The Flaws of Modern Youth Ministry
By: J. Brad Bailey, Ph. D.
I was recently asked by one of our staff members what my real thoughts are on children’s church and youth ministry in general. I sort of held back in the conversation and didn’t really express myself fully. However, I am now approaching my 25th year in ministry and I am now ready to speak about something that has gnawed at me for a long, long time. I am persuaded that modern youth ministry has some real problems.
I am convinced that young people have a far greater capacity for spiritual and social maturity than we tend to give them credit for, and parents have been given the responsibility to see that this capacity is realized. The church today does not expect what it ought to from children and their parents, and this can be attributed at least in part to a flawed concept of youth ministry. This need not, and should not be so.
The Genesis of the Generation Gap
Only 150 years ago, societal circumstances coupled with evolutionary theory drastically shifted our attitude toward the concept of time. Before the mid-1800s, time was arranged according to significant events. This was based on the concept of Scripture that time lapsed event-by-event, not second-by-second, minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade, century-by-century, etc.
The chronology of European history , for example, was seen in terms of ruling families: the Stuarts, Hapsburgs, Bourbons, etc. Today, by contrast, we speak of the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, etc.
Before the 19th century, the phrases “on time,” “ahead of time,” and “behind time” meant nothing. Then the Industrial Revolution forced time upon us. Railroads ran on schedules and factories paid hourly wages rather than performance-based wages. In 1884, representatives from twenty-five nations met in Washington, D.C. and settled on Greenwich, England as the prime meridian. They also, for the first time in history, fixed the length of the day to twenty-four hours and divided the globe into twenty-four time zones. Father Time has been present in our world ever since.
These accomplishments placed a new stress on individual’s physical age as well. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, birthdays were neither mentioned nor celebrated. Age wasn’t even included in the 1850 census. It wasn’t uncommon to graduate from a university at age seventeen, or age twenty-eight, or any age in between. Students matured at their own rates. There was no initiative to segregate based on maturity level. The one-room schoolhouse was all that was needed. Even in social gatherings, children were considered to be miniature adults. They mingled with people much older than themselves.
A few generations later, a new term was invented and introduced: adolescence. Adolescence was the product of the fundamental changes that occurred under the direction of men like Horace Mann, Granville Stanley Hall and John Dewey. John Dewey was the most recent of the three innovators and he applied theories to the public school system that isolated adolescence as a “crisis period.” He suggested that teens should be segregated from other children and from adults.
Within a generation after Dewey, for the first time in the history of the Western World, we saw an adolescent subculture arise in society. By the 1950s, teens had their own music literature, styles of dress, language and etiquette. The philosophy of adolescence dominated the culture. The youth of the 50s admired people like James Dean, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, while their elders loathed them.
In our present day, the youth subculture has become the dominant culture in our society. We are now confronted by the values of youth wherever we turn. Advertising either appeals to young people or older people who want to be young again. Today children are encouraged to make the most of their youth and High School is considered the pinnacle of life. Young people dream of being High School seniors and when they reach age eighteen, they are on top of the world. What’s worse, the world bows down to them.
Even in the church, we have established a pattern of perpetual regress that is tearing down the last vestiges of maturity that our fathers labored to achieve. Young people are not encouraged to be sober-minded at church. They enter a youth program that begins in their infancy and extends all the way into their young-adult life. They are not actually expected to be in a weekly church service where sermons are preached and hymns are sung until well after they graduate from college.
Notice how many ministries cater to the whims of youth. Young children are removed from services where they receive “special attention” and “age-appropriate training.” They are later moved to junior high and senior high youth groups. Senior highers graduate to the college/singles groups. When they marry, they are transitioned into the newlywed’s group. Bible studies that are structured for parents of toddlers and teens are tooled to specifically help parents who do not know how to pacify their kids. It’s all about kids. Adult seniors are relegated to quilt knitting classes and golf fellowships.
A Christian College offered the following advice:
“Have the time of your life! Sure you’ll study. Probably harder than ever before. But when you just can’t think one more great thought – there’s a campus full of great times waiting at your door. Go for it! . . . Check out the stables. Take in a varsity game. Grab a pizza. Make some music . . . Go ahead and enjoy yourself. College should be fun! And while you’re at it, you’ll get an education.”
This obviously appealing to the sinful tendency which is common among youth: fun before duty. Have fun first, then do work when you get around to it. This is permitting immaturity to be taught and practiced by young people. But there is a difference between being young and being immature. Instead of admonishing our youth to flee youthful lusts as Paul commanded (II Tim. 2:22), we are providing a forum for youthful lusts to be pursued.
What the Bible originally and actually advocates is a certain togetherness of ages where fellowship is enjoyed in the church. The Scriptures promote cross-generational interaction (cf. Lev. 19:32; Titus 2:3-6), and we must avoid cultural patterns that encumber our obedience to them.
Segregating the ages has resulted in a “herd mentality” in the church. With age comes wisdom. This wisdom must be passed on to young people. Older people in the church must be eager to share it and younger people must be eager to receive it. When young people are allowed to set their own standards as they interact with one another, the herd mentality develops. They naturally follow in the footsteps of one another rather than those of the adults.
The fundamental problem is not peer interaction, but irresponsible adult, pastoral and parental leadership. Negligent leadership prompts young people to develop herds. From birth, young people see themselves as adults-to-be and they should never be allowed to be trained by the herd to think that perpetual youth is life’s aim.
Some church ministries see their youth program as “ideal” when it takes young people away from adults more often. Even worse, churches often take children away from their own homes. There are ministries that label teens as “deeply committed” when they are away from their own parents four nights a week. This ought not to be so.
The church has developed a faulty mentality on Bible teaching. Basic Bible teaching is now considered unsuitable for young people – it is for adults only. If Timothy’s mother and grandmother adopted this mentality, Timothy would not have been affected as powerfully as he was (II Tim. 3:14-15). He would not have known the Scriptures from childhood.
The typical youth camp, youth rally or youth conference preaching has stooped to an all-time low. The preachers who are considered effective use methods that “relate to kids.” They are captivating storytellers. Some are creative comedians who can make kids laugh for nearly an hour. Some tell anecdotes, or use gags to make points about God, salvation and the Bible. I have even seen men swallow goldfish.
By contrast, the preachers who are considered ineffective are those who preached from the Bible. Their ministries are blessed, not with applause and laughter, but rather with lasting conversions, true conviction of sin, and spiritually exhorted audiences.
Reversing Our Present Course
To reverse our present course, we must first realize the objective we have in mind for our youth. How do we want them to turn out? Building on our foundation, our children’s greatness should far outweigh our own, and our grandchildren should be raised even better than our children. Things should be improving with every generation that comes and goes. This has not been the case.
Each generation that comes and goes should have a deeper understanding of God’s Word. Their Christian worldview should be more sharply refined, and their fear of God should be more profound than ours. The biblical standard is nothing short of godly offspring (Mal. 2:15). They should be descendants of whom we would not be ashamed; sharp arrows who rise up and contend with our enemies (Psa. 127:5).
If these things will become true, we must first reject the notion of the current model youth minister as a recently graduated extrovert who looks and acts just like a high schooler. Leadership in this role must begin with maturity. If our youth directors are young, we must expect them to display wisdom beyond their years. The tools of their trade can’t just be a volleyball and a video game controller.
Also, we must make a conscious effort to place the spiritual emphasis back where it thrives most – the home (Eph. 6:1-4). Youth pastors/directors cannot do what parents can do. The spiritual responsibility lies with Dad and Mom. This responsibility is being delegated to youth workers, and that will not serve the generation well. Parents must make sure that their homes are godly atmospheres that are being supplemented by their church’s youth program. If the only spiritual influence young people receive is at the church they attend, there is a breakdown of biblical methods. Youth workers are having their hearts broken regularly because this has been neglected. The results are not good and the youth directors can tell you for certain that they are being overworked by this poor arrangement.
The breakdown should be as follows: 1) Christ is our ultimate example; 2) The elders and pastors of the church set an example that parents and families can follow; 3) Parents are the most efficacious, present and visible example for their children to follow. That model alone passes the test of Scripture.
With these principles in mind, I’d like to suggest a few possible changes to modern youth ministry that have been proven tried-and-true biblical methods:
Children of Unconverted Parents
God has blessed many ministries with truly godly youth that live in ungodly households with an unconverted parent, or parents. Realize with me that no methods of ministry can be exalted above the principles of Scripture. Even though their parents are lost, they are still their parents and that is a boundary that we should not violate. Youth ministry in these types of cases cannot be presented as a rescue from your home. It should rather be a rallying point where young people are instructed to be a light everywhere they are . . . including their homes. Encourage the young person to seek the counsel of unbelieving parents even in spiritual matters. This places the responsibility of parents squarely where it should be. I have known entire families to come to Christ in this manner when faithful children began to honor and submit to their unconverted fathers and/or mothers as God called them to (cf. Eph. 6:1-3).
I hope it is clear that we are not advocating the abolition of youth ministry. To the contrary, we hope that youth ministries grow and flourish – the way God designed it to. I would only admonish youth ministers and ministries to look at their methods telescopically and not just microscopically. What lasting results have we seen from immature youth ministry? You cannot improve the tried-and-true principles and methods of Scripture.
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Happy new year. Thank you for honoring God, upholding family values, lifting our hearts with hope and faith filled messages, and being the light of the world for Jesus Christ. May God continue to guide and richly bless you always. ~ Paul F. Davis ~ https://PropheticPowerShift.com/