Discipleship Dilemma in Youth Ministry

Update: Part II is now online here

I have come back from the week in Queensland with a question that is disturbing me more and more, so I’ll try and describe it here and see where it goes.

Here are some stats I am sure you have heard:

1. 80% of young people make a ‘decision for Christ’ before the age of 18… therefore this is where we ought to invest a huge amount of our resources. I completely agree that this is a time when people are usually most open and receptive to new ideas.

2. Of those young people who make ‘decisions for Christ’ around 80% will dump their faith altogether when they get a car, go to Uni and are exposed to ‘the world’ outside of the Christian youth scene.

Hmmm… what is going on here?

While I don’t have the sources for these (the first is quoted ad nauseum in youth ministry texts and the second is based on a reliable New Zealand study which eludes me at the moment) they are somewhat true even anecdotally.

There is no question that if you want to get your ‘conversion rate’ up at church, you need a decent youth ministry where you can pull young people in and get them to respond to the ‘gospel’ in some way. Usually these will be high schoolers, but this openness can extend to early University age.

But then what?…

What on earth happens that somewhere along the line the vast majority will bail on faith and ‘go try something else’?

I don’t believe I am overstating the case. As I meet with youth pastors from all around the city and as I reflect on my own time in the youth ministry at Lesmurdie Baptist this appears to be normal. Even amongst bigger churches, while the ‘front door’ might be big, the ‘back door’ is swinging wide open also. It just isn’t quite as evident while the flurry of activity continues to mask the problem.

Noticeably the ones who stay around longer are typically either those from church families, or those who have been drawn into significant leadership roles. But for those without the ‘fences’ around them of family or structure they are very prone to wander and it seems there is little we can do to stop it.

During my 5 years as a youth pastor at Lesmurdie we saw the number of people in the youth scene grow from 30ish to around 250ish in a period of 2-3 years. It was a freaky period where we seemed to be flavour of the month for church hoppers, but there were also people saying they wanted to be Christians. There were young people regularly responding to evangelistic appeals as well as people coming to faith in one to one situations. I personally baptised a heap of new Christians and I know our youth leaders also baptised a lot. In that 3 year window I’d say that of all the new faces at church on a Sunday night around 60-70 were new Christians.

But within one year we had seen the number present on a Sunday night decline to around 120 before I finished in the role. Some simply moved on to funkier churches but most of the new Christians evporated into the ether and just gave it all away. A few hardy ones survived and are still going today, but of those from unchurched families who seemed to choose to follow Jesus very few remain.

This dilemma has disturbed me for years now and I honestly don’t know if there is a solution. But I am tired of seeing this cycle repeating over and over and feel maybe its time to say ‘enough!’ Surely we must be able to do better when it comes to discipleship of young people – because this would appear to be the core issue.

Of course…

Maybe this is what we ought to expect in the teenage years?…

Maybe its not as I describe?… Maybe we are actually reaching young people and discipling them to maturity. What do you think?

Maybe we are actually doing something wrong and need some radical shifts in our paradigm of youth ministry?…

Some thoughts to percolate discussion:

* Are teens really responding to the gospel? If so what

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gospel would that be?

* Do we set ourselves up for this kind of situation by having youth services that can only ‘keep them’ until they are in their early 20’s at best before they feel ‘too old for the youth service,’ but also feel ‘way too young for the adult service?’ They are left in a consumer’s vacuum.

* Do we set the bar high enough for them? Do we ask enough of them? Someone has said ‘Christianity in the west won’t die because we ask too much of people, but rather because we ask too little’. On a similar note Tony Campolo once said ‘Youth is made for heroism not for pleasure’, yet much of youth ministry seems to focus on bringing young people fun rather than calling them to a life of self denial and counter-cultural living.

* Are we as their leaders too much a part of the problem to be able to offer solutions with integrity? Have we bought the whole Jesus as ‘accessory’ mindset – (Jesus as an addition to my otherwise happy middle class life) so that now we are not able to challenge young people to a life of authentic discipleship?

* Are youth pastors concerned that if they went harder on the discipleship angle that it could mean their jobs? I have seen otherwise mild mannered parents go like pit bulls after youth pastors who don’t do the expected meat and 3 veg youth group / Sunday night church gig. Do you dare to break with protocol and risk incurring the wrath of the tithing parents? Lets face it this is a real issue. Working with a handful of truly devoted followers won’t pay any bills, but I seem to remember someone speaking about the way being narrow and few finding it… Maybe we need to say ‘Screw the paycheck. We are going to have a crack at this from a different angle’.

Just for the record, I have seen so called ‘fun based’ youth ministry models produce disciples and I have also seen apparently ‘discipleship based’ models lose young people. So I am not convinced the model is the problem.

I want to chew on this question for a while and I’d be interested to hear what others think. Is it actually all rolling along nicely for us and I am missing it, or do we need to do some serious thinking about this question?

Update: Part II is now online here

2 thoughts on “Discipleship Dilemma in Youth Ministry

  1. I would like to know more about the question

    * Are teens really responding to the gospel? If so what gospel would that be?

    what the young people and adults are responding to must be something weak because I don’t always see a life change. in many churches a Christian is exactly the same as a person who is not a Christian

    I asked some teens the question “What was life like before you became a Christian and after” they said there was no difference. Thats not what should happen! the more I grow the more I relise my life needs to change I have to make myself more vunrable to the way that Jesus was.

    And it scares me being a Christian is challenging! yet I don’t see that in others.

  2. I think we do not set the bar high enough… If we do not USE them – as part of the workers being sent out into the world, they will not stay. If we help them to discover their calling, identity, task, potential, responsiblity and help them to LIVE out their faith, we are only keeping them busy with nice things. When being involved, really DOING what they are called to do becomes a lifestyle, they will stay.

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