Kurt Johnston has been a youth pastor since 1988 and currently leads the student ministries team at Saddleback Church in Southern California. Widely regarded as one of the most trusted voices in youth ministry, Kurt loves to encourage other youth workers and has written and created over 50 books and resources with that goal in mind. In his free time, Kurt enjoys surfing and riding dirt bikes in the desert with his wife and two children.

Read Faith Abandonment: Part 1 here.

While I tend to think the “statistics” (I put them in quotes because everybody knows that 75% of statistics are wrong 85% of the time.) citing how many students actually walk away from faith/church upon graduation are an overshot, I would have to have my head buried in the sand to pretend it’s an issue that those of us called to minister to teenagers can ignore.

So, what are some of the causes of faith/church abandonment? Before I share a few actual causes, I’d like to defend a scapegoat, something that has received the lion’s share of blame for teenagers leaving church after graduation. And I’d like to propose that it’s been falsely accused:

SCAPEGOAT: “Attractional Ministry”.  We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to believe that massive numbers of youth groups around the country are doing nothing other than playing games, bribing kids with free X-boxes, and throwing dance parties. Sure, lots of youth groups do all of these things, but I have NEVER met a youth worker who thinks this is all there is to youth ministry. Those who throw stones at churches employing such techniques almost always conveniently neglect to look below the surface at the depth of ministry provided to teenagers who are initially attracted to more surface-level activities. Very few teenagers want a youth group made up only of fun and games (again, I don’t think such a youth group even exists), but very few want one void of those things all together.  And finally, I’ve never heard a youth worker self-describe their model of ministry as “attractional”; it seems to be a paradigm that has been assigned by critics to larger youth groups that occasionally use the types of approaches mentioned above.

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Okay, enough with the big church youth guy getting all defensive about the attacks his type of youth ministry has received. What are some things that actually may be contributing to faith abandonment?  Glad you asked. Here are 3 possible causes:

The “Success” of Youth Ministry.  As professional youth ministry has grown, and as churches have invested more and more money into their youth departments, the quality of ministry has increased. Add to that the fact that most youth workers are young, creative, risk-takers who have a good grasp of culture and it shouldn’t surprise us that when teenagers leave youth group “big church” suddenly feels stuffy, out of touch and lacking relevance.

The “Silo” of Youth Ministry.  More and more youth ministries becoming less and less connected to the rest of the church body has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it has allowed youth groups to flourish on their own, unencumbered by the rest of the church, but a curse in that most teenagers in these types of settings feel completely unconnected to the congregation at large. The bridge we ask them to walk from youth group to adult church upon graduation is, frankly, a bridge too far.

The “System” of Youth Ministry.  By “system” I mean the way we do youth ministry; our typical method or approach. Our method has oftentimes ignored the power of partnering with parents and other influential adults. Our approach has at times failed to equip our students to face the realities of life after high school. While I think it’s impossible to single out one approach as the biggest cause of faith abandonment (“attractional ministry” for example), I do believe some of the ways we minister, or fail to minister, certainly contribute to the problem.

So, what can we do about these causes? Are there some antidotes, some cures for what ails us?  I believe so….and we’ll look at some of them next week.

Kurt / @kurtjohnston

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