ORLANDO, Fla. – Leaders of church denominations, along with youth pastors and parachurch organizational leaders, gathered to brainstorm ways to keep college students from falling away from the Christian faith and how to correct the dysfunctions in youth ministry.
Mission America and the National Network of Youth Ministries – two large American networks of churches, youth ministries, and parachurch organizations – convened the meeting at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Orlando, Fla., from Jan. 11-12.
"A significant majority of our church's youth are leaving the foundations of their faith when they transition from High school," said Paul Fleischmann, president of the National Network of Youth Ministries.
Researchers found between 69-94 percent of Christian youths forsake their faith after leaving high school. The Barna Group reported 64 percent loss after college graduation. The Assemblies of God conducted a 10-year study and found 75 percent loss of their students within one year of high school graduation, while the Southern Baptists found that number to be even higher at 88 percent loss. And Josh McDowell Ministries reports 94 percent fallout within two years of high school graduation.
“After three decades of working with teenagers, we feel like we've done something in our lifetime," said Fleischmann. "Yet, to come out and realize that after all the work, effort, and growing, to think that over 50 percent and maybe as high as 88 percent, are leaving [faith behind] when they leave our church youth group is just depressing."
"My heart is broken," said Jeff Schadt, a major organizer of the event, after interviewing 120 college students on film about their college experiences. "It was jumped up and down on as I saw the wreckage and the scars that were being created in our youth's lives.
Student after student, he said, broke down and cried about the scars they carried with them from falling into deep sins in wanting to make friends.
“First couple of days, I’ll be honest, they were crazy. I was probably drunk half of them. I wanted to fit in,” said one student from Arizona, Laurie (last name withheld). “I didn’t know anyone.”
“Eventually in all this mess, I was sexually assaulted, and that throws you down really deep. And you go, ‘God, what am I doing? How did I get in this situation? How did I put myself here?’” she cried. “And I went home so broken for Christmas.”
A pilot study conducted by Fuller Theological Seminary was presented during the meeting. Only 69 questionnaires were returned of the 234 that were sent out to students.
Results found that 100 percent of the youth group graduates used alcohol, 69 percent (nearly seven out of ten) had a sexual encounter, and 20 percent had 20 or more sexual encounters in the last twelve months.
The study also found, however, that the greater their faith maturity, the less likely the students were to engage in risky behavior.
A meeting in April 2005 of youth leaders found six problems contributing to youth fallout, the first of which is youth culture.
"MTV and everything else is creating wounds and destruction in our children's lives that's so much greater in this generation than in previous ones," said Fleischmann.
Another problem is lack of parental involvement.
This generation is "abandoned," said Fleischmann during his presentation. They are often without anyone at home with them. They are biblically illiterate – without a deep understanding of the Bible - and are unable to articulate their faith in their own words and understand it in their own context.
"In an age where they're bombarded with data from every aspect, we don't have a biblically-rooted generation. And when you don't have a clear context and clear beliefs, it's hard to have clear convictions,” he said.
Third, the increased mobility and the increased divorce rate have created a generation wounded from conflicts and broken relationships, Fleischmann continued.
"Fourthly it's a media-wired generation. We call the teenagers today the iPOD generation," he said. "They want noise in their ears all the time. It seems to be almost a compulsion they have to stay connected."
"It's a spiritually hungry, lost, and confused generation,” Fleischmann added. He pointed to MySpace.com, a Web network of personal sites, as an example of the "shocking" thirst that's being unfulfilled and undefined.
The fifth problem is that students are raised on a "religion of secular humanism" and "when they get to the campus, they're just not ready to face it."
They cannot defend their beliefs, Fleischmann said.
Lastly, it's a tribal generation.
"In many ways, it's a tribe because kids connect with one another," he said, pointing out that they like things like tattoos (marks of identity) and travel in packs.
The first day of the two-day forum raised seven potential responses to the problems, such as building a coalition of ministries to work together, heightening awareness of the issue nationally, helping parents adopt a greater role in their youth's spiritual development, making a change in youth ministry philosophy and strategies, developing hard research, connecting high school and college ministries to transition students safely into college, and using the Internet more.
A leadership team is currently working on creating a website where high school students can search for a campus ministry and connect with a godly roommate before even setting foot on their new campus.