Dr. Andrew Zirschky

Andrew has more than 20 years of congregational youth ministry experience and holds an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation and Teaching Outside the Box: Five Approaches to Opening the Bible with Youth.

Despite the fervent pulse of youth ministry the silent exodus of congregants from our churches continues unabated, most noticeably amongst Millennials and Generation Z. It’s not surprising that churches and youth ministers, grappling with declining religious participation, often resort to goal-oriented strategies and “measurable markers of effectiveness” to alleviate their anxiety. However, these metrics will almost always seek to increase the church’s relevance to youth. The leaders’ anxiety is fueled by this very issue of the church’s relevance, and secondly, the church’s relevance (or irrelevance) to youth is easily quantifiable (e.g. — if Jimmy shows up for youth group, then we know that Jimmy thinks the church is relevant).

But what if the critical issue isn’t the church’s relevance, but leading young people to see God’s relevance in their daily lives?

People’s disengagement from church is individual and complex, and can’t be reduced to a singular reason. However, as I comb through the mountain of sociological data on this subject, one thing is clear:

By their early 20s, most people find God to be insignificant in their everyday lives.

This is most evident in the final report of the National Study of Youth and Religion called Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults. The study reveals that even among religiously committed young adults, many see their faith as an obligation, not a guiding force in their lives. “God is increasingly remote from emerging adults’ everyday concerns and rarely enters their thinking or occupies any real place in their lives,” the authors wrote as they described this generation’s thin belief in a God that resides in their back-pocket, mostly forgotten.[1]

The fact of life in 21st century America is that God doesn’t seem to matter much. And if God doesn’t matter much, then why should church? This is the nagging reality that our ministry goals and metrics aren’t designed to address.

On the flipside, raising young people whose belief in God and identity in Christ suffuses their whole lives — their way of seeing the world, making life decisions, and charting their course and actions daily — is a clear cure to the phenomenon of belief in the “back-pocket God” and the decline of religious involvement and importance. However, I’ll suggest that the kind of conversations, actions, and relationships necessary for infusing that kind of faith don’t always fit easily into the measurable metrics that our ministry gurus want us to craft.

Further, the evidence indicates that this kind of consequential faith doesn’t happen in an hour per week no matter how well-designed our goals.

Faith that matters for life tends to arise in young people who are immersed in a community of people (that includes parents) who are continually articulating how their faith is guiding them daily.[2]

Goals and metrics might have their place, but only if they’re focused less on filling the pews, and more on instilling a faith that pulses through everyday life, making God not an occasional thought, but a constant companion.

[1] Melinda Lundquist Denton & Richard Flory, Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford, 2020), 231.

[2] For more on this see the second half of Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford, 2010).