A couple years ago the National Center for Family Integrated Churches launched a survey on whether or not the "youth group" model was biblical. You can check out the survey itself here and a brief display of the results here. When they published their findings, they made the claim that the way churches engage and interact with students is the reason why >60% are uninvolved in their faith after adulthood. To all of us who read the article, we said "Duh." Not because of the model itself, but because of the source. NCFIC has been adamant since their founding to blow up not just youth groups but all age-graded ministry in the church. With their survey work, they found the "evidence" to confirm their platform. Here's the problem though, it didn't. Ed Stetzer, head of LifeWay Research offers his rebuttal on the research.
I took the survey when it came out and knew exactly what NCFIC was looking for in their quest. So I wasn't at all surprised when the results were announced and we could now point the blame for a spiritually apathetic generation on churches, student ministers, and youth groups. As I read the articles that came out after the survey, I saw a lot of value in what NCFIC was trying to do, but have not and cannot go as far as they do to blow up the entire mission.
Bad research leads to bad findings which leads to poor conclusions which leads to confused application. Ever noticed when Fox News and MSNBC do polls, they always seem to confirm the political leaning of the network? At the start is this survey is a poorly designed question structure. Short surveys aren't a problem, but asking 3 questions hardly gives a complete picture. Also, the phrasing of the possible answers does not allow for a divergence of opinion on the issue, and its strong wording on why youth groups are bad seem to show the bent of the designer. That's obvious in question 2! Neutrality in survey design is crucial to disavow any confirmation bias. The bad findings are that it's impossible to do any kind of real statistical analysis on the findings, except for a couple pie charts. Where is the interaction between the questions? If you cannot interact with the data except to show demographic results, it's hard to make any kind of conclusion or inference. It's also hard to develop a sound methodology without random sampling. The description from NCFIC was that they sent this via direct email to over 200K emails. Did those come from their database? If so, chances are a majority of those receiving the emails already confirm what NCFIC believes. Lastly, for such a controversial subject, allowing open-ended responses and categorizing those would have allowed for a very fluid picture of the perception of youth groups and young adult discipleship.
Youth groups aren't necessarily the problem, but they are a symptom. There's no data or analysis to say that Youth Group vs. Family Integrated produces lasting discipleship and fruit, just speculation. It's simply impossible to quantify that in a survey. However, NCFIC is onto something when they bring up the problem of age group segregation. Even those who disagree with their assumptions would acknowledge that churches who pull families apart aren't helping the cause for lasting faith. It's a phenomenon we can observe across all of our culture though: we send kids as young as 5 away to school to learn from a state-funded teacher, we drop our kids off at individual batting sessions rather than the backyard, and we see fewer family meals together as busy schedules dominate our lives. What's happened in church life is a separation of families as soon as they walk in the door. Nursery and children's church aren't necessarily bad, except when they are used as a substitute for sharing the Gospel at home. There's a value in allowing the message to be heard, understood and applied at developmental level. I think you see that in Nehemiah 8 when all those who could understand are under Ezra's teaching.
The answer isn't to blow up the ship, but to redesign it. Thankfully for years there's been a move to reclaim the home as the primary place of discipleship, and to recognize the biblical priority of parents (and especially fathers) to lead their families spiritually. I am indebted to Steve Wright, Timothy Jones and Randy Stinson for much of their work in developing a model of ministry called Family Equipping. Rather than blow up our churches' age-graded structure, I want to give 9 ways we can redesign them:
1. Make ministry to/with parents as great a priority as to children/youth - Parents are with their children and students way more than we are. The best investment we can make of our time is fewer events and more discipleship, especially with dads. Can you equip, encourage, support, and build their ministry at home? That's a bigger win than how many people came to your event.
2. Find ways to integrate your students with the life of the church - Help your students find ways they can serve in the church, as ushers or tech, greeters, nursery workers, or with cross-generation activities.
3. Recruit and train volunteers with gray hair - One response I often get from recruits is "I just don't know if I can relate or speak their language." To that I always say "Great! You're exactly who I'm looking for. They have enough idiots who speak their language and get on their level, they need someone who's walked with Jesus for decades to show them wisdom." When we recruit volunteers who are peers, we fail to surround them with men and women who can shepherd them and love them towards Christlikeness.
4. Be intentional about making disciples rather than a holding tank - In children's ministry you get about 7-8 years, and in student ministry you get anywhere from 5-7. When you think about it, that's not a long time. Spend your few years building a biblical worldview, point them to the Gospel, champion their parents, and give them a love for missions. That will do way more for their future and the Kingdom than filling seats.
5. Create an intentional pathway in your ministry structure from children-youth-college-adulthood - One reason I think a lot of young adults drop out is that there was no clear path towards the next step. After college they're expected to just figure it out without a structure to help them find a small group and continue to plug in. Managing these transitions is a way to build continuity not only with children/students but also among ministries. We often operate like silos, working apart but next to each other.
6. Place a renewed emphasis on men as spiritual leaders, and equip husbands and dads regularly - Ephesians 5 puts it right on the mark, Husbands and Dads bear ultimate responsibility for the home. Too often men's ministries in churches are outdoors expos or work crews, rather than the essential task of raising men of God who live with integrity, fight sin, protect their families, love their wives, and care for their children.
7. Change your scorecard and endgame from attracting and keeping to developing and sending - What do you define as a win in your ministry? Wins are what you aim for--for me I try to aim for producing mature disciples who we send out as missionaries to their college or their job after high school. Everything we do is built to generate those wins.
8. Churches should look for qualified men who can shepherd the age group - Changing the perception from youth guy to student pastor is a difficult one. We don't help ourselves out with the stereotype, but many churches look at the youth guy as a glorified babysitter. Many times I would interview at churches for a student ministry position only to be asked very superficial questions about personality, ideas for games, energy level and if I could be their "buddy." We don't build ourselves much a foundation when we settle for a Peter Pan, the youth minister who never grew up. Expect from your student pastor in many ways what you would from your lead pastor, and see if that doesn't change your church culture.
9. Churches should champion the next generation and expect a large number of church members to serve in those areas - There's no retirement in Christianity, just death. A church who is serious about reaching, engaging, and keeping the next generation should be willing to devote significant time, energy, and resources to that. One pastor I served under made it very clear: he expected every able-bodied church member who passed a background check to be on the nursery rotation. He saw how important it was to care for babies and minister to young families. Another way to do this is to simply expand your volunteer base. Recruit new volunteers every year for events, activities, camp and mission trips.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.