Thursday, September 24, 2009

A House Divided - Is Age-Segmented Ministry Failing?

It's so ubiquitous among churches in America, that it seems unusual when churches don't have them. What I'm talking about is the venerable youth group. Although the concept has probably been around in one form or another for centuries, the modern conception of age-segmented ministry formalized in the post-war boom of parachurch organizations such as Young Life, InterVarsity and Youth for Christ.

Probably through the 1990s, this was an accepted and largely successful model for outreach to teens and young adults. But the past decade has not been kind to the church in the developed world. Although the decline of institutionalized religion hasn't been as precipitous in the U.S. as it has been in Europe, the trend is clear, and not encouraging.
In a recent interview with Kara Powell for Christianity Today's Leadership Journal, the writer cites a Rainer Research study that shows that 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22, and the figure grows to 80 percent by age 30.

Certainly, the church did not have to compete with Facebook, instant messaging, text messaging, and the World Wide Web largely until the beginning of this decade. But technological distractions are far too easy a target and scapegoat for the disenfranchisement of youth in the church.

Powell, the executive director of Fuller Seminary's Youth Institute, says she believes the church can do a better job of involving youth in the substantive worship of the church, rather than just token "youth programs" that segregate them out from the main body of the church.

Another buzzword that's been popping up in church leadership conversations is "discipleship." Discipleship by its definition involves the spiritual mentoring of a more mature believer or group of believers with those that are new to the faith or still growing in their faith. The current age-segregated model of ministry being used by many churches on its face doesn't seem to be conducive to meaningful discipleship.

Powell believes teens are up for the challenge of taking on more responsibility, and yearning for more meaningful inter-generational relationships in the church.

Although I could see the transitional period between an age-segregated ministry model to more of a collaborative, inter-generational as being a little awkward at first, I also believe it could prove to be much more meaningful and enriching in the long-term for everyone. What are your thoughts?


  1. I don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, I do believe that teens are capable of taking a more active role in the general church body. At the same time, a lot of the general church body stuff is boring. And I don't think out of necessity either; I think faith in Christ can be exciting and engaging for kids as well as adults. I'm not bashing the more traditional church service format either, but I think most of us agree that it's not very engaging for kids and adolescents. I think if we were to create a more inter-generational church, it would need to be different. And if people aren't willing for that change to happen, that's okay. But then we need the more engaging, interactive programs tailored for the youth.

    As for discipleship, if we do have have segregated youth programs, I believe that's why it's so important to have lots of volunteers in the youth program. I hope through my service in the high school group I can encourage this discipleship principle.

  2. Jason, I completely understand where you're coming from. I think there are perceptions and stereotypes on both sides (youth as well as older adults) that need to be broken down and overcome for inter-generational ministry to be truly successful.

    I also see all too often that people who are the first to criticize are the last ones to step up and help suggest a solution or help implement it first-hand. I hope we can all find a new spirit of humility and servanthood where we could come together in a meaningful way to continue to live out Christ's example and share the gospel.