A majority of twenty-somethings—61% of today’s young adults—had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively tending church, reading the Bible, or praying). -George Barna
Over 2/3 of the teens who are active in our youth ministries will completely drop out of church after their high school years. -Dr. Ken Ham in his book Already Gone.
There is a growing epidemic in your churches and most don’t recognize it. The 20 somethings are gone. As I travel around preaching, teaching and leading conferences I have noticed a huge demographic hole in most churches. Take a look around this Sunday in your church, how many 18-29 year olds do you see? Shocking isn’t it? Where are they? Those teens that were so committed as youth, so involved in your youth ministry and in Sunday school every Sunday are no longer in our pews. Maybe we should judge the effectiveness of our youth ministries not by the amount of kids that are attending events, but by the number of those that stay engaged in a vibrant faith after high school. The most effective youth ministries provide teens with the foundation, tools and vibrant faith that will equip them to live a committed Christian faith for the rest of their lives.
This article is not an indictment on youth ministries but simply a reminder of the importance of your role. Statistics continually reveal how critical youth and children’s ministry are to the church. George Barna found that two out of three born again Christians (64%) made a commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday. One out of eight born again people (13%) made their profession of faith while 18 to 21 years old. Less than one out of every four born again Christians (23%) embraced Christ after their twenty-first birthday. These numbers reveal the absolute importance of having effective evangelical ministries to youth and children. It also shows that those who don’t make a commitment to Jesus before their 21st birthday likely never will. I can speak with familiarity on this subject. I served as a youth minister for 15 years and no less than 500 teens came through my ministry during this time. It does my heart good to see my former teens in church today, but sadly many are not. I consider this the greatest failure of my ministry. If I had to do it over again I would do some things different. Many youth ministries are failing the very ones they are called to serve. Not because they are doing bad things or even the wrong things, but most likely they are not doing enough of the most effective things. If we are going to turn things around and see more of our teens stick with it, their must be philosophical changes to the way we plan our Bible studies, activities and ministry calendars. If I were doing youth ministry today I would maximize my time on the following key elements. I believe that if youth ministries will consistently and powerfully equip students with the following components we will see more teens spiritually engaged during their early adulthood.
1. Hermeneutics- Yes, that is right I said it. I realize this sounds preposterous to some youth ministers reading this, but I believe it is true. A few years ago I was speaking with a youth minister about his ministry because I was curious to hear what made his ministry so effective. He had over 100 youth coming consistently to church which impressed me. He talked about the big activities they planned and the fun group games they played on Wednesday nights. When I asked him about the current Bible study series he was teaching his response broke my heart. “We are currently doing a bible series based on the TV show The Simpsons,” He said. “We will watch an episode and then find biblical application to the story line, the kids love it.” After I picked myself up I shook my head and walked off. That guy wasn’t building world changers, he was simply enjoying big crowds. We must consistently keep our teens in the Bible and not feel the need to be overly creative or cute in keeping them engaged. Youth Ministers, please teach teens how to study the scripture. Don’t entertain them using the Bible, teach them how to study the Bible. They don’t just need to hear Bible stories, they need to be taught how to study the scriptures. This will sustain their faith later in life. Are you teaching and equipping your teens the art and science of reading the Bible? For many youth, the Bible becomes a book of stories and life lessons. It becomes dull and uninteresting to them if we don’t train them how to properly read it. Train your students but equip them with the tools to properly study the passage. Help them find out the who, the why, the what, the when and the “what this has to do with their life” from every passage you teach. Don’t fall into a trap of using the Bible simply to entertain with stories. Many youth ministers treat their youth like children hearing a bed time story. A proper hermeneutic approach will equip them with a love for the Bible. I recommend a series of messages where you take popular scriptures and lead them through an exegetical approach. Teach them the tools, don’t just read them a story. A great resource is “Living by the Book” by Howard Hendricks.
2. Apologetics– We live in a world that is increasingly hostile toward a biblical worldview. This is especially true in a high school, college or university setting. As a youth minister, you should assume that your teens have teachers that are not reinforcing what you are teaching them on Sundays and Wednesdays. As a matter of fact many are intentionally usurping the foundational truths of Scripture. A few years ago one of my daughters came home from school and explained how her teacher taught the class how Muslims pray. He then made the class get on the ground and mimic the prayer. Wow. Needless to say the principal got an email that week. Can your teens defend their faith in a world that is growing increasingly hostile toward the Bible and its teachings? That 16 year old girl in your ministry may be a committed follower of Christ, but will the foundation that you are building in her life be sustained when she sits in that first Biology class in College? Will her Western Civilization professor change her entire world view in one semester? Unfortunately it is possible. Give them a holistic understanding of how the Bible and humanistic thought intersect. Prepare them for the challenges that will come to their faith. Too many youth ministers prepare a 25 minute devotion and then plan an hour of games. Will that be enough to sustain them when their faith is challenged? Some educators make it their hobby or agenda to tear down the spiritual beliefs of our children and the lack of depth in our youth bible studies will not stand a chance in comparison to the methodical attacks they will hear as a Freshman in college or a Senior in high school. Youth Ministers! Please keep depth and substance in your study times. Are you building walls of faith in the hearts of your students that will stand against the onslaught of attacks that is sure to come.
3. Passionate Committed Faith– Many great movements of God have started among youth. I find myself often frustrated with my own community and the lack of spiritual leaders in the schools my kids attend. Where are the great warriors for Christ in our high schools? In Daniel chapter 1 we find a grop of teen age boys who are taken captive by the Babylonians and asked to compromise their faith in order to please the pagan king. Daniel and his friends refused and God honored their commitment. I pray daily for God to raise up these types of teens in our schools and youth ministries all over America. Building these type of radical passionate students will involve more than an occasional bible story. Youth ministers must take time to spend one on one with these students to challenge them, love them, pray with them and train them to be sold out. As the world gets worse we must become that more committed and passionate. We need to build champions for Christ and stop trying to build the biggest youth ministry in town. These youth are in our ministries for a relatively short time. The fruit (or lack of) will go with them for the rest of their life. Unleash an army of young warriors on your local schools. May we build influencers rather teens who are merely influenced.
These statistics can be turned around, but it will not happen until many youth ministries prioritize their approaches. 20% of those who were spiritually active during high school are maintain a similar level of commitment after high school. At some point churches have to ask the question, why?