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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  • And to that I offer a hearty, Amen! Simplified, yes. Accurate…absolutely! Well put Tim!

  • Great post. I volunteer with Young Life. If you know anything about Young Life, you know that we focus on the unchurched. When we introduce kids to church, they often have no relational connection to the kids or the youth leaders. They are often reluctant to jump in, not because they don't like church or Young Life doesn't promote church connection, but because there is no relational connection (which is usually why they came to Young Life in the first place, with the focus on incarnational ministry). Anyway, I've found that they feel more at home in "big church" because they sit with their Young Life leader rather than a youth leader that they don't know. Our Young Life leaders often are willing to go to the youth group meetings, but also need to maintain their own church involvement and can't do both at the same time.

    All this to say, that your post makes me feel better if the kids I know don't get connected with the youth group, but do get connected with "big church". I often feel pressure that if they don't become die-hard youth group kids, then Young Life is a group of lame-o people who don't care about "depth" or discipleship.

    I'd look forward to constructive feedback regarding how this might be viewed from a non-Young Life angle.

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  • Thanks for putting words to the reasons why I never have and hope to never have a separate youth service on Sunday mornings. I agree wholeheartedly.

  • Man, just when I think I've finally written something controversial, you all have to go and agree with me. You guys make it so hard to shake things up! lol j/k Glad I'm not alone in this.

  • I think that in a perfect world we would not need youth ministries at all. But to get there we have to change the entire adolescent culture that was started in late 19th century: rights of passage, independence, tailored marketing strategies, specialized public schooling, an entire nation that revolves around teens, and so much more. I definetley think teens should be integrated in to the church but in order to completely integrate, I fear we fight a battle that will take more than just the church to fight, but America in general. I don't know…just ramblings.

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  • Luke


  • Don’t worry, Tim, there’s lots of controversy in this issue, but I don’t think it’s in whether or not youth ministry has contributed to the disconnection of so many in their 20’s. It’s in actually implimenting the integration of students into churches that often only want their youth ministries to keep kids occupied so the adults can worship without so much young distraction. How do we actually lead students and adults to mutual ministry in contexts where the ages are divided by walls of abandonment and mistrust? Does being in the same room on Sunday morning really do that?

  • I do think that teens should be integrated into the church, but in my experience most churches do a bad job at contextualizing to younger generations. One problem we have faced is that our local church culture is a sunday morning culture. We've focused a lot of our energies and resources on ministry teams and wednesday nights thinking that Sunday will take care of itself. What we've discovered is that most parents and teenagers at least in our part of town think Wednesday or Sunday night is either an inconvenience or an option. Because of this thinking our mid-week meetings are dying, but our sunday morning is packed full of students. Because of this situation our youth ministry has considered starting a youth service in January 2009, not to give into the culture, but to attempt to reach a majority of our students. We wrestle with this question because we know they may never enter the doors of the main church again, but for many of these students and parents Sunday morning is all they will give us. There is something about a large gathering of people, whether it be teenagagers or adults that enables someone in front (insert pastor/youth minister) to cast a vision to his audience of this is where we should go as a people and here is how we are going to serve our community. The problem we have faced is that for more than 1/2 of our students that only show up on a Sunday morning, they are missing this part of being connected to a vision to go into their schools and make a difference.

  • Brandon, I hear your predicament, but, without being trying to be critical, I really think if you start a youth service you're only delaying the inevitable. In theory it sounds like a good short-term solution, but in the long-run you're just shooting yourself in the foot. Maybe instead you guys could consider ways to intentionally integrate students into the main worship services, ways to create interaction between the generations, ways to give students responsibility over the church. Obviously your situation isn't solely a programmatic problem, it's a mindset problem of the people (parents and teens) who attend your church. That's why you can focus all your energy into mid-week stuff and still have it flop. So if you shift your energy to Sunday programs instead, the mindset of your congregation remains the same and thus so does your problem. Gotta dig to the root, my brotha.

  • Nick

    How? <a href=",M1&quot; rel="nofollow">Here

    Chapter 6 talks about integration into the larger church body. Unfortunately, the book preview cuts out about 4 pages, so pick up the whole thing! :)

    Don't mean to send traffic away from your site, Tim, but this post begs Luke's question. :)

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  • Heather

    This resonates with me. I just began thinking that it seems strange to me that the youth group seems separate from the church as a whole. There is some integration, but it seems like there could be a lot more. I do think it is damaging to the body of Christ and the identity of a Christian, as it seems to go against the idea of community and church family. There is a lot to be said on this topic.

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