We are seeing more and more students “drop out” from church after high school. The largest drop happens from the ages of 17 to 19 according to Christianity Today.
This isn’t just a recent phenomenon; according to Pew Research, each generation starting with the “Greatest Generation” leading to the “Millennial Generation” has decreased in church attendance. And the future doesn’t look a whole lot brighter! With each generation leaving in droves, what can the church do to stop the bleeding?
As youth pastors and leaders we find ourselves on the front lines of this decline. I’ll be honest, at times I feel like I’m banging my head against a proverbial brick wall when it comes to getting students to stay in church.
What I began to realize was that my youth ministry was focused on guilting church kids into staying in church. What a horrible way to operate! We weren’t bringing in any new guests, we weren’t retaining any students past high school, but what we were seeing more and more of was students “drop out” on a regular basis, escaping the clutches of my guilt ridden speeches.
So I decided that I was going to reevaluate everything. Nothing was off the table! From my speaking and sermon prep to the lights on stage. From that old ping-pong table that seemed to gather more hats and empty soda cans than returned volleys, to the way I lead my counselors and the vision I cast to them. Everything was evaluated.
I was going to look at everything and evaluate it through one lens: Is what I’m doing leading students to a greater love for Christ?
Too often I have emphasized church attendance, morals, and pizza parties over the saving grace of Jesus. And the worst part is I didn’t even realize it.
Once I began to evaluate everything through this lens, we realized there were many things we did unknowingly to push kids out of our youth group.
We saw that we didn’t do an effective job of discipleship. The reason we didn’t have any new guests was because we didn’t have an environment a guest would like to be at. Go figure! We realized that our programing was boring. And worst of all I realized my speaking was not making Jesus glorious or relevant to my students lives. What a sobering conclusion to reach.
So we changed! This may sound like a no-brainer but how often had I known a problem, seen a possible solution but was to afraid to commit to it?
I was tired of doing church! I needed more of Jesus!
We made two bullseyes for our youth ministry and said if we are going to be an effective youth ministry we need to do two things. If we accomplish these two things we will be effective.
1. Have a discipleship model that leads students to a greater love with Jesus.
2. Have an environment friends want to bring their friends to.
We got rid of what we did on both Sundays and Wednesdays! We decided that Wednesday was the best day for our students to invite guests so we designed an environment where it was all about seeing their friends come and hear about Jesus. We poured our money, time, and effort into making sure we had an inviting environment that allowed new students to feel welcome and comfortable. I focused my sermons on the grace of Jesus and his love for sinful broken humanity. This was now our audience!
We decided that in order for us to have the most effective discipleship program we needed to meet away from church. Crazy, right!? We saw that our counselors were more effective when they invited students into their homes. This change alone brought down many walls that students kept up while inside the church building. I got to really know my students and what they were going through, not just their latest high score in Call of Duty. This home environment allowed our counselors to focus our students on what was talked about during our Wednesday night service and allowed our students to not only internalize the message but talk through how they could apply it in their own lives. Suddenly, there was multiple reenforcement of the message and a greater chance for a lesson to stick.
We saw our Sunday mornings turn into an opportunity for our students to serve in varies areas of the church, getting them outside of their normal youth bubble and see that the can serve and be used right now.
For too long I was not willing to look at myself and my programing as the reasons my youth ministry was dying a slow and miserable death. It was not until I took everything off the table and looked through this lens, that things began to change. When we make Jesus glorious in everything we do, God draws students to himself. Lets get out of Jesus’ way and let Jesus draw people to Himself.
- Ben Schenck