6 Ways Youth Ministry Ensures Students Leave the Church

I recently read an article entitled Five Ways To Make Your Kids Hate Church. With statistics showing that a large number of students leave church after the age of 18 never to return, I began to think about the church collective, and youth ministry within the church, and asked myself, “What are some ways youth ministry as we know it contributes to this tragic phenomena?” Here are six of the primary ways I believe youth ministries are ensuring teens leave the church once they graduate high school.

Keep entertaining them. One of the acknowledged greatest failures in youth ministry for the past few decades is what is known as entertainment-based youth ministry or attraction-based youth ministry. This model of youth ministry more or less teaches that in order to reach teens there must be entertainment to bring them in, then once they’re there, the gospel can be presented in hopes the students will believe and follow Jesus.

This sounds noble enough, but at its core it’s deceptive. It’s deceptive because we never see Jesus pulling a ministry Mickey Finn on anyone. As faithful heralds of the gospel, we must be up front and bold about our intentions, and let the Holy Spirit and the Word draw sinners to repentance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with offering age-appropriate events and entertainment, but we must do so in a manner that demonstrates our genuine  intention, which is sharing the gospel.

Entertainment is part of our culture. Trying to compete with what the world has to offer entertainment-wise is fruitless. The church will lose the battle 100% of the time. When youth ministry becomes founded upon the entertainment model, there is the pressure to keep entertaining and offering more and more entertainment. It becomes a vicious circle for youth ministers and students.

Once a student graduates, he or she is left believing the entertainment should continue, and when it doesn’t, there is a huge emotional let down. Think about it, several years of entertainment then… nothing. The music stops and the dance is over. Time to go elsewhere. The gospel, not entertainment, prepares them for real life.

If we want a sure-fire way of losing our students after graduation, let’s keep entertaining them.

Teach them to rely on guru youth ministers. Like entertainment-based youth ministry, the cult-of-personality-youth leader-guru model has gone the way of the dinosaur. Team-based student ministry is finally catching on. The youth minister-guru model essentially believes that the youth pastor should be the best friend, counselor, disciple-maker, spiritual advisor, and baby sitter for six years of the student’s life. There’s no denying the student minister functions in each of these roles, but he (or she) should simply be reinforcing what the student’s parents or guardians are teaching him/her at home.

Granted, there are those situations, which are probably on the rise with the rapidly deteriorating family structure in America, in which the student minister may have to step up and be more of a big brother, more of a teacher to certain students. But, that’s when the larger Body should be stepping in and taking the student under its communal wings. (Alas, that is another blog for another day.)

What happens is, once the student teaches high school graduation, he finds himself without the crutch of a ready-made spiritual guru, and is forced to take responsibility for his own spiritual growth. The student doesn’t know how to function without the all-purpose guru as his compass and anchor, and he eventually leaves the church.

If we want your high school graduates to be church drop outs at 18, teach them to rely on the youth pastor as their spiritual everything. Worse yet, continue building this false view in the minds of pre-teens. We must teach them that Jesus is our leader, and that Christian community (not youth group sub-culture) is vital for their continued spiritual health.

Don’t disciple them. Keep entertaining them. Keep letting the youth pastor be their main source of all things spiritual. If those things are dominant in the life of the church‘s student ministry, I can assure you discipleship isn’t happening. The best way to lose them is to not disciple them. What I mean is, teach them from scripture, and by example, to follow Jesus. Teaching them thus will carry them through life. Laying a sure foundation of humility, repentance, forgiveness, servitude, prayer, community, and studying the Word will pay eternal dividends.

We must disciple our students as early as we can, or we lose them as fast as they can! Once the student reaches graduation age, and has a foundation built on shifting sand, the illusionary castle of the Christian life we’ve help construct will crumble. Discipleship — in families, with their peer group, with their student ministers — must be an ongoing effort to be effective. Ultimately, the student, now of adult age, must be responsible for his/her choices regarding their walk with Christ. But, one who has been properly taught to follow and treasure Jesus will continue to be a disciple, not a church drop-out statistic.

Insulate them. One of the worst things a student ministry can do is to construct a safe subculture for its students; to insulate them. As a parent, I obviously don’t want my children to watch certain things, see certain things, hear certain things, go certain places, or think certain ways. However, we must be careful not to insulate them to the extent that we create a legalistic, separated subculture that deprives them of interacting and investigating the culture in which they live.

If we want to lose them after they graduate, let’s teach them that certain people, places, and things should be avoided. Better yet, let’s not explain why. Even better, let’s tell them “because the Bible says it.” Best of all, let’s create a nice little Christian alternative lifestyle for them in which all social interaction, all music and movies, and all ministry takes place. Let’s be organized at all costs, but let’s not be organic.

The problem with insulating our children is that humans are, by nature, inquisitive and rebellious. We want answers, or at least the opportunity to ask questions, or we‘re moving on. (More on that in my next point.) Therefore, when we legalistically deny them the opportunity to listen to “secular” music, watch “bad” movies, participate in “worldly” events, we are essentially building a monster. When we build a little insulated Christian subculture for our students to live in, we’re asking for a revolt at some point. When we offer Christ and the church community as simply an “alternative” to the world, we’re asking for trouble.

When a person who’s gone through life being told you can’t do this and you can’t do that reaches the age of independence, rebellion is bound to ensue. In the South we call it going “buck wild.“ I’ve seen this happen too many times firsthand to deny it, especially with kids who grow up in a religiously legalistic household.

I’m not calling for us as parents to do away with boundaries. Not even remotely. We must have them for the overall well-being of our students. (And our sanity!) I believe a better way is to help them develop a Christian worldview based on the gospel and not on the law. In other words, teaching them to look at, experience, and filter things through scripture, and processing things by faith, grace, love, and hope with an eye towards God’s glory. This is far more biblical, and sane, than keeping them in Christian Never Land all those years, only to release them into Mordor upon graduation.

Don’t let them ask questions. According to the book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church, one of the primary reasons students leave church after graduation is does not encourage questions. It might have been okay for generations past to live by the motto “God said it, I believe, and that settles it.” While a true statement, to Generation X (Those born in the mid 1960s to the early 1980s), and especially Millennials (Those born in the early 1980s through the present day), the slogan is no longer as cut-and-dry as it once was.

What this means is that Millennials, who are our present-day students, to a greater extent than GenXers before them, are prone to ask questions. The fundamentalist (little ’f’) Church has the reputation of being closed, and not receptive to questions about faith and practice. Student ministries which continue the “don’t ask” policy are breeding disaster.

Our students want to know why, and with good reason. There have been numerous large and public scandals in the past few years. Social networking has ensured news of clergy scandals, politicians going bad, entertainers burning out, and authority figures being corrupt reaches our students via text, internet, or television lightning fast.

With such a distrust of authority and institutions, coupled with our natural human nature to be inquisitive, questions should be expected and encouraged by student ministries and churches. I read one study that reported that one of the main reasons students leave the church a because science and faith appeared to contradict one another, and the church could give no good answer why. The study did not say students left the church because of science, they simply had questions about how to reconcile faith and science, and the church wasn’t willing to help them. So they left.

As parents, leaders, and teachers, we must allow questions to be asked. Better yet, we must either have the answers via the Bible, or be humble enough to admit we don’t have all the answers, but we‘ll get back to them. Railing from the pulpit and lectern against sexual preferences, social situations, and science ring hollow if we are not willing to anticipate questions and provide sound scriptural, gospel-centered answers. It’s important we cultivate an environment in which questions are encouraged and accepted. Otherwise, given the opportunity, students will go where they believe they can ask questions and find answers, and the church loses them.

Don’t challenge them. One of the rapidly deteriorating myths of student ministry is that students don’t want to be challenged. In the past, students were viewed as junior Christians so they were presented Christianity-lite. Obviously, we don’t want to teach them in Greek or expect them to know what infralapsarianism means. But, let’s don’t sell them short, either.

Students like to learn. Students like to know new things. Students like unfamiliar concepts. That’s why we call them students. Students also like to be challenged. This doesn’t mean we overload them, because between classes and the internet, they’re already on information overload. This also doesn’t mean we set the bar so high they can’t reach it. But, in student ministry there has to be a challenge to keep them engaged.

As I discussed earlier, feeding middle schoolers and high schoolers a steady diet of entertainment and cafeteria Christianity is a recipe for them abandoning the church after graduation. Conversely, teaching them the Word, coaching them in discipleship, living the gospel before them, getting them involved in community, and encouraging questions might be a challenge (for them AND us), but in the end it’s worth it. I’m not saying we’ll keep every student who graduates. But, we can be assured knowing they’re prepared to meet the challenges of life.

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