Friday, January 8, 2010

How to Save Youth from Church

I went to Wisconsin right before the New Year to go on a Youth Retreat as a supervisor for our Youth Group. There were many Youth Leaders, both paid and volunteer, with other adult volunteers there supervising their own Youth Groups. Our own group had 18 children, a bus driver, his wife, a youth leader, a parent of one of the children who is a school teacher, and myself, the senior pastor. I was the only one on staff, the rest were volunteer. That is six youth per supervisor (though there were two 18 year olds among the youth). I do not know if this follows the minimum guidelines for adults per youth, I do not know if this is a desirable ratio, but I do know that it is hard to get one on one time with that kind of ratio. I do know that if you have ever been a leader on a youth retreat the ratio of 1:1 hardly even seems sufficient at times. We live in a time of big numbers and big results. One pastor leading hundreds, maybe even thousands in the crusades of their church is what we call a success story. If leading one person to Christ is a good thing, then leading thousands is a great thing. If bringing people to church is a good thing, then bringing thousands would be a great thing. In the mean time we see many youth and young adults falling through the cracks. We create alluring programs to get youth connected to other youth, minimize commitment, maximize opportunity, and then wonder why they desert the church when it is time for them to become participating members of the church.

Families do not easily fall into the kinds of mistakes churches do. Having one child is a good thing, but unless you are the Duggars you do not think that having 18 must be a great thing. I am not questioning the Duggars’ parenting choices, I do not know them, but I am questioning the parenting choices of our church. We want to cram more and more youth into our churches without the necessary parenting available. We chastise and demonize Nadya Suleman (a.k.a. Octo Mom) for having more children than she can properly handle. Our churches want children and youth, but are not willing to parent them. We want more and more and we can hardly develop them to be healthy members of our church. We make up for our lack in parents with our excess in programs. However, programs are a poor substitute for spiritual parents. The goal in the church should not be how many youth the church can get, but how many spiritual parents can we pair up with our youth. If our goal is to be a healthy growing church, than growing our youth should be connected with growing our spiritual leaders to help lead the youth, and other new members of the church. We proclaim Jesus is about relationships, but we organize our churches to be about programs, and we wonder why so many fall through the cracks. Programs do not equal relationships. We don’t need directors, we need parents, we don’t need programs, we need families.

Churches often fail to establish the relationship necessary with their youth that families naturally make. When does a child become a member of the family? Is it when they turn 18? Is it when they make a verbal commitment, or a public address? In a healthy family (which for the most part I was fortunate to be a part of) a child becomes a member of the family at birth. I remember at a very young age having responsibilities. My responsibilities may have been small in the beginning, and perhaps I caused more harm than good in my attempts to be helpful, but nonetheless I was a participating member of my family. As I grew so did my responsibilities and my ability to actually become more and more helpful. The hope is that by the time I am 18 and go off to college, that I am a fully functioning adult. Sure there is still much to learn at 18. And the fulfillment of our responsibilities is not always graceful at that age, but we have the necessary tools to scrape by. In the church it seems that it is often all or nothing. We fail to bring the youth along in growing responsibilities of the church. We fail to teach them one on one the importance and joy of being a participating member of the church family. Therefore, when they turn and we expect them to be full participating members, they bail. It is not because they are lazy, but they have not been trained to be active members of the Body.

The solution? Better parenting. We need to ask ourselves are we ready to bring more children into the church and raise them up to be spiritual adults. We ask not, are we ready to invest not in thousands, but we need to ask are we ready to fully invest in a few, financially, personally, and spiritually? This is something that cannot simply be designated to the youth leader, or youth group session, but it must be a full commitment from the church, to grow disciples of Christ by joining with them on their journey to spiritual adulthood.


  1. I totally agree with you Ben, being a Children's Ministry major and worked with many children and families before, I see the need for more mentoring/relationships with the adults and children. My church is about 3,000 members, with a children's ministry of bout 300-500. Every year we have a hard time finding adults to teach the children and youth. Adults are willing to talk bout how the world is going so far away from God because of the children and youth these days, and yet they do not do anything to prevent it. My pastor has a saying, if you sit in the pew and soak, you sour, and eventually stink. I have seen lately that there are a lot of stinky people at my church who only help financially; yes the church needs the funds to do the programs, but as a soon-to-be children's minister I'd rather not have a big budget and have over flowing adults/families wanting to help out in my ministry. My prayer is that the adults will be the ones who feel an overwhelming burden to help out in the children and youth ministries all around the world. I have a lot of love in me to give, but I cannot reach every child in the world in one lifetime... as much as I want to do so.... Praying for you guys!! :)

  2. Unfortunately, the church will give you praise for the bigger number with less spiritual parenting. It seems that the task at hand is to raise up spiritual parents. This will take time and may not give quick results but will give the solid foundation that is often missing throughout the church.

  3. Thanks for the post Ben. This has long been a concern of mine as well. What should we do? I struggle with this daily. Up until very recently our number of youth was extremely low, but in the last few months we have increased significantly. My personal approach in the near future will focus more on teaching our youth to be good children (disciples)and have them take a more active role in serving God and others both in the church and in the community. We will first teach them how to love each other. The hope as we go on is that the other members of the family will see the need to take up their role in the family as well. We prayed for God to send us more young families and we have been blessed in receiving a lot more children without the families. Maybe God is trying to tell us something? Gary Lynch - Pastor @ Drexel Gardens Christian Church

  4. Lynsey, your analogy from your pastor is great. There is an old saying that says the church is a lot like Noah's Ark, the only reason we can handle the stink on the inside is because of the storm on the outside. But we cannot get too frusterated with our churches yet, I think our biggest failure in this area is our misbelief. Congregations have been mislead their understanding of the function of the church, therefore many do not fully realize or grasp the idea that success does not only mean numbers, but it means transformation. By the numbers Jesus' ministry was an utter failure. By his mission of growing mature disciples, it was a success. We must teach the church the right belief through the right means to get the right result. All this means is relationships.

  5. Don,
    Sometimes I think pastors are a lot like head coaches for the NFL, we are expected to win and to win now. Winning means growing at explosive rates, increasing giving, and having a fancy new building. However Christ gave the church the responsibility not just to win the game, but to change the game, to change lives. This takes more than one or two years. God's patience always outlasts our own.

  6. I got to hear the same things in Wisconsin as you and I agree that we as adults need to work with and teach the youth of our church. However, I think we need to take it further and let them also teach us. I think that the love they have for the Lord and for each other is something that we all need to re-learn. I think that if we set down with a young person and asked them questions about their faith we could re-learn what we as adults have forgotten and that is that God/Jesus loves us and that if we tell him our problems/joys that he will be here for us always. How awesome is that?