The Youth Ministry Problem, Part 1


Yesterday, I mentioned an article in USA Today that lamented the loss of teenagers in church youth ministries, especially in large churches that run on an attractional model. Kids today are too savvy to fall fall for simple marketing techniques, so the number of ex-youth-group-members is growing.

What then does this mean for youth ministry?

Many moons ago, all the way back in 1991, I wrote a paper in my youth ministry class at Wheaton that shook up the profs. They later asked me to present the paper to the class. That paper questioned preconceptions, showed why the existing youth ministry model was inherently broken, and proposed solutions for fixing the problems. What follows will recreate some of that paper.

If you’ve been around an American church, you’ve probably seen an average youth group. Much of what goes on in these groups is an outgrowth of ideas and activities fostered by Youth for Christ in the 1940s, the late Mike Yaconelli of Youth Specialties in the 1970s,  and YS’s various publishing offshoots and imitators.

While it may be fashionable to point to these sources  as the promoters of the failed attractional youth ministry model, the real problem is that the entire basis for youth ministry rests atop a series of assumptions that once held true in 1840s England but has no connection to the reality of the modern American household.

Youth ministry, as we understand it, didn’t always exist. In most Christian homes, children were taught the faith by their parents and relatives, with some older children sent away to a university or boarding school for advanced theological studies.

The industrial revolution changed all that.

In a case of “you can’t keep Johnny down on the farm,” young men from the countryside in England (and later America) were attracted to factories and mills in the early years of the 19th century. They rushed to the cities, caught up in the allure and the “we can accomplish anything through science and industry” mantra that made a pastoral life seem like a dead end.

Urban Christians watched in dismay as the conditions for the train wreck formed. The first generation of youth to abandon their parents’ lifestyle for one that never existed before had no guidance away from the family farm. Young men far from home faced an enormous number of previously nonexistent problems and a host of all-too-familiar temptations. The YMCAThe term juvenile delinquent entered the dictionary.  Something had to be done.

Enter the Young Men’s Christian Association, better known by its initials, the YMCA.

Founded in 1844, the YMCA was one of the very first concerted youth ministries.  It emphasized Bible study and wholesome physical activity as a cure for the problems facing young male factory workers who had only known agrarian life. The YMCA workers and volunteers took the place of parents miles away, guiding their charges to a more heavenly course. Famous Christians of the day wholeheartedly trumpeted this outreach, with noted American evangelist Dwight Moody as one of its leading voices. The YMCA met a genuine need and did a good work.

Over the decades, what started with the YMCA continued to evolve. That  model eventually drifted into suburban churches to form the typical youth ministry we see today.

But does anyone see the problems?

Teens in 2010 aren’t faced with the farm/factory choice. They’re not leaving home at 14 to work and board in mills 100 miles away. The entire basis on which youth ministry rests no longer exists.

Sadly, you won’t find too many Christians today asking why we’re still using a model that hasn’t applied in the last 100 years. We have this assumption that any successful church will have a youth group that functions like a separate cult, with its own leader and unique ministry vision. In fact, many church leaders when pressed to show the viability of their church will point to the youth group. They have to. The “quality” of the youth group is often the determining factor for retaining—or losing—visiting families with children.

And its not just an obsolete basis for youth ministry that has contributed to its current, ineffective state. Many more issues make reaching young people a tougher proposition than it’s ever been.

Stay tuned to read about other issues and a model for youth ministry that offers real solutions that benefit the youth, their families, and the church as a whole.

Other posts in this series:

Hipster Churches & Indifferent Teens


Two good articles note how the attractional church model isn’t working anymore:

‘Forget the pizza parties,’ Teens tell churches :

“Sweet 16 is not a sweet spot for churches. It’s the age teens typically drop out,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, which found the turning point in a study of church dropouts. “A decade ago teens were coming to church youth group to play, coming for the entertainment, coming for the pizza. They’re not even coming for the pizza anymore. They say, ‘We don’t see the church as relevant, as meeting our needs or where we need to be today.’ “

The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity:

In his book The Courage to Be Protestant, David Wells writes: “The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.

“And the further irony,” he adds, “is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.

I’ll comment on the loss of teens in a future post.

What do you think?