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."

ross said...

Important question you raise Ben in your concern about the music in today's worship events when you ask "Does the event not merely move their emotions but challenge their thinking?"

It is terribly naive to believe music is the main thing which attracts youth. No matter how musically wonderful the songs which are inundating the market may be, I suggest they should be rejected if the text is theologically inadequate.

So many of the contemporary worship songs lack depth or substance. Many of the "twenty-somethings" are abandoning youth services or even Sunday morning contemporary worship services because of the fluff which is an affront to their intelligence. They are demanding much more and as leaders we need to be willing to stand in the gap and avoid using inferior worship songs which will not last!

David Johnson said...

Add 289 to the end of that address.

Ghostonthenet said...

I know what you mean, Dr. Witherington. So much of Christian music has become pathetic pastiches interweaving hopelessly cliche cookie cutter Christian lyrics and poorly emulated sounds stolen from more talented artists. It certainly pales in comparison to all the superb Christian music produced in the era of classical music. I guess you could say I have a strange kind of experience in this subject in that I run a Gothic and Industrial Shoutcast internet radio station called Seraphim Radio : Sounds from the Crystal Sea at, and of the Christian artists I play as a ministry to goths (who all too often run into the brunt of modern Christianity's ugly side), I have tried to stick to music with some real Biblical substance, like the Bible they never knew they had or something. It seems so many things are going wrong in the western church these days, its pretty depressing. We're definitely agreed that while most of the country professes Christian belief, their actual beliefs mean that it is deism that has won out in this country. It seems like no matter how many competent Christian intellectuals step forward to face up to the difficult issues of our time, the church lends them a deaf ear of willful incompetence while secular academia slaps on a couple of epithets and then totally ignore every word they say. God help us.

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.

Rainsborough said...

Here are some reasons orthodox Christians should be pleased about America today:
1. On measures of religiosity (beliefs, practices, self-identification) Americans rate much higher than Britons, Italians, Germans, and the French, and even the Irish and the Polish.
2. A remarkable 42% of Americans reject evolution (believe that humans and other living things have existed in their present forms only).
3. Bible reading, Barna reports, has increased since 1995.
4. Once a non-existent political force, orthodox Protestantism has acquired a substantial influence within the party in power. It’s true that politicians like Ralph Reed, and perhaps others in more eminent positions, have taken advantage of orthodox believers. But faith-based programs are now fairly generously financed by the federal government, and as a report in the New York Times today shows, religious organizations are more and more exempt from taxes and regulations that apply to others. Moreover, the President’s religious credentials are accepted as bona fide by most orthodox Christians. (Whether these achievements are all unalloyed goods might be questioned. But political power can be used to uphold standards of morality, and orthodox Christians have more today than they did in the past. More power, that is.)
5. A third of Americans believe that the Bible should be a more important influence in determining our laws than the people’s will. (In a sense, then, they are more theocrats than democrats.)
6. There’s more intense hostility to homosexuals and homosexuality in the United States than in comparable European countries, and it emanates chiefly from orthodox Christians.

But there are reasons for concern, and they center on the beliefs and attitudes of the younger generation.
1. In 2003, only a little more than a third of Americans under thirty opposed gay marriage, as compared to almost three quarters of those over sixty-five.
2. In 2005, of those over sixty-five, 44 percent believed that the Bible is the literal word of God, as compared to about a third of those aged thirty to sixty-four, and only 29% of those aged eighteen to twenty-nine.

Perhaps orthodox Christians more hold that force should be used by the United States in other countries to uphold moral standards there. Nonetheless, there are scriptural grounds, adduced by the Amish among others, for abhorring too ready a resort to force. From the standpoint of those who bear the brunt of our employment of force, there is perhaps no more important moral issue. If one believes morality applies especially to the use of force by the world’s only superpower in other countries whose armed forces are vastly weaker, then one might find some hope in one intriguing finding in recent Pew survey. Asked whether they were more concerned about America’s using force too much or not enough, the older generations said “too much,” but by only a narrow (six points or so) margin. But among the younger generation, the response was 2:1 in favor of “too much.”

Then so far as morality at home and goes, one central issue must be whether the bounds put on sexual conduct conduce to bringing children into the world in favorable circumstances, and whether their parents stay together and care for those children well. Access to birth control and abortion may also bear on these issues.

Ghostonthenet said...

Umm, those statistics give you hope? From my studies and perspective, they look pretty dismal.

Set A:

1. To say we have more Christians than European countries who have had an incredible loss of Christian believers is no consolation, especially since they would have gone through declines an awful lot like our own.
2. This would however be quite true of a kind of deistic perspective too, as Witherington has alluded to too.
3. The important question becomes: Increased how much and to what effect for what reason?
4. It is this unquestioning alliance of American Christianity to straight up political conservativism, and increasingly the neo-imperialistic neo-conconservativism (as opposed to the more isolationist tendencies in the past) that will be an enormous problem. This will especially be true of a youth who has already been taking up positions diametrically opposed to the positions for good or ill of the neocons, and will find themselves increasingly alienated from the church because of its political efforts in full synchronicity with these neocons. To a great extent this is a battle I'm already on the front lines of in Netcasting. Power and morality is an interesting corelation, it has been my observation that where strict legally imposed mandates upon morality exist, such moral behavior only occurs on the surface level because the people upon whom it is legislated have no real belief in such a code of ethics.
4. Much the same as above. Of this third, it is likely the alienating eisegesis' that hold sway in the U.S. that Dr. Witherington is always attempting to counter will in fact hold sway of this 1/3 minority, and even with maximum influence "The Bible" in question would in fact be "The Bible that Never Was".
6. Hostility.... yes. We have Christians who think that it is the Christian way to treat homosexuals as subhumans with no redemption. In a youth that has already largely taken the opposite position, that this is what they see of Christianity is not going to help Christianity in this country. Yes, prevent gay marriage from being legalized, but change the laws so that they are capable to seeing to each other's well being in the event of crisis.

Set B :

1. This is direct statistical evidence that the influence of Christian thought has been waning with every successive generation.
2. Let me be one to say that I HATE the wording of this question. I don't believe The Bible is the literal word of God because I believe God inspired it with literary forms that were not intended to be taken literally, i.e. I will not go on a search for the seven headed beast off the Mediterranean coast, nor will I try to play at the crazy antics the fundies do for "literal" interpretations of the non-literal forms of apocalyptic literature.

It is true that the question of when to use power, and what kind of power to be used is a very important. I am however pretty certain that neocons fighting for freedomlization (i.e. persuing globalism's agenda in the name of democracy, to borrow the term from Front Line Assembly) and being content to simply drop bombs on the problem of terrorism without doing anything to resolve the problems that alienate people into resorting to terrorism isn't cutting it. Sure, we have a lot of theologians like N.T. Wright who are taking a stand against imperialistic tendencies in the name of God, but since the church is ignoring its intellectuals anyway, and the message doesn't reach the people who need it. In the end, it appears that the warning of the second chapter of Luke is being fulfilled before our eyes once more as Christianity increases leaps and bounds in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia while it sinks in its own wastes of a culture who had exchanged the twin seven cardinal and capital virtues for the seven deadly sins.

Clark Coleman said...

If we want to combat shallowness, we can start with the fact that Christians no longer know what the word "praise" means. "Praise teams" get up and lead "praise songs" from the "praise book," but the songs are not songs of praise! Hint: Start with a dictionary. "Praise" is not a synonym for worship, or thanksgiving, or "simple song sung around the campfire."

Rusty B said...

Good article and insights. By the way, a hearty amen about Chris Tomlin. He is our worship leader when he isn't on the road (which, unfortunatly, is most of the time). One of the kindest things my Mother ever did for me (she was my youth director) was ground me in the Word and teach me the substance of Word and the resulting theology. You've hit the nail on the head.

julenka said...

I'll tell you what the problem is - at least from where I stand.

It's the lack of dialogue. The churches [Christian churches in general] tend to emit this aura of 'we know the truth, and this is it'. They don't encourage questioning the beliefs. Young people will inevitably question their beliefs at one stage or another, and unless they have the support in place to help them work through their doubts and their questions, you can forget about keeping them in the church.

It's simple - we feel like we're not welcome in the church if we question anything. Especially so when these questions tackle the very basic precepts of Christianity - such as the divinity of Jesus, for example.

The problem is with the structure of church. It's always a case of 'we preach, you listen'. Some discussion is encouraged, of course, but it's just shallow, surface discussion. Anything else is 'troublemaking' and a case of 'let's talk about this later. maybe'. For someone searching for the truth and questioning everything about their beliefs, this is very discouraging.

Think about it this way - if you did some personal study of your Bible, and came out convinced that the local church you attend has got it wrong on a vital aspect of theology, how would you approach them? Would you be welcomed into the church? Welcomed to present your criticisms and your worries about their presentation of theology and religion?

If the answer to that question is no, then you've already got yourself a part of the reason why young people leave the church. We search, we learn, we realise there's something not quite right, but there's nothing we can do within the church, so we leave. It doesn't help that young people are given such a crappy status. That is, do you have a church board? How many young people are on it? How many of them are on it as representatives of themselves, as opposed to 'you're a representative of the youth in this church'?

From where I stand, you can forget about all else. If you don't fix this one, most vital aspect and encourage dialogue, you will never retain the young people you want. As it stands, I think you'd be surprised at the sheer number of young people who are in limbo - not really 'Christian' [by mainstream Christian standards] and not atheist either. They're unsure, wavering, searching, and wondering. They're demanding intelligent, intellectual dialogue on theology. Instead, they're [we're] getting watered down 'feel good' messages from people who expect you to leave your brains at the door. Critical thinking is discouraged, theological debate is frowned upon, and yet you're surprised that the youth are leaving? We're too smart to be given the condescending message of 'well, you're just going to have to trust me on that one'.

But like I said, this is just one perspective from just one such young person.

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.