Article by Danny Mitchell

I recently heard a veteran PCA youth pastor say that only 6% of the current generation of students claim to be evangelical Christians, compared to 65% of the Baby Boomer generation. I then read an online study conducted by LifeWay Research ( which found that two-thirds of adults between the ages of 18-22 who were involved in church as high school students will stop attending church for at least a year, with only 35% of those returning to regular church attendance. Also, researchers such as George Barna, Walt Mueller, and Christian Smith are finding a disconnect between what evangelical teens profess to believe and the moral choices they are making, especially in the area of sexual activity.

It is hard to know what to make of these statistics, but I am convinced that they should lead those of us involved in youth ministry to start asking each other honest, hard questions about student ministry in the PCA. Jamie Lambert, youth director at Covenant Presbyterian in Fayetteville, Georgia, pointed out to me that in order to find the right answer, you have to ask the right question. I believe this axiom can be rightly applied to the trends above with the question being: What is the theological foundation that empowers youth ministry?

My concern is that without a clearly-developed theological foundation, we a re building our youth programs on sinking sand. For example, there was a time when those of us in youth ministry thought the answers to the spiritual problems facing teenagers could be found by getting them to attend youth events. So we spent money on technology and marketing, wore chicken suits at youth group, and gave away t-shirts at every event. Success was determined by how many students showed up. We then read that we needed to be “relational” to be successful. Borrowing ideas from Young Life, we started “meeting students on their turf.” Then someone informed us that we needed to be relevant, so we learned the idioms of the day, grew goatees, listened to popular music, and added a few profanities to our vocabulary. Doug Fields came along and told us to have a “Purpose Driven Youth Ministry,” so we all wrote carefully-crafted purpose statements. Now the Emerging Church folks are pushing us to be missional, authentic, and to rediscover the ancient (for more on this topic see A New Kind of Youth Ministry by Chris Folmsbee). So we are burning candles in our youth rooms, working to build community in our youth groups, and talking about social injustices around the world. Yet no matter which of the latest methods we try, the statistics continue to grow more alarming.

This is why I believe the first question of youth ministry is one of theological foundation. I am convinced that the particular model of ministry that a church uses is secondary to the theological foundation on which the model is built. I will suggest in the next issue of Equip that God’s covenant relationship with humanity is the proper theological foundation for youth ministry. However, I am afraid that all too often the theological implications of that relationship have little to do with the planning of our youth ministry calendars.

Is youth ministry a lost cause in the PCA? Absolutely not. There are hundreds of churches doing great work around the country, as well as a number of quality youth ministry resources within the Reformed community. For a list of these refer to the youth ministry section of the CE&P website However, for many of us it is time to deconstruct much of what we have been doing in youth ministry in order to build a proper theological foundation. Somehow the cart (the ministry model) has gotten ahead of the horse (the theological foundation). Getting those back in the proper order is, I believe, a process that will begin when we start asking the right question. What is the theological foundation that empowers youth ministry?