One reason youth ministry is flatlining is crappy theology.
Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, was recently interviewed by Relevant Magazine about the present reality that youth ministry presents a faith students easily walk away from in college. She was asked, “Do you think there are any misunderstandings or misconceptions that contribute to young adults leaving the church?”
The students involved in our research definitely tended to view the Gospel as a list of dos and do-nots, a list of behaviors. We asked our students when they were college juniors, “How would you define what it really means to be a Christian?” and one out of three—and these were all youth group students—didn’t mention Jesus Christ in their answer; they mentioned behaviors.
Allow me to translate that. Students are learning really crappy theology from their culture, their parents, and their churches.
Is your Gospel even Good News?
Here’s what I encounter when I talk to students in our ministry and even random students I talk to out on the street. They are desperate for Good News. They are looking for Good News. In their honest moments they are desperately searching for Good News. (From Jesus, Buddha, or Katy Perry)
Their lives need Good News. Somewhere. Somehow. In some fashion… they are hard-wired for and looking for Good News. Why? Because their lives are surrounded by bad news. They need a Jesus who is real, who can help them, or their life isn’t going to get any better.
If God doesn’t show up they are in trouble.
And what do they get at a church? Not much. A 30 minute pep talk, some laughs, and some songs. Or, at best– a Christian version of Dr. Phil with an invitation to talk to someone after church.
But a God who meets them where they are at? Or people who are willing to intervene? Nope. And forget about delivering anything that is actual Good News in their lives.
I meet students who are struggling with stuff like this:
- Have hurts I can’t talk to my mom about.
- Hurts caused by a mom and dad who love themselves more than they love me.
- Does anyone love me? Am I even worth loving?
- Why isn’t my dad around?
- Who the heck am I? What am I going to do with my life?
- Sex is like a big rock rolling me over. I am so confused and hurt about sex.
- I’m stuck in the same problems my parents are, can I break the cycle?
- My family is late on the rent again. We can’t pay our bills and I feel like a big burdon on my parents.
- I have big dreams but no one can help me get there.
- I’m stuck in drug and alcohol abuse and I can’t talk to an adult about it.
- I’ve been molested by someone in my family and I can’t talk to anyone about it.
These aren’t rarities. These are just below the surface for a majority of students I interact with. And the churches answer? Come to church. Listen to a message. Attend a Bible study.
Is there any doubt why 95% of teenagers opt-out of that? They are saying, “I need Good News. I need Jesus to be real because I have no other options.” And the churches solution for everything is prayer, Bible study, and attending worship services?
That’s not Good News. That’s Good Behavior.
It’s inadequate. It’s a failure. And it’s certainly not the Jesus they encounter when they read the Bible. You know– the Jesus who was so desperate to help them that He gave His life for them. They want that Jesus and when He doesn’t show up at their church…
They are leaving and I can’t blame them.
Teenagers desperately need a roaring lion Jesus who will come into their lives, protect them, and help them figure stuff out. They will give anything to a God big enough to do that. Instead they are presented with a smiling, carefree, half-empty suburban-friendly Jesus like substance which cares more about their surfacey behavior than the condition of their heart.
It’s crappy theology. No pastor would admit to teaching it. But that’s what students are learning.
And we arrogantly say we don’t need radical change? Hmph.
Students are trying everything they can to find Good News! They need Jesus to help them with their real, physical problems.
Will your ministry be the one who steps up, gets messy, and points them to the messy, grimmy, grace-covered Good News of Jesus Christ that touches not just their soul but the sole of their feet?
You want to flip the world upside down? Become Good News to a teenager.