In the early 1970s, Southern Baptists saw the number of teenagers baptized in SBC churches soar to an all-time high of nearly 138,000. It was the height of the so-called Jesus Movement. Before long, youth ministry was a booming track in local churches and a booming business for parachurch organizations and Christian publishers.
Thirty-five years later, the number of youth baptisms has slipped to 81,000 while the number of trained youth workers has increased. Half of all SBC churches–more than 20,000?did not baptize even one teenager last year. And among those who are active in youth ministry, most are absent from church only a year after high school graduation.
“The time has come for an audit of our ministries,” declared one of six panelists assembled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in December to examine the condition of youth ministry. Some of what was shared could be said of church ministry in general–concern for a lack of discipleship, dependence upon God, and even a return to doctrinal soundness.
“It is a crucial time for us to face reality,” said Jim Richards, executive director of the forum sponsor, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. “I am convinced beyond any doubt that we are in a crisis moment in Southern Baptist life in particular, and evangelicals in general. We are desperate before the Lord and any solution will be spiritual,” he added.
“God works through people and a plan and he will use the sorting out of methods to bring us to a place where we can be what he wants us to be in this spiritual restoration and awakening,” Richards said.
Facing those hard facts was a panel with varied experience as youth pastors, Christian education professors who train youth ministers, and curricula and conference developers who equip them with resources.
SBTC Youth Evangelism Associate Brad Bunting set the stage, citing often-repeated statistics from a 2006 Barna study and a study from LifeWay Christian Resources indicating from 75 to 88 percent of students going through youth ministry now “will check out of church during their freshman year of college.”
Bunting added, “Not only are we not reaching in the way God called us to do, we’re not retaining youth that we do reach. Something is not working.”
“It’s a double-edged sword,” explained Alvin Reid, evangelism professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of “Raising the Bar” and other books on evangelism. Having watched youth ministry grow out of the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Reid said many were won to Christ at a time when parents and youths were alienated.
“That helped create a culture that called for youth pastors,” he added.
And yet, at a time when the number of youth ministers is at an all-time high, the amount of youth participation is in decline.
“Because of the large numbers [of new converts], we institutionalized youth ministries,” Reid said, turning a movement into a program to sustain. “It’s really ironic when you think about it.”
“If programs could change the world, we’d have changed the world,” Reid said. “They haven’t and they won’t.”
Instead, said Reid, who has studied occurrences of spiritual awakening throughout history, only a movement of God provides an answer for increased baptisms that represent changed lives in Southern Baptist life.
Of the 24 pastors giving eyewitness accounts of the churches that exploded with growth during the Great Awakening of the 18th century, Reid said 22 talked about the role of youth specifically, most of them crediting the response of that age group with such dramatic change.
Reid questioned today’s paradigm for youth ministry, encouraging transitions from activities to life change, programs to passion, institutions to mission and from protecting children to building an army to engage the culture.
“We are not even preparing them for their first year of college, much less for life,” Reid lamented.
Jeff Pratt, managing editor of student ministry materials at LifeWay Christian Resources and formerly associated with InQuest Ministries, admitted that any business that operated on a 20 percent success rate would be in trouble. “Are we developing student ministries or are we developing students?” he asked the panelists, audience of more than 750 and 311 viewing a webcast of the event.
During his own college years, anywhere from 75 to 200 young people gathered regularly for a Bible study in a field, Pratt said. Today, he isn’t sure where such gatherings may be found, he said.
Johnny Derouen, a professor of youth ministry at Southwestern, shared similar concerns.
“I became a Christian at a time in youth ministry when we knew nothing at all. Youth were getting saved at a higher rate than ever. Now we know more and are losing our youth.”
Looking back on his salvation experience, Derouen recalled a dependence on youth volunteers who lacked the training available today.
“The church didn’t know any better so they did it themselves. But the fruit was those who stayed strong. When they were taught well, it carried through.”
Derouen called for ministers to examine the purity of their own lives.
“If your walk is impure you lose the ability to hear God’s direction for your ministry. So many ministers are so busy programming, writing talks or designing things that they sacrifice time with the Lord.”
“Their ministries are defined by what they are doing,” added Eric Bancroft, associate pastor for youth at Grace Community church in Sun Valley, Calif., and a professor at The Master’s College. “They started chasing all those activities and didn’t connect with the why of what they’re doing,” he said, speaking of generations of youth ministers who just kept reproducing themselves—following the example of how their youth ministers conducted their work—sometimes getting better and sometimes worse.
“It’s not intentional, but [current youth ministers] don’t have the desire or ability to do theological reflection,” Reid added.
“It’s like a VCR tape that gets recorded over and over and loses its quality,” added Mark Matlock, founder of WisdomWorks and a frequent speaker and author on youth ministry.
Reid said youth ministers tend to seek the proverbial flavor of the month, seeking the coolest speaker, coolest band with the best poster and best stuff.
“It’s so counter to the book of Acts where they never had an event where they invited anyone to anything. They just went to where the people were, showed up because God was there—a very different culture form where we are.”
Bancroft hammered home his concern that youth ministers “have little or no understanding of theology” and must return to the centrality of Scripture for their focus.
“They may be very creative and have a lot of programs, but as we’ve heard, they’re making very little impact,” Bancroft observed.
Derouen sees that as the natural result of substituting activity for a movement of God. While assuming that buildings, money and youth ministers can do the job, Derouen said he believes God is waiting for them to recognize they are bankrupt until they call on God to step in.
Bancroft said the decline in ongoing church participation by formerly involved students reveals a more basic problem—a large number of false professions of faith during childhood and teenage years.
“Have we contributed to this false assurance of salvation? Is it possible we’ve replaced the gospel with morality?” he asked, referring to talks on avoiding sex before marriage and saying no to drugs without spiritual transformation.
“Much of what passes for teaching today is nothing more than lessons on morality that further insulates our need for the gospel, the message of a Savior saving sinners. Without candid talk about sin there will be no need for a Savior.”
Otherwise, Bancroft said, students think they have graduated from church when they graduate from high school.
“Pastors have sounded the alarm that not everyone in the visible church is part of the invisible church—the Body of Christ. That’s true of teenagers as well. By the time of the early teen years to the mid-20s, we see the overwhelming amount of response to the gospel and I say amen to that, but we also see the largest amount of false professions.”
For some teenagers, their baptismal experience is more comparable to earning an AWANA badge, Bancroft said. “I’m concerned that we hold it in such low esteem.”
He cautioned against baptizing teenagers apart from an assembly of the congregation where the church body assumes responsibility for the new believer’s spiritual growth in addition to the parents.
“There is no New Testament pattern at all of being a leader that is not connected by baptism,” Ross said, emphasizing the importance of baptizing into the local church every teenager who comes to faith in Christ.
Bubba Thurman, youth minister at LakePointe Church in Rockwall, said he sees a shift in how the gospel is preached.
“At certain points we’ve bought into this mentality that sharing the gospel is offensive.” If such straight talk causes kids to leave, the youth minister fears his job is in jeopardy, Thurman added.
In 16 years he said he’s seen a move away from the kind of clarity of the gospel to which Bancroft referred.
“The lost art of an invitation has an impact on how we do evangelism. You can’t compromise on that issue when you talk about being biblical.”
Often the most discouraging influence is a parent, said Reid, describing a parental mindset that equates the center of God’s will with physical safety and comfort.
“That’s kinda hard to tell a martyr,” he responded. And yet parents worry that efforts to reach kids with earrings and Goth clothing might corrupt their kids, he said.
Many of the panelists emphasized the need to equip students to share their faith and engage the culture from a Christian worldview.
Reid said one constant of his involvement in leading “Disciple Now” conferences is witnessing on Saturday afternoon. He said he often finds that students like that experience more than any part of the weekend retreat.
Derouen said he worries that most Christian teenagers view sharing their faith as little more than an occasional event staged at a mall or bringing their friends to an evangelistic event. Instead, he said, it should grow naturally from the believer’s life.
Pratt responded, “The best evangelism strategy is found in Scripture. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Evangelist and author Voddie Baucham, pastor of Houston-area Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring said he encourages families in his church to practice hospitality.
“Overwhelm your neighbors with biblical hospitality,” he said.
As heads of households are reached, families are transformed, he explained. When unsaved teenagers visit his church, Baucham sees families drawing them into their times of prayer.
“Instead of going off with a bunch of other teenagers, they’re with one of our families. They’re watching me as a father, weeping before my family, making things right before we go before the Lord’s table,” Baucham said.
Lost young people will be attracted to grace-filled churches, add Richard Ross, Christian education professor at Southwestern, founder of the True Love Waits abstinence strategy and an advocate of equipping parents to disciple their children.
“Right now if we see a kid [at church] smoking behind the gym, the upsetting fact is we’ve taken a deacon’s smoking spot and that’s a crisis,” said Ross, prompting laughter from the audience. “The other part of that is the issue of parents who are desperately trying to create a perfectly safe environment for their kids.”
He encouraged pastors to clearly communicate that church is a “safe haven for broken people.”
Several panelists expressed the need to better integrate teenagers into the life of the church, moving away from many age-segregated meetings. Derouen added that a weakness of the emerging church models is that they fail to integrate all ages.
Matlock said the findings of the Barna study are often misapplied, explaining that the reference to losing a high number of teenagers does not mean they have turned their back on Christ.
“They’ve just turned their back on the congregational model as the place to experience transformation,” said Matlock, calling that a paradigm people are questioning around the world.
Agreeing that the study must be reviewed carefully, Ross said: “Are there students who reject congregational church life and stay connected in an intimate walk with him? Yes. But there are large numbers who walk away from anything that looks like faith.”
He directed the audience to further research indicating that the time when young adults start having babies is “the moment that has the most powerful, potential motivation for them to become extablished in church for the sake of their children.”
“I don’t know how your faith grows without fellowship with other believers,” Matlock said.
“One of the ways of keeping them is immersing them in the total life of the church and not just a part of it,” Ross added while citing the research of Southwestern Seminary professor Wes Black, which affirms that Christian young people are sustained through relationships.
“The four-million-dollar building is almost the final nail in the coffin,” Ross added, alluding to large student ministry facilities that often isolate teens from the rest of the church. Ross proposed returning to the kind of accountability present in a country church where the occasionally absent teenager was confronted by several adults inquiring about his welfare the next Sunday.
“If we want to produce teenagers to look like teenagers, then keepthem together,” Baucham said. “If we want them to be men, then model for them what we expect them to become.”
Derouen and other noted that ministry tailored to teens is not explicit in Scripture.
“You will not find teenagers in the Bible. When they were 12 they were treated as adults,” Derouen said.
He encouraged church leaders to train teenaers to be a part of committees in order to learn the process of decision-making and leadership.
“Have them on committees, being memtored, involved in how the church is run so they don’t quit [the church] when things don’t go their way,” he advised.
If the gathered church is to display God’s glory, segregating teenagers from that larger body gives a mixed message, Bancroft added.
“Attendance at church is optional at best,” in such cases, he said. “If it is only the youth group that a teenager connects with, then he is sure to disappear when he’s gone. Any ministry that isolates youth is a ministry that is swimming upstream when it comes to the Bible.”
But efforts intended to bring parents and teenagers together often do not work, Matlock argued, recalling joint events planned at his church recently. “It’s a hard sell.”
However, Derouen recalled a recent conversation he overheard between an 80-year-old church member who told a teenager, “I don’t love your songs, but I’ll sing yours if you’ll sing mine. Let’s do it together.”
In one respect, kids in manyt youth ministries are demonstrating better character and more lasting commitment than in the past, said Thurman.
“I’ve got kids leading worship, music, going on mission,” Thurman said. “That’s their focus and absolutely their passion.”
The difference between today and yesteryear is the huge distance between those committed to being on mission as a way of life, and those lacking any spiritual interest, he added.
“The bad kids are worse than they’ve ever been, but the good kids are greater than they’ve ever been,” Thurman said.
In his work in a parachurch ministry, Matlock said he is careful not to go around youth pastors and parents to get to students.
“We think the local church has to be the way of God accomplishing his kingdom on earth. Events are not primary to a student’s experience,” he said.
He even questions the need for a specialized youth ministry in the local church. At the Houston church he planted, the congregation has no intention of having a youth ministry or hiring a youth minister he said, because “no exegetical source exists that would even allude to the concept.”
While stopping short of calling youth ministry “heretical,” Baucham said it is by no means essential to a biblically structured church.
“Instead, we have limited, strategic, biblical leadership,” he explained. “We expect our families to have family worship—Bible reading in their homes.”
He said he finds biblical support for church leaders holding families “accountable for what the Bible has called them to do and not do it in their stead.”
“If we really want a lot of this to shift like we say, then a lot of people are not going to be making money like they are today when parents and local churches assume their roles,” Pratt said.
Away-from-church experiences ought to be an extension of the ministry of the local church, Pratt said, rather than “usurping” what the local church ought to be doing.” And yet, the desire for resources and experiences that lead to spiritual growth has funded what one panelist estimated to be a billion-dollar industry.
Bancroft has readjusted his focus, he said, to training young people to study the Bible for themselves.
“I felt their quiet time was based on the latest devotional book you handed out, and that’s not equipping the saints. So I went back and I’m actually training them to study the Bible—through observation, interpretation, and application—trusting the work of the Spirit of God.”
Reid said he finds plenty of biblical evidence of positive outcomes in the lives of young teenagers.
“It’s amazing how many people in the Bible God used while they were young,” he said, adding that the problem occurred largely when teenagers are not challenged.
“They need to be challenged to share their faith, pray, do deep, to worship. Teens are learning trigonometry and winning Olympic gold medals. Give them theology,” Reid pleaded.
Noting that America is ripe for revival, Ross said he expects the younger generation to be the most likely leaders of such awakening.
“Pastors and parents falling on their knees, praying to God—until then it’s not going to happen,” Derouen added.
“For us to think somehow by programming we can replicate [fervent prayer] is foolishness,” Ross said. Instead, student ministry should be shaped by those things God requires for him to move. “God can accomplish more in your student ministry in 15 minutes than three years of hard work, so why don’t you get on your knees?”