who will get mad with me over this but in the world of business, if you had the return on investment most churches today have with youth ministry you’d abandon the entire program and find something else that works.

We can’t be spiritualistic about the issue and say the few are worth it, especially in today’s economic climate when more and more pastors are losing their jobs due to low giving, low attendance, and a general apathy. No, it’s time to get excited about including others in helping to grow leaders amongst our youth. There are teens who want real life change and every church from the smallest to the largest has the capacity to grow disciples for Christ among their teens. Disciples who will happily share their faith and bring others to Christ. The question is, with the pressure many parents put on churches for the “traditional” youth ministry, will we have the guts to change?

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The Changing Focus of Youth Ministry

3 thoughts on “The Changing Focus of Youth Ministry

  1. Subi says:

    Where do I begin? Interesting and timely perspective. When my oldest daughter was a freshman at Denver Lutheran High School, the youth group was virtually non-existent at our church (the Missouri synod Christ Lutheran Church) because, I believe, the parents had placed more emphasis on high school activities, especially since most of the youth in our church attended DLHS. I attempted to begin a youth group to have a place for my daughter to grow her faith and failed brilliantly. Later, I realized that in order for a youth group to stick, the minds of the parents had to be changed, and I wasn’t about to attempt that mountain. So I had to settle for being the high school Sunday morning Bible Study teacher, which was steadily attended by four core kids (my daughter and other freshmen and a sophomore) and occasionnally by some of the older and “cooler” kids (including the 7 ft basketball wunderkind that now plays for CSU). My goal was to teach Biblical truths through the things that spoke to me, stories, specifically movies. My classes were rarely large, but I am confident that the four kids who were the core of my class were profoundly affected. I know that atleast three of the core four (my daughter included) are still actively in church and growing their faith.

    When my daughter connected to the youth group as a high school senior at our current church, she instantly became a leader and someone the youth could go to for Godly guidance and counsel. Since her departure for college (but not because of her departure) our youth group has struggled to keep its numbers. My oldest son is now a freshmen, but doesn’t care to participate in the youth because his heart seeks different and higher truths than the current kids who seem to need some more basic psychological assistance. I understand my son’s position and I feel forcing him to participate will only serve to decrease his interest in the things of God in general. So I’ve decided to revive, in a way, the small group Bible Study for high school kids in a similar style and format as I did in Denver. My goal is not to build a huge following, but to provide a closer knit alternative for youth seeking to grow in their Biblical understanding and wisdom. I plan on keeping the group small (might be just me and my son for the foreseeable future), perhaps no more than five, and my success will be measured by the kind of complex thought and action the youth can bring to the discussion. I thought this just might be a way to keep my son in the Word, but it looks like the micro-group might be the way for the church to go as the American culture continues to evolve.

  2. Matt says:

    Scott,

    I think for a “traditional” church to have a thriving youth program, they are more or less locked into having full-time staff. One reason churches like Mars Hill can do away with youth programs, or not begin one all together is that the overall culture of the church is conducive to youth and young adults. They overwhelmingly have contemporary worship, relevantly applicable preaching, and they overwhelmingly decide to make a difference in the community as a united body. In many traditional churches today, the place where these needs for young people get filled is in the youth program. It is relevant and applicable to young people, and there’s planned activities to fill the innate need of youth to make a difference. I’ve read of churches whose culture demanded that they nix their youth programs, because their Wednesday services became Sunday2.0. It simply wasn’t needed, and a waste of resources.

    In short, Mars Hill (and the like) does that because they can and still be efficient in reaching youth. For many non-MH type churches to do this would be a murder of their future.

    1. Matt,
      Agreed on your thoughts with the system as it is now. I know you are excellent at what you do. That’s why I say that with parents expecting such things, can we incorporate change? Would we be willing to try to change for the benefit of increasing the discipleship of the kids? These are questions I ask as I watch youth even in our area from both new and old churches and the youth guys talk about this stuff but are afraid to speak out for job security reasons.

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