Students Leaving the Church

That students tend to leave the Church when the graduate high school is no secret. It’s recently made it’s way into the GOP primary field. Tim King is right that the fact that college students walk away from the faith has nothing to do with colleges. However, I still think Tim misses the point.

He argues that the reason many college students leave the faith isn’t because of what they’re taught in college, but because of the hypocrisy they see among Christians. Yes, hypocrisy turns people off to the church. Yes, hypocrisy is painful. But it also tends to be the favorite gripe of those of us who have felt it’s sting. In the end, however, hypocrisy is only part of the reason students walk away from the Christian faith. There is now plenty of data out there which suggest that the problem is more broad than simply hypocrisy.

So, in addition to hypocrisy, it would have been nice to see Tim discuss the following in his op ed:

1. Parents – Now, he almost touches on this with his comments on hypocrisy. But he still misses the bull’s eye. Yes, sometimes parents are hypocrits, but not always of the type Tim imagines. Instead, sometimes parents simply don’t model a robust faith. They model of faith that is comfortable and sterile, and their children simply inherit the same faith that they see their parents enacting. If we want to see fewer students leaving the church, than we need to help parents develop their own faith at much deeper levels.

2. Youth Ministry – Lest I be too hard on parents, I actually think a greater part of the blame lies with youth ministries (and churches, generally). We have not helped to disciple parents and we’ve given students exactly what they (sometimes, sorta) ask for: a faith that is comfortable, but not one that’s worth anything. Because many of us are either A) young and naive or B) worried about numbers and our jobs or C) woefully untrained, we end up running youth ministries which do a great job of keeping kids away from drugs, sex and alcohol, but a pitiful job of forming life-long disciples. We separate students into a age-specific ghetto in the name of giving them something that will connect with them, but in the end we simply end up cutting them off from the life-giving Body of Christ, no matter how broken and deformed that Body might be.

3. Questions – Going right along with #2 above, in my experience (and here we leave what is fairly well established by surveys and move into more conjectural and anecdotal territory), a contributing factor to students leaving the faith is that they haven’t been deeply challenged and taught. We tend to teach students within a narrow theological framework (either denominationally, or in terms of assumptions about what a good Christian does). So, we teach students they can’t question God (because, I guess, we’ve never read about Moses, or the Psalms, or Job). But when bad stuff happens, what do we expect them to do, remain silent? Or we teach them a narrow interpretation of a passage, for instance, that one must believe in a six literal day creation to be a good Christian. When students realize they don’t know if they can do that, they figure they must have to stop being a Christian. Or we teach them a particular theological point as a litmus test, for instance, God’s sovereignty, and when they aren’t quite sure if they can believe it like we’ve explained it, they figure they have to walk away from the faith, rather than turn to other traditions within the faith.

We could talk about several other factors that often contribute to students walking away from the faith, but I think I’ve made my point: we can’t limit it merely to hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is sometimes an issue. Sometimes it’s questions students have about faith. Often they’ve never had a robust, passionate faith modelled for them, and perhaps even more often they’ve had a shallow youth ministry that–inadvertently–did everything possible to make sure they weren’t connected with the larger Body.

So, this discussion obviously braves the question: what do we do about it? On the one hand, the problems seem insurmountable. But, on the other, we can tackle one thing at a time. There are many in the youth ministry would that are realizing these issues and thinking of ways to address them. To say it’ll be an uphill battle is probably an understatement, but at least it’s a place to start.


Trusting Students

Since I’ve been thinking recently about attractional youth ministry I’ve come to another conclusion about it. I think that we often feel most comfortable doing attractional youth ministry because we don’t trust our students. I’ll flesh this out more below. Trust is, after all, a big topic in ministry. We are trying to help those to whom we minister trust God. We ourselves are trying to continually trust God more, and trust God with our students. These are all important things. I just wonder if we forget to trust our students.

The idea behind attractional youth ministry is often that if we didn’t bribe students with pizza, games and entertainment, they wouldn’t darken the doors of our churches. Sometimes we try to make church look more like an amusement park than a place where we might encounter God.* Ultimately, I think we don’t trust students to really be interested in God. In a way, I guess I could argue, that we don’t trust the gospel–and the Holy Spirit–to work change in our students without the attractional flair. This might be the case, but I’d like to focus in on how attractional youth ministry fails to trust students.

When we work off of an attractional model of ministry we assume, from the very beginning, that students aren’t that interested in God, the Bible, faith, religion or spirituality. Instead we assume they are interested in fun, social gatherings, entertainment, food and flash. Now, it’s certainly true that students are interested in the latter. In my experience, however, students are also highly interested in the former. Truth be told, they can find the other things at a variety of venues. But faith and spirituality, and certainly an authentic community of faith, are often only available to students at a church.

When we fail to trust students to be interested in their own spirituality we end up feeding them a steady diet of fun and entertainment. They’ll gladly accept this from us, but in the long run it does them little good, and it leaves them feeling like church doesn’t fulfill what they need. Because they understand, on some level, that they really do need something beyond themselves. Something powerful, radical, worth living and–at the risk of sounding trite–worth dying for. When we fail to trust students we end up creating a cycle that, if statistics are any guide, leads to them not having a vibrant faith to sustain them through life.

My point in saying all of this isn’t to bash on youth pastors or youth ministry. At least a sizable chunk of us doing ministry for and with students have acknowledged that the youth ministry status quo is unsustainable. So, yes, I’d like to convince those who haven’t been convinced yet that attractional youth ministry isn’t the way forward. But I’d also like to encourage those who are trying to figure out a different kind of youth ministry. As I try to trust my students, it’s sometimes very difficult. It’s tempting, at times, to imagine that they don’t really care about Jesus, the Bible, or spirituality. But I have to remind myself: they really do. I have to take a step back and tell myself that–as much as I have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives–I also have to trust my students to genuinely want the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.

Figuring out a new kind of youth ministry is worthwhile because students need a new kind of youth ministry, one that challenges them. One that expects more out of them. One that feeds them. Students need this, and I have to trust that–yes–they want it.

*I’m not trying to imply that the folks at Saddleback haven’t helped a variety of students. But we certainly have strong philosophical differences.

Young Women, Driscoll and the Church

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I dislike much of what Mark Driscoll says. I’m unwilling to completely write him off. He has some good things to say, but he also has plenty of stupid things that he says. Brian, over at Rethinking Youth Ministry, has recently posted on this subject (you can see a video of Driscoll from awhile back and a response to it, complete with verses taken out of context, at the link). I also happen to agree with him, the majority of committed Christian teens that I see are girls. Now, I do agree with Driscoll that we could do with singing a few less love songs to Jesus. I wouldn’t mind stone churches instead of fuchsia ones with flowers.

But that isn’t the issue. No one is saying you can’t take students mountain climbing. What Driscoll is doing is drawing an entirely arbitrary line between “masculine” and “feminine” and then saying that you want to get the masculine guys (I assume those would be the ones with trucks, women, and businesses) into church because if you get them you “win it all,” (ie, the women, babies, businesses, etc). To be honest, it’s a stupid argument. Women are quite capable of disagreeing with their husbands. Beyond that, women are often more capable then their male counterparts at running companies, organizing things, and customizing their ride. At the same time I’m forced to wonder where the quiet, shy men who prefer books to football fall in Driscoll’s paradigm.

Stereotypes are not helpful. When Mark Driscoll talks about women (EDIT: let me add here, “in any public context in which I have heard him speak”), he engages solely in stereotyping. What Mark Driscoll says about women is not helpful. Conversely, what he says about men really isn’t helpful either. In the end I’m quite glad that the girls in my youth ministry have no idea who Driscoll is.

Of prayer and flagpoles

I know that things like See You At The Pole have been discussed in the youth ministry blogosphere before, but David Opderbeck, at his excellent blog Through a Glass Darkly, has made a post on the topic. Anything David writes is normally worth reading so you should really consider adding him to your RSS reader. Regardless of your decision on that matter, the question of Christian students praying at the flag pole is an important one, because of the underlying topics it touches on.

Although I haven’t had an experience exactly like David, last September I found it extremely interesting when the students in my youth ministry were talking about SYATP. They seemed to view it as a sort of witness to their faith. What was fascinating though, is that when I talked to them after the event they were amazed at who showed up. I heard many things like, “I didn’t realize so and so was a Christian.” I’m sure those same students were at their youth event talking to their youth pastor saying, “I didn’t realize [insert name from my YM] was a Christian.” It is this, I think, that makes meeting at flagpoles questionable as a “witnessing” tactic. I think we need to start with a lifestyle, before we go gathering around flagpoles.

David’s final paragraph words the question in a different way. Do such things really just make other students perceive Christian students as incredibly weird? If a student just shows up at a flagpole, but doesn’t living missionally otherwise, I’m forced to assume that it the flagpole thing is only going to make that person appear doubly weird. They don’t normally act Christian, but they do some these things on occasion? Mixed signals. On the other hand, some students are always going to see anything “Christian” as weird. Beyond that, now I’ve gotten us into a discussion on what really constitutes “acting Christian,” and there are a host of disagreements in that area.

Thoughts on the Golden Compass

Last night Mandy and I went out with two students from our youth ministry to see The Golden Compass, based on the book by the same name, but more properly termed The Northern Lights. As anyone who walks in the twisted corridors of modern Evangelicalismâ„¢will know, this book has generated no small amount of controversy among conservative Christians. This controversy has been aided by some comments by Phillip Pullman himself. My thoughts before seeing the movie can be found here.

Having now seen the movie I can say that my thoughts really haven’t changed, aside from to say that there is absolutely nothing controversial in this movie. The movie was, in my opinion, something to be compared to the movie adaptation of Eragon. It was short, moved rapidly through what could have been an interesting plot had it been given an extra 45 minutes, and ultimately, for me, lacked satisfaction in the ending. As much as New Line might want this movie to be another Lord of the Rings, that is simply not happening. I am amazed as to why producers apparently refuse to make movies longer the 1.5 – 2 hours. The first Harry Potter movie was quite long, and did extremely well. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, when put together, add up to over nine hours, and that is only the theatrical versions. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is well over two hours, and provides excellent entertainment. Yet movies that could have been good, such as Eragon and, I assume, The Golden Compass, are neutered at slightly over 1.5 hours. You simply cannot have the development that a fantasy film requires in that time frame. Alas, I’ve wandered horribly off topic in this. Let me try to refocus.

Having said all of that, I wouldn’t be concerned at all about anyone seeing the Golden Compass in its movie form. After the movie we had some great conversation with the students who went with us over ice cream. We talked about God, the Church, church services, and a number of other issues ranging from the mundane to the profound. These conversation topics are a direct result, not of the movie, but of the controversy surrounding the movie. In all honesty, aside from some interesting thoughts on thinking for yourself and challenging what you’ve always been taught, the movie lacked any kind of philosophical or idealogical thrust. After we finished chatting over ice cream we stopped by a Borders and I bought the entire trilogy, which I am now reading. So far, I can say that the movie also corresponds to Eragon in that not a single scene has been pulled directly from the book. It’s not as bad as it was in Eragon, but it is close. I’m only six chapters into the book, but thus far I’ve found nothing horribly objectionable. I have been informed, by sources of varying repute, that it is not until the final book that the narrative becomes a diatribe against all things religious. I shall endeavor to report my findings via this medium once I have finished the trilogy.

Students and Youth Ministry Ownership

Tim has a great post on helping students take ownership of their youth ministry. I have some comments to make, and I thought rather than take up several paragraphs in his comment box I’d just post them here. Some background first, anyone who has been reading this blog regularly knows that we have just gone through some changes in our “main event” on Wednesday nights at the ministry I pastor. So this is something important to me, something that I’ve been thinking about, and something I think we (ie, the youth ministry blogosphere) needs to discuss.

First, I agree very much with time in his three steps. Students will have no interest in ministry if they don’t have relationships. It’s extremely important for us as youth workers to be diligent in developing those relationships. However, as I’m sure Tim would agree, we can’t develop them expressly for the purpose of getting these teens to work in our youth ministries. That is called using people. Which I think happens all too often in youth ministry when we begin discussing “ownership.” Too often what a youth pastor wants when she says “ownership” is actually “free labor.” We need to be cautious and check our motivations for wanting students to have ownership. The other two steps that Tim lists out are good as well. I remember Chris Seavey, in my undergraduate work, having two similar steps that he recommended. Something like having them join you in basic stuff (setting up chairs, sound tests, that kind of thing), then joining you in more “advanced” things (leading games or worship, being in charge of a section of an event), and then release them to do those things on their own.

Second, Tim mentions that jumping to #3 doesn’t work, and he’s absolutely right. We can’t just drop something in a students’ lap and expect them to want to own it, much less do well at owning it. It’s a process, and as all things in ministry (and life) it takes time. Now, I’m an impatient person, so I’d much prefer if we could just be like…”Okay, here ya go. Run with that.” Sometimes there are students in a youth ministry who are ready for that. If so, they are normally ready because they have had time to get ready, and people have worked with them to help them to that point.

Third, I’d like to add something to what Tim has said. He mentions this at the beginning of his post, but I think it deserves more attention. We need to make sure we are defining what we mean by ownership. We need to have tangible things of which students can take ownership. I think these “things,” whatever they are, need to be verbally defined as well as logically a unit over which someone could have ownership. Case-in-point, at our Wednesday night event we have a prayer room each week. This is something we’ve started very recently. The point of this prayer room is to allow students to, at any point in the night, take some time to just sit silently with God. At present the setup for the room is fairly basic. Over time my hope is that students will step forward and own that part of our Wednesday night gathering. I have verbally explained this, and it is a logical unit that students can wrap their minds around (as opposed to the intangible idea of “ownership of the youth group”). Another example, we do a time of Scripture reading on Wednesday nights. Again, my hope is that over time (and this is actually already beginning to happen) students will step forward and read the scripture passage for the week. Over the long-term I hope to involve students in selecting the passages to be read, and my real hope is that eventually I can step out of the teaching to some extent and allow students that role.

In fact, we have designed our Wednesday night program to include a number of logical units that we hope will eventually be “owned” by students. Scripture reading, explanation of the reading (ie, teaching), activity (to reinforce the topic), prayer time, discussion time. Before those things we have a time to hang out where students can play video games or use the prayer room, play card games or board games, or just hang out and munch on some snacks. Potentially each of these logical units could be owned by a student or group of students (taking care of setting up snacks and making sure there are enough, choosing and running the games for a given week, etc).

I’m not saying that the way we have chosen to configure our mid-week gathering is the perfect way. But I do think it incorporates something very important in helping students take ownership of a youth ministry. That “something” is allowing them to see, in very tangible ways, the things of which we are asking them to take ownership. Certainly, this needs to come after relationship building, as Tim has correctly pointed out. I do think it needs to come eventually though, and we need to be explicit in our expectations. Maybe this is one of those things to file under openness and authenticity.