Are we raising disciples or dropouts?

Trends and fads come and go.

Whether you rocked a mullet in the 80’s…

Wore MC Hammer pants in the 90’s…

Played THE GAME and lost in the early 2000’s, or…

Jumped on the fidget spinner bandwagon a couple years ago…

You know what I mean.

Some trends last longer than others and end up shaping our culture for generations. And, these are the trends that we must pay attention to.

Since I started working in full-time ministry back in 2000, one of these trends has been the prevalence of church dropouts among young adults (18-29 years old).

In that time, I’ve been skeptical of the alarmist claims (80% dropout rate), but I’ve also been paying attention to the data that’s out there and the trends that inform them.*

Back in 2011, the Barna Group reported that 59% of young adults with a Christian background had dropped out of church involvement-some for an extended period of time, some for good.

Less than a decade later, that number has increased to 64%.

In other words, the trend of church dropouts among young adults is moving in the wrong direction.

As parents and youth workers, we need to not only be paying attention to this trend, but we also need to be asking ourselves this question:

Are we raising disciples or dropouts?

Asking this question should lead us to another question, and that is…what’s a disciple?

A disciple is a follower of Jesus.

A follower of Jesus lives like Jesus…

AND leads others to follow Jesus.

In case you missed that definition:

A disciple is a follower of Jesus who multiplies themselves by living like Jesus AND leading others to live like Jesus.

This is what the Apostle Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians when he wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

If we want to be parents and youth workers who raise disciples, we need to first be disciples ourselves.

Parents…you might think that you’re kids aren’t listening or paying attention to you when it comes to spiritual things and how you live out your faith, but they are.

In fact, there is compelling evidence that shows that the single most important social influence on your kids’ religious and spiritual lives is you.**

To put it bluntly, when it comes to your kid’s faith, you will generally “get what you are.”

So, what kind of example of a disciple are you to your own kids?

Youth workers…you might think you’re off the hook on this, but you’re not. Because, the kids are following you too.

And, the question for you is, where/how are you leading them?

We can attract students with lots of things, but if we are not attracting them to Jesus, we’re not raising disciples.***

So, who are your students following right now…you and your programs, or Jesus?

If we want this trend of church dropouts to move in the right direction, we all need to lead by example…

and follow the example of Christ.

* For a deeper look into the data and trends, check out the 2011 book You Lost Me and the 2019 book Faith for Exiles based on research done by Barna.

** This was one of the conclusions of the research done by the National Study of Youth and Religion and written about in the book Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith.

*** All of us in ministry need to constantly remind ourselves that “What you win them with is what you win them to.

Forced Christian: Why Church Kids Walk Away From Church

I was a church kid.

I was born into a Christian home.

I grew up going to church like clockwork every Sunday.

I did church things…went to Sunday school, memorized Bible verses, and volunteered to help out around the church.

I checked off boxes and jumped through hoops.

I followed the Christian list of do’s and dont’s.

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I was a forced Christian.

Fast-forward to 2014…

I still live in a Christian home.

I still go to church like clockwork every Sunday.

I still do church things.

I still wrestle with the boxes to check off and the hoops to jump through.

But, I am a Jesus follower.

I am also a 40-year old youth pastor who has been working with church kids for a long time now.

And, a lot of the students I work with remind me of me.

Forced Christian.

I’ve been around long enough to hear the numbers.  All the surveys and studies out there that tell us that anywhere from 40-80% of students walk away from their faith after high school.  The numbers are alarming…but not for the reasons you might think.

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We tend to measure stuff that we can see.

So, we track stuff like how many times a kid shows up at church or youth group.

We pat ourselves on the back when we fill our youth rooms with students “on fire” for God.

We pile them into church vans and buses and take them on mission trips.

We put them on youth worship teams.

We encourage them to “get involved” and “plugged in” with the church.

We give them verses to memorize and Bible studies to read.

We train them to share their faith story with their peers.

In other words, we make the lists and the boxes they check off and the hoops they jump through.

And, then we wonder why they walk away.

A wise man once said, “Don’t judge by appearance…the Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them.  People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  (I Samuel 16:7)

God doesn’t measure stuff we can see.

He is not a God of lists and boxes and hoops.

He never has been.

The Gospels are full of encounters Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day who measured spirituality with lists and boxes and hoops.  And, Jesus had this to say about them…”Everything they do is for show.”  (Matthew 23:5)

Thousands of years later, we’ve gotten pretty good at putting on a show.

Our youth groups are full of church kids who put on a show every Sunday, but haven’t ever gotten past the lists and boxes and hoops.  We might think they’re Jesus followers, but in reality, many of them are nothing more than forced Christians.

They are born in Christian homes.

They go to church most Sundays.

They do church things.

They follow the rules we’ve set, but they don’t have a personal relationship with God.

And, so they graduate from high school and leave the church.

Why?

Because we taught them that it’s more important to show up once a week than it is to submit their lives to God every day of the week.

Because we taught them that praying a prayer is all it takes.

Because we taught them that complying to the rules of the church is better than conforming to the image of Christ.

Because we taught them that Christianity is more about the things you can and can’t do and less about having a personal relationship with the only One who can promise you true freedom and a “full life.”  (John 10:10)

The bottom line question is this…

Are students really leaving the church (and everything it stands for & believes in), or are they simply escaping from a way of life they never truly embraced in the first place?

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Our calling as youth workers is the same one that Jesus gave His disciples back in Matthew 28…to make disciples.

Not rule followers.

Not church goers.

Not youth group groupies.

Not forced Christians.

Disciples…Jesus followers.

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It’s time for us in youth ministry to ask questions like these…

What exactly is my ministry making?

How do I measure success in my ministry?

Is my ministry contributing to students leaving the church or is it compelling them to follow Jesus?

Am I raising a generation of forced Christians or Jesus followers?