Youth Group isn’t THE Answer

By now, everyone has heard about the latest Pew Research.

Last Fall, I stood up at The Summit and presented complimentary data.

“Youth Group” Reaches Few

Programmatic “youth group” reaches 5%-10% of any given student population.

But, in many churches, youth group is accepted as 100% of what the church formally does to reach teenagers.Anything else that happens is ancillary, at best, sometimes viewed as competing with the “real” youth ministry at the church.

40+ Years of Data on Youth Group Returns

While the youth ministry tribe generally refuses to do so, you can look at 40+ years of youth group data and come to an educated conclusion– youth group, in it’s current iteration, will continue reaching fewer and fewer teenagers.

After generations of investment… investment largely backed by good will and not data… most reasonable people have come to accept that youth group, as we know it today, isn’t going to reach a theologically appropriate number of middle and high schoolers going forward.

The answer to reaching more teenagers can’t be “Just keep going, go harder, be faithful and this strategy will work eventually.

Less Money, Not More

I feel like the town crier on this. I guarantee you that thousands of people will look at new data from Pew and try to use the data as a justification that their youth group needs more investment. We need better facilities, we need another staff member, we need a new stage or a band or lights or whatever.

Hogwash. 

Since the 1980’s the church in America has invested billions and billions of (tax free) dollars to rapidly expand facilities and staff at local churches.

And what’s the result? We’re reaching fewer than ever. Why? That’s for smarter people to debate, I’m sure there are lots f reasons, the video above outlines a couple of things I think.

S2P4 Adam McLane.007

But I do know that when the U.S. church is compared to places in the developing world where the church is growing that there’s an inverse relationship between the amount of money spent and the number of people reached: The more money you spend on buildings and staff, the less people you reach.

To Americans this seems counter-intuitive, but this is the trend nonetheless. 

U.S. churches have near limitless resources and reach fewer and fewer people.

Many places around the world have no or almost no financial resources and reach more people.

That’s not an indictment on the people doing the ministry. That’s not an indictment on the effort. But it is an indictment on the one-size-fits-all approach.

It. doesn’t. work.

It. never. worked.

Stop. the. insanity.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Don’t mis-read this. I am saying that we need to give up on youth group as the solution to ministering to teenagers at your church.

Absolutely. We need to deal with the fact that youth group is A solution. It’s not THE solution.

Youth group pretty effectively reaches 5%-10% of the communities teenagers. Let’s keep doing it, let’s keep making it better. (Obviously, so much of what I do on a day-to-day basis resources youth group’s around the country.)

I am not saying get rid of youth group or youth ministry is dying or whatever.

But we need to shift our priorities. 

Schedule a meeting today and start thinking about how you can activate the adults in your church who already have a natural connection to teenagers outside of youth group to minister to teenagers. Create something that isn’t an invitation to come to a room, sing some songs, listen to a talk, etc. 90% to 95% of teenagers in your community have heard about it and rejected it.

Create something that doesn’t require a staff or a facility.

Create something that any adult can do to minister to a single teenager on their block.

Unleash 100 ideas.

Try something different.

Experiment.

Track your data.

Make decision based on data, not emotions.

Pretty please with sugar on top.

I double dog dare you.

I’m begging you.

Try something else.

You aren’t the problem, you’re the solution.

Allow it. Encourage it. Champion it. Celebrate it.

And then come tell us about it. 

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

6 comments

  1. Great thoughts Adam. We’ve been wrestling with this reality in Canada for much longer now. We’re on our second generation of nones (sometimes our third generation).

    The big thing I’m struggling with is how do navigate a church that doesn’t have a lot of people that are already involved in the lives of teenagers?

    1. @tom – Yes, I think we in America have a ton to learn from Canada, the UK, and western Europe. (Places most Americans are convinced that the church is dead.)

      To your question, for me it took sitting down with some teenagers and mapping out their adult interactions. I was pleasantly surprised how many “church folk” they interacted with on a regular basis… these are opportunities!

  2. I’m taking a three month sabbatical in the fall from my job as associate pastor (whose main responsibilities involve children and youth and their families). This is a question I hope to really ponder during part of that time; how can I more intentionally share life with the teenagers in the neighborhood where I live, and how can I help connect the adults in our congregation to teenagers in our community?

    I began thinking about it because I have a friend in our church who I often call Peter Pan, because he seems to collect “lost boys” wherever he is – teenage and young adult men who are attracted to his genuine faith and his interest in them. He shares his passion for hiking with them and learns from their interests. While doing ministry with our church at a local community center, he realized there was a group of teenage boys hanging around but not participating. Since then, he has built relationships with them, taking them to skate parks and other adventures, leading an occasional Bible study, and living out his faith in front of them. Many of us at church have come to know and love them through his efforts. So, how can I help others to develop the things that come naturally to him so that other teenagers in our community can have adults caring for them? I’m excited to dream about the possiblities.

  3. Hey man, former youth pastor here. Working with a non-profit now that provides support groups for MS/HS students in public schools during the school day. Our primary volunteer source is youth pastors. This was a non-profit born from the same sentiments you talked about in this post. I’m super encourage you are talking about this.

    I’ve been surprised how sometimes youth pastors are not interested in working with students who will not end up sitting at their church someday. We do have some great pastors working with us, but some of our conversations have been discouraging. Since we are a non-profit working in the public square – even though we are a faith based non-profit – we are limited on how much we can share about our faith. However, we offer incredible emotional/social/life support to students who are in desperate situations.

    I’m struggling to reconcile that in my heart. Why would we not serve students, even if they never step through the doors of our churches?

    Anyways this might have been more cathartic for me than informative for you, but I’d love to hear your feedback. And, I’d love to tell you more about what we do since it seems to line up with what you are talking about here.

    Love the blog, dude

  4. The old Adam is back! Great post that is simultaneously encouraging and infuriating…which is what I’ve always loved about your blog.

    – Youth Pastors (especially those who are paid) are wrong audience for this post. Until Senior Pastors change the way they evaluate youth ministry effectiveness, youth pastors jeopardize their livelihood by ministering in a way their church doesn’t value. For now, that simply is what it is.

    – Less money isn’t the answer. Evaluating where and how money is spent would be, I’d think. A church spending lots of money to do things in the way you are proposing would certainly have bigger impact than a church spending zero money to do things the way you are proposing.

    – What you are proposing is, at it’s core, a return to what youth ministry has been meant to be all along: Incarnational ministry. Sharing life with teenagers. Engaging an uninterested demographic with the good news of the gospel. We’ve certainly become narrow minded in our approaches to see that happen. Your list of suggestions to help us head back that direction are FANTASTIC.

    – It’s always been interesting to me that you still minister in a youth ministry that is virtually 180 degrees from what you often propose in your writings. We need a model of a youth ministry that is successfully doing what you propose…since your livelihood doesn’t depend on it, and you are certainly passionate and informed on the topic, I think you’d be the perfect person to help lead a local church-based youth ministry this direction! Yes, I’m calling you out….but only because we need to see it for ourselves; we need to be able to point to a model and say, “look at this church; it’s worked really well for them….” Pretty please with sugar on top. I double-dog dare you. I’m begging you.

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