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A recent study by the National Center For Family-Integrated Churches lays much of the blame for the exodus of the emerging generations from the church on the doorstep of church youth groups. Here's what they concluded:

• "Some time ago, Christian pollster George Barna documented that 61 percent of today's 20-somethings who had been churched at one point during their teen years are now spiritually disengaged. They do not attend church, read their Bible or pray. According to a new five-week, three-question national survey sponsored by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC), the youth group itself is the problem. Fifty-five percent of American Christians are concerned with modern youth ministry because it's too shallow and too entertainment-focused, resulting in an inability to train mature believers. But even if church youth groups had the gravitas of Dallas Theological Seminary, 36 percent of today's believers are convinced youth groups themselves are not even biblical . . . American Christians are finally waking up to the disconnect between the clear teaching in Scripture in favor of family-integration and the modern-day church's obsession with dividing the family at every turn. Age segregation, especially during the tender and impactful teenage years, not only hasn't worked, it's been detrimental. Even worse, it is contrary to the Bible . . . Today, Christian parents are beginning to realize that they have not fulfilled their spiritual duties by simply dropping off their kiddos to Sunday school and youth group, allowing other parents to disciple their children by proxy . . . It is the parents' primary obligation to disciple their own children, impressing God's commandments upon them in the home on a daily basis . . . It's time for the Christian father to take the central role which God has ordained." [Full article here >>>]

I have no argument with much of what Barna and NCFIC have found, although I do not agree that "the youth group is the problem." The emerging generations are clearly leaving the church, the church tends to segregate families, and local church youth ministries are struggling in many regards. The youth pastor is no longer the default "second hire," behind the senior pastor, at local churches. Most youth pastors I know are increasingly discouraged and disillusioned; many who have put in their decade or two of "babysitting church adolescents" are getting out of the youth ministry genre. So, has the youth ministry model been flawed from the beginning? I'm not so sure.

I believe God raised up contemporary youth ministry in the middle part of the 20th century to address two primary issues: 

(1) Strategic evangelism. God already knew what surveys eventually told us - most people come to Christ before age 20 - and He raised up youth ministry organizations and (eventually) local church youth groups to target what many missiologists have called one the the bigger unreached people groups on the planet: western culture teens.
(2) Fatherlessness. Fathers being physically, emotionally and/or spiritually absent in the home was becoming epidemic both in western society and, increasingly, in the church. Youth ministry emerged as a triage center for teens, both inside and outside the church, wounded by one or more forms of fatherlessness. 
In our youth-oriented culture, #1 above will continue to be critically important; it's simply a wise missions emphasis. Which leaves us with issue #2: fatherlessness. And this issue is not going away anytime soon, even by making youth groups "more biblical" or ceasing to divide the family at church. Today's fathers - who continue to be physically, emotionally and/or spiritually absent in HUGE numbers - either don't want to assume their biblical role, or are woefully ill-equipped to do so. This is the proverbial elephant in the living room of the church, not a flawed youth ministry model.
There have been a number of recent men's movements - Promise Keepers being the most visible example - that have sought to address this glaring issue, but with limited success. Perhaps it is time for the church to align our praying with Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. When facing an no-win scenario  - an opposing army that was too close and too large for a normal military response - he called for national prayer and fasting, and led his nation in a passionate, desperate prayer that concluded, "We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you." (2 Chron. 20:12, emphasis mine).
Could the ramifications of fatherlessness a curse on our nation, prophecied by Malachi in the last verse of the Old Testament? "He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, or else I will come and strike the land with a curse" (Mal. 4:6). Perhaps it's time for passionate, desperate praying.

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This seems to be a both and situation. The flawed youth minister model is a continuing problem. Fatherlessness is a growing scourge eating away at the fiber of our nation. The church needs to be revived. Revival will not come if we remain in blatant disobedience to God's order for the home. The best place to win a child to Christ is in the home. The most effective place to disciple a child is in the home. Churches must align themselves with those purposes. That does not mean we stop youth evangelism but that we rethink what is the most effective method of getting that done. Certainly falling on our face in repentence and prayer is a good start. If we want God to send a revival the church should strive to get right first before we go out and get kids and innoculate them against godliness by locking them into models that don't reflect Biblical truth.

In Love and with great respect for those who have given their lives to youth ministry

David

As a career Campus Minister with over three decades experience on six different university campuses in four different states, and having raised three children who attended "successful"  youth groups, I have a few opinions. 

First:  The problem is real.  Barna's data mirrors our experience.  I would add that we are not in a benign world.  We have an enemy who is active and able to trap our children.  Also these kids are free moral agents.  No matter what, they must own their decisions. 

Second:  Entertainment youth ministry isn't helping.  While I have seen spiritual truth communicated entertainingly and effectively, if the pressure is just to keep the audience (and our jobs) then entertainment is enough and we have not fed the deepest need of student's souls.  What these kids need is Jesus.

Third:  The problem is deeper than the youth group content or the strategy itself.  Let me illustrate.

Each of our very human children began to read the bible sometime during their Jr Hi or HS years.  We never talked to the kids about it, it was all on their own.   I was intrigued at how this youth ministry could get 14 yr-olds to read the bible when it was so difficult with university students so I volunteered to watch it in action.  My first observation:  no one else was reading their bible!   Why did our kids?

Every morning, when the children got up, they were liable to find one or two bibles laying around the house next to an empty coffee cup.  This was my wife's and my habit. (I usually forgot to put the cup away.)  When a God consciousness struck, and youth group was a big part of that, this was the paradigm our children knew to imitate.  There is no substitute for an example.

Why do so many leave the church?  Shallow youth ministry may not help but it isn't that fathers aren't teaching their children, it is what fathers (and the rest of us) are teaching them by example.  The accusation from those former church kids is never, "my youth ministry was shallow" but "Hypocrisy", from the pulpit, from the pew, and at home. 

Thank your youth worker, encourage him or her to go deep with God, and take an honest look in the mirror. 

And pray your brains out! 

A few months ago I spoke with a pastor who is in his 80's and he told me that when he graduated from high school he left the church but not Jesus.  One thing I noticed is how those who have been to church for a long time pick up on the model they see which is mostly people going to church and doing things. One of the biggest troubles I have had with adults is their unwillingness to get out of their comfort zone and be challenged in reaching others. What this tells me is that they are self focused and cannot be discipled until they become others focused. If a church is led by those who lead with a self focus and encourage self focused people by programs they like with little or no personal accountability to take action for their spiritual growth then what we have is adults who are self focused and what youth wants to go to them for help or see them as examples.

So ... what would our "one prayer" be to see a reviving and revising of ministry and discipleship with youth?

It is not about a prayer. Jesus gave the command to make disciples. The leaders must be disciples who reproduce themselves. If the leaders do not have followers then they are not leaders. They are just taking a walk. When I see what Jesus did he met them where they were and dealt with them according to their needs.

A few months ago I met with some staff with a church that focuses on discipleship and all of their staff are required to be building teams and leading them. If they do not then they are asked to leave their position. The quality of discipleship depends on the quality of the disciple. If a church or organization is not willing to do what is necessary to stay focused on discipleship then it is willing to let the "cockroaches" of life take over and devour what is good.

Babies are born each day. It is the adults who must help them to be mature adults. That requires adults to live like mature adults.

Hi Gerald ~ thanks for keeping the conversation alive.

I agree with what  you have said, except the first 6 words.

It seems to me one of our problems is that discipleship has become less and less about prayer. Or that prayer is spiritual and the expression of discipleship is practical. Somehow, we have divorced praying and discipling (Full disclosure: I manage both TheDiscipleshipNetwork.com and PrayNetwork.org) as if they are two separate functions.

If you read my comment as a statement that prayer is more important than the other components of discipleship, I apologize for not communicating clearly. In my understanding, prayer is not the most important thing in our development as a disciple of Jesus, but it is important to everything that is important to our development as a disciple of Jesus.

I agree with you that maturity is a clear mark of a growing-in-Christ disciple. I am convinced that is why "Epaphras...(was always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. (Colossians 4:12)

Maybe I misunderstand what you mean by "It is not about a prayer" ... eager for your reply,

Phil

My point was that it is not about one prayer such as "the secret to success", as if we can just give God a prayer from our lips. I definitely agree with you in that prayer is a must. One thing I noticed in scripture is that the disciples never prayed for opportunity but for boldness. We must teach disciples to be bold and that it is a spiritual battle and not a recreation room. In more recent years I have asked those I meet with to describe what they would do if they wanted to destroy something. Once we have discussed the matter then I tell them that is exactly what Satan does, so expect it. Expect trouble.

Glad to agree with you!

Thanks for replying ...

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