When It Comes to Family Ministry, Why You Do It Is Every Bit as Important as How
"So, tell me," I ask as we wait for our drinks. "Why do you want to transition your ministry to a family-equipping approach?"
These two staff members are good people. Both of them are passionate about the Gospel, and they long to be faithful to Scripture. Their church has asked me to partner with the church staff to equip parents more effectively. I've completed the preliminary assessments, and fewer than one-fourth of parents in their congregation are consistently engaged in any form of discipleship with their children. This morning, we're convening at a busy coffee shop to map some initial changes in the church.
"Well," the twenty-something youth minister begins as we search for an empty table, mugs in hand, "what is it? Nine out of every ten kids are dropping out of church after they graduate, aren't they? Evidently, what we're doing right now isn't working." Marty is a newly-minted college graduate and a newlywed, called as the new youth minister a couple of years ago. From what I've heard, he's already gathered quite a youth group. He's considering seminary, but he's not certain he can handle the coursework with all the events that he has planned for the upcoming year. Summer camp is only two months away, so decisions about theological education will have to wait.
"Mm-hmm," the children's director agrees as she sips her latte. Katherine has overseen the children's programs for nearly three decades. For the first twenty years, she led as a volunteer. A few years ago, a sudden heart attack took her husband's life. Katherine needed a job to support herself and her teenage son, so the church's leadership turned her volunteer role into a full-time position. She must be nearly sixty years old, but she looks much younger. Even in these early stages of the change process, her openness to change has been encouraging. "Eighty-eight percent is what they said at the conference a few weeks ago. We just want to do so much better than that."
"Is your church actually losing that many?" I ask.
Both of them look at each other before shrugging.
"I-I don't really know," the youth minister replies. "I mean, most of them, we don't see after they graduate. Sometimes that's because they're involved in another church or they've plugged in with a college fellowship, I guess. Sometimes they move away completely. I don't think the church has ever actually done a survey or anything like that. It just seems to me that a lot of them are dropping out."
The children's director nods and continues, "What we thought is that, if we had some programs to teach parents how to grow their kids spiritually, we could stop the dropouts before they happen."
"I want to help your church," I say to them. "And I will do everything that I can to help you-but first, I'm going to ask you to rethink your reasons for considering these changes. The problem that you think is the problem is probably not the problem at all."[i]
The Infamous Evangelical Dropout Statistic
Over the past couple of years, I've had conversations of this sort with hundreds of well-meaning church leaders. The denominations have differed, the locations have spanned the globe, and the churches themselves have ranged from minute rural chapels to suburban mega-churches, from aging inner-city congregations to new church plants. Yet the script inevitably runs something like this: Eighty percent, maybe even ninety percent, of students are dropping out of church after high school! Can you help us launch a family ministry program to fix this problem?
In these statements, ministers and church members are simply echoing the conventional wisdom that they've heard at conferences and read in Christian books. According to these widely-proclaimed assumptions, one of the most pressing problems in ministry is the high percentage of students whose church involvement can't seem to persist much past the pomp and circumstance of their high school processional. A recent Internet search revealed nearly a quarter-million references to the infamous evangelical dropout statistic. [ii]
This shocking dropout statistic represents a starting-point for all sorts of demands for modifications in ministry practices-including the launch of family ministry programs. The logic throughout most of these references runs something like this: The standard for youth ministry effectiveness is retention of students beyond high school, and an overwhelming percentage of students are dropping out after high school. Whatever youth and children's ministries have been doing is, therefore, clearly not successful. Now, if only churches could come up with more effective ministry practices, they could fix the dropout rate and become more effective.
One author-in a self-proclaimed "manifesto" for the future of youth ministry-puts it this way:
Kids are dropping out of church after youth group at staggering rates. ... There are flaws in many of our assumptions and methods. ... While our thinking was correct-for its time-the world of teenagers has changed, and we've been slow in our response. It's like this: When you're in a poor, rural country and see a horse-drawn wagon rolling down a dirt road, you think nothing of it. It fits. But when you're driving through Pennsylvania Dutch country and see a horse-drawn buggy rolling down a nice, paved road and holding up traffic, it seems as though something doesn't fit. In many ways youth ministry today is the latter horse-drawn buggy.[iii]
In other words, if only we can come up with ministry methods that respond more effectively to the culture, we can fix the dropout rate-until, of course, the cultural gales gust in some other direction and turn the latest trend into one more horse-drawn buggy.
As I have consulted with congregations about family ministry, here's what I have found in many churches: Congregational leaders see family ministry as a counterbalance for the high dropout numbers that they've heard at a conference or read in a book. They perceive partnering with parents as a quick fix for the problem of a faith that can't seem to last through the freshman year of college.
What If the Sky Really Isn't Falling?
Perhaps you've read about the crisis too, or maybe you've heard the dropout statistic at a recent conference. Perhaps that's even why you purchased this book: You're convinced that better partnerships between church and parents provide the perfect solution to dismal retention rates. If that's why you picked up this book, I commend your desire to partner with parents (as well as your impeccable taste in reading material). At the same time, I am about to make a suggestion that may challenge the logic that has brought you to this place.
Here it is: The dropout rate is not a sufficient reason to reorient your ministry practices; in fact, the dropout rate may not be a problem at all.
I know, I know; I've just shoved a sacred cow through the slaughterhouse door. I can already sense what some readers are saying at this point: "What? Our youth groups are losing most of our students as soon as they graduate from high school! Don't you care about them?" Well, of course I care about students' souls-I simply don't believe that the dropout rate is the problem.
Here's why I don't perceive the dropout rate to be particularly problematic: First off, it's uncertain whether the rate of attrition that looms so large in our ecclesiastical anxiety closets even exists. And furthermore, even if a high dropout rate does exist, attrition rates represent an inadequate means for assessing ministry failure or success. Attrition rates are certainly not a sufficient motivation to swap ministry models-even if that means you're switching to a family ministry model. To understand what I'm suggesting, let's first take a closer look at the numbers behind the infamous evangelical dropout statistic.
Gut Feelings Make for Bad Statistics
In the first place, where did this datum come from? When did conference speakers first begin to claim that the vast majority of youth were exiting the church before their sophomore year of college? And was their research reliable? The first references to the dropout statistic come from the late 1990s. That's when a well-meaning but statistically-challenged speaker reported a post-youth group attrition rate of 88%. And how did he obtain his numbers?
When a doctoral student tracked down this datum, here's what the student found: The speaker's information was based on nothing more than the "gut feelings" that he gathered and averaged from a roomful of youth ministry professionals.[iv]
Of course, there's nothing wrong with asking a few people how they feel about an issue. Yet the communal hunch of a single group rarely results in a reliable statistic. In this case, an informal averaging of personal recollections resulted in a wildly overstated percentage that received tremendous publicity.[v] As a result, over the past couple of decades, many youth ministries have leaped from one bandwagon to another and another, driven by the collective sensation of a few youth pastors' intestinal tracts at one particular gathering of ministry professionals in the waning years of the twentieth century.
So why do the dropout percentages represent an insufficient reason to reorient your church toward an emphasis on family ministry? It's because, in the first place, many of these dropout numbers-particularly the "nine-out-of-ten" ratio-were false alarms. The infamous evangelical attrition rate of 88% does not rightly describe the present reality, and it probably never described any past reality.
So what is the real attrition rate? How many students actually do drop out of church in the months following their graduation ceremonies? Attrition rates can vary radically from one denomination to another and even from one congregation to another. A few conservative evangelical mega-churches have recently reported reliable retention rates of 88% or better among young adults who had been actively engaged in dynamic student ministries-meaning that these congregations lost 12% or less of their youth.[vi]
As a whole, however, it appears that a little less than half of church-involved students typically disengage from church during their early young adult years. When a research sample mixed occasional youth attenders with youth who were deeply involved in their churches, the resulting dropout rate rose to 70%. Some studies have suggested that a significant number of young adults reengage with church by the time they turn thirty, often when they marry or have children.[vii] Such attrition patterns are certainly not cause for celebration. Yet the real dropout numbers vary, and they are far removed from the spurious statistics that have been spouted from the platforms of far too many ministry conferences.
Why Jesus Would Have Failed in Ministry
But let's suppose for a moment that your church actually does have a retention problem. Would that provide a sufficient motive to realign your congregation around an entirely new ministry model? Asked another way, is ongoing church involvement really the truest metric of a ministry's success? Or could it be that churches are using the wrong yardstick to measure their ministry models?
During his days on the dusty roads of Judea and Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth seemed to have been notoriously unconcerned about attrition rates. At one point, "a large crowd" of well over five thousand was so wild about Jesus that they pursued him all around the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1-25). Then, after one particular teaching session, the numbers of paparazzi took a nosedive from several thousand to a single dozen-an attrition rate of well over ninety-nine percent!
And what did Jesus say to the few who remained with him? "Okay, guys, what can I do to improve my retention rates? If I don't come up with a new ministry model, my Father will be so displeased with me! Let's brainstorm a bit to figure this out"?
Not even close.
"Do you want to go away as well?" was what Jesus asked his closest companions as thousands of former followers filed away; then, he added, "Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil" (John 6:67, 70).
A couple of years later, one Passover eve in the Garden of Gethsemane, even the dodgy dozen deserted their Lord, and the divine dropout rate veered toward one hundred percent (Mark 14:50-52; John 16:32). At this rate, Jesus would have failed as a minister in many contemporary churches. Yet, in all of this, the service of God the Son infinitely and perfectly pleased God the Father. Jesus remained the beloved one in whom the Father was "well pleased" (Mark 1:11; see also John 10:17). Even in the moments when his closest companions abandoned and denied him-in some sense, especially in those moments when "he was despised and rejected by men"-Jesus fully fulfilled his Father's will (Isa. 53:3-11). It was our sin that spiked Jesus to the cross, not his attrition rates.
So what's the problem with allowing retention rates to drive revisions in a church's model of ministry? Simply this: It turns the visible growth and maintenance of a local community of faith into the primary focus instead of Jesus and the Gospel. When retention rates determine how we envision a church's future, we have made too much of our visions for the community of faith and too little of the One in whom we place our faith. In the process, we lose sight of the true vitality and value of the very community that we were planning to preserve.
Please don't misread my point: The local, gathered community of faith is important! Jesus loves the church, and he gave his life to "present the church to himself in splendor" (Eph. 5:25-27). Whenever anyone drops out of active involvement in Christian community, the congregation is correct to be concerned. Yet neither numeric retention nor expansion constitutes a sufficient goal for shaping Christian community. Jesus alone provides the paradigm for the people of God (Phil. 2:5; Heb. 12:2). The church is "the body of Christ," and the church's value and identity flow from the all-surpassing glory and beauty of Jesus (Eph. 4:12-16; Col. 1:24-27; 3:1-4). "Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this," German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote. "We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ." The goal of the Gospel is not merely to retain members in community; the goal is to call people to Jesus.
Gospel (in Greek, euangelion, "good message") The Gospel is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that accomplishes redemption and restoration for all who believe and for the entire created order. Through his life Jesus fulfilled the Law of God and accomplished all righteousness on behalf of sinners who have broken God's Law at every point. Through his death Jesus atones for our sins, satisfying the wrath of God and obtaining forgiveness for all who believe. Through his resurrection Jesus guaranteed our victory over sin and death in him and through him. Jesus' saving work not only redeems sinners, uniting them to God, but also assures the future restoration of all creation. This is the "good message," that God redeems a fallen world by his grace.[viii]
The Search for Gospel-Centered Growth
Sometimes, when a congregation makes much of Jesus and the Gospel, the results include explosive growth or stellar retention rates. Seven weeks after Jesus erupted alive from a garden tomb, three thousand women and men confessed Jesus as the risen Lord, and the congregation still kept growing (Acts 2:41-47). Before long, five thousand names could be found on the church rolls (Acts 4:4). Even after two church members dropped dead while trying to bamboozle the apostle Peter, new believers still swarmed into the community (Acts 5:1-14). The earliest Christians rightly recognized this growth as a glorious and wonderful outpouring of God's grace (Acts 2:47)-and yet, that's not always what happens when the Gospel is proclaimed.
At other times, it may be possible to make much of Jesus with negligible results, at least as far as any human eye can see. The results could even include outcomes that seem negative from the perspective of retention (1 John 2:19). The same Word of God that yields manifold fruit in one heart may be rejected as repulsive in another (Luke 8:4-18). Furthermore, it is possible to attract and even to retain a multitude of followers for all the wrong reasons (2 Peter 2:1-2).
Yes, the proclamation of God's Word does result in growth and in unfailing fulfillment of God's purposes (Isa. 55:10-11)-but this growth may take place in ways that are difficult to quantify in ratios of attrition and retention. Growth often unfolds less like a series of figures on a ledger sheet and more like seeds sprouting in the soil or like yeast seeping through a lump of dough (Luke 13:18-21). Godly growth is sometimes slow, often hidden, not infrequently frustrating to our dreams and designs, but always centered on Jesus and the Gospel.
What Family-Equipping Ministry Isn't
All of this has profound implications for why and how a church does family ministry. If the congregation's motive for forming a family ministry is to find a programmatic panacea to solve a perceived problem of losing young adults, the church's strategy will have failed before family ministry even begins-even if every church member applauds the new programs as a resounding success. Such a congregation has bought into the soul-draining delusion that growth depends not on the Word of God but on implementing the right programs to respond to each problem.
This sort of "family ministry" results, at first, in a rapid flurry of family-friendly activities. Then, as soon as new problems and new programs come along, the family events fade into the background as the newest quick-fix takes center stage. Such patterns reflect much of the pragmatic consumerism of Western culture and little of Gospel-centered community. According to the apostle Paul, the pagans of past cultures "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles" (Romans 1:23). In our own way, we too trade the glory of God for the short-lived pleasures of lesser gods. Whereas the pagans exchanged divine glory for images of terrestrial beauty, we tend to substitute one more curriculum, one more series of steps to success, one more problem-solving program that eclipses the Gospel.
Family ministry of the sort that I am describing in this book is not a program to fix a congregation's retention problems. It cannot be reduced to a series of conferences or activities or seminars. Family-equipping ministry is a means of equipping households to become outposts of God's mission in the world, contexts where Christian community is consistently practiced and rehearsed. This isn't about retaining young adults on the attendance rolls; it's about coordinating the church's families around a common, Gospel-centered perspective on parents and children.
Looking for the Real Problem
The coffee mugs are nearly empty. The morning rush is over, and the coffee shop has grown quiet. Our next stop is a meeting with the senior pastor at the church campus.
"That sounds good-it really does," the youth minister says, "but I don't see how we can sell it to the church. I mean, if there aren't any problems with what we're already doing, why go to the trouble of changing things?"
"Whoa, whoa," I respond, waving my hand, "I'm not saying that there aren't any problems. What I'm trying to get at is that family ministry has to be more than a program to fix retention rates-and that retention rates aren't really the problem in the first place."
"Well, is there a problem in our church?" Katherine asks as she slips her mug into the tray of dirty dishes.
"Sure-and, even though retention rates aren't the real problem, it could even be that some of the dropouts are symptoms of deeper issues." I pull up a slideshow on my computer. "Take a look."
Marty and Katherine peer over my shoulders as I click through several charts that illustrate parents' involvement in their children's Christian formation. The results from the surveys are somewhat dismal. Most parents in their church haven't even opened a Bible with their children in the past six months. Fewer than ten percent pray with their children at any time other than meals. Fewer still practice any form of family devotions.
"So the problem is just that parents need to start reading the Bible and praying with their kids?" Marty asks. "Because, if that's all that needs to happen, we could invite parents to youth group one Sunday night and encourage them to start family devotions. I could even make up some worksheets to help them."
"That's a good idea-it really is," I tell him. "But, if you want them to engage spiritually with their children for longer than a few weeks after the training that you're describing, you'll need to build some foundations to make family ministry part of the church's culture. Getting parents to do faith-talks or family devotions is a great start-but it's only a start."
"I thought we were just launching a family ministry program," Marty counters. "Now, you're talking about changing an entire church culture-that's massive. I don't even know where we would start."
"You start with something far more basic than what parents are doing."
"Which is-?" Katherine asks.
"The parents in your church don't know who their children really are."
[i] The conversations recounted throughout this book do not come from my work with one particular congregation; they represent syntheses of common elements from four separate conversations with very different churches.
[ii] Portions drawn from B. Shields, "Family-Based Ministry: Separated Contexts, Shared Focus," in Perspectives on Family Ministry, ed. T. Jones (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2009).
[iii] M. Oestreicher
[iv] Jay Strack seems to have been the individual with whom the 88% attrition rate originated. In a personal interview with Brandon Shields in September 2006, Strack specifically stated that he never intended this information to serve as a published statistic.
[v] V. Lee and J. Pipes released a book entitled Family to Family (Alpharetta, Georgia: North American Mission Board, 1999) in which they stated that 88% of evangelical youth drop out of the church after high school graduation. This statistic was picked up and quoted numerous times during Southern Baptist Convention meetings in an attempt to call for withdrawal from the public education system. For discussions of this issue see Baptist Press articles entitled "SBC Calls for Cultural Engagement; Education Resolution Declined" (June 2004): <http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=18501>, and, "Family Life Council Says It's Time to Bring Family Back to Life" (June 2002): <http://www.sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc02/newsroom/newspage.asp?ID=261>
[vi] B. Shields, "An Assessment of Dropout Rates of Former Youth Group Participants in Conservative Southern Baptist Megachurches" (Ph.D diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2008).
[vii] In a 2002 study, George Gallup determined that 51% of 16-to-17-year-olds are involved in a faith-community while 32% of 18-to-29-year-olds are engaged, suggesting a net attrition rate of 40%. Gallup defined faith-community involvement as attendance in the past seven days (http://www.gallup.com/poll/6124/Religiosity-Cycle.aspx). Research from an Adventist scholar reported an attrition rate 49% among Adventist young adults with a significant number returning when they are married or when they become parents (R. Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church [Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald, 1999] 35). This is apparently not a recent phenomenon: Data from the 1970s suggested that 46% of persons disengaged from their faith-communities at some point during their lives; 51% of these persons eventually returned (D. Roozen, "Church Dropouts: Changing Patterns of Disengagement and Re-Entry" Review of Religious Research Supplement : 427-450). Church involvement may also influence young people toward earlier marriage. See R. Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University, 2007) 137.
[viii] Paraphrased from a definition given by Joe Thorne, Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship.