Did Youth Ministry Kill the Church?

Before I start into this I better say, ‘I know nothing can kill the Church.’  However, we certainly can do some things which make it harder for local faith communities to exist long term.

Recently, I have been doing seminars about helping churches transition their young adults into the regular church body.  The common belief, or expectation, is that after college or starting work that those in the twenties don’t return to the church. There seem to be a lot of overwhelming statistics that seem to back this up.

Lets look at this from a different perspective. When were these young adults part of the church to begin with? When they were young (if they attended church) the majority of their church experience would have been in Sunday School and Children’s Services. When they got old enough they moved onto Jr High and then Sr High. In many settings the only part of a ‘regular’ church setting they ever took part in was a song service until they went to their own age appropriate class. Then if they are still coming to youth group we send them to our young adult groups as they grow older.

All of these segmented parts have kept them from interacting and connecting with this ‘regular’ Church. The majority of ministry involvement youth have is within the context of their own group also.  They have their own missions trips, their own outreaches, their own ways to bless others.  Is any of this bad? Not at all. In fact, much of this is needed. There are issues that are age centered and need to be addressed.  I am not sure the eighty year old in a church needs to hear the sex talk for junior highs.

The question I keep getting asked is, ‘how do we keep our young adults in our church?’ and to some my response is the question, ‘were they ever a part?’  The fact that we have removed them from the ‘church’ could be a huge factor in what is now happening.  Consider this, in the last decades there has been more age appropriate ministry then ever before in history.  In this decade we have less young adults in many denominations than ever, and the retention stats are depressingly low in some circles.

The truth is we may be facing the results of successful youth ministry.  We have removed an age out of the church for a period of time, given them close community, given them discipleship, let them ask the hard questions, loved them unconditionally, and made them aware that they need to live out their faith.  We involve them in ministry, send them on mission trips, teach them about the Bible, and spend an incredible amount of time investing into them personally.  We have taught them that this is what Church is all about.  Living it out.

The only problem is that the church model they have been taught about is not the church model that many are trying to get them to transition to.  In fact for most they don’t even understand how they can live out what they have learned in a ‘regular’ church setting. Is one right and one wrong?  Perhaps, but likely just different.  It is almost like we have churches in churches, and it is awkward and painful at times to go to a new church.  Even many of those leading these sub-churches don’t want to be part of the ‘regular’ church.  Go ask some youth and young adult pastors about this in secret. Even most of them don’t want to be there.  Sadly, if they don’t neither will those they lead.

Is there an easy solution?  Not at all.  I think it is a combination of a lot of things but there are some practical things we can do.  As an example, the next time your youth ministry is going to help at a soup kitchen, why not get each youth to bring a parent or guardian.  We must move to some of the reasons at the core of this and realize parents must be involved (when possible) with the spiritual formation of their children.  Truly successful youth and church ministry must focus on the family and be inter-generational.  So instead of asking why did they leave, ask how do we stop excluding them.

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