I heard it again today. “Youth are the future of the church.” Whenever I hear that I realize the person saying that means that if we don’t win the youth over to the faith that the future of the church is bleak. It’s a noble thought, but it’s not particularly accurate. Youth programming seldom grows a church with very few exceptions. First let me mention the exceptions and then I’ll elaborate on why youth don’t grow churches.
The primary exception for youth growing a church is when the church’s PRIMARY signature ministry is their youth program. What this means is that the youth programming is so well funded and so well known in the community that if you asked a pastor of any church in town “What church is known for it’s life-changing youth program?” that church is the one instantly named. Churches with youth as their signature ministry typically purchase or build a youth center off of the church’s campus and it is staffed daily and into the late evenings. The church would sponsor sports, concerts, and so on in the youth facilities. In addition, those that work with the youth ministry are focused on youth and family ministry, in that they are connecting intentionally with the youths’ families to help walk them into the larger church’s ministries. Typically, churches with less than 500 in weekly attendance and a 100% commitment to youth ministry (over any other ministry) are the only ones who can successfully use their youth program to significantly grow their church.
Before I go on, I need to clarify what I’m going to say next with this. I’m NOT saying that youth ministry isn’t important. I AM saying that it is a “mission” of the church that will drain resources, sort of like most men’s ministries. I’m not saying don’t do youth ministry … I am saying that it won’t grow the church. Youth ministry is not a growth strategy. An expected ministry of all programmatic churches, yes. A strategy to grow the church, no.
Here’s the reality. Youth programs are expensive in terms of funding and staffing if they’re done right … and honestly, even when they’re done poorly. The vast majority of churches provide youth programming to round out their family programming and the youth ministry primarily serves the youth members of the church. Few churches are able to compete with local non-church events and activities in terms of attractional qualities and so the local unchurched youth don’t even consider church events as a viable option. Providing pizza and Coke is no longer an attractive come-on for youth. They simply have better and more entertaining things to do.
However, let’s suppose for a moment that the handful of youth a congregation has as “members” or children of members/participants are willing to be evangelists for the youth program. Those of their youth friends that do attend rarely bring their families in tow. If the worship service appeals to their parents, it is unlikely to appeal to the youth and vice versa. Unless youth programming is offered simultaneously to worship, it’s difficult to provide worship opportunities that appeal to both. And so, with all that put together, almost no church that puts their church growth dollars into the youth programming will see a positive return. Are there exceptions? There are ALWAYS exceptions, but if you’re about to put all, or even many, eggs into the youth basket thinking you’ll be one … well, it’ll probably be a very expensive lesson.
At this point in our culture, only two “programs” grow a church. Incredible over-the-top worship in the language, style, and technology of the target audience. And incredible children’s programming. But if you don’t have #1, putting a lot of work into #2 will grow a church with a revolving door because the parents won’t hang around after the children are youth because they won’t be personally invested beyond their children’s needs.