By Chris Brooks
(From Wayfarer Blog editors: This post starts off pretty fiery and says what some might say are some pretty incendiary things. We promise that it’ll be worth the read if you stick with it through the whole post!)
According to a USA Today article a few years back, 70 percent of Protestants between the ages of 18 and 30 drop out of church before age 23.
I also saw a stat a while ago that said 89 percent of youth group kids leave the church after they graduate high school and never come back.
Most church leaders are aware of the staggering statistical evidence that college-aged students and young adults who grew up in the church are evacuating our churches and ministries at alarming rates. But as a college minister, I find the responses to this data in the church at large highly problematic.
They are problematic because, first, the church for the most part paints the “secular” university (such as the University of Alabama, where I minister) as some sort of devilish adversary and depicts professors as intellectual predators from whom we must protect our vulnerable youth.
Second, this crisis is like the national debt. I didn’t create it (most of it, at least), yet I have to pay for it. Quite simply and bluntly, it’s not my fault.
Well, whose fault is it? I’m glad you asked, because I’m happy to answer.
Fault lies with the guy sitting across the table from me in staff meeting. You know who I’m talking about – the happy-go-lucky youth guy whose biggest problems are pimples and prom. He or she is the one who is always with kids at camps or with other ministers at conferences. He or she is the one who produces the coolest Wednesday deal night going down in your town.
I’m talking to you, and I’m calling you out. This is your fault. You think you have a successful ministry, but you don’t. You may think you are making a difference, but according to the numbers, your ministry isn’t making a difference no matter how many were in attendance last week or how many cool (or uncool) the T-shirts you made were.
When the youth bubble bursts and you ship them off to college, I’m the one who inherits your discipleship debt crisis. I am the one who has to set up triage for your students who are lining up in droves to liquidate their thin excuse for faith.
(If you are youth minister, please keep reading. I promise it will come full circle.)
Don’t just take my disgruntled word for it. Barna’s got my back. Here is what one of their studies cites as one of the five myths about young adult church dropouts:
Myth: College experiences are the key factor that causes people to drop out.
Reality: College certainly plays a role in young Christians’ spiritual journeys, but it is not necessarily the ‘faith killer’ many assume. College experiences, particularly in public universities, can be neutral or even adversarial to faith. However, it is too simplistic to blame college for today’s young church dropouts. As evidence, many young Christians dissociate from their church upbringing well before they reach a college environment; in fact, many are emotionally disconnected from church before their 16th birthday.
“The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group,” writes David Kinnaman, co-author of unChristian. He points to research findings showing that, “The university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples.” (Emphasis added.)
The only logical deduction we can make from that statement is that our current discipleship models (if we even have them) are not working.
Of course, we can’t simply blame youth ministers. The truth is that this faith crisis is not just the fault of one particular ministry age group. (Certainly, parents abdicating their role as the primary disciplers of their kids also plays a role!) Moreover, it will take every age group to get us out of it.
So don’t pass the buck. Instead, here are five quick suggestions:
Take a deep breath. Since the Holy Spirit’s last name literally means breath or wind, breathe deeply of his presence, his peace, and his power. If you see that your age-group ministry is on life support and/or that your church is dead, dying, or decaying like dry bones, remember that same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead lives within you. Seriously. Don’t be scared to channel your inner Ezekiel – Prophesy SON OF MAN! Don’t forget that God is in the historical habit of redeeming and resurrecting. That’s evident in the Bible; now make sure it is evident in your life.
Define the win. If you see your age-group ministry as “successful,” then that presupposes you have a definition of success. Write it out, and then ask yourself three questions: Is it yours? Is it God’s? Can it be sustained and reduplicated without me? If all you’re counting is attendance or conversion hands in the air, that’s just not good enough because it never once seems to be the thing that Jesus is counting. Are you counting disciples or the numbers that make you feel good about yourself?
Burst your own bubble. Take a hard, humble, and honest look at the numbers – not only at the national trends but local patterns and your church’s patterns. What do they say about your effectiveness? Never ignore or justify stagnant spiritual growth. Continue to support one another, but challenge the process. For instance, in my church, we are significantly intergenerational. But is it enough to call a college student staring at the back of someone’s gray head for one hour in worship intergenerational worship?
Stop, look, and listen. Ask the Holy Spirit for eyes to see and ears to hear the hidden rhythms of unique Kingdom impact he wants to release in you and through you. Then do something unheard of these days: Stop comparing yourself to other ministers, other churches, and other ministries. If you are reading this, chances are your next worship gathering will not look like Passion 2012. That does not mean it is not valuable or significant for Kingdom expansion. That does not mean you are not valuable or significant in God’s Kingdom. As one worship leader so honestly put it, “Today I rise above flattery and frowns. I know who and whose I am” (Coincidentally, that minister was at Passion 2012 – thanks Charlie – but you get the point.)
Invite people in. Learn how to invite people strategically and intentionally into your life. Literally. Pretend the front door to your house is the new front door of the church. Open it wide and open it often. There is something mystical and holy about your kitchen when it is crowded with people whom you are discipling and with whom you are on mission. The best people I have seen at this are Mike Breen, Dave Rhodes, and the team at 3DM. They live and teach in ways that you and I can both sustain and exponentially reduplicate.
I am committed to not letting statistics like the one I started this entry with deter or deflate my hope in the gospel and the ministry of reconciliation that has been commissioned to us. Let’s try and reverse the grueling blame game that our adversary loves to get us to sink our teeth into. I like that guys like Rick Lawrence want to challenge the validity of the “70 percent” stat. (He calls it the vampire stat because it just wont die.)
Regardless of the actual percentage, the end result is not what Jesus intended for his bride. But for argument’s sake, let’s just say that 70 percent of young adults are in fact leaving the church. And let’s just assume that the problem is systemic and that, even though we shoulder different amounts of the blame, we all equally share the responsibility to respond.
Could a possible solution to the 70 percent dropout rate be as simple and as true as starting to take the time to disciple the remaining 30 percent with the crystal clear imperative to multiply and divide?
I hope so – because what is more troubling to me than the 70 percent of young adults leaving the church is the fact that 30 percent were content just to stay there without growing or changing.
Chris Brooks is a college minister for The Well, a ministry that reaches students at the University of Alabama. He wants you to know that he likes his church’s youth minister, who approved this message.