When we look at modern churches that staff full-time youth pastors, with programs every night of the week in multi-million dollar facilities, we might be tempted to think that youth ministry needs to be a sophisticated and significant focus of the church. This belief is reinforced by the professional youth ministry universe, which is full of conferences, curriculums, books, and guides. Many seminaries even offer advanced degrees in youth ministry.
Parents and teens are presented with packed calendars full of exciting events, and facilities that rival theme parks. They feel pressure to keep their kids in a state-of-the-art program, or risk depriving them spiritually. At the same time, pastors feel pressure to up the ante or lose families to the mega-church down the street. The consistent question from visiting families is, “What does your church have for youth?”
But many modern churches are starting to feel the weight of their own complexity, and parents are noticing that their kids are busier with church activities, but they’re not closer to God. The result is a growing sentiment that churches need to change their approach, yet again. One example of the discontent is found in the book Simple Church, in which the authors, two church consultants, present the thesis that churches are overly busy and need to simplify. They write about walking around one real church whose activities and programs are familiar to most modern churches.
We learn a lot by walking around First Church for several days. Watching the preparation for the programs. Talking to people who are passionate about what they are leading or attending. We observe a lot because there is a lot to observe.
Each week First Church has a Sunday morning worship service, a Sunday night worship service, Sunday morning Sunday school, Wednesday night discipleship classes, home groups, Tuesday morning men and women’s meetings, and Thursday night visitation.
In case you lost count, that is eight major programs. Eight programs in seven days. This lineup is just for adults. It does not count what all the different age groups offer, things like youth choir and children’s choir. This is each week. Every week. The normal stuff. The stuff normal people are supposed to do.
While walking around, we ask staff and leaders some basic questions. “What is the program that you expect the majority of your guests to attend?” Some leaders say every program. Others debate over which program it is. (Rainer, 41–42)
This is a devastating look at the modern church. There are more programs than there are days in the week. But although the authors see the symptoms correctly, they miss the mark in diagnosing the cause. They say that the answer is to cut out any programs that don’t have a strategic purpose and that are only operating because of traditions, and to instead focus on programs that are built for discipleship.
A simple church is a congregation designed around a straightforward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. (Rainer, 60)
The reason they still miss the point is because they mistakenly believe that God uses man-made programs and strategic processes to grow Christians. That’s how a CEO grows a business. That’s how a worldly educator grows a student. But that’s not how God grows Christians. This book will discuss in detail the Biblical method of discipling young Christians, and will show how modern church leaders are trying to take control of the spiritual growth process, failing, and continually adding new ideas until youth ministry has become the tangled, failing mess we have today.
We tend to over-complicate things — especially in America. We think more is better. We’re always upgrading to newer products to get more features. It’s the American way, and it’s the center of capitalism and competition. That’s fine for the world, but it can skew our thinking when it comes to church and the Lord. That’s why many churches are starting to look like Walmart Supercenters, complete with friendly grandmas greeting you as you enter.
For example, consider the plan of salvation. Some people think that something as important as eternal life must be more complex than just accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior. Many churches are guilty of the same notion and have made salvation complicated and convoluted, with all kinds of steps, works, giving, participation, and rules to attain it. But salvation is simple. Almost shockingly simple.
The same goes for church. It is shockingly simple, but Christians continue adding new ideas, ministries, and functions. We’ve made it so complex that people need a new members class just to navigate the calendar of events.
Youth ministry cannot teach our kids that church is a complex program. We must teach them that church consists of simple gifts; Biblically based foundational necessities that God uses supernaturally to grow our faith in him. Church is preaching. It is praying for each other. It is exhorting each other. And, believe it or not, that’s about all it is. We’ll prove this with scripture in the first section of this book.
Is it sinful for the church to do more than this? Can a church have a school, or a nursing home ministry? It can, but we must think of these other things as luxuries, not foundational necessities. If a church can have a school, that’s a blessing, but it’s not a core function of a church. If it can minister in nursing homes or to the homeless, that’s great — but that’s not its main purpose. In the case of youth ministry, if it can have special classes and events for teens, that’s fine; but it is not essential, and must be guarded carefully.
When we think of these other things as luxuries, it helps us see the danger in them. We can consider the difference between necessities and luxuries and the real dangers of inverting the two in our spiritual life. Take food as an illustration. There are necessities (water plus the basics from the food groups), and there are luxuries (milkshakes and Oreos). It’s great to have the luxuries (I can hardly imagine life without milkshakes and Oreos), but it would be unhealthy to confuse the luxuries with the necessities.
Why? For a few reasons. Too much of the luxuries will leave little room for necessities. This is why you won’t let your kids eat cookies before dinner. If they fill up on junk, they won’t eat the healthy stuff. You know that they only have room for so much food, and they need the necessities first.
In this sense, the danger for Christians is to get so caught up in ministries at church that they don’t even care about preaching and prayer anymore. Karen Jones, in her section of the youth ministry textbook Starting Right, laments about the busyness of ministries that crowd out the Lord.
The reality is, God sometimes has to intrude and squeeze himself into a packed schedule just to make his presence known among youth group members. (Clark, 349)
God has to squeeze himself into a packed schedule? Parents already feel like they have to squeeze church into their schedule. What will happen to our kids if God, then, has to squeeze into church? We can’t give God a sliver of a sliver, then expect our kids to have a good relationship with him.
Kids who go to these churches end up thinking of preaching as nothing more than broccoli. They have to choke down a few bites of it after getting full on the spiritual junk food of games, activities, concerts, and more. Further, just as junk food can ruin your taste for good food, all the high-octane entertainment can make preaching and prayer seem like a drag. Why would they want to sit around listening to a boring old sermon when they can attend a rock concert youth service?
Further, junk food is deceptive because you feel like you’re getting full, but it is actually slowly eroding your health. All these modern youth ministries make you think that your kids are getting a good spiritual foundation, but they are depriving them of preaching and prayer and eroding their spiritual lives. The second section of this book will show just how much spiritual erosion is happening in today’s youth groups. The decline is staggering. The result for our teens is devastating.
Luxuries aren’t bad. It’s nice to have a little salt on our food. It’s nice to have a piece of dessert after dinner. Bread tastes better with a little butter. But it must be kept in check, and it can’t override the necessities. That’s exactly what we must be careful of in church. When kids think of church, they should think of preaching. They should think of prayer and learning their Bible and getting closer to the Lord. The other parts should be salt–seasoning for the main things. They should not overpower the necessities. This is what I mean when I state that youth ministry is a luxury. It’s icing on the cake.
Many churches try very hard to have a youth ministry, but they simply don’t have the resources for it. The pastor feels guilty that they don’t have what other churches have, and the parents leave the church that God has told them to go to, in search of a place that has “something for the kids.”
The truth is, in a healthy church where the Lord Jesus Christ is the focus and where Christians simply gather to hear preaching, to sing, and to pray for and encourage each other, a youth ministry is not a necessity. Everything a teen needs is already being accomplished by the church.
When a parent asks, “What does your church have for youth?” the pastor should be very happy to reply, “We have preaching.” As parents, we need to be satisfied and happy to know that our kids are getting the essentials if we are going to a church that has preaching, prayer, and fellowship with other Bible-believing Christians. We shouldn’t think that giving our kids the essentials means they are missing out on something, or only getting some stripped-down, basic form of church. If a church doesn’t have any dedicated youth ministry, but it has good, Bible-based preaching and teaching, then it has everything a young person needs.
Anything beyond this is icing on the cake. But too much beyond the basics is bound to be too much icing. With that in mind, if a parent had to choose between a church with a large, extravagant, complex youth ministry and a church that focuses on preaching but has nothing else specifically for the kids, the parent would do far better to choose the latter. Just as it’d be far better to feed your kids plain meat and potatoes than it would be to feed them junk food, it’d be far better to get them in a basic, Bible-preaching church than it would to get them in a convoluted youth ministry that barely makes time to preach the Bible.
Parents, don’t think you’re depriving your kids by putting them in a church with a simple youth ministry. On the contrary, a church with a simple, Bible-based youth ministry can stand alongside you to help your teens during this most important phase of their life. It can focus on what’s important — building up their personal relationship with God through preaching, teaching, prayer, exhortation, and magnifying the Lord Jesus Christ.
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.