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?
- 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.