Avoiding The Black Hole: Making Youth Lifelong Followers Of Jesus Christ
By Rod Whitlock
After 24 years in youth ministry, I have come to realize that outer space and youth rooms have something in common: black holes.
According to the department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge, “a black hole is a region of space-time from which nothing can escape, even light.”1
In youth ministry, black holes occur postgraduation when youth members disappear from their churches.
The University of Cambridge, in an effort to explain why black holes happen, gives the following example:
“Imagine throwing a tennis ball into the air. The harder you throw the tennis ball, the faster it is traveling when it leaves your hand and the higher the ball will go before turning back. If you throw it hard enough it will never return; the gravitational attraction will not be able to pull it back down. The velocity the ball must have to escape is known as the escape velocity and for the earth is about 7 miles a second.”
Comparatively, a youth ministry black hole occurs when the world’s pull on a student’s life generates enough velocity to draw a student who was once active in youth away from church. Sadly, many of these students are not heard from again, and many will not return to church.
But God’s pull can have the opposite effect. The more students experience God and are pulled toward Christ, His Word, and the church, the less likely they are to be pulled into one of the world’s black holes and leave a youth ministry. Unfortunately, many students attending youth ministries are living dangerously close to a black hole. Once they graduate, many are sucked into this dark world.
For students, escape velocity results from a lack of strategic discipleship and relationships that could have transformed their lives and kept them from being lost to the church.
Discipleship: Preparing For Battle
A youth pastor’s first step in avoiding the world’s black holes must be to renew his commitment to building disciples. We must not forget that we are fighting a spiritual battle and will occasionally experience casualties. Our enemy is patient and is willing to wait until after graduation to increase his attack. This knowledge must compel youth pastors to build students who are grounded in God’s Word, and who can withstand the enemy’s attacks long after they leave youth ministries.
“We have students who do not own their faith, but are renting it from their youth leader,” says Fabian Kalapuch, New Jersey District youth director. “As youth leaders we must teach our students to live the Christian life for themselves, and the best way to do this is to have a strategic discipleship plan.”
Discussing how to best disciple students often raises a debate between having good resources and developing quality relationships. Perhaps the answer is not one or the other, but both.
While serving as youth pastor in New Jersey, I grew weary of watching students come to our youth ministry for a season only to leave, never to be heard from again. We had the necessary elements for a successful youth ministry: great worship, small groups, devoted leaders, visitor follow up, big events, and outreaches.
At this point, I needed to ask some tough questions. Are we building lifelong disciples or are we providing youth ministry? Do these sound the same? They are not. Youth pastors can have a good, even a great youth ministry program, and not be building students into disciples.
To combat the problem I chose to disciple four young men from our group for a school semester. Each morning, Tuesday through Friday, I drove to one student’s home, discussed Scripture, prayed with him, and got to know him outside of church. After discussing the Scriptures and praying together, I drove the student to school. As we entered the school parking lot, we prayed for his friends and campus.
Through discipling I entered their world, saw how they lived, had weekly interaction with their parents and siblings, and developed accountability and relationships that remain to this day.
A youth pastor’s life is the greatest building tool he can use to build students into lifelong disciples. The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2:8, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
Youth leaders must model Christ outside the youth group. Students must see a Christian example everyday. At every opportunity I took a student or two with me to run an errand. These errands were either ministry related — picking up supplies for the evening meeting or activity — or personal business. I did this to model how a Christian adult should conduct business in the world.
It is easy to live a Christian life in our youth halls. It is more difficult to live a Christian life when an employee is rude to you as you conduct business with him.
Youth pastors are not in youth ministry to build better students; they are in youth ministry to build better adults. A person will only be a teen for 7 years. If a person lives an average lifetime, he will be an adult for more than 50 years.
High Tech Versus High Touch
Recently I saw a church sign: “Multimedia Worship This Sunday.” How tragic that church ministries and worship services hinge on bells-and-whistles. I have no problem with church ministries being on the cutting edge, relevant, and creative. The problem I have is when a ministry plays the relevancy card but folds when it comes to truly investing in people’s lives.
More than flashy services with lights, sound, and video, the church needs to make connecting students to a real God on a daily basis its top priority.
One youth pastor, when asked, “How many do you have in your youth group?” responded by sharing how many students were actively involved in his discipleship process rather than how many students attended youth services. He was committed to growing disciples more than growing a large group. For this youth pastor, building students into lifelong disciples was just as important as winning students to Christ.
Some may argue, “But we are reaching students.”
I respond, “Yes, but will they be around in 4 years?”
Youth pastors must not swing the pendulum the other way and stop reaching out. They must continue winning students to Christ at any cost. But once students are won to Christ, they must be discipled and commit to follow Christ long after the youth pastor leaves or when they are no longer in the youth group.
Students are drawn to upbeat music, lights, and videos. Yet the relationships that are built remain. A youth pastor’s time spent listening and sharing his life will not be forgotten and will profoundly affect a student’s eternity.
In his book Real Teens, George Barna wrote, “There are two key elements that teenagers feel must be incorporated into their experience. The first of those is relationships; the other is mass-media experience.”2
Youth pastors cannot do away with the technical world in which they live, but they must prioritize relationships above technology. How many youth pastors spend as much time with students in one-on-one or small group outings as they do in downloading the latest video off the Internet?
Youth leaders without high-tech capabilities should be challenged to develop a highly relational ministry while continuing to grow in the technical world. Those with high-tech capabilities must continue to provide ministry with excellent mass media and be challenged to an even greater level of excellence in relationships with students.
I visited a youth ministry in southern California that had high-tech capabilities, but was known more for its relational ministry. Small groups with caring adults were this youth ministry’s foundation. I asked the youth pastor the secret of his success. He responded by relating the following incident that had happened prior to a recent youth meeting.
He had gone outside before service and noticed a student standing alone near the entrance. The youth pastor approached the student and told him it was time to come inside because the service was about to start. The student looked at the youth pastor and said, “I am waiting for my youth leader.”
The student was new and had been immediately connected with a leader who had built a relationship with him. This student’s likelihood of avoiding the black hole has been multiplied through quality relationships with other leaders.
Leadership Multiplication Factor
Disciples make disciples. Jesus was Master of the multiplication principle. In Luke 10:1,2, He sent out 72 disciples to gather the harvest, thereby making more disciples who would go out and make even more disciples. More people can be reached when more people are involved. This is the power of multiplication.
My youth pastor, Jeanne Mayo, demonstrated this principle better than any other leader I have known. She multiplied disciples, empowered them as leaders, and then sent them out to gather the harvest. By herself she could only pastor a few people and be effective. With more leaders, she could multiply herself and reach more students. This is relational ministry in action.
Multiple leaders involved with students mean students are more likely to have multiple inputs. In addition, Mayo could not lead 20 or 30 small groups, but she could disciple leaders who could then disciple students. These multiple inputs provide multiple relationship opportunities that help students stay connected to the network. Many students from Mayo’s ministry continue to attend church today, and many are involved in full-time ministry.
Youth pastors connect their students by multiplying themselves in their students’ lives. This is especially true for youth pastors in small churches or in churches where they are unable to find people willing to help in their youth ministry. The key to successful networking is to build student leaders who can help multiply your efforts in the lives of other students. Youth pastors must pour their lives into people who can then pour their lives into others.
Networking: Inwardly And Outwardly
The September/October 2005 Youth Specialties article, “When the Pomp and Circumstances Fades: A Profile of Youth Group Kids Post-Youth-Group,” by Kara Powell and Krista Kubiak, demonstrates the great need for networking.3 In a survey, students were asked to list the most difficult aspects of their transition from youth ministry to the adult world. Surprisingly, the most common responses were in regard to friendships, which included not having friends and not knowing how to make new friends. The second most common difficulty was their experience of being alone for the first time. Third was finding a faith community or church. “Many students felt they were not prepared to seek out such a community and did not know how to find a church or ministry where they felt welcome and fed spiritually.”4
Youth pastors must remember that these students — now adults — have never needed to look for a church. Are they being taught how to be a part of the larger body of Christ? Are youth pastors engaging them in multiple relationship opportunities? Are they being exposed to multiple worship encounters with other leaders and students from outside their own group?
While serving as district youth director I enjoyed watching students build relationships with other leaders and students from across the state. Students would train together for district AIM trips, attend camps or conventions, see old friends, and meet new ones. Many, including my two teenage daughters, stayed in touch via e-mail, text messaging, IM, cell phones, and occasionally snail mail.
I least enjoyed watching a youth leader leave his church. The main reason why I disliked a change in leadership was because students sometimes scattered shortly after the youth leader left, even if a new leader came in soon after. One reason this occurred was the fact these students were only connected to one ministry style or personality. These students were not networked with other adults, leaders, or youth outside their own youth group.
Students love to have multiple possibilities. This is especially true of relationships. Youth leaders can help teens stay connected long after they are gone by providing them with multiple encounters. Through camps, district AIM trips, and conventions students meet and form relationships with other students who are committed to Christ. These relationships encourage students in their walk with the Lord.
Students exposed to various worship and preaching styles are better equipped to handle transitions, such as when a youth pastor leaves or when the student graduates from the youth ministry. When they later attend college or move to another city and experience another ministry style, students are less likely to compare it with their own youth group. Students who have been exposed to multiple ministry personalities learn to worship even when their favorite worship leader is not leading.
Students also learn to respond to God’s Word even when their favorite youth pastor is not speaking. When youth leaders expose their students to multiple relationship and ministry opportunities, they prepare them to make the greatest transitions in life: moving from their parents’ home to a dorm or apartment; transitioning from being a teenager to entering adulthood; moving from youth ministry to adult church.
In addition to the need to network students with other Christian leaders and students outside their own youth ministry, there is also a need to network students to people in other age groups in their church. This need for networking challenges the effectiveness of a youth church mentality.
Lately, more youth ministries are moving toward a youth church mentality. This format might work well for short-term growth, but what about 10 years from now? When considering the best way to keep students involved in church after graduation, what benefit can come from creating a separate church for youth that they later leave?
I am not referring to a separate facility or separate services. Youth need something they can call their own. I am referencing the subtle attitude that can potentially discourage students from making the transition to adult church.
How will teens make the already difficult transition from youth group to adult church if leaders make the chasm greater by giving teens their own church and then placing them in a situation where they must attend a different worship service when they reach 18? Would it not be better for them in the long run to incorporate them into the church body?
In a youth church mentality, students are disconnected from the larger body of believers. Nate Ruch, codirector for the Center for Youth and Leadership at North Central University, says, “Youth church has created a culture void of multigenerational leaders. If a student tells a youth leader Wednesday night is better than Sunday morning, the youth leader needs to address this attitude or the student may graduate out of the youth ministry and not even consider going to church on Sunday mornings.
“We prepare students for a certain season of Christianity,” Ruch says, “but not for life after graduation. Many students are not prepared for secular universities or choosing a nonministerial career.” Youth leaders must be aware of what takes place later in life. “Address and then teach students how to handle temptation and struggles in life beyond those that take place as a teenager,” Ruch says.
Over the past 3 years I have been involved in a study funded by the Lilly Foundation involving the Assemblies of God and six other denominations. The study is designed to determine the common ingredients churches share that are producing quality student disciples.
This study analyzed seven denominations; small, medium, and large churches; urban, suburban, and rural areas; and churches from various geographical locations. After interviewing thousands of parents, students, pastors, and volunteer leaders as well as doing 21 site visits to these exemplary churches, one of the prominent features of every church producing exemplary youth was connecting students to the larger church body. Students who avoid the black hole are participating in corporate body worship and have relationships with those in the other church. Further findings from this study are available at http://www.exemplarym.com.
Youth leaders must do everything they can to help students learn how to interact with adults. “We must help translate the culture that exists in the youth group to the adult service,” says Youth Pastor Greg Wallace, Bellevue Christian Center, Bellevue, Nebraska.
This is not an easy task; yet, it may be our most important. Bridging these two groups involves being strategic about bringing the generations together. The best way to do this is to incorporate teens and adults in worship and ministry. It is important to have a youth service and other activities specifically designed for youth, but some bridging between the generations is needed.
“There is a divide between youth and adults. A good youth leader understands this and must build bridges of relationships between these two groups,” Wallace says.
“The key to eliminating the black hole is the relationship between the senior pastor and youth leader,” Wallace adds. Other suggestions for bridging the generations include having the senior pastor speak to the youth group or attend a youth function, or having adult leaders of various ages involved in activities where they can be themselves. These adults do not need to be youth savvy. They can help and model church life in a youth gathering. Students will see this and begin to feel more comfortable around the adults.
Allow students to participate in Sunday worship, lead in prayer, help with the media ministry, or serve as parking lot attendants. Have special youth services and give them opportunities to minister with the adult congregation. The key is to get students involved in church life.
After all, they will be in our churches for possibly 50 years or more. They will be in our youth services for only 7.
2. George Barna, Real Teens: A Contemporary Snapshot of Youth Culture (Ventura, Calif.: Regal books, 2001), 25.
3. Kara Powell and Krista Kubiak, “When the Pomp and Circumstances Fades: A Profile of Youth Group Kids Post-Youth-Group,” Youth Specialties, September/October 2005.