Three documents have crashed into each other on my computer. Their composite message is both troubling and hopeful.
Christian Smith is the researcher who coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the “faith” of most church teenagers. His seminal National Study of Youth and Religion research sent shock waves through the youth ministry world.
A church teenager might express MTD this way: “God exists. He is nice and wants us to be nice. He doesn’t bother me about my life. But since I’m very special, He’ll show up whenever I call. But as soon as He does something to make my life happier and easier, He goes away again—so I can live my life my way.”
Smith and his team of researchers have continued to research the students who made up the original sample. They have just completed Wave Four interviews with those subjects, who now are ages 20-24.
Last week Christian Smith emailed me with the initial results. Even with their church backgrounds, Smith found that about 90%:
- “Know absolutely nothing about what the [churches] they grew up in believe theologically,
- Have no understanding whatsoever of the ways that faith is not just an instrumental help but is something that might drive and transform one’s life, and
- Think religion is totally about the basic moral orientation it gives (most of which they agree with but say they are not living by).”
He summarized by saying, “Only about 10% remain what we called ‘committed traditionalists.’” To use the vocabulary of evangelicals, that means about 10% can express their core beliefs, can lead someone else to saving faith, and embrace Christ’s mission for their lives. Ten percent!
Blogger Matt Marino has generated lots of conversation with his post, What’s So Uncool about Cool Churches? Marino wrote, “What is the ‘pill’ we have overdosed on? I believe it is ‘preference.’ We have embraced the idea of market-driven youth ministry. Unfortunately, giving people what they ‘prefer’ is a road that, once you go down it, has no end. … In an effort to give people something ‘attractive’ and ‘relevant’ we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church.”
Near the end of that post, Marino says, “In summary, ‘market driven’ youth ministry gave students a youth group that looks like them, does activities they prefer, sings songs they like, and preaches on subjects they are interested in. It is a ministry of preference. And, with their feet, young adults are saying ‘Bye-bye.’ What might we do instead? The opposite of giving people what they want is to give them what they need.”
Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Larry Alex Taunton summarizes a study performed by his Fixed Point Foundation. They conducted extensive interviews with collegiate members of atheist organizations that Taunton calls “the atheistic equivalent of Campus Crusade.” He found that almost all the young atheists had backgrounds in the church and in youth groups. Here are some of the conclusions of the study:
- The mission and message of their churches was vague.
- They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.
- They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.
- Ages 14-17 were decisive. For most, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.
Taunton wrote, “Without fail, our former church-attending students expressed [much respect] for those Christians who unashamedly embraced biblical teaching. Michael, a political science major at Dartmouth, told us that he is drawn to Christians like that, adding: ‘I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.’”
Eric Metaxas adds, “Much of what passes for youth ministry these days is driven by a morbid fear of boring our young charges. As a result, a lot of time is spent trying to devise ways to entertain them. The rest of the time is spent worrying about whether the Christian message will turn kids off. But … young people, like the not-so-young, respect people with conviction—provided they know what they’re talking about.”
In the last two years I have read 60 books from the clearest thinkers in youth ministry. I have studied summaries of 14 research projects related to youth ministry. The major themes that emerge are these:
- Teenagers are transformed primarily through their relationships with adults who themselves are deeply transformed. Teenagers begin to live for the glory of Christ as they walk beside others who live for the glory of Christ. Baptist Press editor and youth volunteer Art Toalston recently tweeted, “Even middle school boys drop their silliness and tune in when Scripture flows from our souls.”
- Teenagers are transformed through heart connections. The stronger the relationship is between a teenager and an adult, the stronger will be the transmission of transformation.
- Teenagers are transformed by the Spirit through the truth and power of God’s Word. Teenagers respect and are drawn toward adults who joyfully proclaim with full conviction, “Thus saith the Lord.” The youth leader who spends 15 minutes preparing his Bible talk and two hours on a creative video might actually increase attendance by reversing those time allotments.
I celebrate any church willing to spend a million dollars on a youth building. It can be a useful tool. But no one should assume that’s the key to getting teenagers willing to live or die for the cause of Christ for a lifetime. The key is:
- Leading parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to fall more deeply in love with Christ and to transparently exude their passionate desire for His glory and the coming of His kingdom on earth. Who in your church is gathering parents and youth leaders with the specific goal of leading them into a deeper relationship and walk with King Jesus? How often do they meet?
- To equip parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to know how to build deeper heart connections with teenagers. Busy adults can have life-on-life discipling relationships with about three teenagers. What is the adult-student ratio in your church’s Bible teaching groups? Who is regularly challenging adults to put down their lattes, leave their comfortable adult groups, and invest in the next generation?
- To equip parents, youth ministers, and disciplers to know Scripture, assimilate Scripture, and confidently proclaim Scripture to teenagers. When your average dad pictures himself with his family and Bibles open, does he feel competent to share the Word? Who is taking the lead in equipping him for this role? When do they meet and how often?
Churches that have depressing answers to the questions above—BUT have some great facilities, programs, and trips for teenagers—should NOT expect most of their teenagers to walk in faith for a lifetime. Facilities, programs, and trips have a role and they are a helpful supplement to ministry, but they are not the core issues. If we do not shift much more of our focus to the core issues, we will continue to lose most of a generation after high school.