You can’t pick up a piece of youth ministry literature these days without reading that “we are not doing a very good job”. Mark Oestreicher tells us in Youth Ministry 3.0 that
“The way we’re doing things is already not working. We are failing at our calling. And deep down, most of us know it.”
Kara Powel in Sticky Faith tells us that upwards of 70% of our youth leave our groups before grade 12. Book after book, study after study is saying the same thing: “We want to grow numerically, but we stink at it!”
Here is a simple formula that I hope will help: “The best way to grow is to keep what you’ve got”. I make the students from my Foundations of Youth Ministry class learn this saying for two reasons: 1. It is a super important principle for evangelism and numerical growth and 2. It is worth a whole point on their final exam.
Now, I don’t want to sound trite, nor do I want to underestimate the problem. However, I wonder if our thinking is sometimes muddled when it comes to the problem of keeping our youth in the church. We are so desirous to reach the outsider that we forget that the best way to grow is to keep what we’ve got.
My belief is that the average youth leader needs to chill just a bit on his/her evangelistic efforts and spend more time on ministering to and equipping the youth they already have for a life of long-term Christian living.
As I have said in previous blogs (and elsewhere) we need to focus on some factors that will greatly aid us in our efforts to ‘keep what we’ve got’. Here are some key areas to consider:
- Run a weekly meeting that is built on solid Christian content such as Bible study, prayer, worship and fellowship. Forget about the ‘high-energy-fun-drop-in-zone-in-the-name-of-Christ’. The concept is flawed, ineffectual and out of date.
- Set up a network of small groups that study the Bible with an older Christian. This group should seek to encourage each other as they go through the Bible systematically (as in ‘go through a book at a time’) instead of merely topic after topic. The group must not run for a few weeks at a time or change membership/leadership after a short period of time. Powell’s idea of “4+1” is helpful here- take a group from grade nine all the way through to the first year of university or work.
- Work at really building good relationships throughout the whole youth ministry. Youth to youth, leaders to leaders, leaders to youth, youth and leaders to the whole of the church. This will go a long way towards promoting longevity. The youth must regularly see Christians with grey (or no) hair. This is a lifetime gig, not a phase of life.
- Similarly, the youth must be folded into the life of a multigenerational congregation—even the newcomers. It must be a ‘given’ that once you begin to follow Christ, you do this in a group of people (even with those you may not normally associate with). Learning to worship with the oldies and anyone else for that matter, will equip youth to ‘stay with it’.
The bottom line is simply this: let’s work on retention first, evangelism second. In fact, if we can “keep what we’ve got”, my feeling is that numerical growth will naturally follow.
 Oestreicher, Mark. Youth Ministry 3.0. Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Youth Specialties,2008.
 Powell, Kara E., Brad M. Griffin and Cheryl A Crawford. 2011. Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan