WHI-1204 | Youth Ministry in Crisis

Sunday, 04 May 2014

We’re beginning a new series on youth ministry. Whether you’re Protestant or Roman Catholic, Baptist or Presbyterian there is a troubling trend that is changing the face of Christianity in the West. Christians simply aren’t reproducing. Now, I don’t mean that Christians aren’t having children but they’re not producing Christian children. In other words, they’re not passing on the faith to the next generation, and this is one of the primary features of a process that sociologists call “secularization.”

But before we get any further afield, here’s a brief overview of the problem that we’re dealing with. The so-called mainline Protestant denominations are continuing to experience a precipitous decline. Forty years ago two-thirds of American adults were mainline Protestant. Today, it’s less than 8%. Compare that with Roman Catholics who make 22% of American adults. According to Pew Research, the percentage of those who checked the “No Religion” box was 7 % only five years ago, but now its 15%. More than a third of 18-22 year olds said they don’t identify with any religion.

Back in the 1970s, it was argued that liberal churches were dying and conservative churches were thriving, but today Evangelical Protestantism is also on the decline. The Southern Baptist Convention reports its currently losing 70-80% of its youth after their freshmen year in college. 70% of youth group teens stop going to church within two years of their high school graduation. A more recent Southern Baptist report found that 88% of those raised in Evangelical homes leave church at age 18. Various studies since then range from 61% to as high as 90%.

Well, in the light of all of this troubling data, David Kinnaman of the Barna Research Group concludes that, “Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul, not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the level of disengagement among 20-somethings suggests that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be, not the number of attenders, the sophistication of events, or the cool-factor of the youth group, but whether teens the commitment, passion, and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole-heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.”

Well, we think that Kinnaman is right and throughout this series we will be exploring youth ministry in our time. What’s to be done about it? Can youth ministry be reformed? Or is the answer just to get rid of it altogether? There are no easy answers as we’ll see, but there’s no doubt something needs to be done.

To help us figure that out, we will hear from numerous experts, sociologists, youth ministry leaders, critics, and reformers.

“There’s a real danger of turning Christianity into another form of narcissism. There’s more to Christianity then just how it’s going to make you happy. We want to know the Triune God. We want to know why the Triune God is involved in our lives Triunely. We want to know the crucifixion and why that’s important. I have found that young people have very little doctrinal content. That’s dangerous because, if it’s just feelings that hold them to Christianity, when their feelings aren’t there, they’ll feel like they won’t need Christianity, and they’ll move away.”
– Marva J. Dawn
Secularization Thesis
The Secularization Thesis defines a relatively simple cultural process. As societies modernize, they become less religious. This secularization is both external (a gradual fading of a particular religion from the public square) and internal (a gradual transformation and accommodation of traditional religions themselves). The typical factors of secularization include a gradual weakening of social power and a difficulty in socializing children in the faith. Without the affirmation of a particular religion in public, the individual is left to the support of the family, church, school, or the wider subculture of believers. Beliefs and practices once considered normal are now considered odd, and perhaps even antisocial. When religion becomes socially awkward, children no longer accept what their families believe because it fails to make sense of their reality. The thesis does not argue that spirituality will disappear—rather, faith will take on less of a public role and will no longer be tied to institutions with public demands upon those who believe. The once objective norms of practice and doctrine are transformed into private therapies. Internal secularization is particularly evident as doctrine and practice is psychologized (i.e., what we think about God) and subjectivized (i.e., how we feel about God). This process affects both conservative and liberal Christians at every level of development and commitment, in faith and practice.
(Adapted from Michael Horton’s “The Secularization Thesis,” Modern Reformation: “Secularizing Religion” Sept./Oct. 2013 Vol. 22 No. 5 Page number(s): 26-41)

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