A recent study conducted by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC) concluded that youth groups are to blame for the high dropout rate of young adults in church attendance. Their findings indicate the majority of church attendees are concerned youth groups are excessively focused on entertainment and are producing spiritually immature disciples.
The NCFIC goes further to deduce that youth ministries are responsible for an unhealthy emphasis of teenagers on their friends rather than on their families. Drug experimentation, premarital sex and teens rejecting the Word of God are also consequences mentioned by the study.
In my opinion, this study needs a very serious examination. A closer look will reveal that these statistical findings are severely misguided. Youth groups are not the reason young adults are not returning to the church after high school. I served as a youth pastor for many years prior to becoming a senior pastor and know firsthand these findings are misinterpreted.
The church desertion problem is very serious, but this new assertion is dangerous. Instead of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, as we find in the book of Malachi, we are discussing propaganda that could cause pastors to abandon one of the few efforts made to reach the next generation for Christ.
It is true we need to fix the excessive entertainment problem in some youth groups, but the senior pastor can easily remedy that. However, it is a difficult proposition, considering many churches have become entertainment centers for all ages themselves. Too many ministries in America today are lacking solid biblical teaching and conviction and may be setting the tone for many of their youth groups.
Here are a few flaws in the argument from the findings of the NCFIC:
- First, most youth services do not separate teens from adult worship services. The majority of youth services in America are on Wednesday night, not on Sunday morning.
- Second, good youth groups are not entertainment-based but provide a relevant ministry to deliver the gospel to young people, create a community of counterculture that is a “safe place,” and equip teens with the Word of God for their future. In defense of youth groups, I would point out there are 168 hours in a week, and youth spend the majority of that time at school, with friends, entertained by media and on the Internet, but they only spend one hour or so at the youth group.
- Finally, I agree with the NCFIC regarding the parents’ role as the key to marking the next generation for Christ. My wife, who is a PK (pastor’s kid), says she never left the church because her parents were the same in the pulpit as they were at home. They made her feel like a priority, and I have a feeling the experience of the church dropouts is much different then hers.
Now, if we cannot blame the youth group, then why are young people leaving the church and not returning at such an alarming rate in America? As a former youth pastor, I have observed several factors that contribute to this trend.
Teenagers are by nature at a season of life in which they are “coming of age.” They are asking, “Who am I?” in a quest for identity. During this critical and impressionable season of growth, they are immersed in strong ungodly influences: hormone-driven desires, degenerate friendships, immoral music, depraved movies and television, wicked Internet content, anti-Christian philosophies, corrupt social expectations, parental abandonment and dysfunctional homes.
To make matters worse, teens seem to appear rebellious to their parents because of their pursuit of individuality. They often disappoint expectations because of a need to establish a uniqueness that must contrast with the previous generation. In other words, they don’t want to be the same as Mom and Dad because that would mean everything in life has been dictated for them without their free choice.
Meanwhile, the world readily offers a kaleidoscope of subcultures for them to belong to. They can be athletes, goths, drama freaks, geeks, brains, hippies, rockers, jocks, gangstas, thugs, rednecks, skaters, ravers, surfers, hip-hoppers, preppies or punks. The appeal of adopting one of these identities is to be admired and respected (also known as "cool").
Unfortunately, these subgroups are not Christian faith communities. In other words, teens are faced with a choice. Their peers can accept them, or they can be rejected as one who embraces the “religion” of an older generation.
At our church, we have always offset this pressure with a spiritual approach. We learned a long time ago that the world cannot counterfeit or compete with a true encounter with the Holy Spirit. If we can lead youth to a genuine personal encounter with Christ, they will be marked for God for life. Also, we strive to equip them with biblical teaching that will prepare them for a lifelong counterculture battle. Every kid has not remained in the fold, but we have experienced a much stronger retention rate than the national statistic.
It always leaves me dumbfounded to witness how Christian parents pay exorbitant tuitions to send their kids to “Babylon University,” where they are indoctrinated against all the biblical values their family embraces. It appears they place their concern for higher education and securing financial earning power over preserving the faith of their posterity. From wild frat parties to anti-Christian tenured professors, the relentless blitz of darkness aimed at youth seems overwhelming.
One way to counter this assault is to encourage high school graduates to commit one year to a ministry internship or to attend a genuine Christian university so they can solidify their faith on a personal level.
I remember when I was a young adult fresh out of high school. I grew up in the devil’s youth group and never went back! I met Jesus Christ at 19 after proclaiming I was an atheist at 15. My home life was a wreck, but the Holy Spirit joined me to the body of Christ, where I found friendships that were much more genuine than what I had known in the world. I was also someone who tried to find myself in many subcultures but finally found true love and acceptance in the church.
In my estimation, the problem with America’s church retention of young adults isn’t the youth groups. It is churches that have forgotten the commission to reach the youth. In fact, the current youth pastor at our church grew up in our youth group as a troubled kid experimenting with Islam and now has a passion for reaching the next generation for Christ.
The answer isn’t cutting off youth ministries, but the church must become sold out to go after reaching God’s kids. We need a renewed heart, strategy and investment in reaching these priceless souls made in the image of God. If corporate America can commit to invest billions into buying their allegiance, how much more should the church of God be willing to commit to saving their souls for eternity?
In an interview with an elderly minister who is widely respected and has had a successful ministry for more than 60 years in California, he was asked, “Is there anything you would have done differently?” He responded, “I would have invested more in the youth of our church.” Statistics withstanding, hindsight is always 20/20.
John Blanchard is senior pastor at Rock Church International in Virginia Beach, Va.