In 1972, at the height of the Jesus Movement, the Southern Baptist Convention baptized more teenagers than ever before. From that point, baptisms of teenagers have dropped every year. If McDonalds does everything well except sell fast food, something is amiss. If the church does everything well except evangelize and disciple the lost, it is time for some soul searching.
Senior pastors, youth pastors, professors, and denominational leaders have ideas about the drop in new teenage believers. Each of their thoughts deserves attention. But youth ministry professor Mark Cannister has articulated a factor that may be one of the most telling of all. Writing recently in YouthWorker Journal, Cannister suggests three developments that have brought us to where we are today.
Cannister suggests that everything started to go wrong when the church stopped calling out and equipping parents to disciple their own children. Parents are busy and easily distracted. When they stopped hearing a prophetic call to spiritually impact their own children, and when they stopped receiving specific training for doing just that, they moved on to other matters.
The great majority of church parents now believe taxi driving is their part in discipling their children. They believe their role is to drive children to church to be discipled by professionals. Fewer than 10 percent of active church families read the Bible together during a typical week or pray together apart from mealtime.
Is that a change? Absolutely. Family ministry expert Rob Rienow reports: “We fail to realize that Sunday school and youth groups did not exist until the late 1800s. For the first nineteen centuries of Christianity it was understood that parents were called by God to disciple their children, and that the home was the primary place for this to happen.”
Scripture makes clear that the home provides the environment for the greatest spiritual impact. The best research simply supports that truth from Scripture. Predictably, teenagers not being led spiritually at home became weak. Some have remained in the church, though spiritually lethargic. Many others have wandered away from the church. The exodus begins around age 16. But the bombshell announcement that has sent shockwaves through the church is that half of church youth leave after high school graduation.
Cannister believes this loss of the church’s own students has created both subtle and overt pressure on youth leaders to save the day. In essence, the church now presses youth leaders to create discipling ministries to make up for the vacuum of spiritual leadership in the home. Youth leaders, whether consciously or unconsciously, have responded to this new pressure by shifting almost all their attention from teenagers in the community to teenagers in the church.
Youth leaders preoccupied with the youth group have somewhat lost focus on taking the Gospel to those apart from Christ. Those leaders may be pleased when lost students show up at church, but they are spending less and less time reaching the lost in the community. This shift may be a major factor in the precipitous drop in youth baptisms.
Addressing the Issue
Perhaps you care that many parents in your church are not leading at home. Perhaps you are concerned this might lead to youth leaders who have lost a focus on unreached teenagers. How you respond to these concerns may depend on your position in the church.
Layperson—Your vocational ministers likely are working hard, seeking to fulfill all the expectations others have of them. Hearing an additional responsibility they should shoulder might seem suffocating. Consider a different approach. Tell your ministers you have a passion for spiritually alive homes. Tell them Christ has called you to have a role in your church’s parents becoming spiritual leaders at home. Ask your ministers how you can partner with them to see parents move toward more biblical parenting.
Vocational Minister—You likely are working hard, seeking to fulfill all the expectations others have of you. You may feel that adding one more role—impacting parents as spiritual leaders—is over the top. But you may not need to make this a solo task. Preach and teach about God’s design for parents. Then ask people to come to you if they are sensing a call to be a part of an expanded ministry to and with parents. By sharing this ministry (and perhaps dropping some duty that is far less vital), you may be able to move forward without exhaustion.
If church leaders begin calling out and equipping parents to spiritually lead, and if parents respond to that leadership, then we may begin to see parents more intentional about spiritual leadership at home. And that may lead to teenagers showing signs of transformation even before they arrive at church. And that might lead to youth leaders who can turn more of their attention from the sheep in the fold to those who are lost.
Editor’s Note: Ross gives extensive attention to evangelizing teenagers and equipping parents to spiritually lead in his newest book, Youth Ministry That Lasts a Lifetime, available at seminaryhillpress.com.
Mark Cannister, “Moana to the Rescue: Restoring the Adventure in Youth Ministry,” Youthworker Journal, Summer 2017, pp. 30-31.
George Barna, Revolutionary Parenting (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2007), 31.
Rob Rienow, Visionary Parenting (Nashville: Randall House, 2009), 96.