Youth Ministry Mirrors the American Church

When I switched my degree program in seminary, I was right in the middle of my two year tenure of youth ministry at this new church. The first year was exactly what I expected: a ministry primarily focused on a weekly event. If you broke that event down into percentages it would go something like this: 60% games, 30% music and message, 10% small group discussion… which had a tendency to stray WAY off topic no matter how hard we tried.

At the end of the day, here are my takeaways from that first year: #1 I was nothing more than a babysitter and that was TOTALLY ON ME. We had sleepovers and events outside of church, which went far in growing deeper friendships amongst the kids, but did little, if anything, to help them grow closer to the Lord. My relationship with them was superficial. To them, I was Sydney’s mom and I let it end there. I dropped the ball and I own that. #2 Fun and games have a place, but it should not take up the majority of our time together and it should NEVER make you throw up. NOT. EVER. (I could tell you about the contest where we put Happy Meals in a blender to make a “milkshake” and then had the kids drink them. You might be dry-heaving right now. I cleaned up so much vomit that night… and none of it from my own kids.) #3 and probably most important… a lot of these kids see the hypocrisy in the church and in their own families. And I’m not talking about perfection here. None of these kids expect their parents to be perfect. But, they saw inconsistencies in how their parents (and others) acted at home and how they acted outside of the home… especially at church.

I could tell you about the kid who said he only got baptized because he was tired of his parents telling him he’s going to be in hell, and not with his family, if he doesn’t. (That one took the air out of my lungs. I wept in my car on the way home and still think about it today.) Or the kids who were counting down the days to graduation so they didn’t have to go to church anymore. (Studies show that upward to 85% of teens walk away from the church after leaving high school. Several of the ones I met, walked away before then. They were just buying their time.) Or the kids who were raised in the church and knew every “right” answer to say, but were either afraid of their own shadow (and everything in the world) OR living a double life… maybe modeling their parents‘ behavior.

I began thinking about my own kids, wondering what category they would fall into. (The fact that I’m even writing this makes me nauseous.) Are they just going through the motions of “church”? Were we inadvertently teaching them to be American church goers and not kingdom-minded Christ followers? And PLEASE hear me out on this… it had nothing to do with “youth ministry” because my kids had NEVER been involved with it up to this point. It had to do with the culture of church as a whole. But, I was beginning to see that certain youth ministry programs were underscoring the bigger problem in the church.

At the end of my time in seminary, I had a cumulative research assignment required for graduation. I decided to focus on the future of youth ministry in America. During this process, I learned the contemporary, mainstream youth group model used by many churches today was born from a program called Son City, created by Bill Hybels in the early 1970s, and was built on the idea of STUDENT leadership. In the beginning, Mark Senter explains, “The message Bill Hybels preached was hard-sell Christianity done in a manner that would offend teenagers only with the gospel of Jesus Christ, never with the cultural encumbrances of their fundamentalist backgrounds at Camp Awana.” Senter’s words, not mine. There were no Happy Meal milkshakes, and guess what, it doubled in size in one year. It was built on uncompromising truth and a commitment to raise up a generation of leaders.

However, with the influx of teens and the inability to cultivate leaders fast enough, they decided to change the model… and thus compromised the integrity of the program. Student leaders were replaced with young adults. The youth group continued to grow, but at what cost? The social dynamics that once allowed this youth ministry to flourish were gone. Just so we’re clear, when they removed the potential for teens to become leaders, where responsibility, accountability, and growth were requisite, something changed. In other words… WHEN THEY STOPPED MAKING DISCIPLES, something changed.

Does that sound familiar? I look at the American church as a whole today and see this exact thing. We aren’t growing the church, per se. Yes, some churches are growing…. but not because we’re evangelizing the lost. A lot of those churches are growing because they are gaining members from other churches. (Take a look at the stats on churches closing their doors over the past 30 years. There are some interesting number we should be looking at.) Again, this isn’t true of all churches. We’re talking trends, mostly within the “mega-church” movement.

People are quick to say that Christianity is on the rise because there are more Christians today than 50 years ago. Well… that might technically be true. There are more Christians today because we have more people populating the world today. But statistically speaking, Christianity is losing ground to other religions… or to the choice of NO religion. And I believe it’s because we’re not doing the work Jesus called us to: TO MAKE DISCIPLES.

Mark Senter, When God Shows Up: A History of Protestant Youth Ministry in America, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), xiv

Ibid., 270.

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