The Youth Ministry Problem, Part 2


In the first part of this limited series examining why the modern youth ministry model fails to reach and hold young people, we looked at the basis for youth ministry and why its founding principle no longer applies. What began as a response to rural youth in mid-19th century England leaving family farms to work in urban factories now attempts to reach suburban youth who don’t need to work to survive and who continue to live with mom and dad. The increasing lack of success in reaching kids in this much different world demands a better response.

In this post, I’ll further examine the issues facing youth and our attempts to minister to them, especially given the model we continue to endorse.

The Agrarian/Industrial Issue

The social upheaval that led to the establishment of youth ministry came due to a need to secure the spiritual futures of young people leaving the family farm for the factories. Urban centers in the 19th century swelled with this influx of young men, who rapidly fell prey to the temptations of the city. They worked long hours in punishing conditions, and when they finally crawled out from under the industrial millstone, their thoughts weren’t on heaven. The term juvenile delinquent entered our language.

Today, the issue is not 17-year-old boys working 14-hour shifts in a primitive steel mill a hundred miles from mom and dad’s house. Nor is it those same boys farming their parents’ land. In essence, we’ve swept away both industry and the farm for our kids.

At one point in history, our children made the difference between life and death. Kids worked their parents’ farms and made them successful. Having children, and the more the better, ensured that a family could prosper.

But with a move from agrarianism to industrialization, the child as an important cog in the family machine waned. The death blow came from an unlikely source. With the farm replaced by the factory, our entire social model shifted. With any shift comes the inevitable shaking out, and Christians, who once saw the factory as the engine to spread a Christian empire across the globe, soon saw that the factories ground young people to dust. Then came the protests and discussions, and reforms put the child laborer out of work.

The factory killed the farm. And child labor laws killed the factory for our youth.

With no farm and no factory, what good was the young person? What did he contribute to the family’s survival?

And so we created a vacuum of purpose. Why have a large family? In fact, why have children at all, as they only take and their dividends remain small?

By the 1920s, this disconnect had grown wider and more threatening. With outside schooling mandatory, the job of the young person was to make something of himself, not to make something of his family. Society pushed a sense of purpose into the future, skirting the present. The teen was left with nothing else to do but go to school and hope that one day, some day, he might be someone useful.

At the same time that a lack of purpose seeped into the lives of young people, parents suffered. Without Johnny on hand, the farm could not survive. Lineage broke down, as kids no longer wanted the heritage of the land, which instead became a burden. Without support from their kids, adults saw their farms fail. Entire families ended up in the mills—until reforms kicked the kids out. And parents struggled to maintain a family in which children made no contribution.

The agrarian model shattered, parents could not maintain traditional learning venues for their children. This signaled the ascendancy of public education, which took the job of parenting and schooling out of the hands of parents and into those of the state.

The Parent Issue

This quote from a USA Today article about the loss of teens in churches points the usual finger:

“I blame the parents,” who didn’t grow up in a church culture, says Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor at First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan.

Frankly, for that specific reason, I blame the parents for very little. You can’t pass on what you don’t own, and the cultural, social, and spiritual inheritance parents receive grows slighter each year.

Take the spiritual, for instance. The last great revival in the United States, Azusa Street, happened 100 years ago. That’s a considerable chunk of time. No one living today is in a position to remember that revival and transmit it. We’re at least two generations removed. The First and Second Great Awakenings fueled America for 100 years and culminated in Azusa. At least it appears they culminated there, as dry as it has been since.

The cultural and social suffer too. Global communication and transportation make it easy to get from here to there and understand what there’s culture is like, but with the onslaught of information comes a diminishing by overload of what our own culture and society mean. Parents, unable to keep abreast of the latest new thing, instead shut down, their psyches shielding them from too much “much.”

The media is to blame for some of this. My post “Fumbling the Torch” discusses how media robbed prior generations of the skills essential to maintaining the bedrock assumptions of our society, especially those that focus on Jesus.

Now add the usurping of a child’s education by the state. In that aftermath, which parents out there have the requisite skills to actually teach their children anything? Despite howls of protest from homeschoolers, the fact remains that most parents are poorly equipped to teach. Pick a random parent off the street and ask them to explain the rules of the boardgame Monopoly to the point the game could actually be played correctly. I can promise you this: It wouldn’t be pretty.

And yet we somehow expect parents to be perfect founts of knowledge when it comes to training their children in the finer points of theology or cosmology.

But unless we address with radical solutions the ways our entire society and culture function, blaming parents is a ridiculous notion most often expressed by folks who think they got it all from their parents and are now transmitting it all perfectly to the next generation despite the great, ongoing mind-wipe.

The Awareness Issue

All that said, the generations have progressed in some ways compared with their predecessors, though some would argue the merits.

One obvious upgrade: Kids today are far more aware of cultural and societal deficiencies.

When I was a boy, if I passed an unkempt, immobile man on a sidewalk with a bottle in a bag next him, I would think he just decided to take a nap.

Today, if my son passed the same man, he would think that man might be drunk, homeless, and probably in need of assistance.

This generation today, which is far more aware of breakdowns in our rhetoric about societal excellence, is less likely to be satisfied by simple answers. If I had inquired of my parents about the man on the sidewalk, a “he’s just sleeping” would suffice for an answer. My son would not tolerate that same reply.

The great downgrade of the Church since the 19th century is that we once owned the answers to questions of life and societal deficiencies, but they have since escaped us. The postmillennial fervor that promised that the Church of the Victorian Age could usher in a transformed world led to the founding of thousands of parachurch organzations to meet the perceived need. Sadly, as time rolled on, those organizations lost their rooting in Christ. The social gospel eclipsed the Gospel as Christ.

Don’t believe me about this downgrade? Reread my first post in this series and remember the organization that spurred the growth of youth ministry, the YMCA. Does anyone look to the Y for spiritual guidance today? Anyone attend a YMCA-sponsored Bible study?

But the most damaging aspect of that downgrade is that now those secularized organizations that had their founding in the Church compete against the Church for the hearts and attention of others.

Our more aware children no longer need to look to the Church for answers to the drunk, homeless man. Thousands of aid groups offer them an alternative, many of those groups once inextricably linked to the Church, but now with no more than a secular initiative to guide them.

The Technology Issue

Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it excises the inefficiencies of life. But on the other, it carries the blade that slices apart.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that any technology that worms its way into interpersonal relationships damages as much or more than it helps. We can see the roots of this in the destruction of the agrarian lifestyle by the industrial revolution. Families were torn apart, land inheritance lost, and lineage damaged.

Today, we communicate with each other through machines and the Internet. We hide ourselves behind a curtain of technology that gives the illusion of community but offers nothing of the face-to-face interaction that drove our civilization for millennia. Child on a cell phoneIf our only connection is a text message such as “c u l8r,” what hope do we have for solving real problems that afflict our society?

Studies show that our children, raised as they have been on tech, cannot read nonverbal communications from others. Other studies show a rapid loss of vocabulary in those kids who rely on text messages. And more studies show that we have come to prefer communication by devices to gathering in person to connect with one another.

All this poses a genuine threat not only to the Church, commanded as it is to gather together in shared worship of Christ, but to our society as a whole.

These four issues—and more exist—challenge the way we deal with our young people, especially within the Church.

In my next post, I hope to provide solutions. Stay tuned.

Other posts in this series:

6 thoughts on “The Youth Ministry Problem, Part 2

  1. ccinnova

    Once again, Dan, you’ve made some excellent points. Sadly, you’re one of the few folks out there who’ve taken a good hard look at the youth ministry situation.

  2. Jeremy

    My wife works at a Christian College and every year the entire staff and faculty have a day where they choose from several charitable organizations to help in. All of the organizations are christian-based (at one time). However as you mentioned the ‘Y’ I couldn’t help but recall the first part of the story my wife told me when she came home.

    She attended a soup kitchen/aid center for clothing, blankets, counciling etc. My wife asked the administrator what the organization does to evangelize and get the gospel to people. The administrator responded by saying they don’t do that anymore because it might offend some people and they are there for food and clothing.

    Now I am a firm believer in meeting the basic needs of people before you feed them spiritually but this was extreme. As she dug a little deeper she learned that if this organization talked too much about Jesus they would lose some of their govt funding.

    So like you said, even these organizations that kids should be able to point to and say, “Go there for food.” Knowing that they are also going to be fed the gospel is no longer an option. There is a place downtown however who still feeds the Word to folks but you can imagine the scrutiny they’re under.

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