Why youth ministry is failing and this generation won’t win the world for Christ

Sure, it’s a big cross. But will it get teens fired up?

After my guest post on Defeating the Dragons, I decided to start a series on modern youth ministry and my experiences within it. Enjoy.

The other day, a fellow church member posted the following quote from Greg Stier, founder of Dare 2 Share youth ministries:

Here are three quick, yet powerful reasons to reach the next generation with the message and mission of Jesus:

1. The vast majority of people who trust in Jesus as their Savior do so before the age of 18.

2. Christian teenagers can be mobilized to reach their friends for Christ quickly and effectively.

3. If Christian teens are trained and unleashed to reach their circle of influence for Christ, this nation can be transformed from the inside out and the bottom up.

As a former preaching pastor and church planter I can tell you with firm conviction that I did not get into youth ministry because it was cute. I chose to go into youth ministry because it was strategic.

Let me just say for the record, I’m not here to critique Stier’s ministry. Up until the other day, I’d never even heard of Dare 2 Share. It could very well be a wonderful, life-changing program. However, I will say this: Stier’s comments are nothing new to me. I’ve been listening to similar statements for over 15 years.

And whenever I hear them, alarm bells start ringing.

See, when I was a teenager, my generation was going to be the one to transform the nation for Christ. I think it’s safe to say it hasn’t happened…yet. And I think I know why:

1. Most youth pastors assume young Christians simply suffer from lack of motivation when it comes to evangelism.

Not true. I wanted to lead my classmates to Christ. The problem was, I didn’t know how to talk to them. Oh, my leaders told me how to talk to them–with the cute t-shirt slogans, cheerleader attitude and outreach invites–but it went over about as well as soap-flavored oatmeal. My classmates were dealing with issues far beyond my life experience: sex, drugs, divorce, abusive parents. I, on the other hand, had spent most of my childhood education staring at the backside of a cubicle surrounded by fundamentalists for whom the word “step-mom” didn’t exist. I knew the Bible backwards and forwards, but couldn’t speak wisdom into to a real-world situation. And my youth pastor didn’t seem interested in showing me how.

2. Most modern youth ministries do more to promote hype than instill scripture or the Holy Spirit. (See #1)

Attending youth service when I was a teen was all about getting “fired up.” Struggling to live for Jesus during the week? Get fired up! Want to transform your school for God? Get fired up! And what did getting “fired up” entail? Having our eardrums blasted out by sanitized death metal before service, jumping around during worship, and hearing another sermon about how “lukewarm” Christians get vomited out of God’s mouth. That, or don’t have sex and stay home from parties.

3. Most high-profile youth ministries fail to teach teens how to love others.

True influence is found in loving and serving others humbly and sacrificially. However, I don’t recall hearing a single message about loving the unsaved during my time in youth group. I heard plenty of sermons on witnessing, upholding standards, avoiding worldliness and “creating an atmosphere,” but none on how to listen with empathy, pray effectively, or carry another’s burdens.

4. Many youth ministers overvalue youth–to the detriment of Christian teens and adults.

Sad to say, the Church in America isn’t vastly different from the surrounding culture. It’s just as obsessed with youth as the Disney Channel is. Youth pastors hold up the Bible stories of David, Joseph, Daniel and Timothy to “prove” that God is most interested in using young people in ministry–specifically (as my church stated) before they turn 25. After all, the teen years are the best years! You’ll never have as much energy, time and motivation to minister as you do right now! And once you turn 26? Well, God can still use you…I guess…

These teachings nearly caused me to have a mid-life crisis at 24. If my teen years were my most influential years, my existence is over.

The problem is, youth pastors assume that because so much of our culture caters to teens, that means getting teens into ministry will change the culture. But that mindset ignores a couple of facts:

– People ages 13 to 17 can’t vote.

– People ages 13 to 17 have little to no money aside from what their parents give to them.

Guess who has the real power to dictate the culture? People who are politically and economically enfranchised! (Speaking personally, I have far larger circle of influence now, as a working adult, than I ever did at 16.)

And let’s not forget today’s “delayed adolescence.” Young people in King David’s day had far more life experience at age 15 than some 25-year-olds have in modern times. In antiquity, girls got married and began having babies at 12. Twelve! When young David stood before the giant Goliath, he had already killed a lion and a bear with little more than his bare hands. Many American teens can barely manage gym class. And yet we think they’re the most effective force for change right now? Perhaps, if only the Church were equipping their faith with a solid foundation!

5. Many youth pastors claim that the greatest life-altering encounters with God can be packed into a single weekend youth conference.

As a teen, I attended several youth retreats and conferences: Acquire the Fire, Beach Freak, Beach Fest, etc. The idea behind them is to whisk teens away from all their “worldly distractions” and get them focused on God for an entire weekend. That’s assuming these conferences are free from their own distractions. In the onslaught of deafening Christian rock bands, skits, pep talks, daily activities and commitment cards, I was hard pressed to sense the presence of God. And while God did show me a vision at one of these conferences, I wouldn’t label any of them as life-altering. Nearly all of the meaningful encounters I’ve had with God have occurred outside of my youth group experience, and some have been ongoing over days or even months. The youth retreats were just another avenue for getting “fired up” to “win our schools for Christ,” and were blatantly advertised as such.

6. Most youth ministries fail to help teens identify or grow their spiritual gifts.

One of the things I love about my current church is that the leadership genuinely wants to help everyone recognize and exercise his or her spiritual gifts. When I was in youth group, no such help was offered. How can we expect teens to “win the world for Christ” if they don’t know what their gifts or calling are, or how to operate in them? If people really care about making teen evangelism effective, this should be priority #1!

* * *

Look, I don’t disagree with Stier. Ministering to youth is strategic. Instilling and nurturing a Biblically sound faith in teens is vital to creating Christian adults who can continue to influence others for Christ. The problem is, our youth ministry for the past 20 years hasn’t been instilling a sound faith. Instead, it has been manufacturing a generation of Christian burnouts who have endured the hype and found it empty and meaningless. I’m just a lucky survivor.

3 responses to “Why youth ministry is failing and this generation won’t win the world for Christ

  1. The late Father Peter Gillquist, who was an Orthodox priest, worked in the Campus Crusade for Christ before he converted to Orthodoxy, and at some stage of the proceedings he and a couple of others in the leadership quietly expressed doubts about whether they were reaching the young adults to any depth. They saw a great deal of transience in the “conversions.” Seems to my memory from my reading about it last year (shortly after Father Peter’s death) that there was a bit of a behind-the-scenes hubbub about that question, and I don’t doubt that the perception of the impermanent evangelism played some role in Father Peter’s own spiritual quest, which was of course not going to keep him within the Campus Crusade fold either.

  2. Check out this article on the challenges globalization presents to evangelization:

    Click to access 01roberts.pdf

    Excerpt from article:
    The mainline churches find themselves caught between the extremes of a narrow interpretation of the Great Commission, and the secular criticisms of the age. The following suggestions may help us move beyond this impasse and reaffirm the Great Commission for the twenty-first century.

    1. Proclaim Christ rather than Western Economic Interests

    First, we should break the connections between globalization in an economic sense and the theological vision of the Kingdom of God. The associations among capitalism, modernization, and Great Commission Christianity can be traced back to the days of William Carey and early Methodism.

    In an age of globalization, it is legitimate to ask whether disproportionate attention to numerical growth owes more to Western economic and cultural expansionism or to a gospel of prosperity, than to biblical Christianity. To the best of our abilities, our interpretation of the Great Commission must emphasize proclaiming Christ without proclaiming Western economic self interests. Let us reexamine the Great Commission in light of pre-expansionist models of Christian mission by using 2 Corinthians 4:5-6 as a model for twenty-first century mission: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” One of the advantages of placing these words of the Apostle Paul alongside the Great Commission is that they focus on the glory of God rather than on human volition, organization, and efficiency.

    Prior to the age of capitalist expansion, seeking to glorify God was a primary motive for Protestant mission. The God whom the Puritans sought to glorify was the Creator who inaugurated human existence by bringing light forth from darkness. Through the face of Jesus Christ, God the Creator
    has shone light not only in the cosmos, but in the human heart. If our mission is to extol the glory of God, we can shift our vision away from the profit motive or the success syndrome that haunts so much of the American psyche, including missionary Christianity.

    In an age in which the church has finally spread all over the world, it behooves Western Christians to focus more on what it means to be faithful to the God of Jesus Christ. Criticism of globalization has parallels with the struggle over colonialism that confronted missions after World War II. At that time, prophetic mission theologians like Hendrik Kraemer and Max Warren emphasized the separation of Christ from Western culture as a precondition for the health of world Christianity. Warren emphasized a mission of “Christian Presence” in which Western missionaries would cultivate a “theology of attention” to other peoples, cultures and religions.20 Missionaries of Christian presence create a climate of integrity in which the message is proclaimed through deeds and not just words. In the wake of 9/11, the leading evangelical Islamicist, Dudley Woodberry, suggested that American missionaries have to withdraw from Muslim countries in favor of nationals from other countries.21 To avoid confusing the message with the messengers, it becomes necessary for the globalized church to decide which ethnic and national groups can most effectively witness to Jesus Christ in particular settings. If we can separate the Great Commission from capitalist expansion, then our mission is clarified as one that glorifies God rather than ourselves or our Western way of life.