Dropouts in Youth Ministry
Written in October 2007
One of the sad facts that any youth ministry faces is the number of people who were active in God’s work in their youth who are now not active in service or completely backslidden. Youth for Christ has had to face this fact and admit with sorrow that many who were active with us in their youth are no longer walking with the Lord.
I have several things to say about this sad phenomenon.
- When we are so busy with our huge programmes in Youth for Christ (YFC) it is easy to let the major aspects of discipling be related almost exclusively to the youth programme so that we do not prepare the young people adequately for life in society. In theory YFC leaders are always supposed to keep this balance, but we do not always succeed as the urgent demands of programmes keep detracting us from the some other important aspects of discipling. We must labour for real, comprehensive balance. And those of us who are leaders have to really push our staff to ensure that this happens.
- While the disciplines of community life are a very important aspect of Christian nurture we have to have as equally or even more important the developing of a Christian mind. I think often our teaching is more exhortational and devotional rather than doctrinal. I do not mean doctrinal in a dry sense, but doctrinal in that we teach our people to approach everything theologically—using the categories of the biblical worldview. It is very easy for youth groups to be deficient here.
- Many young people are attracted to YFC because it meets some of their felt needs. It gives them a community where they are warmly affirmed and accepted. They like to have fun with a group of peers that regards them as equals. They want to be involved in an ideological cause which helps them to give expression to the rebellion they have against the hypocrisy they see in the adult generation. Most people, whatever their age may be, come to Christ to meet a need. But they stay on with Christ when they are convinced that he is the truth. This is why Peter said the disciples will not leave Christ after they saw many of those who followed him leaving him. They knew that he had “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Many youth will mimic the Christian rituals that form a part of the YFC programme without making the transition from being need seekers to truth discoverers. Such have little resources to combat the challenges they will face from the world outside once they leave the security of the YFC community. This is why we must never be content only because we have large numbers in our youth groups. We must labour to find the most effective ways of giving them “the whole counsel of God;” ways that will enable the truth of the gospel to penetrate their innermost beings.
- While I cannot prove this statistically, I can say from observation during my thirty-one years in youth ministry those young people who were led by a person who honestly believed that the YFC phase was a transitory stage in their lives had a better chance of going on with Christ after their youth years. Then the great aim of the leader would be to ensure that the youth under their care are happily settled and living for God in family, church and society—not just in the youth group. While the YFC programme does take a lot of time, this kind of leader would ensure that YFC prepares the youth they disciple for a healthy life in church, family and society.
These youth will have learned to think Christianly about church, home and society long before they get bored with youth programmes. Most young people will get bored with youth programmes and move on to another place of activity. Only some will sense a call to serve youth and remain within the YFC programme as volunteers and staff. We must fashion our organisational culture in such a way as to view as a great victory the departure of a person away from active involvement in YFC to church involvement.
- For a para-church youth evangelistic organisation like ours, sending people we reach into a local church is a basic aspect of our call. But this principle applies to church youth groups too. Young people will get involved in the youth group for some years and then they will lose their interest in the programme because it is geared to people of a younger age. By then the truth that this person’s permanent home is in the wider church should have been drilled into his or her soul. They should have been prepared to go into the outside world after some cosy years in the warm protection of the caring peer group in the youth programme.
Yet often church youth workers are guilty of fostering an exclusivistic attitude within their youth group. Often we encounter attitudes like the following: “We are more spiritual than these dead adults;” “Our worship and music is not boring like theirs;” “We are more committed, more geared to mission.” When such youth pass the age of involvement in the youth group, they probably will not have a positive attitude towards the church. With the numerous challenges of young adulthood, such as establishing oneself in ones career and adjusting to married life, they could end up neglecting church attendance.
- Most of us leaders are insecure people. We must be aware of this and strive to get our security and sense of importance from God and not from the people we lead. An insecure youth leader could foster an environment where the youth adore him or her to the exclusion of other authority figures like parents and adult church leaders. A good leader would use his or her influence with the youth to encourage them to respect and love their parents and adult leaders.
An insecure leader could thrive on being hero-worshiped. This could be a very dangerous attitude. If those who adore the leader are from the opposite sex a very unhealthy relationship could develop. Without knowing it the relationship could turn sexual. The relationship turns physical only much later. But the early stages of an affair could be developing when the adoration of the young person unconsciously becomes–to the youth worker–a personal conquest of the heart of the young person. Often the youth worker is viewed as a father or mother, which makes the relationship look very harmless. Psychologists are calling such relationships “emotional affairs” and there is a growing body of literature about this. Gradually the desire for conquest is extended to the body also, and the result is a physically sexual relationship.
All of us leaders must always be on guard that we never get from others the kind of affirmation we should get only from God and our spouses.
- One of the best ways to avoid the youth work developing an exclusivistic attitude vis-à-vis the rest of the church is for a senior church worker like the senior pastor to have a warm and friendly attitude towards the youth worker and his or her ministry. I wish for such a relationship between YFC workers and church leaders too. In fact I would like to really push for YFC staff to have a mentor outside YFC—someone they respect and who’s different perspective coming from a different background contributes a lot to the balancing out of the staff workers life.
The older church leader could become the father or mother whom this insecure youth worker never really had. And in that way the youth worker could develop the confidence and security which reduce the risk of thriving unhealthily on the adoration of the youth. If the senior pastor shows up at several youth programmes; if the youth know that he really enjoys seeing the young people having fun and laughs heartily at their jokes; if he is known to be the advocate of the youth before the leadership of the church, then there is a much greater chance of the youth developing a positive attitude towards the church.
- I have seen a lot of people who dropped out of Youth for Christ coming back to Christ and to heavy involvement in churches much later, sometimes after a decade or more in the wilderness. I often discover these people when I go to preach in churches. Their warmth towards YFC and what they say about their YFC days shows that what they learned in YFC had not been completely obliterated. Something made them seek involvement in a church or Christian group. That triggered a return to active Christian involvement. What seems to have happened was that the truths that were hidden in their hearts but suppressed during the rebellious years had resurfaced and come to life. Of course, it is the Holy Spirit who revitalises these dormant truths.
- I have not mentioned some of the other essential aspects of discipling which go along with the conscious work of preparation of people to go into the world. These are essential to all discipling and so have been left out. For example, I have talked a lot about proper teaching here. It is clear in the Bible that Jesus taught the disciples before he left them in order to prepare them to go into the world (John 17:6-8) and that the way he believed they will be sanctified is through the word (John 17:17). But just after saying that he taught them, he said that he prayed for them (John 17:9). Ultimately it is the Spirit who keeps people secure and there is a release that comes to us disciplers from releasing people to God and to his Spirit to protect. And if growth is essentially something done by the Spirit—then the best thing we can do for them is to pray for them. This is why I now see prayer as the most important work I do in my job.
So let me tell younger youth workers not to be overly discouraged when youth fall away. We must grapple with the failure and ask where we went wrong, and what we should do to minimise the chances of youth dropping out. But if we have faithfully given them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) we can keep hoping and praying for the day when these lapsed Christians return to Christ.