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Is youth ministry killing the church?

Is youth ministry killing the church?

New studies show that children and youth who are involved in the life and worship of the church are more likely to stay into adulthood while those with strong “youth programs” drop out.

Kate Murphy reflects in the Christian Century:

I’ve always met young Christians through youth programs. I’ve been hired by churches so committed to the discipleship of their young people that they’ve dedicated resources to creating specialized curriculae and activities. These churches expect regular events that are created exclusively to minister to young people.

But I wonder now if we’re ministering them right out of the church. …

When the youth were asked to contribute to the larger church, it was usually through manual labor, the only thing we thought they were capable of doing. Yes, we may have let them plan and lead one worship service a year, but we never dreamed of asking any of them to sit on the worship committee or serve as a regular worship leader. The message was that the church existed to serve them, not the other way around.

… I think I’ve done youth ministry with integrity.

But I may have been unintentionally disconnecting kids from the larger body of Christ. The young people at my current congregation—a church that many families would never join because “it doesn’t have anything for youth”—are far more likely to remain connected to the faith and become active church members as adults, because that’s what they already are and always have been.

How does your church do “youth ministry” or is it a separate thing?


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Weiwen Ng

In my experience in young adult ministry, that ministry didn’t kill the church. It made me want to become an Episcopalian. What killed it for me was that the wider church was (imo) stuck in its ways rather than willing to change to accommodate young adults. I didn’t grow up in the Episcopal Church, but I wonder if the same thing applies to youth ministry.

FYI, in the youth ministry I was in, many young adults didn’t grow up Episcopalian. We had the students as acolytes, we had some students preach if they wanted to. We set some students as delegates to the Diocesan Convention. We had a student vestry and a student representative on the organization’s board. That is, we full involved young adults in the life of the church.

Basically: youth and young adult ministry aren’t killing the church. The church is killing itself. One solution is to work harder to integrate youth and young adults into the whole church, including governance and worship.

Hollis Wright


Teen years are formative, no doubt. I have gone with teens on mission and spiritual formation trips and supported any kind of anything targeting teens and involving them in the life of the church any way at all. A lot drop out, a few stay and a few come back, in my experience.

Frankly I think ministry with teens is like ministry with anyone else, in that you need to take time to understand the individual. In the case of teens it is taking time to understand the rapidly changing individual.

In the last 4 years our program-size church has raised up 3 individuals seeking holy orders — the priesthood– two of them under 30 years of age. Just now we have two indivudals age 35-45 discerning calls to the diaconate.

Sometimes it is just matter of letting the holy spirit work, and listening…

Paul Martin

My story is probably an extreme case, but what the heck.

I was in a youth group. I was also in the adult choir; they didn’t have a high school choir, and I was no longer a soprano. My junior year, I went to the diocesan conference as a high school student, with voice but no vote. Senior year, I actually got elected to be the church’s voting delegate to the conference.

I found my college and graduate school church experience to be wonderful. Freshman year, the Episcopal church was arguing about woman priests. Fortunately for me, the Episcopal priest on campus shared his activity with a Lutheran minister, who happened to be one of the ELCA’s first women priests. What an experience. As I learned, as I grew and changed, my church was learning and changing with me.

I was in good choirs, and graduate school gave me EFM. There are some incredible priests serving on college campuses today. I wish we had more effective methods to encourage our college students to try them out.

Marshall Scott

I do tend to cite my own experience (I mean, who else’s?), and what I learned from it. I tended to avoid high school Sunday School (the one year I did participate it was because of the specific invitation of the leaders, supported by a curriculum heavy in role play for ethical reflection – which is to say, it seemed connected to life); and to attend the youth group of any young lady I was dating instead of my own. However, on Sunday mornings I attended the (really good) adult Christian Ed offerings. My parents approved, and no one else questioned.

What I ultimately took away has already been said here: that I was treated with some respect for my interest. More to the point, and what I say most often, is that I watched Christian adults wrestling with issues of faith. What I learned was that wrestling with issues of faith was an activity appropriate for adults and adulthood; and I wanted nothing more than I wanted to be an adult.

In my own diocese I see a number of young people who are raised in and stay interested in the Church. Indeed, we have three seminarians in their 20’s. I’m sure it’s not all, and probably not most; but I’m quite aware that they’re there. Reflecting on the congregations they come from, I don’t think any of them have Sunday morning programs specifically for high schoolers; so when they’re present they’re present worshipping with everyone else. I don’t think that’s enough. I’m pretty sure they have had clergy who took them seriously generally. But, I think there has been something gained by having their normative experience in church be one that is shared with folks older than they.

I can recall getting Confirmed as a young teen… and then continuing to attend the senior high youth programs but not otherwise engaging with the “adult” church. The wider church hadn’t been made a focus for me previously, and it did not suddenly become a focus for me or other members of my youth group after Confirmation. Our focus was on youth programs and the other youth. By and large, we all left the church upon graduating high school, having also graduated the part of church life that was meaningful to us. It took me until my early 30s to come back to the church, this time with a profoundly different perspective.

I wonder: if we, as teens, had been exposed to and expected to participate in mature, adult-level discussion about theology and scripture and the Church, and were actively invited and encouraged to engage with the church body as full adults, would we have known that there was more to the church specifically and the Christian spiritual journey generally?

Most of us ended up agnostics, feeling like there wasn’t enough “meat” to chew on in the church when it came to the big questions. We rather had the vague sense that the answers had all been decided by adults over the past several hundred years, and no thoughtful contribution from us, the latest generation, was needed. We were wrong, but we had no way of knowing that.

I think sometimes we forget that teenagers are very smart, despite their lack of life experience and context. They have an adult’s intellectual capacity and are often very curious, bringing occasionally fascinating insights to the table and challenging established ways of thinking through their very inexperience. I wish we’d engage them more in the broader church community, outside of the youth programs — treating them as full (if young) peers, rather than as “kids.”

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