Youth ministry in the American church
is often diagnosed as an increasingly ill patient. Some are even
suggesting the patient is terminally ill.
Researchers and influential spokespeople report that a large
majority of young people drop out of church after high school and
rarely return. And they point out that the faith of Christian
teenagers lacks depth and theological integrity.
I too am concerned by what I see happening among our young
people. I’ve watched the spiritual trends ever since I founded
Group, the youth ministry magazine, in 1974.
Though many of the trends are troubling, I find some of the
pundits’ analyses of the causes and the cures to be rather
puzzling. Some say church youth ministry was weakened by the
attraction-oriented influence of the old parachurch organizations
such as Youth for Christ and Young Life.
Others propose that the real disease here is the entire genre of
a ministry specifically designed for teenagers. They say that
segregating teenagers for specialized ministry defies biblical
models of ministry. And that, they say, has led to spiritual
Others blame the media, consumerism, technology, youth ministry
books, training events, parents and senior pastors.
Some of these things may contribute to the exodus of the
church’s youth. But they’re not the primary culprits.
The real problem is much simpler. And it’s not a uniquely
teenage problem. While adolescents have been drifting away, the
same trend infects the American population at large. Adults too are
drifting away. The fastest growing religious affiliation among
adults is “none.”
So, why are our young people losing faith in the church and God?
It’s a relationship problem. They don’t think of Jesus as their
friend. He’s a concept or an historical figure. He’s an academic
subject that their churches teach. And once they graduate from
youth group, they forget about the Jesus subject-just as they
forget about their other high school subjects. Jesus gets left
behind with algebra and early American literature.
Ironically, many youth ministry analysts suggest that the cure
to the young’s exodus is . . . more academic religious knowledge.
They insist what’s really needed is “deeper study,” “stronger
biblical teaching,” and “more robust theology.”
Thorough Bible knowledge is a good thing. I’d like to see more
of it. My organization publishes Bibles and Bible resources. But
kids aren’t walking away from the church because they lack an
adequate accumulation of Bible facts.
They lack relationship. And relationships-of any kind-rarely
grow and bond primarily due to the accumulation of data.
Relationships-with people and with God-develop through
demonstrations of unconditional love, building of trust,
forgiveness, reliance, and tons of two-way communication.
Relationships built on these things endure. And grow. And
actually develop a craving to learn more.
Where do we begin? Any relationship begins with the simple
discovery that someone really exists, is real, is present, is truly
alive. It’s hard to fall in love with someone you don’t believe
exists. So, we can afford to spend more time showing the
present-day Jesus, rather than only teaching about the historical
Jesus. We can devote more time to hearing and encouraging peers who
tell how God acts and intervenes in their lives-today, each
We can provide more opportunities for the real present-day Jesus
to shine through genuine relationships with mature believers who
ooze the unconditional love of Christ.
We can plan more deep experiences, such as community service
opportunities, where kids can witness God’s love in action.
We can provide meaningful times of personal introspection,
conviction, and immersion in the miracle of God’s forgiveness.
We can devote more quiet time for kids to engage in personal
two-way communication with God.
In short, building a true and enduring relationship with Jesus
looks a lot like building a relationship with another person.
If we desire to see this generation of young people embrace
their faith and remain loyal to the Body of Christ, we must help
them become friends of God.