Is the Era of Age Segmentation Over?
A researcher argues that the future of youth ministry will require bringing the generations together.

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.

September 23, 2009

Displaying 1–10 of 18 comments

Pastor Richard

April 04, 2010  9:28pm

Very insightful thoughts. I appreciate your insights. Thank you.

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Allan Harkness

September 27, 2009  9:21pm

No surprises here! I'm thrilled someone else is 'seeing the light'. As Kevin Smith has written about this issue and how it is addressed in most Christian circles, "The concept of 'intergenerational issues' is spoken of as a deviation from 'normal', a concept and words of a wrong world view. From [God's] point of view we must see 'generational streaming' as the deviation from 'normal'!" Cheers!

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Allan Harkness

September 27, 2009  9:20pm

No surprises here! I'm thrilled someone else is 'seeing the light'. As Kevin Smith has written about this issue and how it is addressed in most Christian circles, "The concept of 'intergenerational issues' is spoken of as a deviation from 'normal', a concept and words of a wrong world view. From [God's] point of view we must see 'generational streaming' as the deviation from 'normal'!" Cheers!

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September 25, 2009  1:56pm

"We have lower the bar on our expectations of our people and raised the bar on the aesthetic for our staffs." - Very well said, sir! As a youth group teen in the mid-90's, I stopped attending my home church for assorted bad reasons and started attending the large, flashy church my new boyfriend went to. There was a big youth group *and* youth Sunday School, that church had its own gym (super-cool at the time), and the worship band was definitely hip. There was some good teaching there, but it was a very segregated place, I don't think any of us realized just how badly that church had failed its high school congregation until the year my friends and I graduated. The church was in the process of hiring a new youth pastor, and at the beginning of our first semester in college the interim youth pastor gathered us all together and bluntly informed us that the new youth pastor wasn't for us, he was for the high school kids, and we were on our own now and had to start doing our own thing, because we were college students now and should grow up and look after ourselves. You can imagine our state of shock over being abruptly cut off from the body, especially in the most confusing, life-changing period of our lives up to that point, after years of being babied and having our growth stunted or prevented (of course, we didn't realize this was the case until this moment). I believe that those of us who came out swinging on the other side - that is, those who remained in the Church and the faith - only did so thanks to Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, which shepherded Christian fellowships in all the local colleges in a hostile place where the population percentage of born-again Christians is the lowest in the developed world. In this setting, simply hanging out in an unmarked room at the busiest intersection of the school, that everyone knew as "the Christian club" and could come visit for a rant or debate at any time, was our first true test of faith. Shepherded by our IVCF worker, we sharpened each other and grew for the first time in ways that I now see were never possible in the context of my particular youth group. IVCF picked up the pieces of what that church broke and left on the roadside. It brings me a visceral joy to see things in my current church, little things like a recently-baptized 12 year old girl being permitted read the gospel from the pulpit during a regular service (this happens every week, with rotating readers). I don't want to ever see what happened to my friends and I happen in any church I am a part of. It's a miracle of God's mercy that I still love the Church at all after that experience.

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September 25, 2009  12:58pm

Intergenerational is not an idea that comes and goes with time. It is Gods design for growth to flow through barrier crossing relationships. But what good is intergenerational in crowd and one-way communication oriented gatherings. What good is it for a teen to sit next to a 40 something and both of them face a pulpit for the whole time? Being in the same room does not constitute relationship. The institutionalized system of faith is loaded with bogus assumptions that corrupt the ability of God's people to grow to the full stature of Christ. It dumbs down all God's people. It leads them to think you can't learn and grow unless you are divided up into homogeneous interests. Until the system is corrected, the dynamic will stay homogeneous. Knowing there is a problem and passionate talk won't change anything.

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September 24, 2009  11:49am

Excellent article. I hope many will listen and implement these practices. I've been seeing the age separation thing for a long time now and have had many of the same thoughts as the article expresses, so it's nice to see it backed up with some research. At one level, it's sort of a no-brainer: treat kids like people instead of like a project to be managed and they'll feel and be more connected.

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September 24, 2009  11:14am

Good article and great conversation. I agree, as I think most would, with the benefits of inter-generational ministry. However, this is only one aspect of the statistics. In my opinion, it is necessary to include time and "space" for people at this age to develop in their faith in a real and complex way. Young people need several years to explore, think for themselves, ask questions, doubt, push back, and eventually (hopefully) come to some sort of a faith commitment that is truly their own. This is a hugely important process that young adults go through in ALL areas of their life (moving away to college, dating and getting married, new career, etc.), not just religion and faith. This is all a part of creating healthy distance and autonomy. Why do we expect youth to stay committed Christians through such a transitional phase in their lives? Why don't we offer them the space - intellectually, physically, emotionally - to grow and search and mature and find God on their own in their own way. In my opinion, most youth programs - regardless of the format or ages of those involved - tell students WHAT to believe, what to DO and what NOT to do, and encourage or even demand a high level of faithful commitment. Young adults are experiencing the realities of faith challenges and real life situations that make belief very difficult (especially belief in the Christian God). Every day doubts do not have any place in a youth or adult church service, and that's why you won't find many honest 18-30's there. We have to affirm young people's search. Walk alongside them in their faith journey. Stop focusing on whether or not they are attending church, and realize that they are trying to find God.

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Prophetik Soul

September 24, 2009  8:31am

I agree with Andrew. I am a former young life urban area director and I was reaching kids who would not step foot in the church. Yet i still worked hard to connect them to a local church so they understood the purpose of it. I do think that isolating youth in youth-only ministries is not healthy over the long-term. They already have their own youth culture devoid of strong consistent adults who care about their spiritual development. Our job is not to make them think its all about them. We are to promote this new intentional community that involves people of all ages.

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Prophetik Soul

September 24, 2009  8:25am

This is one of the reasons why I stopped reading Group Magazine. :)

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September 24, 2009  7:33am

Hi, Your article is like motivation for the people to change the mindset of the young people who don't like to go to church.There is need of communal movement to remove the Age segmentation.

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