It’s an interesting time for youth work across the western world right now. Rightly, many are questioning in an environment where financial resources in the church are stretched more than ever before what the return on investment has been on the last decade of finance being pumped into a generation. This in my mind (although this may surprise many of you) is exactly the right question. The problem resides, however, when we use the wrong measuring stick to ascertain success.
The church has pumped a significant investment into youth ministry over the last decade and it’s only right to have a go at tracking how much of a return there has been on that investment. The stats do not make comfortable reading for me as a guy who has given the last 11 years of my life to reaching this emerging generation. The drop off rate for young people who have been involved in a church in their teenage years, but fall away at university, is terrifying. Fusion (a college student Christian organization here in the UK) have the figure at 74%. 74 percent leave! It’s time for some of us youth workers to take a long hard look in the mirror!
This is a disappointing statistic but I believe it masks the real underlying problem that causes it. This is a problem that starts long before any young people become the part of that 74 percent.
It’s not like most youth workers set out to get a whole load of young people to give up when they get to university. There is not a single youth worker that I know who would put as one of their goals the failure of their young people to reach maturity in their faith beyond the youth work. It’s just that there is a mistaken underlying pressure that I believe pushes youth workers to do the wrong things with their young people and is culpable in this statistic.
So the question is … what is causing it?
If I had a pound for every youth worker who has complained to me that they are struggling with dealing with the expectations of their senior leader or church parents to keep ‘hold’ of the young people in the church, then I’d be a rich man. So many youth workers are bound up in pressure to keep the young people of the church ‘in’ church. The problem is that the vast percentage of the youth workers time is then spent chasing after a bunch of young people and trying desperately to keep them in church. This happens whether those young people want anything to do with Jesus or not. I hear stories of youth workers who basically end up effectively bribing young people with all sorts of things if they’ll come to church. Maybe you’d like to take a wild stab in the dark about who these 74% of young people who leave church when they get to university are? Of course they are the young people who never wanted to be there in the first place! They are the young people who have been held just about ‘in’ church by a combination of cajoling parents and a desperately under pressure young worker who has basically put a spiritual walk on a plate and surrounded it with an incredible program of fun activities for them. The truth is that that combination is enough to keep them in church as a teenager, but when the same package is not on the table at university, then of course they quit. No parents nagging … no super fun youth worker making it easy. Now of course I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have fun with young people. It’s just that the pressure many youth workers are under to provide so much fun that they never have a nice church kid walk away actually produces two things: firstly, young people who leave the church when they go to university, and secondly, exhausted stressed youth workers!
My principle in Forge (the name of youth ministry I started here at St. Thomas Philadelphia in Sheffield) has always been that we work primarily with the young people who want to find out more about Jesus regardless of whether they are currently ‘in’ church or not. You see the onus needs to be taken off the youth workers to keep hold of everyone. It’s just impossible and doesn’t produce any fruit. If there is never the option for a young person to walk away from church and their faith, then they will never grow into someone who owns their own faith. It will always be lived through their parents or their youth worker. They have to be able to leave.
This is an uncomfortable thing for many church leaders and parents because the natural outworking is that it puts a much higher onus on their young people to make good choices. The truth is, though, this is exactly what we do with young people in the rest of their lives. As they grow up we allow them more and more opportunities to make their own decisions growing into the young person that they choose for themselves. This sets them up for the rest of life because they can make decisions and mistakes in an environment where they still have a safety-net at home with their parents. The same is true in their spiritual lives. They need to be encouraged to make their own decisions in an environment that has plenty of safety-nets that they can fall back on when they make mistakes.
We have to take the pressure off the youth worker. As a youth worker of 11 years we had several young people walk away from the church and their faith. It wasn’t our fault, it’s just that some of them didn’t want to know. By not spending our every hour trying to cajole these young people who didn’t want anything to do with Jesus back, we got to reach and disciple hundreds and hundreds more who actually were wanting to grow in Jesus.
If we measure simply whether we managed to hold onto the few young people we already have who don’t really want to know anyway, then we’ll always see failure. They will always leave when they finally get the chance to. No matter how many great activities and events, we can’t make a young person that is not interested in Jesus be interested in Him. It’s just not possible. We should measure how many young people who have been discipled by us are sticking with faith. The problem is that not many youth workers have much time left for all the young people who do want to know more about Jesus. They are too busy cajoling the ones that don’t.
Take off the pressure to cling on to young people who don’t want to know, and increase the pressure to disciple properly those young people who do. I honestly believe that if we do this we’ll see a very different statistic in another decade of investment in the emerging generation.