Christian Teens Abandon Faith Because of the Church, Not Their Youth Group

An article was written for Charisma Magazine in October titled Youth Groups Driving Christian Teens to Abandon Faith.  I've seen it blasted all over social media in the last month.  The article is intriguing, makes some very good observations, and for the most part, I believe is right on the money.

However, as a former youth pastor myself, I cannot help but use my small little piece of social media outlet to passionately share that I believe the much bigger problem (that leads to teens abandoning faith) is in THE CHURCH ITSELF and not the youth group.

Quickly, let me clarify that my thoughts on this have been formulating, considered, and mulled over for years.  I spent 7 years as a youth pastor.  Before that, I had over 10 years of experience as a teenager in a youth group and as a young adult working in youth groups.  In addition, I have over 4 years experience in working with college age/young adults.  Currently, I work mostly with young Soldiers in their late teens and early 20s.  Many of these Soldiers carry around baggage from being involved in a church as a young teenager.

With that said, I want you to know that I am not thrashing this article that was written.  Again, I completely agree with much that is in it.  In fact, there is a great quote said by Adam McManus, a spokesman for the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches.
"Today's church has created peer dependency," McManus says. "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."

He's absolutely right!  However, I don't believe that we can blame the youth groups alone.  I've seen it.  There is good and bad in youth ministry.  The good is that I have witnessed passionate adults who have poured their lives into teaching teenagers about the love of Christ.  They've sacrificed vacations and their own free time to spend time with these kids and show them the gospel.  I've seen teenagers completely take a hold of their faith and lead people to Jesus, become world changers, and commit their lives to ministry.  At that same time, I've seen the shallow youth groups, the youth pastors that teach fluff and watered-down bible truths.  I've seen youth pastors ask guest speakers to steer clear of talking about hell or offering any type of response to the message.  I've seen students completely self-consumed without a care about anyone but themselves.  I've seen teenage girls become pregnant, and teenage boys become party animals.

As a fresh seminary graduate, I entered into my first church position as a youth pastor.  I immediately felt a conviction that youth groups were too shallow.  My passion was to teach students to own their faith and know how to defend it into adulthood.  

How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word
Psalm 119:9

As I gained more experience as a youth pastor, I knew that our model for youth ministry in the local church was faulty.  My goal became not only teaching students to defend their faith but working myself out of a job by teaching parents that it was their duty to teach their children, not mine!

The problem I encountered in my youth ministry career is the same root of the problem of teenagers abandoning their faith.  

THE CHURCH is the problem. 

Not the building, the programs per say, the worship styles, or the Sunday School literature.  ITS THE CHURCH.  THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE UP THE CHURCH.  ITS YOU AND ME!  LOOK IN THE MIRROR!

We have allowed ourselves to find comfort in faulty models of ministry to youth for the sake of boosting our membership numbers.  We've shucked the challenging responsibility of teaching children on just a few individuals  We've fed our capability to selfishly fellowship with our own generations in our own ways.  And ultimately, we've followed a system for our own glorification, not God's.

Teens abandon their faith because of the people of the church.  Let me briefly explain why.....

1. Parents do not fulfill their biblically mandated job:  You know why youth groups are so popular?  Because parents love them.  They can drop their kid off and pay someone to teach them about Jesus.  

This is what the bible says in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."

The most important command that Christ said we should know, live by, and teach, (Matthew 22:35-40) is to be taught by parents to their children.  This encompasses more than just a one-time devotional.  Its a way of life.  Its to be taught from birth to death.  The job never ends.

What's ironic are the parents who get frustrated with youth ministers and youth groups.  They may get upset for any number of reasons, but what's craziest are when parents get upset because their kids are learning things or living in a way that is counter to their convictions.  Its almost as if the parents have strong biblical convictions, they want their kids to learn those same convictions, but instead of teaching them to their kids themselves, they still elect to have someone else do it.  The cop-out may be that they want their teenagers to have opportunities to interact with other teenagers.

News flash! That's gonna happen whether its at a church, ball field, school, swimming pool, etc.  Teenagers are drawn to other teenagers.  They will find ways to connect.  Don't let your fulfillment of God's design for teaching your children go by the wayside because your kids complain about it.

2.  Older Adults Try to Fit Teenagers in "their" Personal Boxes:  I've heard it numerous times.  "Kids need to be mentored by older adults", "We need to integrate the young people with the senior adults", "We need more senior adults teaching youth Sunday School".  I could go on.

I agree with the sentiment of older generations spending time and teaching younger generations.  The issue again isn't the youth groups.  The issue is the older adults.  If your church does not practice integrating teenagers with senior adults, why have you as a senior adult not done anything about it?

Are you waiting on the teenagers to initiate it?  99 times out of 100, they won't.  They're teenagers.

As adults, we must be the ones who go to the teenagers, not the other way around.  We are supposed to be the mature leaders, mentoring the younger leaders.

Sadly, many senior adults want about as much time with teenagers as teenagers want with them.  Its a 2-way street that we have allowed to get further divided.  I used to hear older adults complain that teenagers didn't like their type of worship.  Well, duh.  I used to hear adults complain that youth trips and events didn't have enough adult supervision.  Again, duh.

What do you expect if you as the older adult do not volunteer and sacrifice your time to mentor teenagers and be with them in their contexts?  What's left in the faulty models that most churches force youth ministers to operate in is youth ministers scrapping together desperate college kids looking to hang on to those youth ministry glory years.  That's the majority of the adult influence that the youth minister can get to invest in teenagers, 19 and 20 year olds.

We as the older generations have dropped the ball.  We've been selfish.  We want teenagers to conform to our traditions and boxes.  We've selfishly gave teenagers chump change to mow our yards for mission trip money, instead of truly investing in their lives.  We've used them when it is convenient to us.

We've set the youth groups (whether we need to have them or not) up for complete failure.

3.  We've Set a Poor Example of Christ in the Church:  As parents, leaders, senior adults, pastors, teachers, and mentors we've set a terrible example.  I have multiple chances every week to counsel young couples, married or engaged.  When we discuss church and faith, the number one thing that arises out of that conversation is how these young adults were burned by the church as teenagers.  What do I mean by burned? They were cut, hurt, disappointed, and shocked by the church.

We've all heard the hypocrite argument by unbelievers.  Its not old news.  But its very relevant and true news.  That hasn't gone away.  We give those who abandon their faith reasons to abandon.

One, we are hypocrites.  We teach things that we do not do ourselves.  We teach sacrificial giving but don't actually do it ourselves.  We teach loving people like Christ, but remain in our comfort cliques.  We are hypocritical and teenagers want no part of that.

Secondly, we fight.  The church shoots their own wounded.  Again, this is nothing new.  Read the book of Philippians, Paul addresses a fighting church.  We don't practice operating in Christ-like humility, thus fighting and dissension tears the church apart.  Again, teens want no part of that.

Thirdly, we've enforced our own rules and traditions over God's word.  We try so hard to conform people to fit in the box of what we think an ideal church-going Christian should be.  The problem is, that box is littered with our personal beliefs, not genuine Christ-like convictions.

Ultimately, we often don't even teach about Yahweh, the one true God in our churches.  We teach a version of Him that is fictional.  He's fictionalized with our own additions and legalistic beliefs.


I don't hate the church.  I love the church.  Even though we are screw ups and get it totally wrong, I still believe in God's redemption plan for mankind.  Christ got it right, and in Him we can get it right.
In this post, I used a lot of totalitarian language.  However, these descriptions don't fit all parents, senior adults, college students, teenagers, or ministers.  I have met some amazing Christ-followers who I truly believe are on mission to get it right.  I have met amazing people who have done true biblical investing into their children and the teenagers of the church.  They do exist!

My heart is for us to quit trying to point the finger somewhere else.  Let's quit trying to blame models and formulas, even if we do find them to be faulty.  Let's look at ourselves.  What have we allowed?  What have we let become our passions?  Who have we truly served?
When we get real with those questions, we will get see a generation of real young believers rise up and carry the causes of the Kingdom for God's glory!