Before we discuss these statistics let me tell you a little about my "journey" to where I am today in regards to student ministry. Needless to say, my views on youth ministry have changed since I first began doing youth ministry. My philosophy in the beginning was more of a youth focused—program driven ministry. Certainly, Jesus was to be honored, the word was to be proclaimed, parents were to be considered, and all of this was to take place within the context of the local church. Now, I no longer believe that youth ministry should be “youth-focused” nor should any aspect of the local church be program driven. In fact doing such a thing, I have found, will undermine such things as "honoring Jesus", "proclaiming the Word", "considering parents", and it will not fittingly take place within the context of the local church.
Now, how did this change come about in my philosophy of ministry and why do I feel that it would be wise for not only your church but any church to adopt this philosophy of student ministry?
First of all, even though I am going to start by giving you some statistics let me say that this has been driven by a theological/doctrinal change instead of a statistical change. What I mean is that the catalyst for such a change in my philosophy of ministry has not been because I have seen problems, or read books, or read statistics. The locomotive for this change has been the Word of God. Today I want to show you why such a change is needed--then we will look at 5 foundational elements of a biblical philosophy of student ministry.
If you are the typical church my guess is that there is only a handful of people in their 20's. Unless of course you are in a college town and have a "vibrant" college ministry that runs like a glorified student ministry. I would also guess that statistically speaking you have more than a handful of twenty-somethings. There are plenty of twentysomethings in your area--the Church simply is not reaching them. I would almost guess that many of those twentysomethings that you now see in the community were at one point "reached" by your student ministry. But something happened and they stopped coming shortly after their graduation. If this is the case your church is not alone.
Across the board, between 70-88% of Christian teens leave church by their second year of college. If you are in a small community, like myself, I can hear one of your excuses right now. "We do not have enough jobs in our small community and our kids go away to college and get a job elsewhere." And that could very well be why some of the kids that were active in your youth ministry in years past are no longer active. Allow me to reword that previous statistic: 70-88% of Christian teens leave church altogether by their second year of college. It is not just that they move to another town and join another church or hook up with another denomination. No, these teens will leave church altogether and probably not be back.
Now let’s do a little math. Our birth rate is currently around 2 children per family (and decreasing), our biblical worldview rate is below 10%, and roughly 75% of our teens leave church by the end of their freshman year in college. (Most will never come back). That means that it currently takes 2 Christian families in one generation to get a single Christian into the next generation. If we started with 4 million believers then using these statistics we see that in the world that your great grandchildren live in there will only be 62, 500 Christians. Perhaps our evangelistic strategies can over compensate. If we continue following this departure rate and hope to offset it by evangelistic efforts that means that to break even each Christian must reach 3 people. That sounds feasible until you realize that in the SBC we reach 1 lost person per 40 Christians. This is not a new trend or something that will be fixed by new strategies, new methods, new programs, big evangelistic crusades, etc. This will require a complete shift in the philosophy of student ministry in many churches.
Let me share a few very sad statistics about our church; and also say that we are not an anomaly. Churches all across America are experiencing this very thing. In our church we presently have about 450 inactive members. This means that 450 people that at one time professed Christ, we baptized, we agreed with them that they were indeed saved, stood up with them and said that we would support them—are now gone. We do not even know some of their names. Again this is across the board and not just a “youth ministry” issue. The SBC boasts 16 million strong—the truth is we are closer to 6 million. On an average Sunday only 33% of the SBC population will be in church attendance. One of the most foundational elements to the Christian walk is fellowship with other believers. If I can be blunt; more than likely we have 450 people that are convinced that they are right with Jesus but are headed to hell with our baptismal waters on their head. Now where did these 450 members come from?
Let me submit to you that one, again I stress one, of the problems is in the area of children's and student ministry. Of our 450 inactive members 112 joined the church before the age of 18. That sounds like a pretty fair statistic, until I tell you that 150 of those 450, I have no clue of their age when they joined. So a more accurate sampling would be that 112 of 300 (nearly half) of our inactive members professed Christ and were baptized before the age of 18 and currently have nothing to do with our church.
We have a significant problem. And let me humbly submit to you what I believe the problem to be. Youth ministry in its present form is unbiblical. In its present form youth ministry caters to the perceived immaturity of youth. It focuses on students. It attempts to reach them by what attracts them. It often is a separate entity within the local church body, fragmented and separated from parents and other mature believers.
What happens within the current paradigm is that students are fragmented from the overall life of the church and do not make an appropriate assimilation into church. Also, the teaching in many student ministries is so shallow and youth focused that they never catch the big vision of who God is and what He calls all peoples to do. What happens then is that students get a minimum exposure to God and the life of the church. These are only a few of the problems or fruits of the fragmented, youth focused, program driven student ministries.
Why then am I suggesting a change in the typical philosophy of student ministry? One reason is that it is not working. Next time we will see an even more important reason to reshape our philosophy of student ministry. Comments and questions are welcome.
I am indebted to Voddie Baucham in his work Family-Driven Faith for the statistics cited above.