The Red Bull Gospel
Are youth groups helping or hurting the faith of young adults?

Over the past year I've conducted dozens of interviews with 20-somethings who have walked away from their Christian faith. Among the most surprising findings was this: nearly all of these "leavers" reported having positive experiences in youth group. I recall my conversation with one young man who described his journey from evangelical to atheist. He had nothing but vitriol for the Christian beliefs of his childhood, but when I asked him about youth group, his voice lifted. "Oh, youth group was a blast! My youth pastor was a great guy."

I was confused. I asked Josh Riebock, a former youth pastor and author of mY Generation, to solve the riddle: if these young people had such a good time in youth group, why did they ditch their faith shortly after heading to college?

His response was simple. "Let's face it," he said. "There are a lot more fun things to do at college than eat pizza."

Good point.

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.

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.

May 16, 2011

Displaying 1–10 of 37 comments


May 31, 2011  10:04am

I agree with your article. I think one of the things that are disturbing about the church today is that many are now becoming much more liberal and pretty much losing emphasis on the truth in the Word of God and dwelling more on feelings, experience, fun and being "relevant" with the worldly, postmodern view of things, even Christianity. Some churches are drifting closer to new age belief. I recently left a church I'd attended for 13 years because the senior pastor (from the pulpit) began showing contempt for and mocking those with more conservative theological views who didn't accept evolution and global warming as gospel truth as he had begun to. He believed, I guess, that the way to get more people into church was to shun traditional beliefs and embrace the world's ways of seeing things. That may work in the short term, but it does not give those who are seeking truth the foundation they need to walk the road of faith throughout their lives. What it does ultimately do, however, is disillusion and confuse those who are searching for God and they end up just drifting away, no matter what their age. The "emergent" church is particularly guilty of these things. I predict that 10 years from now, the "emergent" church will be as dead and empty as the mainline Christian denomination became in the 70s after they embraced liberal theology, like liberation theology and the "social" gospel. Both these movements seek to interpret Scripture in a way that suits ideologies. They keep a form of the Christian faith, but deny the true power of it.

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May 27, 2011  4:06pm

I think what Vik was alluding to is the church as non-biblical institution, led by a professional hierarchy and dependent on costly facilities and programmatic thinking (youth programs, for instance), which actually interfere with the simple process of discipleship we see in the New Testament.

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May 25, 2011  8:27am

I didn't imply in any way that a 501c-3 is of benefit to a church and you have re-characterized my question. So I will change the style, but not the substance of the question. In what way does a 501c-3 'prevent' any church from teaching anything they wish to anyone they wish - even to the point of teaching that 501-c3s are evil golden cages?

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Vik Feodorov

May 24, 2011  9:36pm

elegance, I guess, I can try to go deeper on the subject of how beneficial any golden cage can be to a church, if we could define here how a person, young or old, can be "trained" to become a Christian?

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May 24, 2011  9:02am

Vik, What does your above comment about 501c-3 have to do with youth groups? How does it prevent them from focusing on training young people in the "...nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4)?

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Vik Feodorov

May 23, 2011  2:01pm

Dan, I could not agree more! First, unfortunately, an American 501c-3 church operates as a business, creating staff-churchgoers(read, consumers) strange type of relationships; then it separates children from real God experience.

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greg R

May 23, 2011  12:32pm

Fair enough, but I'll note there are many more possible outcomes if the article is on target (even partially on target). FOr one, maybe youth group, and church in general for that matter, needs some reforming, with a shift AWAY from entertainment being so front and center. There are many calling for this in 'adult' church as well. This article would be just one more to add to that voice. Food for thought. I'd agree that even if things are seriously 'off', what we need is calm dependence on the ONE WHO can set this straight , and not any shrieking or blaming. Pax

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Zack Weingartner

May 23, 2011  12:09pm

Well, 'GregR", I was responding to the article not anyone's post. And I still believe that it was an appropriate response to the points made on the piece. Maybe I wrote quickly out of emotion, but I disagree with the premise, honestly.

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greg r

May 23, 2011  11:30am

@Zack: you have made, and responded to, a caricature of the main points made in this peice. No one said that entertainment is ALL that youth groups have been doing. The argument is that it has played too major a role, and that doing so is a hopeless strategy. Do you want to refute any of that , or just act indignant ? Those making these points have as many, or more yrs of experience doing youth stuff as you, and I assume they want to see GOD "on the move" as much as you do. Interact with the points made, and join the discussion. I don't think anyone is trying to sell youth group as it was done 20 or 30 yrs ago, so that is a red herring as well GregR

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Zack Weingartner

May 21, 2011  4:25pm

What an amazing oversimplification and generalization of what we do as youth pastors and youth ministries. Why is the assumption that all every youth ministry does is give out pizza and play video games/ This is a crazy, insulting piece of "work". Parents, YOU are responsible for helping to develop a "Christian worldview" in your kids. We get a few hours with them, you get a lifetime. Teens don't need a spoon feeder any more than you do at church. For sake of the argument, consider the only real alternatives I can see coming out of this article. One, youth group is done away with. The result? You think teens are bad off now, what about with nothing? Two, we turn it into a Baptist Seminary. Great, we will make "warriors" (as one poster suggests) out of the about five kids that show up because their parents made them. Wake up to 2011, things aren't done the way they used to be - and I really wish that all of the alarmists out there would stop trying to say that Christianity is going to end with this generation and blah blah blah. It is limiting God's power to move, and ignoring some really great things this generation is both already doing, and will continue to do.They have a lot of time left.

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