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Youth Ministry in Decline?

USA Today ran a piece on youth ministry yesterday, ominously titled ‘Forget pizza parties,’ teens tell churches. As I read it, I found myself intermittently nodding my head in agreement and being frustrated (and even angry) about the poor assumptions peppered throughout the article (both by those they quote and by the article’s writer). There are some absurd jumps in logic, and unfortunately, some finger pointing at straw men.

Here are the first couple paragraphs:

“Bye-bye church. We’re busy.” That’s the message teens are giving churches today. Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading, and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, California, evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school year youth groups kick in.

The article goes on to blame parents (well, the executive pastor of a church, quoted in the article, blames parents), Facebook (a quote from Dave Kinniman of Barna Research), “the overcommitted teens themselves,” and the recession (a quote from a camp director), and wraps up with this one-off quote from an 18 year old (which is presented as if it’s a new thing or an archetype):

Sam Atkeson of Falls Church, VA, left his Episcopal church youth group not long after leaving middle school. “I started to question if it was something I always wanted to do, or if I just went because my friends did,” says Atkeson, now 18. “It just wasn’t really something I wanted to continue to do. My beliefs changed. I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian anymore.”

In fact, the only person in the article who seems to admit it might be our own fault (“our” meaning the church and those of us who lead youth ministries) is Thom Rainer from LifeWay.

My second thought (the first being how the article names the problem but misses the point): why are we always so dang quick to point our fingers at everyone and everything else? When will we have the humility to point that accusing finger at ourselves?

I sure would have enjoyed seeing a quote from a youth pastor or church leader or ministry expert who said something like, “Well, to be honest, we dropped the ball. It’s our fault. Culture has changed, and teenagers have changed, and we’ve still been rolling along with our same ol’ lame pizza parties and camps, pretending it’s 1982. I hope this is a ‘better late than never’ situation where our desire to change and find new ways to engage today’s teenagers with the love of Jesus will still find purchase. We’ve stumbled, but our calling is unshaken.”

That would have been cool.

Yup, pizza parties probably aren’t gonna cut it anymore. Maybe camps need to be heartily rethought through a painful process of death and rebirth. And, sure, there’s still going to be that post middle school teen who stops coming (geez, what’s new there?). Maybe the youth pastor who’s building “the Marine Corps of Christianity” is right (or maybe not).

But sumpin’s gotta change. And — all around me, in my interactions with youth workers, every day — I see it changing.

I have not lost hope.

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Mark Oestreicher is a 30-year veteran of youth ministry, and the former President of Youth Specialties. Marko has written or contributed to more than 50 books, including the much-talked-about Youth Ministry 3.0. Marko is a speaker, author, consultant, and leads the Youth Ministry Coaching Program.