We need a change in youth ministry.
The reason is simple: students are still leaving. Despite our best efforts and our most innovative programs, the trend continues. If you work with students, either in a church or school, you've come across some of the statistics. They vary. But across the board, the result is the same. Once students graduate high school and begin their independent lives, church drops off their radar, at least for a time. It becomes a low priority, if a priority at all. Some return, some don't.
Now, the majority of recent studies show that students disassociate themselves with Christianity for reasons other than we expect. They aren't leaving because they lack answers to difficult questions, or because they have an insufficient worldview. They leave because they feel like they "grew out of it." Or it was time for a life change. Or they were ready for something new. They fail to see Christianity's value once a new chapter of their lives begins. They're silently drifting away, still at an alarming rate.
Why have our best tries at keeping kids in church failed? Because we're treating them like kids. We've tried to dress them up and deck them out for life on their own, and for good reasons. It's a big change, to go from teenager to adult. It's socially demanding. It can be spiritually trying. So we've tried to send them out feeling equipped, as if for battle. But we've sent them out as little children dressed in armor that's too big or too wearisome for them to carry. That's not a fault of the armor; we've just missed the problem.
Youth need to grow up.
Of course kids need to grow up; that's not news to anyone. But our methods and programs in churches and classrooms don't usually line up with the problem. Youth ministries are still entertaining students, not guiding them into adulthood. Classes are still pouring information into students' heads, not helping them explore the world on their own. In order for youth to become adults, they've got to be invited, guided, and led into adulthood. How?
First, we can acknowledge that youth who are in Christ already have everything they need. They have Christ's example, his Spirit, and his Church to help them grow. With these three, youth can pattern their lives after Christ.
We know that as soon as any person is "in Christ," whether she be fifty or five, she sets out on the road to become like him. Fully. That means Christian youth are already capable of becoming mature Christians, just by virtue of being in Christ. They've got the same Spirit, and they're capable of the same wisdom and discovery as any adult.
They have everything they need, in Christ and His Church. So we in Christ's Church are to help. In order to grow, students need the help of mature, wise Christians. Leaders who will see them not only as they are, but also as they will become; who will acknowledge the real limitations that students have, and help them grow. Because the youth who are getting ready to become adults don't need condescension; they need patience, assistance, and grace.
Christian youth are ready to become adults. In fact, most of them are eager. They want us to acknowledge that they have something valuable to give to Christ's body, because they do. We can turn toward them, and receive from them as equal members of Christ's body. It's time to stop pretending that we know it all or that we have it all together. Instead, let's invite them to join us as we search for wholeness in Christ.
We need a change in youth ministry. We need to start thinking about youth ministry that makes adults. We need to re-think our programs, our teaching, and our integration into other "adult" ministries. And we can start by remembering that students have what they need to grow. Our job, then, is to work alongside Christ and his Spirit to lead students up into adulthood. Because once they see, feel, and proclaim Christ's total freedom, they'll stay.