Youth ministry’s contribution to the missing 20-somethings

Topic / Culture

We’ve all heard the dilemma about the missing 20-something-year-olds from our churches: students graduate high school, go on to college and don’t seem to connect to a local church until their 30s when they’re starting to have kids of their own. There’s a lot of theories flying around about why this is happening, but here’s one that makes some sense to me:

In the ’70s and ’80s youth workers started telling their church’s leadership, “Hey, we need to get these kids involved in the church, but we have to change church a little in order for them to connect because right now it’s just for adults.” The church leaders considered this and promptly replied, “No, we’ve been doing church a lot longer than you have and we know how it works best.” So, in an attempt to keep the kids in church, youth leaders started having their own little Bible studies instead of sending kids to hear the sermon.

A bit later we said, “Hey, here are some kids who can play instruments and lead worship in church, but it’s not the piano or organ.” Again the leaders said, “No, we like our music exactly the way it is. We’re not going to change it.” So again, youth leaders responded by forming their own worship bands and eventually started having their own worship services, essentially creating a mini-church within the larger church, both of which were grossly disconnected from each other.

Throughout this time teenagers continued to develop relationships with only their youth group peers and adult leaders, and by the time graduation came around they knew no one in the “big church” and had little to no attraction to it because they had spent all their time in the mini youth church.

Fast forward to the end of a student’s first year of college. He returns home, goes back to church, pops in on “youth church” because that’s where he is known and feels comfortable, but quickly realizes he doesn’t belong there anymore. However, he doesn’t feel connected to anything else in the church, so he drops out altogether.

I realize this is a gross over-simplification, but the point is clear: Youth ministry must abandon this “mini youth church” approach and purposefully integrate teenagers into the life of the body as a whole. No more “Youth Sundays” — youth are to be involved every Sunday. No more having youth service during the main church service. No more church leaders who are too stubborn and too comfortable to accept change. No more delegating responsibility and leadership roles only to adults. No more adding 20-something programs that do nothing more than continue to segregate the body.

It won’t solve all our problems, but our fundamental approach to giving students ownership must change nevertheless. Otherwise, we die and pass on a church system that is incredibly broken, disconnected and outdated.

Posted on April 23, 2008

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