Entertained but Not Discipled: Why Students Leave the Church

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Let’s start with some numbers. In my context, ministry begins in 6th grade and ends in 12th grade. If a student starts in youth group in 6th grade and ends in 12th grade, that is seven short years for a student pastor to invest in their life.

On average, a teenager will spend 35 hours per week in school. Compare that to the average one hour a week they spend at church (assuming they belong a church-attending family). This means that in an average year, teenagers will spend 1,260 hours in school and 52 hours at church.

These numbers show us, in my senior pastor’s words, “If all you are doing is coming to church on Sunday, it is not enough.” If we looked back in history, we see early church followers dedicating themselves to the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42). Today, however, it seems we are not discipling our students in a way that helps them understand what they believe and why they believe it. In addition, youth ministry has trended towards environments that are more about entertainment and less about reverent, heartfelt worship. We have a false conviction that teenagers can’t handle the deeper things of theology, so we just need to entertain them for an hour and send them home. I would argue, however, that if teenagers can handle the Pythagorean theorem, they can handle theology.

Discipleship: Asking the Questions

Let’s address the first issue: we aren’t discipling our students in a way that helps them understand what they believe and why they believe it. In 1 Peter 3:15-16, Peter writes, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” Oftentimes in the New Testament, especially in the Book of Acts, we see the apostles making a defense for their faith. The apostles had a faith that was unshakeable, even in a time of intense persecution and questioning.

And yet, I’m curious to know how many of our students would be willing to defend their faith. Teenagers today lead very stressful lives; defending their faith shouldn’t be something that adds to that stress.

We teach our students that in order for them to be saved, they must repent and believe. But are we making sure to clarify what is it that they believe and what are they repenting from? Sunday morning is a great place to hear the word of God preached, but in general, there isn’t the opportunity for students to ask questions about doctrine to help them understand why they believe what they do.

Our teenagers have questions. And we want to faithfully answer these questions, so discipleship must be intentional.Based on my observations, student pastors tend to be more concerned with getting the lost saved (which we should of course desire), and less about spiritual growth afterward. I know this to be true from my own spiritual background. I could quote John 3:16, yet I knew very little about what it means that salvation was for those who believed only in Jesus.

Environment: Depth and Connection

The second issue when it comes to discipleship is the environment in which we host youth ministry. Over the last six months, I was able to observe how several churches in my community and the neighboring communities ran their youth ministries. I discovered that it is rare for churches to teach teenagers the Bible verse by verse. While students were coming to Bible study, there didn’t appear to be much depth.

Unfortunately, the problem with the environment for youth ministry goes much deeper than just a lack of biblical preaching and teaching, however. It seems that often, the environment is more for entertainment, similar to a camp experience. When we make youth group all about fun and games, we promote the idea that the church and discipleship are about our likes and dislikes, not about God’s glory and how he has taught us to worship him.

So far, I’ve laid out some problems in youth ministry. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, there are some solutions!

Primarily, we must be intentional and focused with discipleship. A Wednesday night program where the students are only getting one hour a week of teaching is not enough. At my church, we have seen tremendous growth by allowing discipleship groups to meet throughout the week and discuss either the sermon that was preached or an approved study that centers around discipleship.

 Engaging in deeper relationship with your students is another helpful solution. Invest in your students’ lives. Get to know their likes and dislikes. Walk with them through their struggles, doubts, and fears. While all youth ministers have normal office hours, we are always on stand-by. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at home and received a phone call that a student of mine is in the hospital or is having a mental breakdown. When we invest in our students’ lives – even outside of “normal” hours—we show them we love them, see them, and care for them as a reflection of how Jesus relates to them.

Atmosphere: Entertainment or Relationship?

The third and final solution is to consider the atmosphere of our youth ministries. I would argue that one of the core reasons that teenagers leave the church after high school is because they aren’t being entertained in college Bible studies, where studies tend to be more verse by verse and less topical. If teenagers don’t have a solid foundation in learning the Bible this way, they more than likely will find Bible study boring when they get to college. Inevitably, they will seek out whatever will entertain them the most… and we don’t have to use our imaginations to know what entertains college students.

To summarize, we must be intentional, relational, and take advantage of the time we have with our students. When Jesus called his disciples, he spent intentional time building relationships with each of them. As Jesus extended authority to his 12 disciples, he encouraged them to instruct the lost sheep of Israel (Mat 10:6).

Jesus continues to teach, guide and lead them to a greater relationship with him. The best thing we can do as student pastors is to teach, guide, and lead our students to understand their beliefs and build greater relationships with us, each other, and ultimately, Jesus Christ.

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