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.

Faith

FAITH…

  • Believes without seeing
  • Acts without all the answers
  • Hopes in the cross
  • Lives in the resurrection
  • Grows in the field, not the classroom
  • Enables my steps
  • Conquers my fear
  • Requires true belief
  • Pushes me beyond my abilities
  • Mandates trust in the power and sovereignty of Jesus
  • Trusts that His ways are always better than mine
  • Knows that He will never leave me or forsake me
  • Understands that you may not know all of the answers on this side of heaven
  • Leads you to places you never dreamed
  • Makes your feet move to His heart beat
  • Moves mountains
  • Awakens the heart
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance of what we do not see. Hebrews 11.1
How do you define faith?
Where has your faith (or lack thereof) lead you?
Enter your comment below.

Not The Brightest Crayon In The Box

I like the disciples. No, really, I like them. Mainly because they do some pretty dumb stuff and then I’m dumb enough to think that there’s no way I would do that if I was in their shoes. Think about it: these guys are rabbinical school dropouts, they couldn’t make the cut; academics weren’t exactly their strong suit. Yet Jesus saw something in them, some intrinsic value that he knew he could mold and shape into an unstoppable force.

The disciples had their highlights:

  • When Peter responded to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”
  • When Peter walked on water
  • When the disciples left everything to follow Jesus

And then they had more than their fair share of lowlights:

  • When Peter continued his reply to Jesus’ question and he was called Satan
  • When Peter took his eyes off of Jesus and sank
  • When they couldn’t heal the boy possessed by a demon because of a lack of prayer on their part
  • When James and John argue about who is the greatest
  • When Thomas doubts
  • When Peter denies Jesus not once, not twice, but three times
  • When judas betrays Jesus
  • When They don’t see how it is possible for Jesus to feed 5000 hungry men, plus the women and children with them

And there was the time that Jesus fed 4000 men, plus women and children. In Mark chapter 6 the disciples watch Jesus take 5 loaves of bread and 2 small fish and after praying there’s enough food for everyone to be comfortably stuffed and still have 12 baskets full of leftovers. Fast forward to Mark chapter 8 and the disciples find themselves in a very familiar situation…you could almost call it déjà vu.

Except this time there are fewer men, 1000 fewer to be precise. One would think that if they found themselves in a similar situation they would respond differently the second time around…not so with this band of ragamuffins. They had the exact same reaction this time as the first.

I imagine it like this:
Jesus: Alright guys, here we are again. A large, hungry crowd at a remote location and it’s the end of the day. What should we do?
Disciples: Jesus we’re more tired and more hungry than they are because we had to put up with them. Let’s send them away and let them fend for themselves.
Jesus: Guys, have we ever been in a situation like this before?
Disciples: Yes…..siiiiiiigh
Jesus: Well guys, what should we do?
Disciples: Let’s see what we can find and we’ll bring it to you.
Jesus: Well?
Disciples: So, last time there were 5000 men plus women and children and we had five loaves of bread and two fish. This time we found seven loaves of bread and a few small fish for 4000 men, plus women and children.
Jesus: In a similar situation, guys, why did you think I was incapable of providing for you again? You have to believe. You have to trust. It is in my nature to take care of my people. Don’t you remember what Abraham said after my Father provided the scapegoat for Isaac? Abraham said: “The LORD will Provide.” And he even made an altar there. Don’t you remember what Moses said as Joshua was set to assume leadership? Moses told the Israelites, “He (meaning Me) will never leave you or forsake you.” And guys, seriously, what about when we were on that huge grassy hill beside the Sea of Galilee where I said: “If my Father takes such good care of birds and flowers why would he not take even better care of you.” Guys, believe in me.

The timelessness of the bible is beautiful. The timing of God when he speaks through the bible is perfect. I find myself in a situation I experienced a few years ago. Except this time I had the audacity to think that there was no way God could provide in a similar way in a similar situation. And then, in the perfect timing of beautiful timeless truth, God spoke. I read Mark 8 that day in my time with Jesus; not because I remembered the story being there, but because I am working my way through the gospels. The moment I thought there was no way God was capable of providing this time, He, in His infinite wisdom and complete sovereignty led me to read this story.

The next time you-as I often do-find yourself held hostage by a lack of confidence in the abilities of God to provide for his people, remember that Jesus once fed over 5000 people and then followed it up by feeding over 4000 people on a separate occasion just days apart.

Often the disciples were not the brightest crayons in the box, but then again, neither am I. Indeed, the LORD will provide and He will never leave you (me) or forsake you (me).

Lessons from a Toddler

I wonder if disciplining me is as frustrating for God as it is for me to discipline my toddler? We don’t beat him, we don’t spank him, we don’t even wash his mouth out with soap. I can tell you from experience that, yes, Zest soap tastes just like it smells.

After some trial and error we found out that having him sit in the corner for a pre-determined amount of time seems to work. Essentially, he sits in timeout on the wall in our hallway until either he calms down or the timer goes off, whichever comes first.

Do you have a toddler? Is your toddler the angel that mine isn’t? No worries, if you don’t have a toddler I’m sure that you were the epitome of perfection as a toddler.

But here’s what I’m getting at: I love my toddler, as a result when he disobeys he is disciplined. He disobeys, rebels, errs, he sins. I love him, therefore, I step in to discipline and correct him…but most importantly, to protect him. I think this is a huge part of God’s love that we misunderstand.

We view God’s discipline as disappointment or punishment or hatred of who we are and/or what we have done. When in fact, his discipline is an expression of his hesed, agape love for us. You see, God’s love is not restrictive, it is protective.

Think about Adam and Eve. One strike and they’re out?! The other day I was watching JV and Varsity baseball teams at the local high school practice. I’m a football guy. I was never good at baseball; and honestly a little afraid of the ball (but I wasn’t afraid of a 6’3″ 275lb football player running full steam at me…go figure). I know enough about baseball to not fully understand the infield fly rule…but to understand that it takes three strikes and you’re out. Even some justice systems will give you three strikes before the harshest penalty is levied. But God (there’s that phrase) only gives one strike. One. That doesn’t seem fair… It’s not fair that Jesus died on a cross. We forget that God is not preoccupied with fairness; he is consumed by holiness and justice.

Back to Adam and Eve. They sin one time and their relationship with God is broken. They sin one time and they’re disciplined. They’re kicked out of the Garden for-e-ver. And why? Because God loves them. You see the result of their action was eternal…it now required a Savior.

Adam and Eve sinned. They rebelled against God. They decided that they knew better than God. But here’s why God’s decision to expel Adam and Eve from the Garden is both discipline and love: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NIV). There’s that phrase again, But God. That phrase is hope. That phrase in Romans 5.8 shows us that discipline is love.

What is your initial reaction when God disciplines you?
“God’s love is protective, not restrictive,” how does this impact your view of God’s discipline?