In the prior two installments (Part 1, Part 2) of this limited series, we examined the problems facing ministry to youth. Today, I want to unpack some further issues and provide answers to why we continue to lose kids and how we can not only stem that tide but reverse it.
Rather than have some great build up, I’ll head right into my thoughts:
1. Encapsulating the Gospel and then preaching it is our highest calling.
When the Church no longer knows what the Gospel is, it can’t transmit that Gospel to the next generation. How scary is it that many of the most learned and vocal Christians out there, the ones often in leadership roles, can’t articulate what the Gospel is?
We can only fool kids for so long. Today’s teens are experts at analyzing sales pitches. They are far more savvy consumers than even their parents, and they recognize when they’re being manipulated. So an attractional youth ministry model that has no genuine Gospel meat on its bones won’t be a tempting meal for them.
We also fail when we do not show consistently how the Gospel destroys all competing worldviews. Instead, by failing to understand competing worldviews, we allow people in our churches to synthesize Christianity with social Darwinism, pragmatism. American Dreamism, and any of a thousand other -isms that stand against the true Gospel.
Every Christian must understand the world in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We must try all competing worldviews and reveal how each sets itself up against the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
If we don’t start fixing this lack of instilling a Gospel-based worldview, nothing else that follows will do any good.
2. A complete cradle-to-grave educational plan for people in our churches is essential.
Increasingly, I believe this is the single most devastating systemic problem in our churches. No church has a handle on a complete educational philosophy. A church can have 10 pastors and not a single one is devoted to ensuring that people of all ages learn the fundamentals of the faith. That’s a genuine scandal.
In my radio interview in July, I mentioned that we need to ask our church leaders about their cradle-to-grave educational plan and ask for point-by-point, and age-by-age details. Listen to the response; it will be the most telling thing we hear about our church.
I also believe that every age group within a church should be hearing the same message, only geared for the appropriate age group. If the pastor preaches on John 1, then every instructional group in the church receives teaching on John 1, from the nursery kids in Sunday School to the mid-week adult small groups. Millions of pages of Bible learning and commentary exist, so it’s not as if the source material is so paper-thin that we can’t mine it for all its worth in a given week.
The mishmash, every-class-does-its-own-thing disaster that is the educational plan at most churches explains much of the state of the Church in the West. It’s one reason why parents give up on their children’s spiritual educations. The church splits the family the second it hits the lobby on Sunday, with everyone going his or her way. Then when the family reconvenes, each person has been schooled in disconnected topics, which makes it impossible for parents to discuss those topics with their kids.
But with everyone learning the same basic topic, conversation opens up. Parents don’t spend all their time trying to tease out what the kids studied. They know because they studied the same topic.
The lack of a comprehensive educational plan (and the church leadership’s lack of constant selling of such a plan to the people in the seats) is one of the reasons why its so hard to get people to volunteer to teach in a church. No one gets a complete vision of the direction for growth. If the goal is vague, why would anyone sign on?
Another scandal in this regard is that our churches spend hand over fist for stupid programming that has no lasting value, but we can’t see the need to pay someone to coordinate and enact the educational vision for the church. One of the worst trends in the last 50 years in our churches is the wholesale elimination of paid Christian education staff in favor of volunteers. The results are obvious, though, and we need to get serious about the horrendous state of Christian education in our churches. Most seminarians and pastors never got the training to coordinate the educational direction of a church that we believe they did. So, pay a trained Christian educator to do the job and stop grousing about it. Otherwise, keep the status quo and continue to reap the whirlwind.
3. A youth ministry model based on young men moving from the farm to the factory is passé and must be replaced by a model that meets modern needs.
How many of you, before you read the first two parts of this series, knew the genesis of youth ministry as a response to a shift from rural agrarianism to urban industrialism in the first half of the 19th century in England? Now that you understand this, how appropriate does our contemporary youth ministry model, which is nothing more than an outgrowth of that change, seem?
The model no longer applies, folks. It’s time we replace it it with something better. Acknowledging that broken model is the first step toward a more biblical and relevant one.
4. The youth minister’s job should be to work himself out of a youth-only job.
I do believe that we still need youth ministers. However, their job responsibilities must be completely rethought.
For millennia the most effective youth ministry model involved parents teaching their own children the faith. This has indirect and direct benefits:
1) Parents had to know what they were talking about. It meant they had to understand the faith too. Plus, they exercised valuable teaching and communications skills usable in other situations at church or in life.
2) Kids got their information from the one source most important in their lives, both in terms of total time spent together and in authority. The faith had greater meaning because they saw it modeled by their parents rather than by “professionals.”
Some parents will research and slave over a Powerpoint presentation they must give (which no one will remember a week later) before a group of corporate bigwigs (who don’t really matter) as part of their job (which has few eternal benefits), yet they can’t spend five minutes telling their own kids about Jesus—mostly because they haven’t done the research themselves. What terrible priorities we have!
I understand that parents have it rough. Fact is, parents have always had it rough. That we have made things even rougher for ourselves by poor priorities will be addressed later.
But back to that youth minister…
The present-age role for the youth minister should be not as a semi-cult leader for teens but as a resource for parents. The youth minister’s main goal should be not ministering to teens directly but teaching parents to become the primary transmitters of the faith to their own children. And frankly, that needs to start long before the teen years.
Parents don’t teach their kids the faith because
they don’t know it themselves,
they don’t know how to teach,
and they can’t find the time.
Let’s be honest, though; today’s parents can’t shoulder all the blame. As I noted in my prior post in this series, parents have been robbed. They weren’t given the right tools to do this all-important job of transmitting the faith. Sadly, what little they do transmit will be the entirety of what their kids call upon when they have to teach their own children.
And so the great mind-wipe carries on until nothing is left.
The youth minister, in conjunction with other church leaders, is the one to address that issue.
There will always be a need to minister to those kids whose parents are not Christians or who do not attend the church, so yes, someone must coordinate that work. That’s the next step.
5. The entire church is responsible for passing along the faith to the next generation.
Somehow, our churches have devolved into age and affinity group ghettos. We’ve lost the coherence of a family, of being the Body of Christ wherein one organ cannot exist without the others. Instead, we break down everything—and everyone—into their generic components.
The church is a family, a community unto itself. And as much as I hate to reference Hillary Clinton, it DOES take a village to raise a child.
We’ve forgotten this, though. Our churches separate the elderly from the youngsters. We put the singles into their group and isolate them. We do everything we can to frustrate the mission of the church as a whole by not seeing the value of all people in the training up of the next generation of Christians.
When we plan our cradle-to-grave educational philosophy, we must begin to incorporate a more holistic view of ministry not just as a collection of nuclear families, with parents teaching their kids, but as a church family, with people of all ages serving as instructors to children.
Our programming should always include all people, if possible, and value their contributions. Tribal people understand this and have maintained their traditions. We, however, have not. We devalue the tribe, and in doing so dilute its traditions.
6. “Tribal” rites of passage in our churches must mark adulthood.
I was blessed to grow up in the Lutheran Church and experience a conscientious confirmation and catechism program. Together, confirmation and catechism provided a gateway into adult life and membership within the church. Once past that mark, we were no longer children but full voting members of the church on which certain responsibilities now rested. We could hold board positions and lead groups.
I cannot stress enough, given the astonishing lack of appropriate rites of passage in our society, how much we need Christian rites of passage. When we wring our hands over teen sex, drinking, drug use, and so on, we have only ourselves to blame. We made those our primary rites of passage into adulthood.
I believe Christians must wholeheartedly counter this societal deficiency. Yet what are the rites of passage from childhood into adulthood in the average church?
Each church or denomination must work to formulate rites of passage for its youth. I believe that all ages, experiences, and marital statuses must be involved in creating adulthood curriculum and teaching it to our kids.
In my Lutheran church, I was grilled by the pastor and lay leader on points of doctrine, my understanding of them, and how I applied them in my own life. If I didn’t answer correctly, I had to try again later. That was hard, but it was also life-changing.
So why aren’t we doing this with our kids? Why do we just naturally assume they should be church members by parent proxy rather than by earning it themselves? Why don’t we promote spiritual understanding and show its value through such rites?
I also believe that we can’t start early enough with our Christian kids on classes in being proper husbands and wives. We also need to teach them how to run a household. This should be part of the passage rite.
And as Protestants, how is it that we have downplayed ceremonies? What better ceremony can there be than to present a young person as a full adult member in the church, a title earned through hard work and study?
Once those teens have passed the rite, push them. Billy Graham noted long ago that the one thing all teens need today is a challenge. By destroying the agrarian lifestyle, we relegated our young people to purposelessness. With no real need for them to help support the family, teens looked anywhere they could for meaning.
Our churches have to give them that meaning and work to involve our teens in the adult life and purpose of the church. We must stop looking down on the inexperience of teens and instead stoke the mission God is giving to each of them. We need to encourage their gifts and get of the way as they use them. When teens feel needed, they are less likely to drift away. Attractional ministry will only hold teens for so long; instead, they need to be integral to the Great Commission.
Too many Christian parents see getting their kids into some elite college as the be-all rite of passage and the only true mission for their kids. We have to rectify that mistaken priority, and that will involve other life changes.
7. We Christians must start questioning and fixing how we spend our time.
We are all too busy with the perishable, which amazingly enough causes us to ignore the imperishable: the next generation.
If you have been a reader here for long, you know my pet peeves concerning how we spend our time. But for those who have not, I will outline them briefly (I hope).
Work/Jobs—I believe that Christians must find a way to speak to the devastating work and job choices we have created in our modern society. The same conservative Christians who wrap themselves in the American flag, talk about the Founding Fathers, and go on and on about how America once was are the same folks who seem to endorse the postindustrial work world of America 2010 that is at complete odds with American work life circa 1776 (when BOTH parents worked from home). While the stay-at-home mom is lauded, we want dad to be 30 miles away slaving in a cubicle for 12 hours a day, driving an hour through gridlocked traffic, slamming down a cold meal, spending “quality time” with the kids, and then romancing his wife the way she wants and all the Focus on the Family literature says he must. Somehow, we think that is normal—and possible!
Or we once did. Economic realities in 2010 have put dad out of work, or in a sub-optimal-for-his-training job at a sub-optimal income, which means mom now must work. The irony is that she may be better paid, which torches all the Christian literature about dad being the breadwinner.
Ten years ago, most of the households of people I knew were single income. Today, none are. And many of those households were adamant about dad working and mom staying home.
Some Christian leaders, those with a national pulpit, have got to start discussing alternatives to the way we Christians work. The work world of today is broken, and it not only breaks parents, but it breaks their families. For too long we have made the self-made man and his self-made wife and self-made kids the poster faces of the Christian family, with the accompanying McMansion, private Christian schools, and Christian cruises in the Caribbean. Perhaps we should be thinking more downscale.
When we talk about parents educating their children, we’re not really talking about parents; we’re talking about moms. And it’s been that way for a long time, and still is, even with moms working.
Why is it not possible to rethink the way we Christians work so that BOTH mom and dad are home? We hold men up as breadwinners, but the way our society functions, that breadwinner role more often than not completely removes fathers from educating their children. Boys, especially, suffer for not having their fathers around, particularly as spiritual examples.
One of the major reasons youth ministry is failing goes beyond spoken words. Yes, preach the Gospel to kids and their parents. But more than anything else, our culture, which has heard enough words about Jesus from myriad sources, needs to SEE the Gospel message PRACTICED. Nothing is more true than this for kids. Their hypocrisy radar is always cranked to 11. When they go to church on Sunday yet fail to see their parents actively practicing the faith—and I’m not just talking about reading the Bible and praying, but feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and so on—then they will note the disconnect. The first chance they get to bolt, they will.
This happens because families cannot have the world’s mammon and the Lord. Dad’s 60-hour work week and Blackberry slavery when not at work leaves no time for genuine practice of the faith. With this increasingly the case for mom as well, how can any kid not see the disconnect between what we say and how we live?
Dealing with the outrageous inflation of college costs will also force Christians in the near future to discover better ways to prepare their children for work. Yet where are the Christian voices proposing a rethinking of apprenticeships and Christian alternatives to college as work prep?
Christians MUST find alternatives to the contemporary work world. If that means moving downscale, exploring alternative community living, or going back to an agrarian lifestyle—whatever—we need to get our brightest and best together to deal with this most pressing of problems.
Because most adults today spend the majority of their week at their jobs. If Christianity cannot speak to this, then we are ignoring the most time-consuming portion of people’s lives. And our failure to speak and act on this has brought enough damage already.
Organized Childhood—The other form of slavery Christians endure is organized child events. The worst offender here is sports.
When I was a child, we played kick the can in the street. Our backyards became small softball fields. As most yards were unfenced, we’d string a few together to play touch football. In the summertime came the neighborhood chess tournaments, with kids lined up to play on our front porch. Later, we got into wargames and D&D. We found a way to fill our own leisure time.
Today, most children are shuttled constantly between organized activities. Kids can’t throw together an impromptu game of whiffle ball because all of them are now on Select sports teams. And pity the poor loner who isn’t! Those organized leagues have two-hour practices several times a week, with a couple games at ludicrous times spread out over a 100-mile radius, running parents and kids ragged.
The number one excuse I hear from folks with children as to why they can’t make a church event or just get together to hang out as the Body of Christ is their kids’ organized sports.
When you truly get down to why this devotion to sports exists, it’s hard not to shake the truth that many parents harbor the hope that Johnny or Janie will be the next Drew Brees or Mia Hamm. Sports has become the ticket to an elite college, and for too many parents, that college education trumps everything. Fact is, among parents identified as Evangelical Christians, the majority claim that getting into an elite college is a higher priority for their children than knowing Jesus, according to a George Barna poll from a few years back. Get a sports scholarship, get drafted, and make a mint.
It’s a false dream, though, as noted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. A kid’s month of birth may have more to do with his success than any talent he may have. Not to mention the minuscule pool of pro athletes today.
And for those who say that all this builds character, well, there isn’t much character in sports today, especially with everything being about money. I’ve seen coaches of 6-year-olds screaming at them for a simple mistake on the field. My own kid suffered at the hands of a coach who made winning everything, even if it meant calling on his handful of superstars to crush the same hapless (read: played even the less talented kids) opponents week after week.
If our kids are spending ten hours or more a week on a playing field somewhere, when are they getting time to hear about Jesus? And what message does all our organized child activities speak about the priority we make Jesus in the lives of our kids? A couple hours a week about Jesus versus a couple hours a day practicing piano is the wrong proportion. Should we then be surprised when our kids are a mile wide in soccer skills and an inch deep spiritually?
Community—We talk and talk and talk about community in the American Christian Church. But when we look at genuine practice, we’re pretty much strangers to each other. The early Church met in each other’s homes every single day, and in the temple for worship. That was normal. In contrast, our normal is their “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”
We have made the busyness caused by work and organized child activities the main enemy of Christian community.
Kids see this. Again, the hypocrisy of what we say compared with our practice speaks (and teaches) louder than our words.
Kids who are NOT regularly surrounded by a multigenerational group of nonfamily members grow up seeing other people as competitors for an increasingly smaller portion of the pie. Our lack of genuine community breeds distance, which abets social Darwinism and the kill or be killed mentality we foster in our business practices. If we need examples, look no further than the highly educated kids from elite colleges who knew they were selling air through mortgage-backed derivatives that precipitated the collapse of our economy. All the postmortems paint those folks as knowing exactly what they were doing to other people, but the opportunity to make a killing at the devastating expense of others proved too great. All ethics, if any existed previously, were dumped in the trashcan.
Technology also hurts community. I watched my teenage niece repeatedly text a friend of hers. Amazingly, the friend lived a couple houses up the street. When I asked why she didn’t walk a few feet to talk with her friend, I got a bunch of responses that I couldn’t understand. Studies even show that today’s teens have greatly reduced vocabularies and an inability to read body language thanks to their dependence on cell phones and the Internet. In addition, social groups depend on these devices, as one parent I know who was strongly against cell phones caved to the pressure when his once-popular 11-year-old son got left out of his peer group because the boy didn’t have one.
Adults fall prey to this too. Most of the Christian small groups I’ve been a a part of don’t meet anymore, or they meet with increasing irregularity. The voices are strong on Facebook, but we just don’t see each other much.
Our busyness, technophilia, and pursuit of mammon have killed our community, hurt our families, and left our children with a distorted view of other people. We have gone so low as to substitute face-to-face gatherings with a fired-off, dozen-word update on Facebook. I believe wholeheartedly that we are in a time when our distance is only breeding contempt, as it seems that fewer and fewer people genuinely like each other, with more and more finding nitpicky, Seinfeld-esque reasons to avoid other people entirely.
These are enormous issues that better minds than this writer MUST address. Yet I hear almost no one in the Christian community with a national voice speaking to them. Instead, those leaders often extol these deficiencies. What these lacks do to our kids, though, can’t be ignored.
I believe that the seven points above, when properly addressed within the American Christian Church, can stem the tide of teens leaving our churches. The generation now coming up is one of the least churched in American history because our youth ministry models failed it.
We have got to change! But those changes will need to be drastic, which is why I am not confident that those churches that claim to adhere to Christian doctrinal truth can pull off the fixes. We’re too obsessed with the failures of the culture around us and not ruthless enough in fixing our own deficiencies.
But if we don’t, our lampstand will be taken away—if it hasn’t been already.
Previous posts in this series: