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, America's largest denomination, 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. Though research is ongoing, it is already revealing a promising pattern: youth involved in intergenerational relationships in church are showing promise for stronger faith in high school and beyond.
Leadership editors Marshall Shelley and Brandon O'Brien spoke with Kara about her research and what it means for the local church.
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.
What were the benefits of that move?
The church recognized that teenagers are going through specific issues and have specific concerns. As one youth worker told me, "It's hard for a 16 year old to talk about masturbation with grandma in the room."
What other issues do teens face that make student ministry important?
A couple of important things are going on during adolescence.
First, teens are in a quest to figure out their identity. They tend to try on different identities in different spheres, which leaves them feeling like they live somewhat fragmented lives—they're one person on the soccer field, another person in school, another person on Facebook, and still another person at church and at home.
Autonomy is a second major focus of an adolescent's quest. "How do I make decisions apart from my parents?"
The third is significance. So teens are asking, "Who am I? Where do I fit in? What difference does my life make?" In a sense, those issues are relevant to all ages, but the flame is turned up under those questions during adolescence.
Why did you begin to rethink this common, age-focused paradigm?
We realized in the 1940s that we were not offering teens enough focused attention. So what did we do? We started offering them too much. All of a sudden churches had adult pastors and youth pastors, adult worship teams and youth worship teams, adult mission trips and youth mission trips. And there's a place for that. But we've ended up segregating—and I use that word intentionally—our kids from the rest of the church. Now we tend to think that we can outsource the care of our kids to designated experts, the youth and children's workers.