Why Youth Stay in Church When They Grow Up

“What do we do about our kids?” The group of parents sat together in my office, wiping their eyes. I’m a high school pastor, but for once, they weren’t talking about 16-year-olds drinking and partying. Each had a story to tell about a “good Christian” child, raised in their home and in our church, who had walked away from the faith during the college years. These children had come through our church’s youth program, gone on short-term mission trips, and served in several different ministries during their teenage years. Now they didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. And, somehow, these mothers’ ideas for our church to send college students “care packages” during their freshman year to help them feel connected to the church didn’t strike me as a solution with quite enough depth.

The daunting statistics about churchgoing youth keep rolling in. Panic ensues. What are we doing wrong in our churches? In our youth ministries?

It’s hard to sort through the various reports and find the real story. And there is no one easy solution for bringing all of those “lost” kids back into the church, other than continuing to pray for them and speaking the gospel into their lives. However, we can all look at the 20-somethings in our churches who are engaged and involved in ministry. What is it that sets apart the kids who stay in the church? Here are just a few observations I have made about such kids, with a few applications for those of us serving in youth ministry.

1. They are converted.

The apostle Paul, interestingly enough, doesn’t use phrases like “nominal Christian” or “pretty good kid.” The Bible doesn’t seem to mess around with platitudes like: “Yeah, it’s a shame he did that, but he’s got a good heart.” When we listen to the witness of Scripture, particularly on the topic of conversion, we find that there is very little wiggle room. Listen to these words: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). We youth pastors need to get back to understanding salvation as what it really is: a miracle that comes from the glorious power of God through the working of the Holy Spirit.

We need to stop talking about “good kids.” We need to stop being pleased with attendance at youth group and fun retreats. We need to start getting on our knees and praying that the Holy Spirit will do miraculous saving work in the hearts of our students as the Word of God speaks to them. In short, we need to get back to a focus on conversion. How many of us are preaching to “unconverted evangelicals”? Youth pastors, we need to preach, teach, and talk—all the while praying fervently for the miraculous work of regeneration to occur in the hearts and souls of our students by the power of the Holy Spirit! When that happens—when the “old goes” and the “new comes”—it will not be iffy. We will not be dealing with a group of “nominal Christians.” We will be ready to teach, disciple, and equip a generation of future church leaders—”new creations”!—who are hungry to know and speak God’s Word. It is converted students who go on to love Jesus and serve the church.

2. They have been equipped, not entertained.

Recently we had “man day” with some of the guys in our youth group. We began with an hour of basketball at the local park, moved to an intense game of 16″ (“Chicago Style”) softball, and finished the afternoon by gorging ourselves on meaty pizzas and 2-liters of soda. I am not against fun (or gross, depending on your opinion of the afternoon I just described) things in youth ministry. But youth pastors especially need to keep repeating the words of Ephesians 4:11-12 to themselves: “[Christ] gave . . . the teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Christ gives us—teachers—to the church, not for entertainment, encouragement, examples, or even friendship primarily. He gives us to the church to “equip” the saints to do gospel ministry, in order that the church of Christ may be built up.

If I have not equipped the students in my ministry to share the gospel, disciple a younger believer, and lead a Bible study, then I have not fulfilled my calling to them, no matter how good my sermons have been. We pray for conversion; that is all we can do, for it is entirely a gracious gift of God. But after conversion, it is our Christ-given duty to help fan into flame a faith that serves, leads, teaches, and grows. If our students leave high school without Bible-reading habits, Bible-study skills, and strong examples of discipleship and prayer, we have lost them. We have entertained, not equipped them . . . and it may indeed be time to panic!

Forget your youth programs for a second. Are we sending out from our ministries the kind of students who will show up to college in a different state, join a church, and begin doing the work of gospel ministry there without ever being asked? Are we equipping them to that end, or are we merely giving them a good time while they’re with us? We don’t need youth group junkies; we need to be growing churchmen and churchwomen who are equipped to teach, lead, and serve. Put your youth ministry strategies aside as you look at that 16-year-old young man and ask: “How can I spend four years with this kid, helping him become the best church deacon and sixth-grade Sunday school class teacher he can be, ten years down the road?”

3. Their parents preached the gospel to them.

As a youth pastor, I can’t do all this. All this equipping that I’m talking about is utterly beyond my limited capabilities. It is impossible for me to bring conversion, of course, but it is also impossible for me to have an equipping ministry that sends out vibrant churchmen and churchwomen if my ministry is not being reinforced tenfold in the students’ homes. The common thread that binds together almost every ministry-minded 20-something that I know is abundantly clear: a home where the gospel was not peripheral but absolutely central. The 20-somethings who are serving, leading, and driving the ministries at our church were kids whose parents made them go to church. They are kids whose parents punished them and held them accountable when they were rebellious. They are kids whose parents read the Bible around the dinner table every night. And they are kids whose parents were tough, but who ultimately operated from a framework of grace that held up the cross of Jesus as the basis for peace with God and forgiveness toward one another.

This is not a formula! Kids from wonderful gospel-centered homes leave the church; people from messed-up family backgrounds find eternal life in Jesus and have beautiful marriages and families. But it’s also not a crap-shoot. In general, children who are led in their faith during their growing-up years by parents who love Jesus vibrantly, serve their church actively, and saturate their home with the gospel completely, grow up to love Jesus and the church. The words of Proverbs 22:6 do not constitute a formula that is true 100 percent of the time, but they do provide us with a principle that comes from the gracious plan of God, the God who delights to see his gracious Word passed from generation to generation: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Youth pastors, pray with all your might for true conversion; that is God’s work. Equip the saints for the work of the ministry; that is your work. Parents, preach the gospel and live the gospel for your children; our work depends on you.

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  • Katherine

    The key statement in this article is “they have been equipped, not entertained”. Too many churches today entertain their youth, not equip their hearts. I have the privilege of having worshipped in the same church for 26 years. I have seen an entire generation be born, grown, marry and now have children. The majority still serve the Lord. I do believe this reflects the accountability that is placed on our youth to ‘take their place’ in the church – even while youth. We train up our leaders.

    • Holly


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  • Mark

    I liked this article and at the same time winced a few times while reading it–specifically while reading bullet point 3. A couple phrases in bullet point 3 are are typcial of a backwards mentality even in Christ-centered youth ministry. First, it’s not the Youth pastor’s ministry that needs to be reinforced in the kid’s home (responding to ” if my ministry is not being reinforced tenfold in the students’ homes”). It’s the parent’s discipleship of their child that needs to be reinforced by the youth program. Second, (in response to “our work depends on you”) equiping young people for the work of ministry is PRIMARILY the role of their parents, not the role of a youth pastor.

    I would argue that bullet point 3 is heads and shoulders above the other two in importance when it comes to a child’s adherence to the gospel in their college/young adult years. Youth ministry is a very recent phenomenon and it’s not a Biblical model so we shouldn’t necessarily assume it’s the best structure for accomplishing the discipleship of young people. As such, I believe that churches should focus more on equiping parents to disciple their children and giving families opportunities to be about the work of ministry together than placing the primary structural emphasis on the discipleship of youth by a separate adult (ironically it’s generally one who hasn’t had kids or only has very young kids). Youth ministries have thier place, but not in my opinion as something beyond assisting parents in THEIR work of discipleship and evangelizing non-Christian youth.

    I like Jon’s heart, but I still think his priorities and ministry paradigm are backwards.

    • Jason

      AMEN, to your comment, Mark!

    • GVBerry


    • John S

      I’m going to agree here too. The modern youth group/ministry model is just that – a modern idea. Unwittingly it is structured to help the parents abdicate their responsibility – drop them off for the spiritual teaching, pick them up later. I like the parent/youth ministry, include the parents in all the youth meetings, help them come together don’t set up meetings designed to keep them apart.

      And under point #2, as a youth I evangelized and led a Bible study but I needed discipled myself I wasn’t mature enough to do much discipling, one main reason is I was not challenged and equipped toward sanctification. Evangelism and the social gospel were the big deal and outwardly my life looked pretty good, my personal holiness was not addressed and my hidden life was was a battle on my own which I made little progress in. Fear of man, lust, pride, impatience, honoring parents – had little or no help with these from my church as I recall.

    • http://jaycen.com Jaycen

      ABSOLUTELY spot on brother!

    • April Bracker


    • Joseph

      Couldn’t agree more!

    • Rob Beecher III

      Right on

    • http://www.purposedrivel.com Paula

      I agree, but if the parents are as ill equipped as the kids, then who is going to teach THEM to teach the kids?

    • http://www.craighurst.wordpress.com Craig Hurst

      Mark, I agree with your first point (while I think Jon would agree as well but didn’t put it that way). Second, I disagree with your second point that it is the parents PRIMARY responsibility to equip kids for ministry. I think Eph. 4 clearly states that’s the churches role though the discipleship role of the parents will inevitably include this. Also, if the church is doing its job then it will be equipping/discipling parents to disciple/equip their kids. Both the church and the parents have a primary role in the discipleship of a child but they work together as their roles complement and have some overlap.

    • http://stayontargetstayontarget.blogspot.com Nate Archer

      There are three types of youth that a healthy student ministry will reach: (1) students from Christian homes with parents who are committed and live out their faith, (2) students from non-Christian homes, and (3) students with parents who claim to be Christians but barely live it out.

      The most productive ministry is with type 1. In this case, the church has the opportunity to enhance what is already being instilled and exemplified at home. The second most productive ministry is with students whose parents don’t claim to follow Christ. Although they don’t have the benefits of Christian parents, at least they can recognize that their parent’s values and lifestyle are not the way it is supposed to be. But hands down, the hardest type to minister to is type 3, those with parents who claim to be Christians but ultimately don’t care. This is worse that non-Christian parents because these kids will look to their parents and view their version of Christianity as normal and sufficient. They will learn from their parents how to compromise and how to make their Christian values submit to their idols.

      For these reasons, I don’t accept the viewpoint that some circles seem to have that we should so away with ALL student ministries in favor of family ministry. Yes, let us minister to parents the best we can, but also minister to all three types of these students. Do you not have all three types in your church? Or is your church merely a small cluster of ideal families?

      If you don’t have any students with non-Christian parents, you need to evangelize more. Also don’t neglect the students with parents who are dropping the ball. Yes, yes, work with the parents and equip them, but don’t punish the students by not working with them in the meantime. Many of them have parents who will never get their act together.

      Family ministry is critical, but family ministry alone isn’t enough.

  • Holly

    as a friend said recently kids “don’t get a junior size dose of the Holy Spirit” if they have been saved … so why do we in the church treat them as if they do instead of expecting them to live explosively for Christ right where they are/whatever age they are?!

    and sending kids to a secular school their freshman year of college is asking for trouble in my book, even the most grounded kids need to question but do you want their faculty to answer those questions from a secular or a Christian worldview? This is not to say kids should not question the Bible, Christianity, their faith or their upbringing — THEY SHOULD (while they are at home first hopefully) otherwise they will never know the WHY of what they/we beleive.

    • Charles

      Holly, I agree with your first statement that kids don’t get a junior sized portion of the Holy Spirit, but forcing your kids to go to a Christian College may just delay them leaving the church. I have heard a number of times of people that went to a Christian College and left an atheist. If a college student is truly a Christian then the type of college won’t matter as there are usually churches around secular colleges as well as good Christian ministries based in many colleges like the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (also known as Baptist Student Union), Campus Crusades for Christ, and Intervarsity. So even if a college student has questions while at a secular college they won’t necessarily go to the faculty of the college to ask those questions.

    • Brooke

      I agree with Charles! I think that there are many fantastic Christian colleges where students can be equipped in their faith, but as a college student myself, I know that many secular colleges have great Christian communities. These communities thrive to become truly a beacon of light in the darkness of these secular college campuses.

    • Holly

      Having been to a secular college myself and active in the BSU and having two girls attending a Christian College I can see a HUGE difference!

      No I am not naive enough to believe that all the students who go to a Christian school are saved nor do I think all Christian schools really are but notice I said Freshman year, and who said anything about forcing? Encouraging though you bet you!

      Having that backup and knowing that your faculty comes from a similar worldview is HUGE!! (example: one of our girls is majoring in a scientific field, we felt -as did she– that it was crucial to come at things from a creationist, Bible based viewpoint for at least one to two years, the school she attends teaches all the viewpoints and discusses why the Bible account is correct).

      I didn’t say that secular schools don’t have great communities so please don’t read into what I said rather read what I said! :) God can of course do anything anywhere but as a prior college student and a parent I can TOTALLY see the difference and where the foundation is reinforced by attending a truly Christian school seeking to turn out world changers for Christ for at least one to two years before being thrown off the deep end so to speak with secular professors (especially in fields like philosophy,etc many of whom have a professed agenda against Christian students!).

      • linny

        This is a pretty overarching, blanket statement you are making here. It also completely ignores the experiences of millions of people in the name of your own experience.

  • TLin

    Have you read “Growing Up Religious” by Robert Wuthnow?

  • BK

    So true! They have to be equipped, not entertained! I’m a 20-something mom of two who DID stay deeply committed to Christ through college and into adulthood. My youth group did not equip me very much, but my parents sure did. My husband was equipped at home, but had several really Godly men invest in his life throughout high school and college. Churches need to do less “youth group” and more to equip parents to disciple their children and deeply invest in the young adults who don’t have that at home.

  • Jon Nitta

    I’m just on the other side of high school. I’m the college pastor. This has been a question on the table for at least 5 years now… why are so many youth actually leaving church. Here’s another issue that I encounter frequently… they graduate from high school and actually stay in the church. But they seem disengaged from the life of the body. They do serve here and there but there it’s almost as if they don’t really care growing in their faith. One person described it as, “it doesn’t cost them anything to be a Christian.” It’s what Kierkegaard described as the “gentle Christian” – they do serve but they remain largely disengaged from God and the life of the body. I have recently been wondering whether we are boring kids in church with the gospel….

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  • Knud W. Skov, DK

    Conversion – not being raised as christians. We do not believe in raising the right opinions, neither the academic theological ones or the bodily strong diaconical working ones – but we believe in redemption of sins through the work of the Holy Spirit which brings the young and old to see and love their savior.
    The converted can have doubt, will live in the fight between old and new man, will fall in sin and need to be raised up by brothers, who brings one to Christ (Gal 6.1ff).
    Then they will need parents, who are willing to kneel in need for forgiveness, parents, who knows how to pray with and for their children – and they need to find the Bible as trustworthy truth in life and death.

    Look to the sons of Eli and Samuel – they managed to perform like their fathers, but did not know the Lord. Look at the grandson-generation of Joshua – they had no longer someone with firsthand knowledge of the deeds of the Lord – and they softened their profile in the world, as they did not know the seriousness of the Law and the debth of Gods grace. If our youngsters have to find a way into churches today, they do not need special programes, but they need to meet the Lord and experience his deeds in their own life in judgement and forgiveness. God bless us to go that old road continually.

  • Melody

    We have had parents passing through our church that decided against it because it looked like the young people were enjoying themselves too much. Enthusiasm should not be mistaken as entertainment.
    I do wish that we encouraged more service projects within the church along with discipling and leading. We spend money sending our kids to exotic places to learn about mission work when we could have them doing things right at home too. Not the things that will get them attention for being great helpers but things in the background that may go unnoticed.

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  • John

    It seems to me that too many kids have been raised to love and participate in the youth group rather than the assembly of God’s people.

  • Rolando P

    I have worked in youth ministry for 8 years and sadly, much of what is written is this article is new to me. My first 7 years in YM was mostly concentrating on bringing in kids. I now, through what God has shown me, give my kids more Gospel than Christian living instructions. I do so because the Bible teaches us that if they do not have an interest in Bible study, they most likely do not have love Christ and His message. God showed me that what my kids need is not discipling jbut conversion. How I desire that more YM workers would embrace this truth!

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  • Jeremiah Vaught

    Did someone (Mark) actually say that continued adherence to faith is more heavily influenced by the fact that their parents preached the gospel to them than that they are converted? Then someone agreed with the statement (Jason and GVBerry)! Perhaps they agreed with the ministry paradigm offered. Still, the simple statement that point #3 is the most important one baffles the mind.

    Such comments aren’t as thoughtful as such a topic deserves. I don’t care how much parents teach their kids, they will not stay Christian if they were never, you know, Christian!

    I am not trying to diminish the importance of parents raising their children in the way of the Lord. I am just trying to encourage people to engage articles without trying to write another one through the comments concerning your personal hobby horse.

    Just so you know I mean no ill-will, I will mention a message by Tim Keller on raising children in the city. In that message he mentions a study done on children that maintain their religious convictions into adulthood. The one common denominator for children maintaining their faith was something to the effect that the children believed their parents had a realistic view of how the world works.

    If you are interested, I am pretty sure it is this sermon “It Takes A City To Raise A Child”: http://sermons.redeemer.com/store/index.cfm?fuseaction=category.display&category_id=26

    Again, agreed on the INCREDIBLE importance of point #3, but it cannot be MORE important than point #1, ever. A converted kid can even endure something as impossibly scary as secular university with their faith intact. I did.

    • Mark

      Granted–Conversion precedes a Christian life. However, although the bullet point for #1 was “They are converted,” the subject matter was regarding the role of youth ministries in converting children. Christian parental discipleship is more important in converting children than a youth ministry performing the task of converting the children of Christians. Obviously conversion precedes a Christian life. Perhaps my argument wasn’t clear enough, but regardless, you’re arguing against a straw man, not what was actually written.

  • Justin

    Maybe the problem is with youth ministry (as we have come to understand it) itself. Who needs youth pastors when you have fathers? Why are we supplanting the father’s role? Shouldn’t we instead be training fathers to be the “youth pastors” of their own families?

    I find it interesting this article seeks to understand “why” without even questioning the “youth factories” that have churned out all these “young people” that have departed from the faith.

    Why is it that other religions don’t have this problem? Muslim families seem to raise stern, sober-minded children who are committed Muslims into their adulthood. Same with orthodox Jews. My guess is we probably won’t find the same silly, fun-and-games, entertainment-driven youth programs in their mosques and synagogues. Heck, we probably wouldn’t even find youth all piled together. It’s common sense that when you get a bunch of youth (aka fools) together, they will just goof off and grow in their foolishness.

    Sad times when the church is so blind to the glaring problems that lie right in front of its face.

    • Joseph

      This makes sense for a small cross section of youth group students, namely kids whose parents attend church/are Christians. For this group I whole heartedly agree, I’ve been in youth ministry for the last 7 years and it is a huge joy to have Christian parents taking an active role in their students spiritual training.
      On the other hand, many youth groups have a significant number of students whose parents are not Christians, we are as the youth workers are then tasked to bring the Gospel to the parents and their students. I can’t tell you how many parents I have met who began to attend church/became Christians by the change they saw in their students.

  • http://jaycen.com Jaycen

    As Mark mentioned above, the paradigm is backwards and needs a complete shift. As a former youth pastor, I know this song and dance all too well. Youth ministry (YM) has become a 40+ yr failed experiment with a 75-88% failure rate. The church needs to focus on the men of the families and equip them to evangelize and disciple their kids. When a male head is not there, then older, godly men of the church should come alongside in a mentoring role.

    This film speaks VOLUMES to this…


    Soli Deo Gloria!!


    • Mark

      looks like a great film. I’ll be sure to check it out when I have some time.

    • Eric

      I watched the film. I think it had some valid points. But they went into that with their minds made up. and just had to find some people who supported it. I would like to see the success rate of all those pastors who blasted youth ministry.

      I wish they would of shown some student pastors who are actually seeing a greater return on their investment into students. I have.

      Just one question. So was Jesus dividing the family when he called his young disciples to follow Him?

      • http://psalm16six.blogspot.com Christine

        Eric–In response to your question, I would ask another: How young do you think the disciples were? I don’t think they were children (i.e., under 18yo) living at home with dad and mom.

        Peter and Andrew were fishermen (Mt. 4:18), and Peter was married during the time of Jesus’ ministry (Mt. 8:14). James and John were also fishermen (Mt. 4:21). Matthew was a tax collector (Mt. 9:9). Simon was called the Zealot because he was associated with either a political group or a group associated with keeping God’s Law.

        Those are the only disciples with professions or associations listed in the Bible. Jesus called each one; Scripture doesn’t state that they were with their parents, or that parents objected when Jesus called them to follow Him. I think that given that information, we may conclude that the others were probably of similar age, and not children still living under the tutelage of their parents.

        I hope that sheds some light on your question. :)

  • Gaylan

    Let’s also be careful to note here that you can have the elements of conversion, discipleship in the home, a Bible-centered church and a vibrant Bible-teaching/discipling youth ministry and you will still see many young people walk away from the Lord and His church, and the blame doesn’t largely rest with negligent parents or misguided youth workers. There are no guaranteed formulas. Having said that, I think that the element of discipleship is rightly gaining fresh emphasis in the church again, not only in youth ministries, but in church life in general. For some time we’ve fostered a consumer culture in our churches, and have competed with other churches for bigger and better programs to entice more people into our pews. People come for their religious goods and services, and “church” is largely conceived of as a one-hour event. Thankfully, in many places the church is being re-conceived in terms of God’s mission to the world–not just as an outreach program, but as a transforming power at the core of the church’s total identity. Worship, community, discipleship, education, outreach, service etc. find their essence in what God is doing to accomplish the work of His Kingdom and bring in His redemptive reign in all of its fullness.

    • Holly

      Amen — these aren’t children but young adults who have to make their own decisions at some points and there is no magic formula! :)

  • http://www.womenlivingwell.org Women Living Well

    This is a great postive post! I loved it! I’ve seen so many feared filled posts about losing our children…and this one is faith filled. The points are spot on.

    For myself and my two siblings, it was all of the above mixed with parents who authentically humbly day in and day out lived out their faith before my very eyes. God is faithful to the thousandth generation of those who love him and keep his commands (Exodus 20:6). I believe this truth for my children – so I do not parent in fear of losing them but in faith that God will keep his promises to the generations to come. I know that God was the perfect father in the garden of Eden and Adam and Eve chose to not obey – so even if I were the perfect parent – there are no guarantees. This keeps me on my knees in prayer for my children.

    We must parent in faith and live out before our children’s eyes an authentic humble walk with God.

  • Philip

    THanks for the article.
    We need to remember the parable of the weeds, perhaps they’re not all good soil.
    As I look back over my time in youth ministry, there have been many who come from good Christian homes who are great Christians in life. However that is not all. This article seems to rely more on Christian parents than the Holy Spirit. Otherwise there is no hope for the non-Christian teenagers.
    Often there will be others who have preached to the teenagers, eg I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.
    We need quality Youth ministry that is building with gold, silver and costly stones (which I assume is teaching them to read the Bible, how to react at a party when offered sex or drugs, teach the bible, teach them to pray, build up their year groups, equip them to share the gospel with the world, have a genuine loving Christian community), not with with wood, hay or straw which I take is stuff like wild games, basketball and pizza parties which are generally a waste of time.

    Our youth ministries need to build, reach, flow.
    Build up the Teenagers that you have in your group, equip them to follow Jesus for life. Teach them the Bible, to pray, to share about their Christian life, help them to know each other, etc
    Reach as the teenagers know Jesus and the gospel, they’ll naturally want to share him with he world.
    Flow pour loads of effort to moving them to the next group – from primary school to jnr high, snr high to university ministry etc.

    the best youth ministry book is http://www.amazon.com/Changing-World-Through-Effective-Ministry/dp/1875861939/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1311972194&sr=8-2

  • Ellis Brazeal

    I think there are a couple of keys to persons remaining in the church after high school. First, they must have heard the Gospel, which is rarely, if ever, preached. The Gospel is espoused by so few preachers–most preach some form of law. True explication of the Gospel where the congregation responds, as St. Paul said, “Wait, are you saying that I should sin more that grace may abound?” If your congregation isn’t calling the preacher an anti-nomian, then he isn’t preaching the Gospel. Second, when children see that their parents have Christian friends who understand the Gospel, understand what is not the Gospel, and treat others with Grace, they tend to embrace those persons and develop relationships with them. Frankly, kids see “youth ministers” as being paid to establish relationships with them. Therefore, they question the authenticity of those relationships.

    • http://nonfastturtlejuice.blogspot.com/ Jennifer Akins

      Are you saying you have to respect authority so you can trust they are authentic, then trust they are there for you to build you up with the right stuff??

  • Lisa

    There is one more point that can be made.

    I am convinced that one of the real reasons our children are turning away from God is because we have taught them to doubt His word and not take it seriously. When we teach them that God didn’t really mean it when He said He created the world in 6 literal days, that it either evolved or that He created it over millions of years and that they should believe man’s fallible scientific explanation of creation over God’s, we are teaching them that God’s word cannot be trusted. If God’s word cannot be trusted why trust Him? After hearing this – even in Christian schools – all through high school they come to the conclusion it’s all a farse. Can we blame them?

    http://www.answersingenesis.org. The book “Already Gone” documents this explanation.

    • Brian

      Actually, its this very insistence that you must choose either/or that is causing kids to leave the faith. We have made Genesis into a Science textbook when it was never intended to be one. And then said you CANNOT believe what your science teacher says but instead MUST believe what AiG(or some such organization) says. See the rock and hard place these kids are caught between? Its no wonder that honest kids seeking after the truth think they have to make a choice to leave the Faith. They sad thing is they never had to.

  • http://www.transformingwords.org/wordpress Don Sartain

    Incredible post! I would only contend one thing differently: The purpose of the youth ministry is to reinforce and expound on what they are being taught at home. Not the other way around.

  • Lee

    Good thoughts on challenging entertainment based youth ministry. As a youth Pastor I have found our ministry swing far left and far right on how much we need to entertain in order to maintain. I have been thinking the same thoughts as you for while now and have seen more fruit because of it. Great article.

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  • Dan

    I’ve been in a youth ministry role in one way or another for 20 years, so I appreciate what the author is hoping for here. I’ve seen it happen too … students graduating out of high school and shortly thereafter an active faith.

    But I’ve seen the opposite much more: students growing and blossoming as they move through high school and on through college.

    The three ideas highlighted in this article are good, but the key item has not been addressed. It is the one that I have found over and over to be the deal breaker.

    Ready for #4??

    It’s leading students to fall madly in love with Jesus. I’m not talking about the “Jesus is my homeboy / boyfriend” fluff. I’m talking about students who have learned what it is to experience a game-changing relationship with Jesus. It’s beyond point one and mere theological assent and verbal conversion, but rather a deep friendship with their God. It’s ripe with head knowledge but just as full of emotion.

    It’s the kind of relationship that causes students too “miss being with their Lord” if they start to fade in thief faith. It’s full of journalling and spiritual disciplines because they long to know God more. It’s backbone is prayer which pushes them into the scriptures and on to lifestyle and mission.

    I should add here that I don’t come from a charismatic stream of the church. Rather, I’ve learned that a faith that has been born in a book rather than the One who wrote the book is missing the mark. It’s a very, very small adjustment but it sends students on a life long trajectory that is significantly different.

    Thanks for letting me share and add to the great beginnings of this author!

    Let’s keep pushing into the heart of the Father for these generations!

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  • Ralph Davis

    “What do we do about our kids?” was the opening question. There is an answer and there is an “easy solution”. You all should read two books for the answer and the solution. The books are Already Gone and Already Commpromised published by Master Books. Both are very recent. All it will take is the courage to read, believe and act upon the documented research.

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  • Jon

    Interesting. Thank you for the post. I do have a few comments. We wonder why our “youth” are exiting the church after high school, but have they ever been part of the church to begin with? More often than not, our children go from the nursery, to children’s church, to Awana, to youth group, to college. Are they being regularly brought into the public means of grace to hear the Gospel preached? Would you consider a youth group meeting a true worship service? If truly “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ,” are they attending the public preaching of the Gospel every week? Are they being fed by the public confirmation of this preaching, i.e. the sacraments? These are the means God has appointed for Christian sustenance. Personally, I think Scripture is silent on the idea of “youth groups” for a particular reason. Speaking of my own experience, youth group never emphasized the church, only my personal walk with God, defined by personal piety. The Great Commission is multi-generational in orientation, it is the church’s task. To be frank, youth groups tend to cut children off from the Gospel, for they provide alternative means of grace, always slated for “my generation,” to the point that the institutional church seems superfluous. If we want our youth to stay true to their confession, we must not only teach them doctrine through rigorous catechism at home and in the church, but we must also direct them primarily to where Christ has promised to meet them: in the public assembly. This is not to discount the importance of prayer, but we must prayer according to faith in where God has promised to operate, the ordinary means of grace.

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  • barbara

    The Word says to train up a child in the way he/she shall go and when they’re older they won’t depart from it.” Yes they are going to make mistakes,but they know where home is. If you don’t apply this principal into a childs life and they grow up living any kind of way, they won’t know where to turn to in order to get back on track.

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  • traveller

    Part of the problem is the word “church”. Many of these young people are not leaving the church, that is the ekklesia, but they are leaving the institutional expression of the church which as it exists today is a construct of Modernity and the Enlightenment. We no longer live in a Modern world so the old form and structure of “church” has lost most of its relevance to not only young people but many adults as well. All one has to do is look at the research being done by George Barna to begin to grasp the tremendous changes going on among those who follow Jesus. Many of the baby boomers are abandoning the institutional church faster than young people. The reasons are essentially the same: An institution that has lost its way. The ekklesia continues….

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  • fel

    I think a lot of the issue is that the transition is very difficult for college kids. There’s a difference between “growing up” in the church, and growing up in the church. By the time I was 12, I was teaching Sunday School for preschoolers (using curriculum the church leadership provided). I was a fully tested and qualified AWANA leader. I was growing up in the church… not just age-wise, but responsibility-wise. Now, sure, I still needed mentoring (who doesn’t?) but the fact that I already understood that part of my responsibility as a Christian was to plug into a church and help out made it an integral part of my life. It wasn’t about what I was getting from the church programs, it was about what I could do for the church. Equipping them is fantastic, but if you don’t also let them spread their wings a little while they’re high schoolers, it’s going to be a lot harder for them in an environment where they don’t have someone they trust to turn to while they’re learning on the job, so to speak. Don’t just equip’em… plug’em in. Gives you more helpers, gives them confidence. I don’t just mean mission trips, those are fantastic but they don’t teach what to do on a “normal life” basis. Show them the places they should grow into in their church body as they become adults.

    Additionally, churches in college areas talk all the time about college ministries, which are great and all, but frankly, so many of them kind of separate out the college kids from the rest of the congregation. My husband actually left a church with a college ministry and joined one without, because at the church with the ministry he had even helped with their youth program and after two years had not had a conversation with any of the kids’ parents, or really any adult who wasn’t part of the college ministry or youth program. He wasn’t worth their time. He was just passin’ through, from their perspective. They had given him a club to be in, and that was supposed to be good enough. Don’t let the fact that you have a college ministry lull you into thinking that it isn’t your responsibility to invite these kids into your church family. Sure, they may only be there for 4 years, but on the other side of another 60 or so they’ll be in your family for eternity. Act like it. ;)

    • Rob Beecher III


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  • Lois Mercer

    Very well stated. We need to wake up to these facts and act accordingly. Change will not take place by simply crying and wringing our hands.

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  • James


  • Maritta Kuosa

    “Teach a child the way he should go
    and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
    – Proverbs 22:6

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  • http://dwainandamanda07.blogspot.com Dwain Minor

    This is absolutely a wonderful article. I just wish that more people understood these concepts. So, amen and amen.

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  • http://WalterMeyerProp.co.za Gareth

    Hi Jon,

    Thanks so much for this sensible blog post. There is so much hype, but we need to come back to basics. Gonna share this post with a number of my ministry friends…

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  • Ashley P

    Jon ~ Thanks for this! It’s a concise and spot-on summary of a variety of conversations I’ve had recently about youth ministry and the church, where we’ve gotten it wrong, and why people my age are leaving. I am a Wheaton grad and it has been interesting to see some of my Wheaton classmates leave the church after graduating, and I am sure the reasons you list are part of the source. I think the ‘equip not entertain’ point you make is particularly interesting, and I’ve often found myself frustrated with the ‘consumer’ mentality so many people my age exhibit when they are “church shopping”. Many people’s attendance is determined by what the church can do for them, rather than what they can do for the church… and if Youth Ministry is all about having fun, thats how the average church-going kid has learned to approach finding a ‘good church’, so why would we expect any difference once they come of age?

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  • Kent

    Jon – thanks for the excellent post. I am struck by the fact that you are speaking to both youth leaders and parents here, encouraging each to step up and do the jobs that God has called them to do within their respective realms of authority and responsibility. As a parent, I strive to model, encourage, and discipline in such a way that my children will be encouraged in their faith. And I so appreciate those in our church who are speaking biblical truths to my children from different perspectives and with different voices than my own.

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  • Linda LaForgia

    I fully agree with you! Times do change but God’s truths remain forever. Children whose hearts have been changed by the power of the Spirit by hearing the gospel need constant nurturing and training from the adults. This calls for deep reflection both to parents and churches on how we take care of our youth. Thanks for sharing and God bless!

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  • Jill Dickson

    I agree with the comments. I would that the following article addresses another issue too:http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/ken-ham/2011/04/17/no-wonder-two-thirds-of-young-people-are-leaving-the-church/

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  • http://www.purposedrivel.com Paula

    THANK YOU this is a far more complete answer than we got with Divided: The Movie. Divided only really dealt with #3 and in a very superficial way.

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  • Joann Thompson

    This article is so down-to-earth. I have been in church since age 6, raised three children, have 3 grandchildren, am a Christian School educator for 17 years, teach Sunday School. The Church is losing the next generation for all of the reasons listed. The Church and Christian school cannot do it without the parents of youth. May God challenge each adult to love Christ more and show that love to the next generation.

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  • http://www.therootedblog.blogspot.com Cameron Cole

    This article needs to be printed and posted in every youth ministry office. Truly superb.

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    As long as “conversion” is nothing more than a “decision” and all the energy is focused on getting “decisions,” it’s not going to stick. “Unconverted evangelicals” is a straw-man. The one thing evangelical kids know is that they have to be “saved.” What they don’t know is that salvation is discipleship, not decision.

    • Knud Skov

      Come to faith – being converted is not just a decision leading to legalism under discipleship. Conversion is when we are brought to faith through the preaching of the gospel which gives the Holy Spirit the tools to bring us to our knees in need – and to raise us up in belief to our saviour. We are dependend on Gods Word, The Holy Spirit – and not decisions or discipleship.
      In the lutheran Augsburg Confession it is said in art.V., that “For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.”
      I wrote earlier – and will repeat:

      Conversion – not being raised as christians. We do not believe in raising the right opinions, neither the academic theological ones or the bodily strong diaconical working ones – but we believe in redemption of sins through the work of the Holy Spirit which brings the young and old to see and love their savior.

      The converted can have doubt, will live in the fight between old and new man, will fall in sin and need to be raised up by brothers, who brings one to Christ (Gal 6.1ff).
      Then they will need parents, who are willing to kneel in need for forgiveness, parents, who knows how to pray with and for their children – and they need to find the Bible as trustworthy truth in life and death.

      Look to the sons of Eli and Samuel – they managed to perform like their fathers, but did not know the Lord. Look at the grandson-generation of Joshua – they had no longer someone with firsthand knowledge of the deeds of the Lord – and they softened their profile in the world, as they did not know the seriousness of the Law and the debth of Gods grace. If our youngsters have to find a way into churches today, they do not need special programes, but they need to meet the Lord and experience his deeds in their own life in judgement and forgiveness. God bless us to go that old road continually.

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  • cheri

    I understand this article very well. I grew up in a Christian home, yet I was doing some things that was not Christ centered. That has changed since I entered college. I go to a secular college, and they have support with the surrounding churches and the BCM. In my home were talks about the reality of the true serving God. It was aside from the fluff that the youth groups attempt to do. It’s not about the increasing numbers; it should be about the true intellectual aspect of Christ. Less entertainment, but more of Christ.

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  • John

    I’m curious why so many churches decide to have “youth” mission trips in distinction from their “adult” mission trips. Perhaps part of the reason kids go off to college and don’t return to church is because they’re no longer allowed in the youth group and they don’t really feel like they fit in the (adult) church.

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  • Mike

    Jon, just wondering if you have any resources and/or research that supports your claims of why youth stay in church?

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  • Dan Smith

    Although I strongly agree and appreciate your deep convictions regarding Our Abba’s infailable, inerrant Word and the impact a Christ-like marriage, and parents have on their children, I have to politely disagree with you. Yes, Barna Statistics regarding Evangelical “Churched’ youth leaving the church after high school is at a staggering 70%, I still have a very hard time fathoming that. And, yes, a lot of that 70% percent does fall into families who have had less of a biblical, consecrated, discipling standard within the home, but that 70% does include families who are very Christ-like in their parenting/living, very biblically consecrated in their discipling, training up a child in the way he should go, very aggressive in their children’s lives. When we put out a blog like this, that is one-sided, and ignore the pink elephant in the room, we don’t do any favors for anyone, we fail to acknowledge that, inspite of one’s BEST efforts, we can fail at raising up the next generation of Christ followers. Though he was a very righteous father, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, his son definitely makes a U-Turn spiritually. Patiently, prayerfully waiting on His Father’s grace, mercy, hope, and amazing love, that father, who in all purposes had failed in his role as a father, is finally rewarded in having his son return; NOT because of his superior biblical fathering skills, or because he was anything at all. He waited, he abided, he petitioned his Abba regularly, He refused to surrender, give up, throw in the towel, etc. The key is not in our ability, the key is in how much we our making ourselves available to His Divine providence, sovereignty, power, wisdom, love, Him. Are we aggressively pursuing Him, being very intentional in our spiritual intimacy with His presence.

    There are A LOT of incredibly guilty filled, consecrated, biblically literate parents who do not understand why and how their children are no longer pursuing God, no longer interested in spiritual things, and are instead, becoming agnostic, even athiestic. I know first hand as it has happened, and is continuing to happen to my two sons. My hope is on the Prodigal Dad (God the Father), and I am watching, listening, abiding in Him very carefully.

    Thanks for standing for Jesus,

    Dan D. Smith
    ELD Teacher

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  • Tiffani

    Can I respectfully disagree? I think this article totally misses the mark, especially with the first point about conversion. I think the last thing churches need is more altar calls and “sinner’s prayers”. I’d wager to guess that a lot of the millennials who have left the church have had conversion experiences, so I really don’t think that’s the problem.

    Honestly, I think a big part of the problem is closely connected to the second point. When a church focuses so much on “equipping” us (I say “us” because even though I’m not a teen, I’m part of the generation this article is speaking of), it denies us the space to ask questions and make our faith our own, which is why we fall away and become disillusioned when we’re in the “real world”, and suddenly equipping us with Bible verses just doesn’t do the trick when we realize our hard questions don’t really have easy answers.

    I know I’m far from an expert in this, but I guess I feel like I’m young enough to remember what it feels like to be a teenager growing up in the church. Looking back, the last thing I needed during those years was more push for conversion, and more “equipping”. In fact, a lot of the disillusionment I’ve recently felt with the evangelical culture at large has been a result of these exact things being pushed on me for so long.

    Sorry this was so long. I’ll get off my soapbox now ;)

    As an aside, though, I think these articles really hit the nail on the head when it comes to why young people are leaving the church, and what we can do practically to address this escalating problem: