Suddenly I feel cornered in a dark alley, surrounded by naysayers, no-hopers, knuckleheads, and the Knights Who Say Nee (didn’t see that last one coming, right?). I mean, I can’t turn and spit without hitting someone pontificating that Christianity in the United States is terminally ill, and that youth ministry is pretty much a failure any way you slice it.
The tipping point came when I read Michael Spencer’s Christian Science Monitor article “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”—it’s creating a lot of buzz in evangelical circles. Here’s a tidbit:
“We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. [They] have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.”
I think Spencer’s article, and the predictable “He must be right!” reaction to it in the Christian community, is an “avatar” for a popular bloodsport—the gleeful hammering of the American church’s impact, especially with teenagers. Collectively, I think it’s a lie. And like all lies, there’s truth in it—that’s what “sets the hook.” Yes, only a tenth of teenagers have what researchers call a “devoted faith,” and too many of them are dropping out of church. But the small story in youth ministry is really the big story.
In this climate of doom, the youth pastors I talk to often feel hesitant about their “successes” and the life-changing things that are happening with their kids. But the stories of transformation and redemption are so profound—and ubiquitous—that they belie the naysayers…and the Knights Who Say Nee!
My sense is, as church futurist Leonard Sweet predicted years ago, that the “middle” is shrinking. I mean, there’s a large minority of kids who are “all-in” with Jesus (as Alex and Brett Harris document in their book Do Hard Things). There’s also a large minority who want nothing to do with “religion.” And the middle zone—the mildly interested—is shrinking.
This “trend” may just be a re-calibration of reality. It matches the reality Jesus described—“the narrow gate and road that few are on” and “the wide gate and road that many are on” (Matthew 7:13-14). Jesus wasn’t telling us what would happen if we didn’t do a good job for him; he was telling us the truth. Those who are “all-in” with him will always be far fewer than those who are not.
In the end, this is all about our definition of success—defining the “win.” So I asked Kurt Johnston, our junior high ministry columnist, to read the Spencer article and react to it. Kurt’s what I’d call a “visionary pragmatic.” He said:
“I’m called to Christ, his kingdom, and teenagers—not to the evangelical movement. So I guess if it does go under, I will just have to find another venue through which to pursue my calling. Is the local evangelical church on the verge of extinction? I don’t know…I’m just a youth pastor trying my best to love kids! While there is certainly a place for experts to predict what the future may hold, I’m honestly not all that worried. I rub shoulders with lots of youth workers who are finding great fruit—they’re seeing lives of teenagers radically changed by the message of Christ.
“Are there ways we can improve? Are there areas of concern? Will church youth ministry look different in the future? Should church youth ministry look different in the future? The answer to all of these is…YES! Am I afraid we are completely off track? Do I feel that youth ministry as it exists currently is ineffective? The answer to those questions is a resounding…not even close!”
This article was originally published in Group Magazine.