Is Youth Ministry a Failure?
by Ed Dickerson
“Modern Youth Ministry a '50-Year Failed Experiment,' Say Pastors.” That's the headline on a recent article at the website "the Christian Post."[i] The article then goes on to detail what readers of this column have been discussing for some time. Young adults are leaving the church, all churches, in droves. By that measure, youth ministries have been and continue to be a failure. But it seems to me that verdict is either mistaken or unfair — take your pick — on two counts.
First, let it be said that youth ministries have not failed because of a lack of dedication or effort on the part of those ministering to the youth. I am not claiming that those involved in youth ministry are necessarily purer than those working with the older members of but neither are they any less dedicated. I have many friends in youth ministry, and I'm proud to be associated with them.
Second, declaring its ministries a failure as a matter of misplaced responsibility, a perpetual problem is when it comes to the question of why so many young adults leave the church. When I work with families in crisis, I generally start by saying, "I'm not much interested in blame. When it comes to blame, I find there is usually plenty to go around. But we need to know what went wrong, so that we can fix it." So when I say where I believe the problem lies, it's not so much about blame, as I see it, is understanding why, after so many years, and so much investment of talent and resources, we still are losing the vast majority of young people.
In the article on failed youth ministries, a number of youth pastors declare that segregation of the Church by age group is "not biblical." And while that is correct, it still doesn't focus on a remedy. Please pardon the fact that the following comes from a paper I presented at the 2008 180° Symposium for Youth Retention at Andrews University.[ii]
A note I received from a Filipino pastor’s wife crystallizes the issue. “Dear Pastor Ed,” the note began,
Thank you for sharing Jesus to reach out for our ‘young professionals.’
This age group in our church. . . is the concern of all parents in our congregation. The Adventurers, the Youth, and the high school are very visible in church, but our young adults – the ‘young professionals’ the way we call them– aren’t.
Unless you live in a large Adventist center that single negative word succinctly expresses how young adults attend, participate, and contribute to the church– they aren’t. Note that an active Adventurers club and youth ministry had no effect on the retention of the young adults of that church. A similar experience in many other churches confirms that though they offer many benefits, Pathfinder clubs and youth ministries do not ensure retention of young adults. That would appear to be a strong indictment of youth ministries. After all, as Adventist Review editor Bill Knott wrote in a 2003 editorial, “The goal of all genuine youth ministry is the promotion of Christian maturity and the successful integration of children and youth as fully functioning members of the adult church” (italics mine). By that definition, our efforts for young adults are failing. But why?
Scripture speaks of integrating individuals into the church as a process of “grafting in.” Grafting involves the bud or branch to be grafted in, called the “scion,” and the established plant, called the “rootstock.” So far, nearly all of our efforts have been directed toward preparing the scion, in preparing the youth to join the existing congregations, while we have essentially avoided the thornier problem of renovating the rootstock– of inducing existing congregations to change. Our attempts at grafting young adults into the existing congregations have met with frustration precisely because we limit our attentions to the young adults. But the science of grafting tells us that no matter how well prepared the scion is, the graft will not take unless the rootstock is prepared to receive it. Let me share an example.
At a camp meeting where I spoke at the “Young Adults” venue, I urged young adults not to let other people discourage them, to take leadership in providing for their needs and the needs of others of their generation. After one meeting, a frustrated mother came to me. Her daughter, not long after graduating from college, began attending a small church of largely elderly people. She put together a proposal, which she volunteered to lead, to reach out to other young adults in the community. But the church board replied, “We don’t want young people coming in and disturbing our services. We are an older congregation, and we are happy with our church the way it is.” The rootstock of the congregation simply refuses to consider grafting in any scions, no matter how vigorous or well prepared.
This episode – one of many that I know of — demonstrates that time and again, earnest, devout, thoroughly grounded and trained young adults have run into this problem. Until and unless we address the problem of stagnating congregations resistant to change and unreceptive to seekers of any sort, young adult flight from the church will continue. And our inability to retain our own young people mirrors our difficulty in reaching the broader culture. In that regard, our children are somewhat like the miner’s dying canary — a warning that the environment harbors unseen dangers for everyone.
We have tried strategies that attempts to bypass the rootstock challenge. Separate services for young adults in existing churches, and young adult-oriented church plants have been attempted, and met with some limited success. As already noted, the separate services generally fail to pass the Knott test: “The successful integration of children and youth as fully functioning members of the adult church.” And there are other reasons to question the efficacy of an exclusive emphasis on youth ministries. For one thing, very few of our churches are large enough. As Ed Christian pointed out, we Adventists don’t do Mega-Church very well.[iii] And since a parallel youth service solution is, in effect, a Mega-Church style solution, it runs contrary to what we do well. Even if the Mega-Church idea worked for us, it still condemns small churches to extinction, and abandons vast areas of North America. Recent studies tells us more than 1000 congregations in North America – according to the Adventist Yearbook Online, approximately one out of every five —already have no teenagers or children.[iv] And even where numbers and funding support a separate youth ministry, by its nature such a ministry perpetuates separation, not integration, thus failing the Knott test.
And as for the young adult oriented church plants, in many cases, the sisterhood of churches that makes up a conference has reacted to these alternative style church plants essentially in the same way that rigid congregations react to attempts at innovation – they reject them. Not a few promising pastors have been lost this way, along with their congregations. Once again, the attempt to avoid addressing the central issue results in both failure and unnecessary casualties. Youth ministries have not failed. The Church has failed the youth.