Revival and Revivalism in Youth Ministry
God’s people have always placed a high priority on passing the faith from generation to generation. Both the church and Christian parents have always been called to co-disciple children and teenagers in order to develop life-long faith. So how should we respond when a significant portion of the younger generation is either growing up without any Christian faith or rejecting it after they graduate?
Imagine a church whose preacher delivers faithful expository sermons and whose elders provide trustworthy care over their members. But that church’s children walk away from the faith after high school. What good is it to grow a large church only to lose the next generation?
This isn’t a new dilemma. In 1917, Frank Otis Erb reflected on the contemporary church’s efforts to reach the younger generation: “The democratic spirit led a revolt against absolutism everywhere, religion and intellect not excluded. The final and authoritative doctrines of the church were fiercely assailed by Voltaire and his friends, not least because they were final and authoritative, and those who held them were denounced as ignorant, superstitious, or hypocritical. Freedom of thought was not only demanded but asserted.” His analysis of the church’s struggle to pass the faith to the next generation sounds alarmingly similar to our own. Erb then proceeded to paint a picture of the church’s efforts to seek revival among young people in his day—the remnants of which can still be seen in many youth ministries today.
REVIVALISM IN YOUTH MINISTRY
It’s important to recognize and applaud the motivation for these ministries. There was grave concern over worldliness and an increasing apathy toward the things of God. So ministries like the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) partnered with churches to promote the Christian faith in the next generation. More than 100 years ago, these ministers shared a concern that still rests on today’s youth workers: to make adult disciples whose faith took root in their teen years.
A distinct youth culture began to mature in the years that followed World War I. This eventually fed into a generational divide that introduced serious concerns about outside influences on adolescents. Churches and parents were at a loss about how to respond since their tried-and-true methods didn’t seem to work anymore. The early days of modern youth ministry were paved by ministries like Young Life and Youth for Christ, who saw themselves as filling a gap the church wouldn’t meet. Unchurched teenagers were unlikely to walk into a church, especially when the church mostly ignored them anyway. Instead, they met those teenagers on their own terms. The Young Life model was eventually adopted by church-based youth workers, and Youth for Christ rallies provided the basis for evangelistic events that are still prevalent today.
Much more could be said about youth ministry’s development, but here’s the point: the shift from smaller, instruction-driven ministry to larger and more evangelistic ministry reflects the difference between revival and revivalism. These differences remain today. I hesitate to paint with a broad brush, but it’s generally true: youth ministries that prioritize evangelism and exist outside the local church will trend toward revivalism, while those who emphasize discipleship and seek to support the local church will likely take a more methodical approach.
The influence of Finney’s “new measures” can still be seen in youth ministries across the country as they seek revival among GenZ. Retreats and evangelistic rallies often proclaim a gospel that’s measured by tearful teenagers raising their hand to pray a prayer more than it’s concerned about genuine repentance and confession of sin.
REVIVAL IN YOUTH MINISTRY
Again, the motives of revivalists (for the most part) should be commended: they want young people to come to Jesus. But the theological foundation of revivalism is made of clay and cannot deliver. True and lasting revival isn’t built on a platform with lots of fanfare. It never has been. Passing the faith from generation to generation is both simpler and more difficult than revivalists prophesy.
So what do we do? Teach teenagers how to read and understand the Bible. Teach them how to pray. Apply the gospel to their whole lives—their head, heart, and hands. Help them see how the gospel is not just for evangelism, but for the Christian life. Partner with parents to equip them to view their parenting and family-life as discipleship. Integrate students into the life of the church so they know they genuinely belong with their church family. And finally, model repentance when you sin against them.
These aren’t sexy or impressive. These strategies won’t go viral on social media or get you booked for the main stage at any ministry conferences. In fact, committing yourself to these priorities probably won’t make your youth group the largest one in town. But you know what? It will serve your students for the long haul.
 Frank Otis Erb, The Development of the Young People’s Movement (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1917), 1.