Imagine a school where 50% of the students fail. They have a reputation for their students being totally unprepared for college. The students have fun and they like their teachers, but despite this, half of the students end up dropping out. Such a school would be unaccredited very quickly, the staff changed and they would have to undergo a major transformation.
The sad thing is that this system does exist, and instead of getting shut down, it’s receiving praises from so many different sources. Its name is “Youth Ministry in America.” In America, almost half of all students who were active in their high school youth group end up falling away from the church during college. These numbers aren’t pretty, but they send a clear message: America’s model of youth ministry is failing. Why? That’s not nearly as simple of an answer. We can blame campus ministries, the lack of good young adult programs, “liberal” professors, and all sorts of other outside forces, but perhaps there’s also a problem in our preparation of the students during their time in our youth ministries.
What are we doing wrong? Why are we losing so many young people after they leave our groups? These questions have been stuck in my mind, as I’m thinking about how my church can be different than those statistics. Going through the names of the kids in my youth group, I can’t imagine half of these wonderful children of God falling away from the faith in four years. It’s almost unbearable for me to think about! Even though I’ve only been here for a few months so far, and I’m only guaranteed to be here for a year-long internship, I love these young people! They are amazing sheep that God desperately wants to stay in His flock. Do I have that same desperation for them? Am I willing to do whatever it takes to not just get them to youth group, but to help them to follow Jesus?
So what are we doing wrong? Well, we’re all sinful human beings, so there are a lot of things. But there’s one thing that I kept coming back to when I was looking at the youth ministry program I am a part of, which I think is similar to the majority of other churches as well. Right now, it’s set up so that we do ministry to the youth. We minister to them, we plan fun events for them, we teach them, we take care of the details and all they do is receive and enjoy. In this model, what brings the kids to the ministry is the leader, fun, friends, learning, etc. But what happens when all those things are taken away? When they get to college and there’s no youth leader to plan events for them, to teach the Word to them, they aren’t surrounded by the same group of friends and they aren’t drawn in by the fun events? They have nothing left to follow. We’ve taught them to follow us, but we haven’t really taught them how to follow Jesus. We’ve kept them separate. We are doing ministry toour young people rather than with them. When we do ministry tothem, the danger is that they end up following the youth program and the youth leader. But when we do ministry with them, it gives them the best opportunity to learn to follow Jesus.
What are we doing wrong? In our attempts to be relevant to the kids and to get them in the doors of the church, we sometimes end up creating a culture in youth ministry that follows the youth leader in order to get to Jesus, rather than just following Jesus firsthand. The goal is trying to shift, over time, towards ministering with the youth, on getting them active in ministry in some way. When we’re activating others in ministry, getting them involved as disciples, helping them become servant leaders and allowing them to use their gifts in service to the kingdom, we are moving ourselves out of the way and helping them learn how to follow Jesus on their own. Giving the youth significant and regular leadership and service opportunities helps them to own their faith, not just know it.
This requires a shift in my thinking about how I do ministry. Instead of wondering how many kids are attending, I need to focus also on how many are involved. What things am I doing/leading/planning that I could help some youth do/lead/plan? Am I using their gifts or showing off mine? Am I teaching them to read and interpret the Word on their own, or just giving them the “right” answers? How am I equipping them to continue in the faith when I’m not there? Am I helping them experience the Word of God?
The statistics are unacceptable, on a national level and on an individual congregational level. How do we change it? Focus on Christ. Focus on the Word. Focus on the Sacraments. Then let the Holy Spirit do the work. We confess our sin of making it about us instead of Jesus, and then we let His Word draw us back to Christ. Praise be to God that it really is that simple. Shift the focus off of us and onto Jesus. Shift the focus off of what we’re saying and onto His Word. Shift the focus off a “youth group” and onto God’s Church. The fix isn’t found in a revolutionary new program, but in the call given to the first disciples of our Lord, the call of a God who does all the work: “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men!”