The church is losing its youth

Yet another study, this one completed in just the last month, shows that the evangelical church continues to hemorrhage internally. Churched youth are checking out of the church when they leave home for college, and many 20-somethings who were formerly regular, faithful members of youth groups are opting out of the church.

I experienced this trend first-hand in my 8 years as a collegiate minister at UAM. We consistently saw supposedly faithful members of area youth groups avoid our campus ministries, as well as local churches throughout their college career (and some of them made a career out of college!). Choosing instead to get involved in other forms of campus “life,” many lived profligate lifestyles.

Take it for what it’s worth, but I believe that the high dropout rate is due to the continuing treatment of our teenaged youth as a subcongregation to be entertained. High energy worship settings, mini-sermons, and big events dropped all combine to create a regular attender, but not necessarily a disciple or a true worshipper.

I think churches today need to seriously reconsider discipling their students, beginning as soon as 3rd grade. We should no longer seek to entertain youth by creating a separate youth congregation but rather by modeling, training, and freeing them to do active ministry in the community, church, and regions that we live in. The sit, soak, and shout method has been proven not to work. The Barna study is another resounding alarm to its failure.

David Kinnaman, the director of the research, said:

?Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul ? not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be ? not the number of attenders, the sophistication of the events, or the ?cool? factor of the youth group ? but whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole-heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.?

May our churches rise up and think deeply about how to stop the bleeding and start the blessing of this generation of youth.

Related Posts:
Scott McKnight at Jesus Creed

On this day...


  1. Jim says:
    Yes, Yes, and Yes! Continuing confirmation of a deep personal belief and continued research! For many years, I’ve studied the ‘twentysomething’ age group…more specifically, 18-25. And the result of this Barna study strongly echos everything that I have personally found. The gap in our churches today, distinctly falls in this age group. All across denominational and racial lines, this group is missing. However I do somewhat disagree with your reasoning.
    I do believe that we as church leaders have ‘figured it out’ how to reach our teenagers. Be it big events, high-energy worship, or whatever, we ARE getting them in…we ARE keeping them…and they ARE growing spiritually. Our problems lie in the fact that when our students graduate high school and start being a part of ‘big church’, we (and the remainder of the churches adult body) automatically expect them to act & think like us. It’s not happening, nor is it going to happen.
    We opened our eyes and realized that we have to think outside-the-box and create a 21st century environment for our students. It worked…and it’s continuing to work. Then we tell our graduates that you must now abandon what you’ve been experiencing and force them to participate in services that were choreographed in the 1940’s. The successful church of today will be the one that understands this realization and is willing to risk what we call tradition in our ‘big church’ services in order to maintain and disciple this age group inside, not outside, their own environment.
  2. TJ says:
    I do believe we are losing our youth. I firmly believe that one thing that we are definately missing in probably all denominations is discipling them into a true love for Christ and the Word. The new Christians, young and old are suffering from Biblical illiteracy. They do not love the Word, and lack the sure foundation that it provides.

    I have to respectfully disagree, however, with the thought of removing what gives a generation the ability to be passionate about connecting with God out.

    We have a generation of young people who are passionate about their culture. When anyone gets saved, and are involved in worship gatherings, they need to be given the ability to express their passion for God. Like with the generation of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, this has to include the energy and styles of music and other forms of media that they can identify with. This is why the youth services that you are suggesting to do away with are so successful in bringing young people in. Stripping away the method of worship where they can passionately connect with God cannot be the answer. I agree with Jim, we lose these young people when they get too old to be in these youth services, and they have to join the “dead” services going on in the sanctuary where the adults haven’t been passionate about the presence of God in years anyway (so in reality we’ve lost the older generation as well as the young). Losing the desire for the intensity of God’s presence is not the “mature” thing to do, and we’ve got to quit teaching that it is (whether verbally or by example.)

    The answer is to bring this passionate worship to our adult services. Every generation needs this. We can’t keep limiting this worship, and ultimately the presence of God to the youth service. Young and old can have that passion continued and restored by discipling people to become lovers of God, His Word, and His Presence and allowing the entire congregation to experience what our youth have been experiencing in a back room somewhere.

    What I believe has killed the older generation and what is killing the youth is the act of allowing church to become a “majority rules” entity where the “majority” of the people wouldn’t know God’s voice from anyone else’s. This majority is what has dictated to pastors what they will preach, what styles of music will be in the church, and even who goes to their church. The result – a passionless, youth-less, ineffective, dying church of people hurting each other and any “outsider” that would dare to darken the doors. The youth of today are hurt enough as it is from their everyday lives being in more turmoil than any generation before. For them, staying in such a church that stifles their praise, and wounds their young drives them even further from God.

  3. Mark W. says:
    Excellent points all around. Having been one of those missing twenty-somethings, however, I would like to say a word about just how deep this issue goes. I believe that the comments so far but scratch the surface of the cultural forces at work here.

    Not long ago, our own culture, for social and perhaps political ends, created the identity of the ?teenager.? The ?teenager? label cut off young men and women who were coming of age from wielding much power in the public sphere. They were given their own sub-cultural norms, fashion, and (impotent) status. In doing this, the older generations were able to sustain their hold and ?freeze? cultural norms, whether it be in church, civic or political leadership, or lifestyle. At the same time, it was the ?teenager? category that made possible the institutional rearing of children at the public school. Parental duties of instructing children were cut back and replaced by social programs, which, in turn, sought a control mechanism to funnel the younger generation into useful, yet powerless positions in society.

    One detrimental side effect of the ?teenage years? has been the widening of the ?generation gap.? Talk of college age churchgoers going to ?big? church might be better stated as young people suddenly being thrust into an environment constructed by and for those with whom these younger adults do not culturally identify. At the same time, they are often told that being an upstanding citizen or member means being conscripted to a ?traditional? identity. It is no wonder, then, that this particular age group neglects church; they are led to believe that adults are hypocritical fakes, not because church leaders ?say one thing and do another,? but because young people are so sensitive to the problems of trying to be something that they are not. To a ?teenager,? faking an identity is both their greatest secret and the greatest taboo. When they are led to believe that this is what it takes to be a Christian, I don?t blame them for dropping out in disillusionment.

    There is no easy, systematic solution to this problem. It has taken years to develop the ?teen,? and it will likely take years to undo her. In the meantime, churches would do well to stop and think about the ways in which young adults are labeled, pushed aside, and not expected to be responsible contributors. Part of mentoring college age adults must include incorporating them in real, influential decision-making. You can?t disciple someone while simultaneously treating them as having lesser value.

    As this happens, the older generation absolutely MUST pull their heads from the sand and acknowledge the ?teen culture? they are responsible for creating! (Teens may be the monster in the corner, but the older generation is Victor Frankenstein). The generation gap is for the most part sustained by ignorant old people. I?m not intending to insult anyone because of his/her age, but I do see fault in those who completely ?tune out? anything other than his/her own time-frozen, cultural ?nest? because anything else is out of their ?comfort zone.? Responsible adults and responsible Christians are seldom ?comfortable?; they are dynamic.

    So what am I suggesting? Churches should not be involved in promoting the continuance of ?teenage? culture with its separate music and ?scripture-lite? messages. Young people can spot the emptiness of aesthetic ?hype? and teen-pandering entertainments from a mile away. Instead, ?big? church needs to be?well, church! What needs to go are the power-plays fostered in generations past by irresponsible parents and leaders. What needs to come is a church culture that reassembles the ?family? and gets rid of harmful labels like ?teenager?, ?college age?, and ?singles.?

    Let me end with an experience I had as a ?teen.? I went to a small Baptist church. It had it?s own problems, of course, but what the small congregation DID do (for a while) was allow the ?youth group? to orchestrate and conduct the Sunday service once a month. We picked the songs, led them, read the scriptures, and even preached (sometimes, when the youth minister didn?t). During the time that this continued, I saw people of vastly different age groups ?reconnect? in a real way with the ?teens? in the church. We talked, we carried on conversations, we socialized?with middle-aged and elderly church members! We felt like an integral part of the whole, not like the hip, worldly outcasts that ?singles? groups often become.

    Reconnecting, imitating family, and encouraging cross-generational interaction, I believe, is a key, and I look forward to the day when ?teenagers? no longer exist. Society will be better for it?and churches will too.

  4. K.T. says:
    Hey, Wait a minute-I am 25……LOL,For perspective from first hand knowledge of myself and then to follow, my fellow 25- ers…I will give you input as to why most do not continue to attend church.For us,My husband and I,we dont currently attend because of his work schedule(he is in construction)…..Now as to my friends and acquaintances (other than those you know)…..I know one girl who does not attend because she gets a “guilty feeling”when she is in church,that no amount of asking forgivness seems to relieve,not only that, she has what I perceive as a misconception ,as do many of my other acquaintances,that people attend church when you are or very near [their perception of ]perfect.I can tell them repetitively ,that you go to church because you are NOT perfect,but,they still are convinced otherwise.There is also much talk of hipocrisy amongst fellow church goers,that there are people amongst the congregation who will talk about them,negatively, in church.There is also the reasoning of “I can read my bible on sunday,pray,and not go to church because I dont need a church telling me how to believe.Then there are those who just want to live their lives for awhile,that seems most especially true for those children who have been going to church since they were very young.Another reasoning-Lack of friendly and loving atmosphere.My peers frequent the pros/cons of going to church conversations,SO they do have the yearning to live in Christ…Again cons of church,
    1.Guilty feelings
    2.Their jobs(they have to work during common times of services)
    3.Hipocrisy amongst fellow church goers
    4.Too political
    5.Tired of it
    6.Not feeling welcome
    I think in general,people must diagnose the problem before they can solve it.Some people in that age category dont want a rock concert(metaphorically speaking) when they go to church,but unfortunately,most do.

    I have to tell you my own bad experience with a church I attended when I was 9 years old until I was 14.Alone,I attended.I loved it,everything about it,until this one Sunday.We were all sitting in the pews-the very large youth group-when we hear the preacher specifically say,”The teenage girls are too loose in this church,they are all whores and sluts and we need to take action now!”…Imagine all of our reactions at being called such…..I didn’t attend church again until I got married.But mine is not alone,this story,is one of MANY…..sad,isnt it?

  5. Mark W. says:
    Shocking! I am very sorry that you had to sit and listen to such trash in church. I can’t believe a decent minister would utter such idiotic nonsense just to stir up fear and trouble within the congregation. Sounds to me like the guy was likely some kind of pervert and a real wolf in sheep’s clothing. No teenage girl should have to go through such unwarranted, blanket condemnation of her sex, especially from a so-called man of God. This experience, plus what you said about gossip can be a very big turn-off for younger generations who abhor being automatically thought of as sinful just because they are young. Such persecutions of the young account for what you said about young people always feeling guilty when in church…and no wonder when dozens of hard, squinty eyes are accusingly staring them down for wearing makeup and designer jeans. It’s got to stop before the young will ever come back faithfully.
  6. Jeff says:
    Hey guys, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I wasn’t saying that youth shouldn’t ever get to experience vibrant worship or specific messages enculturized to their level and growth.

    I was saying that our current religious practices of having a “youth group” which is miniaturized, contemporized mockup of a traditional worship service falls far short of engaging our youth’s intellect and enabling them to be fruit-bearing disciples of Christ.

    Many churches still think that having some kind of high-powered Wednesday night mini-worship service for youth will produce a disciple. “Just come to this weekly event for 6 years, and we hope you’ll walk out a fully-devoted follower of Christ” seems to be the attitude.

    I don’t think students are dropping out of churches in college because they can’t find in churches what they had in youth group. Much to the contrary! My experience with college students reveal that only a small fraction of churched youth have any semblance of a real, personal faith. Attendance is far from the issue.

    I can affirm what the study found. It’s not that youth are checking out of church because churches don’t offer contemporary worship or style for them. That’s completely irrelevant to the issue. It’s much deeper, and Mark did an excellent job touching on it.

    Traditional youth groups keep our youth in a six year condition of suspended animation. We’re unfortunately entertaining our kids to spiritual death by implying a correlation between high energy worship events and personal faith. You have to ask yourself… what about Christians throughout the ages that have not had the latest , greatest worship music, teachers, and events? What about those who have to sneak to a small group due to persecution? All the elements of modern American youth “faith” are missing in other countries, yet we see amazing fruit (and sometimes martyrdom) taking place daily.

    This is not to see that churches shouldn’t seriously reevaluate their traditional, status quo approaches to worship and teaching. However, I believe the issue is far deeper than just giving kids what they want in the church. It caters to a consumer mindset.

    I think we should all be considering how to involve young believers in kingdom building from the earliest age. How can we disciple our kids and youth so that they are personally and vibrantly committed to Christ? How can we instill in them a personal responsibility for evangelism and good deeds?

    Great comments, everyone! Keep ’em coming!

  7. A.J. says:
    You summed it all up when you said one word, and that word was “ENTERTAINMENT”. What saved people in the past will save people today and that is the blood of Jesus. The church doesn’t need to change with the times. We need more Jesus and less entertainment.
  8. TJ says:
    Let me clarify what I’ve said.
    Pure entertainment for youth ministry
    – not good.

    Providing an atmosphere where the Gospel message of Christ is preached, intense-heartfelt worship is welcome and encouraged, where the Presence of God can be experienced, while grounding believers in the Word – good.

    Providing that atmosphere for every age in the church, and making no apologies for doing so – Extremely Good!

  9. Pam says:
    Hmmm, interesting post. I’ve heard these stats for years, and I honestly don’t think that 20’s dropping out of church equals an inefficient youth group at all.

    I’ve seen the same thing from Christian school grads, public school grads and youth group leaders. I don’t think it matters one iota what kind of youth group, if any, a student attended. College is a time when we examine our beliefs about everything- politics, relationships, sexuality, and yes-religion.

    Either I would conclude that it’s just one of those things you can’t prevent, or I would say it’s the horrible failure of churches to minister to college students. But I would not conclude that the youth ministries are to blame in any way.

  10. Jeff says:
    Good thoughts, Pam. However, do you think if youth were trained to sustain their own faith in a vibrant way while in their youth group that perhaps they would be more apt to understand what they believe and why before they arrived in college?
  11. A 20 year old dropout says:
    You fasust pig, it’s people like you who drive the youth and the educatted away from the churches. Your dogmatic ways and slander of an entire generation prove that. You sit there and pretend you’re some kind of web menister. Jesus never spoke of punishing 3rd graders, he would let them chose their own paths then welcom them back on their return, if they chose to return. Overzelious and dogmatic teachings and parentings drive people away from God not to him. Next time you happen to read a bible, and I’m going to assume you’re kidding when you say you do (so you don’t look as moronic), read the story of thr prodical son. Jesus told this story in part because of people like you. Oh and hint hint us bible reading Christians tend to beleive the father in that story represents God. (you’re the arogent brother who stays and is loyal, but still acts like a jerk off). And yeah I’m disrespectful that’s my problem, but that doesn’t take the truth from my words.

    -A 20 year old dropout

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