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Is youth ministry killing the church?

After having worked for several years as a youth pastor, I recently accepted a call to be an interim solo pastor. One weekend, Sara, a beloved saint of the church, died after a long battle with Alzheimer's. On Sunday morning I was standing in the choir room discussing plans for the funeral when Jonathan—a high school sophomore—walked in. “Deanne,” he said to the music director, “I heard about Sara, and I thought you might need me to take Libba's spot in the bell choir this morning.” She gratefully accepted his offer and excused herself from our conversation to review the music with him.

It was a pretty mundane exchange, but I was blown away. It's remarkable enough to see a 16-year-old boy drive himself to church early to join a bell choir comprised of adults in their 50s and 60s. But even more intriguing was Jonathan's perceptiveness. Not only did he know that Libba was Sara’s daughter, but life in the church had taught him to anticipate congregational needs. He knew that Libba played with the bell choir, and he realized she probably couldn't play that morning. Unprompted—I checked with his parents—he offered to fill in.

This couldn't have happened at any of my previous churches—though it's not Jonathan's faith that's of a rare caliber. It's his connection to the congregation.

I've always met young Christians through youth programs. I've been hired by churches so committed to the discipleship of their young people that they've dedicated resources to creating specialized curriculae and activities. These churches expect regular events that are created exclusively to minister to young people.

But I wonder now if we're ministering them right out of the church. Unlike Jonathan, the kids I've previously pastored never sat around a table with adults at church-wide fellowship events—they had their own program options. They've never worked side by side with other members to put on a neighborhood vacation Bible school—they were off on their own mission trips.

When the youth were asked to contribute to the larger church, it was usually through manual labor, the only thing we thought they were capable of doing. Yes, we may have let them plan and lead one worship service a year, but we never dreamed of asking any of them to sit on the worship committee or serve as a regular worship leader. The message was that the church existed to serve them, not the other way around.

Kenda Creasy Dean and others warn that when our children and youth ministries ghettoize young people, we run the risk of losing them after high school graduation. I saw evidence of this in Jonathan. Over the years I've worked with young people as passionate and serious about their faith as Jonathan is. I think I've done youth ministry with integrity.

But I may have been unintentionally disconnecting kids from the larger body of Christ. The young people at my current congregation—a church that many families would never join because “it doesn't have anything for youth”—are far more likely to remain connected to the faith and become active church members as adults, because that's what they already are and always have been.

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Youth don't want to show up.

We invite our Youth to be a part of everything, including committees and everything that happens but they don't show up. They don't even show up for youth group. We have one who does and he tries to invite his friends and they tell him "I was taught that church is only for special occasions and so I don't want to go"
What do we do with this? We used to have a huge youth group but over the last year we had all seniors and 1 8th grader and the seniors never attempted to invite friends but the 8th grader (now a freshman) is doing his best. Any suggestions on what to do. My father has been in ministry 45 years and this is the first this has every happened at one of his churches so we are at a lost of what to do. We've been here for almost 20 years at this church and this is the first year we've had this issue. Any thoughts on what to do? Feel free to email me with suggestions as well

"It's his connection to the congregation."

This is the point. We too often play with kids and work with adults. The kids I meet need work; that is, they need a sense of belonging and being needed. Taking kids bowling is fun and it helps with group cohesion, but it doesn’t help church “body" cohesion.

Is youth ministry killing the church?

in my country it is the craze to start youth services . i agree with you that the disconnect created is too much and the church in kenya should be careful

There's an excellent

There's an excellent documentary on this very topic titled 'Divided.'  Youth pastors across the country are interviewed and asked to give their thoughts on the effectiveness of youth ministry long-term . A must-see for everyone in church ministry, as well as church-goers. 

Resource to get kids involved starting young

Starting at a young age, we can get kids involved in our church services. Kids these days need the chance to practice their faith and the behaviours associated with worship - listening, reverance, community effort. Then, when they grow, they will know what it really means to be part of a church community. So, check this curriculum out for a monthly apprenticeship Sunday. Starting at a young age, get the kids completely completely involved in the church service once a month. http://www.anglican.ca/churchmice/

 I completely disagree. This

 I completely disagree. This article is basically saying that you can't be saved if you are involved in a youth group. In order for the church to grow we need a strong foundation. That foundation starts with young people (children and youth). In working with youth for several years, I have seen families come to church that never would have had a youth not invited their child. (Those people eventually gave their lives to Christ.) So, without a youth group those people would've never been saved.

The article mentioned people not joining a church because it didn't have a youth group. If you are intentionally not doing something that is attractive to younger people in church (like a youth group), you are saying to those people "we don't want you here (we don't want you in our church)". 

Statistics show that over the past many the number of young people in the church has been declining. So what happens when the 0-25 year olds are older? We didn't do anything when they were young to get them involved in church, so why are they going to go when they are older? They won't. Without doing things for young people (youth and children) you are potentially closing the doors on opportunities for them to become saved.

It would also help if we

It would also help if we didn't refuse to allow our teens to serve when they want to, or force them to serve where they have no training or gifting.   I have seen this a lot of times--here are a couple of examples:

1.  My niece wanted to help in kids' Sunday school when she was around 12yo.  They did not allow her to do it for several years.   Later, when they were desperate for teen helpers who were a little older, she had found other outlets for her gifts (which did include teaching kids), and she wasn't interested in Sunday school any more.  

2.   My own daughter, in 4th and 5th grades, was required to help teach memory verses to a group of 1st graders who had no desire to do so.  She had no training and not much help, and has concluded that she is "no good" with kids.   Now that she is a little older, she could learn to do this.  I would not be suprised if she does turn out to have a teaching gift, but she also has no interest in kids any more.  

3.   A friend of mine has an older teen who has volunteered for several years doing things like stacking chairs after the service.   His younger teen brother also just started doing it.  However, their church just abruptly ruled that only adults are now allowed to volunteer.  

It breaks my heart that willing teens are turned away from jobs they would like to do, because they are "not old enough," or pushed into a one-sized box of what they are "supposed" to do, and then later we cry that they don't feel connected to the church, or that they don't serve.   I think most would serve, if there were opportunities to do so.

When my mom died while I was

When my mom died while I was in high school, I had no one else to go to church with.  So I continued to attend, and even sit in the pews by myself.  This was not because my large youth group or role model of a youth leader: that year, we had none of this in our congregation, just the youth and our parents trying to help us lead our own events we cared about.  And the result was astounding. I no longer had to skip youth group to be a part of the worship team.  I no longer had to leave early in order to help usher.  All of the ways of participating in the church were now available to me because I was not put into my own events.  That is the reason I stayed connected to the church and that is a huge part of my understanding of what congregational ministry, support and connection can be for youth.  Amen to this article and a thousand more who can say no more ageism, and stop with the exile of youth.

We need to spot the REAL problem and not blame youth ministry...

Interesting. I have seen documentaries on this matter as well. I definitely agree that the youth should be integrated into the wider church, and heck, I also believe that parents abuse youth ministry and believe that it can serve as a replacement for their role as spiritual mentors. But the author ignores the deeper problem, which is that we live in a broken world where many parents WANT to pawn that responsibility off elsewhere AND many students have broken relationships with their parents. Thus, we can't just believe that it will all work out if we simply throw everyone into the mix together without a major spiritual/attitude change. The author notes that we are losing students from the church once they leave youth min, but without a venue for these particular students, you'll lose them from the church at a much earlier age. For example, knowing the way my generation of Korean Americans grew up and how many of us had broken relationships with our parents at a young age due to cultural barriers, we needed a youth ministry to grow or else we would have simply rebelled from our parent congregation (Many of us did in the long run anyway). Instead of labeling youth min. as the problem, I think the REAL problem is that parents need to embrace their role as spiritual mentors. If the parents in the church do their jobs, then I believe things should pan out along with these author's ideals, and yes, in theory we wouldn't need a youth ministry. But fact is, in practical terms, most churches are far from there.

Youth Ministry is not killing the church - youth segregation is

Some might find this helpful as it hits the same issue.  Two churches are briefly contrasted here.


Youth Ministry

As a youth ministry and children's minister for almost 40 years, I can see this conundrum very well.  I came into the Church at age 16... no youth group was available.  I simply attended Church, an Episcopal Church where my best friend also attended.  I sang in the choir, I attended bible studies and went on retreats with the ladies of the parish.  There was not even a seperate Sunday School.  The church was too small for that.  What I learned, I learned along with everyone else.  BUt what drew me in and sealed the deal was the love and acceptance with which I was treated.  I went on to join a Religious Community and have since worked for parishes and dioceses and even on a national church level.  Youth have always been near and dear to my heart, and I have always felt that they belong in the church with everyone else as well as having their own time for activity, just as adults do and children do... but the main focus needs to be on everyone worshipping and fellowshiping together.  Teens need to be on the governing boards of churches and also representative on the wider denominational bodies.  The youth are no the Church of Tomorrow... but the Church of Now!

Not always the case

I think Ms. Murphy makes valid observations, but I don't think this is always or needs to be the case. Our small church of ~200 or so members has a very active youth program, but this program is incorporated into the daily life of the church. Our youth have fellowshipped with other church members of all ages.

The adult and youth ministries are mutally supportive of each other. For example, during the 2 weeks our church houses a homeless program, the youth support the adults by providing a pancake dinner one night and helping with many of the tasks this undertaking requires. In the summer, the youth run a workcamp that involves the help of the entire church. Young and old work side by side fixing homes or volunteering at food pantries. There's a youth praise band and youth that are regularly incorporated into worship, and there are many adult mentors that work with the youth throughout the year. I think because of this close relationship, we do have many youth returning after graduation and a congregation that excitedly welcomes them back. 

I feel the detachment of the youth from the main congregation is really dependent on the attitude of the church, church staff, and the congregation, as well as possibly church size. I think Ms. Murphy's observations are useful for evaluating your church programs and making long term changes to develop relationships, because it does take a church "village" to help raise up our young people.

Been there and done that.

Been there and done that. It's beautiful for about 3 kids. The rest feel like lepers who don't belong and aren't wanted unless they sit quietly and let the adults have church. Doesn't that sound thrilling??  

Anyone who's sat in a building committee meeting hearing how much the youth are gonna love the beige walls, brown carpet and nifty accordion/collapsing walls in the new Youth space/multi use Room they are building and allowing the youthTo meet in for 47 minutes a week as long as they clean up after themselves for a good hour and a half afterwards, understands that there's a reason we have the youth programs/centers of today. They were fought for with lots of blood, sweat, tears and ministry careers of tons of youth ministers who gave up the battle and went on to other things. Raising the percentage of kids who stay in church after youth group doesn't have the value it would seem when you're comparing 17 deacons kids to several Hundred kids who wouldn't darken the door of first downtown traditional baptodistianism church of the really boring saint of irrelevance. There is work to be done here and some valid points, but as for me and my house (and 7 kids 3 of whom are thriving in thier 'ghetto youth groups' and 4 of whom aren't far behind) give us youth buildings/programs or give us home church!!!! And I'm not going there. 

The bottom line is that the adults don't want kids included in thier churches anymore then they want them in thier garden clubs or rotary clubs..... And the adults pay the bills and hire the pastors. 

But I'm not the least it bitter!!' Lol. 

I think you're speaking from

I think you're speaking from a very idealistic standpoint. I am a Youth Pastor at my church, and in THEORY what you are saying is correct. However, in practice, it would not be an effective form of evangelism to mix youth in with the adults because of the vast cultural and generational differences. Whether we agree or not, there is always a bias when the adults look at the youth (which is understandable because they raise kids of their own), and it is very difficult to allow students to realize their potential in that type of environment. I believe you are right in that we should teach the students to serve and not be spoonfed, and in an ideal world we would do it all as one big congregation, but in practice I think we should also recognize the parameters that we are dealt with and use Youth Ministry to teach them these things.


Amen anonymous!!! You know

Amen anonymous!!! You know why he's anonomous? He's afraid his pastor or deacons might read this and then he'd have to spend a lot of time explaining himself to people who have no desire to understand but have total authority over him. 

The word "ghetto" struck me.

The word "ghetto" struck me. Another negative word that comes to mind is "gang". Both groups come from a separation from the rest of society that is not good. We need each other. Adults need youth, and youth need adults to grow and mature to be more like Christ. I do think that happens, unintentionally disconnecting kids from the larger body of Christ. In our church we have to fill-out an application to be a youth leader, to participate with youth on Wednesday night. That's fine, but it also highlights the separation between the youth group and the church as a whole. I wish it were different. I would like to help change that dynamic at my own church.

No youth ministry, thanks

I attend a small church where my sons are the only two teens attending.  I specifically am glad that there is no youth group or youth SS because I want them to interact and minister with mature Christians, not be concentrated with others just like themselves in age and maturity.  Echoing a comment above, I think the family has the primary responsibility in seeing to it the children are brought up as Christians.  There is a school of thought that says that the whole youth-ministry thing was a way to let parents avoid hands-on responsibility in being involved in spiritual formation, with not so good results, and I tend to agree.  Of course individual cases will vary.

I bet tons of people agree

I bet tons of people agree with you completely. I also bet 95% of them are homeschoolers. 

good stuff...

Thank you so much for this post. More people need to see this and be aware of it. We homeschool so for us it's easier to see how detrimental it is to the family who segregates their children by age.

It may be bigger than Youth Ministry

I am also one of those immature youth workers - 45 yrs old :) I've been in youth ministry for 25 years. My calling and passion was and is too share and teach teenagers through word and action the Message of God's word. I hope and pray that I am being faithful to that calling. I have used every tool at my disposal to plant the seeds of the Gospel into the minds of those that God has so graciously has allowed me to minister. Throughout my career, I have or have attempted to involve the youth into the overall life of the church: pray during services, sing solos, play handbells, missions, vacation bible school, fall festivals, and a host of other church wide events, including the once a year youth service. In my current church it has been fairly successful. But it's not always easy to do. We keep trying, right?

In some cases, it might be true that we are "ministering kids out of the church through segregated ministry." That could be said of any other segregated ministry in the church (see list below). But, I don't know of any youth ministers who are discouraging kid's from participating in the life of the church. We encourage them to go to worship services and participate in church wide events. We integrate as much as we are allowed too.

Put simply, I was hired to minister to youth. Why? Because that's what churches and adults (not all) want. "We need somebody to do something with those kids." Some have great intentions. They want someone to speak their "lingo" and to truly minister to them on "their" level, while others just want to be able to worship and study the Bible without having to say, "stop that" or "be quiet" a thousand times. I'm a parent. I can relate. Some churches want their youth to be seen and not heard, okay maybe once a year:) Every other ministry in the church is just as segregated as youth ministry. Every age group has their thing: Young Adults, Married Adults, Parents, Older Adults, Children, Choir, etc... It's okay for the adults, but not for the youth. Why do we do that? Everyone is at different levels of development. When we educate, we don't put 1st graders in the same class as college students. Do we need to put everyone into a room together for service? Wait, we already do that. What about the kids that don't want to be there? Grin and bear it? You'll thank me later.

In a perfect church: Youth and Children worship joyfully along with their parents; Adults from 18-100 (years of age) mentor and volunteer their time with kids; Sermons would challenge every age equally; Style of worship, traditional or contemporary, don't matter; Teenagers are included in the decision making of the church; People young and old eat together, play together, work together, and worship together; "dogs and cats living together - mass hysteria". (Sorry I couldn't help myself) :)

In most cases, decision making in the church is relegated to a small number of adults. Some of which like things the way they are or were. Allowing teenagers to make major decisions in the church would be rare at best. My teenagers have a lot to say about church, but not many are willing to listen or act on those thoughts or ideas. Youth and Children don't have much of a voice. I guess you might say that I and other youth workers, paid or volunteer, are that voice, advocates you might say. We try to convey this message to the rest of the church; some listen, some don't. We regularly make appeals for adults to come and immerse themselves in the lives of our students. But we only have a handful of adults who are willing to spend time with them (Thank God for them). I'm not seeing this great movement of adults that are chomping at the bit to integrate with youth. Some are terrified of teenagers. I've also had parents tell me that it was my job to get their kids interested in church. I wished I had that power. Maybe I could become a Jedi; mind tricks, yeah that's the ticket.

I wished there was a perfect solution. I wished we could find that missing piece to the puzzle. So far no one has found it, although some have claimed too. Or maybe we missed it? How does God measure successful ministry? If it's numbers, then Jesus would have failed. He even discouraged people from following Him because they weren't doing it for the right reasons. Matthew 7:14 says "But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it." I don't think our modern church leaders would have found that very optimistic. How's that for a Missions Statement? Success? Church? Are we on the NASDAQ? Sure, there are plenty of books on the subject. There are plenty of folks that have a recipe for church success. Believe me, I've read them. Traditional didn't work so we decided to get hip. Well, that's not working. What's the next trend? What's the next big thing? We have become a society so fixated on success, and by success I mean numbers, that we have lost sight of, well, most everything. (Read Tony Campolo's "Adventures in missing the point") It's about God and God alone. But we think it's about entertainment and marketing. What was Jesus Marketing Strategy? Did He have a plan for getting more butts in the seats? Is the church a marketable enterprise? "Give everything that you own away, including your life, expect nothing in return. Love your neighbor, even if he hates and persecutes you. The world will hate you because of me" It's a tough sell if you think of it in business terms, especially in a "me first-consumer-entertainment" driven society.

Our society and culture loves to point fingers. We want to find a place or person to pin blame. The Coach didn't win the National Championship in three years. We better find a new one. We want "a fix" and we want it yesterday.

Is youth ministry singularly to blame for the decline of the modern church? Is it killing Jesus' bride? Have we contributed to it's demise? I hope not. I pray that 25 years of my life have not been a massive waist of time, and led to the downfall of the church. I think it's much bigger than that. We are in yet another stage in the life of the Church. The church has been around for roughly 2,000 years, youth ministry has been around for maybe 60. Matthew 16:18 says, "Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’),* and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell* will not conquer it. If hell can't do it, I doubt youth ministry has much of chance. Plus, I doubt if corporate America would have chosen Peter as their "rock-CEO". But the church seems to think corporate America has all the answers.

I'm sure that there have been other church declines throughout it's history. What did we blame it on then? Romans, Heretics, Corruption, etc... We have all had a hand in making the church what it is today, me included. We have become so judgmental and stuck in our own ways that we have alienated most of our culture, especially the younger generations (12-20 somethings). We have lost touch, credibility, and compassion. It's going to take a long time to get that back. (Somebody needs to talk to the PR department :) There are plenty of resources and research to support that. We like to say the words of Jesus, but we're not so great at doing and being them.

There are some churches around that get it and are working hard to be what God has called them to be. I hope we're one of them. There is whole lot wrong with the church. But to say that "Youth Ministry is killing the church", may be a shot in the dark. If it weren't for Youth Ministry, Young Life, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth for Christ, and a host of other para-church ministries; there would be a large number of teenagers that wouldn't even set foot in a church or hear the gospel.

I believe the church will continue to be in decline. In the United States, the pendulum has swung in a new direction, I think God has found greener pastures around the world for His church right now. It happened to the church in Europe. Why do we not think it would happen to us? But I don't look at it as a bad thing. Fortunately, God is hard at work. He is purifying and pruning his church and me. There is no telling what it will look like in the US 20 years from now, or if youth ministry will still be around. I just hope it is for about 15 more years. I kinda like teenagers, the church, and what I'm called to do, weird huh :)

youth/student ministry

I am a youth slash student pastor whatever you want to call it to fit our culture and make youth slash students feel comfortable. The new testament local church never knew of anything of youth ministry because the bible never speaks to it because its always in the context of parents having the primary job of raising the children. I have been to our mainstream youth conferences, workshops and they all say the same thing "the local church youth ministry has the primary task of training adolescents to become disciples of Jesus Christ" no where is that found in the scripture. Fathers raise their children Ephesians teaches not the "youth/student pastor. We are not talking about the order of a service or what we should wear to church on Sunday, we are talking about the family which God ordained before the church. We do not have the right to create something God does not even give us a principal about. Fathers are the key to reaching the youth God gave them the responsibility and that is clear in scripture. God help us to believe that He is enough and what He has in scripture is enough (plus nothing minus nothing). When you answer a question or ask a question concerning this topic ask yourself this: "Do I have a cultural answer or a Biblical answer".

Great points!! So the parents

Great points!! So the parents need to be more involved in the youth group. No question. But dumbing down youth programs and waiting for the dad's to step up wouldn't provide great results. You also don't seem to account for the masses of kids who come to these programs with friends because their families don't go to church. 

almost right

I think the article is refreshing, but limited. It does not take in several variables of the problem and makes itself a straw man.

One factor, is the gap in time. We don't expect 5th graders to have the maturity of 12th graders. But I know one or two who actually could do pretty well! So to assume that it is a failure if a high school person isn't interested in largely adult ministries in the church is weak premise.

Another factor is that methods over people. I run a ministry similar to the "inadaquate" youth ministry in the article, and yet we had two students who are chalice bearers and one middle school who reads the scripture in our Sunday services. So, I think it is less that I am creating a ghetto, and more that I am looking for people who shine.

Also, the big vs small church animosity is hidden in here. Sadly, my mother's small church just lost a family because they did not have good ways to involve the youth. How much do you expect from a small church pastor? This article is written from a pastor's point of view who was experienced in youth ministry and could recognize the needs. That is a rare quality.

Press on! Challenge the boxes we put ourselves in! But be careful not to take one example and throw out an entire ministry with it!

Youth and the larger ministry

I would respectfully respond, in regard to the youth, that it is a good thing to have a program specifically for the kids. It does not preclude involvement in the larger church ministry. But kids lives are transformed, and influenced forever, by ministries that focus on their unique needs, likes, dislikes, and interests. Adults have a funny way of "controlling things", and allowing the youth only as much involvement as the adults permit. I've been a pastor for 37 years. And the youth program has always been only a positive thing in all the churches I've served.

Anthea said... As a Youth

Anthea said...

As a Youth Worker and a mum of two beautiful children I am constantly amazed at the potential of youth. We forget that the Word stated that once we have become believers, young or old, we become brothers and sisters in Christ. The same Holy Spirit in a 50yr old is in a 3yr old.

I would like to encourage people to start thinking out of the box... children have an ability to bring God's Word if we would just let them.

My son at 5yrs old was eating mash potato and gravy one night. During the meal he boldly stated that his meal reminded him of Jesus... "the gravy mommy is our sin but when we eat the gravy the potato is white again... just like when Jesus comes and lives in our hearts!" That object lesson, as simple as it is, has touched many lives.

Jesus loves children and accepts them unconditionally. It is time we did the same.

Anonymous said... Perhaps

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the reason for the youth dropout rate from church is that the church service itself is a bad idea, or at very least poorly structured.

I was part of an anglican church for many years and before that, a pentecostal church. The Sunday School and youth programs I have been a part of were all interactive. Bible discussion, prayer, question and answer sessions... On top of that the kids could easily take ownership in planning activities, leading worship, or whatnot - it ended up being more of a community with events, instead of events with community.

In contrast, the church service limits interactivity to worship in song. It got to the point where even I didn't want to go to church anymore because it was essentially a really boring show. And even the most hip and with it churches have just upgraded the show quality instead of finding ways to actually mentor people.

So why are we surprised when we have trouble getting youth to transition from an interactive environment where they can learn about God to a sit down and shut up environment where they can learn about God when the service is over? Can we patch the old garment with the new cloth?

Maybe it would be healthier for the whole church instead of transitioning the kids to participate in the service we transitioned the adults into a more interactive gathering to discuss the things of the Lord, and scrap this whole show format that we tend to call "church."

Anna said... Great Post!

Anna said...

Great Post! And before I comment I will confess that I didn't read every single comment as thoroughly as it probably merited, so forgive me on that, but I wanted to chime it ;-)

I'm w/ Pastor (Rev.? Kate?) Murphy in that I think that youth ministry and the way we've done it is one of the big reasons that the 18-30 yr old demographic is missing. And it's the fault of the adults in the congregation that hire a 20 something or a college student to be the youth minister and then think they've done their job. So yes, from that stand-point youth ministry is killing the church.

Really fast, I've got a master's degree from Fuller in Youth Family and Culture and have been in "youth ministry" both as the primary youth leader and then as a diocesan youth leader for over 11 years (now on sabbatical).

Kids and teens need connections to non-parental adults in the congregation in order to connect to the congregation as a whole. This doesn't have to be a formalized mentoring "program" (I think too often we substitute programs for real community), but it does have to be intentional on the parts of the adults (and we have to make sure our kids are safe, harder at larger congregations sometimes). How we do that is different for every church, and teens need safe places with safe adults to hang out and ask questions and be themselves.

I don't know exactly what this looks like, but I know what it doesn't look like. At coffee hour at the church I'm currently at, I'm the only non-parental adult besides my husband who talks to teens. All too often when I'm engaged in conversation with a teen, an adult will come up, interrupt and then talk to me like the teen's invisible. I always pull the teen back into the conversation somehow, but then the adult usually leaves.

Need young people in your congregation, folks? Start by respecting them just like you would an adult and, oh, shocking! Talk to them.

(excuse the sarcasm as I'm largely preaching to the choir here ;-) )

Nailed it!! Great thoughts

Nailed it!! Great thoughts Anna. 

Jeremy Myers said...

Jeremy Myers said...

Thank you, Kate, for a very thought-provoking question. Many things I've been thinking have been said. Two things have not . . .

First, we never consider this problematic concept of "adolescence" within these discussions. We assume the teen years to be a time of "storm and stress" demanding certain ministry approachs. Google "The Myths of the Teen Mind" and you'll find an interesting interview on this topic from Minnesota Public Radio.

Second, I wonder if we are too "church-centric". Our conversations always seem to come back to discussing ways to keep youth involved in church. Does the church exist for the sake of the church or for the sake of the world? My hunch is that youth have disengaged the church because the church has disengaged the world, not because we are lacking "good" youth ministry (whatever that is).

Jonathan found a connection with someone's deep suffering, and he responded from that place where he knows what it means to suffer. There is much suffering in our world. Young people are aware of it. If we ignore it, they will ignore us. If we engage it and teach them to engage it, they might just discover what abundant life truly is.

Robert Austell -

Robert Austell - lighthouse/searchlight church said...

I have served churches where youth group was a church within the church; I have served churches where there was significant multi-generational integration; and I've served some in-between.

There is some correlation to church size on the spectrum above, but it's not a hard and fast rule.

As at least one has commented, a larger, programmatic church can be intentional about integrating youth into the full life of the church. It takes work and intentionality.

Rev. Murphy rightly challenges the tendency to ghettoize youth (or any group!) within the church. This is not to say there cannot be group meetings, but that the church identity needs to continually be framed and re-framed as "one body" bound together in Christ.

Like worship music, architecture, or any number of areas in the life of a church, there is no magic bullet of sound, light, or program. Rather, whether in a large, medium, or small church - whether 100, 20, or 3 youth, we must foster a sense of family around the community of the church. Each size church or program comes with it's own curses and blessings; it's how we understand the church that matters.

We mustn't DO church; we must BE the church.

This is an excellent, thought-provoking article by someone with a pastor's heart.

Robert Austell
Charlotte, NC

Anonymous said... I

Anonymous said...

I attend a small church without a youth group. While it might look integrated, it really isn't.

Almost all of us are at the church events, but it's somewhat awkward. Sometimes we've wondered why we are there.

Even on Sundays when about a quarter of the church is made up of childless members under the age of 30, sermons always center around husbands/wives dealing with their children and grandchildren because the pastor admitted doesn't want to "preach to the minority" or "cater" in the ways that he feels other churches do when they have inclusive sermons.

I find this isolating as a 20-something. I can't imagine how the teens are feeling.

The young are looked to serve as everyone else does, but for some reason, it seems taboo to serve us in any way.

There is no mentoring of the young and single unless we are one of the fortunate ones born into Christian families, which several of us aren't.

Otherwise, anyone unmarried at our church is very much alone in our walk. We are members of a church, but are not quite members of a church community.

Although the picture looks perfect from the outside, we are a very disconnected church.

The other members are not going to change because they are comfortable with things as they are. Every time the issue is brought up, words like "catering" and "pandering" immediately pop up and discussion ceases.

But, I feel the younger crowd is ready for a change.

At least if we had groups for the 35 and under crowd, there might be some sense of belonging to a church community.

marybennett said... Let's

marybennett said...

Let's include youth and support initiatives but not set up a system where their main energy is directed towards their own rights within the system.
Mary Bennett

mikerite said... I find

mikerite said...

I find this very helpful. As a pastor and parent who was a youth ministry director for nearly 30 years, I found it a refreshing re-framing of ministry "with" youth.

jes said... I'm enjoying

jes said...

I'm enjoying reading these thoughtful exchanges. As you know, there is no ministry formula that guarantees youth will become Christian adults.

I was fortunate to grow up in a church that was large enough to have an active youth group and small enough to integrate youth into the life of the church. My family was very involved in everything. The four of us kids are now in our 40's and 50's. Half of us have continued to grow in faith and be active participants in a church. The other half? Well, even though they have fond memories of childhood and teen years in church, they "don't have much truck with religion."

Approaching ministry with youth and adults in a thoughtful way that continually discerns what seems to be working and what other ways might there be and how do we best serve Christ at this time in this place ... this is challenging and often painful.

Thanks to Kate Murphy for raising a thought-provoking question. If only there were a clear way to proceed.

Anonymous said... Thank

Anonymous said...

Thank you for giving voice to a conversation that is long overdue. For far too long we have ignored integrating the whole body of Christ and allowed one part of it (the youth) to either be marginalized or endulged (chose the descriptive that fits your situation). Either way, we set up a situation that fails to teach everyone how to live, love, and accept one another as part of God's family.

Anonymous said... Great

Anonymous said...

Great article! I am in an NCD with a senior high youth group of...wait for it...3. Youth group isn't working for us. With the help of some amazing colleagues, who have come to similar conclusions and read some books, we've talked aobut: Those that stay in the church aren't typically the youth group "rock stars," but those who participated in the life of the church (quoting my friend here).

So we're trying to do something as a group once a month, but really, they are involved in worship-offering, greeting, set up and break down (NCD!), scripture reading, etc. My hope is they will experience the Holy Spirit working through them and see how integral they are to the Body.

Rev. Tricia Dillon Thomas

Eric said... I would like

Eric said...

I would like to recommend a book called "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers" by Christian Smith. It has some very good research looking at the lives of youth over the last 20 years and impacts of ministry with, for and to youth. It looks at the declining #'s across the board in all denominations and makes a good argument for what seems to be going wrong. However what I enjoyed about the book and it's supporting research is the longitudinal reflections of those who are in the church as adults and the significant commonalities of strong faith family, giving youth a purpose in the congregation as well as faith training and education seems to be what is keeping people connected in faith through the years. There are other research projects going on across the country that are coming up with similar findings.

heidwrite said... What is

heidwrite said...

What is missing in this discussion about whether young people serve or see themselves as needing service misses the point. Before my oldest daughter entered confirmation, she and I had the opportunity to see a friend's son's bar mitzvah. The service was all about right of passage in the context of the temple community. The message was that we are here for you as you begin to take on more responsibility as an adult, both in the temple and in real life. You have a community of people who care about you. The message was affirming about the journey, in fact identifying the journey for my friends' son. I have yet to see that basic message conveyed in any confirmation process my three kids have tried to go through or gone through in several churches. The modern Christian church has lost the connection to what this period of time means to these people. So, to ask them to serve, or to perceive them as expecting to be served, without affirming their place in the journey of life through the church seems almost an afront. They are not being served very well except in these random kind of connections with people that happen or don't happen in a haphazard way totally outside confirmation and usually outside youth groups, from my observation. My son is 16 and has ushered in church for three years. He won't go to the youth group. He finds it phony, much like Holden Caulfield would, I imgagine. What he likes is talking with the adult guys, learning about the real workings of the church from the scuttlebut and being shown the ropes of collecting money and the bread and wine, being connected to a guy thing that also gets him out of sitting in a pew for one and a half hours, a ridiculous proposition for most boys. No program in our out of a youth group would have led him to this. He was allowed to explore. And he luckily found a way to help him see himself grow up. He's getting what confirmation failed to give him, a sense of himself in the world.

Robin said... I agree

Robin said...

I agree with pastormack and one of the anonymous commentors regarding the negatives of age segregation across the spectrum, including, but not limited to, segregating people under age 18.

I am in my late 40's and for the past 3 years have been a member of a PW circle consisting mostly of 70 to 90 year olds. This group is much more like me in their views on life, opinions, faith, and much more accessible to me, than the groups that are my age. I have learned a lot from being with these women, and I have laughed a lot. Many of them are now single, as am I. We all love our independence. Had I been forced into a PW or Sunday school group based on my age I would have been missing a lot.

As several of the other commentors said, I think the key is to be sure and make choices available to people of every age. Some youth will want to be together, and others will want to join with different age groups.

Anonymous said... How

Anonymous said...

How about if we just quit cutting up our society along the lines of some supposed generational divide and simply learn how to reach out person to person--treating each one as a valued member in the human species.

Having grown up in the church and experiencing every kind of arrangement, what stands out mostly are the individuals who took time to cross these lines and interact with me with compassion and respond to me as a person.

At times it may be beneficial to group people in certain ways to provide opportunity for bonds on common grounds. At times it may be necessary to dispense with false lines of demarcation in order to learn to minister to and with those of different ways of viewing and living--which also exist within small congregations.

What I am saying is I become concerned about an attitude of seeing people in amorphous groups with one common face while ignoring the individuals that make up the "groups." Still, meeting needs may at times mean providing a group experience based on the identity of the persons themselves, rather than some preconceived identity one may superimpose on others--not knowing them as persons with needs and gifts.

Roger J said... This

Roger J said...

This reminds me of the insights I gained from a seminary class in ministry to children in the early 90s with William Myers at Chicago Theological Seminary; he said the Presbyterian book of order said children were to be in the midst of the worshiping community, and most churches are in violation of that value and standard. He makes similar points to yours by comparing two large congregations in his book Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry.
A different point: In many churches now the kids come from various schools and may see one another only an hour a week at church, rather than every day at school. Perhaps that single segregated hour is more precious because it's rare, or perhaps it makes age-segregation useless and all-ages community building more important.

Matt said... I think that

Matt said...

I think that this is the same old debate between the perspectives of "purity" and "outreach" in the church. Do we have a "youth program" that makes a church connection with a larger number of teens but, admittedly, engages most of them on a fairly superficial level, or do we focus on inviting a small number of highly motivated teenagers as fuller (read: "better") participants in the whole life of the church? My personal youth ministry experience is that there are a number of those kind of teenagers in every congregation, and that when there is a strong and active youth program, there are MORE of them. Maybe it's annoying to pastors and adult members of a congregation to see groups of youth sitting together, or to feel like the youth group is doing things that are somewhat separate from the rest of the congregation... but I'd rather reach out to and connect with a greater number of kids than do nothing but continuously congratulate the purity and discipline of the few who show a stronger interest in the workings of a congregation. We're an open faith community, not a cloister. Right?

krista said... I think

krista said...

I think everyone who has posted a response has had good points, but If I remember right only one person made reference to the family. Faith is caught more than it is taught. Faith is caught at home...if the youth are not engaged in it at home, they are less likely to be engaged in the church. In most cases youth are not going to come on their own...adults need to step up to the youth (come into their world.) When we "adults" in the congregations (besides those with leadership roles) start showing our youth that they do matter in the life of the congregation (not just free labor)then we will see a change...


I agree that faith in Christ being lived out at home is so key in keeping our young ones involved in the service of Christ wherever they are.I have found today that many Christians today do not know how to walk out the faith walk at all they pray a prayer and because God didn't answer quickly they give up . Our youth are not blind they are looking for something tangible ,real like we all are.The New testament Church was yes not perfect people, but people who truly had seen results by simply taking Jesus at his Word and putting it into practice by faith .Therefore seeing real results Spiritual and physical therefore drawing multitudes.So much of what Jesus taught is not being put into practice by so many today that it has grieved the Spirit of God in not being able to manifest Himself in a way that draws all men to himself.So what do we do with youth who have not seen this kind of faith in Christ lived out from there very beginnings.Hmmmm,good question as there are so many churches that do not even know how to teach the faith walk in a way where we see results.That is truly key, many do not even realize they are out of touch as to how God would do things. They are running over Him in so many ways out desperation for answers.We have forgotten how to simply sit at His feet until we get results and direction.Hasn't He promised to guide us in
ALL TRUTH .So wouldn't He guide us into raising up our youth or anybody else for him for that matter.I believe He would not just would but is still waiting for many to come and ask ,and receive.....?????

John Mulholland said...

John Mulholland said...

If we are not integrating students into body life and worship contexts, early and often, then yes, we are participating in the killing of the church.

We need to stop with the separate youth service, and get kids involved. For our adults, it means contextualizing our worship for the youth culture, and for our kids, it meals becoming mature to see that they can't always have it their way.

Erika said... Most of

Erika said...

Most of what the mainlines do is really "program options" for the boomer set, but we've become sort of blinded to that and tend to think of it as "real church." A bunch of 50-somethings pursuing their common interests is no more or less real Christian community than a bunch of teens doing the same thing.

Young people may be adults in training, but they are not Christians in training--at least not in traditions where we baptize infants. Maybe there should be less of a push to get young people to sit through boring, interminable meetings so they can "participate in the life of the church" and more of a push to get adults to go on mission trips or pilgrimages, to sing together, to spend the weekends camping and praying, to serve the soup kitchen, to study and learn about their tradition, and to make close lasting friendships. Jesus died at 33; clearly younger folk have something real to offer.

Timothy Friend said... We

Timothy Friend said...

We have such a short sighted view of history. Youth Groups very recently became part of churches. I'm 54 and there were a couple of youth groups around when I became a Christian at 15, but the small church I went to wasn't one of them, and I guess I turned out okay. I have been in the ministry for 30+ years. I don't think having a youth group would have done anything for me. I was actually mentored by a 60+ year old Pastor.

I think the real problem is that most churches are "program oriented" leaving little room for God and spiritual growth. I was thinking this morning that we need to get back to merely following Jesus. The church should just be a place where we follow Jesus together. Forget the programs, fancy mission statements and slogans...the mission is Jesus.

DafergyRev said... I

DafergyRev said...

I think this article raises some good points, but also misses a few... I've been doing student ministries now for over 15 years and I see it as one of my primary responsibilities to integrate students into the life of the church... whether it be helping to serve communion, serving in the kitchen, helping out around the church, serving in the children's ministries area, serving on the Sunday morning worship team or just being present in the services on Sunday morning... I need to work hard to make sure the students in my church are not just connected to me or the student ministry program, but to the whole church. Those who serve in student ministries cannot look at their ministry as an island, but as an integrated, essential part of the whole church where adults regularly see and hear about what is happening in student ministries and students regularly participate in the wider life of the church. Student ministries are not killing the church, rather they can be an essential and integrated part of the wider church and for those who are serving as student ministry pastors, one their primary responsibilities is to make sure this happens. It helps with the spiritual growth of the students and the wider church.

Kevin Murray said... Part

Kevin Murray said...

Part 2 of 2

Even Sunday school programs which for the most part are directed towards youth, just stop at the end of high school in most churches. Sure a lot of us have “Adult Sunday School” but again this is more directed at the 30+ crowd with nothing to fill in that gap.

Now I’m not saying that by programming for youth & young adults this will fix all of our problems & youth will stop leaving the church. I would be naive to think that. We have other problems that cause our youth to leave the church. One of these is the way in which we do our services.

Most churches still use organs or pianos for most of the music. What is not is filled in by choirs and bells. At churches that have a contemporary service, the whole service is done in “contemporary” style or at least a style we think to be contemporary. Problem here is we are fixing one problem, while making people choose one thing over another, which then in the process causes division.

Another problem I see is in our Pastors. Their job is to preach a message to the common people (which include children & youth), but yet, at a lot of the churches I’ve attended, I feel like I need a degree in theology just to understand the sermon. I have heard from my youth time & time again, that they do not pay attention during the sermon because its boring & frankly most of the time I would have to agree with them. I’ve attended at lot of different churches in my time on this rock & very few seem to offer sermons that are relevant to me or that I can relate to. (Disclosure: I’m 25).

Now I will say that I am one of the few. I’m much like Jonathan in the story. I was very active in my former church, where I attended during high school & part of college. I was on the church council & when our pastor left, I was on the call committee that called the new pastor. When I graduated high school, I stuck around the youth program, mainly because there was nothing else & started to help out.

The biggest problem is that over all, the youth & young adults are leaving our churches because we do not understand them & in turn they do not understand us. We expect them to change, when really it should be like any other relationship, one where there is give & take.

Kevin Murray said... Cus

Kevin Murray said...

Cus the site keeps telling me my comment “Must be at most 4,096 characters” (which it is), I am splitting this update into 2 parts.

As another “immature adult" youth worker I think the problem is that most churches stop almost all programming between the ages of 18 & 30, which is the age range which we normally loose our youth.

In the Lutheran tradition I’m a part of, we expect our youth will graduate at 18 & go off to college. From there, we expect some form of campus ministry will be there to catch them & minister to them.

The problem with that thought is we are able to just pass them off & no longer need to program for them. The city I live in (a metro area of about 1 mil) has a major university & community college (both have 25/30k students each) & there is a campus ministry program in place.

The problem is campus ministry really only works well in a setting where the people who attend school live on or around campus. Here in our city, our schools are very much commuter schools, in the youth continue to live at home as they go to school. Thus, they really never leave their home congregations. But yet, because we expect them to use the campus ministry, we now have no programming for them.

I dislike when people say we specifically program for youth & make it sound bad. We program for other ages in the church, so why not the youth? We have groups for retirees, we have adult eating groups & we have men’s / women’s bible studies that meet at 8am (or any other time). We have choirs that for the most part are specifically made up of older people & many other programs that cater to people 30+. So why not program for the youth?

There was something missing in my list. Did you notice it? Young adult ministry. I don’t understand why we expect our youth to stay in the church when we do not program for them after high school. We program for everyone else & are shocked when they leave? Really?

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