Despite two decades of unparalleled investment in youth ministry, the figures show that the Church is still haemorrhaging young people. Krish Kandiah explains where we’ve been going wrong, and why youth work can’t be left to youth workers.
It was my 17th birthday and I was choosing to spend it shivering in a freezing conference centre in Wales. The young people around me were being wowed by their first sighting of a video projector – imported into Britain by a young Baptist evangelist who was speaking and showing heartrending videos of the crucifixion overlaid with a soundtrack of a Bryan Adams song. We were certainly being challenged that night and he was only just getting going. ‘Look around the room’, he said, ‘statistically, most of you will not be following Jesus in ten years time’. Sombrely and obediently we looked at each other, but most of us did it with a wink.
We were an elite group of young people who had given up our New Year’s Eve to learn about evangelism and practice our new techniques on a quiet unsuspecting Welsh town. Surely, his prediction didn’t really apply to us Looking back, Steve Chalke’s warning that night proved uncannily accurate. So many of the youth group I was part of as a young person are nowhere near faith; so many of the university Christian Union I helped lead are no longer connected with Church; so many of the young people I helped make commitments to Christ and then mentored have dropped out of church. In fact I am more surprised when I bump into someone I knew from church 20 years ago and find they are still following Jesus. The stats are still appalling despite unprecedented investment in youth ministry during the same time frame. This raises two important and urgent questions for us. Firstly, is youth work really working? Secondly, how can we make sure this generation of young people are not lost to the Church in ten years time?
Is youth work working?
When I was a youth worker, I believed I could see young people come to faith, give their lives to Jesus and change the world. I wanted to see the next generation of Wilberforces, Stotts, Pullingers and Nightingales appear. I wanted to see Bono’s lyric (stolen from Bruce Cockburn) become prophetic as young Christians emerged to ‘kick the darkness till it bleeds daylight’. It did not take long before I gave up on those ambitions, replacing them with a vaguer hope that perhaps some of the young people’s faith would survive into adulthood. Many youth workers start out as determined as an ambitious medic hoping to discover the cure for cancer, but they end up disillusioned as they realise all they are doing is partially bandaging the haemorrhage of young people leaving the Church.
Peter Brierley’s analysis of the statistics is that even if youth work’s basic first aid is resulting in fewer young people leaving the Church than would have done otherwise, then youth work is working. But I find this bittersweet news. On one hand I am one of those for whom youth work had a radical and persistent impact, inspiring me not only to find faith and follow Jesus, come what may, but also to get stuck into youth ministry wherever I could. On the other hand, it is hard to keep fighting a losing battle, and even the best of our youth ministers are becoming discouraged in the face of catastrophic losses. The stats seem to show that our youth ministry may just be delaying the exodus. If the teens are staying with us longer, then the probability is they will leave in their twenties. LindZ, the front man of the hugely successful Christian rap band LZ7, confessed to me - after a 50 gig tour that had seen over 12,000 first-time professions of faith - his fear that most of these unchurched young people would never make it to the follow-up course let alone to church. What is depressing is that of the tiny fraction who make it to church, and engage with the youth ministry, even fewer will be adequately discipled and pursue faith through into adulthood. I praise God whenever I hear stories of successful youth work, because the sad reality is that for most young people, youth ministry is failing them. 1523 out of 2228 passengers and crew were drowned during the sinking of the Titanic - a loss of 68%. But of every class of 50 nought-nine-year olds in Sunday school in 1985, only 15 will still be going to church in their 20s: we lose 70% of our children. Despite having a better chance of survival on the Titantic, we are sailing on regardless.
We are in a crisis, not on a cruise, and we need all hands on deck. The longer I have been in youth ministry the more I realise something radical needs to change and youth ministry is simply too big a job to be left to us youth workers.
What are the key factors to develop resilient faith in young people?
Britain is not the only place the Church is losing young people. Similar research in the United States led Kara Powell to found the Sticky Faith initiative at Fuller Youth Institute in Pasadena. After her three-year research project looking at the factors that help young people to develop mature faith, Powell’s top three conclusions were as follows:
• ‘Involvement in all-church worship during high school is more consistently linked with mature faith in both high school and college than any other form of church participation.’
• ‘The more teenagers serve and build relationships with younger children, the more likely it is their faith will stick.’
• ‘More than any program or event, what made kids more likely to feel a significant part of their local church was when adults made the effort to get to know them.’
These simple observations should have a profound impact on our youth work. Over the past two decades our youth ministry has become increasingly homogenised, as we have separated young people from adult church. This ghettoisation of young people is driven by the hope that if we provide a more relevant space and style for our teenagers we will help them grow in faith. However despite all of the best intentions, we may have ended up cutting off their supply of lifeblood. I do not believe youth work should be written off as a bad investment. But neither should youth work be left to youth workers – it is far too critical a ministry to be sidelined or pigeon-holed. In response to the three observations above, here are three practical ways we can reorient our churches to ensure that both our youth and our youth-workers get optimal support in our endeavours not just to stem the tide of deserters, but to rediscover the passion of seeing young people take up the baton of resilient faith.
1. Desegregate the Church
Providing a culturally relevant space for young people to be themselves, relate to one another and know the safety and freedom to talk about the challenges of teenage life is a vital part of youth ministry. But is it possible that we have over compensated? If Powell is right and intergenerational contact is a deciding factor in resilient faith then by continually isolating young people from the wider body of the church, we can end up making them feel second-class and unwanted in the church’s life. We can rob them of developing significant relationships with the wider church community and starve them of role models of Christians living for God in all sorts of work and life situations. With young people absent from the majority of our gathered worship time, we have no need to adapt it and therefore become more stagnant and less attractive to our young people when they transition to adult services. There needs to be systemic change throughout the whole church’s life and worship in order to bring youth and their influence back into our churches. One way to start would be to enlist the help of our youth workers to shape the whole life of the church not just the youth ministry.
2. Discover giftings in our young people
The taking on of responsibility within the life of the church as a key indicator of faith resilience is also supported by two other major studies in the USA. Researcher Carol Lytch summarises their findings arguing that ‘the opportunity to develop competence’ is a major factor in attracting and maintaining high school students. The most basic way to do this is to give young people the opportunity to serve the children in our churches. In this way they will gain not only experience and leadership skills, but will also realise that building relationships and being role models to the generation below is a significant ministry for life. The youth department of the Norwegian Mission Society, a nationwide renewal movement, aimed to see all of their young people aged 12 and above taking up leadership roles within the children’s ministry in the church. They run a national leadership training programme that starts at age 11 and sees hundreds of young people attend regular weekends away equipping them as leaders. Dave Niblock who runs the ministry with young people at Abundant Life Church in Bradford runs a similar leadership development track running for young people starting at 11. He is seeing encouraging impact made in the lives of these young people but the wider church is blessed in the process too.
Our local churches run a combined week long holiday club that last year registered 837 children up to the age of 11. Of the 403 helpers for the week, 140 were aged 12-18 and were provided with training, hands-on experience in serving, and an evening programme of their own as a reward. I know that it was initiatives like this in which I was trusted and developed as a leader that helped me see church not just from a ‘consumer’ perspective, but as a colleague and a collaborator. I came to understand that the mission of the Church was the family business in which I had a role to play.
3. Reverse the ratio
As a youth worker the primary and often solitary measurement of my effectiveness were the attendance statistics. As a church pastor I was again faced with the question of size at virtually every conference or gathering I attended. I quickly learned that the bigger the number, the more kudos. I found myself boosting the numbers, rounding up to the nearest 50 or so in a bid to impress. But watch parents talking about schools, and suddenly the opposite is true – the smaller the class size the better. Mention that there are 14 children in your son’s class at school and their jaw hits the ground as they calculate the staff to pupil ratio. I am not advocating deliberately downsizing your youth ministry, or actively dissuading young people from attending, but there are serious advantages of upping the ratio of adults to young people. A typical ten kids to each adult may feel manageable, five kids to each adult would be fantastic, but this is not the optimum ratio for teaching let alone transmitting a life transforming faith. Dr Chap Clark at Fuller Youth Institute encourages churches to ‘reverse the ratio’, with the aim of having five adults investing in the life of every one child. This is not to suggest we flood our Sunday school with teachers. He is however recommending that we actively find ways to release the whole Church to intentionally relate to the young people. This may be as simple as sending a birthday card, or as deliberate as a mentoring programme. It could be linking up for work experience placements, an invitation to a game of snooker at the local club, or sitting next to a young person during a church lunch.
In fact this 5:1 ratio is often more easily achieved in smaller churches than in larger churches. Whereas they may not benefit from the buzz of a Friday night event to rival Greenbelt, it is not uncommon in smaller churches for all of the adults to know the names and situations of all the young people, and to be aware of the details of their lives for prayer and conversation. It is also easier to manage this in local church rather than commuter church as the opportunities for midweek chance meetings in the street or at the local supermarket increases and, as we all know, the most effective youth ministry doesn’t take place in a church building on a Sunday morning.
Who else needs to be involved in youth ministry?
Youth work can’t be left to youth workers because it takes a whole church to raise a child. As much as our young people need our youth workers, they also need the rest of the congregation. They need older people to care about them and pray for them and spot their gifts and encourage their faith. They need younger children in order to learn how to be a role model and how to pass on the faith. According to another huge US study looking at the quality of faith in young adults, they also need their parents to model a gracious, generous, growing faith. Sadly most of us transmit to our kids an ‘almost Christian’ faith that revolves around our needs being met, our behaviour being (seen to be) appropriate, and our conversation being virtually devoid of applied biblical thinking. Our own lack of discipleship is having a serious impact on the next generation. We too need to learn alongside our kids what an authentic faith looks like.
Parents were a bit of a no go area for me as a youth worker. My speciality was young people: I could speak their language, join in their games, tag along on their kinds of outings, and organise all sorts of crazy activities. Except for gaining permission, I barely talked to parents, let alone conferred with them about their role in developing faith in their children. Many of the parents were quite happy with that – I was doing what they were paying me to do. But this is not what Deuteronomy teaches (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, see also Psalm 78:5-8), and not what the US study discovered makes for resilient faith.
Youth workers should no longer be isolated from the parents, nor from the leadership of the church, not from the children’s ministry team nor from the wider congregation. Joining the dots and collaborating to develop authentic relationships and resilient faith needs to be part of a long-term integrated strategy that involves the whole church.
Friends, sorting out this leak has got to be our top priority as otherwise we are trying to rescue drowning people by pulling them on board a sinking ship. All the energy and courage being shown in mission may prove to be wasted if we don’t develop depth in discipleship and resilience in faith. If intergenerational relationship is the missing piece of the puzzle, lets get on board and begin recruiting the whole church to raise our children.
KRISH KANDIAHis the Executive Director of the Evangelical Alliance.
Further the conversation:
• Read the accompanying article aimed at the wider church in this month’s Christianity magazine.
• Join the online conversation and watch the videos from the upcoming Evangelical Alliance Council Meeting at http://www.eauk.org/wholechurch (videos available from 8/3/12)
Sticky Faith, Kara Powell: a practical guide to seeing change in your church’s approach to children and young people.
Almost Christian What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasey Dean: frightening reading about the nature of faith in US teens. It might challenge us in the UK to be less reliant on American models of ministry in our churches.
Family Ministry Field Guide: How the Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples, Timothy Paul Jones: this books needs a lot of contextualising for a UK audience but nevertheless provides some very helpful models of whole church teaching curriculum and presents a very good case for the family to be the basic unit of discipleship in the church.
Gospel Centred Family, Tim Chester and Ed Moll: a UK authored book with short chapters that could be used as parent training programme. Two conservative church leaders give valuable advice to parents.
Mend the Gap Can the Church Reconnect the Generations? Jason Gardner: a powerful book about the virtues of intergenerational ministry
Getting your Kids through Church without them Ending up Hating God, Rob Parsons: an encouraging and user friendly book for youthworkers and parents and everybody else in your church. Alternatively attend one of their touring events.