Excellent Article on Youth Ministry

24805bpthesimpsonsmrburnsexcellentThis article that was posted by Dr. Ben Witherington is outrageously good. For those of you who know me, your know that I have a passion for students not to be trapped in the superficiality of our culture and the current paradigms of youth ministry. Take a read! I have also included the New York Times article that Ben references. Here you go:

The 4% Doctrine– Where Are our Evangelical Youth Going? – by Ben Witherington, Biblical Scholar

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.

New York Times Article – Evangelicals Fear loss of their Teenagers
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Published: October 6, 2006

Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.

John Cooper of the Christian rock band Skillet at last month’s Acquire the Fire event in Massachusetts for evangelical teenagers.

At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement.

Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.

While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.

“I’m looking at the data,” said Ron Luce, who organized the meetings and founded Teen Mania, a 20-year-old youth ministry, “and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing.”

The board of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing 60 denominations and dozens of ministries, passed a resolution this year deploring “the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.”

Among the leaders speaking at the meetings are Ted Haggard, president of the evangelical association; the Rev. Jerry Falwell; and nationally known preachers like Jack Hayford and Tommy Barnett.

Genuine alarm can be heard from Christian teenagers and youth pastors, who say they cannot compete against a pervasive culture of cynicism about religion, and the casual “hooking up” approach to sex so pervasive on MTV, on Web sites for teenagers and in hip-hop, rap and rock music. Divorced parents and dysfunctional families also lead some teenagers to avoid church entirely or to drift away.

Over and over in interviews, evangelical teenagers said they felt like a tiny, beleaguered minority in their schools and neighborhoods. They said they often felt alone in their struggles to live by their “Biblical values” by avoiding casual sex, risqué music and videos, Internet pornography, alcohol and drugs.

When Eric Soto, 18, transferred from a small charter school to a large public high school in Chicago, he said he was disappointed to find that an extracurricular Bible study attracted only five to eight students. “When we brought food, we thought we could get a better turnout,” he said. They got 12.

Chelsea Dunford, a 17-year old from Canton, Conn., said, “At school I don’t have a lot of friends who are Christians.”

Ms. Dunford spoke late last month as she and her small church youth group were about to join more than 3,400 teenagers in a sports arena at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for a Christian youth extravaganza and rock concert called Acquire the Fire.

“A lot of my friends are self-proclaimed agnostics or atheists,” said Ms. Dunford, who wears a bracelet with a heart-shaped charm engraved with “tlw,” for “true love waits,” to remind herself of her pledge not to have premarital sex.

She said her friends were more prone to use profanity and party than she was, and added: “It’s scary sometimes. You get made fun of.”

To break the isolation and bolster the teenagers’ commitment to a conservative lifestyle, Mr. Luce has been organizing these stadium extravaganzas for 15 years. The event in Amherst was the first of 40 that Teen Mania is putting on between now and May, on a breakneck schedule that resembles a road trip for a major touring band. The “roadies” are 700 teenagers who have interned for a year at Teen Mania’s “Honor Academy” in Garden Valley, Tex.

More than two million teenagers have attended in the last 15 years, said Mr. Luce, a 45-year-old, mop-headed father of three with a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Business Administration at Harvard and the star power of an aging rock guitarist.

“That’s more than Paul McCartney has pulled in,” Mr. Luce asserted, before bounding onstage for the opening pyrotechnics and a prayer.

For the next two days, the teenagers in the arena pogoed to Christian bands, pledged to lead their friends to Christ and sang an anthem with the chorus, “We won’t be silent.” Hundreds streamed down the aisles for the altar call and knelt in front of the stage, some weeping openly as they prayed to give their lives to God.

The next morning, Mr. Luce led the crowd in an exercise in which they wrote on scraps of paper all the negative cultural influences, brand names, products and television shows that they planned to excise from their lives. Again they streamed down the aisles, this time to throw away the “cultural garbage.”

Trash cans filled with folded pieces of paper on which the teenagers had scribbled things like Ryan Seacrest, Louis Vuitton, “Gilmore Girls,” “Days of Our Lives,” Iron Maiden, Harry Potter, “need for a boyfriend” and “my perfect teeth obsession.” One had written in tiny letters: “fornication.”

Some teenagers threw away cigarette lighters, brand-name sweatshirts, Mardi Gras beads and CD’s — one titled “I’m a Hustla.”

“Lord Jesus,” Mr. Luce prayed into the microphone as the teenagers dropped their notes into the trash, “I strip off the identity of the world, and this morning I clothe myself with Christ, with his lifestyle. That’s what I want to be known for.”

Evangelical adults, like believers of every faith, fret about losing the next generation, said the Rev. David W. Key, director of Baptist Studies at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University, in Atlanta.

“The uniqueness of the evangelical situation is the fact that during the 80’s and 90’s you had the Reagan revolution that was growing the evangelical churches,” Mr. Key said.

Today, he said, the culture trivializes religion and normalizes secularism and liberal sexual mores.

The phenomenon may not be that young evangelicals are abandoning their faith, but that they are abandoning the institutional church, said Lauren Sandler, author of “Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement” (Viking, 2006). Ms. Sandler, who calls herself a secular liberal, said she found the movement frighteningly robust.

“This generation is not about church,” said Ms. Sandler, an editor at Salon.com. “They always say, ‘We take our faith outside the four walls.’ For a lot of young evangelicals, church is a rock festival, or a skate park or hanging out in someone’s basement.”

Contradicting the sense of isolation expressed by some evangelical teenagers, Ms. Sandler said, “I met plenty of kids who told me over and over that if you’re not Christian in your high school, you’re not cool — kids with Mohawks, with indie rock bands who feel peer pressure to be Christian.”

The reality is, when it comes to organizing youth, evangelical Christians are the envy of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews, said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, who specializes in the study of American evangelicals and surveyed teens for his book “Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers” (Oxford, 2005).

Mr. Smith said he was skeptical about the 4 percent statistic. He said the figure was from a footnote in a book and was inconsistent with research he had conducted and reviewed, which has found that evangelical teenagers are more likely to remain involved with their faith than are mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews and teenagers of almost every other religion.

“A lot of the goals I’m very supportive of,” Mr. Smith said of the new evangelical youth campaign, “but it just kills me that it’s framed in such apocalyptic terms that couldn’t possibly hold up under half a second of scrutiny. It’s just self-defeating.”

The 4 percent is cited in the book “The Bridger Generation” by Thom S. Rainer, a Southern Baptist and a former professor of ministry. Mr. Rainer said in an interview that it came from a poll he had commissioned, and that while he thought the methodology was reliable, the poll was 10 years old.

“I would have to, with integrity, say there has been no significant follow-up to see if the numbers are still valid,” Mr. Rainer said.

Mr. Luce seems weary of criticism that his message is overly alarmist. He said that a current poll by the well-known evangelical pollster George Barna found that 5 percent of teenagers were Bible-believing Christians. Some criticize Mr. Barna’s methodology, however, for defining “Bible-believing” so narrowly that it excludes most people who consider themselves Christians.

Mr. Luce responded: “If the 4 percent is true, or even the 5 percent, it’s an indictment of youth ministry. So certainly they’re going to want different data.”

Outside the arena in Amherst, the teenagers at Mr. Luce’s Acquire the Fire extravaganza mobbed the tables hawking T-shirts and CD’s stamped: “Branded by God.” Mr. Luce’s strategy is to replace MTV’s wares with those of an alternative Christian culture, so teenagers will link their identity to Christ and not to the latest flesh-baring pop star.

Apparently, the strategy can show results. In Chicago, Eric Soto said he returned from a stadium event in Detroit in the spring to find that other teenagers in the hallways were also wearing “Acquire the Fire” T-shirts.

“You were there? You’re a Christian?” he said the young people would say to one another. “The fire doesn’t die once you leave the stadium. But it’s a challenge to keep it burning.”

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