Written by Jon Imbeau, executive director of Awana International Canada 

Ministries for children and youth are under a microscope right now for many Canadian churches. People are questioning whether or not these traditionally important ministries still work. Are we effectively reaching kids with the gospel and creating lifelong disciples?  

If a church experiences fair-weather attendance and an overall decrease in participation as kids graduate from high school, they must question the fruit of their efforts. A healthy, vibrant ministry should produce engaged young adults who are knowledgeable about the Word of God and eager to disciple the next generation. 

But if many Christian kids are turning their backs on Canadian churches after high school as studies suggest (www.RenegotiatingFaith.ca), then shouldn’t this age group be considered a core ministry, requiring significant resources? There is a clear biblical directive to teach our kids about the Lord (Deuteronomy 6). But when teaching is no longer present in the home and long-term engagement is declining in our ministries, how should we respond?  

Many church leaderships have read the statistics on the declining success of discipleship ministry in recent generations and are concluding something is broken. Continuing the status quo is no longer an option. Child and youth ministries require more volunteers, more time, and, let’s face it, more energy. The issues kids are dealing with today are risky and complicated. One error in judgment could have devastating consequences. 

When all your efforts don’t produce the fruit of a healthy and growing ministry, it can be discouraging. Many churches scramble for volunteers to run basic Sunday school and mid-week drop-ins without providing additional resources to pour into this area of ministry. We live in a post-Christian culture and the effects are infiltrating the church. Recently, a lead pastor of a large church asked me, somewhat sheepishly, “Does youth group work? I mean, are we making disciples?” 

Research is showing how church kids seem to know or believe remarkably little about God, the Bible, and His Church. The Renegotiating Faith study (page 102) suggests just over half of teens raised in Mainline or Catholic churches continue to affiliate with their teenage church as young adults, and Evangelicals aren’t much better at just under two thirds. 

Many pastors and lay-leaders have all kinds of anecdotal evidence to support these alarming statistics. There are just too many stories of kids we know who leave high school ministries and the Church, simultaneously. Sadly, we also know those who have left their faith in Jesus altogether.  

As a youth pastor for 15 years in Canada, I have watched this happen, and it is disheartening. Difficult as it is, I believe this spotlight season on youth and kids ministry is a good thing for the Church. We actually need the painful reality check.  

New ministries will be birthed out of imagining new models. Existing programs will be evaluated to create stronger discipleship. Current programs and the way we’ve always done things will have to be cut. In this season, we will have to ask: “Are our children growing to know, love, and serve Jesus through home and church ministries?” “Is what we are doing working?” These are good questions and ones that should always be asked.  

How can we evaluate Next Gen ministries? I have come to believe five core principles are critical to the development and growth of effective child and youth ministries. I would go so far as to say that when ministry is built on these five principles, there is a far better outcome for discipleship at all levels.   

These principles are supported by comments from youth in the Hemorrhaging Faith report (pages 67-68) that preceded Renegotiating Faith:  

  • I want to be given tools to apply the teaching to my life immediately. 
  • I want to be reminded and shown how to live the gospel week to week. 
  • I want to learn how to apply sermons to my life by listening to how it applies to others. 
  • Church should make Jesus the centre of all sermons. 
  • Church should challenge us with Scripture. 

These comments should shape how we build our ministries. Youth are asking for more. More Jesus, more Scripture, more stories, and more authenticity from pastors, leaders, and their church community. They are asking for relational discipleship. Youth want us to walk with them, show them what Jesus wants for their lives, and show them where God tells us how to live in the Bible. They want to ask questions and have us respond with faithful and caring, authentic answers. This means that if we don’t know the answer or if we are challenged, we need to say it. (That’s another article!) 

If your current model for child and youth ministry is not working, I am here to tell you there is another way. If you see kids drifting away from their faith or leaving the church after high school, please be brave. Make a change!  

If all you are doing is providing a safe place for children and youth to have fun and hear a brief presentation from the Bible, this is not enough. Dare to imagine a ministry with children and families who are engaged, leaders who are excited and organized, and age group transitions that result in the development of new leaders.   

I don’t want to leave you hanging, so let me introduce the five principles I mentioned. Youth ministry should:  

  1. Be gospel-centred 
  2. Develop strong, relational leaders 
  3. Present Scripture as key 
  4. Make your ministry fun and exciting 
  5. Involve parents through parent partnership 

In coming months, we will write about each of these, provide tips for incorporating each into your ministry, and challenge you to evaluate your child and youth ministries with these values. If you want to see fruit and effectively and permanently build disciples, these five principles need to be considered.