Below is an article by Mike Yaconelli who was with Youth Specialties and the old Wittenberg Door gang. I loved his book Messy Spirituality. And I think he tells us when the emperor is naked. To follow through on Mike’s thoughts you might want to read Family Based Youth Ministry. I think churches can’t feel good about themselves unless they have a full-time youth minister. The parents demand it and the power of programming feels so good. But is there really a direct correlation between youth minister and youth programming and children/youth who become adult Christ-followers? The honest answer is no. Do children/youth who make a commitment to Christ become Christ-followers? The answer is yes. But perhaps not the way we think.
The Failure of Youth Ministry
by Mike Yaconelli
(See related apology down below after you read this article. )
What is the most important function of youth ministry?
A) Introducing young people to Jesus
B) Providing healthy activities
C) Involving young people in service
D) Abstinence pledges
E) Good theological training
Answer: None of the above.
The most important function of youth ministry is longevity. Long-term discipleship.
It’s my contention that the vast majority of youth ministries focus all of their time and energy on the none-of-the-aboves and very little on longevity. How do I know?
Look at the results.
Attend any youth group in this country and notice the “ageing effect.”
Attendance is directly proportional to age. The older the students, the fewer are likely to attend youth group. Typically, there are more freshman than sophomores, more sophomores than juniors, and more juniors than seniors.
I’m sure there are many reasons for this phenomenon. Older students are more likely to work, more likely to have a car, and more likely to be extremely busy. But the real reason is that older students are much more likely to lose interest in Christianity, lose the desire to stay close to Christ, or don’t lose the willingness to pay the price of commitment. In the everyday battle for the souls of the older students, the lure of the secular is just too strong.
Almost every study out there shows that when it comes to moral behavior, there’s no difference between secular and Christian students. They drink as much, screw as much, have oral sex as much, and party as much.
Youth ministry doesn’t have any staying power.
Young people flock to Christian concerts, cheer Jesus at large events, and work on service projects. Unfortunately, it’s not because of Jesus; it’s because they’re young!
The success of youth ministry in this country is an illusion.
Very little youth ministry has a lasting impact on students.
I believe we’re no more effective today reaching young people with the gospel than we’ve ever been. In spite of all the dazzling super stars of youth ministry, the amazing array of YS products, the thousands of youth ministry training events, nothing much has changed.
Following Jesus is hard.
Faith is difficult.
Discipleship requires a huge investment of time. Most of us don’t have the time. Or we chose not to take the time. Or our current models of ministry don’t allow us the time.
So let’s be honest.
Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry.
What does that mean? I don’t have a clue. But my hunch is that if we want to see young people have a faith that lasts, then we have to completely change the way we do youth ministry in America.
I wonder if any of us has the courage to try.
by Mike Yaconelli
I have an apology to make.
In my rush to make deadline my last column communicated the wrong message.
What I thought I said and what many people read were two quite different things.
I was hoping to throw some cold water on the high profile ministries out there that give the impression they’re attracting gazillions of young people to their ministries and changing the lives of gazillions more.
I was trying to level the playing field by introducing a dose of reality.
My hope was that the person in Podunk, Iowa would be encouraged. My hope was that the majority of us who have smaller ministries would realize that no matter how much press a particular ministry gets, the results are the same for all of us. According to Jesus and his parable of the seed, the best we can hope for is about 25%.
At least one reader, Ken McDonald, a volunteer youth worker from Texas, heard me:
I’ve been a volunteer youth worker for pushing 10 years. I eat lunch with the students every day. I go to their ballgames and soccer matches. I’ve been to countless funerals for their grandparents, parents, and friends. I spend hours each week talking to them online. I’m an elder and I’ve tried to incorporate them into the life of the church. I pray for them, send them birthday cards, and take them sailing to scare the hell out of them. But this year, the students I’ve spent the most time with, prayed hardest for, and lost the most sleep over are seniors. In a few months they’ll be gone.
Taking stock, of the 5 to 10 closest students, only one of them is regularly in church or youth group. The others got their driving licenses and never came back or just faded into oblivion. These were students who wrote passionate poems about Jesus and his love, cluttered up AOL’s trunk lines with hundreds of forwards saying, “if you love Jesus you’ll pass this on,” built porches on mobile homes in Appalachia, worshipped at “Fun in the Son,” rang handbells on Sundays, and crawled under flooded homes to install insulation. But one-by-one they disappeared.
Ken understood my point. All the hype about youth ministry simply hides the painful reality that no matter what we do, most of the kids we work with “disappear.”
But what most of you read was, “Youth ministry is worthless, useless, and not worth doing.” I apologize. The last thing I want to do is discourage youth workers.
What I intended (and didn’t accomplish) was to un-intimidate those youth workers who were discouraged because of all the “successful” ministries who were implying results different from the rest of us.
Luckily, like most of you, Ken McDonald understands youth ministry. And, like you, he’s the real deal. He concludes his letter:
So it feels like time to throw in the towel. Pull off the river, dump out the raft, and head for home. Take up gardening and try nurturing plants for a while instead of young people.
There’s just one problem. God won’t let me do it.
The Call remains.
The bat-infested, apathetic place I call church is my lot at the moment. Those seniors are my seniors, and God has placed us together for some weird reason.
Maybe the institution of youth ministry is a failure, but it hasn’t failed all young people.
Maybe techniques and programs don’t work very well, but they work for some.
Maybe many of the young people we work with don’t make it, but some do.
Maybe our programs aren’t effective for all, but they are effective for a few.
Maybe our programs aren’t changing the world, but they are changing some.
Maybe most kids disappear, but not all of them do.
Maybe we don’t need a revolution in youth ministry; maybe what we need is what we’ve always needed—a few adults who are willing to follow God’s call to love young people into the kingdom of God no matter what the result…like Ken McDonald…and like you.