Updated: May 25
During the thirteen years of formal youth ministry that my wife Melissa and I were involved in, we saw many, many youth leave the church, stop walking with Christ in any visible way, and then fail to return. Teenagers were involved in church but had little Biblical knowledge or understanding and, while they could engage biblical ideas, they were relying on their own human-based reasoning for the vast majority of their spiritual thought. As a result, strange paradoxes would arise in their thinking, like rejecting God's goodness because they couldn't fathom how a good God allows pain or rejecting God's description of sin and holiness because they could not reconcile their belief that certain lifestyles were "just fine" with the unflinching Biblical stances on the sinfulness of those lifestyles.
In short, youth would be involved in church, but many (not all) would leave the church upon graduation from high school, but because they had been trained to listen to their “hearts” (which are deceitfully wicked, according to Scripture), to human wisdom (which is not equal with God's wisdom, according to Scripture), or to something else entirely, they didn't have a submission to God's Word. Since they didn't see God's Word as truly authoritative and since many of them likely had no relationship with Jesus Christ at all (partly because they didn't see fit to submit to the reality of their own need for salvation as sinners!), they left the Church and as of this writing approximately 70% are either out of touch with us or have not returned.
Naturally, this broke our hearts.
We did a study of youth that were currently out of high school but had been through the church’s ministry over the course of ten years, dividing them up into three groups: those whose walk with Christ exhibited fruit of the Spirit and a heart devoted to God, those whose lives didn’t reflect Christ in the least, and those that were either no longer in contact with us or whose life gave no meaningful evidence in either direction. This was, of course, quite a subjective study, and in no way did we ever consider our frail and faulty efforts to be authoritative on the salvific state of anyone, but we were also painfully aware that many youth had strayed and this was serious enough to warrant analysis.
The results were sobering.
We found that only 29% of the youth ever to go through the doors of the church were in the “obviously walking with Christ” category. Nation-wide, the epidemic is even worse, with some studies indicating only a 20% retention of church youth after they graduate from high school. The “unknown” group came in around 40% of the population, leaving the remaining 30% of our precious youth having “no indication of a walk with Christ.”
These numbers, to us, were paltry and indicated a need for further examination, so we began to add more indicators to our study, trying to ascertain if there was anything we could alter or focus on to make better use of the time that God had given us. We found just such an area in parental involvement. We discovered that if students had parents in their discipleship, parents that required them to be involved in church, and parents that were engaged themselves in the life of the church, 80% of those students were actively, visibly following Jesus. Of the remaining 20% of those students, 100% had some sort of crisis with their fathers (death or divorce) during their teen years. So, parental involvement in discipleship was a significant indicator of continued Christ-centered focus.
Because of God’s admonition to parents in Ephesians 6:4 (and elsewhere, such as Deuteronomy 6:7-9) to bring children up in the Lord, we can all agree that equipping parents be more involved in the discipleship process is a worthy endeavor.