The Red Bull Gospel
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:
"Imagine a group photo of all the students who come to your church in a typical year. Take a big fat marker and cross out three out of every four faces. That's the probable toll of spiritual disengagement as students navigate the next two decades."
Most of us don't need a "big fat marker" to see this phenomenon play out. We've had a front row seat to the exodus.
Failure to form
In his book UnChristian, Kinnaman reports that 65 percent of all American young people report making a commitment to Jesus Christ at some point in their lives. Yet based on his surveys, Kinnaman concludes that only about 3 percent of these young adults have a biblical worldview.
Whether or not we accept Kinnaman's definition of what constitutes a biblical worldview, few would argue that anywhere near 65 percent of young adults in the U.S. could be described as active followers of Jesus. We may have done a good job of getting young people to sign a pledge or mutter a prayer, but a poor job of forming them into devoted disciples.
Perhaps we've settled for entertaining rather than developing followers of Jesus.
Of course there's nothing wrong with pizza and video games. The real problem is when they displace spiritual formation and teaching the Bible. And ultimately that's the greatest danger of being overly reliant on an entertainment model. It's not just that we can't compete with the world's amusements. It's not only that we get locked into a cycle of serving up ever-increasing measures of fun. Rather it's that we're distracted from doing the real work of youth ministry—fostering robust faith.
Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, liked to say, "It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel." A generation later, that philosophy morphed into an entertainment based gospel that has actually produced entertainment numbness and an avoidance of the gospel's harder teachings. Somehow we thought we could sweeten the gospel message for young people to make it easier for them to swallow, but it turns out that they're choking on our concoction.
In the end, pizza and video games don't transform lives. Young people are transformed by truth clearly presented. They're drawn to a cause to live and die for. In other words, they want the unvarnished gospel. When we present that gospel, with all its hard demands and radical implications, we'll be speaking the language they long to, and need to, hear.
Signs of life
I don't want to be too hard on youth pastors. I was one. I know how tough it is. Teenage attention spans are short. Pressure to get numbers up is constant. But it's possible to instill a more dynamic faith if we change our focus, even if that decision comes at the expense of our conventional metrics of "success."
Drew Dyck is managing editor of Leadership Journal