To read books on youth ministry these days, it is hard not to get the sense that this experiment we call youth ministry in the local church has failed. This perspective is not shocking or new. Mike Yaconelli, founder of Youth Specialties, stated this rather boldly in Youthworker Journal in 2003. According to Lifeway Research, 70 percent of young people will drop out of church after high school, and only 35 percent will return to regular attendance. Christian Smith’s National Study of Youth and Religion found that most American teenagers have a positive view of religion but otherwise do not give it much thought. Kenda Creasy Dean, in her book Almost Christian, asserts, “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.” This result is far from the intention of most youth ministries. Smith describes the religious outlook of teenagers as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a far cry from the gospel of Jesus.
To get an idea of where we have come from, let’s turn back the clock more than a half century. Space here only allows the broadest overview, so bear with the generalizations. Back in the 1940s, Jim Rayburn began a ministry to reach teens at the local high school, which became Young Life (YL). Their mission—to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in their faith—remains to this day. The strategy was and is for caring adults to build genuine friendships with teens and earn the right to be heard with their young friends. At the same time, Youth for Christ (YFC), was holding large rallies in Canada, England, and the United States. YFC also quickly organized a national movement that turned to Bible clubs in the late 50s and 60s, shifting the focus from rallies that emphasized proclamation evangelism to relevant, relational evangelism to unchurched youth.
By the early 70s, churches began to realize the need for specialized ministries to teenagers and began hiring youth pastors. Some of these were former staff members from YL and YFC. With this the church imported the relational strategy of the parachurch movement. During the 70s, youth pastors seeking to reach large numbers of youth for the gospel began to employ a more attractional model. Gatherings with food and live music could draw enormous crowds. Churches found that large, vibrant youth groups drew more families to the church, and, therefore, encouraged more attraction-oriented programs. Later in the decade, this writer watched leaders swallowing live goldfish in both the church youth group and local Young Life club when we brought enough friends to reach an attendance target.
By the 80s the emergence of MTV and a media-driven generation meant church youth ministry became more entertainment-driven than ever. Youth pastors felt the need to feature live bands, video production, and elaborate sound and lighting in order to reach this audience. No longer could a pile of burgers or pizzas draw a crowd. By the end of the decade the youth group meeting was being creatively inspired by MTV and game shows on Nickelodeon. The message had been simplified and shortened to fit the entertainment-saturated youth culture. By the start of the 21st century, we discovered many youth were no longer interested in the show that we put on or the oversimplified message. Christianity was no different from the world around them. Some youth ministries intensified their effort combining massive hype with strong messages that inspired youth but did not translate to everyday life. We realized we were faced with a generation whose faith was unsustainable.
What happened in all that? First, we moved from parachurch to church-based ministry (though the parachurch continues). In doing so, we segregated youth from the rest of the congregation. Students in many churches no longer engaged with “adult” church and had no place to go once they graduated from high school. They did not benefit from intergenerational relationships but instead were relegated to the youth room.
Second, we incorporated an attractional model that morphed into entertainment-driven ministry. In doing that we bought into the fallacy of “edu-tainment” as a legitimate means of communicating the gospel. Obscuring the gospel has communicated that we have to dress up Jesus to make him cool.
Third, we lost sight of the Great Commission, deciding instead to make converts of many and disciples of few. We concluded that strong biblical teaching and helping students embrace a robust theology was boring (or only relevant to the exceptionally keen) and proverbially shot ourselves in the foot.
Fourth, we created a consumer mentality amongst a generation that did not expect to be challenged at church in ways similar to what they face at school or on sports teams. The frightening truth is that youth ministry books and training events were teaching us to do the exact methods that have failed us. The major shapers of youth ministry nationally were teaching us the latest games and selling us big events with the assumption that we would work some content in there somewhere. In the midst of all this, church leaders and parents came to expect that successful youth ministry is primarily about having fun and attracting large crowds. Those youth pastors in recent decades who were determined to put the Bible at the center of their work faced an uphill battle not only against the prevailing youth culture but against the leadership of the church as well.
The task before us is enormous. We need to change the way we pass the faith to the next generation. Believing in the sufficiency of Scripture, we must turn to the Bible to teach us how to do ministry (rather than just what to teach). Students need gospel-centered ministries grounded in the Word of God.