For a minute, let me put on my youth leader hat. There are some things that have been bothering me for a long time, even longer than I have been a youth leader. I’ve heard various statistics about how anywhere from 70% – 80% of students leave the church within two years of graduating high school. Regardless of which statistic is correct, let’s just agree that it is a ridiculously high percentage. MOST of the students we are inviting into our youth ministries, MOST of the students who come up through the ranks of children’s ministry and into the youth group, MOST of the students who are experiencing a conversion moment at our revivals and crusades are falling away once they leave the youth group. Why is that? Theories abound. There has been a lot of ink and paper and blog space dedicated to trying to answer this conundrum. Here are a few more observations to add to the discussion, starting with a couple of things that cannot be the answer.
A popular thought is that we can attract more students by having cool music, cool leaders, relevant discussions, and cool events. Obviously, none of those things are wrong. Music is a hook for students, and reaching them with music is almost non-negotiable. The people who lead our students need a gift for relating to them. They need to possess the patience required to mentor young people who often overestimate their intelligence and wisdom. The discussions we lead our students through need to hit them at their level of experience and understanding. And there needs to be shared events and experiences that are memorable for our students, which create mile markers in their spiritual growth. YET, we have more of these things than ever before and students continue to bleed out of our churches after high school.
Another idea that I’ve heard is that students need more bonding time, more together time with their peers, and that those relationships will help them form some accountability that will strengthen their faith. (There’s a glaring fault in this logic. Peers make horrible accountability partners. But that’s another topic.) So we run our youth pastors and youth leaders ragged to create safe places and events where our students can be with their peers and bond. Students have more peer time than ever before, even at the risk of having more peer time than family time, YET, this makes no discernible difference in the numbers of students who leave. (In fact, I believe it increases the numbers who choose to leave…. But that’s for a different blog.)
So we live in a day when our students are catered to more than ever before. We have met them at their level, condescended to their needs, given them much of what they have asked for, and yet they continue to fall away. What gives? May I submit to you that in all of these efforts, we have failed to portray a compelling enough image of the risen Christ? We have failed to instruct our students (and for that matter, our adults as well) to look at Jesus in all of his brilliant glory! In Isaiah 45:22, the prophet prophesies, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” Psalm 34:5 declares, “Those who look to him are radiant and their faces shall never be ashamed.” When we direct our view to a beaten, bloodied, crucified, Savior who is no longer dead, but living and reigning in infinite power and glory, clothed in resplendent majesty, dwelling in unapproachable light, who will one day return with his saints to bring justice to the sinner and redemption to all of creation, can we not expect that God, by the Holy Spirit, will draw young men and women unto himself in a way that compels them to remain faithful? Oh how we have failed! We have believed that our ingenuity would draw our young to an enduring faith instead of the indescribable beauty of Jesus Christ!
What shall we do? If seeing Christ in this way is a work of the Holy Spirit, what can we do? What is our responsibility to our young? First, recognize that God’s plan for revealing Himself involves us. While it is the Holy Spirit alone that can open the spiritual eyes and ears, it is our responsibility to declare the message loudly and remove the obstacles that would obscure the view. We must never shy away from portraying Christ crucified and risen, and one day, returning. This message must be loud and clear, for it is by this message that people will not only be saved, but will be reminded of the cost of their redemption and the effects of their redemption.
Equally important, we must remove the obstacles to faith. And in most cases, the obstacles to faith are not philosophical or scientific, but relational. If we want people to see Jesus, they have got to stop looking at us. True, we lead them; true we live life in such a way that we can say, “Follow me,” but it is only to the end of, “as I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) While leading them, we teach them to look to Christ as we look to Christ. Sadly, we are frequently the obstacles. Our grumbling, our lack of forgiveness, our reliance on self, our pride, our lack of vision; these are obstacles that obscure the view to Christ! We need to get ourselves out of the way by living authentic lives of confession and repentance so that the view to Christ is unobstructed. If our young stumble over us, woe to us! But if they stumble over the cross, do they not fulfill the prophecy, “And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling,” (Isaiah 8:14)? I would rather a young person have an unobstructed view of Christ and reject Him because he or she simply refuses to believe, than to have them reject Christ because I make following Christ seem like a waste.
Pray for your church’s youth pastors and leaders. Pray that they can present a compelling, unobstructed view of Jesus Christ in all of His majesty and glory. As a youth leader myself, I have failed in this. I need your prayers as well. I have to believe that if we can find ways to present Jesus in the fullest way possible, God will plant in our students a faith that endures beyond high school, beyond college; faith that lasts a lifetime.