Why are our kids leaving the church?

7 02 2013

We don’t give them a reason to stay.

We’ve now seen numerous research clearly showing that when our kids leave high school a large number of them are leaving the Church. We have even had research asking them what they want or think they need in church. And now I am hearing if we change the way we worship, get bigger and more screens, newer music, better entertainment, speak their language, meet them in their culture, they will then stay around and not go seeking it somewhere else.

As we continue to pontificate why this is happening we should consider all possibilities. I will try to shed some light from where they are going. I was a campus minister for twelve years and still train and plant campus ministers and ministries. I am constantly exposed to the college-age level.

I regularly get phone calls from campus ministers and inevitable the discussion turns to: “How do I get my church kids to engage in our ministry?” They will go on to explain a very common problem of spoiled kids who will not show up for events, classes, retreats…etc. Regardless of the answer I give, the problem is the same as the problem of them leaving the church. These kids think Christianity is about them. Here are a few things that I feel is causing the problem. ( and there are other reasons as well.)

Most of our youth ministries operate from a model that is completely focused on the kids and their parents. What they like, want, feel and think. This has caused our youth ministries to be focused on two things: keep the kids entertained and keep them safe. Everything is focused on those two requirements. Our summer camps are for them, our classes are for them, and everything we do is for them. The only evangelism they ever see or hear about is either; Invite your friends or support our mission work in some foreign country. At best you will see the youth ministry travel somewhere to do some sort of service project. But even that is run through the filter of entertainment and safety. If they go and paint houses it will be about having fun and not about reaching people in the neighborhood and telling them why they painted the houses. You will not see them engaged in the fight over souls. How can that produce anything but selfish kids? And that is what it is producing.

Now before you get mad at the youth minister keep in mind that this is what he was trained to do. This is what our colleges taught him to do and it’s what he learned when he interned with a youth ministry over the summer, AND if he didn’t run it this way the parents would get mad and he would get fired.

The solution to the problem is to change the focus of youth ministry. Our kids need to learn that youth ministry is not about them. They need to learn about; dying to self, expanding the Kingdom, advancing on the enemy, becoming mighty warriors for Christ. They need to learn there is a mission that they have been called to that is bigger than the world has to offer, that their lives have purpose and meaning. That the God of all creation has called them into an epic battle that has eternal consequences.

For example; what would change about summer camp if in order to go you had to bring a friend who was not a part of your church? What would happen if you required your youth to bring a friend in order to go to events like Winterfest? What if we actually challenged our youth to be about the Lords mission?

But for all that to happen the parents also need to exemplify the same focus. Be about the same mission. Because the truth is, they are just as spoiled as their children. (And that is a discussion worth having in itself).

We cannot keep the saved, saved by focusing on them. We have tried that for almost 50 years and it is not working. All it is doing is making selfish, spoiled parents and children.

The second reason they are leaving has to do with a simple question; Where do they go? Most of our churches don’t have a ministry in their age bracket. Research shows that there are less than 130 active college-age ministries in the church of Christ in the United States. This is strange indeed when you consider the research that shows that about 85% of all conversions come from the 18-30 year old age bracket. So this shows that the average church not only has no ministry for their graduating kids to go to but that they also are not seeing their own church engaged in the battle.

The bottom line is that we are not giving our kids a reason to stay loyal to the church.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we do need to upgrade the way we worship in most of our churches. We do need to be more relevant to the culture we are in. But the reason we need to do these things is not to try to please our kids. That’s just self-gratification and that’s sick.

Simple put: We need to return to being the Church and that means being about His mission. When our churches engage in the battle and start fighting the hordes of hell for the souls of mankind…our kids will want to be all about that and will stick around to see what’s next.



10 responses

8 02 2013

Hey Lynn,
One thing I have learned over the last 10 years of ministering to 20s and 39s is that forming a new ministry just for them without inter generational connection can keep them around li get but may be extending the same problems we had in youth ministry. Balance is important. It is important to have belonging in order to stay but that belonging is too limited if it is solely connection to other 18-22 year olds or 20-39 year olds. So we reach up to the older and down to the younger to create relational bridges to make future transitions easier. We are also getting them to spend more time with older people/the larger church so we aren’t insulated, isolated and divided as a church.

Another thing to consider is that people in this stage of life are going through massive amounts of transition and they need peers in the same stage to share that with but also people who are on the other side of it to mentor and listen through those transitions (marriage, jobs, birth/parenthood/raising a child, etc). I am afraid churches haven’t been intentional in walking alongside these guys through all that tension because we don’t know them because they came through ministries isolated from the rest of the church. Doing this in my phone, hope it all makes sense.

8 02 2013

Thanks Matt, that’s good insight and yes they should not be isolated. Those college-age kids do not want to be isolated. They want and need the rest of the body. Sadly, many times they are isolated because some leadership is to afraid of them and force that isolation. But if they will open up they will find great value in those same kids being a major part of the family. They bring life.

8 02 2013

Ok, I’ll admit it… I kind of found myself getting uneasy, if you will, about the Youth Ministry section…and then I realized why: that the kind of youth minister I was…the kind of Campus Minister I was…and that relization just gave a “Holy Spirit aha” moment. As God has transitioned me into a preaching minister I have realized the damage I’ve done;we’ve all done. We took the incredible mission of God and turned it into the fantastical trip about me! We teach our kids to go from one spiritual high to the next like…and correct me if I’m wrong, but is that not spiritual prostitution? Isn’t it idolatry? Didn’t God chastise Israel for that? And now that I’ve gone from working with 12-29 year olds to 30 to 100 year olds I see the complete and total effects of spiritual equivalent to starvation and crystal meth. People who are not only unable to articulate the most basic information of Scripture, but who can’t even tell you why the Church exists in the first place. We treat people as if they have a data entry problem, but really, we need a heart transplant! On the plus side, I do know the Church is making incredivle strides in children’s ministry as well as youth and campus and I’m very encouraged by that! Thank you, Lynn for this post. Definitely an eye

8 02 2013

Good thoughts. Thanks for posting. Of course, a relationship with Christ will capture us and hold us for eternity. Perhaps we have made “Church” to social, maybe like club membership. Jesus made some definite statements about what happens when a person finds him (i.e. John 4:13-14; John 7:38). As I heard someone say, “If being born again didn’t do anything for you, you need to be born again!” (Yes, I do know that a person can fall away, but that is post conversion. I am talking about a person finding Christ and surrendering their life to him, and that is what is missing.)

8 02 2013

Thank you Scott for your honesty. I know some youth ministers will feel attacked but I actually admire the work they are committed to doing. My prayer is that they will think about what I said and see if they can change it. They are in a ripe field. I pray for them to reap the harvest.

8 02 2013
Nate Gill

For those that don’t kno me, I’ve grown up in the church since birth. I’ll be the first to say “churched” kids get a bad wrap for lack of commitment, passion and conviction. But in most cases it is true!
I’ve been a campus minister for 4 years now. I went through the teen ministry and graduated into a poorly lead campus ministry. Things weren’t being dealt with properly and it was full of spoiled entitled college students. Things are much different now and you wouldn’t recognize our group.
When I look back at my year in the teen ministry, there were definitely times when I had the “have to” mentality. But the reason I’m the man of God I am is because of the examples that were set before me. I watched passionate men of God stand up for what they believed in (even through the hardest of times). What I read in the bible wasn’t weird to me because I got to watch it truly lived out. It became something I wanted to do, and I knew I could do. It was possible!
Example was only half of it, I’ve had older men in my life to help me. They have encouraged me and challenged my pants off when I need it. They won’t let me get away with the junk in my life.
Those are some of the valuable things I remember. I’m sure there were some pretty awesome events, songs and fun stuff done, but that never left an lasting impact… It was real people living out what they said and caring enough to help me along the way.
I owe a lot to them (you kno who you are)

As for what I do with “churched” kids in the Campus Ministry… Or any kids for that matter. I feed the hungry. Those who want to be students are your biggest assets! If they want it, I don’t leave them starving to “throw my pearls to pigs”.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t ignore or throw them out. I love them just as much and I do invest time with them. But I am in no way going to entertain or sell them into being disciples. Christ didn’t… Neither will I.

Hope this helps in some way!
Love you all a ton! God is using us to grow and mature his Kingdom.

8 02 2013

BTW, When I wrote; “the research that shows that about 85% of all conversions come from the 18-30 year old age bracket” I was remembering an old claim that has been around for a few years. I have not been able to find any research that actually shows that number. However I do believe it to be in that range.

8 02 2013

As a youth minister, I can understand where you are coming from and would say that a few years ago your critiques of the ministry as a whole had merit. However, I believe a movement is coming and has taken hold in many youth ministries where we are not simply trying to entertain kids but inviting them to participate in the Kingdom of God. Consider that youth ministers today, are more educated (beyond just a bachelor degree) and they are not being taught games in their Master’s programs. They are being taught theology and the art of thinking and process the actions of God. Together we are dialoguing with students about what living in the Resurrection means for today’s world. So let us be careful lumping in youth ministry all together. It is more accurate to say that “in an effort to attract students to Jesus and the Church, we made some mistakes.” It is overly cynical and perhaps rather cliche to say that youth ministry is meant to keep kids entertained. So as a youth minister, give us a little time to see how our new efforts will change the course of the Church.

Secondly, I believe you need to broaden your scope in regards to the family. You just mentioned parents. But what about Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, members of the Church who are blood of Christ related? The American family system is far too enclosed and individualistic, as a result we have created a love for little closed blood based clans that all happen to worship in the same room. We are not comfortable providing accountability to families when parents make mistakes (as is so often the case). We do not provide systems for families to be surrounded by others in the church to be supported. So before we lump the two problems together of youth ministry and parents as the singular source of “why students are leaving the church” let me say that this issue is more complex than you have allowed.

Students in today’s culture think differently than they did even 15 years ago. They process information differently, they learn in different ways. For example, many youth ministries have tried to get kids to memorize Scripture. However, in a world of the internet, Wikipedia and the like, students don’t need to memorize anything. Information is stored for them. Rather we need to begin to embrace the idea of teaching students the art of interpretation. We need to speak into their culture the truth of the Kingdoms but do so in a way where they can actually hear and understand the message. And even then, adolescents are natural chameleons, they know how to blend in to a given situation, they know how to live up to the expectations given them without ever actually being transformed. As we all know just because a student is active and faithful (in the good things of a ministry) doesn’t mean they’re transformed necessarily. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are really connecting for the long term.

Secondly, you raise the point that people are saying “I want things my way” and this is somehow an example of them being self-centered and they were raised this way. This has a few problems to it. For one, there is nothing inherently selfish about wanting to find forms of expression that actually are true to the person. Students (like all humans) are looking for meaning in their life. Sometimes, the old forms of expression (the songs, the style) are not true to who the person is now. It is someone else’s way. Wanting to be able to actually mean what one sings or does is healthy. Besides, for every teen that says “I want my music” there is an older member who says “We’re keeping our music.” And perhaps this goes to the heart of a huge issue that has plagued churches for a while: adolescents are viewed as second class citizens or Christians in training. This is disguised under the veil of “these young people are the church of tomorrow and we want to support them.” Except these young people are actually the Church of today because they have joined into the body of Christ. They are not loyal to the church because, frankly, the Church isn’t really loyal to them.

Third, your example for a solution still misses the mark. “Not letting students go to a camp unless they bring a friend” Aside from the financial burden this would create on smaller youth ministries, your solution is still ground in a programmatic model of youth ministry. The true problem of youth ministries in the past is that we stopped connecting together as people and started “doing church for teens” which was way more exciting than “doing church for adults.” “Doing church in any age group is missing the mark. Let us instead say a solution would be for adults to start investing in the lives of the students of their church (and before we retort, students should start investing in adults, let me say adults need to first model because…they’re adults. When adults invest in students, students invest in them). Not as teachers or trip chaperones but simply as fellow human beings. I think you’ll agree with me (I think we’re saying the same thing here actually) that we’ve turned the different age groups, across the board into age segregated marketing goals. We have the old persons ministry, the young persons ministry, the singles ministry and so forth an so on. The ages never interact, wisdom is never shared. We need to find a balance where ages, who think similarly can interact with their own ages as well as finding ways to blend the ages so that people can start seeing each other as people again.

Fourth (and this is my last point…sorry for the length, I just love talking youth ministry), I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that the Church needs to just be the church again but I am concerned for how that has often been translated and expressed. When we say we’re about “saving souls” that too quickly turns into “door knocking campaigns” and “bible studies at the church” and big pushes for people to be at the Church more often. Frankly, we don’t return to “being the Church” we always are the Church…we just need to improve how we are the church…that’s probably me being nit-picky on semantics and if so I apologize. And as a member of the Churches of Christ, we need to get over many of our non-denominational denominational hangs ups because most of them aren’t as important as we’ve made them out to be.

Ultimately, across the board we need to rediscover God’s movements in this world and we need to all work together (young and old) to participate in His actions until He finally returns to restore this fallen creation we have before us. Thanks for posting and I look forward to further conversations…again, sorry for the length.

8 02 2013

Thanks Shamgar, there is way to much in what you wrote to address for an ADD mind like mine…LOL

You seem to feel I was suggesting that all youth ministries are spoling our kids. That would not be true. I know of many that have turned the corner you have mentioned and are doing a great job. I was giving information on what “most” seem to do doing based on what is showing up in our campus ministries and why the ones that are leaving are leaving.

You also seem to feel that I was attacking youth ministers. I was not and I think if you will re-read what I wrote you will see that I actually have respect for the men and women that take on that hard job.

I will take issue with us “being the Church”. For the most part we are missing the mark. We are shrinking and I firmly believe to be the Church we must return to being about His mission. And BTW, I am NOT talking about door-knocking and Bible studies. I am talking about building relationships with people outside the church and in time guiding them to Jesus through actions and words.

But, again…thank you for your input. It’s worth pondering…LOL

12 02 2013

Hi there, I read your blog like every week. Your humoristic
style is awesome, keep doing what you’re doing!

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