This year I am celebrating my 50th year focused on teenagers and the adults important to teenagers. What a blessing it has been for the Lord to give me this ministry focused on youth for my lifetime. Yet, after a half-century in this vital ministry, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion a radical reevaluation is desperately needed if we wish to see more enduring faith in our youth after they become adults.
Whether as a youth pastor, youth ministry consultant with ministry resource providers, or presently as a professor in the School of Educational Ministries at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, my singular focus has been on ministry to and with teenagers for the glory of God. Sometimes people ask me to evaluate where we are in youth ministry today, given my half-century in the trenches. My thoughts about youth ministry include both good news and bad news.
The good news is that across the years, hundreds of thousands of teenagers have been introduced to Jesus, discipled, equipped and mobilized for kingdom activity. Most of the adults through whom Christ is extending his kingdom today are a product of local church youth ministries. I join parents, senior pastors, youth pastors and lay leaders in celebrating ministries with teenagers that have carried the aroma of Jesus and have pushed back the darkness.
While I celebrate all that has been done, I believe the current model of youth ministry is hopelessly flawed in several ways. This is a difficult admission on my part, especially as I’ve given my entire ministry to this model. Nevertheless, we must face the truth that the current approach to youth ministry is just not working very well.
Most leaders now know what happens when church teenagers approach high school graduation. Among those who attended most of their lives, half leave the church, according to Ben Trueblood at LifeWay and Kara Powell at Fuller Seminary. Christian Smith of the National Study of Youth and Religion research project uncovered another fact almost as distressing. Forty percent become adult church members who do not know even basic beliefs and do not make a difference for the faith. That means only 10 percent of those the church invested in for 18 years continue to love God, love people and make disciples.
Who wants to continue approaches that launch only 10 percent of young believers to change the world? The following shortfalls may be the most important.
1. Most churches have lost focus on evangelizing lost teenagers outside the walls of the church. Consequently, youth baptisms are dropping like an anvil in the ocean. If teenagers only hear and respond to the Gospel while attending church, most of the next generation will spend their eternity in torment.
2. Most churches keep teenagers encased in a youth ministry silo. That 1950s style of youth ministry does not create young adults who love the bride of Christ. Teenagers often speak of their love for the youth group and seldom speak of their love for the church. I strongly believe in age-group ministries. But we must give teenagers many more heart connections with the congregation and many new ways to do ministry side-by-side with the adult church.
3. Most churches provide Bible studies geared to all teenagers, including lost teenagers and shallow believers. Those studies are vital, but few churches also provide intensive discipleship for those teenagers who are endeavoring to follow Jesus. The absence of weekly discipleship groups means we are creating young adults with little background in biblical interpretation, apologetics, core doctrines, worldview, missions, ethics and other vital disciplines that are necessary for a mature, enduring faith.
4. Most churches are not discipling and equipping parents to spiritually lead their teenage children. Churches may announce, “We champion parents as primary spiritual leaders,” but I see little actual movement in that direction. Tragically, even parents involved in the church are giving their primary loyalty to a new trinity — athletics, academics and the arts. Sunday morning worship is an option only on weekends no other activities are on the calendar.
I strongly support much of what makes up local church youth ministry. I strongly support youth pastors. In fact, I believe youth pastors will become even more valuable as the church makes adjustments to make lifetime faith more common. After 50 years, the time has come for substantial change in how the church impacts the lives of teenagers. The changes needed are not a mystery. Scripture shows us how to move forward. The best research supports those same changes. We just need tens of thousands of senior pastors to lead the entire church in new directions. If they do, we will begin to see many more young believers become world-changing disciples for a lifetime.