Many teenagers are wandering away from faith and/or church upon graduating from high school and moving out of our youth groups.
What, exactly, can we do about it?
We can do nothing, and we can do a lot. We can do nothing in that the reality has always been that some people who are close to Jesus wander, deny, struggle, deny, and abandon him. Jesus had some of his closest friends turn on him either momentarily (Peter) or permanently (Judas). So I think it’s wise for us to remember that nothing we do will completely solve the human condition and our tendency to wander. Yet, there IS a lot that those of us who lead youth ministries can do to help make it a little less natural for the students in our ministries to walk away from church when they leave our care. Here are a few ideas:
Less God; More Jesus: There are very few atheist teenagers. Most teenagers like the idea of “god”, will say the love “god” and believe that if you believe in “god”, do good things, treat people well, and live a moral life, you will go to heaven (yes, most teenagers believe in heaven). Sociologist Christian Smith coined a term for this type of dangerous belief system, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and many youth groups unwittingly reinforce this belief. I believe the answer is a simple one: We need to talk about God less, and Jesus more. Most teenagers don’t have a working understanding of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. They don’t believe he is the way, the truth and the life. They don’t understand what being a follower of Jesus actually means.
Less Segregation; More Integration. I’m not a proponent of doing less youth ministry in favor of more intergenerational ministry…but I sort of am! If a leading cause of faith abandonment (according to the Sticky Faith research and the research I did for my book, The 9 Best practices of Youth Ministry.) is student’s lack of connection to the rest of the church body, then it would follow that more exposure to the rest of the church body is a good thing! Look for ways to integrate your teenagers and the rest of the church. Here are a few things I’ve implemented at Saddleback:
– Worship Together Weekends: We cancel youth group once a month so our teenagers can worship with the rest of the church.
– Expanded Ministry Opportunities: I sent an email to our various adult ministries asking if they’d be open to allowing teenagers to serve. Most responded with an enthusiastic “YES!” The result is that instead of only serving in our own youth group or in the kid’s ministry, teenagers are now serving all over the place.
– Cancelled College-age Worship Gathering: We no longer have a weekly worship service for college students; instead they are “forced” to go to adult services for worship. We replaced it with a weekly gathering of centralized small groups.
Less Answers; More Questions. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to present lessons with easy solutions to life’s problems and give simple answers to big questions instead of creating what I call a “culture of questioning.” (Full disclosure: We’re not very good at this one in our youth ministry…but we’re getting better.) Play Devil’s advocate, challenge their assumptions, don’t accept the easy “church” answer, celebrate the tough questions they ask. Look for ways to create a culture that is inquisitive, curious, and skeptical of easy answers.
Less Cocoons; More Crisis. One reason we love to give answers and hope teenagers don’t doubt or question their faith is because we are often fearful of the students under our care experiencing a crisis of faith. So we work hard to create spiritual cocoons for our students (by the way, parents, elders, senior pastors, etc. usually LOVE such efforts). But the fact of the matter is that a crisis of faith is lurking around the corner of most students in your ministry, and they need to know it’s okay to experience one! When the crisis hits, you want them to feel comfortable talking about it, and wrestling through it in the community of believers; not feeling like less of a Christian because of it, which will likely result in a strategy of distancing themselves at the very time they should be surrounding themselves. What if you simply reframed doubts, crisis and struggles? What if instead of these things being signs of a lagging faith or weak will, they became signs of a true desire to follow Jesus, a mark of a maturing, growing, deepening faith? Is it possible more people would stick around church if church were a safe place to struggle? I think so.
Faith abandonment. We can do nothing, and we can do a lot.
Kurt / @kurtjohnston