Why do so many young people leave the church immediately after they graduate from high school? Because they went to youth group.
At least, that’s what one researcher is starting to believe. In an article that announces the era of age segmentation is (or should be) over, Kara Powell argues that it was a big mistake to segregate youth from adults in the life of the church (something that started in the 1940s). The reasons have to do with the fact that we end up catering “ministry” to young people and then they don’t know how to find a church to belong to when they graduate from high school. What are the long-term impacts of having segregated youth ministry?
A lot of kids aren’t going to both youth group and church on Sundays; they’re just going to youth group. As a result, graduates are telling us that they don’t know how to find a church. After years at the kids’ table, they know what youth group is, but they don’t know what church is.
There are a lot of statistics regarding what happens to high school seniors when they graduate from a youth group. As I’ve looked at the research, my best estimate is that between 40 and 50 percent of seniors from youth groups really struggle to continue in their faith and connect with a faith community after graduation.
Powell believes the future belongs to intergenerational youth ministry, and I believe her. Having teenagers involved in ministry alongside elderly adults, their parents, and their younger siblings isn’t quite as immediately gratifying as having pizza parties and laser light shows, but according to Powell’s research, kids who do it are more spiritually mature and tend to stay connected to a community of faith after they graduate from high school.
In addition to these practical benefits, I think it also paints a more theologically robust picture of the church as an un-segregated community. A large portion of the commands from the New Testament epistles involve exhortations for Jews and Gentiles to remain in unity, eating at the same table together. Because of the long-standing animosity between the races, there seemed to be a tendency for people to suggest that Jews can have their church and Gentiles have theirs: segregated along racial lines.
American evangelicalism has done the same thing, except we segregate along generational lines. It’s time to learn what it means to be the intergenerational Body of Christ. And this has to mean more than just having a “Youth Sunday” once a year. How can we truly integrate young and old together in real gospel ministry? As we head into our church plant, it’s a question that is front-and-center for me.
What are your thoughts? How about your experiences? Maybe some ideas?