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.

There Is No I In Network

Today has been declared National Youth Ministry Networking Day by Youth Specialties, which is ironic since I’m actively involved in two youth ministry networks and neither one of them are meeting this week.  But, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my thoughts on networking and youth ministry and why it’s the best commitment that you can make… 

Values.  Priorities.  Commitment.

I have learned that these three words (in that order) determine virtually every choice we make in life.

Basically, what you value determines your priorities which determines what you commit yourself to.

Think about it…

We live in a world where time is a commodity easily wasted, and we never have enough of it.  So, instead of filling our calendars with time-killers, we tend to plan our lives around the things that we value the most (good or bad).

Let me confess something to you…

When I started in full-time youth ministry 15 years ago, I thought being a part of a network was a time-killer.

I thought that I needed to spend that time working on youth ministry stuff.  You know, stuff like…

Writing the perfect “come-to-Jesus” talk

Planning the funnest, craziest, messiest game

Making sure the youth space had the right vibe for the night

Planning & promoting the next cool event…

It took me a year to realize that what I really valued was what I had to offer to the students in my ministry. 

So, I made it a priority to do everything I could do to be a “successful” youth pastor.

I was committed to the job.

And, I was alone.


Fast-forward to the present, and I can tell you that if you want to be a “successful” youth pastor, then you need a network of youth pastors and leaders around you.

If you didn’t catch that, let me put it this way…

If you value your own health…

If you value longevity in ministry…

If you value the pursuit of God’s Kingdom on this earth…

If you value learning…

If you value encouragement…

If you value prayer…

If you value accountability…

If you value teamwork…

If you value community (and the community you serve)…

If you value any or all of these things, then you need to make it a priority to join a youth network and go regularly.

It will be the best commitment that you will ever make as a youth pastor or leader.

Mentor or Playground Duty: 5 Questions You Should be Asking Your Volunteers (before you ask them back)

I hate to break it to you, but summer is over…and fall is here.
Which means that a typical church ministry calendar is about to start all over again.

Fall is the time when all the church ministries that hibernated or slowed down over the summer are now suddenly coming back to life…and youth ministry is often no exception.

Now is the time when programs and activities get reevaluated.
Youth rooms get redecorated.
And, volunteers are asked to “re-up” for another year.

Before you go and ask your volunteers whether or not they’re up for another year of youth ministry, I’d like to encourage you to think about who you are looking for and what you are asking them to do.

Because, not all volunteers are created equal…

Chances are some have been doing it for the wrong reasons.
Some have been doing it for too long.

And, some have been treating the youth room like a playground (more on that later…).

Take a minute and think about your volunteer team. You need them.

But, you also need…

A team of people around you who love Jesus and teenagers as much as you do (or more).
A team of people who can see the potential in teenagers and not just focus on their problems.
A team of people who serve with grace and truth and not whistle-blowing rule enforcers.
A team of people who are willing to walk alongside students and not just watch them.
A team of people who are willing to make investments in students even when they’re not on the “clock.”
A team of people who are willing to serve no matter how hard or messy it gets.

You need a team of mentors…not a team of playground duties.


Playground duties…

You know who I’m talking about.

Playground duties roam school playgrounds during recess with whistles around their necks.
They watch kids and wait for problems to happen or rules to be broken.
They blow whistles and enforce rules.
They hang out on the playground during recess and then disappear.

(I could keep going, but I’m beginning to have flashbacks to my own grade school playgrounds…)

The point is you don’t want your volunteers to be like playground duties.
You don’t want people who “clock in” for a couple of hours at youth group, and then “clock out” and go home.
You don’t want chaperones or whistle blowers.

You want mentors.

So, think again about your volunteer team for a second.
What kind of volunteers do you have?
What kind of volunteers do you want to have this year?
And, how do you know if a volunteer is more like a playground duty or a mentor?

Time is short before fall is here, but sitting down one-on-one and asking your volunteers questions like the ones below will tell you a lot about what kind of leader they are (and if you should ask them back).

What did you enjoy about being a leader this year?
What was challenging for you as a leader this year?
How would you evaluate yourself as a leader…strengths & weaknesses?
How would you describe your own personal relationship with God right now?

And perhaps the biggest question…

If someone were to ask you why you volunteer in this ministry, what would you say?

By the way, if you are reading this and you are a youth pastor, these are great questions to regularly ask yourself too.

What questions would you add to this list?

Numbers Don’t Lie: Rethinking how we measure success in youth ministry

I grew up a Blazers’ fan.

I lived in Portland, and I loved basketball, so it made sense that I would root for the hometown team.

One of my favorite players growing up was a guy named Rasheed Wallace. The dude was not a role model by any means, but he could play some serious ball.

Rasheed was a trash-talker too. One of my favorite lines he’d say a lot to opponents was, “Ball don’t lie!” If a guy missed a free throw, Rasheed would say, “Ball don’t lie!” just to mess with him and get in his head.

If you’re in ministry, I want to mess with you and get in your head for a minute.

I want to say to you, “Numbers don’t lie.”

But, the numbers I’m talking about are not the numbers we tend to measure. We like to measure how many students showed up at youth group, how many of them went on the mission trip last summer, how many of them have been baptized…I think you get the point.


I’ve heard it said before that ministries determine success by what they measure. It’s not rocket science I know, but generally we find fulfillment and success in the things that we think should count.

So, we count bodies. As in, “We had 50 bodies show up at youth group last night!” It sounds demeaning when you say it that way, but that’s how a lot of us measure success in ministry.

But, what if 25 of those 50 bodies walked out the doors of your ministry and walked away from God? Would you really feel like a success then? Could you really pat yourself on the back knowing that half the students you see on a typical youth group night end up being spiritual corpses?

I’ll admit that it’s easy to focus on what we can count easily. But, we need to stop counting bodies and start counting souls instead. We need to consider different ways to measure success in ministry.

In his book “You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith,” David Kinnaman writes, “What would it look like to begin measuring things like teens’ and young adults’ knowledge of and love for Scripture, their clarity about their gifts and vocation, their willingness to listen to the voice of God and follow His direction, the fruits of the Spirit in their lives, and the depth and quality of their love and service to others?”

What would that look like? That question has been stirring in my head for a long time now. It’s made me ask some tough questions about ministry and what really is a “successful” church or youth group in God’s eyes. How would He measure success? What numbers would He count?

The fact is I think He’d look below the surface at what’s really going on in a person’s heart. And, He’d say the same thing to us as He said to Samuel right before he anointed a shepherd boy as the next king of Israel. “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)

Ministry is and always will be about numbers, because numbers represent people. And, people have souls. But, at a time in our culture when young people are walking away from their faith in increasing numbers, we need to reconsider the way we measure success in ministry.

“Numbers don’t lie.” What are your numbers telling you?

Aiming for Kingdom Impact: 4 things you can do this summer that will help you hit your target in the fall

Summer’s here, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that means fall is just around the corner.

And, while summer offers a change of pace for many of us, fall means the start of another ministry year full of program nights, small groups, outreach events, service projects, and whatever else you fill your ministry calendar with.


If summer is time to slow down and put the brakes on, I imagine fall is like getting shot out of a cannon—it’s an adrenaline rush every time, but you have to know where you’re going and hit the target. Otherwise, you’ve just made a lot of noise and a big mess.


Ministry is a lot like that—you have to know where you’re going and aim for something. And, you better be prepared too.

Jesus gave us all something to aim at—His Kingdom. Ultimately, He wants us to go out and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). He wants us to make an impact in people’s lives beyond this life. For those of us involved in vocational ministry, that means that we’ve got to be ready when fall rolls around and our ministry calendar starts all over again…

God’s Kingdom is at stake.

So, while you’re thinking about what you’ll be doing during those hot summer days in front of you, let me give you four things to do to prepare yourself for fall. Remember, you have to know where you are going and aim for something. If your aim is to make an impact in God’s Kingdom, then consider adding these four things to your summer:

REST. You need rest. Your body, soul, mind, and spirit cannot maintain the pace of ministry year-round. You need rest. In a typical ministry year, there are generally two blocks of time that are ideal for you to rest—the summer months and Christmas break. So, take a vacation and go somewhere and rest. Leave your smartphone at home, grab a book or two, and go. One book you might check out is Leaders who Last by Dave Kraft (especially chapter 5!).

RELATE. The summer is a great time of year to spend time with students and leaders. You can make huge investments in kids’ lives by hanging out with them over ice cream, throwing a Frisbee around at a local park, or even surprising them at their work if they have a job. The possibilities are endless. But, the great thing about summer is that your schedule is more flexible and students’ schedules are wide open. So, go find some students and hang out with them! You’ll be glad you did in the fall.

RECRUIT. When fall comes, you will need help. You can’t do ministry alone. And, you can’t wait until Labor Day weekend to recruit your leaders for next year. Start the recruitment process now by making a list of potential student leaders and adult volunteers. Then, take that list and make personal contact with each person—talk to them about your ministry and how you see them fitting in it. Be clear about what you’re asking them to do and give them time to pray (and think) about joining your team. Remember, you can’t do ministry alone. God didn’t design the church to function that way anyway (Ephesians 4:11-16).

RELOAD. Like I said before, I imagine fall is like getting shot out of a cannon. And, if the cannon is empty, all you’ve done is made a lot of noise with no lasting impact (except for some deaf ears). You need to take the summer to reload your ministry—to have everything* ready to go when the ministry calendar starts all over again. And, just like in recruiting, you can’t wait until Labor Day weekend to do this. The best time to reload is the summer months, because you actually have the time to put some thought and prayer into where you’re going in your ministry (and how you’re going to get there).

* “Everything” includes working on stuff like: overall program, teaching topics, small groups, outreach activities and special events, service projects, and student and volunteer leadership development.

Think about it this way…how you use your time this summer will have a huge impact on how effective you will be in the fall.

If your desire is to make an impact in God’s Kingdom—to see it explode in your ministry—then what are you going to do this summer to make that happen?

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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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?