My third concern with youth ministry is that the current approach isn’t working.We are losing the overwhelming majority of our youth by the end of their freshman year in college (75-88% according to Glen Schultz, Kingdom Education, and the 2002 SBC Council on the Family). Less than ten percent of churched teens have a biblical worldview (The Barna Group, Nehemiah Institute Peers Test), and nearly half of all church members are probably not born again (Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Spring, 2005). The retention rate is not highest among those in youth groups; it is highest among those whose parents (particularly fathers) actually disciple them. Ask any youth pastor and he’ll tell you. The kids who stay are the ones whose parents are investing in them; the ones who aren’t counting on two hours a week in the youth building to offset 45-50 hours a week in the classroom and on the sports field.
Of course there are anecdotal stories of young people whose lives were changed in the segregated community. We will always have those stories. The fact of the matter is that God can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick. He can use our feeble efforts and still get his job done. However, the end does not justify the means. A youth pastor who heard about my philosophy called me on the telephone several months ago to share one of these anecdotal stories. He told me about a young girl who came from a terrible background. Her story sounded like something off of a Lifetime original series. There was sex, drugs, abuse, abandonment, you name it and this girl had been through it. But God used this youth pastor to touch her life. She was now in college walking with God and standing up to philosophy professors in defense of her faith. What could I say to that?
I asked him what kind of church he was a part of. He told me it was a conservative Evangelical congregation. I asked about their music. He said it was traditional. I asked about the preaching at his church. He said their pastor was an old fashioned no-nonsense Bible preacher. I asked him what he thought about the modern seeker-driven Church Growth movement. He gave me a litany of reasons why he disagreed with what he called the “manipulative, market-driven, man-centered practices,” and explained that he was not a fan. I asked him why. He explained that the methodologies were not biblical. I said, “But they are reaching a lot of people.”
At this point the lights went on. He realized exactly what I was doing. It was like an intellectual checkmate. He either had to admit that he was guilty of the same thing he was accusing the seeker-driven movement of, or demonstrate that his ministry was based on clear biblical teaching and not market-driven, man-centered methodologies. He was also forced to admit that anecdotal stories about people whose lives were changed, while compelling, did not justify one’s methodology.
I have come to realize that most of the ministry I have done with teens over the years has borne little long-term fruit compared to what could have been done had I committed myself to training their parents to evangelize and disciple them. Thus, I have turned my attention to doing just that. From now on, I will not book events target at teens unless they are also targeted at the parents of those teens with a view toward communicating the parents’ responsibility clearly and consistently.