Is Youth Ministry Missing the Mark?

USA Today recently ran an article entitled “‘Forget the Pizza Parties’ Teens Tell Churches” which has gotten significant buzz since it came out last week.  The best response I have come across so far is Bill Nance’s “Not so Fast, My Friends.”

The article begins this way:

“Bye-bye church. We’re busy.” That’s the message teens are giving churches today.”

“Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school-year youth groups kick in.”

However, as Bill Nance points out, the statistics that are cited in this article don’t seem to be entirely honest.  The Barna Group’s report actually shows that youth group attendance among teens is about the same as it’s been since 1997.  If anything, what the chart below tells me is that personal Bible reading is on the upswing over the past few years… and that’s a great thing!

I also don’t want to overreact to the message of this article.  I agree that if you’re a youth pastor (which I am) and you’re trying to attract teenagers to your program simply by offering pizza then you’re wasting your time.  But I don’t know any youth pastors who count on pizza parties to sustain their youth ministry.  Do we eat pizza at some youth group events, of course (it’s good, and it’s fairly cheap), but the goal and the attraction is not the pizza.

Teenagers want to be challenged, not just fed.  Teens are not “children” who are too young and uneducated to wrestle with difficult questions.  If we are canceling camp and other programs because attendance is lower then we need to begin asking some hard questions (“Am I making an idol out of attendance?” “Why are we doing this program, is it still fruitful with half the people there?” “Is this program connecting youth with Christ, is that why they’ve stopped coming?” etc.).  I give the youth pastor in the article the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume that there’s more behind his decision to cancel camp that we’re unaware of.

We also ought to be careful in blaming parents.  While it’s generally true to say that “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” sometimes it does.  I know parents who are very devoted to Christ who have “prodigal” children who have wandered far from Christ; I also know many people who have grown in their faith far beyond the faith (0r lack of faith) of their parents.  That being said, parents do set the example for their children, and when a mom or dad is apathetic about his/her faith, it’s no wonder why their children wander from the Church and Christ.

We should be more intentional in taking a two-pronged approach to addressing this crucial dilemma: We should be disicipling parents to disciple their sons and daughters, and We should be primarily committed to mentoring students who have a hunger to grow in their faith rather than being primarily committed to running programs.

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