The Rotten Results and Side-Effects of Modern Youth Ministry
Young Adult Exodus — Lukewarm Christians — Good Without God — Wrong Relationship — Constant Change — Counterfeit Success — Church as an Organization — Youth Group as a Machine — Modernizing the Church
As we reach the end of this book, I feel the need to pause for a word of reprieve to the youth workers whose ministries I am critiquing. I don’t do it gladly, but with empathy and understanding toward their motives. I too have felt the strong desire to reach young people for the Lord Jesus Christ, no matter the cost or the methods. These are not, in most cases, wolves in sheep’s clothing who are purposefully trying to hurt kids and destroy the church. These youth workers are deceived, misguided, and have given in to temptation, but with a good motive as the cause.
This doesn’t excuse them, however, and we can’t allow or condone their methods and philosophies because we feel sorry for those who are guilty of it. They are not completely blind to their decisions. They have considered their ways and have chosen this path. In Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church, General Editor Mark H. Senter III sums up the methods and approaches in the book with an analogy from the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. He talks about how Mr. Holland used rock and roll songs to try to get the high schoolers interested in music, because they were bored with the traditional classical pieces. He quotes the character Holland, who is under fire from the school officials for using rock and roll, saying, “I am teaching music and I will teach anything from Beethoven to Billy Holiday to rock and roll if I think it will help a student love music.” Senter ties this illustration back to the matter at hand.
Youth ministry finds itself faced with a similar question, but in the pastor’s office instead of the principal’s. “What should I tell the board and the parents about the methods you are using with the young people?” For the vast majority of youth ministers, the answer rings with the spirit of Glenn Holland. “Tell them I am teaching them to love God, and I will use anything from John Calvin to Jars of Clay to The Simpsons if I think it will help a student to love God.” (Senter, 151)
Senter would have been better to answer in the Spirit of God instead of the spirit of Glenn Holland. Holland’s stance is unbiblical and humanistic. It has also, by the way, been proven wrong from a strictly secular stance. Recently, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, has gained popularity online for his eye-opening and interesting lessons in classical music. He is truly passionate about it, and as you watch him teach you get the sense that he is passionate about teaching it as well. He has been the conductor for youth orchestras for many years and has captured the imaginations of many young people, not by abandoning classical music and going to rock and roll, but by simply loving classical music and loving to teach it to others. His enthusiasm is contagious. In his most famous talk, he tells the story of playing Chopin for a group of kids:
But I’ll tell you what happened to me in Ireland during the Troubles, 10 years ago, and I was working with some Catholic and Protestant kids on conflict resolution. And I did this [taught them about Chopin] with them — a risky thing to do, because they were street kids. And one of them came to me the next morning and he said, “You know, I’ve never listened to classical music in my life, but when you played that shopping piece…” [Laughter] He said, “My brother was shot last year and I didn’t cry for him. But last night, when you played that piece, he was the one I was thinking about. And I felt the tears streaming down my face. And it felt really good to cry for my brother.” So I made up my mind at that moment that classical music is for everybody. Everybody. (Zander, 2)
It turns out that the idea behind Mr. Holland’s Opus is a lie. You don’t need rock and roll to teach classical music to youth. You just need a teacher who is passionate about classical music. Youth workers should take their cues from Zander instead of Holland. Instead of giving up on the old methods of preaching, teaching and prayer, we must lean into them more, with more passion and zeal for the Lord Jesus Christ than ever before. Jars of Clay and The Simpsons will only serve to dull our raw enthusiasm for God and will dampen and quench the Holy Spirit within us. But the Holy Spirit is stirred up in us when we spend time in prayer and Bible reading and preaching. We are never more alive for God than when we have spent time with him, not with the world. And our youth group will never be served better by us than when we ourselves are alive to the Lord Jesus Christ, excited and anxious to preach his words to the students in our groups.
In my mind’s eye, I picture the modern church full of beat up, downtrodden, tired youth pastors who have been frustrated by years of low results. In their beleaguered state, they give up on God and the Bible and take the bait of the devil, leading our kids down the wrong path in the name of good and in the search of some kind of response from them.
What would happen to our youth groups if, instead of bringing in rock music and games and movies, our youth pastors spent their time in prayer and study and devotional time with God, catching their own souls on fire for God first? Then, impatient to share their relationship with God, they would enter youth class on Sunday morning and almost climb the walls to preach to the kids. The kids’ eyes would light up, their cold hearts would melt, their spirits would wake up, and they’d be on fire for God as well.
Or maybe not. Maybe most of the kids in the group would remain cold, and only a handful of kids, the ones who really wanted it, would catch on fire. That would still be fine. Better to preach Jesus Christ to the kids who want him, than to preach a watered-down worldly philosophy to try to reach the kids who don’t. But that is difficult. It’s tough to get fired up for God, week after week, and feel like the kids are not getting it. So it works on the spirituality of the youth leader, and he slowly bends to the pressure and gives in. It ought not to be. Our youth ministers need to get back up, shake off the dismay and the distress of failure, and follow God no matter how many follow them.
The work is so difficult and the odds are set so much against kids that it’s going to take much more than gimmicks and programs and anything in our flesh to get the job done. It’s going to take a preacher who is extraordinarily sold out and on fire for God to be a vessel for God to do something extraordinary through. Our youth ministries don’t need revamping; they need reviving.
As if to add insult to injury, however, the modern methods aren’t even working. Despite all the grasping at the forbidden fruit, these modern youth ministries have not gotten better. They are seeing that the results are short-lived. All the modern methods and departure from the Biblical church have not even given them a positive result. They have departed from God and have destroyed the church in the process. And, like a shipwrecked man who can’t help but keep drinking seawater, they are hooked on trying newer and edgier methods of ministry, with ever-worsening results. One youth ministry author put it this way:
Ironically, the more anxious we have been about young people leaving the faith, the more we have tried to create a privileged space for them; and the more we have created such a privileged space, the more we have created avenues for them to depart from Christian commitment. (Root, web)
This reminds me of the old saying: the problem with pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.
This final section will examine the practical results of modern youth ministry. In case a parent still might be tempted into accepting that the end justifies the means, I will seek to prove that these methods are not even accomplishing their intended end.
Young Adult Exodus: Teens Leaving Church after They Leave Youth Group
What happens when children leave their youth groups? They are leaving the church at an alarming rate.
Recent and irrefutable statistics are forcing us to face the truth. Respected pollster George Barna was one of the first to put numbers to the epidemic. Based on interviews with 22,000 adults and over 2,000 teenagers in 25 separate surveys, Barna unquestionably quantified the seriousness of the situation: six out of ten 20-somethings who were involved in their church during their teen years were already gone. (Ham and Beemer, 23)
For all the modern methods that youth ministries are adopting they are achieving terrible results. As we said earlier, they argue that the end justifies the means, but this isn’t even a good end.
One of the reasons is that modern ministries are not building their personal relationship with God, but with other students and with youth leaders. When kids go into the main church group, their ties with their friends and youth leaders wane, and their ties to the church are severed with them. This is highlighted by a research study on teen church dropouts.
A previous LifeWay Research study of church switchers confirmed that a residential move is the most frequent reason adults switch churches. “A move beyond your local community breaks the existing ties to a local church,” said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research (McConnell, web).
The solution is simple and Biblical. Build the youths’ relationships with God, and no matter where they move after graduating high school, they will take God with them. Leaving a church or a hometown may break relationships with their youth group friends or youth pastor, but it won’t break their relationship with God. The LifeWay researchers miss this, however, and continually beat the drum of relationships with people as the answer.
“In our three studies related to church attendance practices: The Formerly Churched, Church Switchers and now the Teenage Dropout study, one thing is abundantly clear,” stated Brad Waggoner, vice president of research and ministry development at LifeWay. “Relationships are often the glue that keep people in church or serves as the attraction to begin attending again following a period of absenteeism. Many people are deeply influenced by friends and loved ones.”
Waggoner advised, “Church leaders should passionately and consistently challenge church members to maximize their influence with youth and young adults. Frequent and intentional contact can either prevent or counteract the tendency of some to drop out of church.” (McConnell, web)
So instead of refocusing their efforts to build the teens’ relationships with God instead of people, Waggoner suggests doubling down and keeping in contact with the teens after they leave home. How long will a teen have to be called by his former youth pastor? A year? Four years? At what point will the youth pastor cease to have to call and goad this young adult into going to church? And what effect will a phone call from a previous youth pastor really have on a young person who is quitting church?
In the same article, the researchers queried the young people who did stay. When asked why they didn’t leave church after high school, the obvious truth rose to the top of the reasons.
The two most frequent reasons young people stay in church relate to the relevance of church: “Church was a vital part of my relationship with God” (65 percent) and “I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life” (58 percent).
There is nothing here about relationships with people. Are church leaders simply unwilling to get out of the way and let young people build a relationship with God instead of themselves? The answer is right there in the article, but the writer cannot see it. It is shocking that they can see that kids who stay do so because of their relationship with God, but they suggest trying to get more of them to stay by building a relationship with people.
Another reason they are leaving the church is because they are attending for fun and activities. These create a spiritual excitement that replaces the need for being filled with the Holy Ghost, and when the counterfeits are over, the high that the kids felt — and attributed to meeting with God — wears off.
Similar to a spiritual drug addiction, they are craving their next connection to God via a big event with a funnier speaker, a better band, louder music, and more pizza. Student ministry leaders often wish these events could last forever because of what happens when the event is over. (Borton, 25)
What happens when the event wears off? They look for the next fun activity elsewhere. All these activities that modern churches are using aren’t being seen as a starting point towards a deeper relationship with God, as they might hope. They are being seen as the reason for attending. When the reason for attending is over, they stop attending.
Am I advocating that we should just give up and not try to get kids to attend at all? Absolutely not. Rather, I am advocating that we shift our attention and efforts from creating fun activities to preaching the Bible. Teens need to see the truth of God’s words and know that church is a place to meet with God, not to get entertained. I also believe that when we focus on spiritual rather than carnal things, teens will respond. They have a need to get closer to God, just like adults. When we focus on entertainment, we deprive them of that deeper need. Consider this story about a teen who left church because of this very reason, from Gabe Lyons’ book The Next Christians: Seven Ways You Can Live the Gospel and Restore the World.
Recently, I had an enlightening conversation with Kristi that sheds some light on what’s at stake. At the age of seventeen, she had grown up in the typical church youth group. The relevance mind-set had influenced their church space, lined with televisions and video games, to look weirdly familiar to her friends’ basement hangout. In the attempt to relate, the youth group had turned into an entertainment venue trying to attract and keep the attention of teenagers.
She was done with it.
After all these years, she was looking for something deeper. She craved truth, meaning, and purpose. No longer content with pizza parties and lock-ins, she longed for a faith with credibility that matched her real-world longings.
As fate would have it, she began dating a Mormon.
As Kristi got to know him, she was intrigued by his odd practice of spending early school mornings at his local church studying the Book of Mormon. Five thirty a.m. comes early. For her, it spoke to something deeper. She was drawn to his commitment and self-sacrifice… As she put it to me rhetorically, “Would I rather go to a pizza party or study church history and pursue answers to my deepest spiritual questions?” So she began to pursue Mormonism. (172–173)
It’s sad that cults like Mormonism are acting more Biblical than the church. The devil knows how to mess up the church. He gets the cults to act like the church. Then he gets the church to act like the world. And our teens, sadly, are the prime targets.
Lukewarm Christians: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or, Indifference
Many kids leave church for a few years upon graduating high school, then return only as nominal Christians when they get married and start their own family. There is one underlying problem that is the major contributor to this trend. They are learning, in their youth groups, to have a lukewarm faith that is a small portion of their lives but not fundamental to it. When they leave home and have the opportunity to get into church, they tend to feel like they can take it or leave it.
This is supported by some puzzling research. When these studies asked young people who have left the church why they did, one might expect the answer to be something jarring, such as a traumatic experience, or a faith crisis, or getting heavily involved in some kind of worldliness or sin. Rather, young people just seem to drift. They were never standing firmly on a metaphorical ship of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but rather were tied loosely to the ship. Leaving home is like severing the rope. They don’t rush away; they drift away.
The churches are responsible for this. Modern youth ministries have worn the tough parts off the Bible; they have removed the sacrifice needed to follow the Lord Jesus Christ and have turned church into something nice to help us through life. One author calls this “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length. It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is personal happiness and helping people treat each other nicely. Here is where the NSYR [National Study of Youth and Religion] drops a bombshell on American churches. Why do teenagers practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Not because they have misunderstood what we have taught them in church. They practice it because this is what we have taught them in church… To be sure, churches neither intend nor acknowledge this religious position, despite its considerable appeal. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no pretense at changing lives; it is a low commitment, compartmentalized set of attitudes aimed at “meeting my needs” and “making me happy” rather than bending my life into a pattern of love and obedience to God. (Dean, 29–30)
This Moralistic Therapeutic Deism fits the description of the Laodicean church in the book of Revelation.
15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. 16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. 17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
Laodicea is the last church in a series of churches described in the book of Revelation. It is prophetic of what the church will become just before the Lord returns. Surprisingly, God doesn’t tell us that the church will disappear and Christians will renounce the faith. He tells us that the church will be here, thinking that they’re doing just fine, when they are actually lukewarm and operating without the Lord Jesus Christ. Could this be a more perfect description of today’s church? Our kids are not leaving because they are denouncing God; they are leaving because they are lukewarm, and they are learning it from our youth ministries.
When polled about the reasons they are leaving church, young people give answers that are baffling to dedicated Christians.
Six of the top 10 reasons church dropouts leave relate to life changes. The most frequent reason for leaving church is, in fact, a self-imposed change, “I simply wanted a break from church” (27 percent). The paths toward college and the workforce are also strong reasons for young people to leave church: “I moved to college and stopped attending church” (25 percent) and “work responsibilities prevented me from attending” (23 percent). In addition to moving to college, others simply “moved too far away from the church to continue attending” (22 percent) and, it can be assumed, did not find a closer church. (McConnell, web)
Would a dedicated Christian quit attending church because they moved too far away? Would a committed follower of the Lord Jesus Christ stop going to church because they simply wanted a break, or because of work responsibilities? For someone who is on fire for the Lord and sold out to him, they would sacrifice and make a way to attend church, even if they had to adjust their work schedule or drive a long way.
All this is the direct result of modern youth ministries that mix a little bit of the world with a little bit of God. They have created a lukewarm mixture that God says he will “spue out,” which means that if lukewarm teens weren’t already leaving the church of their own free will, God would have shown them the door himself.
Moral Maturity with Spiritual Immaturity: Good Without God
When you are putting your child in a youth group, what exactly are you trying to accomplish?
This may seem like a dumb question. Of course you’re trying to get them closer to God, right? In reality, the answers are more broad and varied. Parents and youth groups have different reasons for being involved in youth ministries, but we can classify them into two major groups: “Moral Maturity” and “Personal Spirituality.”
These two main classifications come from a major 1980 study by a research sociologist at Catholic University. Dean Hoge studied parents and ministers from Catholic parishes as well as five main protestant denominations. Hoge offered two main groupings of results that parents and ministers were trying to achieve:
• Has a healthy self-concept about his or her value and worthiness as a person.
• Takes a responsible view toward moral questions such as drug use and sex behavior.
• Understands sexual feelings and has responsible ways of handling them.
• Is acquiring knowledge about human sexuality and has formed a responsible Christian approach in sexual matters.
• Distinguishes between the values of the popular culture and the values of the gospel.
Most of these goals could easily be held in common with secular groups, such as scouts and community youth centers. This is in stark contrast with the “Personal Spirituality” goals:
• Sees prayer and reflection as worthwhile.
• Sees God’s role of the world as demanding a personal surrender to his will.
• Lives each day with a sense of divine forgiveness.
• Has a daily private life.
• Values the Bible as inspiration for personal spiritual growth.
• Has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. (Strommen, 149)
Surprisingly, when the study was completed in 1980, all the participating denominations and parents rated the Moral Maturity goals equally as important as the Personal Spirituality goals. This means parents and youth groups were just as focused on their kids developing good morals as they were on developing a personal relationship with God.
We have created, as a result, a generation of teens who see church as a place for moral rules and nice teaching but not as an essential part of their life. It has become just another place for self-help, along with Oprah and Dr. Phil. This is the transition toward lukewarm Christianity. God, church, and the Bible, have become something that teens aren’t necessarily repulsed by and aren’t really drawn to. It’s just a fine, nice thing that helps some people feel better or act better in life. The massive 2003–2005 National Study of Youth and Religion confirmed this.
We have successfully convinced teenagers that religious participation is important for moral formation and for making nice people, which may explain why American adolescents harbor no ill will toward religion. Many of them say they will bring their own children to church in the future (a dubious prediction statistically). Yet these young people possess no real commitment to or excitement about religious faith. Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life. Religion, the young people in the NSYR concurred, is a “Very Nice Thing.” (Dean, 6)
New studies are showing a renewed interest in personal spirituality over moral maturity. In recent years, churches and parents are realizing that if a student develops their own relationship with God, the rest will follow naturally (Strommen, 155). Jesus is the root; the life is the fruit.
Parents evaluating youth groups shouldn’t take for granted that their goals are in line with the goals of the groups. Parents should be asking their child’s youth leader what their goals are for the group and making sure they line up with the Bible. Building a young person’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ should always take preeminence. If the child learns to talk to the Lord, listen to him through his words, obey the Holy Spirit’s leading in their life, and grow in faith and trust in God, then God will be the one teaching the youth all the necessary morals, at exactly the right time and in exactly the right way. More than anything else, we should trust our kids to be taught by God himself.
A Relationship with the Youth Pastor and None with the Lord
There is a specific type of youth work that is called “relational youth ministry.” This focuses on building a relationship between the youth pastor and the kids, so that the youth pastor can be a kind of mentor or “big brother” and thus affect their lives. Andrew Root, in his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, criticizes how the modern church is using relationships as a strategy for influence.
This relationship is so central that it provides the core of the evangelical universe. Personal relationships guide strategies of engagement… ‘this method is strategic in that it consciously attempts to influence others. It is relational in that it relies on interpersonal relationships as the primary medium of influence.’ Through personal connections and positive example, evangelicals believe they can influence others towards the benefits and joys of being in a personal relationship with Jesus. (70, 71)
Jim Burns defines relational youth ministry with this anecdote:
I (Jim) once asked 1,000 youth workers at a conference to list the five most influential sermons or programs in their lives. One minute later, no one had come up with five sermons or programs. In fact, the vast majority of the workers could remember only one or two sermons or programs at best. Then I asked them to list five of the most influential people in their lives. After one minute, most of the people in the conference had listed four or five people who had influenced their lives in a significant way.[…Y]ou must, however, love kids and be willing to spend time with them, which is what effective, relational youth ministry is all about. (Burns, 19)
So he has told us what relational youth ministry is, and although he is correct in vilifying programming as ineffective, he lumps sermons into the mix of programming. This is a common theme among modern youth ministries. They have declared preaching as unsuccessful, so have moved on to something else. As we discuss in the chapter on preaching, the sermon is one of God’s main ways of speaking to man. Since we cover it in depth, we won’t discuss that here further, other than to highlight that relational youth ministry emphasizes the personal relationship the youth pastor has with the kids over the preaching of the Bible. Chromey states outright, “Small church youth ministry begins and ends with relationships” (57). Thus they are discarding a specific method of God for something that is built on dubious interpretation of the scripture, at best.
What is their scriptural proof for this? Burns explains:
Our Christian faith is sealed in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Theologically, Jesus is the incarnation of God. He is God in the flesh (see Colossians 1:15). As the ministry of Jesus was incarnate in the gospels, so our life must be incarnate in youth ministry […] While building relationships we become the hands and feet — and even the voice — of Jesus in their lives. (20)
It is true that Jesus is God in the flesh, and that he came to walk among us. But when he left, he did not say that we would be his voice, he said we would preach his words. He also said that when he left, he would send the Holy Spirit to dwell in us in his stead. This is, theologically speaking, called the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. It’s strange that this clear Bible doctrine is so close to Burns’ proof text, yet it is overlooked.
27 To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:
When we don’t encourage teens to have their own relationship with the Lord, but instead with the youth pastor, we set ourselves up to direct them in ways that only the Holy Spirit should be directing them. Look at what one youth pastor said about guiding youth in major decisions.
Some of the greatest moments in youth ministry happen when you grab somebody by the collar and say, “Hey, kid, come over here. You, try elementary school teaching. You, try nursing, you…” In college I meet so many who are just desperate for an adult to say, “You know what you’re good at?” “You know what we could use from you?” They are hungry for that. (Willimon, 100)
We don’t need anyone else to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ to us — we have Christ dwelling in us already. When we need to hear the voice of God, we simply listen. When we need to see God work in our lives, we ask him to. This is the great personal relationship that we have with the Lord Jesus Christ through private prayer and Bible reading. It is a special blessing to us in the church, but unfortunately it is often neglected. Youth ministries should be preaching and teaching and encouraging and exhorting the kids to build their own personal relationships with God, not with the adults in the group. If they need to hear God’s voice, they should be taught to enter their prayer closets, confess their sins, clear their hearts by the blood of Jesus Christ, and wait, as long as necessary, for God to answer. “But my kids don’t know how to do that!” many parents may object. And that is exactly the point. Why don’t they? It is not difficult. It requires no special theological training or Bible knowledge. Anyone of any age can spend time in their closet in prayer.
But you see, the problem isn’t that prayer no longer works to build a relationship with God. The problem is that kids just don’t do it, either because they don’t know they should, or because they aren’t willing to deny their flesh long enough to wait in prayer. As a result, ministries have substituted a blind leader for the blind. They have allowed kids to let their relationship with God shrivel and dry up, and have replaced it with the easier relationship with a good Christian adult. Burns realizes he can’t win with a program-driven ministry, so he substitutes a people-driven ministry instead.
We can’t compete with the latest technology in media to keep kids’ interest. Producers and advertisers spend millions of dollars to gain and keep the attention of adolescents. However, there is one thing that television, the internet or any other competitors for kids’ attention cannot give… (26)
Let me jump in for a moment. What it is that TV producers can’t offer youth, that we can? A relationship with God. The pure truth of God’s words. Intercessory prayer for them. No, that’s not what Burns offers:
…a real flesh-and-blood relationship […] The greatest programs will fail and the most interesting curriculum will never be absorbed if the primary focus in ministry is not building solid, encouraging, positive relationships with students. (26)
It is easier because it takes no sacrifice. In order to have a relationship with me, a youth pastor, the kids just need to sit around and chat. We can eat some pizza together, and they can tell me all about their lives. The secular world builds great relationships with each other — helpful relationships, even relationships between mentors and students.
It is a mutually beneficially relationship that takes no sacrifice because their youth pastor is not holy. It requires no cleansing of the heart to enter into a conversation with a youth pastor. When Moses approached God, God told him to take the shoes off of his feet because the ground as holy. When Isaiah saw the Lord, he fell on his face. When Peter saw the Lord, he told him to depart from him because he was a sinful man. Entering into the presence of God requires us to first search our hearts, confess our sins, and ask God to create a new heart in us. Then, only after we have washed at the brazen laver and carry with us the blood of the Lamb, can we enter the Holy of Holies.
A difficult thing for sure. Anyone can do it, and it takes no special training, yes, but it takes a willingness to put yourself down. Although it is painful to our flesh, it is the most important relationship we can have. If we don’t have a relationship with God, we are not ready to have a true relationship with anyone else.
I talked with a leader of a teen class at a modernp youth ministry, and she told me how the ministry leaders expected her to connect with all the kids in her class every week with a phone call. On top of this, she was encouraged to follow the kids on their social media accounts and chat with them online and over text messages. She was told that building a relationship with the kids was one of the best ways to ensure that the kids stayed in church. If the kids started to stray, their regular phone calls and text messages and social media interactions would keep them roped in.
The problem with this is the kids are then building a relationship with the leader, and not with God. They are coming to church to see the leader, and staying because the leader is constantly prodding them into coming. This leader worked in a large church of thousands of members. The implication is that every member of every Sunday School class is getting a phone call from their group leader every single week, prodding them into coming the next week. This cannot be a healthy operation. It is a foundation of people who have human relationships, and it does not require the Christian to have a relationship with God on their own. They have so many weekly activities that they can come to church every day of the week to meet with other members. They can build relationships with their leaders and with other members, and all the time be completely empty inside and devoid of a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m not saying that we should not care about each other. The Bible says we should exhort one another. But at some point, the Christian should be standing on their own relationship with God and should not have to be prodded into attending church. Some may argue that teens need extra handholding while they are young, and it is true that they may need a little extra encouragement. However, what are we teaching the kids if we are calling them and texting them every single week? Are we training them to have a relationship with God? My research has shown that we are training them to have relationships with the youth leaders.
Consider the example that is held up as a standard to aim for, by Houston Heflin, in his otherwise excellent book, Youth Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Youth Ministry. He tells the story of a youth named Will:
What Will experienced at church was another group of people who accepted him. The church loved him and supported the good decisions he had made but went further by affirming something else that was latent in him. We told Will that he could become a man after God’s own heart. Although he bounced back and forth between two worlds, he kept coming back. He kept coming back because, by his own admission, in the church he had found true friends. (Heflin, 97)
This is one reason that, when they leave the group and graduate, they leave the church. The relationship with the leader stops, and so their connection to church stops.
Consistently Changing: The Youth Group Laboratory
The difficulty with changing and evolving our methods is that it often takes two to three years before we’ll know for sure if our shift was a great new direction or a wrong turn. (Oestreicher, 24)
The church has been given its methods from the Lord. Preaching, teaching, praying, exhorting, meeting regularly to worship. These ways of going to church have been established, have proven to be Biblically sound, and help develop mature Christians when they want to grow in the Lord.
When youth groups try to mimic culture, they get caught in a never-ending cycle of change. The culture, we can all see, is changing more rapidly than ever before. Trends come and go weekly. Big ideas are introduced and torn down faster than anyone can keep up. Churches who try to follow these changes and shape their ministry based on the world are fighting a losing battle.
Oestreicher’s quote above paints modern youth ministry, not as a tried and true model for developing mature young adults, but as a constantly changing experiment. A youth group that tries new methods really doesn’t even know if it will work to help the kids or if it will deteriorate their faith in God. And by the time they start to see some evidence one way or the other, they feel the need to change again.
One thing parents must consider is that these groups are not changing so often because they see the culture change, but because after trying a method for a few years, they realize it’s not working and feel the need to try something new. Youth pastors aren’t starting ahead of the game, watching culture and changing to fit in, as they would have us believe. They are actually throwing ideas at the wall, seeing what sticks, and changing every few years as they realize that their current program is failing.
It is also generally accepted that the average youth pastor only stays at one church for 18 to 24 months before moving on. The church sees that the youth pastor is not getting results, or the youth pastor gets frustrated with a lack of flexibility for change from the senior pastor, and a new student minister is brought in. That means that if your child enters a youth group in middle school, they will probably experience two to three different youth pastors, with two to three different ministry models.
Our kids cannot learn about church this way. Between the revolving door of youth pastors and constantly changing ministry methods, youth ministry has become a laboratory for crazy new ideas. The biggest problem is that our teens are the ones being experimented on.
Counterfeit Success: Brass Shields
There’s nothing like a youth group when God is there. And there’s nothing like a youth group when he isn’t!
Youth groups should be a place where God is moving and working in the lives of young people. His presence brings conviction, encouragement, peace, rebuke, repentance, and grace to a youth service. The Holy Spirit causes youth fellowships to be sweeter and more meaningful than just a simple party.
When God is not there, the tendency can be to replace his presence with a counterfeit. This is why it’s so important to listen to God when choosing a youth group for your children. Parents must spend considerable time in prayer and must have mature spiritual discernment to separate God’s spirit from another spirit.
Let’s look at a Bible story that illustrates this.
2 Chronicles 12:9–10
9 So Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem, and took away the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king’s house; he took all: he carried away also the shields of gold which Solomon had made. 10 Instead of which king Rehoboam made shields of brass, and committed them to the hands of the chief of the guard, that kept the entrance of the king’s house.
When the king of Egypt stole the gold shields from the king’s house, Rehoboam replaced them with shields made of brass. They looked very similar to the untrained eye. They gave the impression that everything was fine in the king’s house, and nothing had been stolen. Everything was fine, nothing out of the ordinary. But they were a counterfeit. Closer inspection proved they were brass instead of gold. They weren’t as valuable as the gold shields. The wealth of the king’s house had been diminished.
This is what can happen in youth groups. The thing of true value that a church can offer, the presence of God, is often stolen away from a church for many reasons. Maybe they’ve been unfaithful to the Bible or started teaching false doctrine. Maybe there is a lack of desire for God on the part of the youth. It could be that they aren’t willing to sacrifice and live the life of a Christian, and have become lukewarm. Remember, the lukewarm church is the one that thinks they are doing just fine, but they have actually locked the Lord Jesus outside.
17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
When this happens, we need revival. We need to sense that God has written “Ichabod,” “the glory of the Lord has departed,” over the group, and repent and beg God to return.
18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. 19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
Instead, though, it is much easier to replace the presence of God with counterfeits and act as if it was never stolen away from us. MacDonald describes a sample conversation with a young person about music. The young person describes his frustration with hymns:
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. (133)
The conversation above illustrates the problem. The problem is that when youth come to church, there is no “excitement” in the singing. How do they fix the problem? Do they get on their knees and ask God to fill their singing service? Do they start a prayer meeting before church and beg the Lord for revival that would stir their emotions when they sing the hymns? No, they switch to music that has built-in, fleshly excitement. The kind of music that would get a teenager excited whether God is in it or not. Teens don’t need the Holy Spirit when they have loud electric guitars, driving basses, and thumping drums. They can replace the joy of being filled with the Holy Spirit with the counterfeit of temporary excitement.
This is the curse of the brass shields. The teens in the conversation above correctly diagnosed the problem. They knew their song services were dead. Their “golden shield” had been stolen. But rather than going and getting their golden shield — the presence of God — back, they replaced it with a brass shield. So their song services now have carnal excitement instead of spiritual joy. They’ve (almost) successfully faked a great church service. The same conversation, rationalization, and justification could be had over and over, with different subject matter. You can substitute godly Christian fellowship with youth group parties. Real, God-filled preaching can be replaced by motivational speaking. Cheerful giving can be replaced by charitable work meant to ease a guilty conscience. Bible teaching can be replaced with instructions for a happy life. Joy is replaced with shallow entertainment.
The Church as an Organization instead of an Organism
The church has become a machine. When it has problems, instead of going to the Lord and letting God help them with and through the problems, they are turning to corporate wisdom and solutions. Pastors have become CEOs, and youth ministers have become vice presidents of their departments. If parents knew the amount of organizational structure that was driving the youth ministries of modern churches, they would be sick. And rightfully so. It is a sickness, and it makes itself worse. When a church sees a problem, it answers with more processes and structures to fix it. This creates more problems, and the cycle continues.
Youth Ministry That Transforms is a seminal study based on surveys of over two thousand youth workers. It uncovers many of the personal struggles that youth pastors face today and makes suggestions for fixing them. Some of the problems are sad to read about for anyone who cares about youth and the people who minister to them.
• Time conflict between job demands and personal needs.
• Time conflict between administrative duties and the need for youth contact.
• A prevailing disconnect between youth and the church to which they belong.
• A disinterested and apathetic youth group.
• A salary inadequate to support a family plus a youth budget too spare for needed program activities.
• A subtle lack of respect or personal support for the position of youth minister. (Strommen, 20)
But these problems are not just youth ministry issues. They are ministry issues in general. Paul spoke of the dangers, turmoil, and trouble he had in the ministry.
2 Corinthians 11:23–28
23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. 24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. 28 Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.
This is not meant to excuse churches for treating their youth ministers badly. They shouldn’t simply be content with giving them a hard life with the excuse that they should expect it from the ministry. Churches will be held accountable for how they treat their ministers. However, youth pastors need to know that this is the job they signed up for. It is not a profession, as it is termed many times in Strommen’s work. It is a calling. When churches organize themselves as companies and treat their ministers as professionals, they start to shape the ministry around the comforts of secular jobs. They seek to soften the blow of the ministry by changing the shape of the ministry, or they react with answers that seem to make sense in the world.
“[I]f congregational leaders take the initiative to eliminate or mitigate these six concerns, the work and effectiveness of youth ministers will be vastly enhanced.” (Strommen, 43)
Strommen has done a commendable thing. He has sought to determine the top things with which youth ministers struggle and has worked to find organizational changes that can be made by the leadership of the church to help address these problems. What’s wrong with that?
The fundamental flaw here is that church problems cannot and will not be answered by processes and organization. They may seem, on the surface and based on surveys and conversations, to be physical issues that can be addressed physically, but the Bible says otherwise. There are no process-based organizational instructions for setting up a church in the Bible. God sets up a pastor to lead the church, deacons, and nothing else. God doesn’t give us an org chart, processes for discipleship, and a church staff employee handbook. He gives us his Holy Spirit.
12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
We need spiritual help because the problems are spiritual. When we try to make them organizational, we lose what the church is all about, and we become just another organization. This is highlighted by one of the most telling bits of information that came from Strommen’s study. One statement from the survey was this: “When busy, I sacrifice my devotional time. This concerns me” (Strommen, 47). Only 6 percent of those surveyed said that they are not concerned with this issue. That means that the organization itself is getting in the way of the one thing that preachers should be dedicating themselves to: prayer and ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). They have allowed their great programs, processes, and duties to stop their fellowship with God. How can a preacher preach at all without prayer and Bible reading? He cannot. He will substitute further processes and programs to replace the deadness in his own spirit. This is the downward spiral of spiritual dryness.
We see it in place in Strommen’s work. How does he suggest youth ministers handle the problems? Limit office hours, divide working days into thirds, delegate responsibility, train volunteers, and give youth workers a month-long or more sabbatical every few years. (49) This is a carnal fix to a spiritual problem. If a youth pastor has a flourishing relationship with God, they will be equipped and ready to handle the work of the ministry. If they do not, no amount of time off can help.
How many times have you, as a parent, felt stressed out and burnt out and knew in your heart it was because your relationship with God was bad? When you are close with God, he helps you take on the world. When you are far from God, the world overwhelms you. You may have even shrugged off the Holy Spirit telling you that you needed to get close to Christ again, and instead told yourself that what you really needed was a vacation. More time off from work. Maybe even take some Sundays off and spend them at the lake. One of Satan’s great devices is to get you to answer spiritual problems with carnal fixes. Alcoholics use the liquor bottle. Workaholics use vacation time.
One of the ways the church can avoid this problem is to distinguish between the local church and the spiritual church. The spiritual church is a living organism. It is made up only of saved people, with the Lord Jesus Christ as the head.
1 Peter 2:4–5
4 To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, 5 Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
22 And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, 23 Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
The local church, however, is an organization. It usually has trustees, committees, leaders, sub-leaders, event calendars, corporation structure, and mortgages. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. It is natural and healthy for a local church to have structure, otherwise it would be a mass of chaos.
This places the church in a unique category from other organizations, however, because it exists not only as a physical organization, but as a spiritual organism. How should church leaders strike the balance between operating under the spiritual leadership of the Holy Ghost and operating according to wise organizational procedures? The answer is to seek the guidance of the Lord first and always and to let the organizational structure follow behind. We cannot put the cart before the horse. This is the only way to have a chance of keeping the church from missing the guidance of God.
The Youth Group as a Machine
When you turn the youth group into an organization, you turn it into a machine.
This was put into excellent and poetic words by Richard Halverson, who was at one point the chaplain to the United States Senate:
God calls a man . . .
Gives him a vision . . .
Anoints him for its fulfillment.
Obedient to the call in the light of the vision and the power of the anointing — his labors are blessed with unusual results.
Others take notice . . .
Want to get in on the act.
They ask the man how he did it (the assumption being that if they did as he did, they would achieve as he achieved).
He begins to analyze what he did — comes up with the methods which were born out of the call, the vision and the anointing.
If enough people ask him how he did it — he’ll publish a manual setting forth the methods he used.
Then anybody can buy the manual, apply the methods, and get the same results . . . or so the idea goes.
Somehow the call, the vision, and the anointing are forgotten or ignored or subordinated to the mechanics.
As though God could not do another thing with another person.
As though God had run out of calls or visions or power.
As though God had no new ways to do what had never been done before.
How distinct the servants of God in the Bible! How different their ways of doing things! How incredible their effectiveness . . . When each was himself as God called and envisioned and anointed him to be.
God has not changed. He wants to do the same today with those who will yield to Him, to be led by Him, allow Him to teach them His ways. (Halverson)
The training that our youth ministers are getting is turning our youth groups into machines. As churches grow and search for a full-time youth minister, they begin thinking of organizing their activities, and they are excited to speak with a young youth minister who has been trained in this type of organization. This further aids the problem of the church moving from its beginning, as a man and a movement, and turning it into a machine.
It’s possible for a machine to run with much enthusiasm from its operators for a long time, but eventually they will lose their steam. When the machine gets tired and rusty, and people lose their zeal, the machine turns into a monument. How many churches and denominations are cold monuments to a movement from years gone by? It would be better if they were torn down and started fresh with a new man who is called by God to do a work, rather than to sit around being dusted and swept by janitors masquerading as reverends.
Machines aren’t living. They don’t change. They are built to produce reliable, cookie cutter results consistently and at large scale. This is the definition of the modern youth group. As such, when youth pastors enter these machines, they are expected to produce reliable, measurable results. To do this, they are taught to work based on processes. Create a process for doing ministry and live by that process. The process may seem godly. It may have as its goal the production of spiritual kids. But it is a machine under a Christian banner. God does not work by process, he works by power. God doesn’t operate through machinery, he operates through men. Regardless, processes are built, because they look good on the outside and make sense to business minded pastors who are doubling as a kind of religious CEO.
Borton explains the importance of process.
Defining your process is the most essential aspect of a simple student ministry. Without a clearly defined process, you will not know what to eliminate, what process you are moving students through, or what to unite your leadership team around. (40)
But all this talk of process is okay if it is guided by God, right? He continues:
The importance of defining your process mandates the necessity of prayer and wrestling with discipleship through a biblical framework. Defining your process must be a spiritual journey with God. But get started. Don’t slow momentum by excessive waiting. (40)
It’s almost as if direction from God through prayer is sprinkled in as a necessary evil. As if they know they are begrudgingly waiting for God to hurry up and catch up with their plans. According to them, God is certainly not moving fast enough, and they could really get something done if God would only get out of their way!
The process they are taught to implement includes measurement of goals. Bill Hybels, the pastor of the megachurch Willow Creek, commissioned a large multi-church study to find out how they should go about developing Christian growth.
Our research goal was daunting, but simple. We wanted to find evidence of spiritual growth in people, and then figure out what types of activities or circumstances triggered that spiritual growth… In pursuit of our goal, we spent three years digesting research and analysis based on 2.6 million data points from more than eleven thousand completed surveys. (Hawkins, 29)
Borton echoes Hybels with his own research: “Quarterly, we evaluate. A recent quarterly report looked similar to the chart below: Weekend [worship services] — 25% increase [in attendance]; Small groups — 6% increase; Service — 19% increase; Missions — 18% increase.”
Decisions are made based on these numbers. Since the small group numbers are low, for example, this church would increase its promotion of their small groups. In one study, they found that larger youth groups were accomplishing their spiritual goals more regularly. As a result, this advice is given: “Find creative ways to bulk up the size of the youth group” (Strommen, 66). One example given by Strommen is a small town where several churches of different denominations teamed up to form one large youth ministry. They may have accomplished their goal of large numbers, but what have they sacrificed? What kind of doctrine can be taught at such a nondenominational gathering? What kind of integration into the life of the church can be made when the group is not loyal to any one church? What kind of pastoral leadership can be given when there are multiple pastors? Maybe it is possible that God would put together such a group, but this leadership should come from prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit, not surveys and measured results.
You can see how God is pushed out of the equation when youth ministries become measured machines. Is God driven by quarterly reports? Is he waiting to see the results before letting the pastor know what to do next? Does God even have a chair on their board of directors? Of course I’m being facetious, but the question remains: How is the leadership of the Holy Ghost on the God-called and God-led preacher influencing matters? The preacher’s job is to seek the Lord and his guidance for a church and the youth group. Does it sit uneasily with you, as a parent, to know that decisions are being made based on quarterly attendance results? I hope that you would desire leadership for your church that is based on the pastor’s relationship with God, where the decisions come from the leading of the Holy Spirit, the direction comes from prayer and fasting, and is based on the Bible.
Why? Because sometimes God just doesn’t follow our organizational norms. When the great revival was going on early in the book of Acts, God called Phillip, one of the church’s great preachers, out to the wilderness to preach to one man (Acts 8). God told Gideon to take fewer men with him to battle, not more. David was punished for taking a census of the people. In hindsight, all of these things make sense to us, but when they were happening, they wouldn’t have passed our modern day organizational standards. Sometimes God just doesn’t work the way people are trained in business school. Thank the Lord for that. It means we have a miraculous church, not a mechanized church. We get to see people being born again, not being mass-produced. Do you want your child to be changed supernaturally by a move of God, or trained systematically by the process of men?
Disassembling the Church: As the Youth Group Goes, so Goes the Church
If you’d like to know what the church will look like in ten years, visit a youth group. Modern churches look like rock concerts. They sport exposed ceilings, theater or club style lighting on the stage and darkness in the congregation, and loud, thumping music. The people on the platform are young. The “worship leaders” are twenty-somethings with guitars and goatees, and the pastor may be in his fifties but gives the impression that he’s trying to act much younger.
This all started in the youth group. Ten years ago, churches still looked like churches, but the youth rooms were transforming into the concert style halls described above. The churches were getting rid of hymnals and singing praise and worship choruses from a projector, but everything else remained. The sanctuary was lit traditionally, the music was a moderate volume, and the familiar pulpit and altar was there. Push back ten more years, and that would describe the youth rooms. Traditionally decorated, but with praise and worship music instead of hymns.
What’s happening? The youth truly are the future of the church. What you see in the youth group eventually bleeds into the church as a whole. It’s not surprising — this is a principle laid out in the Bible:
6 Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Years ago, when our youth groups were introducing this looser approach towards church, what we were doing was teaching them what church was. We gave them separate youth services and let them do the services their own way, and, as a result, they learned that this was the way to do church. When they left the group and entered the adult congregation, they battled to bring their way of church with them. Many people fought against the changes, but they’ve failed. At first, the older folks were accommodated by the younger ones. Holding split church services was popular for many years, with one service more traditional and one more contemporary. This seemed like a good compromise, but really what was happening was that the younger generation was simply biding their time until the older ones died. This is harsh but true.
Many of today’s pastors got their start in youth ministry, and they have brought their ideas to the church as a whole. The youth ministry names have become church names. This is one reason we hear of so many new churches called things like “Resonate Church” and “Elevate Church.” One such church in Jacksonville, Florida, is called “The Church of Eleven22,” named for the time its Sunday morning service starts. It was planted by the youth pastor of another church in town. It’s now one of the fastest growing churches in America.
This is how the modern church is unraveling. The youth pastor becomes edgier and more worldly than his church is willing to be, until he gets bold enough to start an entirely new church using his youth ministry’s format. Other churches notice and feel pressure to conform or lose their members. The youth don’t learn from older pastors and parents based on wisdom passed down from generation to generation; they build their own church based on their own whims and ideas and the trend of the moment.
What this means is that we can look forward and see what our kids will be doing in the future. They won’t be graduating out of the “church lite” culture of the youth group. They will transform the church into what they’ve been taught as teens.
This puts an even heavier responsibility on parents. We can’t simply say that the youth ministry is not important, and our kids will eventually graduate out of it into “real church.” When we are training our kids in the modern youth groups, we are training the future church itself. Parents and youth leaders have the power to shape the church of the future. God help us to take this responsibility seriously!
Final Thoughts: The Change That’s Needed
In reading the previous section of critiques on modern youth groups, you may be wondering if we are simply stuck in the past, afraid of change, or too set in our ways and too comfortable with “how we’ve always done church.” You’ll often hear the joke that King James Bible believers stick to that version “because it was good enough for Grandma,” or to further drive their point home, “because the King James was good enough for the apostle Paul.” This paints the people who want to stay the same as only doing so for some personal preference or tradition. MacDonald levies this attack.
I call this the habitual group. In a habitual group, activities are repetitive. Things are done because they’re always done that way. These are groups (and churches) that do things over and over again even though they’ve forgotten the real reason why. They choose to do the things they do because they’re comfortable with them and don’t want to face the challenge of changing or even risking failure. (201)
This argument sounds reasonable because we can identify with doing things out of habit only and forgetting the reason why. There is the old story about a little girl who was learning to cook from her mother. She sees her mom cutting the end off the ham before putting it in the oven, and she asks her why she did this. Her mother replies that it was the way her grandmother did it. Curious, the little girl asks her grandmother, who says the same thing. Her mother had done it that way, so she did it that way as well. The little girl then goes to see her great-grandmother. “Why did you cut the end off your ham when putting it in the oven?” she asks. Her great-grandmother replies, “Because my pan was always too small!”
We’ve all experienced the frustration of doing something out of habit or tradition without even remembering or knowing the reason why. And many of us have also been a part of a group or a church that did things we did not understand. Modern church change makers bring up this feeling in us, not to sorrow sincerely about the state of churches, but as pretext for allowing great sweeping change to enter our churches. The only reason that modern youth groups can get away with this is because we haven’t learned the “why” behind the actions of the church. Sometimes we think things are being done out of tradition, when they really have Biblical roots, if only we would take them time to discover them.
In the quote above, MacDonald says these people do the same things over and over, even though they’ve forgotten the reason why. If that’s the case, then why not simply learn the reasons? Why would anyone assume that something in the church has no reason, simply because they don’t know the reason? We have allowed them to make “tradition” a swear word, and even to use scriptures to back up their arguments. You’ll often hear them quoting the instance where Jesus preached against the traditions of the Pharisees:
1 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, 2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread. 3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
And Paul also preached against the traditions of men.
8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
They use these verses — or rather abuse them — by using them for something other than for what they were meant. Jesus said the traditions of the Pharisees were wicked because they transgressed the commandments of God. Paul warned against the traditions of men, in the context of philosophy, deceit, and the rudiments of the world. Paul is warning us against worldly traditions, not Biblical traditions. There are many traditions that aren’t passed down from grandma, but are passed down to us from Paul and the Bible.
2 Thessalonians 2:15
15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.
We are commanded to keep Biblical traditions and not to let them go. They are important; the command to keep them is from the same God who commands us to believe the gospel. We cannot pick and choose which commands are important and which ones are not. What we need to do, then, is determine what are Biblical traditions and what are not.
Mark Oestreicher, once the leader of Youth Specialties, one of the largest organizations creating curriculum, conferences, books, and other materials for youth pastors, wrote a whole book on the need for change… again.
I believe we’re at a crossroads in youth work. In order to be effective — in order to be true to our calling — we need to change… The problem is this: The way we’re doing things is already not working. We’re failing at our calling. And deep down, most of us know it. (Oestreicher, 18)
I would agree with him that modern ministries are failing at their calling and that they need to change. But I disagree with what the change needs to be. Oestreicher talks about changing from what he calls Youth Ministry 2.0 to Youth Ministry 3.0. Give it five years, and it will be time for another change. Maybe Youth Ministry 4.0? I believe, on the other hand, that modern youth ministries need to change back. Back to the Bible. The Bible has not changed. God’s instructions for ministry have not changed.
Oestreicher sums up the difference between the Bible view and the modern view with his perspective: “[There is] a saying I adopted a while ago about ministry: Everything has an expiration date.” (18)
How could everything have an expiration date if the Bible hasn’t changed? The truth is, nothing fundamental in ministry should have an expiration date. The church, and youth groups, should be doing the same things today they were doing thousands of years ago. The reason they feel like everything has an expiration date is because they are looking to the world to tell them what they should be doing, instead of looking to the Bible, as we have seen in previous sections. Churches should not be like boats, drifting wherever the tides and the winds of contemporary culture lead them. Churches should be lighthouses, built firmly in place, standing strong where they were originally built, in spite of the winds and the tides.
We must look for that solid, unchanging ground upon which the church is built, and go to the Bible for its commands and principles about what specific activities should be built upon the foundation. It is my prayer that this book has given you, the parents, the information to discern whether a youth group lives by those principles, or by the rudiments of the world.
May God bless you in your search for a Biblical ministry for your children!
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.