Are youth group kids committing to Christ or to youth group?

Commitment to GodI really love the students who are committed to the youth group, who show up regularly, contribute in meaningful ways, and especially appear to be demonstrating signs of spiritual growth. Those kids are typically easy to connect with because they appear to be genuinely interested in spiritual matters and investing into the life of the body of Christ.

So when that kid goes to college, fails to connect with a local church body, and becomes spiritually apathetic, I’m left scratching my head. I’d expect that from other kids (unfortunately), but not from this kid. What happened?

I wonder if I sometimes equate commitment to the church or youth group with commitment to Christ. Maybe the signs of spiritual growth I observed were actually social signs of conforming to the “spiritual pressure” of the church and youth group? Maybe the “growth” was more to please me, other leaders and their peers instead of Christ?

Obviously, I can’t be the ultimate judge on something like this, but it does leave me wondering: Are the teens and families I serve committing to me and the church or are they genuinely committed to Christ? And how can I tell the difference?

If they are committing to me and the youth group more than to Christ, what role do I play in enabling that?

What do you think?

Posted on July 5, 2011

  • Teresa A.

    Super interesting to think about. How do you tell the difference, you know? Even if confronted, would a kid even know the difference? I was lucky enough to have the actual connection, but it was because of an amazing youth leader that I knew the importance of a real relationship with Christ. I, honestly, don't know many kids who grew spiritually outside of our youth group…and the ones who seemed to be involved simply because their parents made them are certainly not people following Christ to this day. Tough question…honestly, I think all you can do is impress upon them a real relationship with Christ. How do they know they have that relationship? Are they aware of what committing to Christ means outside of youth group? And, are they being true disciples? Do they understand that traveling away from their local youth ministry and church will bring a lot of temptation and persecution? The best you can do is just to help them understand who Christ was and what he wants from us. That is the best we all can do, I think.

    • Yeah, thanks, Teresa. As I think about this, maybe we don't ask those kids the hard questions about their faith and growth because we assume it's already taking place. I mean, we see all the "fruit," right? The "evidence" is there, but maybe we should have conversations with them that challenge their walk more often. I dunno.

      • Grace

        Well i'm 18 years old and recently re-commited myself back to God a few months ago (before that i found it hard to give up being "worldly" and kind of went bad haha). I think that if you want to notice/see that teens are fulfilling a proper relationship with Jesus…then you should just ask them about personal testimonies each week…or simply just talk to them about God and ask the Holy spirit to help you discern what could be going on in their lives. Personal testimonies are pretty good though, cause if you setup a way that encourages them to share testimonies weekly, the teens that have something to share all the time obviously shows they are hearing God or doing some of "Gods work" throughout a daily basis. Even preach a sermon about how it's good to be yourself haha so they get convicted of just being at church to please someone/families…and acting as a christian figure who they aren't…and maybe from there they will open up to youth pastors or anyone about what's going on. I personally can see where my friends are at with God, simply from the way they talk about Him, or worship Him. God is so good amazing though, since i decided to dedicate my life completely to Him, and live each day doing whatever He wants me to makes life such a blessing. Since holidays have started i've been on the streets evangelising most days and i've prayed for randoms who i'd come across, and they'd always encounter the Holy Spirit /Gods presence and His love…which would lead to them accepting Jesus into lives, so quite a few salvations :) i prayed for a girl and she fell backwards instantly from the power of God, then started speaking in tongues on the ground (wasn't christian at all). So good. Anyways i just ranted heaps on here. God bless

  • Stephen

    This is bigger than most people want to recognize and it frustrates me so much. What I have seen to make the biggest difference is what is talked about. It is time for many youth ministries to move from topical conversations to real mmeaningful conversations about Biblical Christ. So often I have seen and heard youth leaders only want to be their friends and I believe when that is the bassis then it's bound to fail. Lastly, I believe the youth ministries have to empower parents even more than thus have to be the spiritual leaders in the family.

    • Totally agree. I've observed many youth workers who forget that we are youth leaders, not youth friends. Kids don't need us to be their friend on a peer level — they need us to be a leader that brings them somewhere they might not even want to go.

      I think the parents influence in spiritual growth is important, too. I think getting parents to take spiritual responsibility for themselves and their family is something we're all struggling though as youth workers.

      • cbw9962

        I totally agree. The question is how do we get parents to become the main spiritual teacher in their students' lives when many of those same parents are so busy in this fast paced, working 60hrs a week society, on top of the fact that many of these same parents are in the same spiritual immaturity condition as their student.

        I am very skeptical when it comes to thinking we can change how our churches today approach this, so I dare to say that it seems (though I truly hate this mentality) that we must begin creating new churches with this new vision. What is your take?

        • I don't know. I'm not willing to give up on existing churches, but, in all honesty, I am a bit frustrated with the baby boomer leader's mentality of, "Don't mess with it, I'm about to retire…" I know that's probably an unfair overgeneralized stereotype, but you know what I mean.

          I'm not convinced that's the best reason to start a new church either because I don't think churches should be started primarily out of a negative reaction to something they don't like, ya know?

          • cbw9962

            I fully understand the overgeneralized stereotype, which is why I resigned from my last church. The unwillingness to do the right thing though it may shake our comfort level a bit is truly disheartening. I am in agreeance with you on not acting out of a negative reaction and I did not mean to come off that way. But here is my main question for everyone…We all still around replying to blogs just as I am right now and other areas of free speech complaining about the current state of the church in America but how many of us are willing to do what is necessary and "rock our comfort level", suffer a little, and go against the grain to correct this ship? I might sound like a rebellious, buck tradition and history type, but that is not me by no means. I am just so broken hearted for our church today that I am ready to do something radical to fix it, IF NEED BE. How can we reach a lost world if the "core of who we are is rotten". A police force can't lower crime if the officers are dirty! With that said, if anyone has a wonderful solution, I am on board willing to serve!! Change is needed and I will commit my life and finances to it.

          • Yeah, I hear your heart, man. The church was (and is) established by God and I want to be certain that when I move from one to another, it's because it's His plan, which I know you'd agree. If the Lord is calling you to go that direction, you totally should.

  • I completely agree with your line of thought man. I think that unfortunately, we've programmed ourselves to create something (we like to think it's not about programs but relationships), that is in itself it's own entity and not sustainable. After graduating our programs, we look at the stat and complain that the kids aren't following Christ when we've been force feeding them our own version of spirituality that helps keep us employed.
    I remember an old youth ministry prof of mine asking if kids are leaving the church in persuit of who Christ actually is. if that's the case, isn't it actually depressing that we've missed the mark and actually exciting that these "backsliders" might be giving us a clue about what the persuit of Christ actually entails?
    Of course, there is a huge danger to what we're seeing, but maybe the danger existed long before our kids stepped out of our bubbles.

    • Oh man, there's a lot packed into your statement on many different levels, "our own version of spirituality that helps keep us employed."

      I'm not willing to take sole responsibility, as if their spiritual formation is in my hands, but I know we do play a part in it. How we do programming, relationships, even what we unintentionally communicate all makes a difference.

  • karendye

    These are tough questions. Unfortunately, I to have encountered what you described.

    Your post reminded me of a student who first connected with our youth ministry as a sophomore. He was a baseball player and his commitment level to youth ministry activities was unreliable at best. But by the time he graduated high school, his brother, sister, mom and several fellow ball players had become involved in church and were personally growing in their faith. Within a year after graduation, the student decided to forgo his baseball scholarship—and his lifelong dream of being a ball player—to pursue vocational ministry.

    We often view our youth ministry “successes” as those students who are actively involved in everything the youth ministry has to offer. They visit our office frequently, arrive early, know all the answers and are the first to volunteer. By those terms, this young man wouldn’t have passed.

    But perhaps a better goal is to develop students who will get outside the church and live their faith in whatever mission field God has placed them—even the ball field. Instead of being concerned about their attendance, maybe we should focus on whether they are applying the Biblical principles we teach to their everyday life. And rather than seeing sports and extracurricular activities as competition, let’s challenge and empower our students to embrace them as an opportunity to be Jesus to those who wouldn’t step inside our youth room.

    • I think I do see kids applying the Biblical principles we teach to their lives. What I'm thinking about is if they do so for social reasons or spiritual ones. If it's for social pressures and expectations in the church, youth group, and even at home, everything they've applied to their life can change when the move out and are under a new sphere of social influence. But if they truly make the spiritual application due to spiritual reasons, then I think it sticks…. I think… :)

  • This is an important question for us all to ask. Kara Powell and Chap Clark's new book this fall will be addressing the "sticky-ness" factor, and I can't wait to read all the results of their research on the topic!

    A good exercise for all youth pastors: sit down, and write as concise a description as possible of what a teenager who's dedicated to Jesus for the long haul looks like. For me, attending "youth group" isn't on the short list (attending the worship service is).

    • Yeah… and maybe we should first start with a description of, "What I would look like if I'm dedicated to Jesus for the long haul." Then maybe we'd have something better to model and something that's a bit more contagious.

  • I think that we need to think about that for everyone, not just teens. Can people mistake being committed to their local church, their denomination or a particular ministry as being committed to Christ? I think so. One of the key things I look for is if they committed to doing the work of the Kingdom. Are they reaching out to and serving others? Or do they see their commitment as only between themselves and God? Teens (and all the rest of us) need to be ministered TO; but to have a strong relationship with God, we also need to minister to others–not just withing the walls of the church, but outside as well. I'm not talking about service projects, mission trips, etc. Those are all great things. But a spiritually healthy Christian should be ministering to others without even thinking about it as "ministry". My experience is that many adult Christians fail to model this type of spiritual health, so our teens think it is normal and healthy to have a commitment to a church but then find it difficult to transfer that commitment to another church or to maintain it during another stage of their lives.

    • Hmm, that's a good point, David. Maybe we should take this a step further and ask ourselves the same question. Are we more committed to our church and the youth group than we are to Christ? If we're primarily in God's Word to prep for youth lessons, or the main time we pray is in youth group, than probably so? And if so, then we're probably communicating and facilitating a commitment to the youth group more than to Christ without even realizing it because it's what is truly flowing from our own hearts.

  • This is definitely true. One help may be to take teens outside. This summer we are taking youth group time to go out and talk to people about Christ. We went to the local Dairy Whip and asked questions of adults. One teen said, "I'll talk to adults, but not to kids in my grade. That's my safe place." It shows that this is my "church life" and this is my "school life". If God isn't so mixed into all of it that He can't be taken out or it ruins the whole thing then He isn't really part of it – He's just laying on top able to be scraped off when He seems unnecessary or unwanted. We need to take show our teens in their own world how their faith applies. Jesus' disciples saw Him and worked along side Him among the people – religious, nonreligious, wanted and unwanted. They didn't simply sit in a building, learn about Jesus and go home. Of course, the disciples were with Jesus 24/7. We have 2 hours. But perhaps more of that needs to be outside the building.

    • Yeah, I think it depends on what you're doing outside the building, though. Hanging out and building relationships is cool, but somehow that needs to transfer to Christ. Doing things like witnessing can possibly do that, but more-so because they're being stretched and pushed, I think.

  • Dave

    Where I'm at I think alot of our people see more kids at youth group equaling more kids coming to Christ, when in fact that is not the truth. Right now i have a student who has been committed to coming and who I know does not have a relationship with Christ. But for whatever reason he has been coming-whether its the other students, stuff we do… And i'm happy with that…for now.

    Every student is different and at different levels in their faith. For some they need to be pressed into service and a commitment beyond youth group. For others, discipleship starts by routinely coming to church. Peter was Peter and Jesus discipled him differently than John or anyone else.

    I think its cool that kids would want to be committed to something linked to church. But i do understand we want students to understand our commitment must be to Christ first and foremost.

  • Hey Tim, this is so true, but why did the Disciple commit to Jesus? Well, Jesus called them and took them in when they flunked out of rabbi school. For all three years they really had no clue who Jesus was as shown by such statements like "Show us the Father" or " Jon 15:17-19

    "Some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”"

    And this is with seeing the miracles. Can we expect any less from students who do not see the miracles?

    In end, many of our students do not understand and my not understand until they are older and graduate. Others may never get it. There is an old adage of leadership that says, firs they believe in you then they believe in what you believe. If a student is willing hang our around long enough to see me live out what I believe, then the chances are good they might just catch on.

    • I appreciate that observation, Paul. It's really helpful. I don't really disagree with what you said, but do you think too many teens get stuck at, "they believe in you," and never transfer to, "then they believe in what you believe?" I'm a little more skeptical than you about how good the chances are of that transfer taking place, especially in a tolerant and post-modern culture.

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