youth ministry in decline?

usa today ran a piece on youth ministry yesterday, ominously titled ‘Forget pizza parties,’ teens tell churches. as i read it, i found myself intermittently nodding my head in agreement and being frustrated (and even angry) about the poor assumptions peppered throughout the article (both by those they quote, and by the article’s writer). there is some absurd jumps in logic, and some unfortunately finger-pointing at straw men.

here are the first couple paragraphs:

“Bye-bye church. We’re busy.” That’s the message teens are giving churches today.

Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school-year youth groups kick in.

the article goes on to blame parents (well, the executive pastor of a church, quoted in the article, blames parents), facebook (a quote from dave kinniman of barna research), “the overcommitted teens themselves” and the recession (a quote from a camp director), and wraps up with this one-off quote from an 18-year old (which is presented as if it’s a new thing, or an archetype):

Sam Atkeson of Falls Church, Va., left his Episcopal church youth group not long after leaving middle school. “I started to question if it was something I always wanted to do or if I just went because my friends did,” says Atkeson, now 18. “It just wasn’t really something I wanted to continue to do. My beliefs changed. I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian anymore.”

in fact, the only person in the article who seems to admits it might be our own fault (“our” meaning the church and those of us who lead youth ministries) is thom rainer from lifeway.

my second thought (the first being how the article names the problem but misses the point): why are we always so dang quick to point our fingers at everyone and everything else? when will we have the humility to point that accusing finger at ourselves?

i sure would have enjoyed seeing a quote from a youth pastor or church leader or ministry expert who said something like, “well, to be honest, we dropped the ball. it’s our fault. culture has changed, and teenagers have changed, and we’ve still been rolling along with our same ol’ lame pizza parties and camps, pretending it’s 1982. i hope this is a ‘better late than never’ situation where our desire to change and find new ways to engage today’s teenagers with the love of jesus will still find purchase. we’ve stumbled, but our calling is unshaken.”

that would have been cool.

yup, pizza parties probably aren’t gonna cut it anymore. maybe camps need to be heartily rethought through a painful process of death and rebirth. and, sure, there’s still going to be that post middle school teen who stops coming (geez, what’s new there?). maybe the youth pastor who’s building “the marine corps of christianity” is right (or maybe not).

but sumpin’s gotta change. and — all around me, in my interactions with youth workers, every day — i see it changing.

i have not lost hope.

(thanks to joel daniel harris for pointing out the article, via facebook)

29 thoughts on “youth ministry in decline?”

  1. Thanks for posting the article. “How is your youth ministry going?” is the wrong question for us to be exploring… “How are we helping youth grow in their developmentally appropriate maturity in Christ and connecting them to the rest of the intergenerational body of believers TODAY!?” is more like it. Our goals in youth ministry have stopped short of the main thing – maturity in Jesus (that is a lifelong process). We have to go beyond shallow church and theology. I agree Marko, there are many factors that have changed all of this today. Here are a few: adolescent development is getting longer, many families are unhealthy, the negative affects of postmodernity are crashing on our shores (not all of it is negative), entertainment/WIFI culture is fast-paced and the distractions to following Christ for the next generation are high. We need to re-huddle the team (Sr. Pastor, elders, deacons, volunteers, parents and Oh, youth pastor) and have some honest and open communication and collaboration heading into faithful future youth ministry. We need to stop operating on our “youth ministry islands” and partner with the rest of the church to reach and disciple the next generation. Let’s go for it! I am hopeful too!

  2. Sounds like arguments over preferences in packaging. Jesus isn’t a product, a cause or a doctrine, yet we operate youth ministry as if we have to convince others that he’s there.

    We talk about making the youth ministry more connected to the whole church or more age specific, more serious or more fun, more structured or more free-wheeling. Yet in all the discussion, I think we miss the main issue of that – for some reason or another – we haven’t pulled back the curtain to let teens (or adults for that matter) experience God.

    I’ve really, really hated church both when I was a teen and when I was an adult. But i didn’t quit or leave because I had experienced God. I had met Jesus. Paul hated Christ, but once he experienced Jesus, it didn’t matter if he was catered to or not. Abraham was just an average guy until he experienced God.

    Like you said MarkO, there is hope. I’m very hopeful because i watch teenagers who don’t show up to youth group ever go off to college and join Christian Fellowships. I’m hopeful because I saw a hurting family leave our church and their teens got plugged into a vibrant ministry elsewhere. God cares about this stuff more than we do. He’s got more riding on it. We should get outta His way.

  3. I don’t use many flowery words but what I know is that God never called me to a program or an event. What He called me to was an authentic relationship with Him that influences the relationships I have (mostly with students). I agree that we need to allow students to experience Christ bit many times that requires us to be the vessel in their everyday lives. We cannot do that sitting behind a desk, keep regular office hours, and connecting only through IM, texting, Facebook, or whatever the latest thing is. We need to be authentic in our relationship with Christ and allow that to spill out in our face to face contact with students.

  4. This absolutely confirms what I have been seeing locally. When I started, I was offering games and programming. After dropping that and having a plain old discussion type format where we talk about life and how God is present in that, we starting having very healthy growth. I think many teens are looking for something they can’t/don’t get anywhere else.

  5. I see many of the same things, and have struggled to come up with the right mix of response.

    The youth today are different, and the things that we did that they found valuable 10 years ago, are artifacts of a different age. It feels like having a church sock hop. Something parents or grand parents would have liked but today’s kids dont. but we keep doing it.

    Kids are over committed, and super busy. And they are always connected to the people they want to be connected to. They dont have to drive to church to see friends. They are always “with their friends”. We used to see people that were “regular attendees” and they would be there every single week. And we dont see that as much, numbers of attendees stay similar, but you would be hard pressed in advance to predict who would show up this week, who is out of town, who has a game, who is with their other parent this week, who has a play this week, who has a state competition etc. Now let’s try to find one day a week that works for 10 different kids schedules.

    I like your quote, we do need to own the failure to adapt.
    And then we need to work hard, try lots of new things and figure it out.

  6. I’m a former youth pastor, in transition, and I totally agree. I believe our (church) culture believes that it’s all up to the youth pastor and the program. If those two fail, then that’s why youth are leaving the church. It’s so much more deeper and complex than that! As Mark said, nobody wants to take responsibility–and we sure don’t want to hold the students responsible! “If they leave church, then it’s the youth pastor’s fault.” But isn’t each person held responsible for his/her actions? We don’t blame college professors for the students who drop out, so why should we put the blame on youth pastors whose students “drop out?” there is just so much more to it! And one more thing, pizza parties can work–God can use anything.

  7. Marko, thanks for the very insightful post. (I guess what I’m saying is that the article may have been short on insight, but your post was not.)

  8. Dont lose hope Mark! Im one of the youths that the article failed to mention… the youths that are yet holding up the standard and living for God!! In fact our Youth Ministry started a YouTube broadcast recently cuz we know times are changing and we need to go with the change without changing the Message! So many young people are on YouTube and quite honestly, YouTube needs some youth ministries out there. Well I could go on but if you want to check out our first of many videos, go to youtube and type in “itsc veracity” or here is the link…

    ITSC Veracity

    Here is the link to our channel..

  9. It’s hard not to pass the blame when we feel something isn’t working, especially when we have no idea why it isn’t working or how to make it work. I just keep thinking, that maybe that’s the problem. God keeps trying to get me to work less and depend on him more in my ministry. (BTW I still haven’t learned how to do this.) I share that because I think God is saying the same thing to a lot of youth workers. The more I try to work to make my ministry successful, WORK to connect kids to Jesus, the more I come up short. I desperately want my students to experience all that God has to offer, but I think sometimes I work so hard to make that happen that I actually get in the way and miss Him altogether. I don’t know if this makes any sense, or if it rings true for anyone else, but I sense that sometimes I try really hard to make Jesus appealing (he doesn’t need my help with this) to students when what I’m really doing is trying to make my program appealing. I hope that one day soon I’ll move out of the way long enough for God to really work in the lives of my students.

  10. Youth Ministry in my area is really declining. The teens don’t “need” to attend meetings anymore to connect with their friends because they have their cell phones that they are constantly texting on. Pizza isn’t the draw any longer and parents aren’t into sending their kids any longer for womeone else to “babysit”. There must be an answer but I haven’t seen it yet and I am looking so hard. I just know that there are teens out there who need desperatly to hear about Christ; to hear his message and to know that he loves them, but I don’t know how to get it to them any longer. It is very sad.

  11. Haven’t we been seeing this coming?

    The question now is; how do we hand the keys of the church to the youth in a genuine way…they are sick of ‘sim church’

  12. This is worse then we thought… Youth Ministry was always a value proposition. Jesus adds value lets not confuse the two BUT youth groups are adding seemly less and less value to students & families. Do we have the freedom or guts to minister to youth differently? to add spiritual value in completely different ways. if I’m honest… many professional (paid) youth leaders are constrained by the youth group model, they are often measured by it or a form of it.

    We know kids connect differently and i hope churches will encourage… no, I pray they will freaking dare youth workers to be dangerous… & dangerous is usually different. The question for me is… do youth workers want to get dirty? its easier to wait for kids to show up to youth group or why not just blame the parents when they don’t show up. Its a value proposition… so its on us as youth workers.

    Maybe we’re valuing the wrong things? (I can write a list?)

  13. Venable, those are some (as usual) great thoughts/comments and a conversation worth having somewhere/sometime. The “constrained by model” approach differs context-to-context as to what model constrains, but it does tend to shift the focus from why we’re at this work (as does our desire for recognition). Your thought on what value we give youth/family is a great reminder that we all need to be laser focused on what we’re doing – and who (Who) we’re doing it for.

    The article seemed to me to be part of a renewed effort to bash Christians (I feel like we’re in the 1970s again). For YEARS, youth ministry has changed (e.g., from rallies to clubs, from games to worship, from camps to service/mission trips) its approaches.

    Sweeping articles like this just irritate, using a narrow band of research decidedly looking for something. One of the first things you learn in research is “look for the negative instance” – those things that disprove your findings… let alone your point in a newspaper article.

    But, my hope is that youth workers don’t just bash the article without considering some underlying cautions. We ought to have a renewed conversation in the US about the missional foundations of youth ministry and we move from programmatic and professional to missional. We ought to be learning to not just be relevant, but to develop our theological and apologetic prowess to have thoughtful and grace-full responses.

  14. The magic phrase of the day is “missiological advocacy”. Youth Ministers, those who serve the young church (Protestant & Catholic), need to examine their individual motives and congregational expectations. Both desires can easily fuel the “numbers games”, “having something for the kids”, and “having fun while eating pizza”.

    “Renewing the Vision” is a document deeper than a mantra, it is a living document steeped in prayer and reflection of our Bishops. Those who are invested in youth ministry should take time to pray over “Renewing the Vision” and their parish mission, reflect over sacred scripture,review their pastor expectations, worship through mass with the community, listen to their team’s goals, and discuss with teens their desires for a comprehensive youth ministry program and then become the missiological advocate within their congregation.

    Imagine a youth minister that had no contact with teens. Instead their contact was with adults within the community whose gifts and talents are transformed into moments of apostolic opportunities of disciple based mentoring and formation. Instead of visiting high schools, the youth ministers visits parents in their communities to discuss adolescent discipleship and praying with children. Instead of mission trip, the youth minister coordinates opportunities for families to sign up and serve within the local community. Missiological advocacy focuses on holding up a vision of discipleship not just for adolescent but for the entire community to be a congregation of active disciples of Jesus Christ in the world today.

    Relational ministry will still happen and may be even more effective than the team of Sunday night volunteers. There could be even an incarnational-relational ministry, where the presence of Jesus Christ is encountered in “common” events of church life. For example incarnational-relational ministry happens when the 80 year old usher and the 17 year old share a conversation and greet people on Sunday morning as they hold open the doors of the church for parishioners. The possibilities are endless. Although I do desire to see an adolescent as head of the parish council with a professional CEO as vice head of the council, it would be fascinating to see what “old adults and children” could dream up collectively for the life of the congregation.

    Youth Ministry, I believe is naturally developing into the unfolding Kingdom of God that lies before us. It is an exciting and worthy adventure of epic proportion.

    Could someone pass a meatball slice?

  15. Teens don’t want to be catered to, teens want to be needed, they want adults to believe they have something significant to say and offer to the world around them. In my own program I have seen less involvement in the typical youth night and more involvement in service not only to the larger community but also in mentoring to thier own peers. The bottom line is this is at much their ministry as it is ours. Let them step up and do the leading. Let’s face it they know the spiritual needs of their peers better than some of the adults. If we just give them the support and backing they will make ministry with youth what ministry with youth should be.

  16. This hits a nerve….mostly because I have been wrestling through some of these ideas myself and partly because I refuse to believe the negative hype about youth ministry. In my very simplistic thinking, at it’s core youth ministry has and always will be about caring adults spending time with teenagers and pointing them toward Jesus. As long as we keep that as the focus then have as many programs and pizza parties as you want….or have none at all.

    Terry L., I think what you said rings very true for me….thanks for articulating it so well!

    A few books that may be worth reading:
    A Tale Of Two Youth Workers by Eric Venable (pay me later, Eric)
    Christians are Hate-filled Hypocrites….and other lies you’ve been told by Bradley R.E. Wright
    My new book; The 9…best practices of youth ministry. Sorry to plug my own book but I really do think it is a blend of youth ministry 2.0 and 3.0 which I tend to believe most youth ministries are currently living.

  17. “Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook.”

    I don’t think the problem is necessarily lack of interest. i.e. “Teens are more interested in being on Facebook than talking with God.”

    What if teens have never truly had an encounter with God? What if they don’t know how to talk with God? What if they don’t have parents and churches that have taught (discipled) them in how to have a relationship with God and the value of this?

    What if the problem is not social media at all? Before technology, there were other things. People (especially teens) have always found a way to keep themselves busy. They HATE being bored. I don’t blame the teens, technology, or even youth ministry necessarily. What if the larger issue is that parents are not engaged (with teens or with God for that matter) and churches are not sharing a biblically-grounded message of the grandness of God.

    I have witnesses teens who have started to grasp a great vision for the glory of God, and they spend a great amount of time in worship, prayer, study, fellowship, and service. Sure, most of them use social networking sites like Facebook as well, but this does not keep them from have a vibrant relationship with God. Let us introduce teens to the Jesus of Calvary, tell them what he has done for them, and how he loves them, and has a plan to reveal the Father’s glory through them, and then we will see them engaged. Let’s quit whining about how youth culture has become SOO bad, and model a Christ-centered life ourselves.

  18. Every generation bemoans the faltering of the generation coming after them. First of all, the generation coming after us was raised by us and is the tangible fulfillment of our successes and failures. In our church plant we work with a number of college age men and women. I am always shocked when I hear about the baggage that their “Christian” parents have left them with and the poor example of Christ centered theology that these parents have portrayed. In contrast to the current belief that the younger generation is somehow “lost”, I am constantly amazed at how faithful a witness these younger people are in spite of the poor example set by their parents.

    So, Alyssa, Blake, Tiffany, Robyn, Matt, Leah, Cord, Kyle, Kat, Teri, Sean, Adam, and anyone else I have forgotten, please forgive us for failing to be the Jesus that you now seek. Seek him with us and redeem his legacy as we share the breaking news that Jesus reigns.- In peace, Rich

  19. In the words of Melvin Udall: “I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water.”

    Of course the face of youth ministry is changing … what would we expect with everything out there that is coming at our kids at a million miles an hour. Of course youth professionals are feeling bad that there is “decline”. A youth guy would have to be dead from the neck up to not be frustrated at … how to keep up. I think the thing we have to focus on is our heart and commitment … to God and to our calling.

    Our society loves stuff that is in decline … makes good headlines and sells books. Maturity and experience tells me to … “stay the course” … keep looking down the track … and run. I’m 54 and I have seen stuff in youth ministry “abound and abase” … we can all describe the water. Whenever I get to the place that the frustration begins to push out my passion … I just remember to go back and “dance with the one who brought me.”


  20. Not to be critical, but in my experience people talk about change and formulate change, but seldom have the courage to actually change. We can blame it on lame Deacon or Elder boards or on “stuck in the past” senior pastors, but the bottom-line is that if God is calling you to radically change your approach to youth ministry then you need to do it, regardless of the consequences.

    Three years ago the youth ministry I led made a radical shift to a small group based or “youth groups within a youth group” format, what Marco calls Youth Ministry 3.0. We more or less did away with the once a month gathering focus and our volunteers gathered their assigned small groups in their homes, at Starbucks, and at the disk golf parks. The students were able to engage in consistent community. This led to growth in our students and in our volunteers as both groups took responsibility for what was happening. On the downside, we lost some kids, lost some parents, were loaded up with a ton of gossip from the congregation, and lost a couple of volunteers. However, who could argue with the fact that 45-60 students and 9 adults (in a church with a Sunday attendance less than 100 people) were meeting together each week to study, pray, and do life together.

    Radical change takes radical courage. Even if you get fired for doing what God has called you do he will use your example to give courage to others.

    In Peace-Rich

  21. Rich, I was wondering do you still have a gathering time for all the students and adults? We are just getting into effective small groups and I believe that we need to keep our gathering time once a week for the entire body. Just wondering what thoughts are on this.

  22. @Wally
    We experimented with a once per month gathering to worship together. That was not as well attended as we had hoped; I think because the students were really tuned into the idea of intimate community. We went ahead and had summer poolside gatherings in June-August with camps and retreats, as well. After about 1 1/2 years, we felt like the mentors and the students were really grasping the idea of small group community, so we started having a weekly gathering that was shorter and started a little later in the evening (7:45)than normal youth group with the small groups meeting either during the week or before the gathering.

    I think the key is to not be afraid to shake things up and follow the heart God has given you while keeping a pulse on your kids and your community. Our youth group had shifted from being a group heavy in smart leadership oriented kids to one with a lot of culture of poverty kids, so we felt led to shift as well. The best part of the change was how it demanded that our volunteer mentors grow and live in community as well, not just hanging out in the back of the room with each other. Marko published a whole book on the topic of Youth Ministry 3.0 just after we started this.

  23. I have been thinking a lot about this idea that youth ministry is in decline. My wife and I served as volunteers in a large youth ministry (compared to our church) for six years and as paid staff for the last four (2000-2010). We now are serving in a small church plant in the same town that meets in the same building (yeah, its kinda weird) as our old youth group does. In both ministries we have worked with people in the their early to late teens and college years. One of the tenements of post-modernism that really applies to these types of ministries is the invalidity of trying to apply the experiences of people in one place to those in another place, i.e. what works or doesn’t work in Pensacola, Florida may work or not work in Cottonwood, California. To assume that youth ministry is in decline everywhere because many people feel that way does not mean it is actually true or that there is in actuality a universal problem or answer to that problem.
    Secondly, does smaller numbers of kids in youth groups really mean that youth ministry is decline? Maybe we should be looking at the young people we do have and evaluating their growth in and commitment to the Kingdom of Jesus. I know that when our old youth group was hitting close to 100 kids on a Wednesday night (our high school is less than 800 students, the church less than 100 on a Sunday) we were the most shallow in our commitment to Jesus. We have to stop using numbers as a measuring stick for success. In our church plant, we may have not grown a ton in the first year (actually the launch team has shrunk), but our commitment to the city and to each other has grown. Jesus, with all the miracles and having risen from the dead only had at most a few hundred (maybe as few as 120) followers praying on the Day of Pentecost, yet those people turned the world upside down in their lifetimes.

    Just food for thought…in Peace

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