Why I don’t believe in youth ministry.

broken bikeWhy I don’t believe in children’s and youth ministry (whilst passionately believing in and supporting it at the same time) 

Sorry for the clickbait title. I wanted to hear as many opinions as I could and this simple use of emotional manipulation made it more likely.

I realise that there is something deeply hypocritical in these thoughts. I started as a youth volunteer aged 16 and worked as an employed youth and/or children’s worker from aged 19 through to aged 29. Since the age 27 I have been in leadership of 2 congregations aimed specifically at young adults and 1 church with this focus. To write these comments as I will is hypocritical as I am at best tacitly complicit in the development and at worst consciously propagating that which I am questioning. Yet the road out of hypocrisy begins with recognising our own dualisms and from that recognition move towards a better place.

Today Gavin Calver from Youth for Christ posted this question on twitter @GavCalver:

“Please help me! What do you think are the biggest reasons why people in their 20’s & 30’s might leave the Church &/or give up on God?”

With not much happening at that hour of the day I took a few moments and fired off some replies of what my thinking is. This blog is a slight extension of that thinking. It is not meant to as an answer to the problem but a question that may help us address the issue at hand.

When faced with this question I think we have four reasons for the 20s/30s exodus that stand out.

Young adults are leaving the church because they no longer (or never did) believe in God and/or Christianity. They may have stayed in church because of their parents and once they had flown the next they no longer engaged with church because they no longer had faith. This is a simple and clear reason for leaving.

Young adults are leaving the church because church teaching is at best no longer relevant to them or at worst is deemed archaic, draconian or bigoted on key issues. We can see this in groups who have left over wider issues such as sexuality or female leadership but also in the exodus of individuals over their personal experiences of individual congregations and leaders.

Young adults are leaving church but continuing to live faith in an individualised way. They love God, they love Jesus but feel that they no longer need the gathered community for their faith to grow. For many they see organised church as a hinderance to their love of God rather than a help. They have not lost faith in the doctrine of church but in the practice of the organisation.

The fourth reason and this is the one I have been thinking about most is that young adults are leaving church because they have no tools for engaging with church once they have graduated children/youth and student ministries. They leave because ‘adult church’ involves much more work for self integration than age relevant ministries do but there is not enough signposting or teaching on how to engage.

The almost universal reaction to reaching the ‘missing generation’ of 20s and 30s is to continue with the model that has worked so well in reaching children and young people. We develop environments and ministries that are specific to 20s and 30s. This is the type of thing that I have done. These work with various levels of success. There are young adults conferences that are brilliant run by organisations like New Wine and Soul Survivor, giving age relevant and stage relevant teaching to young adults from all corners of the church. These help to give the generation least represented in church a sense that there are more of them than it can sometimes seem which serves in raising faith for intragenerational mission.

These ventures have been going on for a couple of decades and have ramped up their activity in the last ten years. Yet the numbers suggest that we are still seeing decline in church attendance  and from what I can tell amongst that decline is a large number of non-attending believers who are still open to the idea of gathered church but are currently unattached to any local church. It seems that these great and exciting models are not plugging the leak but merely slowing down the flow out of the church. I have a feeling that this model of creating another level of age focussed ministry is only treating the symptom and not addressing the cause of the issue.

I have spoken to a lot of these non-attending believers through the years and I have found a repeated story. I can over-simplify these conversations as follows:

“I loved my youth group, the youth leaders were great. I was involved, I led a small group and went to Soul Survivor and on mission trips. Throughout University CU and church student work was a continuation of that sense. We were all together, reaching our campus, the student pastors cared about me and I had a high sense of belonging. Once I left Uni though I struggled to fit in, I joined a house group but felt a little invisible. I found it hard to see where I belonged, I suppose I just drifted away.”

I have heard versions of this many times. Here are some things that I can pick out of it.

Children’s and youth ministries are great at creating belonging and discipleship environments. Young people thrive in these environments where they are loved and welcomed by people who exist solely for their generation.

There is a sense of representation and ownership within youth ministries and student ministries. We are all similar and we are connected. We are represented by our peers or by our youth/student pastor. Our opinion is valued and time is made for us. We have our own place to belong within the wider church.

There is a strong feeling of being one generation together reaching one generation. This is language that is used widely in youth and student work. This purpose and identity helps form strong bonds between members of groups.

Something changes when we graduate uni. (This is also reflected in the drop off between school and university)

I wonder if we need to change the culture around our age relevant programmes for children, young people and students. Are we accidentally creating a culture of segregation within our churches that whilst helping young people thrive in their youth is failing to give them the tools to continue to thrive throughout their 20s and 30s? Are movements of youth groups, youth conferences, youth churches and youth missions creating cultures within generations that are hindering strong faith in our 20s and 30s.

What I know is this. As a young person there was a lot of focus on me in the two churches I attended. Sunday School, youth group, youth weekends, youth Sundays etc. all taught me that I was a priority within the church. As a post university adult, almost from the day I was 22, I could say that this was no longer the case. My view is skewed slightly as I was on staff at any church I attended but the reality was the level of resource directed at me was no longer as noticeable as before. I was just another adult in a room full of adults.

Up until that point there was great effort to help me integrate into church and grow as a Christian. after that point the onus was much more on me. I was responsible for integrating, I was responsible for my own growth. I was less likely to have someone notice I wasn’t attending because there was never someone looking out specifically for people like me. I think that the change of level of care from youth to adult is vast and I am unsure that we are preparing our young people for it. Many of us hit adulthood and begin to feel a strong disconnection from church.

I wonder if it is from this disconnection that the issues regarding relevance and theology grow in magnitude. When I have felt disconnected, unnoticed and unrepresented within church I have been much better at noticing where I differ from the prevailing narrative. If I feel I don’t belong I can much more readily find my differences from the rest of the congregation. I wonder if a generation who are unprepared for the hard work of integrating into a community (this is universal and not just in the church) feel so disconnected that the differences in their theology and the seeming irrelevance of practice are magnified. I wonder if a lack of feeling connected causes a poor leadership decision to hurt even more than it should have and a lack of belonging makes staying around not worth fighting for in the face of such hurt. I wonder if differences in belief on morality make attendance untenable (in spite of agreeing on more than we differ on) because a sense of belonging is so low that unity is not worth fighting for.

Our response to now has been to create another generational relevant ministry, 20s and 30s, something I have given the last 8 years to. However, the worry in the back of my mind is that we are just delaying the inevitable and that the problem will just arrive a decade later when a generation hits 40. Will the answer then be a 30s and 40s group? Is further segregation really our best answer? This is currently the answer I am giving and has been for the last 8 years but I think there is something better but it is much harder work.

I think this because I have seen examples of it. One such example is G2 in York. I was part of this congregation for a few years. This is a church that young adults thrive in but it is not a young adults church. Children, youth and young adults are participating in leadership alongside older generations and as a result the church has a large proportion of young adults. The sense of belonging in their culture begins from childhood. They are all part of the wider group. They have age specific ministries but they are working hard to train the whole church how to integrate across the generations. They are in a true sense pursuing family church. I think this is in no small part down to the great work of Fusion amongst teaching students and young people how to integrate and the fact that G2 has a core group of Fusion staff within it. G2 are not alone in this success but they are a great example.

Is our model of children’s and youth ministry failing to teach our young people how to integrate with the wider church? Does youth and kids ministry create a unnoticed weakness within us that trains us in expecting to be spoon-fed integration? How do we change the culture of our age appropriate ministries to prepare our young people for the hard work of integrating as an adult?

Any thoughts welcome. I have few answers but am excited about the fact that somebody might.

8 thoughts on “Why I don’t believe in youth ministry.

  1. Many things I would love to say. But one thing I always believe is that a church reflects its leadership. I’m 24, a man, and lead a ministry. I have seen a sharp uprising in 15-30s males join the team. Similarly, Ministries lead by 40-50s have 40-50s in them.

    What churches who do this well have, is a spread of ages released into leadership. At 22, you have the most relevant, ideas filled leader of young adults, who can be backed by older, wiser mentors. I’ve seen too much older members of church babying 22-30 year olds, so why should they harness their skills and abilities there. The amount of start ups, blogs, creative media, etc that is run by young adults that the church has lost out on because it fears change. Embrace all ages and release giftings. Let people play their part and they will engage. Spoon feed someone who feeds themselves and they’ll feel like the baby you’re treating them like.

    Represent the culture you want to thrive in your leadership. Churches like G2 have young people, young adults, families and grandparents all in leadership. So should the wider church.

  2. ” church” Too many programmes and man made thoughts and ideas. Let’s get back to God’s agenda, God’s purposes and God’s plans. Let’s ask God what He wants us to do !! Now there’s a thought.
    If we get our converts focused on the Bible and we disciple them to maturity and send them out with their own revelation of what God wants then we will see the REAL Church growing. Then we won’t be counting bums on seats…we will be rejoicing with God that His will is being fulfilled and His Kingdom is coming on earth.

  3. Some really excellent points. Rather than comment at length, I’ve written a blog-post in response. Hoping you got the pingback, but I’ve responded here: http://wp.me/p3sef-iG
    Effectively, I’d add ‘Greater and more prolonged transience’ and ‘Inter-generational disconnect over expectations’ as two key issues, plus delayed/non-existent usage of Children’s Ministry from a parental perspective.

  4. a great blog. If I can add a further thought that I also tweeted to Gavin Calver.

    I think there is a perceived (or perhaps real) lack of authenticity in the church. The 20 to 30 age group view authenticity as so important as they have grown up in the age of political spin and unreal celebrities where it seems like a sparse commodity.

    The lack of authenticity comes from reading the bible, specifically parts like the commission to the disciples in Matthew 10:8 and John 14:12, where Jesus tells the disciples they will do even greater works. They read this but then they don’t see this in their own lives or in many churches.

    The love and the power that Jesus promised to us when he went back to heaven is often missing despite it being clearly promised in the bible. This creates a perceived lack of authenticity and certainly not life to the full (John 10:10)as Jesus said he came to give.

    If we can show the 20s and 30s (or any age group for that matter) the adventure that is to be had through a life led by the spirit seeing the kingdom break out in any context of life, where we are doing the things that Jesus did, then not only will they stay, they will bring the crowds back with them as well.

  5. I agree with a point that Tim made on your wall Dave, that Church services are the problem.
    Even though we pay lipservice to the fact that this is not ‘the Church’, the reality of it is that this is what Church is for most people, and if you were not to attend that part of Church you would likely have little influence within the Church.

    Tim said on your wall that “fundamentally are model of doing church services is literally 300 years old”, I think there is a lot to this. I am in my mid 20s, finished uni had a child and family etc.. What is the one thing that is different in my life now? it is time and tiredness. I have a busy job and life and don’t want to waste my life every Sunday for a couple of hours watching what, another Christian described to me the other week, as essentially a bad show. Horrible clichéd music etc… And I don’t want to be spoken at – it is not the way that most people learn things. I want discussion, I want my brain engaged, I want debate, I want relationships. I think this is why G2 is a success. I enjoy coffee, I enjoy chatting, I enjoy a relaxed atmosphere where children feel they can make noise, I enjoy discussing a topic, not being spoken at. G2 offers me all these things.

    I think there is more to be said for my point about time and tiredness. Students simply have the time. It doesn’t matter so much for a student that Church services are boring waffle because if you lose 2 hours on a Sunday, you might lose out on some computer game time (I know this might be insulting to students, but I talk about my own experience of Uni). You also gain by having more groups directed at you. For me I might only have 2 hours free in the week and I want to spend that on relationships and relaxation, not listening to someone talk at me and awful folk music.

    A final note (which might seem flipant, but I think there is a lot to this) is that I think a lot of Christian male students go to Church largely to find a partner – largely a result of theology and a desire to marry young. So as you get into your mid 20s and maybe have ticked this box there is less appeal in going to Church

  6. Really interesting blog post. I am currently planting a Fresh Expression of church with a group of 20’s so was very interested in your thoughts. I have three things to throw into the discussion.

    I am glad that David mentioned above that church is about 300 years our of date! Your example of G2 is, by contrast, very close to the culture of young people (well people in the 21st Century). The disconnect is at all levels of the church. I was in a church recently that had lost all the 50’s and had no 20’s either but a growing bunch of 30’s. The greater the disconnect between culture and church the greater the loss of people, except for those born into the church who have assimilated its culture over time.

    I think your post also highlighted the lack of mission focus in the rest of the church. The children and youth work is very mission focused as you stated, but that emphasis was missing in your discussion of the rest of the church age-groups. Mostly we are starting from the church that does God’s mission rather than starting by taking God’s heart for people, in (incarnational) mission in to culture and creating Church there in that context afterwards.

    As I am discovering with the 20’s I am working with there is HUGE pressure on them that other generations do not have. They have little job flexibility, often working Sundays (built into their contracts). I agree with the point that they are still gaining a faith of their own. If they have not previously internalised faith, once they leave the structures of home and from under their parents’ faith and the family surroundings they quickly face falling away in the pressures of life. And they face huge pressures of exorbitant prices for housing or the need to build roots far from home in a culture that is often network based and always takes time to settle down in. The aspect on the social-economic pressure should not be understated.

    I have found http://Freshexpressions.org.uk tobe extreemely helpful in understanding the missional context and a very helpful strategy for engaging with the world we live in.

  7. I was musing the other day about what the point of church actually is. Ask most people and I suspect they’ll mention something that’s more a byproduct of what happens when God’s people gather, rather than why they/we gather. I don’t think worship, teaching, evangelism or anything else planned is the primary purpose of church. Primarily church is a community of saints, nothing more and nothing less. When we gather we’ll worship, teach and learn and that community will be attractive to outsiders. I think especially because there’s something about a multigenerational gathering that happens in church in a way it doesn’t happen anywhere else.

    In whatever communities you’re part of, chances are it’s unusual for the age range to regularly cover 0-90, lots of those people to know who each other are and have a care for each other that goes beyond neighbourly in many cases.

    Some church friends had a New Year party, invited us and another friend from church who happens to be in his 70s. A university friend of our host, who doesn’t know church, was clearly thrown by having someone so much older at the party. It was unexpected and outside his norm whereas for the rest of us it was unremarkable.

    I too greatly support children’s, youth and student work but fear we neglect the very primary reason for the church existing, to hang out together.

    I don’t think this mean abandoning the programmes, but it does mean featuring this within them and making time for people to just spend time together as church rather than only ever as a group of students.

  8. I would just mention three things, and perhaps they’ve already been covered. First, at least in my North American experience, limited by my geographical context, I’ve seen much more emphasis on “programs” than on the Holy Spirit. Other than paying lip service to Him (not “It”), many mainline congregations haven’t even begun to make His acquaintance. No clever program, no matter how ingenious, will ever replace Him – it’s that way on purpose, of course.
    Second, we’ve lost all vision of allowing God to make us relevant to His plan, instead, we’re consumed with “the next clever thing” to reach people groups. I don’t see that in the Book of Acts; what I do see is Paul taking orders from the Holy Spirit on where to go and how to conduct business.
    Third, God instituted churches to be holy families – that’s why all the verbiage about parts of the body, etc. We are not only one family worldwide, we are one family as congregations.
    Two sub-points: I generally hate “Unity Sundays” because all they do is point out how un-unified we are on all the other Sundays! There is only one unity we can truly acquire, because it’s only found in one Holy Spirit. Secondly, God placed me in my church family. While it may have looked like I chose, in reality, He chose for me – with His Kingdom plans in mind. I may not like them all, all the time, and they may aggravate me to my bones sometimes, but…they are MY FAMILY, and I will love and serve them – come what may. I’ve never been on staff; I’m just another digit…but these family members are my responsibility just as much as they are the pastor’s. God gave us to each other. His rules.
    Don’t know if any of that epistle mattered or not, but it’s what came to mind.

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