Market Driven Youth Ministry by Dr. Richard Ross

The following article was originally posted on September 10, 2013 from Theological Matters, a blog of SWBTS. The article is written by Dr. Richard Ross, student ministry professor.

Teenagers and Market-Driven Ministry

Three documents have crashed into each other on my computer. Their composite message is both troubling and hopeful.

First

Christian Smith is the researcher who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the “faith” of most church teenagers. His seminal National Study of Youth and Religionresearch sent shock waves through the youth ministry world.

A church teenager might express MTD this way: “God exists. He is nice and wants us to be nice. He doesn’t bother me about my life. But since I’m very special, He’ll show up whenever I call. But as soon as He does something to make my life happier and easier, He goes away again—so I can live my life my way.”

Smith and his team of researchers have continued to research the students who made up the original sample. They have just completed Wave Four interviews with those subjects, who now are ages 20-24.

Last week Christian Smith emailed me with the initial results. Even with their church backgrounds, Smith found that about 90%:

  • “Know absolutely nothing about what the [churches] they grew up in believe theologically,
  • Have no understanding whatsoever of the ways that faith is not just an instrumental help but is something that might drive and transform one’s life, and
  • Think religion is totally about the basic moral orientation it gives (most of which they agree with but say they are not living by).”

He summarized by saying, “Only about 10% remain what we called ‘committed traditionalists.’” To use the vocabulary of evangelicals, that means about 10% can express their core beliefs, can lead someone else to saving faith, and embrace Christ’s mission for their lives. Ten percent!

Second

Blogger Matt Marino has generated lots of conversation with his post, What’s So Uncool about Cool Churches? Marino wrote, “What is the ‘pill’ we have overdosed on? I believe it is ‘preference.’ We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they ‘prefer’ is a road that, once you go down it, has no end. … In an effort to give people something ‘attractive’ and ‘relevant’ we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church.”

Near the end of that post, Marino says, “In summary, ‘market driven’ youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying ‘Bye-bye.’ What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need.”

Third

Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Larry Alex Taunton summarizes a study performed by his Fixed Point Foundation. They conducted extensive interviews with collegiate members of atheist organizations that Taunton calls “the atheistic equivalent of Campus Crusade.” He found that almost all the young atheists had backgrounds in the church and in youth groups. Here are some of the conclusions of the study:

  • The mission and message of their churches was vague.
  • They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.
  • They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.
  • Ages 14-17 were decisive. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.

Taunton wrote, “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed [much respect] for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: ‘I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.’”

Eric Metaxas adds, “Much of what passes for youth ministry these days is driven by a morbid fear of boring our young charges. As a result, a lot of time is spent trying to devise ways to entertain them. The rest of the time is spent worrying about whether the Christian message will turn kids off. But … young people, like the not-so-young, respect people with conviction—provided they know what they’re talking about.”

In the last two years I have read 60 books from the clearest thinkers in youth ministry. I have studied summaries of 14 research projects related to youth ministry. The major themes that emerge are these:

  • Teenagers are transformed primarily through their relationships with adults who themselves are deeply transformed. Teenagers begin to live for the glory of Christ as they walk beside others who live for the glory of Christ. Baptist Press editor and youth volunteer Art Toalston recently tweeted, “Even middle school boys drop their silliness and tune in when Scripture flows from our souls.”
  • Teenagers are transformed through heart connections. The stronger the relationship is between a teenager and an adult, the stronger will be the transmission of transformation.
  • Teenagers are transformed by the Spirit through the truth and power of God’s Word. Teenagers respect and are drawn toward adults who joyfully proclaim with full conviction, “Thus saith the Lord.” The youth leader who spends 15 minutes preparing his Bible talk and two hours on a creative video might actually increase attendance by reversing those time allotments.

I celebrate any church willing to spend a million dollars on a youth building. It can be a useful tool. But no one should assume that’s the key to getting teenagers willing to live or die for the cause of Christ for a lifetime. The key is:

  • Leading parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to fall more deeply in love with Christ and to transparently exude their passionate desire for His glory and the coming of His kingdom on earth. Who in your church is gathering parents and youth leaders with the specific goal of leading them into a deeper relationship and walk with King Jesus? How often do they meet?
  • To equip parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to know how to build deeper heart connections with teenagers. Busy adults can have life-on-life discipling relationships with about three teenagers. What is the adult-student ratio in your church’s Bible teaching groups? Who is regularly challenging adults to put down their lattes, leave their comfortable adult groups, and invest in the next generation?
  • To equip parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to know Scripture, assimilate Scripture, and confidently proclaim Scripture to teenagers. When your average dad pictures himself with his family and Bibles open, does he feel competent to share the Word? Who is taking the lead in equipping him for this role? When do they meet and how often?

Churches that have depressing answers to the questions above—BUT have some great facilities, programs, and trips for teenagers—should NOT expect most of their teenagers to walk in faith for a lifetime. Facilities, programs, and trips have a role and they are a helpful supplement to ministry, but they are not the core issues. If we do not shift much more of our focus to the core issues, we will continue to lose most of a generation after high school.

Advertisements

Challenge Your Youth by Dr. Alvin Reid

The following post is taken from The Gospel Coalition by Dr. Alvin Reid

 

CHALLENGE YOUR YOUTH

 Posted By Alvin Reid On September 3, 2013

Morgan introduced herself after I spoke at her church. She enthusiastically described the ministry she and her friends had started to fight the blight of human trafficking. They were seeking to offer gospel hope to girls vulnerable to the industry and those rescued from it. At the time I met her, she and her friends had raised almost $4,000 to send overseas to rescue young women. Now, nearly two years later, they’ve raised more than $40,000 to build a safe house in Calul, Moldova, a nation whose number one export is trafficked women.

[1]

Did I mention Morgan was only 14 when I met her? Morgan and her friends Brianna, Maleah, McCall, Claire, Kristie, and Elise launched a movement propelled by the gospel. A bunch of middle school girls decided not to waste their high school years in order to make a remarkable impact for Christ.

Open Your Eyes

Morgan gives credit for this ministry to her family and to her church—a congregation serious about taking the gospel to the nations. At 13, she and her mom went on a church trip to India. Morgan would be the first to admit their ministry never could have taken off without their parents, student pastor, and congregation encouraging and supporting them. The ministry these girls birthed (Save Our Sisters Today) is just one example of believers living the mission while they’re young. Virtually every church has youth like Morgan. But are the churches doing what they can to find these youth, direct their passions, and commit to encouraging them?

Parents who love Jesus yearn for their children to love Jesus as well. Student ministries seek to engage students with the gospel and help them live out the gospel. But there’s a problem. Too many churches assume a posture toward youth more reflective of MTV than of the Bible. Too often, and with little reflection, we view teens as adolescents in a timeout between childhood and adulthood. “They are just kids,” we say. “Boys will be boys.” Youth ministries are often pressured to offer events more than engagement, trivia more than truth. But if students can learn trigonometry in high school, they can certainly learn theology in church.

Extended Boyhood Epidemic

Our culture today teems with immature young men: the average 21-year-old male in the United States has played 10,000 hours of video games [3]. When you consider, as Malcolm Gladwell has shown, that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something, no wonder so many 20-something males struggle in the adult world. Moreover, the National Study of Youth and Religion found young adults in churches have often been taught the Bible from the perspective of what sociologist Christian Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” The cumulative result is a generation of churched youth marked more by activity and moralism than by the mission of the living God.

But what if we stopped this trend? What if we challenged the youth in our churches to live missionally?

Often in Scripture we read of remarkable young people. Sold into slavery at 17, Joseph lived for God regardless of his circumstances. Samuel heard God’s voice as a lad when God’s word was rare. David killed Goliath as a teenager, the youngest and scrawniest of many sons. Josiah led a revival, and God called Jeremiah, each while they were young. Daniel and his friends were possibly as young as today’s middle school youth when they were deported to Babylon, yet they stood for their faith. And in the New Testament, we encounter Jesus’ disciples—young men themselves—as well as Paul’s specific exhortation to Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because of his youth. This array of evidence must not be ignored.

Jonathan Edwards said the Great Awakening was essentially a youth movement. Less than a century later, in 1806, college students sitting under a haystack sparked a worldwide missions movement. Near the end of the 19th century, a student volunteer movement saw thousands of young people take the gospel to the nations.

So, granting the vast changes in the past 200 years, how should we see youth today? Not as children finishing childhood but as young adults entering adulthood, capable of understanding and living out the gospel as missionaries in an increasingly unChristian culture. We who lead youth as parents and student pastors must see ourselves as missionary strategists equipping students to live on mission now, not later.

Five Suggestions

What does this transformation look like?

1. Build your student ministry and your parenting on the gospel. Show them, as Tim Keller observes, that the gospel isn’t merely the ABC of salvation but the A to Z of Christianity. A missional vision that doesn’t arise out of response to the gospel leads to legalistic activism, not biblically driven ministry.

2. Involve them in the mission locally. We’ve tried to help our own children, now grown and married, to see how this mission looks through simple things—from how we engage our next-door neighbors to how we treat servers at restaurants.

3. Don’t keep them in the dark about the mission globally. One of my mantras is, “Get your children out of the country before they finish high school.” By the time our daughter Hannah was 18, she’d been on mission trips to four continents. Our son Josh has traveled to three continents and done mission work in several major U.S. cities. These trips help teenagers see that the gospel isn’t just their parents’ home-brewed superstition; it’s true and worthy of proclamation to everyone, everywhere.

4. Demonstrate missional lives. Let them see you living missionally while you teach them how to do so. Discipleship is usually more caught than taught.

5. Believe in them. Youth need three things: a vision for their lives as big as the gospel, encouragement to live radically for Jesus Christ now, and the permission to do so.

Missionary statesman Stanley Jones was asked once how he helped so many young people become effective missionaries across the globe. “I take a young person,” he replied, “and I put a big crown over their head. Then, I help them to grow into it.”

If we’re centered on the gospel and committed to living missionally, we can do the same with today’s youth as well.