How to Spot and Avoid Shallow Youth Ministries
Differences in Youth Groups — Methods and Messages — Danger in Searching for a Church
“I’m happy just to get my kids in any church!”
Growing up, I remember this call by my parents ringing through the house: “Kids, let’s go! It’s time for church!” On any given Sunday, kids across the country will be woken from their groggy teenage sleep by this muster. You may have had the same reaction to this wakeup call as I did. “How can I get out of church today? Measles? Mumps? No, that’s not going to work. Better just get up before Dad gets mad at me.” Now, as a parent myself, I hear an echo of my dad’s voice in mine as I shout across the house, “Is everyone ready? It’s time for church!”
Getting teens out of bed every Sunday morning, week after week, can be quite a task. They probably stayed up too late on Saturday night, and now, on Sunday morning, those bed sheets seem to grab onto them like a cocoon. Even the most spiritual of kids can seem to lose all their Christianity on Sunday morning as they struggle to get ready and out the front door.
But parents “fight the good fight” with their teens week after week, because we know what is at stake. We sense how important it is for our kids to build a relationship with God from a young age. And our senses are correct. The Christian-based Barna Research Group has studied the chances that people have of becoming a Christian, and it is heavily dependent on how they are raised.
Based on extensive research on this topic, our data points out clearly that the faith trajectory of the vast majority of Americans is mapped out before they become adults, often before they even reach adolescence. In fact, for every one hundred people who are not born again by the time they reach age eighteen, only six of those individuals will commit their lives to Christ for the first time as an adult… consider how likely it would be for you as an adult to be persuaded to convert to another religion right now. You have to admit, it would take a lot to change your views so dramatically. Think of the implications of this. First, it underscores that Christians should prioritize the faith development of children… second, it implies that we must work hard to strengthen the often tenuous faith of teenagers, because this is when their faith is gelling.” (Kinnaman, unChristian, 72)
Even parents who strayed from church as young adults feel the pull to “come back home” for the sake of their kids. One study showed that 42 percent of all parents credited having children with being a spiritual catalyst for coming to church for the first time, getting back in church after a period of not attending, or getting more active in church (Kinnaman, “State of the Church and Family,” 9).
We think to ourselves, “The party is over, real life is here, and it’s our responsibility to make sure we raise our kids the right way.” We may not feel like the greatest of Christians ourselves, but we want our kids to be better than us. We want them to not make the same mistakes we did as teens and young adults. Perhaps the strongest urge that we have is the feeling that we don’t want our own wanderings to translate into complete faithlessness in our kids. So we come back to church, bringing our kids with us, and hope that something will stick with them.
For parents who aren’t returning to church for the sake of their kids, but are already regular churchgoing Christians, bringing kids to their church’s youth ministry is simply a given. Of course we want our kids to be active participants in Sunday school, in activities, camps, retreats, and service projects. It’s part of church, so our kids will be a part of it.
But what exactly are teens getting into when they become part of a youth group? Are they all basically the same? Parents may see the outside similarities between youth programs and feel like all churches, at least within their denomination, conduct generally similar youth ministries. Kids learn the Bible, are taught about being a good Christian, get opportunities to serve in the church and community, make new (hopefully good) friends, and have a nice youth pastor to counsel them when they have troubles.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. As you’ll see throughout this section, all youth groups are not the same. They operate on radically different philosophies, teach different lessons, employ varied methods, and even have completely different goals. I will uncover what modern youth ministries are actually doing with our teens, and contrast this with the Biblical principles that a youth group should be following.
I understand that this may be jarring or uncomfortable for parents. We want to believe that we are doing well simply by getting our kids in church — any church! Perhaps an analogy to secular education will help put it into perspective. More and more, parents aren’t satisfied with simply putting their kids into whatever local school is closest to their house. We want our kids to go to college and have successful careers, and we realize that just putting them in the local school and telling them to work hard may not be the best way toward this goal. Teens are failing out of school; we are awake to that fact, and we’re working to make sure it doesn’t happen to our kids. At the same time, colleges and scholarships are getting more and more competitive, and we want our kids to have the best chance at the best school.
There are many varied options for secular education. There are public and private charter schools with progressive and experimental styles of teaching. We have ratings for schools, with parents clamoring to move to districts that score higher, often sacrificing to pay higher home prices just for access to the higher-rated schools. Some parents are homeschooling, some are participating in split programs with local colleges, online courses, private extracurricular programs, and public school supplemental materials. Parents are making huge sacrifices to make sure their kids get the best in education.
I am asking parents to consider giving the same — or more — attention to our teens’ spiritual growth as we do to their academic growth. How much more important than secular education are their spiritual lives? How much more important is spiritual success rather than career success? The Lord Jesus Christ himself said:
36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
We should examine the youth groups that we put our kids into with an earnest and prayerful desire to watch for the souls of our teens. Just like with secular schools, all youth groups are not the same. Some of them are failing our kids.
In the article “Teenagers Embrace Religion but Are Not Excited About Christianity,” Christian pollster George Barna finds that although middle school and high school students attend church at higher rates than their Baby Boomer parents did, only one teen in three plans on continuing participation in church upon reaching adulthood. Barna concludes that this is “the lowest level of expected participation among teens… in more than a decade. If the projections pan out, this would signal a substantial decline in church attendance occurring before the close of this decade.” It seems teens have a “superficial relationship” with Christianity, in Barna’s view. So youths are involved with the church at astounding rates — seven in ten participate in some church-related activity during a typical week — but fewer than half of them say church involvement will continue to be a part of their lives down the road. (Jones, 63)
These results show that every group is not the same and many of them are failing. We may drop them off at youth group and trust the groups are doing what’s best, but many modern churches are not. Of course, just as with school, the kids must participate for it to work. No youth program is guaranteed to improve the spiritual lives of every teen who walks through the door. The bulk of the responsibility for the teen’s spiritual growth lies on the individual. But if a teen is trying, they ought to be led in the right direction. They ought to have a chance.
Youth groups should be a place that helps teens to grow as a Christian if they want it. Many modern groups are not fulfilling that responsibility.
Do Methods Matter as Long as the Message Is the Same?
“Do the methods matter as long as the message is the same? Does it really matter what methods we use to get young people coming to church, as long as we still teach about the Lord?”
Does this question sound familiar to you? It has been echoed through the modern church for many years, usually to support bringing in a new method of ministry. Jim Burns, instructing young youth ministers on how to set up their programs, states it outright:
I once heard it said that “our mission and message should never change, but our methods should always change.” What worked even a few years back may not work in meeting the needs of today’s students. While we need to be rock solid in our mission and purpose as a youth ministry, our methods and programming should constantly be reevaluated regarding their effectiveness. (194)
Gordon MacDonald, President of Denver Seminary, in his book Who Stole My Church: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century, states:
Christians have frequently been forced — here’s a new term for some — to reinvent the ways they do church life. Note I said “do church life,” not reinvent their core beliefs… Reinvention simply means that you take a look at something you’ve been doing the same way over and over again and find a new way — a totally new way — to do it that fits the world you live in now. (37)
You have only one unchanging thing in the church: the gospel of Jesus… But the ways in which people organize themselves to actualize this one unchanging thing is changing all the time. (41)
This sounds reasonable as first hearing, but upon scrutiny from the Bible, it starts to unravel. The problem arises when you notice that God’s entire message, the Bible, includes a method. To say that how we “do church life” isn’t part of our core beliefs is to ignore part of the beliefs themselves. God’s message is more than just the gospel. He is concerned with how we carry it, who carries it, how we treat it, and much more.
In the Old Testament, God instructed the Israelites to build the ark of the covenant. He told them exactly how to build it and what materials to use. When it was finished, it was placed in the holy of holies, the innermost room in the tabernacle. The priest would then take the blood from the sacrifice and sprinkle it on the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant, and the Bible says that God’s presence dwelt on that mercy seat.
And when Moses was gone into the tabernacle of the congregation to speak with him, then he heard the voice of one speaking unto him from off the mercy seat that was upon the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubims: and he spake unto him.
The ark became synonymous with God’s presence in Israel. When the ark was present, Israel knew that God was with them, and if the ark was taken, it was as if God had been taken from them.
When David became king, he sought to bring the ark from the place it had been resting for many years to a new, permanent place in Jerusalem. When they moved it, however, tragedy struck. The cart that the ark was being carried on shook. It started to wobble, and Uzzah, a man standing next to it, reached out to steady it so it didn’t fall. As soon as he touched it, God struck him dead.
At first glance, this seems like an overly harsh punishment. After all, Uzzah was only trying to help! He wasn’t trying to harm the ark, he was trying to save it from falling. How could God punish him for that?
If that’s what we think when we read this passage, it betrays a problem with our perspective of the things of God. The ark of God and God’s presence are too holy for us to approach. If we were to try to come into God’s presence without the blood of Jesus Christ covering our sin, we would be struck dead. God gave the Israelites specific instructions for getting near the ark, and they were only for a specific, sanctified people, the Levite priests, who had to cleanse themselves, sacrifice on the altar, and carry the blood of the sacrifice to the mercy seat. For Uzzah to touch the ark so brazenly was akin to a criminal peasant running into a king’s chamber and taking hold of his crown — only the gulf between Uzzah and God is infinitely greater than the distance between a criminal and a king.
God’s holiness is not to be trifled with. Place it in the highest regard you can imagine, and you still will be woefully short.
But the ark was about to fall! Wouldn’t God rather the ark be saved than have it fall and smash into pieces? Didn’t God have some kind of provision for someone trying to keep the ark from falling while in transport?
To find the answer, we have to dig a little deeper. In Chronicles, we read this:
1 Chronicles 15:11–15
11 And David called for Zadok and Abiathar the priests, and for the Levites, for Uriel, Asaiah, and Joel, Shemaiah, and Eliel, and Amminadab, 12 And said unto them, Ye are the chief of the fathers of the Levites: sanctify yourselves, both ye and your brethren, that ye may bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel unto the place that I have prepared for it. 13 For because ye did it not at the first, the LORD our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order. 14 So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel. 15 And the children of the Levites bare the ark of God upon their shoulders with the staves thereon, as Moses commanded according to the word of the LORD.
God told Israel that the ark was to be carried upon the shoulders of the priests, not on a cart pulled by oxen. David saw his error, which caused Uzzah to die, and corrected it the second time, instructing the priests to carry it in the way God defined to Moses. Why didn’t they do it that way the first time? The Bible doesn’t say, but there is a clue. Before David tried to move it, the ark had been stolen and then returned by the Philistines, Israel’s enemies. When the Philistines returned it, they put it on a cart pulled by cattle, and pointed it in the direction of Israel.
David used the Philistines’ method to transport the ark. It was faster. It was newer. And after all, did it really matter how it got to Jerusalem, as long as it got there? It did matter. God had a method for carrying the ark, and Israel failed by trying to improve upon God’s method. The point is clear: carrying the things of God by the methods of the world is wrong.
This applies to everything, including modern youth ministry. Does it really matter how we get the words of God into the hearts of youth, as long as it gets there? Do we have to go by some slow, dusty, old method, when the world has shown us all kinds of newer, faster, and seemingly more efficient means? The Bible clearly shows that it does.
2 Timothy 3:16–17
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
When we receive the words of God, we are receiving all the furnishings we need to preach it, including the methods. If God has given us his method of getting his words into the hearts of people, including young people, then we must use that method. If God has shown us his method of publishing the gospel, we must use his method. If he has shown us a method for ministering to people, including young people, in his church, then we must use that method.
We do not want to be guilty of taking something holy, God’s words, and moving it in a way that God didn’t approve. It doesn’t matter how much more efficient we think we can make it. It doesn’t matter how much more entertaining, or fun, or effective we think we can be. If we uncovered a way to do youth ministry that was much improved, in our minds, over the Bible method, we still shouldn’t get near it. After all, we are not only told to be good stewards of the gospel, we are commanded to keep all of God’s words, including his methods. If we carry the gospel while dropping other instructions from God, we are failing.
This point does not come only from the voice of an old-fashioned youth worker. Even modern youth ministers admit that the method and the message are impossible to separate. Doug Fields was the youth pastor who built the youth ministry at Saddleback Church, one of America’s largest churches (their pastor is Rick Warren, who wrote The Purpose Driven Life). He then became a youth professor at a Christian college, the author of Purpose-Driven® Youth Ministry and many other books, and the leader of a youth resources company. In his book Speaking to Teenagers, written with youth ministry professor Duffy Robbins, he says:
To communicate as God has communicated is to take seriously both the method and message, form and content. I used to believe that God doesn’t care about our methods — only our message… But when we read, for example, through the hundreds of verses in Exodus in which God gives attention to minute details of tabernacle design, or when we note the care with which Jesus and his disciples observe the Passover on what he knew would be their last night together, it becomes quite clear that the neat and clean boundaries we draw between form and content, method and message, and how and what, aren’t so neat and clean.
In Marshall McLuhan’s groundbreaking text, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he makes his famous observation, ”the medium is the message.” In simplest terms, it’s the notion that a message doesn’t stand alone — that the medium through which we communicate a message is itself a part of the message. The medium isn’t neutral. The medium actually shapes the message. (Fields and Robbins, 36)
The idea that “methods don’t matter as long as the message is the same” is not supported by two of the most influential modern youth directors today, it’s not supported by mainstream marketing and media gurus, and it directly contradicts the Bible.
Methods are part of the message, and this paper will investigate the methods that modern youth ministries are using to work with our teens. We’ll find worldly philosophies that emphasize growth and big numbers, we’ll see groups that are questioning the Bible and undermining sound doctrine. We will see ideas being used that are contrary to scripture. We’ll see churches spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing agencies. And we will see that these are not isolated problems, but are rather the norm.
And since the method and the message are so closely attached, as we dig into the methods of modern ministries we who are parents must ask ourselves — what messages are these churches sending to our kids?
Danger! When you’re searching for a church, the devil is searching for you!
When parents begin visiting churches, looking for a place that will be good for their kids, they are in a dangerous position. You may not even realize how much of a target you have become when you are deciding on a church.
To put it into perspective, think about how vulnerable your teen is when they are searching for someone to date and eventually marry. You as their parent know exactly how important that decision is, and you know that the devil will provide all the wrong choices for your teen, and it will take a lot of prayer and wisdom for your teen to choose the right one.
This is a similarly important decision, and Christian families are similarly vulnerable to bad options being presented from the devil. If you’re looking for a church, you probably feel the weight of the importance of this decision in the life of your family. A good church can lay a foundation for your teen’s spiritual life that they’ll carry for a long time. A bad church can cause them to flee the church as soon as they graduate. There are also eternal implications involved, and the devil knows this. He looks for Christians who are searching for a new church with the express desire to get you and your teens away from God.
1 Peter 5:8
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:
I’m not trying to scare you, but it is important to be “sober and vigilant” and to keep close to the Lord and seek his guidance as you make this decision.
As you go about your search, please allow me to make this one, strong suggestion for your consideration. Make sure that your ideal for a church lines up with God’s ideal for a church. This may sound simple, and you may be thinking “duh,” but please allow me to explain.
We are at a point in America where you can find any kind of church you desire. There are churches for every kind of worship style, tradition, denomination, programming, and interest. If you go out looking for a group that caters to moms, you will find it. If you look for a church that has a tight integration with a Christian school, you will find it. If you look for a church that leans toward racism, or one that is purposefully diverse, you will find either of those. There is truly something out there for every wish.
There is a church out there that God wants you to attend. It is one that adheres to his words and follows his commands carefully, and it is one where he knows your family will grow closer to him.
The church that God desires for you may not be the one you desire for yourself. What if, for example, a lonely mom finds a church with a friendly group for moms, but it’s not the place God has for her? The temptation would be strong to ignore the still, small voice of the Holy Ghost guiding her away and to follow her heart’s desire for friendship with other moms.
What if a Christian who is struggling with alcohol specifically looks for a church with a recovery program, but God was planning on helping them out of their addiction at a different church, using other means besides a program? And what if your teen really wants a church with heavy programming for kids, but the Lord has plans for you at a church with few teen activities?
The difficulty for anyone looking for a church in modern America, then, will not be in finding a church that matches their heart’s desire. That is easy. The difficulty is in making sure their heart’s desire for a church doesn’t stray from God’s.
But what does God want for your family? God’s will is not easy to find, and it’s especially hard if you have several people in a family, who all have opinions and desires for a church, pulling in their own directions. The Bible also doesn’t have a section labeled “What to look for in a youth group,” so when all the groups have “Christian” in their name and all seem to be similar, it can be difficult to discern the good groups from the bad. That is one of the main reasons I wrote this book for parents. I pray that it will help in this difficult and extremely important decision.
So as we continue, allow me to offer two points that may help in your search for God’s will for your family.
First, God will not contradict his words, the Bible. No matter how friendly the church may seem, or how cool or spiritual the youth group and leader seem, if they are doing things that are against the Bible, God would not tell you to go there. You’ve probably given similar advice to your teen. You know, for example, that God tells us not to marry unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14), so if your teen told you they felt that God wanted them to marry someone who was not saved, you’d know that it was something other than God telling them to do that. God doesn’t contradict himself. No matter how great the situation seems on the outside, we must use the Bible as our guide.
Once you’ve determined that the church is Biblically sound, the choice is left up to prayer. You may find two churches that are both Biblical, and we can’t leave it up to ourselves to decide based on things like the distance of the church from our house, or how much we like the pastor’s preaching style, or how many activities the church has for the kids. To go back to the analogy of your teen with a potential spouse, you know that they must decide based on prayer and leadership from God, and not on outside appearances and circumstances.
Screwtape, the fictional devil from C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, gave this advice to another devil, concerning how to mess up a Christian: “If a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over looking for the church that ‘suits’ him.” It’s my prayer that God will help every parent who reads this book to look past what “suits them,” and to look instead for what suits God. I’ll attempt to equip readers with a clear awareness of what God says as it relates to youth groups, so you can compare potential groups with the Bible. May God lead you to the right place for your family!
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.