Sally was an ‘on-fire’ student leader, a rare teen that could help with organizing events and fill-in as a small group leader for younger teens. She could share her testimony in front of large crowds and was willing to help with the most mundane ministry-related tasks — you know know, those janitorial and clerical elements of ministry that no one tells you about ahead of time, yet are so constant in ministry.
So, how is it that Sally flamed out and walked away from what Christian faith she had once she reached her 20s? What about similar students who come through our youth ministries, full of enthusiasm yet so quickly walk away? Scot McKnight, who writes the blog Jesus Creed (which every youth worker ought to follow), told a similar story of a ‘radical’ youth, the kind that all of us would point to as a mature model of a vibrant Christian faith. Yet, a handful of years later she and her husband divorced turned against all of the things they once championed.
The subject of teens dropping out of church has been at the forefront of youth ministry discussions for the last five years. Spurred by questionable statistics, the reactions were strong. And I won’t get into that on this post, but I am proud of Bethel College grad, Tom Carpenter‘s work to bust that drop-out myth.
How do we help teenager (and adults) establish a faith that endures? How do we come alongside other and guide them toward the necessary next steps? These are the questions that two of my students were asking this summer during my internship visit. And they’re the right questions. I’m encouraged when the focus transcends the programmatic and attaches itself to the ultimate goal of discipleship (and I always include evangelism as a part of that process).
The research prompted a series of responses and resources to help churches, parents, and youth workers to more effectively nurture lasting (or ‘sticky’) faith in kids and youth. Orange has been working at this for some time as well. Denise McKinney has developed a helpful and proven resource called ‘Mile Markers.’
One of the downsides to the dynamic and vibrant world of youth ministry is that we can mistake enthusiasm for maturity. We can overvalue articulate students amidst the sea of more insecure, cautious, or late-developing students, those who observe/watch/learn and will be equally or more articulate in their adult years. We like the ‘upfront’ teenager who can rally other students around him/her. And we value those students who show up to our programs on a regular basis, as if the only place they can grow spiritually is under our leadership – which we know isn’t true. Or maybe we don’t, which is why some falter when they leave the constant support and feedback of our youth ministry.
- So, how are we helping them grow?
- How are we helping prepare them to survive the coming challenges ahead?
- What foundations do we give them when the fun fades?
- Why do bad things happen to good people? You’d be surprised the number of adults who turn from their faith practices when a grandparent dies.
- How do they answer a Buddhist who challenges them regarding Jesus being the only Way?
- What theological understanding (not just knowledge or an lesson heard, but understanding) will they have when your leadership time with them is over? How do you know the answer to this question?
See, this is the crux of what we do in Christian youth ministry. And yet the answers aren’t easier to answer. I’m not sure that all of what we do and value in youth ministry is helpful for the future of our youth. It’s fun. Just not tying them to Jesus or to Scripture. It’s salvific and moralistic, but we don’t train them for the future. And the answer to the obvious question, “why not?”, is perhaps too painful to answer. But its answer may point right back at us.
I’d love to get your feedback and input to help advance this conversation. How do you counterbalance these potential problems? Where is it most difficult?