Is youth ministry killing the church?

February 4, 2010

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.


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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

 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.

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.

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. 

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

"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.

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