A few years ago I volunteered at an event put on by a national youth ministry. The evening was fun but grueling. We bobbed for apples, captured flags, and raced eggs across the floor using only our noses. The games culminated with a frigid indignity: I lay on my back and let three giggling teenagers make an ice cream sundae on my face.
As I toweled chocolate syrup from my chin, a leader ordered the teens into a semicircle. It was time for the devotional, which included a gospel presentation—but it was a gospel presentation that made me want to stand up and scream.
"Being a Christian isn't hard," he told the group. "You won't lose your friends or be unpopular at school. Nothing will change. Your life will be the same, just better."
Maybe his words would have slipped by me if they hadn't been such blatant reversals of Jesus' own warnings about the offensiveness of his message or the inevitable hardships of following him.
I glanced at the teens. One was flicking Doritos chips at a friend. Others whispered to each other or stared at the floor. None of them seemed to be listening. And why should they? I wondered. Who cares about something that involves no adventure, no sacrifice, and no risk?
Unfortunately what I witnessed that night is hardly unique. Often ministries, especially youth ministries, are heavy on fun and light on faith. It's fired up entertainment and watered down gospel.
Amused to death
The entertainment emphasis can be traced back at least a generation, and perhaps nowhere was the impact felt more profoundly than in youth programs. Instead of stressing confirmation of faith—youth ministry's original raison d'être—the focus shifted to attracting more and more kids to the ministry (which inevitably involved entertaining them). Not necessarily bad goals, but there were some ugly unintended consequences.
Today some youth ministries are almost devoid of religious education. They are "holding tanks with pizza," as church researcher Ed Stetzer has called them. Some use violent video game parties to attract students through the church doors on Friday nights.
Over the past year I've conducted dozens of interviews with 20-somethings who have walked away from their Christian faith. Among the most surprising findings was this: nearly all of these "leavers" reported having positive experiences in youth group. I recall my conversation with one young man who described his journey from evangelical to atheist. He had nothing but vitriol for the Christian beliefs of his childhood, but when I asked him about youth group, his voice lifted. "Oh, youth group was a blast! My youth pastor was a great guy."
I was confused. I asked Josh Riebock, a former youth pastor and author of mY Generation, to solve the riddle: If these young people had such a good time in youth group, why did they ditch their faith shortly after heading to college?
His response was simple. "Let's face it," he said. "There are a lot more fun things to do at college than eat pizza."
If our strategy is to win young people's allegiance to church by offering better entertainment than the world, then we've picked a losing battle. Entertainment might get kids to church in their teens, but it certainly won't keep them there through their twenties.
And recent studies confirm that they're leaving in droves. The Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be "disengaged" by the time they are 29. Barna Group president David Kinnaman describes the reality in stark terms: