FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Is Youth Ministry Working?

with Steve Wright, Various | August 15, 2008
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Did you know that 61% of students walk away from their faith after they graduate? Join us for today's broadcast, when author and youth pastor Steve Wright examines the state of youth ministry today.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Did you know that 61% of students walk away from their faith after they graduate? Join us for today's broadcast, when author and youth pastor Steve Wright examines the state of youth ministry today.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Did you know that 61% of students walk away from their faith after they graduate?

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Is Youth Ministry Working?

With Steve Wright, Various
August 15, 2008
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Steve: Do not put that on our shoulders.  The bridge is out.

Bob: Steve Wright is a youth pastor at a church in North Carolina with a little different perspective on his job.

Steve: These students have 112 hours of awake time a week.  On a good week, I may average about two of those hours.

Bob: He sees a part of his role as discipling moms and dads to help them disciple their sons and daughters.

Steve: When I stand in front of parents, one of the things that I try to say to them is if you are depending upon us as the sole opportunity for your children to continue to be walking with the Lord, as adults, that's a dangerous assumption.  In fact, do not put that on our shoulders.  The bridge is out.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, August 15th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  If you've always thought of youth ministry as a place where you drop off your kids so they can minister to them, it is time to rethink.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  If you weren't doing what you're doing, I have a suspicion that you might have been doing what our guest today is doing.  Does that make sense?  Were you able to follow that at all?

Dennis: It does to me because I know what we're talking about, but I'm not sure our listeners do.  I started out in 1970 working with high school students, and it was there in working with high school students in Dallas, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; I traveled the nation working with high school students, and it was through my work with them that I really saw the need of the family and became convinced of what, for me, was another call back to, really, going all the way upstream to where these young people come from, the homes, and be able to impact those homes and equip moms and dads to be able to raise the next generation.

Bob: And when you say you saw the need of the family working with high school students because they were coming from troubled homes?

Dennis: Well, it was interesting, Bob.  We had 300 young people coming out to a weekly meeting at the corner of Crooked and Straight Lane in Dallas, Texas.  Now, that's north Dallas, for folks who don't know where Crooked and Straight Lane are.

Bob: Where they come together there?

Dennis: Yes, that's right.  But we had Josh McDowell speak, we had Andre Cole come in and perform illusions for these young people, and as I began to interact with them, it was amazing as I talk with them how much of an impact their families had on them either for good or for ill.  And I could work with a young person for a year and – now this is my way of putting it, but I could send them into a home that didn't support the Scriptures, and they could undo what I've been attempting to do over a period of a year in one night.

I mean, the power of a family in raising young people is unsurpassed, and I guess if you think about how the Bible starts out – in the Book of Genesis, He starts with a family.  It's what He gave children to, and it really is to be how He shapes the next generation.

And we have a guest with us on our program today that has more than 20 years' experience in working with teenagers and preteens as well.  Steve Wright joins us on FamilyLife Today.  Steve, welcome to the broadcast.

Steve:  Well, thank you, I'm glad to be here.  What an honor.

Dennis: You have undoubtedly seen what I'm talking about – what I saw over 30 years ago, as I started working with young people.  You are undoubtedly still seeing it today as you've been in youth ministry all these years.

Steve: Right.  As I started doing student ministry probably, like most youth pastors, I was young and had a lot of energy.  Unfortunately, not really a lot of training, not a lot of theology to guide where I was going.

The amazing thing was I came in, and I made two really large assumptions.  The first assumption that I made was that the model of student ministry that most churches embrace, I assumed that model was entirely biblical.

And then the second assumption that I made was that it was effective.  The problem that I had was as I started doing ministry more and more, I would see students coming through the program and not continuing their faith after high school and, obviously, through a lot of the stats and stuff, you know, through the book and a lot of the research that's coming out, you know, we began to realize that we were not producing fruit that lasts.

Dennis: You write in your book, which is entitled "Rethink – Decide for Yourself – Is Student Ministry Working?"  Time magazine did some research around young adults in their early 20s who had been involved in church, growing up.

Steve: Right.  In that study, they found that 61 percent of students walk away from their faith after they graduate.  Most of the studies that you'll look at now are going to say that probably in the neighborhood of in the low 60s up to the high 70 percent of students after graduation are, at some point, walking away from their faith.

Bob: Walking away for a season or walking away for life?  Or can we tell at this point?

Steve:  Well, I don't know that we can necessarily tell.  There's been very little research on the follow-up, but I think one of the things as we look at this study, I mean, it's alarming just to imagine, after the great investment that our churches, that, you know, we live in an unprecedented age of resources, technology, all of these things – budgets, buildings, and to think that a percentage as high as that – I received a phone call not too long ago from a professor out on the West Coast, and we were talking about the statistics, and the point that I left him with was that if the statistics were only half, none of us would be satisfied even with that.  So it's a huge concern for us.

Dennis: Yes, I think of a mom who is listening to our broadcast, or a dad, who is really working to try to explain the Scriptures, explain who Jesus Christ is, who God is, hopefully implanting faith in the soul of their son or daughter so they'll know how to cope with life as they release the arrow toward the target and toward adulthood, and to hear those statistics, it's frightening.

Steve:  Well, Dennis, what happens, I think, the assumptions that I made earlier that this model is effective, a lot of parents, they've made the same assumption, and so they've been coming to church, they've been dropping their kids off.  Here is the youth pastor, this is the model that we have.  And so they've bought in and so at the 19, 20, 21 years old to see this thing unraveling, they begin to scratch their heads and say, "What's going on?"

Bob: So if you're standing up as a youth pastor on graduation Sunday in the church, and you're handing out whatever the book is that you're giving to the graduating seniors, and you've got five kids who are coming forward to get their book because that's how many graduates you've got in your youth group, what you're saying is four years from that moment, three of those five won't be involved in a local church?

Steve:  That's right.  That's what the statistics are telling us, and what's even worse, on a lot of the statistics these researchers researched students after they had graduated.  I don't think that there is a youth pastor in the country that's not aware that this attrition begins much earlier, typically, around 10th grade, and in a lot of youth groups, you know, you've got a large middle school, and then as the ministry moves forward up through high school, you see fewer attend.

Bob: So kids are starting to drop out of youth group before they graduate from youth group.

Steve: That's right.

Bob: Yeah.

Dennis: And if I understand you correctly, what you're saying is parents are making too many assumptions about the effectiveness of youth groups today.  They are dropping their kids off, they're thinking, you know, "These are paid professionals.  These are youth ministers who know what they're doing, know where they're going, their effectiveness is proven."  You're saying that's a dangerous assumption today.

Steve:  That's a dangerous assumption.  In fact, when I stand in front of my parents, one of the things that I try to say to them is if you are depending upon us as the sole, you know, opportunity for your children to continue to be walking with the Lord, as adults, the bridge is out.  Do not put that on our shoulders, because these students have 112 hours of awake time a week.  On a good week, I may average about two of those hours.

Dennis: And parents have got them for 100 hours.

Steve: That's right, and so when you look at …

Bob: Well, yeah, but they're sleeping through half of those 100 hours, I mean, come on.

Dennis: And then their hearts are hardened during the teenage years.

Bob: For part of the other, right.

Dennis: For a good bit of those.

Steve: But if you look at the design, as you were just speaking about earlier, I mean, God has placed those parents in those roles as the daily mentor.

Dennis: What do you want parents to know about passing truth onto their son or their daughter when they read a statistic like George Barna recently reported where 70 percent of young people today don't believe you can know absolute truth?  Now, where do you go in Christianity or your belief system, if you can't be assured of something being an absolute or build your convictions upon an absolute standard?

Bob: Well, and his study was with churched kids, too, right?  So you've got 70 percent of the high school kids in youth groups who are saying, "So I don't think there are absolute truths on a lot of these things we're looking at?"

Steve: Right.  So not only do you have the concern of the retention rate of students continue to walk in their faith, but you have the whole concern of biblical literacy.  And if you look at the model of student ministry that many of us were brought up to believe and to adopt, you know, we were trying basically to entertain kids into the Gospel, and we're seeing that that's fallen well short, and that our kids are not prepared, as they should be.

Bob: Okay, but you know kids and what you're competing with in the culture today.  If there is not some kind of sizzle, who is going to come to your Wednesday night meeting?  I mean, they've got lots of options that are cooler than what you're putting on down the street.

Steve: That's right.  Well, you know, if we look at it, though, from the standpoint of competition with the world and, you know, we approach it and try to measure up to the – all of the things that they offer, and that's our first line of defense, I feel like we're in trouble.

I love what David Wells says that if we begin the process to get more rather than to glorify God, then we will entertain any imaginable idea whether biblical or not to get more.  And I think what happened to the church growth movement and what we've been through lately in student ministries, there is the pressure to get more kids to attend.  And so when the focus is on getting more kids to attend rather than producing true disciples, then we are always in a mode of what can we do that attracts? 

Dennis: All right, I'm going to call a youth group meeting.  We're going to dismiss all the youth, but we're going to get the parents in a room.  I'm a parent, I've got my notepad out because I don't want to send my son or my daughter to a youth group that's going to be a waste of time or, even worse yet, it may create a lukewarm Christian.

Steve: Sure.

Dennis: I mean, and that really is a concern of mine, as a parent, is I'm not sending my son or daughter into a situation where they are not only not going to get the real disease, they're going to get one that's just kind of mediocre.

Steve: Right.  One of the things that we have to really grasp is God's vision for us, as parents.  What is it that God is wanting us to pass on as we're passing on a legacy?  And I think the way that a lot of our ministries are set up, it almost looks like we're trying to create full-time youth group attenders rather than preparing students for manhood, womanhood, parenting, being husbands and wives.  And the whole idea of, you know, are our students truly – do they truly know God?

We don't want to just teach them about God, we want them to know God, because if they know God, then that does change our lives, and what we've offered many times in our student ministries is to walk our students through program after program after program, and what we're seeing at the end is that our students are more concerned about – or more in love with – programs than they are with Christ.

Dennis, I think what happens a lot of times in our ministries is you have youth pastors who have been given a responsibility that a lot of times, if you were to – could get real honest with them and say, "Do you see yourself doing this long term?"  There's a lot of youth pastors that would, quite honestly, say, "I don't if I can maintain it."

Bob: You're saying because we're not paying them enough to subsist?  Is that …

Steve: No, I don't think that's the problem.  Most youth pastors that I've met would, you know, and I think it's proven by their track record, would almost do it for nothing, but I think part of the problem is the pressure …

Bob: All these guys – we're going to have a roomful of youth pastors …

Dennis: We haven't established that.

Bob: Yeah, but that's all right.  We could let our listeners know we've got youth pastors joining us in the studio here, and when you said that, they all went, "Naw."


Steve: But, you know, I think most have the heart to serve, they want to do it, but I think the expectations of their schedules, what is placed on them, and, quite honestly, I think biblically a lot of them are placed into a role of assuming something biblically that was never assigned to them.

Dennis: You're speaking of taking the place, literally, of a mom or a dad in terms of youth ministry.

Steve: I think, over the past, probably, 30 to 40 years, we've allowed ourselves to embrace a model of student ministries that has pushed parents to the side.  And, quite honestly, if you look through the Scriptures of the passage you spoke earlier in Genesis, you look in Deuteronomy 6, you look in Psalm 78, you look in Ephesians 4, all of those passages, the responsibility squarely is laid on the role of the parents.

Bob: Okay, but let's be honest – Mom and Dad aren't doing it.  I mean, in our churches today, are Mom and Dad discipling their kids – some are, most aren't, you're the youth pastor, so aren't you just trying to do damage control with those ones who aren't getting it at home?

Steve:  Well, I think if we began the journey with an understanding that we're going to take over something that's broken, I think we've already messed up.  I think what we have to do, for example, if we were in our churches, and our people did not want to be stewards.  If they did not want to evangelize it, they did not want to take care of those in need, what would we do?  Would we stop preaching the truth?  Would we try to build a bridge around it?  Or do we keep heralding the truth of God's Word? 

Because, at the end of the day, either we're doing ministry on God's terms, or we're doing it on our terms.  And because this responsibility has been placed on parents, we have got to ask ourselves, we have got to – you know, and if they do not want to do it, that message has to be proclaimed, and it has to be presented to those parents.

Dennis: I think what's happened in many cases, is parents have abdicated.  And we're not here beating up on parents on FamilyLife Today.  We're all about equipping parents to be able to do their jobs here, that's why we're talking to you here today.

But I think what's happened is the easiest thing to do for a mom or a dad is to drop their kids off at the youth group on Sunday morning or on Wednesday night or on both occasions, and say, "You teach them spiritually, because I don't know what I'm doing."

Steve:  Sure, yeah.

Dennis: You see, that raises a bigger question.  That's, first of all, that the parents assume the responsibility but, secondly, that they begin to venture out into this faith journey with God where they have the assignment of imparting their faith, their experience with God.  This is Psalm 78, verses 5 through 8, it talks about passing on a testimony, passing on your experience of God to the next generation.  It is the assignment given to parents by the Lord God Almighty.  This is not a side issue.

Steve: Right.  One of the things that I would say to the moms and dads that are out there listening is what a great privilege God has entrusted to you.  I can tell you this – as I have continued down this road, parents want to hear this message.  I think most of the parents are realizing, and they're seeing some of the troubling things that we spoke about earlier, and they're ready to run to this.  They want to engage.  They want to be equipped.  They want to be resourced.

Bob: Okay, but – and I hear you, and I don't disagree, but I'm thinking to myself of the 28-year-old youth pastor who has got a two-year-old at home, and he's thinking, "Okay, I'm going to call all the parents together, and I'm going to explain to them how they should disciple their teenagers.  And they're going to go, "You don't have a clue what you're talking about."

Steve:  That's right.  That is an issue that we have.  A lot of our ages of youth pastors that can be a detriment, but, you know, I think once you grapple with the truth of God's Word, and you see that it is reality, and you see that it's best, and you decide I'm going to do ministry on His terms, then you begin to be creative, and when you get ready to have that meeting, Bob, instead of you sitting there really speaking about something that maybe you've not experienced, you begin to think, "Man, I've got to do what God's called me to do, so I'm going to bring in a panel.  I'm going to do some other things creatively that allows me to do these things."

Dennis: Right, and on behalf of the youth pastors, do what they are experts in.  Most parents, honestly, during the teenage years, need another set of ears to hear on their behalf, and a youth pastor can be a great ally to a mom and a dad who are attempting to raise their children to follow Jesus Christ.

Steve: Well, I speak to student pastors weekly, and one of the things, as I'm sharing with them, that becomes very apparent, that most of the parents that they're working with, they do want to be resourced.  Two years ago I had a dad come in and sit down with me.  His son was getting into a little bit of trouble, and this dad wanted me to help find a mentor for his son.  And I said, "All right, let's talk about some things," and I was listening to his story; was able to take out Deuteronomy, share some of that passage with him, and tell this father that I have some incredibly wonderful news, that I've got somebody that would love their son; that would make time for their son; that would be willing to die for their son.

Bob: I've found the perfect mentor for your son.

Steve: I have found the perfect mentor.  In fact, God has pre-ordained this person to be your son's mentor – it's you.  The dad looked at me and basically said, "You know what?  I knew you were going to say that."  But what happened from that conversation was now a partnership with the youth pastor and a dad, and him saying, "Steve, teach me, show me, help me to know what this can look like."

Dennis: Yes, and we've really talked about two main issues on today's program.  Number one, it is God who has given parents the responsibility of spiritually training and introducing their children to God, and that's not done on a one-time basis, it is over and over and over again.  In fact, Barbara and I used to get so weary.  You'd say, "Lord, isn't there someone else that could do this for us?"  But you know what?  He hasn't given anybody else to do it for us. 

The second is the little partnership you just mentioned, Steve, and I think it's really a good way to put it – that parents as well as youth pastors need to agree that they are going to partner together, and they're not going to be adversaries, they're going to be allies because they're raising the next generation of followers of Christ to go out into spiritual battle beginning in junior high, high school, and then onto college and to adulthood, and, frankly, the concept of it taking a village to raise a child, that really is a biblical concept.  It takes a body – a body of believers to raise a young person to maturity.

Bob: You're saying Mom and Dad own that primary responsibility, but the body of Christ …

Dennis: Supports them.

Bob: Is supposed to be a part of the whole community that comes along and makes that happen, and that, I think, is a different perspective than a lot of parents have, than a lot of churches have and, Steve, I think you're helping not just youth pastors but helping us, as parents, rethink this whole idea.  And, in fact, that's the title of the book that you've written on this subject, which is primarily for youth pastors, but it's also a book that moms and dads may want to read and pass along to a youth pastor and say, "Look, we're here to help.  We want to volunteer.  We want to get involved and help with this re-engineering of youth ministry at our church."

We've got copies of the book, "Rethink" in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and it's all about rethinking the way youth ministry is being done, student ministry is being done in churches today.  You can go to our website,, to get more information about Steve's book.  You can order a copy from us, if you'd like, either online or by calling 1-800-FLTODAY. 

In addition, on our website, you'll find a copy of a great new book by Brett and Alex Harris that is called "Do Hard Things," and while this isn't specifically about youth ministry, it's a book that challenges young people, students, to have an impact for Christ not someday in the future but right now today to get involved in outreach or ministries of compassion or all different kinds of ways that you can be about Kingdom work.

Again, the book is called "Do Hard Things," and there is information about it on our website at  When you get to the home page, on the right side of the screen, you'll see a box that says "Today's Broadcast," and if you click where it says "Learn More," that will take you to an area of the site where you can find out more about the book, "Rethink," or the book, "Do Hard Things."

You can also call 1-800-FLTODAY for more information about these resources or to order from us.  Again, 1-800-358-6329, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, or you can order online at

By the way, when you get in touch with us, would you keep in mind that FamilyLife Today is a listener-supported ministry?  We depend on folks like you to help keep this program on this station and on other stations all across the country, and this month we have been making available to those of you who are able to make a donation to the ministry of FamilyLife Today, copies of the devotional book by Dennis and Barbara Rainey called "Moments With You."  This is a daily devotional for husbands and wives to do together.  A great hardback book that is our gift to you when you help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today this month, again, with a donation of any amount.

If you're making your donation online at, and you'd like to receive a copy of "Moments With You," all you have to do is write the word "You" in the keycode box, y-o-u, and we'll know to send a copy of the book out to you.  Or call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  Make a donation over the phone and mention that you'd like a copy of the book, "Moments With You."  Again, we're happy to send it out to you as our way of saying thank you for your financial support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today.

With that, we have to wrap things up for this week, but we want to pick up the conversation we had today on Monday.  We want to continue to look at what parents and churches can do together to rethink youth ministry, and I hope you can be back for that conversation.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow.  


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