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We're asked 114 leaders from 11 ministry spheres about evangelical priorities for the next 50 years. Here's what they said about youth ministry.

For several years, youth ministry leaders have found their work challenged by their own problem with no name. "There are a lot of people who've had this nagging sense that we're missing the mark somehow," said Mark Oestreicher, president of Youth Specialties. "That kids seem happy and willing to attend, and engaged in our ministries, but five years from now, when they're in college or post-college, they just really aren't connecting with real faith, let alone church."

Last year, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published a book that named the problem. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers summarized the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion. Smith and Denton found that religious teens tend to hold a vague group of functionally religious beliefs they termed "moralistic therapeutic deism."

Leaders in the field were already reevaluating current models of youth ministry. "We have treated kids as a separate species, which has had the effect of marginalizing them in church life," said Kenda Creasy Dean, associate professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. The result, she said, is that older teens and young adults may have trouble feeling connected to the larger church.

For Fuller Theological Seminary professor Chap Clark, the greatest challenge is developing "a theology of intergenerational community" that helps a whole church to feel responsible for its youth. Otherwise, he said, churches follow mainstream culture's market-driven vision—and, like secular culture, abandon adolescents ...

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October 2006

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