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?
However the real issue is growth isn’t it? Whether it’s youth, young adults or older adults, the issue is if you’re not speaking to their level (of faith) and give them opportunities to grow to the next level, you’re excluding them. So I don’t think “youth” groups are the issue, so much as groups that don’t try to mature their faith.
And how are we living?
Woody DeCasere says
Hi Ben saw your article from a tweet of a friend of mine. I think youth group does do more damage in the long run than good. I think parents see youth group activities as a babysitter service and imagine it is a good way to socialize their kids with other “christian” kids in an attempt to shelter them from the so called secular world. I also think it creates a false society based on nothing but a location and a group that is not organic or natural in any way. As a former youth group kid and youth group leader i am in favor of inter-generational communities but don’t pretend to know how to make that work. I don’t know if that is helpful or not but it is a view.
Ben Sternke says
@Mike, I agree the issue is growth. But I think one thing that stunts growth is for people to be segregated by age. Part of the maturity process of young people probably needs to be some kind of intergenerational ministry experience.
@Woody, thanks for chiming in. You’re right that it’s one thing to say “this doesn’t work.” It’s another to actually attempt intergenerational ministry! I’m sure anyone who does is in for a steep learning curve.
The reason for youth groups is that the majority of young folks are at reasonably the same point. This doesn’t say they shouldn’t interact with other groups. This isn’t to say we can’t learn from them. This isn’t to say that this who have (or haven’t) gotten our spiritual “GED” are superior to them. And this isn’t to say that if they need an AP class they shouldn’t be advanced.
I think the real glut in the church is that the majority of folks in the church (I could say today, but I don’t think it’s just today) have plateaued and are either not looking to grow or don’t know how to grow.
So to clarify because I wrote a lot but my point is fairly simple. Remove the “Young” from your post title and ask the question again and see if you think there is a difference between why “young’ people leave the church and why “old” people (or “middlers”) leave the church.
Verbal communication, in general, is much less effective in teaching than example and personal experience. I was asking myself this morning, “what are my kids seeing me do that shows them I’m a follower of Jesus Christ?” My belief is that the most convincing way to help my kids move from following Mom and Dad’s faith to their own is to see how I actually live it out (healing, evangelism, etc), to get to savor it for themselves, and to then practice and experience it for themselves also. I don’t think sitting in church meeting is the primary example I want them to see either. I want them to see me out there in every sphere of life, doing the stuff. To me, that’s the best for them to see it’s real and what to apprehend it for themselves.
Could this be an instance of throwing the baby out with the bath water? On the surface, it seems to me that the problem isn’t that kids go to youth group… it’s that they’re ONLY going to youth group (and not church).
I worry that scrapping youth group altogether would close a door to young people who would never hear the Gospel otherwise.
I see a couple typos: I meant to say: “I want them to see me out there in every sphere of life, doing the stuff. To me, that’s the best way for them to see it’s real and want to apprehend it for themselves.
Mervin Koehlinger says
Ken Ham has come to a similar conclusion in a recently published book he has written based upon another survey. The book is titled, Already Gone .
I love what WOODY wrote. Would go on to say that pretty mucheverything the church has evolved into is very disected and dicotamous. I think there can be different models that work well as long as they strive to be entirely much more wholistic view of spirituality for everyone.
However in defense to many parents that I know who put thier children in youth groups I think there primary reason was to want them to be “do more in the kingdom ” then they had, more out of a sense of regret and guilt than just babysitting which again points to the need for a very different underlying view of spirtuality. thanks for the posts everyone
Agree. It’s not just for the kids’ sake; older Christians need to be hanging out with younger crowd too. How many churches today are splitting into smaller and smaller fragments because of petty differences of opinion and doctrinal quibbles? Segregating congregations by gender and by age doesn’t “target” specific needs. It breaks down the ability for the church to function as a whole because instead of working as a body, the parts are busy worrying about their perceived needs or functions. Multi-generational is the way to go.
I'm one youngster that has had ALOT of bad experience in the church. When God broke all the shackles from my hands and feet and when I surrendered my life unto him I dealt with a lot of things. Once I was filled with the Holy Spirit God began to use me spiritually. The older crowd didn't like the fact that I was "so young" and God was using me to help edify the church. I personally feel that most older people think just because you're young and not quite experienced that you shouldn't have a voice in the church. But what people fail to realize is that GOD doesn't put an age limit on when he chooses to use His lambs. He uses them when He gets ready. Notice I said HE.