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Is Your Youth Ministry Reaching Post-Christian Teenagers?

Is Your Youth Ministry Reaching Post-Christian Teenagers?

Tracking trends and culture is something we do at ym360 in an effort to help equip youth workers more effectively minister to their teenagers. We keep our finger on the pulse of recent research and studies, especially as it relates to millennials, the collective group of 13-30 year olds in our country. Close to 80 million strong, they have changed (and will continue to change) the fabric of our country. 

This is not an overstatement. And if you think it is you aren’t paying attention. :)

Millennials voted for Obama in the highest percentage of any demographic. They've changed the way brands market and sell. They favor same-sex marriage at a higher percentage than any other demographic. They will wait longer to get married and have children than any generation before them. They have the highest unemployment rate of any demographic. And did I mention they are the largest demographic in our country, (even larger than the Baby Boomers)?

Why is all this important? For a few reasons:

  1. As a youth worker, younger millennials are your mission field. Plain and simple.
  2. Millennials will undoubtedly have a profound effect on the next generation of teenagers.
  3. Millennials have been increasingly defined as non-religious.

This last point is the one I want to spend the next minute or so on. But let’s switch gears for a moment. 

You’ve probably heard or read about the “Nones,” the growing number of Americans who have no religious affiliation. There have been numerous studies done that report this growing population group, too numerous to list here. (A simple Google search will provide you with an afternoon of reading.) Like any emerging trend, there has been some degree of pushback as we try to wrap our brains around what this means. But recently, the Barna group has put some teeth to this in a very insightful way. 

The Barna group recently delved deeper into this question about what makes someone a “None,” or, as the Barna study defined it, someone who is “post-Christian.” They came up with 15 characteristics that measure people’s religious identity. If someone met 60% of these characteristics, they were defined as “post-Christian.” If someone met 80%, they were defined as “highly post-Christian.” They surveyed almost 43,000 adults, and while the big picture findings were along the lines of what you’d expect, the granular level of their study was fascinating.

The big picture? Based on these criteria, the Barna study found the following:

  • 63% of Americans don’t qualify as post-Christian. (In other words, these people would exhibit some level of Christian behavior or beliefs.)
  • 37% of Americans qualified as post-Christian or highly post-Christian.

If you drill down, you find some fascinating responses to their 15 characteristics: 

  • 32% of the 43,000 people surveyed reported not attending a Church in the past year.
  • Nearly 50% reported feeling no responsibility to share their faith
  • Only 18% reported NOT praying to God in the past year. 
  • Only 4% responded that they do not believe in God

I don’t want to summarize the entire article. It’s WELL WORTH your time to go check it out, and you can do so by clicking here. (The infographic is very well done and worth checking out.) But I do want to point out one significant point that you need to be aware of. 

The Barna study, like so many before it, found that nearly 50% of millennials qualify as post-Christian. 

In other words, here is yet another study in a long line of them that show a high percentage millennials (whom Barna refers to as “mosaics”) identifying with no or little religious beliefs or behaviors. While this isn’t news to most of us, it’s yet another reminder that our ministry models and methods must change to adapt to a changed cultural landscape. 

I want to end with one point from the Barna study that really got my attention. David Kinnaman, the author of UnChristian and You Lost Me (books that I would highly recommend you read) and President of Barna Group, said this about the high percentage of post-Christian millennials:

Our research suggests that most of the efforts of Christian ministries fail to reach much beyond the core of “Christianized” America. It’s often much easier to work with this core audience, than to focus on the so-called “Nones.” The data give evidence that some cities—and younger generations—are more Gospel-resistant than the norm. In part, Christian leaders have to realize that many efforts fall short because they imagine the post-Christian population is hanging on its every word. New levels of courage and clarity will be required to connect beyond the “Christianized” majority.

I think Kinnaman’s words here stand as a resounding challenge to those of us in youth ministry. Based on interactions with thousands of youth workers a year, I believe there is much in youth ministry that we do well. And I believe there is much that we are lagging on. I think Kinnaman’s words here sum up my belief that program-centric, attractional models of youth ministry are failing to impact the “post-Christian” youth in our communities. I think we have to be willing to take a realistic look at whether or not our ministries are truly having an impact on those in our communities who need Christ most. 

If we’re unwilling to change to meet a changed culture, we have to accept the fact that our ministries will increasingly be seen as irrelevant to those we are trying to reach.

The Gospel is timeless and unchanging. But we must adapt our methods and structure to meet a changed culture. 

I welcome your thoughts. 

  • What does this study, and those like it, stir in you? 
  • What conversations are you having about adapting your ministry to reach a changed cultural landscape?
  • What have you done to be more intentional about reaching “post-Christian” teenagers in your community?  
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