I bet you have had a few great teachers. Think back. You can still hear the cadence of their voices; you can still remember their lectures. They pushed you not just to memorize facts, but to live with the information. And you really learned something. They made their classrooms a place where you had to work hard not to learn.
Now, fast forward to your youth ministry. Is your ministry an environment where young people cannot help but learn? When a student in your ministry does not grow spiritually, why is that?
Our firm, The Barna Group, conducts ongoing research into the dynamics of spiritual transformation—what makes people develop to be more like Christ and what hinders such growth. We continue to find that most churchgoing teens are left unprepared for faith past high school. They are not becoming thinking Christians.
In fact, our research shows that most churched teenagers in America will put their faith on the shelf during their 20s. And most of them will never return to it. If they do, it is after a self-sufficient decade, where they have already set the trajectory of their vocation, family, relationships and values.
On average, three out of every four of churched teenagers (74%) will go through an extended—and often permanent—disengagement from the Christian community. This is an astounding percentage of young people who have been exposed to the message of Christ but who will, more likely than not, look back and describe it as just a "Jesus" phase.
To put this in perspective, imagine a group photo of all the students who come to your church in a typical year. Take a marker and cross out three out of every four faces. That's the probable toll of spiritual disengagement as students navigate faith during the next two decades.
Now, some observers have grossly overstated the problem, whipping up paranoia that this is the last Christian generation in America. Others have completely underestimated it, assuming that the problem will go away when this generation becomes parents. I can assure you, based on nearly 25,000 individuals we have interviewed, that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Many of them will return, but not as many as has been the case for any previous generation.
The good news is there are more than 8 million 20-somethings in this country who have an active, thriving commitment to Jesus (which is larger than all but nine states in America). But the problem is not going away. Christian leaders continue to miss opportunities to awaken millions more young souls to a life-long zeal for God. In practical terms, the problem is that people in their 20s will go through their most formative adult decade without much input from the church.
Another important clarification is the impact of parents. What teenagers learn from their parents is the most significant predictor of what happens to them spiritually as adults. Youth workers face steep challenges because they are trying to impart something of spiritual significance that teenagers generally do not receive from home. While there may be difficulties with teens from Christian homes, the long-term prospects for their faith are stronger than those without such families.
We still have more research in the works on this subject, but our initial forays into this topic suggest that the annual content of most youth ministries is one size fits all. The teaching and efforts of the church are primarily aimed at the broadest possible group. This is not in itself problematic, and it may even be the most strategic way to communicate.
However, without intentional, one-on-one opportunities for spiritual training, the unique needs and questions of each individual and each potential leader can get glossed over. Youth leaders cannot—and should not—take on individual mentoring with every student. They don't have the time. But it is imperative that the church experience be oriented around helping each teen, given their personality, spiritual maturity and learning style, become better thinkers.
So how do we create environments where teens learn to think? How do we transform our efforts as youth workers so that a deep, sustainable faith is a clear-cut outcome? Here are some insights from our research that may be helpful:
1. Have the right standards for success. Often we measure our youth ministries by things like the number of attendees, the sophistication of the events and the 'cool' factor of the youth group. Instead, the standard needs to be whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole-heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest. This is not a new revelation, but few churches elevate this standard above other goals.
2. Be more personalized. Each teen has unique needs, questions, doubts, interests and learning styles, so one-size-fits-all ministry should be dropped in favor of efforts that address individual needs. This personalization should focus on developing gifts and understanding purpose, so that they exit their teen years with a clear sense of their role within God's calling.
3. Facilitate life-on-life mentoring. Set up leadership development tracks, vocational counseling and intentional relationships that facilitate life-on-life mentoring. In this way, you can connect teens with adults who are already working in an area of career interest. This also involves enlisting the help and passions of parents, so that your ministry equips families to minister to their own children.
4. Allow ambiguity and mystery to propel learning. Most teenagers resist the idea that everything can be wrapped up in neat little packages. This does not mean that biblical standards are vague; they are not. But teens need to develop their own ability to process life's complexities from a biblical viewpoint rather than merely being told what to do.
5. Realize that learning is not primarily about teaching. The kingdom of God is not conveyed merely through good teaching; it is a lifestyle of unabashed devotion to Jesus. People learn it by experiencing it and seeing it in the lives of others. Expose your students to worship, community service, healthy relationships and so on—whatever experiences help them grasp a kingdom with meaning and texture.
6. Build a team of uniquely gifted people. Interestingly, we have found great Bible teachers are not always effective at youth discipleship. Conversely, we have discovered some youth workers are able to create life-changing environments despite their limitations in communicating in front of a group. The implication: your ability to astound people by talking about the Bible is less important than assembling a strong, complementary team focused on facilitating deeper faith in teens' lives.
Whatever strategies you adopt, helping teens learn to think is not easy, but it is worth doing. After all, we're not merely teaching academic subjects like history, geography or calculus. We are creating the conditions for sustainable faith in each life. And you don't get summer off.