Saturday, January 16, 2010

An Alternative to Youth Group

My husband pastors a little church and he spent years trying to “get the youth group going”. We learned a few things through this process and would like to share our experiences with you.

I’ll start with the lesson that has taken us the longest to learn. There seems to be a high burn-out rate among youth pastors of small churches. Keep in mind our church couldn’t pay these guys a salary. They were doing it for $500/month or less. So not only were these guys working full-time to support their families, but they were also spending their free time trying to pour themselves into the lives of other people’s teenagers. Sometimes they would do this by meeting with kids for lunch. I’m sure there were many phone conversations, emails, and then the time in preparation to teach them on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. Weekend get-togethers and even trips were also part of the program. Meanwhile, their wives would either have to go to Sunday school alone or try to find their own place in the youth group. They would also usually have their own little kids to throw into the mix, as well. In our 10 years at this same church we’ve gone through 5 youth pastors. And when they burn out, they leave the church! We’ve never managed to keep one youth pastor after they leave! Some partings have been friendlier than others, but they’ve all gone on and to my knowledge none of them have ever become involved in youth ministry again at any other church.

You might be wondering why it took us ten years to notice this. Each time we would look at the particular circumstances and see it as a fluke of some kind. Maybe there was a relationship problem between my husband and the youth pastor. Maybe we were expecting too much. Maybe we needed to pay them more. Maybe their wife really did just want to go to another church. But after 10 years, you start to see a pattern! Working with youth is hard. This leads me to our next observation.

Because it is so hard to find common ground with young people, we noticed our youth groups spending a lot of time in things other than studying the Bible and praying together. Don’t get me wrong, I read books, spend time with friends, and in general have a social life, albeit a limited one (curse this blogging). But, we noticed that our youth group spent a lot of time at church “gelling” together or whatever you call it. I’m sure it was part of laying a foundational relationship or something, but my kids in catechism class started asking why the youth group was outside tossing a football while we were inside memorizing Scripture. Then came the Wii and even Guitar Hero. This seemed a little strange to us. Do we really need to do these things to connect with kids? My 10 year old loves video games and we let him play them. I don’t have anything against video games per se, but I don’t really see how they fit in with discipling our young people.

We just loved our most recent youth pastor. He was just the greatest guy. I loved his wife and children, too. It was heartbreaking for us when they left. And as soon as they were gone a couple of families started right in asking who the next youth pastor was going to be. My husband looked back over the last 10 years and decided something radical. There wasn’t going to be another youth pastor and there wasn’t going to be another youth group. What? No youth group? Why? We lost two more families we loved over this very question. And this leads me to our next and most weighty observation.

Graduating from our youth program was not predictive of the future spiritual lives of our youth. Predictive, that’s a scientific word. When there is a relationship between two factors, such as height and weight, we say they are “correlated”. Generally, when height increases so does weight, thus the positive correlation. But does the increase in height actually cause the increase in weight or is there something else that is causing both of them to increase, such as diet, maturation, growth hormone, etc.? Do you see what I’m getting at? Height is not predictive of weight, even though they’re related. A predictive relationship is one in which the manipulation of one variable causes a dependent variable to change. The church has been operating under the assumption that there exists a predictive relationship between active participation in youth group and active participation in church later. But as Ken Ham shows in Already Gone, this has been proven to be false. We discovered the same thing in our own church. Sometimes kids would graduate from our youth group and move on to serve the Lord in their next phase of life, sometimes they wouldn’t. We couldn’t use their participation in our youth group as a predictor.

Evidently, what these kids did for 2 hours per week was not the deciding factor in their faith. We have our children for 24/7 for 18 years. It makes sense, doesn’t it, that these hours in youth group are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the rest of their lives. Now, it can happen that a kid can get saved through the ministry of a youth program and the Lord can radically change his life. But that change comes from obedience to the Lord. That change takes a commitment of time outside of the couple of hours in youth group each week. That change takes Bible study and prayer. God works in us through His Word. He will not change us any other way. So, while kids can be saved as a result of youth ministry, few of us see youth ministry as being evangelistic. We tend to think that we’re sending our already Christian children to youth group so they will grow spiritually, and that’s what we’ve learned is not happening on average. In fact, the Beemer report, which served as the basis for Already Gone, even concludes that Sunday school and youth programs are counter-productive. They found a negative correlation between Sunday school/youth participation and whether these same kids are in church in their mid to late 20s. I know it’s hard to believe, but according to this, Sunday school/youth participation makes it less likely that these kids will be actively involved in church a decade later. They looked at other variables, too, like whether someone in their mid to late twenties believes the Bible is true and found that those who went to Sunday school are actually less likely to believe the Bible is true than those who didn’t!

So, if these few hours at church per week are not making or breaking it for our kids, what is? What will make a difference in their lives? Revolutionary Parenting was written by George Barna to answer this question. He conducted several series of surveys and interviewed thousands of young adults and their parents. Here’s what he found to be one of the key traits in these revolutionary parents that succeed in passing on their faith to their kids. “The absorption of their Christian faith into every dimension of their life makes the transfer of the critical perspectives and principles a more natural process for them.” (p. 101) He found that parents are more likely to raise spiritual champions if they genuinely love God, pray daily, worship regularly, read the Bible habitually for personal development, participate in the life of the church, and apply their resources and abilities frequently to influencing lives. (p. 103) If I might summarize, he basically found that when kids see Christianity lived at home all week long, they embrace it, whereas when they see it at church for a couple of hours per week, they don’t. It’s up to us as parents to live out our faith in a visible way to our children.

Let me add a disclaimer here. I believe in election, and both of my parents were saved as adults. Likewise, I believe that although God normally works through families, He doesn’t always do this, and for that I am grateful (since my parents were exceptions). That said, the Beemer report may need to go back to these same 20-something adults in another decade and see if any of them have returned to church. It may turn out that some of them really belong to the Lord and He will bring them back to His body in His time. However, we cannot deny the trend that youth groups do not seem to be accomplishing that which we have been assuming they would accomplish.

So, it seems to me we have two options. Either we try to plug the hole in this sinking ship, or we start transferring our kids to lifeboats. Maybe either one would be fine, but certainly we don’t want our kids to stay on the ship that’s sinking. Agreed? Ken Ham is of the notion we can plug the hole by adding a comprehensive worldview curriculum to our Sunday school/youth programs. Of course he thinks this. Answers in Genesis is all about worldview! Maybe he’s right. Or maybe no matter what we teach them, 2 hrs per week will not be the deciding factor in their lives. (Ham does also admit to this point that parents need to do “their part”.) By the way, I have no problem with Answers in Genesis, I'm just doubtful that adding worldview will change the effectiveness of Sunday school/youth programs. After all, the apostle Paul said himself, he desired to know nothing, but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2) If the Word of God is really sufficient (2 Tim 3:16) then we do not need a worldview curriculum. (No, I'm not saying we don't study other subjects in school, but we're talking faith here folks.)

Finally, I want to share with you what we’re trying at our church and what is going on in many FICs. I mentioned before that after losing the last youth pastor, my husband decided not to replace him. Instead of spending so much time and energy trying to “connect” with the youth (which is what it seems to me so much of youth ministry is about), why not rely on someone who’s already connected to them? Their parents. My husband is now teaching a family class that is geared toward young people. This way teens and their parents can continue to dialogue throughout the week on what they studied together Sunday morning. This way, family bonds are strengthened while teens and parents are being built up in the faith together. Of course, a young person is welcome to come without his parents (for instance if his parents don’t come to church), and there will be other parents there to “foster” this young person in the Lord. We’ve only recently started doing this so I can’t give you any glowing statistics, but at least we know we won’t be running off another youth pastor and his family! I can tell you it is our hope that we will begin to see the hearts of our fathers turn to their children through this class. It is our desire that this will lead to family discussions of spiritual matters, family prayer, and family worship. In short, my husband is trying to equip the parents of our young adults to be revolutionary. There is no tactic that can guarantee an outcome. These matters of the heart and faith are up to God. But, we can be a church that helps parents and kids to grow in their faith together while most kids in our culture are rebelling against their parents. We can be counter-cultural. We can be revolutionary. We can be Biblical.

What do you think? Plug the ship or evacuate into life boats?


  1. I LOVE this post - just tripped across it in the MckMama forum - particularly because I work as Director of Children's Ministry - but because we've no one on staff for Youth, I end up trickling into that area of ministry somewhat.

    Just last Sunday, I asked our Sunday morning Youth kids whether they would be there if they did not have to be (they all said "no" except for one - and she was looking for more depth, what she was getting was too childish for her taste). This didn't surprise me ... but it bums me out and lights a bit of a fire under me on their behalf.

    I find your insights VERY interesting - and hope that you'll post periodically on how the Youth/Parent class is progressing!


    PS - Am following you now!!!

  2. I agree. totally actually. I noticed the same thing with a past church we went to. (which we loved). Only they would not stop. They kept flowing money and video games and soda and pizza into it and the kids got more and more worldly and less and less interested in scripture, much less a "lived out" Christian life. I taught in youth for two years and I could talk about this on and on. but I wont :)
    I can say that Ken Hamm is right about having a better world view curriculum, for kids and students. But you are totally right that that would NOT solve the problem of youth and how we approach discipling them. It is through the parents or close mentorship, not huge youth groups. anyhow, this was great Celee! I am so proud of you and your hubby for making this bold biblical change.

  3. You know, I always joked that *I* was the youth group growing up. Occasionally there was 1 or 2 other kids but I was the only consistent youth that attended my very small church on Sundays. So, I can't comment too much on my youth group experience from 15 years ago. I didn't necessarily talk much about faith with my family growing up and didn't really see my family study the Bible (whether they did or not, I wasn't cognizant of it) and we didn't worship together outside of Sunday mornings. However, my family did consistently attend church, tithe generously, and help others out in need - all very much including me in the process. Argue what you will, but those things are of worth when I look back at my spiritual journey. In highschool, I was invited to a Bible study that a peer of mine led on her volution and I was blessed with a brother who figured out what it meant to walk with the Lord personally around the same time that I was starting that Bible study. So without a church youth group...I like to say that there was a time when Jesus became my Savior (thank you Lord for leading me to attend a big Baptist church concert in 8th grade) and a time when Jesus became my Lord (thank you Lord for bringing me to your Word around 18 years old). I really didn't experience discipleship until I got connected with an amazing church as a college student. My brother's only challenge to me was to find a church home when I got to college. Having consistently attended growing up, this wasn't a stretch for me and in fact a desire of mine. It was engrained in me to want to attend a worship service. Thankfully, I stepped into a church that is Bible teaching and was amazingly equipped at discipling college students. So, that's my story.

  4. I couldn't agree more! I could write an equally long response but I'm limited on time this evening, so I just want to say AMEN!

    My personal opinion is that kids thrive in a home with beautiful relationships that all center around our Lord. The pull of peers is too great and teens have a terrible time resisting it. It's too easy to depend upon friendships for their happiness.

    The problem happens when peers begin to compete and become interested in male/female relationships - even if it's just a secret matter, it often becomes real.

    When there are big distractions in the lives of teens, the Lord gets put on the back-burner and is no more their passion - if He ever was.

    My kids have never been a part of youth group and I feel so blessed that they haven't had those social pressures. They've had time to thrive in their faith without those distractions. Yet, many of the kids they've known since they were young have taken to dating at 16 (or less), making poor decisions and even departing from the faith.

    I don't say this to brag - I say this rejoicing that God allowed us to hear about the dangers of this when our kids were very young.

    Okay - I meant to say less, but how could I help it?

    Thanks for sharing. Great post.

  5. Saying all of that... I feel I must add one more thing.

    My brother-in-law is a youth pastor and he is such a wonderful man. He and my sister offer so much to their church youth. I do think that youth ministry has blessed many teens who don't have a Christian home (and a few who do). I've heard that first hand from several different people. So... I don't think that all youth groups are bad - I really don't. I just think that it's a great risk to send our spiritually healthy children into that environment. To me, it really IS a great risk to subject them to such things when they are young and vulnerable. Any of us is capable of walking the wrong way and the teen years are a time when it's a little easier to make wrong decisions. Teens are contemplating their future while their hormones are out of control - not a good combination, ya know?

    Just felt I must add that because I do think there is another side to the whole thing.

    By again.

  6. Lynette- I agree about youth pastors. My husband feels so indebted to his youth pastor for sharing the gospel with him and in his words "telling it to him straight." My husband's parents were new Christians and looking back my husband wonders what it would have been like if his youth pastor could have had a similar effect on his dad and whole family for that matter. We have loved all of our youth pastors and I know they serve out of a love for the Lord and for kids, but I'm wondering if discipling families might not be a better investment in the future. Of course, where parents are not willing or interested, then it's wonderful to have someone on staff at the church dedicated to those kids.

  7. Great post, I have thought this before, but told my husband today, you have the statistics. I have thought recently, as I'm now teaching in a young girls class, how we isolate them from their mothers. ? suggesting 'nothing they don't want to share, will be shared?' This isn't my philosophy, nor do I want to perpetuate this philosophy. I think creating the diologue, helping dialogue begin between teens & their parents is what should be happening. I know, even as mine are still young, I don't feel I'd want them in classes, when they are old enough for a youth group, where they are not being taught to appreciate my opinion/teaching/training even if they don't agree.
    I've witnessed the burnout in friends, it's ugly. Under the banner of service, it's just not right.
    My comments are quick and not super 'thought out', but I can only agree & say 'you go girl' with this approach.
    can't wait to read more of your post- Laura

  8. I have thought long and hard about this post, which is why I am late commenting on it. I hope you still get this!
    Coming from the perspective of a parent only, not the church staff, I wish there were two youth groups. One for saved kids to challenge them in their faith and help them to grow, and one as an outreach and for unchurched kids. How selfish is that of me? But as a homeschool family, we have different needs for our teens and our desire for them to have Christian fellowship. Our two oldest boys are 16 and 14 and we have used the youth group as a resource. The boys have attended certain activities and events that we thought were beneficial to them, but they are not regular attenders. I realize that the youth pastor needs solid kids to build a group around, but there are many bad influences in the group as well.
    We moved last year, and during that time also realized how much our teens liked to socialize and connect with other teens. It was a hard time for them as our homeschooling actually made it harder to make friends at first. So initially they did more with the youth group, just trying to get them out a bit. Now that they have made some friends, we are using the youth group less and less. I feel badly for the youth pastor, as he really has a heart for teens, and I think he sees our lack of involvement as a lack of support for him. We feel like we are the primary input in our children's lives, and it is good to have other Christian adults who can speak the same values into our children's lives as re-inforcement for what we are doing at home. This is also how I see the children's Sunday School teachers, CBS teachers, and Awana listeners. As other sources of the same info that they are getting at home.
    I am sorry this was long, and in my head it came out smoother. Sorry! But good topic!

  9. This is a topic that has been on my mind for years, and my oldest is just now a teenager. She turned 13 this year. I haven't been a fan of youth groups for years, so I don't push it. I do allow her to go irregularly, but our church's youth group is filled with a majority of unsaved kids whose parents don't come to church. It's a wonderful ministry to them, but for my daughter, I'd have to say differently.

    I have several reasons for this:

    1. She has a weakness for peer pressure. Nothing new, right?
    2. Most of the adults who work with the youth are public school parents. (Ironically, our youth pastor homeschools his son, but the daughters go to PS). There are several adults who help in youth, and they see us more as radical and overzealous parents. (That's okay with me.)
    3. There is a lot of unsupervised time at youth, pizza, pool, foosball, video games, and wandering around the church; then they have their lesson. I don't like unsupervised at all.

    To me, youth group isn't that much different than public school. Since we homeschool, why would I want to do that?

    There is one other family in our church that is very selective about what their children are involved in. They also have THE smartest, brightest, friendliest, and most talented kids and young adults in our church. One son is a successful med student, one is a gifted public speaker and entertainer, Eagle Scout, volunteer, and hard worker, and their daughter is a talented singer, musician, dancer, and artist. They all have wonderful personalities. And people STILL think their mom is weird.

    I am really glad you're posting on this. I look forward to more.

  10. Just linked to this from a friend's Facebook page. I am a youth pastor. I have been one for twenty years. I have been given Ken Hamm's book. I think it is biased from its beginnings in its findings. But I will not debate it. Here I want to address your conclusions about Youth Ministries. I have served in churches of all sizes. In my 20 years I have served in four churches. I have seen students benefit greatly from our ministries. I have seen life long Christians grow and blossom and become parents who are entrusting the Word into their families. I think it is short sighted to blame youth ministry for the decline in students. You continue to condescend by saying that you don't see the value of "bonding" in student ministry. I am giving you the benefit of the doubt that your lay youth pastors did not understand the blending of getting to know students and investing spiritually at the same time. Student ministry must meet spiritual needs. I know that we must agree on that. Still, your conclusion that youth ministry is the evil thing keeping students from knowing Jesus just misses the mark.
    I suppose that your husband is a poor pastor. How do I surmise this? Well your church is small. I wonder over the years how many adults have "walked away from the faith" or gone to another church in your ten years. I mean your entire thesis is based on where these kids are in ten years, right? I can say that in my last ministry, 85-90% of the teens who were involved actively in ministry in High School are full throttle in their relationship with Christ now. I know they would say their years in youth group contributed greatly to that.

    I don't know your husband so of course I won't speak to his abilities as a pastor. I just want you to think about how crazy these conclusions are. I am sure I have not changed your mind. I just can't continue to read stuff like this and stay silent. Youth ministry isn't the evil of the church. Pastors who are not equipping parents to lead their kids so that they see Christ lived out 24/7 is exactly where the problem lies. When adults in the church start really living the Christian life, THEN the change will come.

  11. J,

    I agree that the responsibility rests with the parents. That's sort of the main point of my post. Sorry if I failed to get that across. While youth group may be a positive thing in a person's life- I don't disagree- it's not the deciding factor. We are in agreement that parents need to be equipped and live-out their faith in front of their kids 24/7. Thank you for your comment.


  12. Thanks for the clarifications. I must say that the tone of the post is to throw the baby out with the bath water and that is where I take issue. In your assertation that parents take a role, you have made it sound like youth ministries in churches are a waste of time and I know that is simply wrong. I think quality youth ministries involve great activities that lead students to Christ. Sometimes that can (and does) start with (gulp) video games. Thank you for inspiriing conversation. I pray God blesses your ministry and grows your church. I pray that your husband will be the leader your congregation needs. Blessings on you and yours,.



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I'm an on-the-run mom to 6 kids who studied and taught exercise science in a previous life. I love all things running, nutrition, and health-related. I usually run at zero dark thirty in the morning and am often quite hungry before, during, and after my run, but I live a rich, full, blessed life with my children, family, and friends. My faith in God is my anchor, and looking to Him and His promises allows me to live fully even when life circumstances are difficult. While running gives me an appetite, my desire is to hunger and thirst for righteousness more than for physical food.