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:

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?