The statistics are grim. Rainer Research estimates that 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22. Barna Group argues that the figure increases to 80 percent by age 30. The Southern Baptist Convention recently observed that growth in their churches is failing to keep up with the birth rate. Taken together, these findings suggest a startling fact: not only are we failing to attract younger worshipers, we're not holding on to the ones we have.
As executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary and a former youth pastor, Kara Powell has her eyes on the youth drop out trend. She is currently in the midst of a three-year College Transition Project, a study that involves over 400 youth group graduates and is focused on understanding how parents, churches, and youth ministries can set students on a trajectory of lifelong faith and service.
Where did the now popular age-segmented paradigm of youth ministry come from?
In the 1940s and post World War II, there was a real burst in parachurch organizations focused on ministry to teenagers and young adults, such as Young Life, InterVarsity, and Youth for Christ. In many ways, they led the way for the church in realizing that we need to focus on specialized discipleship and teaching for teenagers.
Why did the church adopt this age-segmented model of ministry?
Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, liked to say, "It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel." So he developed some amazingly creative models of youth ministry that took root and bore fruit. I think a lot of churches saw the success of groups like Young Life and started thinking, If the parachurch folks are tailoring their ministry toward young people's interests, then we can—and probably should—too.
On my dad's side of the family, there were too many of us to fit in one room or around one table at family gatherings. So we adopted the two table system. The adult table had pleasant conversation, while the kids' table usually degenerated into a Jell-O snorting contest. Theoretically we were having the same meal; but we were having two very, very different experiences. That's what we've done in churches today.
What is the long-term impact of segregating teens?
A lot of kids aren't going to both youth group and church on Sundays; they're just going to youth group. As a result, graduates are telling us that they don't know how to find a church. After years at the kids' table, they know what youth group is, but they don't know what church is.
There are a lot of statistics regarding what happens to high school seniors when they graduate from a youth group. As I've looked at the research, my best estimate is that between 40 and 50 percent of seniors from youth groups really struggle to continue in their faith and connect with a faith community after graduation.
What can churches do to increase the likelihood that our kids stay in church after they graduate?
I think the future of youth ministry is intergenerational youth ministry.
At this point in our research, we've found that one thing churches can do that really makes a difference is getting kids actively involved in the life of the church before they graduate.
There is a strong link between kids staying in church after they graduate and their involvement in intergenerational relationships and worship. It's important, we're finding, to get beyond a token youth Sunday and start thinking about how to involve kids as ushers and greeters and readers and musicians in our services.
We're also finding a relationship between teenagers serving younger kids and their faith maturity when they graduate from high school. Teens should not only be the objects of ministry; they need to be the subjects of ministry as well. It's the 16 year old that has relationships with 66 year olds and 6 year olds who is more likely to stay involved in a faith community after she graduates.
Read the entire interview with Kara Powell at LeadershipJournal.net.