They’re falling away from the Church in droves, but what actually keeps youth grounded in their faith and committed to regular church fellowship?
One high school pastor recognizes the modern-day dilemma Christian parents find themselves in when they desperately ask him with tear-filled eyes, “What do we do about our kids?”
“[T]hey weren't talking about 16-year-olds drinking and partying,” The Gospel Coalition Contributor Jon Nielson shared. “Each had a story to tell about a ‘good Christian’ child, raised in their home and in our church, who had walked away from the faith during the college years.”
And these youth weren’t just showing up to church once a week — they were involved.
“These children had come through our church's youth program, gone on short-term mission trips, and served in several different ministries during their teenage years,” Nielson pointed out. “Now they didn't want anything to do with it anymore.”
Nielson insists that parent-implemented temporary patches and retroactive attempts to bring young college adults back into the fold are futile.
“[T]hese mothers' ideas for our church to send college students ‘care packages’ during their freshman year to help them feel connected to the church didn't strike me as a solution with quite enough depth,” Nielson added.
But is there a real call for alarm? Statistics presented by Nielson indicate “yes,” pointing to some of the latest major research since the turn of the century highlighting the percentage of youth leaving the Church.
These studies conducted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Family Life Council, LifeWay Research, the Assembly of God and The Barna Group show that between 88 and 61 percent of youth end up walking away from the church around their late teens or shortly thereafter. Furthermore, UCLA”s Higher Education Research Institute divulged that 52 percent of college students attended church regularly before their freshman year — a number that dropped to 29 percent by their junior year. Similarly, 40 to 50 percent of students participating in church youth groups struggle with their faith after graduation, according to the Fuller Youth Institute’s College Transition Project.
Looking past those falling away, Nielson focused on the former students who stuck with the Church to see what the ministries in their lives did right to keep them anchored in their faith and fellowship.
“[W]e can all look at the 20-somethings in our churches who are engaged and involved in ministry [and see] what … sets apart the kids who stay in the church,” Nielson said.
Nielson highlights three main observations he discovered about successfully churched youth that can help younger generations stay anchored in the Word and connected to the Church.
True conversion to Christ?
The first distinguishing characteristic of youth solidly anchored in the church is that they are converted.
“The apostle Paul, interestingly enough, doesn't use phrases like ‘nominal Christian’ or ‘pretty good kid,” Nielson points out. “The Bible doesn't seem to mess around with platitudes like: ‘Yeah, it's a shame he did that, but he's got a good heart.’ When we listen to the witness of Scripture, particularly on the topic of conversion, we find that there is very little wiggle room. Listen to these words: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). We youth pastors need to get back to understanding salvation as what it really is: a miracle that comes from the glorious power of God through the working of the Holy Spirit. We need to stop talking about ‘good kids.’”
Nielson has a few words of advice for fellow youth pastors across the nation …
“We need to stop being pleased with attendance at youth group and fun retreats,” Nielson implored. “We need to start getting on our knees and praying that the Holy Spirit will do miraculous saving work in the hearts of our students as the Word of God speaks to them. In short, we need to get back to a focus on conversion. How many of us are preaching to ‘unconverted evangelicals?’ Youth pastors, we need to preach, teach, and talk — all the while praying fervently for the miraculous work of regeneration to occur in the hearts and souls of our students by the power of the Holy Spirit! When that happens — when the ‘old goes’ and the ‘new comes ‘— it will not be iffy. We will not be dealing with a group of ‘nominal Christians.’ We will be ready to teach, disciple, and equip a generation of future church leaders — ‘new creations!” — who are hungry to know and speak God's Word. It is converted students who go on to love Jesus and serve the church.”
Equipped … notentertained
The second facet of solidly anchored youth’s spiritual experience is that “they have been equipped — not entertained,” says Nielson
“Recently, we had ‘man day’ with some of the guys in our youth group,” Nielson shared. “We began with an hour of basketball at the local park, moved to an intense game of 16” (‘Chicago Style’) softball, and finished the afternoon by gorging ourselves on meaty pizzas and 2-liters of soda. I am not against fun (or gross, depending on your opinion of the afternoon I just described) things in youth ministry. But youth pastors especially need to keep repeating the words of Ephesians 4:11-12 to themselves: ‘[Christ] gave . . . the teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.’ Christ gives us — teachers — to the church, not for entertainment, encouragement, examples, or even friendship primarily. He gives us to the church to ‘equip’ the saints to do Gospel ministry, in order that the church of Christ may be built up.”
Nielson asserts that it’s largely youth ministry leaders’ failure to emphasize the crucial need for Christians to spread God’s Word that ends up breaking down their faith because it’s pooling up like the Dead Sea instead of flowing out to touch others.
“If I have not equipped the students in my ministry to share the Gospel, disciple a younger believer, and lead a Bible study, then I have not fulfilled my calling to them, no matter how good my sermons have been,” says Nielson, who is also the college pastor at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. “We pray for conversion; that is all we can do, for it is entirely a gracious gift of God. But after conversion, it is our Christ-given duty to help fan into flame a faith that serves, leads, teaches and grows. If our students leave high school without Bible-reading habits, Bible-study skills, and strong examples of discipleship and prayer, we have lost them. We have entertained, not equipped them . . . and it may indeed be time to panic!”
The youth pastor exhorted other youth leaders to make their kids independent so that they can lead down the road without adult guidance.
“Forget your youth programs for a second,” Nielson insisted. “Are we sending out from our ministries the kind of students who will show up to college in a different state, join a church, and begin doing the work of Gospel ministry there without ever being asked? Are we equipping them to that end, or are we merely giving them a good time while they're with us? We don't need youth group junkies; we need to be growing churchmen and churchwomen who are equipped to teach, lead, and serve. Put your youth ministry strategies aside as you look at that 16-year-old young man and ask: ‘How can I spend four years with this kid, helping him become the best church deacon and sixth-grade Sunday school class teacher he can be, years down the road?’”
And finally, Nielson stresses that those sticking with the church after their youth hears had parents who preached the Gospel to them.
“As a youth pastor, I can't do all this — [a]ll this equipping that I'm talking about is utterly beyond my limited capabilities,” Nielson contends. “It is impossible for me to bring conversion, of course, but it is also impossible for me to have an equipping ministry that sends out vibrant churchmen and churchwomen if my ministry is not being reinforced tenfold in the students' homes. The common thread that binds together almost every ministry-minded 20-something that I know is abundantly clear: a home where the Gospel was not peripheral but absolutely central.”
Nielson argues that firm and loving leadership at home is essential to keep kids rooted in their faith into adulthood.
“The 20-somethings who are serving, leading, and driving the ministries at our church were kids whose parents made them go to church,” Nielson continued. “They are kids whose parents punished them and held them accountable when they were rebellious. They are kids whose parents read the Bible around the dinner table every night. And they are kids whose parents were tough, but who ultimately operated from a framework of grace that held up the cross of Jesus as the basis for peace with God and forgiveness toward one another.”
Even though this godly parenting leads youth in the right direction, there are no guarantees such a domestic spiritual environment will produce the youth firmly rooted in their faith.
“This is not a formula! Kids from wonderful Gospel-centered homes leave the church; people from messed-up family backgrounds find eternal life in Jesus and have beautiful marriages and families,” Nielson concedes. “But it's also not a crap-shoot. In general, children who are led in their faith during their growing-up years by parents who love Jesus vibrantly, serve their church actively, and saturate their home with the Gospel completely, grow up to love Jesus and the church. The words of Proverbs 22:6 do not constitute a formula that is true 100 percent of the time, but they do provide us with a principle that comes from the gracious plan of God, the God who delights to see his gracious Word passed from generation to generation: ‘Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.’”
He leaves parents and fellow colleagues across the nation with a few words of biblical advice.
“Youth pastors, pray with all your might for true conversion; that is God's work,” Nielson concludes. “Equip the saints for the work of the ministry; that is your work. Parents, preach the Gospel and live the Gospel for your children; our work depends on you.”