Every Wednesday night, students from all the area high schools filled the room. Many were new to the church but came to be a part of what had quickly become THE place to be. It was a youth pastor’s dream to be met each week with a steady stream of new faces. With the excitement among the growing group of kids came the need for more volunteers and an expanded vision for further outreach, service projects, mission trips and retreats. And while the youth leader and student leadership team felt pressure to make every Wednesday night as impactful as the week before, everything they did seemed to work. The students were moved by the music, challenged by the messages, and resolved to live out their faith. Until the semester things started changing.
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"Why the sudden drop in numbers, and a noticeable loss of passion among the students?"
The first few times that the room wasn’t quite as full, and the students were a little less responsive were easy to rationalize: the schools had lots of activities going on in conjunction with homecoming weeks. Then it was fall break and test time. But when the pattern continued and numbers still dropped, the youth leader and adult volunteers began scratching their heads.
Why the sudden drop in numbers and a noticeable loss of passion among the students? Is it an effect of this year’s senior class being weaker leaders? Has temptation gotten the best of them? Is another youth group doing something we need to employ? Desperate to recapture the kids’ enthusiasm and commitment, the leadership began brainstorming ideas.
Have you too been left wondering why things flip-flopped, seemingly overnight, and what to do about it? Have you experienced the frustration of having a vibrant youth group fizzle out: a group of kids who had been so passionate and regular and then suddenly they’re not?
Before we look at how to get the “fire” back, we must first consider what we are basing the spiritual pulse of a youth group on.
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Reexamining the “Fire”
When a student attends every youth group activity, gives a testimony, and eloquently prays out loud, we indiscriminately declare that student “on fire for the Lord.” And that might be true. But our presumption is based solely on external behavior.
In the same way, we assume when a youth group is exploding at the seams and the students are exhibiting godly behavior that it’s healthy. Again, it may be. But if we recall Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,” we see that our outward actions do not always match the reality of our hearts.
Statistics show that 66% of kids who grow up in the church abandon it in adulthood. Many of these kids were once leaders and regular attendees of their youth groups. In other words, the same kids we saw on fire for the Lord are the ones leaving the church. So we must ask, why did their faith not stick? Was the object of their faith truly Jesus Christ, or did we sow unto them something masking Christianity but producing moralism?
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Emphasizing the Gospel, Not Morals
For too many kids (and adults as well), the hope they are trusting in is not Christ’s righteousness for them. It is their own performance and good works. Now they will not say this per se, but when our teaching emphasizes anything apart from the gospel of Christ, our human tendency is to latch onto what we need to do instead of resting in Christ’s finished work for us.
Understandably, in youth ministry, we want to hone in on topics that lead teens to make godly and moral decisions. And certainly, exhibiting godly behavior is pleasing to God and serves as a good witness to others. So while this is not wrong in and of itself, we need to reexamine our methods.
So often, in our aim to produce “good” teens, we simply give law. But according to Romans 8:3, the Law has no power to save. Our teens need to hear of the One who accomplished righteousness for them and why they need it. When Christ is upheld and his work and worth preeminent, greater worship of him will be the result. But when the focus is more on self and not Savior, the underlying motive for obedience is duty, not delight.
For example, let’s say an “on fire for the Lord” youth group kid messes up. But out of shame and disappointment in himself, instead of going to the Lord or feeling safe to confess his sin to others, he hides it and bears it alone. To try to make himself feel better and keep others from judging him, he goes into overdrive with his Christian performance. He lives as if he must atone for his actions.
But what happens the next time he messes up? And the next?
Shame heaps upon him. And like so many Christians, he eventually finds it easier to stay away from the church and other Christians who only add to his guilt. This is why what we emphasize in our teaching is of paramount importance. For if it is not centered on the work and worth of Christ, our students will not learn that true growth in the Christian life doesn’t come from sinning less; it comes from seeing more of their sin, hating it, and learning to deal honestly with it so they can live in greater dependence on the Lord.
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Growing a Deep-Rooted Youth Group
With this said, if what we offer to our students is not the meat of the gospel, the so-called “fire” will never last. And with so many churches and youth programs today taking their cues from worldly trends, it isn’t surprising that kids lose interest. There are simply too many other venues vying for their attention. The church and our youth groups must be distinct. How do we practically do this?
1. Proclaim Christ
Distinctly preaching Christ in a world devoid of truth may not be what itching ears want to hear. It may not be what instantly grows a group. And it may be tempting to think it’s not relevant enough. But nothing short of the gospel has the power to transform hearts and keep our eyes fixed on Christ.
Many pastors and youth leaders think they are preaching Christ when in fact they are tacking him on at the end of an otherwise moralistic message. To preach the gospel in every lesson we must approach the Scriptures not as rules or stories with examples of how to live, but as the one story of God’s plan to rescue and redeem his children through his Son. The gospel is written on every page, from our need for redemption in the Old Testament to the revelation of Christ’s work and worth in the New Testament.
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"May this produce students who see the Word as the true sustenance they need."
2. Teach Students to Read the Bible
Let’s teach our students how to read the Bible so they see the word of God as the Bread of Life. Too many Christians know they should read their Bibles but have no idea where to begin or how to get anything out of it. So they pick a verse and immediately apply it to what they are going through.
Instead, how about taking a book of the Bible, reading it with our teens in context so they learn more of who Christ is, who they are, and how his truths speak into our everyday realities. May this produce students who see the Word as the true sustenance they need. May the Word dwell in them richly. May it inform their worldviews, lead them to look to the Lord for all things, and shape their relationships redemptively.
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"The sign of a healthy youth group, big or small, is students who know their need for Jesus."
3. Grow Disciples, Not Consumers
To produce a healthy youth group, the focus must be discipleship in Christ. But keep in mind, in the same way we don’t see a tree grow and it can be years before it bears any fruit, so too is gospel growth. So we aren’t necessarily going to see instant revival or an increase in numbers as the evidence of our work.
Because of the slow and steady nature of Christian discipleship, the temptation for youth workers is to turn to other methods to speed the process. Or, out of a desire to justify our work according to how the world measures success (numbers and excitement level), we buy into the need to add to the gospel.
When we start to cater to what’s “working” or felt needs, we inadvertently produce consumers. Is this not why so many people church-hop? If the church is no longer meeting their needs, then it’s time to move on. In the same way, youth who get bored or find something more exciting will move on. But if our dedication is to the gospel alone, the ones whose ears are open and hearts are ripe will keep coming for their thirst to be quenched. The ones who fall away may not see how thirsty for the Living Water they really are.
So the sign of a healthy youth group is not what the world thinks. The sign of a healthy youth group, big or small, is students who know their need for Jesus. Their attendance and worship flow out of the abundance of his grace to them. Their desire to die to self and live more for the good of others, as opposed to being consumers, comes from the work of God’s grace in their lives. Their hatred of their sin, quickness to repent, desire for vulnerability, and hunger for the truth is the “fire” we should strive to ignite.
Kristen Hatton is the New Growth Press author of The Gospel-Centered Life in Exodus for Students, Face Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World and Get Your Story Straight. In addition to her own blog, Kristen occasionally writes for Rooted Ministry, The Gospel Coalition, Risen Motherhood, the PCA Women’s enCourage blog, Lifeway’s Parenting Teens, and Crosswalk. Kristen lives in Oklahoma with her pastor husband and is the mother of three teenage/young adult children. Learn more by visiting her website at www.kristenhatton.com.
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