In Defence of Youth Ministry

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Recently on Facebook I caught a disparaging quote on the state of contemporary student ministry based on Drew Dyck’s book “Generation Ex-Christian.” It elicited several supportive responses. I chose to post a comment to the contrary. Let me explain …

Now I enjoyed reading Dyck’s “Generation Ex-Christian.” His writing style appeals to me, and more importantly he has a lot of good stuff to say about how we ought to be working with young adults. Anyone interested in wrapping their minds around today’s young adults will find this a very enlightening read. Let me be absolutely clear, I highly recommend reading “Generation Ex-Christian.”

But Dyck makes a few comments and hangs on to some statistics that I have intuitively and anecdotally reacted against. Quoting respected researchers like the Barna Group or Rainer and Associates, Dyck claims, “Young adults are fleeing the faith in record numbers.” We’re talking numbers like “70% of youth leave church by the time they are twenty-two year old,” or “80% of those reared in the church will be ‘disengaged’ by the time they are twenty-nine years old.” Those are devastating and sensational stats!!

Hey, it’s hard to argue with statistics, but in looking at the churches I know both locally, across Canada and those few that I connect with in the U.S., I just couldn’t see that drastic of a loss. Yes I do see loss, but not at that level. And the stories Dyck told of guys like his friend “Abe,” are stories I could tell from youth ministry over 30 years ago. I have always been amazed at the ability of some people to have such profound experiences with God, only later to totally reject faith. I’m not sure that’s that new of a phenomenon. Perhaps it’s happening at a greater pace than before, depending on what you are statistically measuring?

The Facebook post that got my attention was an accurate reflection but not a word for word quote from Dyck’s book: “(Over the past couple decades) the focus in youth ministry has shifted from spiritual growth to attracting large numbers of kids and keeping them entertained… (This move) has had some ugly unintended consequences. Today many youth ministries are practically devoid of any spiritual engagement.” (See page 48) (The words in brackets are those of the Facebook poster, the rest belong to Dyck.)

Wow, in my mind those are unfair comments. Dyck carefully qualifies the statement with the word “many,” but still it strikes me as more sensational than reality. To add to the sensationalism Dyck quotes Ed Stetzler, President of Lifeway Research as saying that most youth groups are “holding tanks with pizza,” and throws in a footnote about the evils of including Halo 3 in a youth ministry setting. Has anyone really done the research to back all that up??? Isn’t that the kind of sensationalism that turns the next generation off? Low blow and inaccurate from what I can see, at least in Canada. And Drew Dyck is a Canadian!

Looking back to when I was but a youth, mass rallies by Youth For Christ or Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship used the slickest of entertainment of those days and employed “forbidden rock music”. It was all about being relevant to attract large numbers of young people. In Toronto of the 70’s, Inter-Varsity’s Great Pumpkin Hunt was “the event” to go to. YFC’s Toronto concerts with their pre-concert “electric chair” stunts and the likes of Larry Norman singing “Why should the Devil have all the good music,” were amazingly! I don’t disparage those at all. They played a positive role in my spiritual journey. However my observation since my own experience as a youth in church and parachurch, followed by a time as a youth pastor, is that over the last several decades youth ministry has become far more focused and intentional in it’s approach to reaching and making disciples of students for Christ. Entertainment is certainly there, but no more or less than it’s ever been; and it’s used carefully and prayerfully.

And while I don’t necessarily fully align with the growing young reformed movement, I have a huge respect for its passion for student ministry that is deeply rooted in the Scriptures and deeply engaged with the life of Christ. And I see that kind of passion in churches all over the place, reformed or not. Even in my own city, I can point to multiple churches including my own, where youth ministry today is far more focused and intentional in terms of holistic discipleship than it was 20 years ago.

But can you argue with the stats? That’s when I stumbled on a great book by Brad Wright, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin who is also a believer: “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told”. Ironically Ed Stetzer writes the forward to this book!

Wright takes on the research done by Barna, Rainer and others head on and counters it with data from slightly more secular and potentially more scholarly sources like the Gallup Organization, the Pew Foundation, and the General Society Survey. He comes up with a bunch of contrarian findings that align more closely with what I’ve been sensing. (Not that “my sense” makes it better! ☺) His premise is that a lot of the bad news we’ve been hearing, a lot of the stats we’ve been using, simply are not true. Dyck also quotes the Pew Foundation but perhaps not as carefully.

On the youth ministry front Wright insists “the percentage of youth who attend church has held steady over the past twenty years.” This totally flies in the face of what evangelicals having been saying about themselves. Further Wright demonstrates that “the beliefs of young evangelicals over the past several decades have either remained stable or have become more in line with the church.” This is a surprising thought for many! But it does line up with the observation that youth ministry has become far more intentional over the years. What I see and find some support from Wright is that our youth grasp more clearly and hold onto more firmly a handful of key fundamentals. However I would suggest that the list of fundamentals they hold onto is shorter and they are much weaker at quoting chapter and verse of the Bible. I’m okay with that. I think that means we’re ahead!

Not that the news is all good. Wright is clear that “on the negative side, the number of young people who do not affiliate with any religion has increased in recent decades, just as it has for the whole population.” In other words, fewer folks hanging in the margins of faith are calling themselves Christians. It’s this reality that I think Dyck could have handled more carefully.

So I do wonder if guys like Drew Dyck who has so much good to say, don’t try to get our attention, as Wright would suggest, using sensational statements and scary statistics. It’s a good reminder to a guy like myself who loves stats and needs to get people’s attention when preaching, to be careful in their use.

And while it’s not very consoling to those many parents who have raised their kids in the church and are struggling with their current lack of faith to say that statistically it’s not a lot different than a generation or two ago, I am pumped to see some evidence that youth ministry has actually shifted towards a deeper experience with God and a greater commitment to a handful of key beliefs. So kudos to all of our youth ministry workers out there!!

I am reminded of a quote I have often used that is also found in Wright’s book from an Assyrian stone tablet that dates to 2800 BC, “Our earth is degenerate in these later days … children no longer obey their parents.”

6 Responses to "In Defence of Youth Ministry"
  1. Well said Doug! I enjoyed reading your struggle with trying to align “stats” with your perception of reality. As the director of a Christian camp I too believe that youth ministry is still alive and well just as our God is still alive and well and working in people’s hearts. I continue to see many young lives learn to say “yes” to God at Medeba. At the same time I am still concerned for the youth of our future but want to do everything I can to encourage them to become more committed followers of Christ and develop a deeper, more intimate relationship with Him.

  2. Joel Brigham says:

    Great post Doug! I really appreciate your thoughts and agree. I am constantly impressed by the passion for Christ and depth of maturity the students of this generation possess. I wonder what Dyck’s personal experience is with this within his own church context and if it rings true with other leaders of youth within his circles. Thanks.

  3. The type of “sensational” comments made in Dyck’s work have increased over the years and though I’m one of the guys who has been around for years (age lament intended) I find it hard to raise my hand in agreement. However, what I have seen in youth ministry is consistent with the “entertainment” claim made in this work. I would disagree though with the reason behind this trend. It seems to me that culture as a whole has a short attention span, schools now have smart boards, teachers use PowerPoint and video, computer gaming is at an all time high. Whether we like it or not, that is the culture into which youth workers are trying to speak biblical truth. If we sent someone across a pond of water to another country we would expect them to learn that culture and tailor their presentation to that culture. From that culture a few will respond; they will go on and be discipled and will be the subject of great missionary stories. Apart from geography the youth specialist is confronted with the same task. While our truth claims remain constant our missiology is in constant flux. I think a north american culture addicted to leisure and entertainment has emerged (what it will become we will leave to the prophets) and our youth workers committed to reaching that culture must be “in but not of ” this culture. Hats off to the ones that are doing their best.

  4. Tim Brown says:

    Good post Doug and thanks for the invite to read/comment. I just parted with a plethora of books on games, icebreakers and retreats dating as far back as the ’70’s. Really, “nothing new under the sun”. I don’t really sense a change, (at least in the youth ministries I am acquainted with) in the quantity of time spent “entertaining” kids. This is simply a means to an end. You can’t truly speak into someones life until you have taken one of their dodgeballs to the head, or drank a coke through their sock. All joking aside, the one thing I have noticed over the years, (which you touch on, when you refer to the “reformed movement”) is a decrease in theology/doctrine/catechism and an increase in application/illustration/experience. As important as application/illustration/experience is, it should never replace a systematic instilling of deep spiritual truths concerning the nature of our God and Saviour from Scripture. We are to be about raising a generation of theologians who passionately serve their God and we can have fun doing it. In this relativistic age, there is no greater need. John McArthur had it right when he said, “Worry about depth, God will take care of the breadth.”

  5. Patrick Timney says:

    Hey Doug, thanks for this thoughtful response. I’m reminded of John Burke’s book, No Perfect People Allowed. In the intro he talks about all the deconstruction of the church that is going on and says it’s time for construction. God is building His church and will continue to build it as He has for generations. We can’t be like ostriches with our heads in the sand, but it’s time to speak out about what God is doing, not simply what is wrong.

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