Christian Teens Abandon Faith Because of Youth Groups, Not Despite Them

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, Oct. 22, 2013 /Christian Newswire/ — A new study might reveal why a majority of Christian teens abandon their faith upon high school graduation.  Some time ago Christian pollster George Barna documented that 61% of today’s twenty-somethings, who had been churched at one point during their teen years, are now spiritually disengaged.  They do not attend church, read their Bible, or pray.

According to a new 5-week, 3-question national survey sponsored by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC), the youth group itself is the problem.  55% of American Christians are concerned with modern youth ministry because it’s too shallow, too entertainment focused, resulting in an inability to train mature believers.  But, even if church youth groups had the gravitas of Dallas Theological Seminary, 36% of today’s believers are convinced that youth groups themselves are not even Biblical.

The survey participants were among the 4 million believers who saw the web banner on America’s top 14 Christian websites including ChristianPost.com, WorldMag.com, BibleStudyTools.com, ChristianRadio.com, Christianity.com, Crosscards.com, Crosswalk.com, Godtube.com, GodVine.com, iBelieve.com, Jesus.org, OnePlace.com, LightSource.com, and ReligionToday.com.  Plus, an additional 290,000 Christians received a direct email invitation to participate.

After answering the 3-questions at www.YouthGroupSurvey.com, each survey participant received NCFIC Director Scott Brown’s e-book entitled “Weed in the Church: How A Culture of Age Segregation is Destroying the Younger Generation, Fragmenting the Family and Harming Church” as well as access to the 50-minute-long documentary entitled Divided: Is Modern Youth Ministry Multiplying or Dividing the Church?  (Divided has been viewed by 200,000 people.)

The survey is still active on-line through Friday, November 8, 2013.

Adam McManus, a spokesman for the NCFIC, is not surprised by the church’s deep concerns about youth groups.

“Today’s church has created peer dependency,” said McManus. “The inherent result of youth groups is that teenagers in the church are focused on their peers, not their parents or their pastors.  It’s a foreign sociology that leads to immaturity, a greater likelihood of sexual activity, drug experimentation, and a rejection of the authority of the Word of God. Proverbs 13:20 says, ‘He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.’  The result is that the youth stumble, they can’t see beyond their noses, and spiritual adolescence is prolonged well into adulthood.  It’s crippling the body of Christ.  That’s why it’s time to return to the Biblical paradigm and throw out the youth group structure entirely.”

Here are the results:

1. Are church “youth group” programs a Biblical way to reach young people?

  • 37% said “No”
  • 36% said “Yes”
  • 26% said “It’s complicated.”

2. Does modern youth ministry concern you?

  • 14% said “Yes, we are losing our kids and it’s clearly not working to train mature believers.”
  • 9% said “Yes, it’s too shallow and entertainment focused.”
  • 55% said “Yes, because of both A and B.”
  • 22% said “No. It’s not perfect, but it’s striving to relevantly communicate the Gospel.”

3. Does the Bible give clear direction and boundaries for discipling youth in the church?

  • 15% said “No, The Bible gives us the Gospel, but how to reach youth with it is up to us.”
  • 28% said, “Yes, but there is a lot of flexibility since it doesn’t say much.”
  • 57% said “Yes, the Bible gives us all the direction we need to disciple youth and constrains us from using worldly innovations.”

“I am greatly encouraged by the results of our survey,” said McManus.  “American Christians are finally waking up to the disconnect between the clear teaching in Scripture in favor of family-integration and the modern-day church’s obsession with dividing the family at every turn. Age segregation, especially during the tender and impactful teenage years, not only hasn’t worked, it’s been detrimental. Even worse, it is contrary to the Bible.  But the good news is that practices in the churches related to youth groups are changing dramatically.  Twenty years ago no one was even asking this question.”

McManus cited the following Scriptures to document his contention that it’s God’s will for the church to embrace the Biblical model of families staying together in the service as the Word of God is preached: Deuteronomy 16:9-14, Joshua 8:34-35, Ezra 10:1, 2 Chronicles.20:13, Nehemiah 12:43 and Joel 2:15-16

“Our fervent prayer is that God will raise up Spirit-filled, Bible preaching, Christ-centered, family-integrated assemblies from the ashes of our man-centered, family-fragmenting churches,” said McManus.

“Plus, the church needs to begin to equip Christian fathers to communicate the Gospel to their families,” said McManus.  “Today, Christian parents are beginning to realize that they have not fulfilled their spiritual duties by simply dropping off their kiddos to Sunday School and youth group, allowing other parents to disciple their children by proxy.  Let’s not forget the powerful words spoken by Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4-7, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’  It is the parents’ primary obligation to disciple their own children, impressing God’s commandments upon them in the home on a daily basis.”

Cameron Cole, the youth group director at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, said, “There is a propensity in our culture to outsource the development of our children.  For intellectual development, we send them to school. For athletic development, we send them to Little League.  And for spiritual formation, we send them to youth group.  The church has done a poor job of communicating to the parents that they are the primary discipler of their children.  Parents don’t believe this, but the reality is that kids listen to their parents far more than they’re going to  listen to a youth minister.”

“It’s time for the Christian father to take the central role which God has ordained,” said McManus.  “Gathered around the dining room table, the father needs to lead Family Worship once again which had been standard behavior for a vibrant American Christian family for hundreds of years dating back to the Plymouth, Massachusetts colony of 1620.  Dad needs to read from and discuss the Bible, sing Christian songs and pray with his family, his little flock over which God has appointed him shepherd.  Frankly, I’m not as concerned about what happens in Sunday School in church, as I am with what happens in ‘Monday School’ and ‘Tuesday School’ at home with the family.”

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11 Responses to “Christian Teens Abandon Faith Because of Youth Groups, Not Despite Them”

  1. Pastor K

    I’ll stick with Scripture – parents are to train up their children in the ways of the Lord and the pastors are to correct, rebuke and exhort. Senior pastors are not doing their job if the youth groups are toxic. Maybe they’re too busy with the tithe payers…oh yes, that would be the parents. We cannot afford to offend them.

  2. Making a second post to make a separate point. The authors also make another fundamental mistake. Association does not equal causation, or just because two things coincide, it does not automatically follow that there is a cause/effect relationship between the two.

    They are focusing on a VERY IMPORTANT PROBLEM in the 21st century church–youth that graduate and abandon the faith (or at least church). I know of many churches, including ours that are very successful in producing vibrant mature faith in our youth that has played out for generations–and they have youth groups. So how do the authors account for that? Is it the way we organize, or the way we disciple? See knowing many of those churches successful with youth I think both can contribute, but would say it has a lot more to do with the latter.

  3. There are some good points here, but also many I think are wrong, overstated, and not supported by the facts in evidence. Let’s be clear, this survey was designed by and conducted by people who ALREADY had a specific opinion on the subject and they are essentially using the results to buttress their opinions, even going as far as to project onto the survey respondents thoughts and opinions that may not be there. I believe these folks are sincere and have something to offer. I just think there are flaws in their methodology due to their zeal that they have the answers. Here is an example.

    The authors of the survey obviously believe that if a method cannot be found in the Bible it should not be done. That’s their opinion. I know many other sincere and mature Christians who see in the Bible a God whose methods vary, but principles remain eternal. The point? When 37% of respondents say church youth groups are not Biblical that does NOT mean (as the authors contend) that church youth groups is not A valid method for discipleship of youth. Their bias colors the interpretation of the results and projects thoughts and opinions onto the survey respondents that cannot be known.

  4. Parents need to take responsibility in discipling their teenagers. A valid point, for sure.
    But to place all of the responsibility for teens’ spiritual lives on the family, and to place much of the blame on the youth group when things go wrong? This doesn’t seem fair or realistic to me.

    First of all, whether they’re slacking in their duties and just handing off their kids to the church, or whether they’re simply not believers, the fact is that not all parents have taken the initiative here. So what can we, who are in the church, do?

    Second, youth group should complement (not replace) things like family interaction and discipleship relationships? Is it the youth leaders’ fault if people are expecting them to single-handedly raise up spiritually mature young people? (Like Josh said below, “youth ministry is to be a resource, not a lifestyle”.)

    Third, while nothing can replace a godly, mature influence in one’s life, it seems that McManus is disregarding the value of peer interaction. Teens are obviously going to interact with unchurched peers at work and school; could they not benefit from having spiritually strong peers (or slightly-older friends) as well to support them?

  5. It would seem that the irony of using the internet to proclaim that the Bible constrains us from using “worldly innovations” was lost on 57% of those surveyed.

    The article isn’t entirely wrong, but McManus sure seems to have some rose-tinted glasses. To hear his conclusions one would almost imagine that America was in a religious golden age until some well-intentioned but misguided individual started up youth groups, which then led to our society fracturing.

    Ultimately the issue I have with things like this is that it makes Christianity a sort of instilling of moral values, as though people will become followers of Christ if only we do a good enough job in teaching them. If all we had to do to bring people to Christ was provide deep and relevant teaching, there’d be a lot more followers of Christ out there. No, fundamentally if people are walking away from the faith, it is because they are choosing to do so. It is an existential commitment (or lack thereof) on the part of the person. It is solely between the individual and God. Now, can a failure to minister effectively, both in the church and the home, exacerbate the conditions that might lead a person to reject God? Of course. No one is free from responsibility. However, it is still primarily down to the individual.

    The problem is that we have made it all about systems and programs. If a church has good systems and programs, then it will bear fruit. If a church isn’t bearing fruit, then it must be the systems and programs at fault. It has become inconceivable to us that someone brought up properly in the faith by good parents and an effective church could ever walk away from Christianity, and so when it does happen, we assume the church and/or parents are at fault. I find McManus’ approach incredibly dehumanizing, because it doesn’t acknowledge the existential autonomy of teens. It doesn’t say “I want to know your story,” it says “You’re a cog in the Faith Machine, and if you’ve stopped spinning, that means there’s something wrong with the machine. So don’t worry, we’ll fix up the machine and get you back to working order in no time.” In other words, it says “You can’t make your own decisions. Your religious beliefs are determined by our actions.”

  6. I have had the opportunity to see this as a parent as well as a Biblical counselor working with youth struggling with life issues. It is totally consisitent with everything I have seen. This is not just about the resulting spiritual immaturity which is a problem but on a much larger and more grievious scale it is about the resulting suffering of lost youth without a “working” knowledge of God.

    They have all come into this world needing a divine need to be met but with no access/understanding/pathway to God they are left with the world’s answers to cope with life. They are left resenting/judgemental/rebellious toward parents and authority who can’t fill their need leaving them concluding that the lies of the world is their only option for the inner peace they crave.

    The only hope is for transformational discipleship.

  7. Kirk, I couldn’t agree with you more! I feel like this article unfairly points the finger at ministries who do their best to provide Godly exhortation and biblical teaching to our youth. Granted, no youth group is perfect, but youth ministry is to be a resource, not a lifestyle. Instead of pointing to the roots of the problem, which is more often than not, in the home, this article gives an unnecessary low blow to youth ministry.

  8. Kirk (kids pastor)

    Friends, the problem is NOT what is or is not happening at church on a Sunday morning. The problem is what so desperately needs to be happening in the home but isn’t. This isn’t a problem the church can “program” it’s way out of by creating family integrated services. That is a trend. We haven’t failed to train up youth (that’s not our job), we have failed to train up parents.

    I think of it like this… If a single hour of programming, (whether that be an hour at an entertainer driven Youth Ministry or an hour at an adult style service where families sit together), was the difference maker we would have been doing this a long time ago.

    Let me say it again… the problem is NOT what is or is not happening at church on a Sunday morning. The problem is what so desperately needs to be happening in the home but isn’t.

  9. While I understand the outcome will probably not change, and I mostly agree with the message of the article, is it not premature to publish survey results as fact prior to the completion of the actual survey. It would seem to lend itself to question the validity the survey. Looking for the survey to justify your thoughts rather than allowing all the data to come in, in it’s entirety and form your conclusion out of the completed data.

  10. I am not an expert in surveys but these questions seem very leading. They subtilly plant negativity in the mind of the person taking the survey. The material that they receive at the end of the survey reinforces this point. I would not use this survey to make a ministry decision. An unbiased educational institution needs to study this further in order for there to be validity.

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