Observations on the Almighty Church Teenager

We’re losing our kids. We can’t keep our young people. Our teenagers are leaving the church. Ever increasing numbers of our children are becoming more and more disenchanted with our faith and our faith traditions. There’s no “brand loyalty” among our offspring.

So in an effort to win those kids and hang onto our young people and keep our teenagers and encourage our children and indoctrinate our offspring we throw more programs at them. Give them more to do. More activities. More ministers. More money.

Have we ever stopped to consider that our current model of Youth Ministry, an unchallenged and undisputed and powerful force among our churches for about 40 years, is part of the problem?

I have two observations, maybe three, on the issue of our teens and the widely perceived problems of them leaving the church. This may take a while. It may take all week. I encourage you to read this and reflect on it and pray about it. Especially if you’re a parent.

There’s a member of my family who, many years ago, decided to move God and his church way down on the list of priorities. None of it is very important to this person anymore. This person, whom I love dearly and pray for every day, is not a member of a church anymore. This person’s spouse and children don’t care about any of it at all. It doesn’t matter to them. And it breaks my heart. It grieves every other member of the family. And we make a concerted effort, as a family, to never, ever, ever speak negatively about the church in any way any time this family member is around. We don’t discuss “church issues.” We don’t complain about policies or gripe about worship. We don’t argue about doctrine or in any way air the church’s laundry when this family member is around. When this person is in the room, we talk only about the good things in the church. We speak about relationships and love and support. We talk about people and families this person knows. We communicate what God is doing in and with his church and the people there.

That’s just common sense, right? You’d have to be a fool to think that speaking negatively about the church and communicating all the things that are wrong in the church would ever win this person back to our Lord.

So how in the world do we justify the way we talk about the church in front of our kids? We wouldn’t do it in front of the lost. Why do we think it’s OK in front of our children?

We’re raising entire generations of kids — two or three in a row now — who, the only time they hear their parents and their parents’ friends talk about church, hear their parents slamming the church. We complain about worship. We gripe about policies and practices and personalities. We threaten to leave if things don’t change or go our way. We talk about the church, in front of our kids, as if it were a burden or a necessary evil. We communicate to them that we don’t like very much about it at all. What young person would want to dedicate his life to it after listening to that for 12 or 13 years? Who wouldn’t be on the lookout for something else? Some of them, I don’t blame for wanting to leave.

OK. That’s observation number one.

Here’s the second: I’m afraid we’re communicating unscriptural ideas and planting ungodly seeds when we unflinchingly cater to the wants and whims of our teenagers.

We tell our teenagers that they are the single most important group in the church. They matter more than anybody. We tell them to separate from the rest of the body for worship. We tell them to separate from their families, sit together as a youth group, right down front, so we can look at them. 

We laugh at the absurdity of someone thinking they have their own pew in the sanctuary. We joke about a visitor walking in and unknowingly taking someone’s pew. Yet we block off entire sections of our worship centers for our teens. Seriously.

We encourage them to do their own thing, sing their own songs, express themselves in their own ways. And if we’re not comfortable with all that, we send them away to do it by themselves. We build them elaborate youth facilities for their own use. They make up less than ten-percent of our congregations but they get all the attention, two or three full time ministers, and a huge unbalanced chunk of the budget.

How can we change worship to meet the needs of our teenagers? How can we tweak our meeting times and places to satisfy our kids? What songs can we sing that our youth group will enjoy? How can we provide our young people with more fun activities? What will the teenagers think? What do the teenagers say?

When’s the last time anybody asked the 55-year-old couple in the back, the ones who’ve been members at your church for 20 years, what they thought?

Here’s the deal: a kid in our churches feels a sense of entitlement. Our youth programs and the attention we pay them naturally foster it. If those same kids go to Christian colleges and attend big churches with successful college programs that treat them the same way, it only gets worse. And by the time that young person graduates at age 23 or 24, he gets a job (hopefully, right?) and begins searching for a church home and realizes, maybe for the first time in his life, that it’s not all about him.

Nobody’s catering to him anymore. He’s having to sacrifice and submit and consider others maybe for the first time in his life. Suddenly, he and his age group aren’t the most important people in the church. He’s just as important, or unimportant, as everyone else. And he goes into shock. Vertigo. Disorientation. And I think it’s only natural. What other result would we expect? Does it surprise us that it’s at that age, 23-25, that our kids leave the churches of Christ or drop out of church altogether?

Related to that, I think, is the fact that the parents of today’s teenagers, men and women in their 40s and 50s, are the very first generation of Church of Christ members raised in the current youth ministry model. And these parents are changing churches based on their kids’ preferences. Parents are choosing churches only after their children have signed off on the youth program. Parents are taking complaints from their teens to ministers and elders. The kids have the reigns. The kids have the power. The kids have the control. They have the final say.

And we’re the ones who gave it to them.

Last thing. And these are all related. Why are we afraid to correct our teenagers? Why are we afraid to give them direction?

I was interested last week to attend a series of roundtable discussions at the Abilene Christian University Lectureships entitled “The House Divided: Discussing Differences Within the Church.” It was part of the ACU student-led Lectureship track, described and promoted as church leaders discussing ways our members can “maintain unity despite significant differences.” The stated goal of the class was to “dream with our students of a future together in unity.”

There were over a hundred people in the room each of the three days, fairly evenly split between college students and older church leaders. The discussion each day was moderated by a three-man panel of ministers and professors. And not once was the view of a teenager challenged or corrected. Every view of every student — regardless of how misguided or misinformed or even dangerous — was validated by solemn nods and affirming winks. Several times the panelists reminded us that we were there to listen to the students. And that’s all we did. Listen to the students. When they said they needed this or they needed that or they needed to feel such-and-such, we listened. And vowed to change.

At one point, late in the third day’s session, one young lady exclaimed that she and her friends were “just saying ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the church.” And the panelists nodded in agreement.

And I couldn’t stand it anymore.

I asked for the microphone and gently explained (I characterized my forthcoming comment as a “loving response to my sweet sister in Christ) that saying “no” to the church was not the answer. It’s never the answer. I told her and everyone in the room that Scripture clearly and unambiguously tells us that Christ died for the church. His blood purchased the church. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap. And while many Christians are guilty of distorting the church, even in our own tradition, sometimes to the point of making it unrecognizeable as the church Jesus died for, saying “no” is not the answer. It’s impossible to say “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the church. His death on the cross makes it impossible.

And the panelists took the microphone and corrected me and defended the teenager.

They said we have to change the way we talk and the way we think about the church if we’re going to keep our kids. They said we have to use the language of the outsiders and respect the perspective of the outsiders. And when I observed that this student was not an outsider but an insider in a room full of insiders, I was politely brushed off. Dismissed.

My opinion doesn’t count. I’m 40 and I have gray hair. I don’t have an iPod and I don’t play with a Wie. What do I know?

Maybe that’s right. But I’m saddened that in a room full of elders and ministers and Christian college professors, one of our own kids can declare her response to our problems is to say “no” to the church. And it goes completely unchallenged. It’s actually affirmed as fine and even proper.  

A few minutes later, to his credit, one of the panelists, a youth minister from the Houston area, attempted to encourage our young people to persevere. Challenge the church. Help teach the church. Wrestle with the church. Grow with the church. Love the church. But don’t leave the church. I couldn’t have said it better. I had been waiting for three days for somebody on the panel to actually say something to that effect.

And then the ACU professor on the panel grabbed the mic and said, “But if the Lord is calling you to leave, then you have to leave.”

Nice.

That day’s session was titled “Visions for the Future: God Has No Plan B.”

God may have no Plan B. But this professor does. Just leave. Do your own thing.

Why are we so afraid of correcting our teenagers? Why are we scared to give them direction? Why are we afraid to offend them? Is it because we think they’ll leave? Is it because we want them to like us? Is it because the parents of our teens are treating them the same way we were treated as teens and we just don’t know any better? We haven’t made the connection yet?

Teenagers are not the church of the future. They are the church of right now. Just like the 91-year-old man and the four-year-old little girl and everybody in between. We all submit to each other. We all sacrifice for each other. We all love each other. We all consider others better than ourselves. How can exalting one group within the church over another, intentionally or unintentionally, ever be godly or good?

Peace,

Allan

11 Comments

  1. David W.

    Allan – Two observations:

    I believe that Legacy’s youth program is becoming less and less ‘pizza-focused’ and more and more Christ-focused. Jason and Lance have a difficult task to help change the appetites of our youth – to hunger more for the power and humility of the Gospel, and less for the ‘gods’ of our culture. And I believe, as I know you believe, that they are making great strides.

    In spite of their good efforts, I find it interesting that ACU students (and probably students from other churches of Christ affiliated universities) are experimenting with congregations from other religious heritages. And, at the same time, Christian pollsters are finding that 7 out of 10 of actively involved church youth are no longer attending church by their mid-twenties. It appears that the youth-ministry models developed, taught, and used by ALL Christian churches are failing to keep their youth connected. So, what’s the underlying cause and what can we do to address it? Stronger parent involvement, bold examples of Christ-changed living, more service project, more intergenerational relationships……Others???

    Thanks for bringing this important topic to the surface… David

  2. Jimmy

    Larry,

    I’ve gotta be honest. I was talking with our buddy, Jim Gardner, yesterday and he mentioned that you both had talked about this blog over the weekend. I really thought that I was gonna have some boiling blood over your thoughts today and, to my pleasant surprise, I couldn’t agree more with what you have written in this first installment!

    When I first started out in youth ministry, I thought that the role of YM was to be buddy-buddy and to entertain the teens with fun activities that had heavenly meaning. ‘The teens are the future’ everyone around was chiming. ‘They are the entitled ones.’ ‘You gotta keep them interested.’ And I bought into that way of thinking. How utterly misguided I was.

    Since then, however, I have come to challenge that way of thinking. I realize now that we need to steep them in learning the Biblical truths. And guess what, learning is not always fun and entertaining. Learning is sometimes a difficult, if not painfully stretching, process. Youth ministers need to realize this.

    This may be jumbled. That is really how my mind works. But I am genuinely trying to lead teenagers in such a way that they become healthy, involved adults in their Christian family.

    It scares me to think that the ACU panel would blindly accept anything that a student would say and fully approve of it. I wish that someone else in that room of 100+ would have backed you on this. It’s a shame that they did not.

    I am still mulling things over and will join the conversation again soon.

    Thank you for you insightful thoughts about something that has been bubbling up to the surface in my own heart. Can’t wait to see where this goes!

    Jimmy

  3. mom

    Thank you. The problem doesn’t start when they are teenagers. Our Bible class programs need to be more Bible centered and Christ centered. For so long, we have just been teaching the stories of the Bible and not Christ or his church. How many kids know the story of Noah, Joseph, Jesus walking on the Water or even of the Crucifixion and don’t know why these stories are important. None of our teaching is being made personal. The kids don’t even know how to look up Acts 2: 38 in the Bible. They don’t bring their Bibles to worship or to class because no one (parents, teachers, preachers, youth ministers) expects. We- all of us- need to show the kids from birth on up that christ and his Church are important. How can they take it personally, if we don’t live that importance in our lives – 24/7?

    You didn’t critique the Cowboys loss??? to the Bears. Dad asked about that.
    We love you. mom

  4. Paul Cartwright

    Allen,
    My name is Paul Cartwright I am the youth minister at the Woodward Park Church of Christ where Jim Gardner is the preacher. Let me first say AMEN to what you have written. My previous position was at a congregation that fits the mold of what you have written to a “T”.
    While I agree with so much of what you have said I would like to offer a few observations from a youth minister’s perspective and out of brotherly love.
    First of all I believe you have written my next sermon for me in terms of how we talk about the church. I wanted you to know there is at-least one youth minister out there who always builds up the body, the elders and every member of this congregation. I make it a personal goal to never run down the congregation in front of the teens and I make an effort not to do it in my personal life. Am I always successful in the latter no but I definitely try.
    When we characterize the teens as “the single most important group in the church” I believe this to be a double edged sword. As a youth minister the teens are my primary focus so in a way they are an important group to me. I never let the teenagers believe they are any more important than anyone else of course but it is a fine line. In terms of the money spent and importance placed upon a youth program I believe there is something to be considered. If there is another group that could be ministered to by having a fulltime minister and program dedicated to them why don’t they ask for it? Another thing to consider is that adults should be spiritually mature enough to have a ministry geared towards them by pooling their own resources in terms of teaching and direction. Teenagers do not have the benefit of maturity and experience that adults have and therefore and outside person is useful to help them mature. I think there is merit to what you have written but I think it might be a more complex issue.
    To say that teens are “sent off” could be an oversimplification. At Woodward Park we build times in for the teenagers to be together and worship together where they sing songs they enjoy and get to hear messages geared more to them. I believe they grow from this but I would not consider that sending them off. I agree with what you are saying but there are exceptions to the rule.
    In response to asking the 55-year-old couple what they think I say go for it. This is where I believe our elderships at times drop the ball. But I also believe in some congregations you might be hard pressed to find a 55 year old couple who is plugged in enough to give an intelligent answer (once again the exception not the rule).
    As for the person who finds himself graduated and hit with the reality that he is no longer catered to I agree with what you have said but I would like to pose a question. If this person has grown up in a youth program, and gone to a Christians college or been involved in a college church program shouldn’t they have (1)the skills to make friends and begin a circle of friends of their own, and (2) shouldn’t they have friendships that have spilled over from youth group and college experiences?
    In terms of teens running the show about where the family worships I agree the teens should not have that position. I think it would be good to point that parents wanting the best for their teens is good but the teens having control is not. I am the product of parents who chose our place of worship on the basis of a youth program and I applaud their decision. Next is a question I have always wanted an answer to and I think you may be the one who can give it. If a teenager is a Christian shouldn’t they be able to share their problems about anything with an eldership? I know this can be abused because I have had personal experience with teenagers having too much to say about the affairs of the church. I encourage my teenagers if ever they have a problem with anything at church to talk with the elders because teens are just as much a part of the Lord’s body as anyone. Could you expand on your thoughts on this subject for me?
    In terms of everything you said concerning what you heard at the ACU lectures I would say that those comments are very typical of my experience with ACU. I would encourage you to attend the Harding Lectures if you ever get a chance. I am a Harding grad and I worked with lectureship the whole time I was there and I can assure their youth ministry forums would never resemble what you heard at ACU.
    In terms of people saying the church needs to be changed to accommodate teenagers I would say this makes a great case for teens having their own worship times of worship at devotionals, retreats and camps. These times are important so teens can express their worship to God and when they become adults become leaders in the church and have some idea of how to direct those times of worship.
    Thank you for acknowledging teenagers as the church of today and not the church of tomorrow. My biggest pet peeve is when teenagers are called the church of tomorrow. I prefer the future leaders of the church they are already a part of.
    I know this was a long comment but your article really peeked my interest. I would love to have a dialogue with you because I feel like I have a lot to learn from you. Thank you for sticking with me and reading this whole thing.

    Be Strong and Courageous,
    Paul Cartwright

  5. Mel Williams

    I recently moved my family to Legacy. My children’s spiritual well-being was my primary concern. Whatever congregation I claim membership to, I hope they understand one thing….Satan is willing to adapt his strategy. We need to be willing to do the same.

    I’m not sure I agree with the idea that entitlement is a negative one. We are entitled to much through Jesus Christ. A sense of belonging, joy and celebration are an entitlement our children ought to be able to freely claim when it comes to “Church”.

    The problem isn’t that our children aren’t taught the importance of church….the problem is they don’t see the effects when they look at the general congregation. They come out of the youth programs and are expected to replace their passion for reverence as if one excludes the other.

    The solution isn’t expecting our children to adapt to a rigid level of reverence as defined by the previous generation. We have got to stop listening to the lie that what was enough for me or my father ought to be enough for my child…or everyone else’s child.

    There’s nothing new under the sun but for some things there’s alot more of it than there was twenty, thirty or even fifty years ago.

    It distresses me deeply that today you can go to any youth program in America and find kids struggling with drugs, broken homes, pregnancy, alcoholism….you name it….even at Legacy.

    We have got to adapt and be willing to take Jesus into their culture and when we do so some of it is going to get on us….

  6. Jason Reeves

    Good thoughts….

    Good conversation….

    Needed discussion….

    I believe, however, that the Kingdom of God can do without any badmouthing of Abilene (leave it to a Harding grad to bag on ACU).

    We are all the body of Christ.

    And in this thing together.

    Preach on Stanglin….

  7. Jimmy

    Hold on now.

    I am a Harding grad and I respect and admire the efforts that are going on at ACU. I have learned many great things at both universities. They both are making big strides in Christian education.

    Be back later with more thoughts.

  8. Rob's Dad

    Wow – lot to digest. Where to start in a response? I agree with many of your comments about the approach of youth ministry and I also know what it’s like to challenge a view and recieve the pat on the head.

    Why are kids leaving? To really find out, to really get to the root cause, you need to ask why at least 5 times. Sorry to bring the business world into church but it’s not wise to make decisions without prayer or facts. Don’t settle for the first one or two reasons – keep digging. Kids leave because of parents comments, parents make comments because of the past 40 years of a youth ministry model – these don’t go deep enough. I don’t know they why but i know this isn’t deep enough. This is opinion and some ancedotal observations.

    I love that you took the mic rather than sit in silence. I don’t know that i agree with your point yet i applaud that you voiced your thoughts.

    The title of the panel said it was to discuss differences. It’s not up to the panel to correct – the panel is there to foster discussion. Paul’s comment about it would never happen at Harding is disconcerting. I would hope that there would be open discussions at any university, a free exchange of ideas.

    I look forward to more discussions on this.

  9. Jeff

    Amen brother…preach on. I am so concerned about our youth as they leave the safety of the Legacy family. I wonder if they know what they believe and why they believe it. I wonder if they can rightly handle the word of truth. Are they prepared to give the reason for the hope they have? Can they do so with gentleness and respect?

    I have long thought that we teach our youth how to act but not what to believe. They love God and worship with passion…fantastic. But can they defend the faith?

  10. Vanessa

    I have many thoughts and some strong opinions on what you have said. Some I really need to mull over for a few days. As you go through the week, I am sure that I will have more to say. I am in that 40+ age group, and grew up in a church that did not have a paid youth minister. Our parents and some greatly loved adults were our ‘leaders’. We did not wait for them to plan and cater to us – we stayed together as a group because we had relationships that carried us through. We still have reunions today. I learned the right way to live and act from my parents and from other parents. However, I have to admit that I really did not find my own faith until I left college. I went to church, I went to a Christian College, and knew all the reasons to be a believer, and knew that I believed – but it wasn’t until later that I truly found my own faith. I am amazed at how many of our children have their own faith as teenagers, and I pray that they will hold on to that. For every one that has their own faith, there are two more that are there for the activities and the fellowship. I don’t know that this is a bad thing. A lot of being a teenager is making the right choices. It makes it easier when you keep the right company. Sometimes even when you teach your child the way, they still make the wrong choices. I do believe that part of the youth minister’s job is to help build and improve relationships between the kids and their parents, as well as in the youth group itself. I think Jason and Lance are now trying to do this, but they can’t do it by themselves, and they can’t do it when some parents carry more “say” than others. All parents should be encouraged to participate. I really enjoyed being upstairs in the attic for their worship time. It gave me a different perspective, and all parents should be encouraged to participate in this way.
    I do think the kids should have a combination of combined worship and separate worship. This allows them to address issues that are so prevalent and important to them – that are not addressed directly in the general assembly. The things that they face at school, and on the street every day are different than what we faced. That is not to say that they will not benefit from the general assembly. They need time to build relationships, build their own faith – earlier than many of us did. You bring up some interesting points and I look forward to reading as we go through the week. I hope all parents of teenagers will be open to the discussion and to having a part in the youth program every day.

  11. Joseph

    as both a youth worker and one who has been raised by youth programs in California. I have personally seen the destructive nature of this way of youth ministry. To allow youth (14-18) to raise and sustain the spiritual status quo of other youth is not good nor Godly. I’m sorry, i have been in college ministry at Montana State University through the AIM program and know that most college students don’t know what ministry is let alone what true church is.

    I Believe that you have hit the nail on the head with this one. when Gibby told me to read this i thought i would also get hot blooded over this. however, I am more on fire to change my perspective from youth ministry to FAMILY ministry.

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