I served in youth ministry in one form or another for a little over 10 years before becoming a lead pastor. This time included youth and college ministry in a volunteer capacity for around 6 years in 4 different states (while I was in college and seminary), and experience as a full-time vocational youth pastor for 5 years in a large church context in Olympia, WA.
Youth ministry was extremely difficult and amazingly rewarding at the same time. When I left the day-to-day focus on it a couple months shy of my 30th birthday, it was difficult to say goodbye. I don’t know if I still miss it or not, but I do know that I’m extremely passionate about the eternally important aspects of it.
Anyone who has spent more than 5 minutes in youth ministry is familiar with the stat that I’m about to divulge.
“80% of teens leave the church after they graduate high school, never to return.”
Or is it 75%? Or 92%?
I’ve heard everything from 60-95% over the years. I don’t know how they determine that stat, especially the “never to return” part. Do they track those people all the way until they die? Food for thought.
Regardless of how you want to judge the veracity of that statistic, it definitely addresses a real issue. By and large, the vast majority of people who attend church in their teens walk away as they step into adulthood.
For years those on the youth ministry side of the coin (including myself) have thrown this statistic over the fence toward the rest of the church community like a grenade of condemnation.
“We need better assimilation of late teens and young adults!”
“We need transitional ministries!”
“We need relevant young adult ministry in the local church!”
I don’t disagree with any of those statements, but after spending a few years on the other side of the fence, I don’t think the full onus lies with the “rest of the church community.” I think an equal amount of the responsibility lies with our local church youth ministries.
I say this from first-hand experience. After over a decade in youth ministry, specifically the final 5 years as a youth pastor full-time, 80% of the kids in our group didn’t leave the church in their college years. In fact, as I look at the teens we worked with in those years, I’d say the vast majority of those kids have stayed plugged in to a local church on some level as young adults.
Maybe we should stop focusing on “how to keep them” once they turn 18 and start focusing on “how to get them truly saved” before they reach that point. If a kid is not saved when they graduate from the youth ministry, I think we can safely say we’re probably going to lose them (statistically speaking). But if they have been saved and are being discipled, I can guarantee (Philippians 1:6) that we won’t lose them.
So how do we get them saved?
The real question is: “How do we create a context in our local churches where teenagers can experience the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
I think it comes down to three things:
1) Biblical truth
2) Authentic community
3) Intentional leadership.
A context where salvation occurs is one where the word of God is preached. We must clearly teach and apply God’s word in our youth ministry contexts. This means that we must develop youth pastors and youth leaders who are students of the Bible and are hungry to get trained to rightly preach it. In the world we live in there is no excuse whatsoever for an under-equipped youth pastor. The online resources, access to coaching, training, biblical studies, solid preaching, etc. have created a world where the youth pastor who has internet access, a teachable attitude, and a passion to grow and learn can get equipped. College and seminary are vital, but you don’t need a degree in youth ministry to be a youth pastor (I never took a youth ministry course in college or seminary).
We must foster a safe context where students can be themselves and get real help with their sin issues. This happens through transparency and authenticity from the top down. If the youth pastor is a fake, the staff will be made up of fakes (minions), and the kids will simply replace the facade they wear through the halls of their high schools with an even more dangerous mask: religion.
I can’t emphasize this point enough. If students walk into your youth gathering each week and they simply meet an adult who will look them in the eye, show them respect, and love them enough to remember their name and tell them the truth, you’ll get them. Do you know how many safe places a teenager has where they can let their guard down, be themselves, and get real help with their sin? Maybe one–if they have a good home. For many, the answer is ZERO.
This means that our philosophy of youth ministry needs to be intentional. Sadly, in many contexts the idea seems to be to create an attractional environment that is “cool” enough to get kids to want to bring their friends. Youth workers spend all their time designing the stage, getting the songs just awesome enough, and marketing their events, and best case scenario: the show goes off without a hitch. But just like the circus, after teenagers go a few times the show gets old. We had them in the door of “the church,” we jot down that statistic, and then we lose them forever.
I don’t get it. Why are we trying to compete with the culture in our youth ministry contexts? We have something no one else has: the gospel of Jesus. If you’ve been around teenagers for more than a few hours you come to realize really quickly: they can spot a fake. Memo to the youth pastor trying really hard to be “relevant:” when you mirror the culture in an attempt to win the allegiance of teens through attractional events with no substance, you have become what you always feared worst: irrelevant. They don’t need more of the same. They need the gospel of Jesus, not Christian-hipster-experiential-awesomeness. Your hair and skinny jeans aren’t building the church. Go to Ross Dress for Less, get some pants that fit, and update your resume. The Kingdom will be better for it.
Small group environments with solid intentional leadership, whether you do them on a separate night, at camps, or at the close of your weekly youth gatherings, are essential. Students need a context where they can give feedback, ask questions, and get solid answers as they develop their faith identity. The subject of these groups should be centered around the Bible, which should be taught clearly, intentionally, and consistently.
These groups must be led by intentional, mature, adult leaders. This means that the role of the youth pastor in a local church is not “put on a good youth meeting” or “build good youth programs and events,” but “reach students by equipping leaders.” The youth pastor or primary youth leaders of the local church shouldn’t be people who simply “love hanging out with kids.” They must be Ephesians 4:11-16 people, who love the students enough to recruit and train mature Christian adults who will connect with and disciple them.
Our local church youth ministries must be places where young people can learn the gospel, live it out in authentic community, and lead others to it by following intentional leaders.
 Knowing, of course, that God does both the saving and the keeping of those who are saved (Ephesians 2:8-9).
 See how the stat works?