Are We Marching A Generation Off A Cliff?

Orginally published on Monday, April 16, 2007 at 7:30 AM
by Earl Creps

There are some numbers that everyone takes for granted: 50 states, taxes due on the 15th of April, and 75% of students absent from church after high school graduation. Across the country I have heard youth pastors express more anxiety about this last statistic than about almost anything else. The notion that our student ministries are rounding up young people for a brief season only to see them march off a spiritual cliff just days after leaving high school is appalling. However, I sense that part of the anxiety comes from the lack of a firm conclusion about what is causing this debacle. I make no claims to expertise in this area, so I was surprised when friends who I consider to be national resources in the field expressed similar uncertainty on the issues of what creates this situation and how we should respond to it...

Into this void, a number of competing theories are asserting themselves. Here is a sampling of what I’m hearing on the road and the internet:

1. The 75% number is bogus. This theory cites George Barna’s telephone surveys showing only a 42% drop in church attendance between high school graduation and age 25 (it gets worse later). However, more than 80% of these young adults say that religious faith is very important with over half claiming a personal commitment to Christ. They pray at the same rates as older adults. So maybe we’re measuring the wrong things anyway?

2. The “cliff” may be more of a turn in the road. One youth minister from the East coast told me recently that he doesn’t worry much about this statistic because students tend to enter college ministries or simply take some time to get oriented to adult life, meaning that not being there on Sunday morning for while is just not the end of the world. Like a bend in the road, the experience may take them out of site for a while, but that doesn’t mean they are gone.

3. Why focus on teens when our adults are no better? This argument pushes back by claiming that the spiritual vitality measurements we have for the average adult aren’t exactly glowing either. So the fact that mom and dad are present on Sunday morning hardly indicates that their relationship with God is vibrant and transformational. Maybe the students are just being more honest. And maybe the parents’ lack of “honesty” is part of the problem.

4. The drop-off is a function of family dynamics.
Many youth pastors are struggling with reaching out to students they describe as the “Have’s” while simultaneously working with others they refer to as the “Have Not’s.” These groups are often separated by a combination of economic status and parental church attendance. Lots of ministries are maybe 50% “Have Not” kids whose parents have no connection with the congregation and offer little support to their spiritual growth. Is it any surprise, then, that these students don’t stick with it after graduation?

5. Students are there for the relationships. The average student, goes this argument, is present because of a network of friends in the group. When the network breaks up at graduation, so does their faith, or at least their participation in congregational ministry.

6. The students are living out the inherent flaws of youth ministry. Critics of today’s ministry models claim that they prepare students for a world that no longer exists, ignoring the realities of the pre-adult (or Twixter) life stage that high school grads are about to enter. Also, youth ministry’s focus on events, media, conferences, etc. places the emphasis on the venue and not on the heart, say some critics. Form this perspective we are lucky that the drop out rate isn’t higher.

FOR DISCUSSION:  What’s your theory?

About the Author:  Earl Creps has spent several years visiting congregations that are attempting to engage emerging culture. He directs doctoral studies for the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri (http://www.agts.edu).  Earl and his wife Janet have pastored three churches, one Boomer, one Builder, and one GenX. He speaks, trains, and consults with ministries around the country. Earl’s book, Off-Road Disciplines: Spiritual Adventures of Missional Leaders, was published by Jossey-Bass/Leadership Network in 2006. Connect with Earl at http://www.earlcreps.com .



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  There are 11 Comments:

  • Posted by

    3 is BIG!

    But all these insights are valuable and hard to measure.

    6 is HUGE! If we are teaching our kids only the danger of the evolutionists and the pro-gay-marriage people et al, then we are NOT preparing them for the “whatever” mentality that they will encounter in College and the workplace.

    Thanks, Earl, I’m passing this on to our Next Gen guy!

  • Posted by

    My observations would be primarily agreeing with #’s 2, 4, 5, and somewhat 6.

    #2--They are finding their own way; for the first time they get to make their own choices and “nobody can tell them what to do.” Now, when they have that first child they are realizing that they need the ministry again. Other crisis may also alert them to return to their spiritual roots.

    #4--Oh yes. Haves and Have Nots. We put so much emphasis on kids “going off to college.” What about the ones staying home and working at Jiffy Lube? Do we not unconsciously exclude that bunch with our love affair with higher education? this is a major issue to me, because there is nothing that depreciates the esteem more than the message that “honest work with your hands is second-class.” Maybe the have nots weren’t valued. Plus, they lack the anchor of solid family support.

    #5--I came to the church for the relationships (i.e., chicks), and found Christ instead. I was saved in high school , the result of youth ministry. I see none of those people, not for at least 20 of the 26 years since I graduated. Jesus is still there. A major shock comes when you graduate and that circle of friends disappears. I have often wondered if I hadn’t been convicted of my calling before graduation if I wouldn’t have fallen by the wayside.

    #6--Simply put--youth ministry segregates youth from the life of the rest of the church. Integration now.

    Of course, what did Jesus say about seeds falling on different kinds of soil? How would that affect this issue?

  • Posted by

    Church probably needs to do more grounding the kids in the basics of Christianity (elementary, junior high, high school and college).  Doctrine, apologetics, how to study the bible, how to evangelize, etc.  Most kids starve for a reason to believe, but have no idea what they really believe and why.  Also challenge kids to find out what it means to be a “Christian” lawyer, doctor, engineer, teacher, nurse, construction worker, etc.  Give them more of a Kingdom perspective.  God saves us for a reason, to do his kingdom work.  Get them thinking BIG!  The church is thinking too small when it comes to youth.

  • Posted by

    #2 was me.  I walked away from the church after high school.  In the end I had to decide the faith I had was mine not my parents.  Most kids who grow up in the church need to do this.

    #6 is true.  In our honest desire to keep kids connected to the church.  We work hard at entertaining them, catering to them.  We inadvertantly create the consumer mentality.  Then after HS we dump them out into the regular church body. 

    But I think he missed #7.  The hypocrisy of us adults.  The kids see our “transformation” as we walk through the doors of the church from hurt angry people to smiling “God bless you” people.  They see how we as parents talk about others inthe church.  They see us around town.  They hear how we act in congregatioanal meetings when we don’t get our way.  They see that day to day our lives don’t refelct either the holiness of God or the love of Christ.  Young people still value authenticity and we are losing it.

  • Posted by

    Youth need a Christian world view and a vision to work from.  Everyone has a world view, but it may not be a Christian one.  If there is no organization to what the church teaches, young people will have a hard time taking their faith seriously.  How many teens can articulate their faith?  (How many adults for that matter?).  To articulate is to understand.  The job of the church is to equip people with knowlege and skills for ministry, whether official or lay ministry.  Everyone has gifts and the church must bring those gifts out.

  • Great thoughts, great comments.  I might think to add a couple more.

    8.  Years of parents grounding from youth ministry activities but not sporting or school events - faith gets crowded out over the priorities of a school based life.

    9. Youth ministries that forget GROWTH is based on both teaching AND practice.  gotta get em out end doing what we talk about so they can get practical experience with God moving in their lives.

  • Posted by

    Good comment, Michael, about how the school life crowds out time for faith.
    Even our churches get so busy with just busy stuff that really isn’t priority.  Time is so limited that we must make sure that every activity we do in church has its end purpose for the Kingdom.  One of my favorite sayings is “less is more”.  We have to control our life agenda instead of letting busyness control us.  That goes for our kids too.  Being busy makes us feel like we are accomplishing something, but it often keeps us from figuring out what we really should be doing.  It keeps us from examining our heart.

  • Posted by

    I believe students are confused. Michael K is right, parents will ground students from Student Ministries, but not sports or jobs or school extra curriculars. That is a majorly confusing message.

    And to add to Michael’s #9, students are looking for relationship, connection, and purpose. So many student ministries are focusing on playing together (community building times) without much purpose. But hey, we’ve got lots of kids here, right?!? Students are looking for signficant relationships - with Christ, with peers, and with adults - that last. If they have relationships that last, they stick; they feel connected. Most student ministries are so focused on student ministries they don’t give students opportunities to connect with the rest of the local church - children’s ministries, corporate worship services, and other ministries. They are looking for value and purpose, but there is nothing available to them in the church that gives them what they’re looking for. Let them serve as ushers. Let them help in children’s ministry. Let them be greeters. Let them? Why do we seek out adults for these simple roles, but we “allow” students to do them under a careful, watchful, suspicious eye?

    When students are connected and feel value and purpose in the church during their student ministry years, they know that when they leave home and go to a new city, they will have value to a new ministry. So they go looking and get connected and serve. They don’t walk out the door; they just change doors.

  • Posted by Leonard

    As a senior pastor I demand that we incorporate students into nearly every aspect of church life with the exception of executive positions that require maturity.  (Board members and Elders) The more a part of the body we make them the more they stick around.  As a youth guy for over 18 years and as a conference and youth speaker I think sunday sermons should be spoken on a Jr high - High school level.  Adults nee this too but too many Sr. pastors never consider how students will hear what they are saying.  I also think every SR. Pastor should know the names of at least 25 kids in his church.  The SR. Pastor should be at some events just for students a few times a year.  Not to speak, not to critique but to serve.  Serve food, set-up something, be a greeter, just flat out be a servant of the youth and the youth pastor.  Finally every Sr pastor should ALWAYS have the back of his youth guy.  even when he is wrong.  Support that guy, praise him/her publicly, privately to kids, to parents, in front of the church… Help the adults in your church see that he/she is a pastor first who specializes and is gifted with students.  Then work like crazy to develop your Youth guy.  give them a good salary with benefits so their wives don’t have to work.  Give them great training, give them encouragement and let them fail with Grace.  Okay I am done now.

  • Posted by

    I did a little survey among our youth in our church to get a good understanding of their home life. Understand their home life and you’ll get a better understanding of what and who you are dealing with and how to better minister to them. To make the ten question survey short, I discovered that 95% of our youth (around 50) did not have a close relationship with one or both of their parents. 2. The average youth spent 0-10 minutes a day at the most talking to their parents. 3. They rarely eat meals together as a family.
    4. They do not read the Bible together as a family and 5. the only time they pray together is for meals which are very rare. Virtually there is no real spiritual foundation in their homes which are suppose to be Christiam homes. It always goes back to the home. They are Christians in homes where there is no Christianity. This is just my church but I think we need to educate the parents on their Biblical repsonsibilty for their children.

  • Posted by Jan

    I think Leonard has a very good point about incorporating youth into the life of the church.

    My beef with youth ministry has been that many ministries think of youth ministries as a separate church. 

    Serving in a small church has forced us to creatively make every moment a youth and adult and child moment… a Body of Christ moment, just out of sheer necessity and praciticality.

    Our consitituiton stipulates that any member can attend a leadership council meeting for example.  We have not only allowed youth to attend, but have encouraged it. 

    We are finding our youth thinking like leaders… excited about sharing their faith, buying into the vision we have for church growth, and participating in adult Bible studies, even when something specifically for youth is happening in the community.  They are in on outreach planning, coming up with their own ideas and following through together with adults.  It’s awesome to watch.

    And as former mega church youth leaders, our whole concept of youth ministry has changed, I think for the better. Youth want to be a part of something life changing, not just entertaining moments planned by adults.

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