In consulting with churches through Youth Ministry Architects and CYMT, I hear over and over again about how students become less active or drop out of youth ministry around the age of sixteen.  I’m sure you are aware of the culprits: sports teams, jobs, and – dun dun dun – the driver’s license.  I would like to suggest that these things are certainly factors related to youth participation, but the bigger issue is that the majority of youth ministries offer flat line discipleship.
Flat Line Youth MinistryWhat I mean is that when it boils down to it, the depth of discipleship at all of the programs offered by a church are not that different from each other which prevents youth from being able to grow deeper in their faith.  Churches, youth ministers, and especially parents like to place the blame on external issues like drivers’ licenses; but it is a much deeper issue than that we don’t offer our students anything that continues to make a difference in their lives.  I believe it is our own fault.
A Case Study:  How it Happens
There are three primary programs offered by the traditional youth ministry at First Metholutherbyterian, Anywhere, USA: Youth Group, Sunday school, and Bible Study (or small groups).  Youth group programming time is about relationships, fun, and community usually with a seed casting discipleship emphasis – throwing out spiritual ideas and praying they take root.  Although youth from the come-and-see kids to the committed kids attend the youth group program, it intentionally or unintentionally is programmed for kids somewhere towards the first third of their discipleship journey.
Sunday School – A time for deep learning?
First Metholutherbyterian would say that Sunday school is when they teach their kids the word.  The perception is that Sunday school teaches them about God and Jesus like high schools teach them math.  But in reality what happens in many programs is that Sunday school gets watered down for a variety of reasons.  Youth are tired from their exhausting week at school and are not awake.  Sunday mornings is a difficult time to engage youth in conversation and so teachers spend time trying to get them involved.  Teachers try to make Sunday school fun and before long the program does not look that much different than youth group.  Or teachers make the time relational, they take the kids to Starbucks or McDonald’s and they talk about their week.  But as you are well aware Sunday school in most places is not a time of deep learning and exploration that significantly impacts a young person’s faith journey.
But Wednesday Nights …
Surely, Wednesday night Bible study or small groups offer a deeper program that makes a difference.  Right! Well, they do at strong youth ministries; but my observation is that the purpose of small groups and Bible studies provide a little more depth and intentionality; however, many of the leaders struggle to hold the youth’s attention and therefore fall into the traps of fun and relational ministry—once again flat lining the program to where all the programs offer basically the same spiritual depth.
Is it our fault?
Our pastor and youth parents want every youth to come to every event and program.  Do you know how ridiculous that idea is?  Have you ever asked your pastor why he cannot get everyone who attends church to attend Sunday school or Bible study or even the church picnic?  If we want to provide different spiritual depth at our different programs, then why would we want everyone there anyway?  Youth Ministers understand the difficulties of programming for a 6th grader and a 11th grader at the same time because of maturity, development, and life experience.  Why can we not understand the need to program for different stages of spiritual development?  How bored would a 10th grader be with a 7th grade English, Math, or even PE class (do they have PE anymore?)?  It is no wonder that youth are spiritually bored with our programming.
Our churches are dying because we are drastically short selling Christian Discipleship.  Our kids do not leave the church because they got a driver’s license.  They leave because they have been there and done that, because they are thinking is this really all there is, because we have failed to help them grow past a basic Christian understanding and are asking them to still attend all of our programming despite the fact it feels like 7th grade math.
What can we do?
I’ve spent the past several years working on helping churches develop intentional discipleship plans.  I’ve found that with some intentionality behind our programs we can create a faith journey that our students will follow and learn the lessons to help them be life-long disciples.  Our church continues to graduate seniors who have stayed active in our program.  I’ll dive into some action plans tomorrow.  For today, here are some things to think about:
ž  Make a list of the your programs in your youth ministry.
—  What faith stage are they programmed for? New Believer – Disciple?
—  What faith stage are they advertised for? How do you present the program?
—  What faith stage are the students at that attend? Honestly assess those who attend. Does who’s attending and what they need line up?
ž  Now compare your programs to your stages. Where are the holes in your programming?
You can find the next step in my post Training Fleas and Youth Ministry.
Please comment and help me and all of us grow.  How have you structured your program to keep juniors and seniors growing in their faith?