Church in Crisis: A Message Every Christian Needs to Hear


By. Steve Wilkinson

It isn’t much of a secret anymore that the church in the West is in crisis. If you haven’t read one of the many church-produced or sociological studies, you’ve probably noticed it just by watching the news or looking around at society. But why is this the case? How did we get here and, more importantly, how do we fix it?

When I heard the recent White Horse Inn episode, Youth Ministry in Crisis, I realized I had stumbled on something that encapsulated my Masters work in seminary  so well, that it was something I had to take my best shot at getting to as many Christians as possible.

Since the resource to which I’m pointing is so good, and the notes I’ve taken from it are so long, I’m just going to jump into it and let it speak for itself. (Also note that it is the first in an ongoing series! So far the rest are just as good.) I apologize in advance for the ‘class notes’ type format.

Please take the time to listen to the episode audio. It is less than 55 minutes long, but if you are really pressed for time, at least listen to the first 17 minutes and read my summary of Christian Smith’s closing below, or listen to minutes 49:08-52:12. If you can’t listen to it, browse my notes below.

Youth Ministry in Crisis

Mike Horton (1:11-7:30)

  • Christians aren’t reproducing. Not that they aren’t having children, but they aren’t producing Christian children; they aren’t passing on the faith.
  • the statistics are staggering (I’ll include a few, but Mike covers many more)
  • ‘no religion’ box was 7% 5 years ago, now 15%
  • more than 1/3 of 18-22 year olds say they don’t identify with any religion
  • Southern Baptist Convention initial studies: losing 70-80% of youth after Freshman year of college
  • a more recent SBC report found that 88% of those raised in Evangelical homes leave church at age 18
  • other studies in-between have ranged from 61%-90%
  • while there are various causes, the glaring one is the ‘diet’ youth are getting, even in more conservative contexts
  • Barna group study: 63% of US teens don’t believe Jesus is the son of God; 58% believe all faiths teach equally valid truths; 51% don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead
  • Christian Smith group, 2000 to present, surveyed over 3000 teens and followed them into their 20s: youth incredibly inarticulate about their faith
  • David Kinnaman of Barna: youth ministry simply fails at discipleship and faith formation

Christian Smith interview (7:52-16:37)

  • National Study of Youth and Religion, 2000-present
  • moralistic therapeutic deism roughly describes their religious beliefs
  • it didn’t matter the denomination, the teens didn’t know their faith
  • God wants people to be friendly and kind, and people to be happy and satisfied
  • there is a heaven, and good people go there
  • catechism training has become almost a dirty word
  • people express a want for natural, subjective, authentic, personal approach, which is sociologically incredibly naive
  • essentially, youth are not being given any content to work with, to accept or reject
  • big structural gap between adults and teens
  • youth ministers work hard for little reward, but also operate within a history of what youth ministry is (which came post-WWII)
  • i.e. separate the kids from the adults, have fun and sing hip songs, and maybe we’ll teach the Bible in there somewhere
  • they realize something is wrong, but aren’t always sure what and what to do about it
  • need a more holistic model, integrated with the church, both congregation and staff
  • of course, some segregation for education is legitimate
  • but there are even worship services for different ages in some churches
  • sociologically, the most important pastoral influence on a young person is going to be their family, whether they want the responsibility or not

Kenda Creasy Dean interview (17:00-23:12)

  • content of Christian faith, historically, isn’t even on their radar
  • they are ‘christian-ish’ rather than followers of Christ
  • we’re doing a good job at teaching them what we really believe; that Christianity isn’t a big deal, that God requires little, and that the church is a helpful social institution of nice people
  • image that youth have of God is of a ‘cosmic therapist’ or a ‘divine butler’
  • teens who were the exception to the rule, had characteristics of:
  • peculiar God story, which they were able to articulate and that they tried to live by
  • community of faith where they felt they really belonged
  • sense of vocation and purpose to participate in God’s plan
  • markedly higher levels of hope
  • parents don’t feel qualified to teach their children today, nor adults one-another
  • not wanting to push religion on their kids = doesn’t matter
  • you can’t hand something on without teaching it and knowing the words and terms

Marva Dawn of Regent College (23:25-28:07)

  • youth in her church were learning ‘how Christianity helps us grow up’ which was stuff like ‘I need comfort when I break up with my boyfriend, etc.’
  • real danger in turning Christianity into another form of narcissism
  • they need to know about the Triune God, why God is involved in our lives, about the Crucifixion and why it is important
  • they had very little doctrinal content
  • this is dangerous, as if it is just feelings holding them to Christianity, when the feelings aren’t there, they will move away
  • she is very concerned about generation split in churches today
  • our faith is language more than emotion
  • people should be drawn into a different way of life, a focus on God, worshiping God, rather than their own fun and entertainment

Thomas Bergler (28:30-35:02)

  • traces history and development of youth culture and effect on models of youth ministry
  • instead of encouraging kids to grow up in Christ, they were placed in their own alternative church, until the whole church became one giant youth-group
  • adolescence invented in society around the 1940s
  • before this, early teens were entering the world of adult work
  • teenager was coined in the 1930s-40s, which was the first time in history when the majority of American teens went to high school
  • birth of teenagers as a consumer market
  • age group with distinct language (slang) and pop culture
  • negative impact of youth ministry, is taking traits that are appropriate to the youth age, become the ideal for all ages – ex: analogy of falling in love, applied to the faith (if I’m not feeling intense emotions towards Jesus, then something is wrong… and this ends up having all the staying power of adolescent infatuation.)
  • Evangelicals captured a lot of youth, but what did they capture them with, and is it mature Christianity?

J.I. Packer (35:20-41:56)

  • we need to reconsider catechism techniques
  • Christianity is a faith which expresses itself as a life
  • you can’t teach the life properly if you don’t teach the faith properly
  • to get the believing straight, you need the basic grammar of the faith
  • Jesus said, go make disciples; a disciple is a learner
  • the basic trouble in the West, is that we’ve exchanged a God centered view of life, for a man-centered, self-centered, relativistic view of life, truth, and wisdom
  • Christianity gets distorted, because we treat ourselves as the central focus, and God is just there to help when we need him
  • catechism isn’t necessarily ‘fun’ but it is very satisfying to the mind and heart
  • head knowledge is the highway to heart knowledge – you don’t have heart knowledge without head knowledge – truth enters the heart via understanding
  • this makes you want to worship and praise God – if you start on the other end, you end up with relativism

Gary Parrett (41:56-45:38)

  • in the ancient church, anyone coming to Christ went through a rigorous training in Christian doctrine in prep for baptism, even up to 2 or 3 years; catechesis
  • unintended consequences of the Sunday-school movement, where people learned snippets of various Bible stories, but never connected them to the whole
  • in some cases, the stories were presented in a way that is contrary to the Gospel
  • Sunday-school movement was a lay movement, which was originally an evangelism and outreach effort, which became the children educational wing of the church
  • outcome was for parents and pastors to withdraw from the education of children

William Willimon (45:38-49:08)

  • Christian discipleship should be similar to learning a different language
  • you have to sit and learn the language
  • if you went into a physics class and the instructor started talking about the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the student wouldn’t go, ‘hold on, you can’t use terms like that, put that into some language I know.’ The teacher would say, ‘well you’d better write this definition down and learn about it, because it is going to be on the exam.’
  • as Christians, we need to get a whole bunch of terms and concepts which we didn’t have before we were saved

Christian Smith, Director of the National Study of Youth and Religion (49:08-52:12)

  • “The single factor that clearly drove how articulate a young person could be about their faith, was not how mature they were, what their age was, but whether the adults in their lives had engaged them, had taught them, had formed them, had given them a vocabulary and a language of faith to use.” (emphasis mine)
  • “A thirteen year-old who had that in their life could be as articulate as anything. A seventeen, eighteen year-old who hadn’t had that could be just completely lost. We also found that young people weren’t generally inarticulate. They could be articulate on topics where their schools, or a program they had been in, where their teachers had basically communicated to them, ‘this is important,’ ‘you need to know this,’ ‘this is not negotiable.’” (emphasis mine)
  • The language of faith is like a second language. It’s hard to learn it, you don’t just pick it up. It takes a sustained learning.
  • It’s going to have to happen in our families and churches, as it won’t happen on TV or in most schools.
  • While we’re focused on teens, his suspicion is that their parents wouldn’t be much more articulate.
  • When there is a community, family, or congregation that is serious and values something, the young people who are part of it will take it seriously and value it; it is simply a matter of institutional formation.

Mike Horton (52:25-53:42)

  • “If in our own churches and families, we’re worried about the individualism that isolates young people and cuts them off from genuine community – with its attendant responsibilities as well as treasures – then should we really blame the kids?”
  • It is any wonder that our youth feel alienated? It is true in their own experience.
  • “Are they really dropping out of church in their college years, or did they ever really belong in the first place?”
  • “Narcissism, pragmatism, and individualism have converged to create a new kind of spirituality that is not only worldly, but has the net result of un-churching the church itself, and all in the name of mission.”

The solution

The fix, as I see it, includes at least three components:

  1. The church must become more age integrated (i.e. ditch most aspects that currently segregate, like separate worship, kids in Sunday school during service, etc.)
  2. We adults must take Christianity seriously, which includes priority in our lives and our resolve to learn enough to teach AT LEAST our own children.
  3. While the institutional church needs to get back to a focus on education (a church isn’t a school, but it should never be less than one), we’re going to need a grass-roots discipling movement in which you and I get involved.

About Steve Wilkinson

Steve loves getting people excited about Christian apologetics (case-making); seeing the beauty and rationality of Christianity and the Christian worldview. He is a husband, father, and long-time tech geek. He holds a MA in Theology (Interdisciplinary – Christianity, Church & Culture) from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. Canada.