Friday, October 06, 2006

The 4% Doctrine-- Where Are our Evangelical Youth Going?

Ron Luce is worried. And if Ron Luce is worried, we should be too. Ron runs an organization called Teen Mania which puts on camps, concerts and various and sundry other sorts of events for youth. He claims that in the last fifteen years 2 million youth have attended his events, the usual formula for which includes some prominent popular Evangelical band, speakers, and counselors. There is a figure that was put out there a decade or so ago which said that even Evangelical Churches are retaining only about 4-5% of our youth. A more recent poll by George Barna suggests that only 5% of our country's youth are Bible believing Christians, but perhaps he was defining Christian or Bible-believing too narrowly. I personally don't think this is true, but even if it is in the ball park it means that youth ministry as currently constituted is largely failing. You should read the story for yourself. Here's the link from this morning's N.Y. Times.

The question to be raised is--- why such a huge attrition rate by anoyone's calculations? Should we blame it on the music? Should we blame it on the approach? Should we blame it on the culture? What the heck is happening out there?

Well perhaps I can point to a few clues. But let me tell you a story first. I count Chris Tomlin as a friend. He was a praise worship neophyte when I first met him over a decade ago in the Woodlands Texas where he was leading music at the Woodlands U. Methodist Church, a Church I know well. I've done various events there over the years, and the pastor is a long time friend. I invited Chris to come to Asbury and help me with a revival I was leading. He came, and it gave him some exposure outside of Texas, exposure to a bunch of future youth ministers, and other clergy types. He came again a couple of years later, and he was a star on the rise. Now of course he headlines Christian concerts all over the place. He headlined Ichthus this past year of course had a positive impact on the 20,000 folks there. But what happened to Chris's meteoric career?

Well, you could be cynical and say the American starmaker machinery called the music industry saw a good thing and got on the Chris Tomlin bandwagon. But that wouldn't entirely be true. Chris is a wonderful, devout, humble Christian man with a deep and abiding faith in the Lord.

You could hypothesize that maybe God just blessed him and he turned around and blessed others by continuing to produce high quality praise music. Well of course there is some truth to that assessment but it isn't the whole story.

Some will ask--- What is the formula for that sort of 'success'? We are always looking for the technique, the formula the gimmick. And yes, there are some tricks to good marketing. I ought to know. I've not only been in the music business when I was much younger working for the Record Bar chain and promoting a Christian concert or two, but I've been in the publishing business for a long time now. And here is one thing I know-- form without substance does not last. Flash without the cash does not last. Image is not everything. It may get your foot in the door, but it will not allow you to live in the house, and this is especially true with the shape-shifting ever moving Christian youth culture.

Two of the reasons Chris's music has been so embraced and well received is it has SUBSTANCE, it is strongly based in God' Word. My friend and colleague J.D. Walt our chaplain here at Asbury has helped Chris with this in regard to the lyrics. And it has paid dividends.

Here's a simple truth--- God's Word does not wear out or fail. It doesn't have built in obsolescence like pop culture. So here's my formula of the day-- the less Biblical substance to a Christian pop event, song, etc. the less likely it will have any staying power. So much of praise music is pablum-- endlessly repeating the same choruses over and over. Repetition is not a bad thing. In fact it helps one to learn the lyrics. But if what you are repeating isn't something strong and substantive that a person can build a Christian life around, then its a willow of the wisp. It will come and go.

And here's another other factor. You need to draw your water from a deep well. By this I mean that a Christian musician, minister etc. needs to have a deep and abiding relationship with the Lord and deep and profound grounding in God's Word and in God's community. If you try to proclaim something that has not first catalyzed your own soul and spiritual life, it will ring hollow, rather than true. And one thing you don't have to worry about with Chris Tomlin-- he is not a superficial or surface Christian. He has authenticity and integrity. I could wish for still a bit more substance to some of the lyrics--- but hey we are getting there. Check out his new CD "See the Morning" and listen to 'Uncreated One'.

But Chris has a third secret. And its hiding in plain sight. He is not just singing, posturing, or performing. He is leading people into worship, into the living presence of God. Worship is a well he drinks from regularly and in the many Passion events he has led it is clear where he is coming from, and where he is bidding us to go. There is a different between a performance, and an act of worship, and Chris is fully comfortable with, indeed excited and joyfully taking us into worship.

My word today to Youth Ministers is this--- one key to retaining the youth is this--- have they been captivated, caught up in love, wonder and praise of the Lord, or have they merely been entertained? There is a difference. Does the event not merely make them dance but make them kneel and confess their sins and pray? Does the event not merely move their emotions but challenge their thinking? Does it bring them to repentance, or are you offering some kind of forgiveness without repentance, crown without a cross, encounter without commitment? And are you integrating them into a caring Christian community where they will be planted deeply, richly in God's Word? The key to retention is surrounding a new Christian with a caring, supportive and yes challenging Christian environment that involves more than just worship. It also needs to involve some profound Christian education, as our youth will never get that from our culture these days. Youth ministry is often failing because in general the Church's Christian education is failing. Less than a third, on average, of people who go to worship stay for Sunday school or Bible study or its equivalent. We should have noticed this warning sign a long time ago.

So much of youth ministry is 'boiling things down', or as the jargon goes, putting the cookies on the bottom shelf. But you can't boil something down that you haven't first boiled up. By this I mean the youth leaders must be more profoundly grounded in God's Word than they are in pop culture, though they need to keep their finger on the pulse of the culture as well. However, as our culture, even youth culture, moves further and further away from Christianity, it will be hard to find points of contact with that culture that can be jumping off points for a Christian witness. So perhaps we could try something different.

Chris' approach is not to boil the message down, but rather to boil the people up. This I think is the right way to go. Get them excited about the Lord, get them excited about the Word. And instead of turning the message into pablum why not tease the minds of our youth into active thought? Why not honor their keen minds, their curiosity, and even their questions by challenging them with the meat of God's Word? Help them so that their reach will extend further than their current grasp. Give them something solid to hold on to.

Today more than ever with one out of two marriages, even in Evangelical Churches, ending in divorce and more and more family dysfunctionality, we need the church to BE a family, the family of faith, who will take in all comes, every straggler. Maybe our motto could be "give me your tired, your poor, your restless masses yearning to breath free..." Wait a minute isn't that on that statue on Ellis Island? Yes it is, but real freedom only comes from a close encounter of the first kind with the Word of God Incarnate, and the Word of God written, and the Word of God incarnated in his community. And that's the Gospel truth for today.


Brian said...

Good thoughts. I think too Parents and Churches need to up the ante on biblical teaching in families and church sunday school classes (e.g., re-emphasize bible memorization, increase the focus on biblical content, and the like). I realize there are churched and parents who do this but I think it is fair to argue that not too many are doing this and so it is a factor in high attrition rate of youth in the evangelical churches.

Ben Witherington said...

You are quite right first of all the Sunday school and Bible teachers need to be properly trained. If the ministers are incapable then they need to have a paid Bible teacher on staff to do this. Once these core leaders are equipped, then it should be there job to train up the co-workers, the staff the youth ministers etc. Bible training should be a mandatory thing for the entire staff, and so should a committment to life long learning.



Justin said...

i totally agree with your initial conclusion. however, i dont think Ron Luce is a crediable source to quote. although he may have a 'market' on some of todays christian youth sub-culture, i think he misses the mark more often than not.

Robin Dugall said...

Ben - I've respected your scholarship and deep commitment to the Kingdom for quite some time. In fact, in the biblical studies classes that I teach online for Azusa Pacific, I use your books frequently. So, thanks!

Secondly, your article is something that some of us who have been around the block in Youth Ministry are attempting to address. The superificiality of youth ministry is legedary. Senior Pastors and leaders of churches put so much pressure on youth leaders to be able to "retain" and keep the numbers of students consistently going "up" that many student ministry leaders fall haphazardly for the entertainment paradigm. I lead a Lilly Endowment program at APU ( and we specifically go after the issues of theological shallowness, the "entertainment" addiction of our culture and the "worship" of cultural celebrity. Things have got to change. If you haven't read Christian Smith's book, Soul Searching, it would be worth your time. His research just confirms many of the things your examined. Well, keep it up. I'm excited about us "more seasoned" leaders addressing these shortcomings in the Church. Blessings brother!

Robin Dugall
Exec. Director
Youth Leadership Institute
Adjunct Biblical Studies Professor
Azusa Pacific University

Steve Pratt said...

Provacative work, Ben. Your Chris Tomlin narrative was especially striking to me. As one who can often see the world in different hues than most, I always wondered how Chris Tomlin came up with his lyrics. When you are the voice and, yes, even the face of the Christian worship music industry, it must be a swell of an ego trip, knowing that no matter what kind of songs you put out there, radio stations are lining up to play them without question, without censor. That lack of afterthought for examination, for separating the wheat from the chaff, is noxious about 'Christian' culture: just because the norms are there, doesn't mean they are by any means exulting, honoring, or humble. So yes, your post stopped me for a moment in my thinking to consider the heart of the man behind the (Christian music) machine.

I read a blog the other week about Chrsitian education that might shed more light on this issue of leaving kids behind. See what you think of it.

Take care.

Peace & Grace,

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Robin: Very good to hear these matters are being addressed. I hope what you are doing trickles down to the average congregational youth minister somehow. Thanks as well for the resource suggestions from one and all.


David Johnson said...

This is the full address of the article he was talking about.

I think several things are important when it comes to the church's ministry to and retention of the young.
1) Somehow or another, we must find ways to deepen the spirituality and commitment of the parents. The fewer parents who are simply church-goers who take their children with them--but are instead thoughtful and engaged with their world in a thoroughly Christian way--the better. Parents have too big an impact on their children for us to ignore the fact that the philosophical deism that most Christian youth hold to nowadays is exactly what their parents believe.
2) That philosophical deism itself must be challenged. Yes, you must emphasize the importance of Scripture, but you've also got to confront the culture in which they live, and show how authentically lived Christianity challenges every facet of it--from politics and patriotism to dating and marriage to attitudes toward poverty and disease. The youth (and parents, too) must know the Word, but they must also understand how the Word is at work in the world--most powerfully through the church--in, as N.T. Wright is fond of saying, "setting the world to rights." And both young and old must be shown some concrete life practices for Christians if the aim of the reign of God is, indeed, at least partially "setting the world to rights."

David Johnson said...

Add 289 to the end of that address.

masonbooth said...

Dr. Witherington,

i wanted to thank you for your post. i was there the first year when Chris came to Asbury (i think that it was his first year). you were organizing a revival and Chris led us in worship one day during chapel. it was great. but what really caught my heart was that later that afternoon, i was over at another establishment you owned (Solomon's porch) having my customary cup of coffee when guess who walked in and set up a table to sell some of his CD's? Chris came in. i guess we spent about 20 minutes talking and i too found him very humble and just a really neat guy. while his ability to lead worhsip and write wonderful meaningful songs has meant a great deal to me over the years, it was that 20 minute conversation in Solomon's Porch that sold me on Chris. i have seen Chris at 722 in Atlanta, i have seen him at other Passion events, but that 20 minutes at Solomon's Porch has always stuck with me. when i tell people the story of meeting Chris they laugh and think that i am stretching the truth, they think, why would such a star spend so much time with me, but that is what makes Chris special. thanks once again for make my years at Asbury challenging and visioning...



Marc Axelrod said...

At Trinity, they usually encourage preachers to avoid relying on statistics. Most poll questions are phrased ina way to achieve desired answers whether intentional or not.

At any rate, our youth leader has a heart for students, and she is reaching some for Christ.

And I try to have at least one application in my sermon that is aimed at the youth contingency in the congregation, sometimes more. 20% of the people in my parish are 18 and under. I will die out there if I don't apply the text to them.

mar13 said...

David Johnson,

Yes, we should assist the parents to train and instruct their kids in the faith.

However, that's not the number one audience. The kids themselves is. Many ministry contexts today (urban, dysfunction, etc.) the parents are no longer the significant factor.

We must bear the burden ourselves in these cases sometimes, even though it's sad.

Glenn Kaiser said...

Ben, you rock. I'm a 53 yr. old pastor, fronted Rez Band in the day, and have a great many friends in denom. as well as house church movement. I love your blog and truly loved this one.

In my view, Junlenka (here) got it right and best re. dialogue and questioning in a local church context. I also think the sheer amount of time investment needed for all of us in leadership as well as the rest of the local congregation- for younger people to KNOW and FEEL truly welcomed and a part- this is a huge factor in why some leave while others stay.

Then again I don't worry about numbers and don't know that math has much to do with success in God's Own view of "the church". People have free will and come and go, are saved or not, grow as disciples or backslide, etc., on ultimately, their own decisions, no?

Of course we must all do best we can and this is why your comments and the responses are important, but in the end, we cannot take -full- responsibility but only part of it. People will or will not follow Jesus Christ. If this were a popularity contest only, that'd be another matter, but the cross and surrender have never been popular regardless how they're presented.

In the end, this is the common truth for younger and older ones among us.

Ron Corson said...

julenka, I could not have said it better myself. Therefore it is now more then just one person's opinion.

I actually just stumbled on this blog and used a quote from it in my blog article I kind of wish I had just read the whole article and the comments and then posted you statement.