i recently heard some staggering sbc stat on the declining number of student baptisms over the last several years. i’d be lying if i tried to quote it. trust me, it’s staggering. baptisms are down across the board, but students (ages 12-17) are WAY down. of course, much is being discussed as to “why?”
not coincidentally, i’m sure, is the fact that about 40% of sbc churches have plateaued in membership while roughly 30% are increasing and the remaining 30% are decreasing. that’s a lot of stagnation and decrease.
i have a few theories on this. please consider the following my very humble opinions and perceptions from my limited experience. i hope they make sense.
i’ve daringly broached the subject before of parents worshiping their kids and may come close to that territory again here. i am not a parent, so i tread lightly.
i think there have been trends in familial life and trends in churches that have compounded the woes of evangelical student ministry but i can’t point to which is the chicken and which is the egg.
parents and students now, more than ever it seems, are so focused on academia, extracurriculars, resumé building and “giving their kids what they never had” that the church and, more importantly, the Church are being neglected.
if soccer or band conflict with Bible study, guess what’s getting nixed. now, hear me… i don’t think merely attending Bible study is of greater value than soccer or band. BUT i think negligent attitudes towards spiritual matters can quickly be inferred if Christian parents aren’t diligent to battle them. parents are right to stress the importance of grades, scholarships, etc. but Christian parents should somehow also show/teach their kids that spiritual matters are far more important. i believe, on the whole, this is not happening. more and more parents are relying on the church to be the main disciplers of their kids, but kids whose parents don’t really value discipleship are not likely to see value in discipleship.
a similarly dangerous attitude that i think has evolved in student ministry over the years is the idea that student ministry simply equals good, clean fun. on this front, parents AND churches are to blame. this is where i won’t venture to guess which is the chicken and which is the egg. over the last 50-60 years, youth groups have become a place where students can have fun, be accepted and stay out of trouble. parents like this. students, generally, like this. but this is not all there is to being the Church. this is moralistic day care.
i’d be interested to see the stat of how many “sweet” youth buildings were built over the last 50 years… how many pool tables, coffee bars and video game stations were installed? (and i serve at a church with a great youth building, so “hello kettle. it’s me, the pot. you’re black.”) line that stat up next to the declining number of baptisms. where has our focus been?
it’s been on entertaining. it’s been on wowing. it’s been on competing with culture and it’s been on attracting. many parents and churches like that and still think that’s what a good student ministry is supposed to do. i’ve seen some fruit from that era, no doubt. but most of the students that were reached from that type of ministry stayed connected to church and ministry because someone invested into them on a deeper, more personal level. (and, of course, the holy spirit caused the growth.)
the oft used adage is, “what you win them with is what you win them to.” until parents and churches get on the same page about what student ministry should really be, i don’t think we’ll see much change in plateaued and declining student ministries. (again, i’m hoping and praying for change in my own ministry, not just pointing fingers.)
this is why students don’t know what real life in Christ is and parents are confused when their “good” kids get in to trouble or completely walk away from church. teaching Biblical values to the lost is only producing well behaved (and often resentful) unbelievers. which i understand is unavoidable as nearly EVERY crowd has unregenerate people in it. BUT if we skip the cross altogether and jump to discipleship, we’ve erred, not the crowd. you want kids to have manners, firm handshakes and impressive credentials, send them to boy/girl scouts. you want to teach them that apart from Christ, they are nothing, preach the cross to them in your homes AND in your youth buildings. i realize that many students don’t have believing parents to set that example. but that’s another reason we can’t “afford” to have Christian parents who don’t value the cross acting as surrogates for these students.
as i’ve said before, we need to stop trying to reach/look past the cross for greater fulfillment. and we certainly don’t need to stop short of it (as is often the case). we need to cling to it, kneel at it and proclaim it.
i hope to be a parent some day, even though the thought of it scares the mess out of me. so, parents, please don’t take offense. i can’t pretend to know what that role is like. i hope i haven’t spoken out of place. i’m just offering my observations and theories… in an adamant manner ; )
(as a current student minister (and former youth), though, i think i can speak somewhat credibly concerning what i’ve seen in student ministry over the past 20 years!)