Is Youth Ministry Killing the Church?

November 12, 2013     Keith Parker    

It seems about this time every year, I begin to see a lot of blog posts about how Youth Ministry is killing the church, how Youth Ministry is fundamentally flawed, and how students are leaving the church in record numbers.  Youth Ministry is always the scapegoat in this conversation, the sacrificial lamb to blame for all of the woes plaguing the church.

I will be frank and tell you that this trend of blaming Youth Ministry for the mass exodus of young people from the faith is honking me off.  While I see the trend, and am disheartened whenever I see one of my former students straying from the faith, I am not convinced that Youth Ministry is the root cause for the decline.  I’d like to offer some rebuttals to the idea that Youth Ministry is the root of all evil, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Here are some questions I think need to be asked.

1.  What would the statistics be WITHOUT Youth Ministry?

While studies like Sticky Faith and Barna continue to show the alarming trend of students leaving the church, I wonder if those numbers would be exponentially worse without Youth Ministry in the mix.  If you follow the same logic many do when it comes to Youth Ministry, you could have some interesting conclusions.  For instance, people are dying of obesity-related illnesses in large quantities.  Clearly, doctors are killing America.  We should get rid of doctors and start over.  You see the absurdity of such logic, as it doesn’t really get to the root cause of the issue at hand.  I argue that Youth Ministry is not the root cause of students leaving the church.  It may simply be a symptom of the greater disease.  I contend there are other factors.

2.  What about the culture around us?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this isn’t 1950 anymore.  Wally and the Beav are long gone.  Shows like Dick Van Dyke and My Three Sons have been replaced with the Real Housewives and Modern Family.  But the list of cultural changes isn’t limited to our entertainment.  Absentee fathers, single parenting, gay marriage, and a plethora of other “hot button issues” are waging war on our students.  Many well-respected pastors, researchers, and social commentators have even called this a “post-Christian society.”  Are we so naive to think that these other factors don’t contribute to the droves of students leaving our churches?

We aren’t living in an age where families just “attend church together” every Sunday as part of their normal family tradition.  There isn’t a standard expectation in our society to attend church.  Many of the students in our ministry at Hazelwood come to church without their parents.  A number of them have no positive spiritual influence to speak of outside of youth group.  To assume that Youth Ministry is somehow the reason these students don’t “stick with it” is to miss a lot of other contributing factors altogether.

3.  What about all the success stories?

I’ve seen too many amazing spiritual transformations in Youth Ministry to believe it is beyond repair or without merit.  Each year, we watch about 15-20 students give their lives to Christ and follow Him in Christian baptism.  Many of these students, as I mentioned earlier, have no real spiritual connection outside of our Youth Ministry.  I’ve seen students answer the call of God and follow Him into full-time ministry.  Many students from our church are currently serving in other ministries around the country and even around the world.  Through our ministry, students have had opportunities to serve on mission fields in various states, countries, and places of need.  In Youth Ministry, students meet every week to encourage, pray for, and laugh with one another in Christian community.  How can we throw out the baby with the bath water here?

Five years ago, a young lady went on a trip with us for the first time.  She met Jesus there, and her life was never the same.  I watched her pursue Christ faithfully despite adverse conditions spiritually in her home, and financial difficulty at every turn.  Our Youth Ministry often helped pay for her registrations so that she could continue to go with us and grow in Christ.  This past year, she came into my office with a smile on her face.  She had a job her senior year, and had saved her money so she could pay for her own way on our Adventure Trip.  She walked into my office, and gave me THREE stacks of cash.  The first was for her trip.  The second was for her sibling.  And the third was to pay for another student who couldn’t afford to go.  Youth Ministry isn’t completely broken.

4.  Isn’t there another solution?

One of my biggest complaints about most of the “Youth Ministry Stinks” articles is that they rarely offer solutions.  While I don’t think Youth Ministry is to blame for our loss of students entirely, I do think we need to make strides forward, and take Youth Ministry to the next level.  This is where I appreciate solutions-based research like Sticky Faith.  It gives tangible, proven ideas that I can implement in my ministry in the hopes of hanging on to more students in the future.

By connecting our students to the larger body, giving students opportunities to wrestle with questions of faith, and more effectively partnering with parents in ministry, we can make Youth Ministry even more productive in the future, and hopefully watch more students remain faithful after high school.

Is Youth Ministry responsible for the exodus of students from the church?  I’m not so sure.  Can it be better and more effective?  Absolutely.  And that, my friends, is something I think we can ALL agree on.  So let’s get out there and change the world…one student at a time.

Categories: blog, Coaching, FeaturedSlider, Student Issues

84 thoughts on “Is Youth Ministry Killing the Church?”

  1. Brian Seidel

    I agree 100% that we need youth ministry and we get more blame than is due, and I also agree that youth ministry does have some issues that could use correcting. Most of what is wrong are church problems, not just youth ministry problems, and instead of pointing and blaming, we need to stack hands together as the church and move forward. Great post!

  2. Brian Seidel

    I agree 100% that we need youth ministry and we get more blame than is due, and I also agree that youth ministry does have some issues that could use correcting. Most of what is wrong are church problems, not just youth ministry problems, and instead of pointing and blaming, we need to stack hands together as the church and move forward. Great post!

  3. JoelYrick

    Where’s your biblical support for youth ministry? Does it have any promise from God about its effectiveness as does preaching the word in the context of worship (Romans 10)?

    1. Ben Read

      There is no Biblical support for gathering teens in a room to play games, have fun, and water down the Gospel. By that definition, there is no Biblical Support for Youth Ministry, and those who still practice this definition of Youth Ministry need to quit.

      Youth Ministry needs to get back to the biblical basis, where Parents do have more input in the faith of their teens, where there is opportunity for mentorship with non-family members, where they are trained up in Biblical teaching.

  4. Jill

    Have there been any studies on how many of these kids that leave the church end up returning to a church somewhere once they have children of their own? I would imagine that if a child/teen were active in their youth program growing up that they would want their children to have the same positive experiences. Maybe that aspect is already included in the numbers but if not then I think that it would be necessary to get a more honest picture of the impact of youth ministry.

    1. Keith Parker

      Sticky Faith is a great, lengthy, and well-respected study that covers all these topics. Jill, you ask a great question, and one I’ve seen played out many times. Check out that book – it’s a great read and very challenging.

  5. Charles

    I find this article fascinating. The argumentation is very poor. It’s a collection of faulty logic (point 1), misunderstanding of the opposite view (also point 1), arguments from culture instead of Scripture (point 2), and anecdotal evidence as if the exception proves the rule (point 3).

    The ultimate question should always be: what do the Scriptures teach about (insert any topic here)? It shouldn’t be based on culture or anecdotal examples or any other thing I’ve read ad nauseaum from youth group apologists.

    In the first point, you try to show our faulty argument by saying we should abolish doctors because of obesity. Well, that is assuming already that Youth Groups are like doctors. I would argue that Youth Groups aren’t like doctors in your illustration; they’re more like sugar. And of course there are other factors as to why students are leaving the church; that’s not the question here. The question is whether youth group is ONE of those factors. I would agree that segregating people based on their evolutionary development is definitely ONE of those factors. How can young people see faith lived out in all ages of believers if we constantly herd them into niche marketed age based “ministries?” By trying to throw smoke on the issue, you’re missing the point.

    And as to your second point, of course the “culture” plays a part in why students leave the church. I would argue that the lack of parents teaching their children is a HUGE issue, as you helpfully point out. And another of these is that the older folks in the church aren’t teaching the younger in a Titus 2 fashion. You know what helps prevent such teaching? More age segregation.

    Your third point talks about the students saved through Youth Ministry. Once again, nobody is arguing that people don’t ever get saved or helped via youth ministry. We are arguing about whether it’s a biblical model. God can use a donkey to speak, but that doesn’t mean we prop a donkey up in the pulpit every Sunday (though I’ve heard many churches do so). And frankly, I’m sure that for every 1 success story you can bring forth, I can bring forth 10 bad stories. So who’s right? The one who can summon more anecdotal stories? Success stories work to convince me to buy a computer. They don’t convince me to accept a worldview difference. If we are to be people of the Word, let us stand on that Word and prove our arguments based upon that Word.

    I have an alternative. What about if we preach the gospel on Sunday, love our people during the week, free up our fathers to lead their families without being bogged down with dozens of niche ministries, be involved in each other’s lives, and let the younger folks stay with the older. Let them see that God is big enough to sustain a man who just lost his wife. Let them see that God is big enough to handle the birth of twins to a family that has very little money. Let them see that God is big enough to empower a man with ten kids to work three jobs and still attempt to find time for his children, who his wife is teaching and discipling at home. Let them see He is big enough to sustain the single college student, the child taking communion for the first time, the 90 year old widow, and the 47 year old business man. And let all of them partake of the Bread of life together, as brothers and sisters, hearing the Word preached, tasting of the sacraments served, and watching church discipline happen. See if that won’t change the student’s heart.

    1. kolby milton

      Charles, Thanks for not linking anything back you personally. It is easy to leave a comment when you are anonymous.

      Sadly your approach only looks at those in the church. If we went with this approach, I wouldn’t have come to know Christ. How would we filter this with the great commission? Who is going to disciple students in the community who are lost, and desperate to hear about Christ?

    2. Keith Parker

      Charles, thanks for checking out the article. I appreciate hearing your opinion, and am glad this article is sparking discussion. It’s an important discussion that needs to happen, which is why I wrote it. Let me see if I can briefly respond to your very lengthy comments.

      1. It is clear you are a proponent of abolishing Youth Ministry. I am not. From the very foundation, we are going to see things differently.

      2. You begin by calling my arguments poor and my logic faulty. Thanks for being encouraging 😛 However, if you had read the article without bias, you would have understood that this is not my “finely crafted argument,” but instead a set of questions that need to be asked before we throw YM out in the dumpster.

      3. I don’t misunderstand the viewpoint of the other side. I have read many articles and books on this issue in my many years of YM. I have a hard time believing that my opposition has painted a clear and effective argument to this point. You may disagree, but that does not mean I’m a buffoon.

      4. My logic for the doctors illustration was simply to illustrate the faulty logic so prevalent. It was a ridiculous example on purpose. You in turn call Youth groups “sugar.” That’s equally ridiculous and conveys your clear bias.

      5. You argue constantly against the church putting people in different “niche” ministries because it doesn’t allow them to see examples of faith in the older generation. I’m not sure what your Youth Ministry experience is, but the Youth Ministry in MY context is extremely inter-generational. First of all, our students (6th grade and up) worships EVERY Sunday with the congregation. We have encouraged adults and students to interact deliberately in that time, and we see it every Sunday. We also have a huge group of adults from various generations who are integrally involved in our ministry as leaders and mentors. We work alongside adults on mission trips, serve with the older generation, and all of this is on purpose. We also work hard to partner with parents, to resource parents so they can be the spiritual leaders in their homes, and to communicate with parents about what we are seeing in students. Just because we meet separately on Wednesday nights does not mean we are missing the inter-generational benefits.

      6. You argue that anecdotal evidence is insufficient, then you cite various anecdotal situations at the end of your argument. Again, this was not my argument, but instead a valid question that needs to be asked if we are going to kill YM. What about all the success stories? What about all the students whose lives were changed by a Youth Ministry? That is indeed a valid question, is it not?

      7. Your alternative is insufficient in this sense – what about the student whose parents have no spiritual affiliation? Sure, what you suggest works great for students in a Christian home with a Bible on every end table. But for 50% of my students (roughly), that’s just not reality. Maybe we should get those students a mentor, an adult they can learn from and get biblical guidance from…oh yeah, that would be like Youth Ministry…

      I appreciate your opinion, and your time in reading the article and commenting. Thanks for keeping the discussion going and helping us as church leaders to more effectively preach the good news. In the end, that is what we are all after.

    3. sell412

      When Jesus calls the young disciples to follow him, to leave their lives… their families, their businesses, their past… and to follow him, this wasn’t a radical thing. This was the practice of the rabbi. It is not alliterated in Scripture word for word, but it is understood. Pulling young people aside for training in Scriptures and how to live it out in the context of their lives is the responsibility of the parents (Deut 6) and also requires the support of the church (Titus 2). Suggesting that every youth ministry segregates teens from adults might be an exaggeration and a poor assumption, as would the idea that doing so is like causing tooth decay. I think another poor assumption would be to suggest that in today’s culture, Jesus would command the disciples to not contextualize ministry based on age any more than he would. We have liberty here. Don’t be dogmatic in suggesting that because a method isn’t mentioned in Scripture that it isn’t viable or even blessed by God.

  6. Nick Farr

    What about all the people leaving church after their musical preference isn’t met? Their translation of the Bible isn’t preached? Someone in their Sunday school class hurt their feelings? Those people who came once and no one spoke to them? I feel like we focus so much on teens leaving…are they? Yes, but so adults in other areas of the church too.

    1. Keith Parker

      No one, but many say it’s the “root” of all evil.

      Google search “Youth Ministry is Killing the Church” or “Youth Ministry Driving Teens from Church” and you will find a plethora of articles.

      I’m sorry you feel it’s silly and dramatic. However, judging from the comments, it is serious to many.

    2. HeatherLeaCampbell

      haha, the point is that those articles ARE silly and dramatic. They need someone to call them out. Just like that whole “Instagram is Killing Your Ministry” bit. Like, c’mon friends. 🙂

  7. Rick Burns

    Hi Keith. As a pastor with a huge concern for youth, I appreciate your comments.
    What I have concluded in my own church is that the lack of parental involvement has significantly contributed to the decline of the youth ministry. Parents have become pals instead of spiritual leaders in the home. Allowing the kids to call the shots about when, where and how they will worship. I believe if parents would return to training up a child that we would see an increase in youth involvement and an increase in the amount of kids who stick around after graduation.
    Just a thought.

    1. Keith Parker

      Hey Rick, thanks for the read and the thoughts. I agree with you wholeheartedly. You are helping make my 2nd point, which is that cultural issues have more to do with young people leaving the church than Youth Ministry does. In a perfect world, Youth Ministry would be obsolete because parents would be spiritually leading their homes. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. That’s why any successful Youth Ministry MUST partner with parents and minister to them fervently.

  8. Derek Sullivan

    As an advocate of YM, I do however see both sides of the issue as important. However, regardless of your views, we must speak to one another with grace and love. Leave all “sarcasm” aside for a serious discussion.

    With that being said, it has been stated many times and I agree with this, that YM may need to become Family Ministry. Getting engaged in the entire family.


    1. HeatherLeaCampbell

      Short answer: Yes. 🙂 We need to engage parents more. YESYESYES. One of the issues with youth ministry as it is, is it has turned into more of a babysitting service (drop your teens off and we’ll cram a week’s worth of spirituality into them). THIS is NOT Biblical. We need to train parents to do spirituality in their homes with their children. What does this look like? Hmmm. I think a lot of parent ministry sites are really killing it right now! 🙂

      1. Derek Sullivan

        I completely agree, Heather. I think though, this process of getting the parents out of the “babysitting” mindset will definitely take a lot of prayer and patience. Did I mention patience? Especially if the parents aren’t engaged in the overall activity and function of the church itself. I’ve got this going on where I am now (to some degree or another).

        It’s amazing though, that after your first year or so, you start calming down about the nonsense of youth ministry, you stop complaining and start taking action. Time is a very important word in youth ministry, especially in a context like mine and many other similar contexts.

  9. Jordan Lauffer

    These calls to abolish youth ministry are missing a few things: one is an understanding that their youth ministry experience is not every youth ministry, second what about the students whose parents have no involvement with the church, often these parents are pulled to the church by student’s involvement. Many of these students don’t have an example which is why every other week on Wednesday night they are meeting in a small group with mentors who genuinely care about them.

    That being said, ideally parents are guiding and directing their children spiritually with the time in age based ministry outside of corporate worship as an add on, not the meat.

  10. Brian Lucas

    Great article to spark great discussion! The blame game will never fix the problems. Those who go around evangelizing against youth ministry are missing the bigger picture: focus on the good things and build those up. Of all the Christians I know that have been in church since pre-adulthood, all of them found faith in youth group. I know very few people who, in this culture, enjoyed “big church” as teens/kids.

    On the flip side, I know many students (and now young adults) who attended our youth group because a friend invited them. They met Jesus. They committed their lives to Him. And now, they serve and love and live for Him. The thing about all these students I’m remembering is that their parents never went to church. This call for “family ministry” as the only way to do it would leave my friend out of the Kingdom as her parents are Buddhist.

    Good stuff Keith. Thank you.

  11. Josh

    Look, youth ministry in and of itself isn’t the issue. What we do or don’t do in youth ministry is, however, somewhat to blame. If the focus of youth ministry is to empower and resource the parents of youth to do the disciple-making then youth ministry can do what it was meant to do: supplement what is taking place in the home. When there is nothing taking place in the home, youth ministry alone won’t be successful. Another root cause of youth walking away from the church is the lack of substance in church for people of all ages. When many churches aren’t making disciples of parents, parents won’t make disciples of kids. The issue is that many people see youth ministry as a babysitting service or something that is just supposed to be fun. The church is not doing its job in proclaiming the truth that parents should train their children in the way they should go, not just youth pastors.

  12. Aaron Parish

    Do you think it’s possible that students leaving the church in droves has more to do with students going off to college than we realize? Isn’t it really within the last 30 years or so that college has shifted from a privilege to a right, thereby allowing anybody who wants to go? Which is fine, except for the possibility that when more students are going off to college they aren’t getting involved in a local church. Once you get out of church the only thing that gets you back in is when you have kids of your own? Just an idea. Now, if that’s the case, the fault may shift from the youth ministries to the church as a whole. If a student is raised in a healthy church (not just a healthy youth ministry), then the student would presumably crave a healthy church once he goes off to college. I try to stay in contact with my students that go off and make sure they get involved in a local church (not a campus ministry).

  13. Will Hutcherson

    Wow! Keith thank you so much for posting this! It seems being down on youth min is the popular thing to do & there are few voices out there offering encouragement and hope to youth leaders about all that’s right. Thanks man!

  14. MC

    The ultimate issue with youth ministry is in the title, “youth.” I am not against teenagers – I was one myself. The problem is that the secular world invented the term “adolescence” to help explain the evolution of the human race. If we want to discuss “youth” in the Bible let’s look at what David was doing while still a youth. He was working as a man. Samuel was a priest, Joshua and Caleb were mature enough to go out as spies.
    In more modern times, Ben Franklin ran his own business while still a “youth.” G. Washington was a professional surveyor, and David Farragut was captain of a naval vessel at age 12 /14 depending on which source one reads. The point to all of this is the church has adopted the non-biblical view of those individuals between ages 11 and 21. The adoption of “adolescence” has allowed for the 35 years old video playing generation of “boys” in the church and out of it.
    By adopting the evolutionist view of youth we, in the church, are allowing for the Peter Pan syndrome to flourish, not to mention the acceptance of secular ideology. This is what breaks my heart … we have bought the world’s view of humanity and youth. Thus, youth “ministry” is doomed to its current state. Humbly….

    1. BIG AL

      Teenagers’ and young adults’ two generations ago: Get a job that pays a living wage, start a family, give parents grandchildren, buy a home, & contribute to society.

      Teenagers’ and young adults’ today: “Do you want fries with that?”, “I live in my parent’s basement.”, “Kids! Seriously?!”, “When’s the next version of Candy Crush come out?”.

  15. Alyce Wason

    Wow! This thread was on fire! And I’m not sure if it was in a good way or not :/
    But, I agree, awesome post my friend. I’m blessed to have a senior pastor who continually encourages me when I can’t ‘see’ the fruit with my own natural eyes. She is always saying to me “Just think how it would be if they didn’t have anyone, if there was no opportunity, if youth and the gospel in their language did not exist…” and she’s right.
    We as youth pastors walk by faith, not by sight.

  16. L.L.R.

    GREAT Article Keith!
    This is my/husbands (cough-cough) 27th year in youth ministry. Stats without YM are scary thought. Teens need a place to step away from their parents and make decisions on their own about their spiritual life. A place to ask questions without fear. etc.
    You are spot on with the call for family ministry! I’ve seen it time and time again, all the best sermons, amazing music games, videos-you name it can be out of this world but if a TEEN is living in a home that says they are followers of Christ but live out a total different life- these TEENS- struggle in their walk-through the young adult years. I have seen them come back to church once they are parents. However there is nothing more powerful than a family walking with the Lord. Ever think about the percentages of divorce in Christian homes? What a great way to make sure the entire family slowly falls away from the church. (Obviously not all the time-but that percentage is high) The illustration of a teen who brings a friend, the friend is transformed…. One thing they have said to me over the years is–The church felt like a family. My last point is-if you know a teen that is going off to college- stay in touch, encourage them to find a church, to get involved in a ministry. It’s so important.
    Over the years I have seen many Teens become pastors. (Some youth Pastors) Some are on the mission field, etc. I have an overwhelming sense of JOY for the work of Youth Ministry. These teens need us-we need to be honest and show them the truth, All our good , bad and ugly but most of all show them that it’s not for nothing.

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