The Harmful Practices of Modern Youth Ministries

Conforming to the World — Entertainment — Social Clubs — Lack of Bible Preaching — Bad Doctrine — Overemphasis on Music — Emotionalism — Community Service — Inappropriate Topics — Small Groups


Transforming or Conforming?

What kinds of activities do modern youth ministries include? What are they emphasizing? What are they teaching and preaching? What are the practical results of their philosophies of ministry?

What we will find is that the programming at modern youth groups looks, in practice, much more like a social club, a rock concert, a teen hangout, or a local activity center than a church. In seeking to conform to the world, churches have lost their identity as being outside it and opposed to it.

Romans 12:2
2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.

If our youth groups are not being transformed, but are rather being conformed to the world, how could we expect our young people to do anything different?

Meghan O’Gieblyn is a former Christian who wrote about her departure from the faith because the world and the church had become so hard to distinguish in practice.

The church is becoming increasingly consumer-friendly. Jacob Hill, director of “worship arts” at New Walk Church, describes the Sunday service music as “exciting, loud, powerful, and relevant,” and boasts that “a lot of people say they feel like they’ve just been at a rock concert.” Over the past ten years, I’ve visited churches that have Starbucks kiosks in the foyer and youth wings decked out with air hockey tables. I’ve witnessed a preacher stop his sermon to play a five-minute clip from Billy Madison. I’ve walked into a sanctuary that was blasting the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started” to get the congregation pumped for the morning’s message, which was on joy. I have heard a pastor say, from a pulpit, “Hey, I’m not here to preach at anyone.” And yet, in spite of these efforts, churches are retaining only 4 percent of the young people raised in their congregations.
Despite all the affected teenage rebellion, I continued to call myself a Christian into my early twenties. When I finally stopped, it wasn’t because being a believer made me uncool or outdated or freakish. It was because being a Christian no longer meant anything. It was a label to slap on my Facebook page, next to my music preferences. The gospel became just another product someone was trying to sell me, and a paltry one at that because the church isn’t Viacom: it doesn’t have a Department of Brand Strategy and Planning. Staying relevant in late consumer capitalism requires highly sophisticated resources and the willingness to tailor your values to whatever your audience wants. In trying to compete in this market, the church has forfeited the one advantage it had in the game to attract disillusioned youth: authenticity. When it comes to intransigent values, the profit-driven world has zilch to offer. If Christian leaders weren’t so ashamed of those unvarnished values, they might have something more attractive than anything on today’s bleak moral market. In the meantime, they’ve lost one more kid to the competition. (O’Gieblyn, web)

As we’ll see in the following sections, modern youth ministries cannot conform themselves to the world fast enough. They are proud of their conformity to the world’s methods. They strive for it. They study the world, see what it is doing, and try to emulate it. And in doing so they lose contact with the God they are claiming to serve. God will not go with you when you conform to the world, even if you do so with the intention of carrying him to the world. You go alone. And if you go without God into the world, while conforming all your methods to the world, what makes you any different from the world at all?

The oddness of the church, particularly in a culture that values entertainment, titillation, glamour, novelty, and hipness, is often identified as a stumbling block for teenagers. Ironically, as we have already noted, it is the church’s attempt to become more entertaining, more titillating, more glamorous, more novel, and more hip that may well be leading to the church’s decline. (Robbins, 362)

David White, in his book Practicing Discernment with Youth, talks about the fact that teens are trying to grow up in a culture that is in opposition to their faith. He concludes that, instead of bending to the culture, youth workers should fight against it. He says we need youth pastors “who dedicate whatever resources they already have to understanding and resisting the distortions of culture and living into the way of Jesus — and helping youth do the same” (58). One preacher has said that it is the job of a preacher to find out what the spirit of the age is and to go against it.

Unfortunately, upon examination we will find that instead of finding out what the spirit of the age is and fighting against it, modern youth ministries are finding out what the spirit of the age is and embracing it.

Entertainment: The Youth Group Fun Center!

One of the most persistent and consistent attributes of modern youth ministry is the high focus on entertainment. Entertainment is often used as the entry point for youth to get involved in these ministries.

Current program-driven youth ministry has a tendency to rely on models. Youth ministry models now dot the ministry landscape. But when they’re left unchecked, they can become sources of entertainment supported by a consumer state of mind. (Berard, Penner, Bartlett, 108–109)

Parents know this instinctively. Youth groups have historically attracted kids with pizza, ping pong, and pinball. Churches spend millions of dollars on recreation centers with rock climbing walls, computers, bowling, coffee shops, basketball courts, and skate parks. Of course the reason given for doing this is to attract the youth, then try to give them the gospel while they are there. As long as the message stays the same, they say, the methods don’t matter. If you look at the state of youth ministry, however, this statement falls apart.

The head of Youth Specialties admits the state of modern youth ministry.

Sadly, youth ministry has become an entertainment venture for most churches. Youth pastors feel pressure to just get kids in the door — and if possible, get them saved. Encouraging them to become like Jesus isn’t the goal; numbers are the goal. Since youth pastors also believe they must try to hang on to the students they have, they’ve moved to what I call a “raw” youth ministry — where we appeal to students’ raw human nature that’s so prevalent within modern media. (Oestreicher, 17)

It is a downward spiral. The church wants to reach the youth, but the youth don’t respond. The young people do, however, enjoy entertainment, so the church puts together entertaining activities and concerts. Once the kids are there, they preach the gospel. This doesn’t produce strong disciples, however, since the kids only came to be entertained anyway, not to hear the gospel. The church has to continue doing bigger and better entertainment in order to keep up with the world, and the gospel, which naturally pushes people away, is diminished. So we end up where we are today, with churches pumping millions of dollars and countless volunteer hours into entertaining a mob of young people who care very little about God.

Churches put on their entertainment programs to try and draw the youth, but the world is full of options for entertainment. On any given weekend, kids can play sports, go to movie theaters, attend huge rock concerts, fairs and carnivals, parties, theme parks, and even just sit around the house playing state-of-the-art video games on big screen televisions. Churches have consistently upped the ante to keep up with the world.

Many groups hold lots of activities because that’s what parents demand. One youth minister puts it this way:

Parents want driven programs because that’s the world they’ve given their kids — academics, school sports with too-high expectations in regard to time and energy, band practices every night, no sleep during the school drama, part-time jobs. To merely seem reasonable, church has to fit that mold — not to mention that the only way to ensure that a church event reaches a student is to hold as many events as possible. That way at least one or two of those events will fall into the hole in a particular student’s schedule. (Oestreicher, 115)

I don’t actually think that most parents want more programs that kids are guilted into attending. I think parents feel like this is just the way church should be. Parents are acclimated to lots of activity in their kids’ lives, so they look for a church with lots of activities for their kids. If they see a church with a packed calendar, they may not be able to make all the events, but at least they feel like the church cares for the kids. If they see that a church just has preaching and teaching, they feel as if the church doesn’t care for young people.

Don’t fall into this trap. Activity for activity’s sake is a modern invention. God doesn’t require it. The old saying is true: If Satan can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy. The Pharisees in the Bible were busy around the temple all the time, while the disciples simply walked around with the Lord. A relationship with God doesn’t come with activity; it comes with presence. Kids spending time with God is what is important, and spending time at church activities doesn’t necessarily equate with spending time with God. If Monday night is small groups, Tuesday night is visitation, Wednesday night is youth group, including music, games, fellowship, and a twenty-minute sermon, Thursday night is service work, and on Sunday the kids sit in the back of the church with their friends, then they have attended a lot of activities without a lot of attendance to God. As one youth pastor puts it, “busyness does not lead to godliness” (Borton, 25).

But modern youth ministries do not see things this way. They line their calendars with activities in an attempt to make sure kids are not bored at church.

Inspired by parachurch youth ministries from the 1950s, like Youth for Christ and Young Life (whose founder, Jim Rayburn, once wrote a book entitled It’s a Sin to Bore a Kid), ministries of distraction keep youth moving from one activity to the next: rafting trips, pizza parties, game nights, ski retreats, beach tests, music festivals, amusement parks, taco-feeds, scavenger hunts, crowd-breakers, raves, skits, and whatever other activities attract kids. It’s a Nickelodeon approach to youth ministry that seeks to appeal to kids’ propensity for fun and recreation… While such ministries may keep youth entertained, they often keep youth distracted from the deeper rhythms and practices of the Christian faith. (Yaconelli, 44–45)

Once again, it’s important to remember that those activities do not build their relationship with God. Interest in church is meant to come from a relationship; it’s not meant to form one. Is your child praying daily? Are they spending more than a few minutes in their prayer closet? Are they dedicating a portion of their day to private devotions? If their time alone with God only amounts to a few minutes out of their entire day, what will these activities be except opiates to dull their need for closeness with their Savior? All the spiritual activity will just serve to make parents and students feel better about their spiritual lives, when in fact there is none. And that is more dangerous than if they had never joined a youth group to begin with.

Keeping teenagers from ever being bored in their faith can actually deprive them of opportunities to develop the discipline and perseverance needed to live the Christian life. It might be more of a sin to suggest to young people that the Christian life is always fun and never boring. (DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry, 27)

Here’s the test: what would their spiritual life look like if the activity ceased? If they stopped going to youth group activities, how strong would their spiritual walk be? Would there be anything left at all? Because one day, the youth activities will cease. They will leave the youth group and go to college with nothing more than their personal relationship with God. Their quiet daily devotions, time in prayer, and Bible reading will be all that is left. What will the result be, then?

Is Church just a Social Club? The Grand Goal of “Community”

Church is not meant to be a social club. We do meet friends there and even form close relationships, but this is not part of the church’s responsibility. Individual Christians have the mandate to exhort one another (Hebrews 10:25), but this has devolved into parties, social gatherings, and regular informal meetings where kids sit around, eat some food, drink sodas, and chat. There is a small, light Bible discussion sprinkled in, but the groups are mainly social. These groups can be called many things depending on the church, but usually goes under some variation of the name “small groups.” Burns explains small groups this way:

One of the most glaring needs for teenagers is the need for community and relational connection with others. (91)

These youth pastors build small groups under the guise of helping kids with their need for “community,” but the real reason they form small groups is because they are using them to hook the kids into church. They know that if they form their social clique at church, they will keep coming back to church to meet with their friends. Burns continues:

The degree to which students will stay in the church, get involved and make significant life decisions for Christ is directly dependent on their sense of belonging to the community. If they connect significantly with peers and adult leaders, teenagers are more likely to stay in the church. (91)

Some parents may feel like this is okay. After all, who cares why they are coming to church, as long as they are coming, right? No, it’s not right. Where in the Bible are we commanded to get people to come into a church building for any reason possible? It would also be true to say that if we paid the kids $100 each time they came to church, they’d be more likely to stay. Should we start passing out money? Does God look down from heaven and count attendance as good if the building is full, even if it’s only full of kids who are there to see each other? Isn’t church supposed to be where we come to see God? If the teen is only coming to see their friends, what happens when their friends leave? What kind of relationship are the kids building with God if they are only coming to see their friends?

Parents may be hoping that the kids will come for their friends, and some of God will rub off on them while they are there. That’s commendable, but it’s not the way it works. Kids are no better off sitting in church than they are sitting in a movie theater. It’s the heart that makes the difference, and many kids sit in church while their hearts are far from God. You don’t get a relationship with God by osmosis. As a matter of fact, all that this practice has done is fill our churches with kids who don’t care much about God.

Now ask yourself this. If your child really wanted to get closer to God, would you rather them come to a church with only five kids that also were attending for God, or would you want them coming to a youth group with a hundred kids who were there to see their friends? Modern churches have defeated their own purpose. In attracting kids who care nothing about God, they have created a spiritually draining environment for the kids who really want to meet God.

Sunday school, with its emphasis on Bible teaching, was first weakened by Sunday school socials. The Bible study hour became the Bible study thirty minutes, followed by food and discussion. Then they moved the Sunday schools out of churches and away from Sunday mornings, and moved them to living rooms. The Bible study became a Bible discussion, and the discussion time became pure socialization. Attend a random sampling of ten small groups today, and the majority of them will barely talk about the Bible compared to the time they spend discussing their own social lives. They call this “doing life together.”

Though devotional time and Bible study can be found at all of our FUSE Groups, the main focus is relationship building and enjoying time to hang with friends in a positive environment during the week. (Celebration Church, web)

This socializing has weakened the church further. One youth pastor describes modern ministry, in practice, as very shallow.

What teens are looking for is a faith worth dying for — something so important it’s worth giving one’s life to completely. As far as I’ve seen it, our current models of ministry are largely failing to present faith in such a light. Instead it’s a fun place to be with your friends — come for the food, stay for the Bible. (Oestreicher, 25)

There is a passage in the Bible where Jesus encounters this very problem. We all know the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. What many of us miss, however, is the story that follows. The day after Jesus feeds the five thousand, the crowd returns. But they don’t return to follow the Lord. They return for more food.

John 6:26–27
26 Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. 27 Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.

This highlights the problem. When people are attracted for one thing, that is the reason they come. You cannot change the attractant and expect them to come back. Parents would like to think that their kids will come for the socializing and come back for God, but that simply isn’t what happens. This is evident by the drop-off rate that occurs once small groups end. When the kids get out of their youth group and form friends outside of church, they leave. And why should we blame them if we are working to give them community? They can get a more robust community in their new college.

The Absence of Bible Preaching

Modern churches are caving to the idea that youth will not listen to preaching. For some reason, they believe that kids can’t stand more than short bursts of preaching and that this preaching must be accompanied by high amounts of action, visuals, movie clips, and more.

Take our children and young people. They’re used to not only hearing words but also having the words accompanied by something visual. And they’re used to lots of action as they learn. Tell them that they have to sit and listen to a monologued sermon for thirty or more minutes, and they’ll be incredulous. They rarely ever listen to anyone talk nonstop for thirty minutes. So why would they do it in church? …[T]hat’s why the leadership wanted to upgrade the sanctuary with all that technology. Because if we fall behind in how we communicate, we stand to lose our youth and our children. (MacDonald, 51)

This line of thinking seems to be prevalent among older people who are seeking to reach the youth of today. They have bought the lie that kids won’t listen to traditional preaching. This simply is not true. Each year, the youth summer camp at our church has services where the preaching often lasts over an hour for each sermon, and we preach three times a day. According to MacDonald and others, we must have the most miserable youth camp on earth. To the contrary, our camps are the highlight of the year for the young people. They look forward to them the entire summer, they prepare their hearts to attend, and they are more riveted to and moved by the sermons than to any fast-moving, high-action movie. Adults attending the camp as chaperones are constantly amazed at how closely the kids pay attention — when we hold pop quizzes on the sermon content, they remember more than the adults do.

It also isn’t true that kids today “rarely ever listen to anyone talk nonstop for thirty minutes.” Let’s remember, they go to school five days a week, where they sit through several forty-minute lectures per day. They might just be better conditioned to listening to lectures than us adults.

The truth is, kids are not bored by forty-five minutes of preaching — they are bored by boring preaching. When the preacher is dry, the message is spiritually bankrupt, and the power of God is not moving through the preacher so that the hearers are being pricked in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, anyone — not just kids — would get incredulous. The problem isn’t the style. The problem is the lack of the power of God. When the power of God leaves a preacher, the preacher often tries to replace it with gimmicks. He’ll turn to the world’s methods of keeping people’s attention, instead of fixing the real problem.

MacDonald further attempts to prove his case by citing the way modern newscasts present the news:

A newscaster speaks; there is action on the screen behind the speaker; and at the same time there are little messages, ten to fifteen words each, that crawl across the bottom of the screen. And, if that’s not enough, you’re getting stock exchange averages in the lower right-hand corner. (51)

What MacDonald fails to see is the reason the news has to do this. They have nothing important to report. Now that the news is on twenty-four hours a day, they have to cram the screen with content just to keep you thinking something important is happening when it isn’t. If they just told you the news, you’d turn the channel. To prove it, think back on a time when you remember something major happening live on the news, like the World Trade Center attack. You didn’t need stock market tickers to keep your attention. We were all riveted to the screen, hanging on every bit of information as it was announced. The same is true for preaching. When the Holy Spirit gets involved in a sermon, the congregation is gripped with the eternal importance of the words being preached, and it’s hard to tear their attention away. During especially powerful moments, you can hear a pin drop in a large congregation. No movie clips are needed. No gimmicks. No antics. You feel like you are in a time warp, and an hour flies by in what feels like minutes.

No, youth don’t need high-action, entertaining, brief sermonettes filled with movie clips and gimmicks. They need messages delivered from the Bible, by a God-called preacher who is preaching with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Many modern youth ministers are marginalizing the importance of Bible preaching and teaching. One youth pastor talks about how a single conversation was more important than all his lessons:

During lunch we had a very nonthreatening, open conversation about the Christian life. As I look back, that investment of those few hours and the conversation that took place were far more productive than all the Sunday School classes I had ever taught those two students. (Burns, 25)

I understand the importance of good godly fellowship and conversations around the Bible. I have had the blessing of traveling with my pastor all around the U.S. and to foreign countries as well, watching him preach to churches. Very often, he will sit with the pastor or missionary late into the night, counseling them and discussing their problems and difficulties. Often just a good talk with another preacher is all that the home pastor is longing for, and you can sense that it is very refreshing to them.

As good as these talks can be, however, they don’t trump Bible preaching. Preaching is a stab from the Holy Ghost. Talking is dialogue with another human. God can and does use people and conversations to speak to us, but his main method is preaching. For Burns to say that a single conversation is more productive than all the Sunday school lessons he ever taught is a terrible indictment on his Sunday school teaching. It highlights the weak place that the modern minister is placing on teaching. And if they go into Sunday school believing that preaching isn’t very effective, they are already crippling it. They are entering their pulpit weakened and are paralyzing the potential work of the Holy Ghost.

As a result, preaching has become a vestigial tradition to modern youth ministries. They don’t dare throw it out because they know the people will revolt, but they don’t believe in its power. What’s left is a ministry full of all the programs they have built, the processes on which they rely, and the relationships they are developing, with a dry, weak sprinkling of Bible preaching. In the course of an entire youth ministry, the preaching takes up a negligible amount of time and focus. It becomes like a commercial on a TV show. “We now pause for a word from our sponsor. Feel free to tune out, because this isn’t too important, it’s just a necessary evil to keep the show going. We’ll return to the good stuff momentarily.”

Dr. Ruckman notes:

These days the average congregation interprets “ministering to them” as meeting their demands for personal attention so they can “feel good about themselves.” Straight, hard, sound, Biblical, doctrinal preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit, after HOURS of preparation and prayer, are not considered to be the main part of the “ministry.” (Ruckman, Kindle)

One of the most popular youth speakers, Jonathan McKee, proves this in the introduction of his book of youth sermons, 10-Minute Talks: 24 Messages Your Students Will Love. His regular talks are usually more like thirty minutes, but this book was written for all the youth ministry activities where ten minutes was all the time allowed for preaching. He says in the introduction: “Today, many youth workers don’t leave a lot of time for the talk. The increasing popularity of small groups and lengthy activities means you only have about 10 minutes to wrap up the evening with a talk or story” (12).

Youth groups deliver preaching like Chuck E. Cheese’s serves pizza at a birthday party — after the kids are sweaty from hours of games and activities, in a rushed afterthought, with questionable nutritional content, thawed and microwaved at the last minute by a questionable cook, while parents stand around outside waiting for it to be finished so they can take their kids home. “Don’t eat that, Johnny, I’m not sure where it came from, and it doesn’t look fresh.”

When kids graduate out of these preaching-anemic groups, they’re not ready to be church members whose main activity at church involves hearing the preaching. Andy Stanley, pastor of a large church in Atlanta, in his book The Seven Checkpoints for Youth Leaders, laments the results of youth ministries that are losing Biblical preaching because of the emphasis on other things.

If the truth were told, what have become foundational for us are our methods, not our content. We have slowly and unwittingly put the proverbial cart before the horse, and the results sit in our pews every Sunday morning in the shape of young adults who have a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude and a weak biblical footing. (Stanley quoted in Hall, 7)

Bad Doctrine

Doctrinal teaching has become one of the casualties of the over-emphasis on reaching youth and keeping youth. Teaching doctrine is foundational to raising young Christians, but it can be boring to teens and it’s divisive, drawing lines in the sand that can alienate young people if they don’t accept the Bible over their own beliefs.

We see this happening when churches from different doctrinal backgrounds team up with each other for local rallies and evangelistic events. Churches want to reach young people by competing with local entertainment, but they don’t have the resources on their own to create something that can compete with all the movies, concerts, sports, and other secular activities that are available to kids. As a result, they often pool resources with other churches to throw big, city-wide, non-denominational events. They are encouraged to put doctrine aside in order for these to be possible. In Youth Ministry in Small Churches, Rick Chromey explains:

Whenever churches with traditions, emphases, and expressions work together, there will be disagreements. They may involve doctrinal issues… being flexible is a key to working together. Suppose, for example, doctrinal differences have become a major concern in your network. Think of creative solutions. You may decide to share in social and service activities, but to have each congregation lead its own Bible study and discipleship. In this way, churches can maintain their unique faith perspective while still interacting with other churches. (114–115)

Doctrine for modern youth ministries sadly is often seen as a negotiable item. It is at the bottom of the list of important things for kids to learn at youth group. They are strong on relationships, strong on fun and music, strong on activities, and, if they have time, they’ll sprinkle some practical preaching in there, but Bible study and doctrinal teaching is unimportant.

Notice that Chromey calls doctrine a “faith perspective.” This gives a little insight into what modern youth ministers think about doctrine. They don’t see it as a non-negotiable truth from God’s words, but as a perspective. They see it as something that is able to be set aside for the sake of attracting youth to their programs.

Even though Andy Stanley laments about young adults entering church on “weak biblical footing,” he goes on to recommend basing the entire youth ministry curriculum around seven practical application themes, with Bible doctrine nowhere to be found. The themes he suggests include authentic faith, spiritual disciplines, moral boundaries, healthy friendships, wise choices, ultimate authority, and putting others first.

These are the subjects they need to aspire to teach? What are they teaching now, the ABCs? When these are the suggested teaching subjects that modern pastors would like their youth ministries to rise up to, we are in bad shape doctrinally. It’s a bit like a school cafeteria director declaring that they need to raise their food standards to include corn dogs and pizza bagels. That doesn’t say much for what’s currently on the menu.

While it’s true that we shouldn’t expect high-schoolers to become Bible scholars, we can at least teach them foundational Biblical doctrines that will prepare them for entering an adult Sunday school class. It would be a shame if the pastor had to explain doctrines like the deity of Christ, salvation, eternal security, the rapture, and the judgment seat of Christ to the young adults in his Sunday school class before moving on to stronger meat.

Part of the maturing process of young Christians should be understanding the principles of their faith and the foundations of Biblical doctrine. Modern youth ministries are failing to do this and are producing spiritual babies as a result.

Hebrews 5:12–14
12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. 13 For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

Bad Doctrine: Lifestyle Evangelism

One problematic doctrine that is being taught in youth groups is lifestyle evangelism. The Bible tells us that we are to live the Bible, for sure. We are to be the light of the world. Paul says:

2 Corinthians 3:1–3
1 Do we begin again to commend ourselves? or need we, as some others, epistles of commendation to you, or letters of commendation from you? 2 Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: 3 Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.

People should be able to look at our lives and see the Lord through us. However, we are to preach the gospel to the lost all around us with our words, not just our actions.

Ephesians 6:18–20
18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; 19 And for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 For which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.

Most lifestyle evangelism proponents don’t come right out and say that people shouldn’t witness with their words; they simply downplay it. They teach that it isn’t effective today or that it will turn people away. They teach that the most effective way of “reaching people” is by living a good life in front of them, loving them, etcetera. The lost are supposed to be more open to hearing about God after they’ve become friends.

Burns, in his chapter on relational evangelism, gives a few methods: caring, friendship, contact work, follow up, and events. His strong emphasis on caring and friendship is clear. This sounds reasonable, but relational evangelism tends toward a weak and watered-down gospel. Notice the testimony of a teen that Burns “won” through caring evangelism. It starts out, “I surrendered my life to Jesus because Mike remembered my name.” She tells the story of how the youth pastor built a relationship with her, then:

The following Sunday, I found Mike. We talked more about my relationship with my mom. For the first time in my life I felt like I mattered. I felt like someone was there for me. I started to think, maybe this God thing is for real. I decided that I would stay. Over the course of time, I heard about Jesus — and his love for me. After one Sunday morning, I decided that I needed Jesus to forgive me, to help me with my relationship with my mom, to fill the loneliness and the hurt that was in my life. (Burns)

This is a very weak testimony of salvation, and it is normal for lifestyle evangelism. This is because when you emphasize ministering to the lost instead of witnessing to them, you are sending a message that the gospel is about allowing yourself to be ministered to, not about being saved from sin and hell. If you emphasize building friendships with Christians, you send a message that the gospel is about building a friendship with Jesus, instead of asking him to be your Savior.

Am I saying that the girl in the testimony above is not saved? I’m not sure, but I definitely would not bet my soul on such a weak statement of faith. Salvation is about repenting of sin and asking the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive you and save you from hell. It is not about giving your life to him or starting a friendship with him or deciding to follow in his steps. It is a new birth, not a new friendship. Yes, friendship comes after salvation, but friendship does not get you saved. Before we are saved we are enemies of God, and the only way to remedy that is to be born again. No one wades into salvation little by little, but that is exactly how lifestyle evangelism presents the gospel.

Bad Doctrine: Lordship Salvation

A basic Bible doctrine is Eternal Security. This means that at the moment you ask the Lord Jesus Christ to save you, you are born again, and you cannot lose that salvation. Many youth teachers say they believe in this doctrine, but then they slip in a contradicting doctrine called Lordship Salvation. The basic premise is that, yes, you cannot lose your salvation, but if you don’t continue in the faith and show fruits of being saved, and show a change in your life, then you never “really” got saved in the first place. They will teach teens that if they aren’t sold out for God, and if they struggle with sin, or if they aren’t excited about spiritual things, they never really got saved. One of the most popular youth preaching videos online is by one of these Lordship Salvation preachers, Paul Washer. He says:

It is impossible to be embraced by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not to be changed at the very core of your being and it not be manifest to those around you… Those who have professed Christ and are living in a continuous state of carnality without the least evidence of Holy Spirit convicting them of sin — it is because they are not saved… Profession will be continuing on… Is God a reality in your life? It MUST be obvious (to others) that God is finishing a good work in you. If you have indeed repented of your sins and believed, the evidence is that you will continue repenting and believe. (Weaver, web)

This is a false gospel, and it causes teens to doubt their salvation and worry about going to hell, after they have received the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. The real gospel is that Jesus Christ finished the work for us on Calvary, and all we have to do is receive that finished work in order to become sons of God (John 1:12). After we are saved, however, we still have a sinful nature. We are still living in our sinful flesh, and our flesh can get the victory over the new spiritual man. Teens who struggle with sin and with their flesh will hear this false doctrine and “get saved” over and over, never getting assurance of their salvation and constantly trying to “prove” that they are saved through good works.

Beware of this false doctrine. If you hear anything like this from your youth pastor, ask him about it. If he admits that he believes and teaches it, for the sake of your teen you should leave that group. It will lead to confusion if your child struggles with sin, and to Phariseeism if they are doing well.

Bad Music in Huge Doses

MacDonald, describing a conversation with the youth band in his church, says:

Having listened to them over coffee, I had the sense that they felt that the worship they would be leading was equal in value to my sermon. No, I’ll go a step further. If they had to choose between the two, I think they would have valued the worship over the sermon. (125)

This is alarming. Music should never take the emphasis over preaching, yet that is the trend. The first problem to notice is the idea that music is worship but preaching is not. That is not Biblical. But when you wrongly define worship as “music,” you force music into a higher place in the Bible than God gives it. What is worship, actually? Let’s examine some scriptures.

The first mention of the word “worship” in the Bible has nothing to do with musicians. There are no instruments, no singers, not even a psalm. The first mention of worship is in Genesis 22, and it is connected with sacrifice.

Genesis 22:3–7
3 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. 4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

When Abraham calls his son to worship God, they don’t carry guitars up the mountain; they carry wood, fire, and a knife. They won’t be lifting up their hands while they are singing; Abraham will be lifting up his hands to drive the knife into his only son. Abraham calls this “worship.” It is connected with sacrificing what you love most in the world in obedience and faith to God. It is not connected to songs in any way.

Over and over, the Bible connects worship with bowing in submission. It connects worship with the altar of sacrifice. In fact, of the 196 times the word “worship” is in the Bible, only one time is it ever mentioned next to singing.

Am I saying that music is not a way to worship God? Not at all: music can be one way to revere God, to sacrifice to him, and to honor him. However, it is a very, very small part of true worship. If we define worship as “submission and obedience to God even to the point of sacrificing the things you love,” then true followers of Jesus Christ are consistently worshipping God every day. They worship in their daily decisions, in their devotions, and in their Bible study and prayer time. They worship God in their dealings with others and in their behavior towards the world. And they worship God in a church service while listening to the preaching of God’s words, if they are listening, submitting themselves to it, and obeying what they hear.

As a matter of fact, singing in a church service is one of the easiest ways to feign worship. The Bible says it is easy to say something with your lips but to have your heart in the wrong place. It is our walk, not our talk, that God watches.

Isaiah 29:13
13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:

Again, God emphasizes actions over singing.

Amos 5:23–24
23 Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. 24 But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

This is not to say that music has no place in a youth group. It does! The biggest single book in the Bible is a song book, the book of Psalms, with 150 chapters. However, the unbiblical linking of worship to music has allowed it to get out of balance in youth groups. If a youth group places an emphasis on music above preaching, it should raise a red flag that something is out of sync with the Bible.

Emotionalism Replacing a Meeting with God

If there is one thing that is lacking in the lives of youth today, it is a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Very few spend any real time alone in their closets in prayer. Fewer still spend more than a couple minutes a day in their Bible. Our private devotion time is where we forge our relationship with God. That relationship is strengthened by church, by preaching, by singing as a congregation and praising the Lord, but without considerable private devotion, the other things only cause the Christian to believe he is in better shape than he actually is. That is exactly what is happening in modern youth groups. Anyone with spiritual discernment can tell that the majority of youth today are barely hanging onto their Christianity, but you’d get a different picture by looking at the rock concerts masquerading as worship services.

One of the most exciting trends in youth ministry today is the desire and hunger on the part of young people for worship. In fact, there is a worldwide wave of the Holy Spirit that is moving and breaking into the lives and the hearts of students. Like never before, they desire to connect with the living God through passionate and intimate worship experiences. (Burns, 111)

Kids love music. Especially loud, sensual, fleshy music played in dark rooms with pulsating beats and lights and members of the opposite sex dancing all around them. What we’re seeing is not a wave of the Holy Spirit; it is a wave of teen spirit. If you doubt this, ask yourself: what has been the result of this supposed great movement of God? If the Holy Spirit is really causing all the jumping, yelling, dancing, and excitement taking places in thousands of Christian concerts across the world, then where is he afterwards? Where are the souls being saved as a result? Where is the revival that follows the Holy Spirit? Where is the fruit of the Spirit?

Once again, worship is sacrifice, not singing. When kids are going to darkened youth nightclubs and listening to blaring rock music, they aren’t worshiping God; they are just enjoying their favorite music. If that’s not true, then why not change the music? Could you get the same results if you turned the lights on and played “The Old Rugged Cross”? Would the experience be the same without the fancy light system? No, otherwise the money wouldn’t be spent to purchase the audio video systems. This is one reason that MacDonald emphasizes:

I heard a younger generation pastor say that if he had three hundred thousand dollars to start a church, he’d put the first two-thirds of the money in sound, lighting, and visual technology. He’d rather do church in a warehouse and have state-of-the-art technology. (53)

Don’t be caught up in a youth group that has a heavy emphasis on music. It can be a dangerous way for kids to think they are getting close to God, when they are just stirring up their flesh.

MacDonald describes a conversation with the youth in his church, who said:

I mean, there’s no excitement in our singing. And we don’t understand most of the songs anyway… most of the songs we sing here [at church] are not the songs or the music we sing all week long… So we wondered if we could change things a little bit… we formed a band and began to play at certain youth events. Now, they’ve asked us to lead worship in the church sanctuary every once in a while. (133)

But instead of bringing the world’s music into the church, why not teach the youth good, godly hymns and lead them by singing with devotion?

C.S. Lewis once said: “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems sung to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it… I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.”

Community Service: Social Good Rather than Eternal Good

Someone once said that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus was concerned with the eternal fate of the rich man, while the modern church would be more concerned with the earthly fate of Lazarus. That is, when we look at a story that involved a rich man faring sumptuously every day, in contrast with a poor man who sat at his gate eating leftover crumbs that fell off the rich man’s table, our sympathy goes out to the poor man. Jesus said the poor man was just fine, and the rich man was the one who was in trouble. This was because the rich man was lost, on his way to hell, while Lazarus’ soul was in good shape and would end up comforted in Abraham’s bosom.

When modern youth ministries consider service and missions, all too often they focus on temporary earthly problems rather than eternal problems. Missions to a modern youth group is defined as building houses for the poor, serving in a soup kitchen, raking leaves for a shut-in, or giving out bottles of water on a hot day downtown. Their justification is obvious and shallow. If they don’t serve people first, they say, the people won’t hear the gospel. There is a certain grain of truth to this, especially in foreign missions, but even foreign missionaries have found that when they start their missions by building houses for the locals and doing service projects, they are often simply taken for granted and the message of the Bible doesn’t come across any stronger. Missionaries shouldn’t lock themselves into ivory towers and drop tracts onto remote villages without getting their hands dirty, but they also shouldn’t sideline the gospel so they can fix roofs and plant gardens.

Burns uses a quote from Mahatma Ghandi to prove his point:

The Indian leader Mahatma Ghandi challenged Christians when he said “In my judgment the Christian faith does not lend itself to much preaching or talking. It is best propagated by living it and applying it. When will you Christians really crown Jesus Christ as Prince of Peace and proclaim him through your deeds as the champion of the poor and oppressed?” (140)

It may get our hackles up to be challenged in our Christian faith by Ghandi, but, then again, what does Ghandi know about Christianity? All he did was take his own lost, fallen view of God and place it on top of the Bible. Let’s look to our leader for guidance, the Lord Jesus Christ. There was one person who came around Jesus, asking him to be a champion for the poor and oppressed. It was Judas Iscariot.

John 12:3–8
3 Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. 4 Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, 5 Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? 6 This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. 7 Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. 8 For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

Be wary of people who are trying to guilt you into helping the poor. The poor have one great need, and it is not money or food. Burns disagrees and believes it is the Christian’s duty to address the physical needs all around us.

We live in a world of desperate need — all we have to do is open our eyes and ears to recognize it. The sheep and the goats from Matthew 25 encountered similar needs: people who were hungry or thirsty, strangers, people who were sick or needy, and people imprisoned. (141)

This is a bad interpretation of Matthew 25. In that chapter Jesus is talking about people in the great tribulation who are to help Jewish people who are in trouble. Those who help them are saved, and those who don’t are lost. If we try to apply this to us, then we are resting our salvation on whether we help the needy. That’s heresy and a false gospel, and it’s common to find in modern ministries. The Bible is clear: the poor do not need shelter or education from us. They need salvation. This may sound cold, but think about it: if you have salvation and money, but you focus your energy and attention on giving people money, to the neglect of salvation, you are the one being cold. Riches without salvation is useless. We just have a hard time seeing it that way because we place such a faulty emphasis on the value of money.

Psalm 73:3, 12, 16–19
3 For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 12 Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches. 16 When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; 17 Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end. 18 Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction. 19 How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors.

As Bob Jones Sr. said, “Education without salvation is damnation.” Shelter and food is just temporary and fleeting when compared to eternity in heaven or hell. The Biblical ministry for New Testament Christians is not to feed the poor and help the homeless: it is to reconcile lost sinners to God.

2 Corinthians 5:16–20
16 Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. 17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.

There are countless organizations with the goal of helping the needy on earth. There is only one group that can help people in eternity. It is a trick of Satan to get that one group, which has eternal help, focused on the temporary here and now and deemphasizing of eternal salvation. If we, the church, brought every single needy person out of their place of need, but did not bring them the gospel, we would be the most miserable failures in history.

The gospel does not include social action. Nelson Bell once said, “If you separate evangelism and social action, you only have half a gospel” (Pollock). But where is social action in the gospel? The gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15. To add social action is to add works to the free gift of God’s grace.

When looking at a youth group for your child, ask them about missions and service. What do they consider to be the mission of the church? Is it getting the message of salvation to the lost, to people who are dying and on their way to hell? Or is the stronger emphasis on feeding the hungry, helping the marginalized, giving education to inner city kids, and similar temporary service work?

Inappropriate Topics and Worldliness

Modern youth ministries are brash. They approach topics head on that are barely suitable for discussion with teenagers. Reading modern ministry literature and listening to their sermons, you will notice problems that should make a discerning parent’s ears perk up, such as edgy jokes, provocative language, and outright teaching of topics that are best meant for parents to discuss with their children on their own terms. Here are some of the sermon titles from one of the largest student curriculum resources, Simply Youth Ministry:

“Best Sex Ever: How to Have Great Sex” (listed on their web site as one of their “bestsellers”)
“Pure Sex”
“Power of Sex”
“Good Sex”
“Exposed”
“Love, Sex, and Dating”
“Guy Talk / Girl Talk”

It is almost a given that if you put your children in modern youth ministries, they will be taught about sexual matters in shameless, indelicate language. They argue that sex within the bounds of marriage is of God and is nothing to be ashamed of, but that argument doesn’t hold water. Grown men have no business discussing the marriage bed with teenage boys and girls who are not their own children. The Bible does not go into detail on such matters and simply says “the bed is undefiled” in a marriage (Hebrews 13:4).

Youth pastors do this to get kids’ interest. They are looking for controversial topics that will cause kids to pay attention and to bring their friends, and they are willing to get too close to the edge in order to reach their goal. Once again, they should be relying on the power of God to give fire to their preaching. When they lack the power of God, they substitute tantalizing topics.

Modern youth ministry is chock full of examples of this. It is in the majority of youth ministry literature. One must wonder why they give so much attention to this one topic. They may say that it is because kids deal with this temptation, but don’t kids deal with other temptations as well? Rebellion? Lying? Carnality? Idolatry? Are any of these topics less of a problem for teenagers than fornication? Absolutely not. But since teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are serious results of fornication, there is an abnormal imbalance towards talking about it.

We don’t have holiness campaigns, but we do have purity campaigns. We don’t tell our young girls to wear rings displaying the fact that they are shunning false gods, but we do encourage them to display rings bringing attention to their virginity. Stop and think about the wickedness and lewdness of that practice. It is not of God.

This should be a discussion that parents have with their kids. It is not to be pawned off on the youth minister. The youth pastor should deal with it as the Bible deals with it, by simply calling all fornication and adultery sin that needs to be repented of, and nothing more. It should be preached against without conjuring up explicit images in kids’ minds. It should be dealt with only in proportion to how the Bible deals with it, no more and no less. An abnormal fixation on this topic perverts the message of the Bible and causes the kids to think about it that much more.

The Bible commands Christians to be separate from the world, to be sanctified and set apart from worldliness and morally edgy topics and influences.

1 Thessalonians 5:22
22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.

This verse is clear. When we see things that are on the edge of evil or sinful or worldly, we should be backing away from them. Our conscience and the Holy Spirit pricks us when we hear edgy jokes, see unholy things, and are part of conversations that are displeasing to God. Modern youth groups push the limits on worldliness and edginess. They make a concerted effort to bring in modern culture, in an attempt at being relevant to the kids. They feel like they have to reference music, movies, and memes that are not godly and use them as part of their group activities. A parent sitting in a modern youth group meeting might be embarrassed at what they hear and see.

In the youth ministry world, there are small companies that provide resources to busy youth pastors. A youth leader can get ready-made game ideas, activities, lesson curriculum, and sermon outlines from these sources. There’s nothing wrong with this, as it can be a blessing for a ministry leader to spend his time preparing sermons and doing other ministry activities, instead of spending hours and hours coming up with games. However, a glimpse inside these resource web sites will give us an idea of what is being used in youth group services, and much of the material that is available and popular is simply wrong for a Christian to be a part of, much less for a ministry to use.

One popular company is called Download Youth Ministry. It is run by the youth leaders of some very large and influential churches in America. As an example of what they are offering, consider a game that was recently released and advertised to their email list. Here is the content of the email.

Unless you have been living in a lead-lined cave the last couple of months, you’ve probably heard of the song “Watch Me” with the accompanying dance moves “the whip” and “the nae nae.”
But maybe you literally were in that cave and don’t know what I’m talking about. I got your back! Check out this video [link] of the cutest little dance crew doing “the whip” and “the nae nae” along with the song.
It’s tough to be “current” without at least passively endorsing something that might be questionable as a youth pastor. I’m still trying to find forgiveness for watching this year’s Video Music Awards. Hahhahahah!!!
In our youth ministry we do try to be culturally relevant … sermon series topics/titles (we’re doing Squad Goals right now), funny bits, videos or games that we create. We do this because our strategy is for our program and environment to be fun and welcoming to eliminate the distractions that push away non-churched students.
Our ultimate goal is for our students to hear the life-changing message of Jesus and hopefully a friend that they may invite as well.
SO I wanted to give you something fun to help you accomplish both of those things! The Whip/Nae Nae band wagon is in full swing for just a little while longer, and this game was such A HIT when we played it at youth group we wanted to share this game for FREE with you!
Feel free to use it if you feel like it fits.
DOWNLOAD “CHOOSE A MOVE: Whip or Nae Nae” right now for FREE! [Link]
If you have any fun resource ideas we could create that jump on cultural [sic] that aren’t totally sacrilegious (insert Miley Cyrus joke here) or if you already made one, reply and let me know!

After you stop shaking your head and regain consciousness, let’s break down the logic in this message.

You sense immediately that the youth pastor who wrote this is feeling a little bit guilty about how edgy this is. He has to explain his reasons for using it, even though he knows it is wrong. What is his reason for using it? He’s “trying to be current,” which he says is tough to do without passively endorsing something that might be questionable as a youth pastor. He goes on to argue that the ultimate goal is to reach students for the Lord and that using something like this will ultimately lead to that goal. He is using the classic argument “the end justifies the means.” We all know this is faulty logic and is not supported by the Bible.

God specifically calls out this logic in Romans 3, where people say, “…let us do evil, that good may come….” No matter how much good may come of something, we are not to create more evil in order to achieve the good outcome. A youth pastor may get some small payoff for playing a game like this, but he is doing damage in the form of justifying and endorsing something wicked in the mind of a young person. In the teen’s view, the youth pastor just gave him permission to listen to worldly rap music, participate in sexually charged dances, and watch sexually suggestive videos and content. He is saying loud and clear to his teens that he knows what the music and dances are, he thinks they’re funny, and he thinks Christians should lighten up about their stance on them.

He also mentions watching the Video Music Awards, which are hosted by MTV. A Google search of “Video Music Awards” returns the following news articles at the top of the results:

“Selling Sex in Music Videos”

“FCC Complaints About [omitted for vulgarity] on the MTV Music Awards”

“MTV Video Music Awards: Where Controversy is Still the Only Currency”

“Why Do the MTV Video Music Awards Get So Wild?”

I have an additional news headline that I would love to see: “Why Are America’s Youth Pastors Watching Vulgar, Sex and Obscenity-Filled Music Videos?”

In this email, then, the youth pastor, who is the leader of one of the largest and most influential youth ministries in America and the director of one of the largest resources for youth ministry materials, admits to passively endorsing wicked rap and dance videos to his teen group, while at the same time downplaying his own viewing of one of the most controversial shows on television. In the name of “reaching youth for Christ,” the youth leaders have waded themselves neck deep into the filth of the world. How can we expect them to lead our teens out of the world when they are in it themselves? Do not be deceived into believing that this is necessary to reach teens. It is not necessary. In fact, it is counterproductive. It is destroying teens, destroying youth pastors, and leading our youth groups further and further into worldliness.

To prove that this is not an isolated email incident, but is in fact the normal realm of worldliness, I’ll include a few more examples from Download Youth Ministry’s site, as well as other youth ministry sources.

There is a sermon called “I Woke Up Like This,” a reference to a rap song filled with cursing and wicked themes.

Another sermon is called “Pretty Hurts.” Here is the description:

By using the song “Pretty Hurts”… from pop/hip-hop icon Beyoncé… as an example, students engage in a process that creates critical thinking and powerful discernment skills. (DYM)

There’s a sermon series called “Bringing Sexy Way Back,” with this description:

BRINGING SEXY WAAAY BACK — a 4-week dating/sexuality series with outlines and scripture and suggested illustrations
WEEK 1 BRINGING SEXY WAAAAY BACK — God’s Design for Sexuality
WEEK 2 I’M TOO SEXY FOR YOU — the power of inner beauty
WEEK 3 IF YOU GOT IT… — a new look at modesty as sexuality under control
WEEK 4 MIRROR MIRROR ON THE WALL… peace in Jesus before purpose in sexuality (DYM, 2)

There’s a series of games where the kids are shown lyrics by popular musicians and have to answer questions about them. One game is called “Lamentations or Taylor Swift Lyric.” Another is called “One Direction or King David.” Yet another is “One Direction or Song of Solomon.” A similar themed game is “80s Romantic Comedy or Bruno Mars Lyric?”

Another popular trend is to show a clip of a current movie and use it as a sermon illustration. One youth resource company, The Source 4 Youth Ministry, has a whole page on this topic. The page lists hundreds of movies, gives the time stamp where the youth leader should cue the movie to, and even gives talking points about the clip. It includes many, many rated R and PG-13 movies, which youth ministries should not be endorsing, even passively, much less showing to the group during church. Here’s the writer’s logic on using these movies:

Media speaks loudly to kids. We can ignore that, or respond to the culture like Paul did in Acts 17 and use it to open doors. If you are looking for movie clip ideas that will kick off a discussion or illustrate a given point, you’ve come to the right place! (TS4YM)

He also has a similar page using popular music clips for the same purpose. Here again the youth leader justifies using worldly culture as a means of speaking to kids in a language they understand. This ignores the fact that kids understand more than movies and can be communicated with using the Bible and preaching, which we discuss in another section. But this point can’t be overstated — modern youth ministry derails frequently and predictably when it tries to assimilate itself into worldly culture and assimilate worldly culture into the church.

We will make mistakes. We will mention movies that our students’ parents have forbidden them to see. And we may be tempted into compromising positions — of this we must beware! But our students are neck-deep in postmodern culture every day, and God has called us to be right there with them. (Jones, 43)

It has been said that a country is shaped by its churches. If the churches don’t stand on purity, but allow moral decline, then the country will slide even further into wickedness. If that is true for the church, then the moral slide in the myriad youth ministries can be partially to blame for the degradation of youth in America as a whole. If we take a step back, we can see a connection between the secular youth culture in America and the youth ministries that are not taking a stand against its wickedness. One author explicitly makes this connection.

Youth ministries have, again, not been responsible for the turn to sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll as rites of passage among American teenagers, but they have contributed. The turn from purity to practices in American youth ministry matches well the expressed desires of youth for autonomy and power, articulated through sexual and substance experimentation. Similarly, the way churches have tailored their messages to the market economy and the way Christians have given at least tacit support for all kinds of legitimized violence mesh well with the tests offered by rock ’n’ roll. (Pahl, 158–159)

Adults accept worldliness in youth groups, which we would not accept in church, sometimes because we feel like we are being sticks-in-the-mud, sometimes because we don’t feel like we understand it enough to object, and other times because we are willing to compromise in order to reach teens. This lack of a standard of purity, however, is producing rottenness that is creeping into our churches with each new generation, decaying the spiritual lives of our teens, and causing the church to lose its saltiness in the world.

We need to hold our youth ministers to high standards of purity for our teens. We should not praise youth pastors who bend to the moral level of youth; we should rather demand that our youth pastors live above reproach, to raise our youth to higher levels of purity.

Small Groups: Replacing Sunday School with Socializing

One of the trends that has swept the modern church and has swept up its youth groups with it, is to replace Sunday schools with small groups. These are groups of five to ten people who meet at a church member’s house, usually on a weeknight, and have some food and light discussion about a Bible topic.

Teaching the Bible in church should not be done by just anyone. It is a specific calling that given to a person as a gift to the church (Ephesians 4:11–12). However, modern youth ministries have turned over this responsibility to volunteers who are not called to teach, who have no formal Bible training, and who often don’t even have a desire to teach. As a result, they simply lead a discussion around a Bible topic by asking a series of prewritten questions and try to guide the discussion in a way that feels Biblically correct for them.

Why would modern churches allow this to happen? Because they are focused on growing numbers, not on growing Christians, and small groups are an incredible way to get people involved in church.

For one, people develop personal ties and relationships with each other, so that everyone in the small group comes to the group because they feel like they are attending a get together at a friend’s house that they wouldn’t want to miss. The small group leader is less of a Bible teacher and more of a party host. People love to be part of a club, and churches know this. They create these small groups so that people can see that they, too, can be a part of a group of friends “doing life together.”

That is what God has called the church to be about: creating environments where authentic community can take place. Building relational, transforming communities where people are experiencing oneness with God and oneness with one another. Communities that are so satisfying, so unique, and so compelling that they create thirst in a watching world. (Stanley)

Another reason is that it’s much easier to get new people to come to a little get together at someone’s house than it is to get them to attend a church service. The groups form in someone’s home, then the members are encouraged to bring their friends to this meeting, which feels much like a casual book club. Once the group gets large enough, some of the more seasoned members of the group are encouraged to break off to form a new small group, much like a cell divides. These groups, in the beginning, were even referred to as “cell groups” by church leadership, before they came up with more friendly names that weren’t so blatant about the reason for their existence. Today you can hear them called small groups, life groups, cohorts, community groups, house groups, and more. But their purpose is the same. Divide and grow. Andy Stanley, in his book Creating Community: Five Keys to Building a Small Group Culture, explains how to do this in a section called “Replace Yourself.”

This essentially encourages leaders to intentionally apprentice someone in their group for future leadership. The apprentice is someone who has the potential to replace a leader, not simply assist him. Since adults often learn on a need-to-know basis, we have discovered that apprenticing is the most effective way to identify and train group leaders. When you put someone into the game, he or she learns quickly. We encourage leaders to identify an apprentice within the first six months of the group. This assures that the group is fully prepared to multiply at the end of the covenant period. (Stanley)

The Bible teaching from these groups is minimal. Many members end up disenchanted with their lack of depth, and some churches have started doing separate Bible classes for those who are starving for actual Bible teaching. Teens, however, will rarely take this step on their own. They will attend small groups while they are in the youth ministry and will graduate with very little Bible knowledge.


Excerpt from Playing Games with God: How to Avoid Shallow Youth Ministries and Find a Biblical Group for Your Kids. Print version is available here.

Copyright © Sam Magdalein 2016.

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