The Unsound Foundations of Modern Youth Ministry

Youth Leader Training — Parachurch Plague — Worldly Philosophies — Cultural Relativity — Youth Ministry as a Business — Postmodernism — Experientialism — Pragmatism — Driven by Trends


In the past few sections, we’ve discussed some day-to-day activities of modern youth ministries. But why are these churches doing this? Is it simply a surface-level problem that can be fixed by tweaking some activities? To answer this, we need to dive into the underlying ideas upon which modern ministries base their programming. What we’ll find is that the underlying philosophies are wrong, and that all of the activities are built on these faulty foundations.

Who is Teaching our Youth Pastors? Corrupt Training Finding Its Way to Churches

The Problem of the Modern Christian College

One of the cancers of today’s church is the modern Christian college. Consider the old saying, “the pew never gets higher than the pulpit.” That is, we can’t expect the church to be any better than the pastor that is leading it. Of course there are exceptions — individuals in the church who are more mature or stable Christians than the leaders themselves — but the rule holds true. The church will turn out exactly as the pastors are leading it. Look at the condemnation that Ezekiel gives to the shepherds:

Ezekiel 34:5, 10
5 And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. 10 Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them.

God lays the blame for a scattered and weak and diseased flock on the shepherds. It is their responsibility to take care of the sheep, and they are taking care of themselves instead. God will hold pastors accountable for the condition of the flock of which they were given charge.

Hebrews 13:17
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.

If the state of the flock depends on the shepherd, we can ask ourselves: who is training our shepherds? Today in America, they are being trained by seminaries and Christian colleges. Most churches hiring youth pastors require at least a bachelor’s degree from a Christian college, and many even require or prefer a master’s degree. Yet the courses being taught at these seminaries focus largely on ministerial training, not on Bible training. They focus on history, administration, organization, philosophy, and psychology. Most Christians would be shocked to learn that students who leave Christian colleges with a Bible degree have only received basic theological studies, broad Biblical surveys, and doctrinal overviews. Even if the student has selected a Biblical studies major, this will usually involve digging deep into only a small handful of books of the Bible.

Our Christian colleges are simply not training pastors to focus on preaching and teaching the Bible. They are training them to work in ministerial duties. If you’ve ever sat in church and wondered why the preaching and teaching seems shallow, it may be because the pastor has a shallow knowledge of the scriptures.

The lack of Bible emphasis in seminaries has resulted in a lack of Bible emphasis in churches. Just as the pew rarely rises higher than the pulpit, I would posit that the pulpit rarely rises higher than the seminary.

Obviously, cultural changes do not take place everywhere at once. Most often a kind of trickle-down takes place: change starts in colleges and universities, then moves to urban centers, to the suburbs, and, finally, to rural areas. (Jones, 59)

Advanced degrees aren’t making the situation better, but rather worse. A master’s or doctorate degree will typically revolve around major thesis work. But instead of writing theses based on Bible doctrines, students are writing about new ways to do church. They are challenging old methods of preaching and teaching, and coming up with advanced, intricate, and ever more complicated structures for church. These papers are turned into books, which are marketed to youth pastors already serving in churches through the ministry training industry.

The Error Spreads: Training Books, Web Sites, Resources, and Conferences

Christians might be surprised to learn that there is a large industry of training books, web sites, resources, and conferences that have grown up around youth ministry. One can find hundreds of books written on the topic. Each year there are several conferences, each drawing thousands of youth workers from around the country. There are web shows, articles, podcasts, and apps all focused on the work of youth ministry. None of these focus on Bible training for the youth pastor. A very small portion of them even attempt to train youth pastors on how to preach to students more effectively. They teach, instead, about organizing ministries for growth and discipleship. They teach systems and ideas on how to make disciples from students, instead of simply relying on the Bible to teach students.

To give you an idea of the subjects being taught at youth ministry conferences, look at this list of breakout session topics from one of the most popular conferences:

• Creating a strategy for improving your high school ministry
• Five reasons churches stop growing
• How to reach and keep families
• Designing an engaging context for high schoolers
• Seven quirks of incredible volunteers
• Launching a church with a family ministry strategy
• Crafting a common language that protects your DNA
• Pick up lines…to recruit volunteers
• Equipping the nextgen team to keep small group leaders and parents connected
• Connecting small group leaders and parents of students
• Making your FX (family experience) contagious
• Fighting for consistent connections in an inconsistent culture
• Important conversations about same-sex attraction
• Five questions every church must answer before multiplying
• 4.5 myths holding you back from growing your church
• Reinventing yourself before you get stuck
• Learning to think about your ministry as a brand
• Compelling environments in a portable world
• Marketing your message so dads will listen

The list of topics along these lines goes on and on. Notice the common theme: youth pastors are being taught to run an efficient organization. In the book of Acts, Peter and the apostles appoint deacons to handle the administrative duties of feeding widows in the church, among other tasks. They did this so they could give themselves “continually to prayer and ministry of the word.” How should a youth pastor think about “growing the youth group” according to the Bible? Pray and minister the word, and let God grow it. How should he “reach and keep families?” Prayer and ministry of the word. How should he make his “family experience contagious?” Preach the Bible and let the Holy Spirit work.

So we see that the apostles got rid of all the organizational details that were distracting them from prayer and the Bible. That is the exact opposite of what is happening to youth pastors. This is actually a common problem that is echoed around these training circles and the youth ministry industry. They lament that because so much time is spent in the work of organization, building relationships with kids, and other ancillary tasks, they don’t have time to prepare youth sermons or lessons. As a result, the industry provides canned lesson curriculum for the youth pastors to teach. Of course there is no problem with curriculum. A good curriculum can help Sunday school teachers to have a unified focus. It can ensure the pastor that foundational doctrines are being taught in a systematic and thorough manner. However, it is being presented to youth ministers today because they don’t have time to study or focus on it on their own. They are too busy focusing on everything else to spend time studying and preparing weekly lessons and sermons.

If the Bible lessons are an afterthought for the teacher, what will they mean to the students? Imagine if your child went to school where the teacher focused mainly on activities, small group fellowships, and spending time building relationships with the kids, while the curriculum and lessons themselves were a rushed afterthought? What kind of education would your child get from that school? That’s the kind of education they are getting from modern youth ministries.

The Parachurch Plague

You’ve probably never heard the term “parachurch organization,” but if you’ve been around protestant or evangelical churches for long you might have come across some. Some of the larger groups include:

• Gideons International
• Teen Challenge
• Young Life
• Youth for Christ
• Focus on the Family
• Promise Keepers
• Samaritan’s Purse
• Fellowship of Christian Athletes
• Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ)

In the book Consuming Culture the adoption of parachurch methods by youth groups is described.

In an attempt to keep youth — and sometimes out of a desire to attract them — churches would adopt and often adapt the new methods of the parachurch organizations. In this imitation of ideas and methods, the core or substance of the model would be changed or exchanged in some way to fit the context of the church, thereby weakening the uniqueness and strength of the model — and at worst it’s reduced to forms of entertainment.” (Berard, Penner, Bartlett, 109)

These groups are predominantly interdenominational, they do not teach doctrine, and they aren’t started by a church or overseen by a church or a pastor. They begin when the founder and leaders see unique niche-focused needs that they don’t feel the church is adequately addressing. The problem is, when they feel a burden for these needs, instead of working with the pastor of their local church, they start working on the problem on their own, outside of the church. This has created a continual struggle between churches and parachurches. Youth professor Duffy Robbins puts it this way:

[T]here are many communities in which parachurch ministries just as those named above are a deterrent to, and in competition with, local church ministries. The rhetoric of the parachurch ministry is that “we are here to help the local church,” and so they should be. But, there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence that this is not always the case… a parachurch ministry comes into town and launches its club in a new high school by recruiting students out of and away from a local church ministry… when we wean students away from the local church to a parachurch program, we are weaning them away from the one ministry that will continue to be available to them after they graduate from high school and college.” (Robbins, 365)

What this means is that the parachurch organization is getting kids interested in the Lord, but is doing so in a program that they’ll ultimately graduate out of and then immediately enter into… nothing. And if we wanted our kids to spend time learning something in order to graduate into nothingness, we would be encouraging them to get degrees in art history. “I don’t care if there are no jobs in my major, Mom and Dad, can’t you support me in following my heart? Also, could you give me $50,000 to travel the world for a year or so after I graduate?”

The parachurch also creates another problem for the church, and one that is more central to our focus in this paper. The groups are not built based on Biblical church structure, but instead are built based on worldly corporate methodology and structures, and many modern ministries have been infiltrated by the ideology of the parachurch organizations. There is a good chance the youth pastor at the typical modern church has held a job for one of these groups, interned there during seminary, or learned ministry under a professor who has been a part of one. Their way of doing ministry bleeds into the church. Jonathan McKee, a well-known youth ministry speaker, in his book Getting Kids to Show Up, exemplifies to us the typical connection:

You may have noticed that I keep mentioning some parachurch organizations. Because of my years with Youth for Christ, I can’t help but encourage you to contact local campus ministry organizations in your area. Check if there are any Youth for Christ, Youth Life, of Fellowship of Christian Athletes organizations (just to name a few) in your community… these organizations can be a great help. (McKee, 98)

We’ve seen what kind of great help these organizations can be to churches. They can help their kids leave and not come back.

But nevertheless, just like McKee, youth pastors get their training in these college parachurches, and end up bringing the processes and structure they learned from parachurches and using them to do the work of the church. In the early days of youth ministry, there was no formal training on what to do, so many youth pastors came into churches and did the same things they did in the parachurch youth clubs (Senter, 142). This continues today. Youth pastor training includes internships in parachurches. They are studying their processes and techniques, attending their conferences, reading their books, and hiring their consultants. The result is that the faulty machine of the parachurch has become the faulty machine of the church.

The Lord Jesus Christ started the church, not the parachurch. The Bible says he is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23), not of the parachurch. He entrusted the work of the ministry to pastors, teachers, and evangelists (Ephesians 4:11). God set the whole church up so that Christians are part of a local assembly and their souls are entrusted to the pastor of that assembly (Hebrews 13:7, 17). Christians are instructed to be members of the local church and to use their gifts with the church as a home base. When parachurches do their work, they are subverting the structure for ministry set up by the Lord. It doesn’t matter how great the work is that they are doing. If it is not according to God’s directions, it is disobedience to him. This alone should be enough reason to stay away from them.

Their results, however, show another problem. Without the church, work that is done is not stable, grounded, or permanent. This is evidenced by their results. In studies, they consistently rank very low in many important areas. They have a poor track record for integrating new Christians into the local church. The youth focused organizations struggle to get whole families involved, instead of just the children. The converts are theologically weak and place a low emphasis on Bible doctrine. (Strommen, 164, 167, 173, 188)

These parachurches rely on strong organizational structures to accomplish their goals. They could very easily substitute their Christian goals for secular ones and have everything in place to accomplish them. They are basically service organizations with a Christian goal instead of a secular one. This is not the way the Lord established his work. His work is done by the Holy Spirit, not by worldly methods. The ministry is led by a God-called preacher doing the work that God is leading him to do, not by CEOs, boards of directors, chapter leaders, and charismatic personalities. Parachurches are taking heavenly work and making it decidedly earthly.


Youth Ministries Based on Worldly Philosophies

Cultural Relativity

Change in churches starts in seminaries. Seminaries are where big ideas take shape, are hammered out, and are disseminated among future leaders, who then take them to the churches.

By the time an idea reaches the churches, however, it usually begins to be understood by the congregation in small bites and in surface-level understandings. Then, as the idea is fleshed out among the churches over time, its real origin and underlying depth of meaning is better understood.

Take, for example, the idea of new Bible versions. When traditional churches who only accepted the old King James Version first started to consider new Bibles, they did so under the impression that new Bibles were the same as the King James, only with the “thees” and “thous” removed. After further study and in the process of time, Christians began to recognize that more had been changed in the new Bibles than the thees and thous. They adapted their understanding to include other wording changes, but accepted them based on the thought that nothing major had changed. When it became clear that significant changes had been made which affected doctrinal readings, Christians began to wrestle with the new understanding that the new Bible versions were not the same as the King James, only with working changes, but rather were based on different underlying Greek texts altogether. Today, Christians understand the full depth of the Bible version debate — there are basically two different Bibles, the King James and the modern translations. They are based on differing texts, are cultivated by different groups, and the new versions claim that the King James and its Greek underpinnings are inferior to theirs and that it should be discarded altogether. They have finally come to believe what the seminaries taught all along.

This is the process of disseminating ideas from the seminaries to the churches. It starts with a shallow and often flawed understanding (the new versions are the same as the King James, but without the thees and thous) and ends with acceptance of an idea they may not have accepted had they understood it fully from the start (throw out the King James because it is inaccurate and inferior to new translations).

This example should serve as an illustration of what is happening with one of the main ideas that is trickling down from seminaries to youth ministry: cultural relativity.

Mark Oestericher, once a leader at Youth Specialties and the author of Youth 3.0, defends cultural relativity and says it is necessary in the church to avoid what he calls “colonization.” He compares Biblical churches to governments who come into other countries and force their culture on them. He says youth pastors should be “cultural anthropologists,” ideally “studying youth and youth culture: language, customs, beliefs, practices, food, clothes, music and other cultural art, political systems and other systems of power, needs, relational dynamics and family systems, and much more” (Oestreicher, 84). Once the youth pastor has studied the youth culture, he can then shape the ministry to mimic the culture, in order to reach the youth or to make them more comfortable.

On the surface, churches believe in changing their style, music, feel, and more because they want to reach the lost. The simple, erroneous understanding is that they need to “change the methods but not the message.” As wrong as that idea is itself, there is something much deeper behind this teaching of which Christians must be aware. Even if you, as a parent, tend to agree that “the church needs to change its style to reach the world as long as the message stays the same,” you probably would disagree with — and even be shocked and appalled by — the deeper teaching and eventual practical application behind cultural adaptation in our youth groups (and ultimately churches).

Cultural Relativity: Examining the Foundations

Culture, as it is applied in modern youth ministry, can be simply defined as “any aspect of human life that is common to members of a society” (Ward, 82). The individual aspects that make up a culture, called cultural traits, include language or slang, clothing, music and art, beliefs, customs, and much more. When you see a teen wearing a style of clothing that you don’t recognize or understand, you are looking at a cultural trait.

Youth, then, could be separated into their own distinct culture group. As a group, they have formed different language, customs, dress, art and music, social norms, and beliefs than adults. To an extent, youth workers need to understand the culture in which youth live. This will help eliminate mistranslations and miscommunication between the culture of the young person and that of the adult who is working with them.

If you’ve ever heard an adult use a phrase that means something to the adult that is very different from what it means to the young person, you’ve seen a simple and crude example of mistranslation across cultures. One old hymn says, “The midsummer sun shines but dim, the fields strive in vain to look gay.” An elderly person listening to this hymn will picture a field trying to look happy and full of color. A young person will struggle to picture a field attempting to make itself look like a homosexual. This is a mistranslation across culture. Another example might be that of an old preacher who is warning a teen congregation of the evils of sock hops. To speak in a language the teens will understand, the youth worker must have an understanding of youth culture.

These are shallow, surface examples. An understanding of youth culture goes beyond simple word mix-ups. Consider these questions adapted for youth culture, and how a disconnect between the cultural influences of the youth worker and the teen could cause a communication gap to arise:

What is the ethnic makeup of the youth, and what nationalities and religious backgrounds are represented? What radio stations do they listen to, or do they listen to radio at all versus some other medium of music? What is the makeup of their families? Are they single-parent families? What are the main social struggles that teens deal with on a daily basis, including economic, housing, education, and future employment? Do they attend public school, private school, homeschool? Where do they congregate in their free time? Coffee shops? Malls? Online? Movie theaters? Parks? What has their experience been in other youth ministries? Have they been targeted by other churches or unbiblical groups? (Stott, 247)

The answers to these questions could frame understanding in a way that is different from person to person. They could also mean that the spiritual needs of kids living in teen culture could vary from the spiritual needs of the youth pastor. One youth ministry professor summarizes:

In short, if we want to reach teenagers with the gospel of Christ, we need to understand the culture in which those teenagers live. To put off considering the culture where ministry plays out because of the hard questions it raises would be like a farmer refusing to consider the soil in which he intends to sow his seed because he does not want to get dirty. Culture is where ministry happens. (Robbins, 247)

The lines get blurry from here. It is at this point where we start to see arguments from youth pastors that begin to excuse borderline sinful things that or strip out Bible guidelines for ministry, in the name of reaching the young people. The key difference comes when they make the jump from understanding youth culture to embracing youth culture.

Adolescents now represent both a definable culture as well as a legitimate phase of the life span… the church that ministers to youths must embrace the culture in which adolescents live, just as Christian churches in India or Brazil or Nigeria have contextualized in order to become the kingdom of God in their various cultures. (Black, 80)

How do modern youth ministries go from understanding youth culture to embracing it? First, by placing a greater than necessary emphasis on its importance.

“Gospel and Culture” is not purely an academic interest. On the contrary, it is the burning practical concern of every missionary, every preacher, every Christian witness. For it is literally impossible to evangelize in a cultural vacuum. Nobody can reduce the biblical gospel to a few culture-free axioms which are universally intelligible. (Stott, Down to Earth, vii)

Paul did exactly “reduce the biblical gospel to a few culture-free axioms which are universally intelligible” in 1 Corinthians 15:1–4:

1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; 2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. 3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; 4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:

By denying that the Bible is universally understandable, and placing too high an estimate on the influences of culture, modern churches pick and choose which part of the gospel will be most effective or palatable to the group they are preaching to. Examine this conversation between a missionary and a local Indian pastor, and you’ll notice the subtle and pious justification of removing and choosing parts of the gospel message:

George W. Peters reports a conversation that he had with Bakht Singh concerning evangelism and a message for India. The conversation reveals Singh’s starting point.

As we talked about evangelism and a message for India, I asked him: “When you preach in India, what do you emphasize?” “Do you preach the love of God?”
“No,” he said, “not particularly. The Indian mind is so polluted that if you talk to them about love they think mainly of sex life. You do not talk to them much about the love of God.”
“Well,” I said, “do you talk to them about the wrath of God?”
“No, this is not my emphasis,” he remarked, “they are used to that. All the gods are mad anyway. It makes no difference to them if there is one more who is angry!”
“What do you talk to them about? Do you preach Christ and Him crucified?” I guessed.
“No,” he replied. “They would think of Him as a poor martyr who helplessly died.”
“What then is your emphasis? Do you talk to them about eternal life?”
“Not so,” he said. “If you talk about eternal life, the Indian thinks of transmigration. He wants to get away from it. Don’t emphasize eternal life.”
“What then is your message?”
“I have never failed to get a hearing if I talk to them about forgiveness of sins and peace and rest in your heart. That’s the product that sells well. Soon they ask me how they can get it. Having won their hearing I lead them on to the Saviour who alone can meet their deepest needs.” (Hesselgrave, 248)

There is nothing wrong with starting a message with the Bible subject that is closest to your congregation, but Singh here removes parts of the gospel message, including Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection, in order to appeal to his audience. It’s tempting to subconsciously assume that when Singh says “I lead them on to the Saviour” that he is then giving them the rest of the gospel, but that is not what he says. He presents Jesus as a forgiver of sins, but nowhere mentions the death, burial, and resurrection.

The message of the gospel is universal. No matter what the culture is, there are lots of things about human nature that are true of all people.

People are more alike than cultures. (Goldschmidt, 134)
Despite the rapidity and variety of cultural change, it is quite striking to realize how much of what today’s teenager feels and questions was felt and questioned by teenagers even four or five decades ago. There is, for example, an abundance of anthropological evidence to suggest that people of vastly different cultures and widely diverse societies have much in common — evidence that points to the simple fact that human beings are, in all places and all times, were created in the image of God, and that all peoples, in all places in an all times, share basic yearnings and longings. In an environment where it is popular to talk about “how much has changed,” it’s easy to lose sight of how much has not changed. (Robbins, 322)

This overemphasis on the importance of culture is combined with a low view of scriptures. When this happens, the scale starts to tip in favor of accepting culture and denying or excusing scripture. The terms absolutism and relativism are used to label the things that are authoritative versus the things that are flexible. The balance among Biblical and cultural absolutism and relativism is discussed in Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective:

1. Biblical Absolutism plus Cultural Absolutism results in Traditionalism — scripture sets the rules, but cultural traditions are embraced as if they had Biblical authority.
2. Biblical Relativism plus Cultural Absolutism results in Situational Ethics — The culture sets the rules and scripture’s teaching is watered down to fit the culture’s values.
3. Biblical Relativism plus Cultural Relativism results in Might Makes Right, anything goes — Neither the culture nor the Scripture is considered authoritative. Everyone does as they wish.
4. Biblical Absolutism plus Cultural Relativism results in Mutual Respect — The scripture speaks with authority and may therefore reject cultural norm, but where the scripture is silent, respect is given to the cultural norms. (Grunlan, 256)

Only a variation of the fourth option will give you a completely Biblical stance. In order to be Biblical, it must not be seen as mutual respect. Instead, culture must respect the Bible as authoritative, while the Bible simply allows culture to operate on its own relative authority (the authority that comes from cultural norms) in areas where the Bible is silent. The Bible dictates and sometimes allows. Culture submits and sometimes is allowed. The Bible grants relative authority to the culture with its silence. Culture never grants authority to the Bible.

Consider this example of culture’s effect on mission work, and how the Bible speaks while modern ministries try to silence it. Dr. David Peacock, an American pastor, once went on a mission trip to Eastern Europe with another pastor, Dr. Jim Lince. Dr. Peacock tells the story of watching Dr. Lince stand in the pulpit in front of a congregation of older Romanians, many of whom were alive when Hitler stormed through Europe. As Dr. Lince preached, the congregation looked around nervously at each other, undoubtedly comparing this preacher’s enthusiastic style to the speech delivery style of Hitler.

God used the preaching greatly and the people responded to the Holy Spirit, but modern churches might recoil and claim that Dr. Lince was wrong to not take the culture into account when preaching. They would say that the Bible is silent on the necessity and style of preaching, therefore he should have simply given a testimony in a soft manner, or maybe that he should have forgone preaching altogether, and held discussions with the people in small groups. This is the error of modern youth ministries. God commands us to preach, and tells us how to do it, which includes public delivery. The Bible is not silent about this. Modern ministry, however, works to undermine and disregard the directives of the Bible in order to bend to culture.

In case you think this is not happening in modern churches, consider this story from one youth ministry professor and speaker, Duffy Robbins. He highlights this problem with his own experience of the church attempting to water down the message for the sake of the culture.

Several years ago I was asked to speak at a large denominational gathering for high school youth out in the Rocky Mountains. About two weeks before the event, I received a phone call from one of the members on the design team who simply “wanted to go over a few last-minute details before the weekend.” We discussed a few logistical issues before I was shocked by this request: “Also, we’ve been talking a bit on the design team, and we wanted to ask you, when you give your talks, would you mind please not mentioning Jesus’s name? We don’t mind if you talk about God; but if you could just be sensitive, some of our students might be offended if we start ramming Jesus down their throats…” I did actually speak at that event, and I did mention the name of Jesus (a little more than normal). But the episode reminds us that we always face the risk of being so sensitive to the audience that we cease being sensitive to the text — and sensitive to the Holy Spirit who inspired it. (Robbins, 269)

On the other end of the spectrum, many fundamentalists fall into the error of accepting traditionalism. The problem lies in considering anything outside of scripture as absolutely authoritative in any circumstance. Fundamentalists go too far here by claiming authority and sanctity of cultural traditions based on tradition alone. “It’s right because we’ve always done it this way.” Many fundamentalists reject anything new, because by definition they’ve never done it that way before, and it will usurp a tradition. In this way, fundamentalists inadvertently take the same position as Catholics, in accepting a second authority outside of the Bible. Catholics accept the authority of church tradition — “This is the way the church fathers did it.” Fundamentalists accept the authority of cultural tradition — “This is the way our fathers did it.”

By way of example, consider the Baptist tradition of pastors wearing robes in the pulpit. Depending on the culture of where you live, this may be considered normal and acceptable, or it may be associated with Catholic priests. Both sides could make a good case. Robed pastors might say that it sets the ordained preacher visibly apart from the congregation and that it emphasizes the office instead of the individual style of the preacher. This is the same reason judges wear robes. They desire for people to view them as representing the law, and not themselves. On the other hand, non-robe wearing pastors might say that it associates them with priests or cults, and that it unnecessarily separates them from the congregation and lifts them higher than they actually are as a person. Let the pulpit represent the office, not the outfit, they might argue.

Each side may think they are arguing Biblical principles, but the Bible is silent on robes in the pulpit. Their arguments are both good, but where they land will largely depend on how their local culture has shaped their ideas. If there are a lot of Catholics in the area, the pastor might shun robes. If many Baptists in the area have traditionally worn robes, the pastor may be more accepting of it.

A fundamentalist might argue that it is better to err on the side of traditionalism than to err on the side of change. I understand this position, and it is definitely a safer place to err. Change in the modern age, most of the time, will be away from the Bible, not towards it or even neutral. Many things that seem neutral will also, in time, prove to have unbiblical motives and results. Modern churches change with every wind of culture and society, and it leads to disastrous results. However, when fundamentalists “err on the side of traditionalism,” they are still in danger of error. The Biblical stance is not to blindly refuse to change based on the authority of tradition, but rather to change only when necessary, and slowly, cautiously, with careful consideration for the authority of the Bible along every step of the way. When might this be necessary? When it is clear, after much time, prayer, and careful consideration, that the Bible is definitely silent on an issue, and culture has moved on in such a way that the tradition of the church has become confusing, tone-deaf, or legitimately offensive.

Take the real-life example of the earlier two pastors on a mission trip, this time in the Philippines. They showed up to the church service wearing white dress shirts with ties, as they would in America. The local missionary pastor asked them to remove their ties, because in that area, it was seen as a uniform for some cults that were local to that community. For them to wear a tie in church, would be akin to a foreign pastor coming to an American church and wearing a clerical collar to preach. A clerical collar might not have anything to do with the Catholic church in their country and it may be considered appropriate dress for preachers there, but it would be culturally disjointed in a Baptist church in America. The Bible does give us the principle that we should dress decently and appropriately for all situations, including church services, but it does not command any particular clothing, such as neckties or clerical collars. The pastors in the story could remove their ties and still dress in the manner that was considered decent and appropriate for worship in the culture they were in, without disobeying the Bible, just as the foreign pastor could remove his clerical collar for the sake of the American congregation.

Curiously, traditionalism and liberalism both end up erring in the same place. They give undue authority to culture. Robbins again gives us a warning.

The danger is that we will cross that cultural gap with a message shaped more by culture than by scripture… The challenge is to do cross-cultural ministry in such a way that we communicate across the culture the message of the Cross and not the message of a culture… sometimes in our efforts to be “seeker-sensitive” we dilute the message of God’s word. No one denies, for example, that the message of human sinfulness is less popular than the message of abundant life, but neither can anyone reasonably deny that the message of human sinfulness is integral… leaving out that message or ignoring it is not an option if we wish to be faithful to Scripture. (Robbins, 256, 257, 269)

He is, of course, correct in his assessment of the danger. I would only argue that we are farther down the rabbit hole than Robbins may like to admit. When he says “neither can anyone reasonably deny that the message of human sinfulness is integral…” I can’t help but wonder if he has considered that America’s most popular preacher, Joel Osteen, has gone on record denying the necessity of the message of human sinfulness.

Cultural Relativity: Drawing Biblical Lines within Culture

How do we find the lines between things that are sin and things that are simply cultural differences? It can sometimes be confusing to get past our own cultural biases and determine what is Biblical and what is cultural. I have personally witnessed white churches in the south, for example, who were certain that racial integration in churches was against the Bible, and not simply a cultural preference.

It becomes more clear, however, if we deconstruct the idea of culture itself. Culture, at its core, comes about as an end of the cultivating of raw materials. Just as a farmer cultivates the raw materials of earth and seed and water into a crop, God gives us raw materials, and we cultivate them to glorify God.

Take the culture surrounding food, for example. God gives us the raw material of soil and seeds, and we cultivate it into plants and eventually food. We cultivate the food further into specific dishes. Specific regions may homogenize around certain cultivated foods and meals, and a food culture is born, such as when Mexicans blend together spices and peppers into a dark sauce called mole. Mole can be rightly called part of Mexican culture, because it was that group that cultivated the dish.

God also gives us the raw materials of sound, hearing, materials, and creativity. We cultivate those pieces into instruments. We cultivate those instruments further to make music. Music itself can take on a regional shape or culture, like the early jazz that was cultivated in New Orleans.

Christians might be surprised to realize that God’s first command to man was toward cultivation. He commanded Adam in the garden of Eden to “dress and keep it.” Dress is defined as “to till or cultivate.” Adam’s job was to cultivate paradise. He was to take the raw materials that God had given him in the earth, and cultivate them into new things, to the glory of God. This would have included fashioning instruments, food, art, and language with the goal of glorifying God. We can imagine that, had Adam succeeded, Eden would have become what we imagine heaven to be: full of choirs, cities, activities, art, food, and customs that are constantly praising and glorifying God. Adam, of course, failed. When sin entered the world, it brought with it the seed that would cultivate God’s creation into wicked, ungodly music, art, language, and customs.

The wicked seed of sin, planted by sinful people and cultivated with sinful motives, had produced all kinds of sinful culture. The jazz music we talked about above, for example, takes sinful raw materials, such as beats and melodies and lyrics that excite rebellion and lustful spirits, adds sinful motives such as the desire to engender fornication and lust, and weaves it into the musical style to create a culture that is full of sin. Think of one of the most famous jazz songs of all time, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

“Stars fading but I linger on dear still craving your kiss
I’m longing to linger till dawn dear just saying this”

We chose one of the cleanest jazz tunes possible in this illustration, so we can illustrate the point without delving into sin ourselves. Hopefully you can still see the motives of the song, and you’ll agree that this is an extremely tame example compared to what has been cultivated in music.

Deconstructing culture in this way helps us make clearer lines around what is Biblically acceptable and what is not in the culture in question. There is culture that is glorifying to God, such as godly Christian music that stirs a good spirit and worships the Lord. There is culture that was created by and is intertwined with sin, such as music that stirs a rebellious, proud, or lustful spirit and glorifies the flesh. And there is culture that is neutral and could lean either way depending on the motives of the person using it, such as a meal that can be used in moderation to feed the body, or in gluttony to overfeed and overindulge the flesh.

Modern youth ministries go wrong in accepting youth culture that is filled with sinful materials and motives, while justifying it as simply a neutral way of viewing the world. They accept philosophies and goals that are full of rebellion and pride. They embrace music, art and fashion that were cultivated with sinful motives and objectives. They bow to customs and norms that are in opposition to the Bible, and sacrifice clear Biblical standards, principles, and commands, to fit in and operate at the behest of this youth culture.

It will be helpful to keep this in mind when reading the subsequent sections on the instructions, philosophies, goals, results, and practices of modern youth ministries. Because the underlying idea of integrating youth culture into youth ministry is so pervasive and so fundamental to youth pastors, the acceptance of sinful motives and materials can be seen pouring into our churches.

And since culture has, at its heart, cultivation, which by definition includes growth and transmission from one person and group to the next, we must ask a sobering question: what will integrating sinful culture into our youth groups cultivate in the lives of our teens?

Youth Ministry as a Business

A trend among modern churches is to adopt a business model and become more like a company than a church. There are many similarities between the two that cause people to compare them.

Modern churches desire to grow their number of members, and businesses desire to grow their number of clients. Churches are trying to get people to accept the Lord, and business are trying to get people to accept their product. Churches compete with each other for members with their ideas and doctrines; businesses compete for clients with their intellectual properties. A church has a pastor; a business has a CEO. A church has organizational structure and operations, and so does a business.

Businesses have seen the similarities and adopted church terminology. Guy Kawasaki, a well-known marketing speaker and author, became famous for being Apple’s “Chief Evangelist,” in charge of spreading the good news of Apple to new customers, who have been referred to as “the Apple faithful.” And church resource organizations have reached out to successful business leaders to provide instruction to pastors on how to use corporate practices to grow their churches. CEOs are called on to be speakers at church leadership conferences, to write books aimed at pastors, and to mentor pastors one-on-one in churches. Here are a few featured speakers from one of the largest church leadership conferences today, Catalyst:

• Guy Kawasaki, mentioned above, now “Chief Evangelist” at a software startup

• Dr. Brené Brown, a researcher, author, and speaker

• Neil Blumenthal, a co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, Fast Company™ Magazine’s Most Innovative Company of 2015

• Scott Harrison, founder and CEO of charity: water

• Ann and Sid Mashburn, owners of fashion design company Mashburn

Mark DeVries runs a company called Youth Ministry Architects, and his book Sustainable Youth Ministry urges churches to follow business models and to create processes and systems to run the church instead of pastors. He says, “More and more, we are discovering that sustainable youth ministries are led by systems leaders… based on established systems that last long after the current leadership team has moved on.” (53)

The line between church and business in modern America certainly has blurred. And as our culture has become increasingly consumer-oriented, youth ministries are being swept up in the trend. Youth ministries are most interested in the marketing aspect of business, which they label “outreach.” There is even a popular publication for church leaders called Outreach Magazine, which includes all kinds of marketing tips and resources for churches and has an annual feature on the 100 fastest-growing churches in America.

George Barna, the head of a leading church research company, Barna Group, in his book Marketing the Church, gives his advice to pastors.

Let’s also enter this journey with a common perspective on the church. Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency — an entity that exists to satisfy people’s needs. (Barna, 37)

Churches buy the lie that if church and business are so similar, there is no harm in adopting some of business’s successful methods. The problem with this is that we can’t compare things only based on how they are similar; we also must contrast them based on their differences. If we are coming to an intersection and you need to know which way to go, you can’t pick either one simply because they are both roads. You may argue that they are so similar — that are both paved, that they both have cars on them, that they both have signs on them. Of course it would be ridiculous, because you would be ignoring the differences. Namely, that one heads to the right and the other to the left. Differences matter, sometimes more than similarities. Businesses and churches may seem similar, but their differences are crucial, and failing to recognize them could take the church and its members in the wrong direction. How could adopting business marketing tactics, for example, lead the church astray?

Businesses market to a targeted group of people and craft their message to fit them, not everyone. They narrow their advertising down to a specific group of people who are most likely to buy. This is necessary in order to maximize their marketing spend and return on investment. Churches who employ business marketing models will fall into the trap of selecting the market they want to target, excluding others, which is unbiblical in itself. Then, even worse, they determine what that market wants to hear and what it feels a church should offer, and then the church changes its message and ministry to fit the perceived needs of the world. They will exclude negative parts of the Bible that may turn away “customers,” and they will narrow their message to the bits and pieces that their community most wants to hear. This is not simply a prediction of what might come in the future, it is already happening, as noted by Doug Webster in his book Selling Jesus: What’s Wrong with Marketing the Church?

Many respected church consultants are offering straightforward, unambiguous answers. They are promoting strategies that encourage churches to establish a market niche, focus on a target audience, meet a wide range of felt needs, pursue corporate excellence, select a dynamic and personable leader, and create a positive, upbeat, exciting atmosphere. (20–21)

One such church consultant is Richard Reising, founder and president of Dallas-based Artistry Marketing, “a national firm that helps thousands of churches and ministries increase their effectiveness through strategic marketing, design, and technology.” Notice their claim that thousands of churches are already using marketing tactics through his company. This is not rare; it is an epidemic in modern ministries. His book Church Marketing 101 includes these passages from sections titled “Students of Culture” and “Nailing the Perceived Need”:

Mountain Dew… employed a team of college kids who put on Mountain Dew gear and went to local high school campuses in black Mountain Dew Hummers… their ultimate goal: learn what the cool kids called cool… when you reach the leaders, you reach the followers. The trendsetters at the time had a common element that Mountain Dew used to create a powerful sense of belonging… So how does this affect us in the church? If we listen to them and understand them, we learn better ways to relate to them. (139, 140)

Reising advises churches to discover the perceived needs of their target market, then create messages and environments that fit those needs. He acknowledges that what people actually need, the Lord Jesus Christ, is different from what they perceive that they need (a place to belong to, a place their kids like going to church, a haven, a community center, a spiritual experience), but he justifies it by saying we must attract them with their perceived need first, then supply for their actual need. His bottom line is shocking and disturbing; it underlines the fact that churches that act like businesses are listening to the world for directional cues instead of the Lord. They are changing to become whatever the world wants it to be, in order to be more attractive to it.

Want to grow? Find out what kind of church people want and need and become that… At our company, we have a slogan of “Changing the way the world looks at Christians.” I believe we will accomplish that goal only if we start by “Changing the way Christians look at the world.” (140, 146)

As a side note, this is not only wrong because we are allowing the world to dictate our messages, but it’s wrong from a purely secular and business standpoint. This is an area that is near to me, because I have worked in secular marketing as my day job for over ten years, and the methods that Reising and other church consultants are using would be considered by the marketing world to be shady at best, and false advertising at worst. Think about the subtle but important differences between what Mountain Dew was doing versus what Reising is recommending.

Mountain Dew established branding around their product that made kids feel that, when they held a Mountain Dew, they belonged to the cool crowd. The product itself was integrated into the perception of it, so the kids needed to buy the product in order to get the sense of belonging. In Consuming Youth, the authors describe this as a common goal of marketing to young people.

Adolescents live in an environment in which much of their culture constitutes a consumer culture. Big business markets fashion, music, art, new technologies, and other consumer items. These goods all have in common an identity-conferring quality. In other words, you become “someone” or get into the “in” group by consuming or possessing a particular item. (Berard, Penner, Bartlett, 56)

Commercials showed cool kids skateboarding and drinking Mountain Dew. Kids watching cartoons on Saturday mornings made the association: Mountain Dew= cool kids. Want to belong to the cool crowd? Buy a Mountain Dew. It was clear from the advertising that the product, Mountain Dew, supplied the need: belonging to the cool crowd.

Churches, on the other hand, are hiding the “product that supplies the need,” the Lord Jesus Christ, when they market and promote the idea that the world’s perceived needs can be supplied through the programs and activities of the church. They argue that when they get them to attend a social event to fulfill their perceived need for belonging, then they’ll eventually tell them that they won’t actually get their need for belonging filled at the event, but from the Lord.

Bait-and-switch is illegal in the United States. It occurs when a company advertises a product, then, when the customer arrives to buy the product, the company says the product is not available and attempts to sell them a different, more expensive product instead. What churches are doing is not akin to Mountain Dew’s marketing. Mountain Dew, it’s sad to say, was more ethical. For Mountain Dew to sink to the church’s level of marketing, they would have to first advertise, not a soda, but only a free party with all the cool kids. “Come to a party where you can belong,” their ads would say. Then, once kids arrived at the party, they would tell them that they could only get access to the cool kids’ area by purchasing their soda. Bait: cool party. Switch: Soda that tastes like the color green.

Modern churches might argue that they aren’t using bait-and-switch tactics. They would say that they do, in fact, provide the things they are marketing; people don’t have to get saved in order to fulfill their perceived needs. The church will fulfill their perceived needs without the need for them to accept Jesus, as advertised, but they will use the opportunity to show them that they have deeper needs that can only be filled by the Lord. That’s even worse.

Think about the seriousness of that: the lost have needs that are actually filled only by God, but churches are providing ways to feel like they are getting filled, without the need for God himself. How many teens will be stirred to go to one of these churches because of an unspeakable void that only the Lord can fill, only to have their thirst quenched by programs instead of the Lord! Then, when the temporary effects of the programs wear off, they will leave the church forever because they have “tried that” and it ultimately left them just as empty as all the other worldly products they have tried. What a tragedy, what a trick of the devil, that so many of our teens are coming to the brink of salvation, attending a church, and going away empty! Consider the family who visits a church because they have the perceived need of belonging to a community. The youth group is so active with games, activities, and socializing that it fills the perceived need of the teen, without even a requirement for the young person to repent and get saved!

These churches could accomplish their advertised goals without employing God at all.

Every activity and program that adds to our ability to meet people’s needs without the Lord is not a bridge toward him, but a detour from him. We, the parents, the Christians, must demand a higher standard for our churches. We must demand from our churches less clutter and more Christ. I submit that the standard should be this: that our churches should be nothing without Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ were to be removed, they should have nothing left to to offer.

Youth ministry professor Duffy Robbins summarizes the problem:

Perhaps the subtlest factor (and therefore the most dangerous) that has weakened the church and diminished its witness over the past several decades is our tendency to think of the Christian faith in general, and the church or a youth ministry in particular, as a product to be packaged, marketed, and sold. (368)

The church is not a business. Businesses are guided by the bottom line; churches should be guided by the Holy Spirit. Businesses survey their shoppers and give them what they want; churches survey the scriptures and give them what they need. When the winds of change blow, businesses need to show themselves nimble. Churches need to show themselves faithful. There’s a subtle difference in spelling, but a massive difference in motivations, between profits and prophets.

How do you know if the youth group you are considering for your child is participating in business marketing-based activities? The church calendar might be filled with activities to get the kids excited, without the need for excitement about the Lord. Youth events might seem to be built with the purpose of attempting to compete with the world for the kids’ attention. Your kids may be pushed, week after week, to bring friends to big activities, in the name of evangelism. Maybe after a few of your teens’ friends have attended with them, you notice that the friends received no witness or gospel message, but they are thinking of coming back because the activities are so much fun. You might think this is good, but consider that your church is luring an unwitting teen toward becoming a Christian with the bait of friends, belonging to a cool club, and playing fun games. When did the church resort to the same techniques as the witch in Hansel and Gretel? “Oh, but we’re not using candy to hurt them, we’re using it to lure them to the Lord,” a modern youth minister would say. “The end justifies the means.”

A clear and tangible sign is if the youth room has become an elaborate rec center meant for the purpose of attracting kids. Some real examples of facilities built by churches to attract teens include skate parks, cafés with full menus and energy drinks, sand volleyball courts, full game arcades, full basketball courts, soda, snack, and candy machines, full concert areas, lounges with fireplaces, pool and ping pong tables, and fire pits.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having some games for kids to play for a youth fellowship, or even a playground or sports field or court if your church is large enough to support it. Kids fellowship over games, not food, as we discuss in another section, so these things can serve as fellowship halls for young people. However, in today’s youth ministries, these facilities are built to compete with local youth hangouts to attract the kids to the church for the purpose of play. To drive this point home, I must reveal that I did not gather the list of activities above from many different church facilities. All the facilities I mentioned above came from the list of activities available in the youth center of one single church. This is not a fellowship hall for youth. It is a marketing product for the church.

Another sign of a marketing-minded ministry is the messaging tactics they employ. Do your kids get called by youth leaders every single week, encouraging them to come to the upcoming program? That’s a volunteer outreach model built by church growth consultants. Modern youth ministries have their own blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts, and regular event promotion aimed at parents and teens. There’s a fine line; there’s nothing wrong with telling kids about an upcoming fellowship. There is something wrong with the church focusing on event-based marketing techniques. One popular youth ministry book is called Getting Kids to Show Up, and it details many ways to host and promote events that are built to draw in non-member youth. The author goes as far as to break down the cost per attendee. Once again, they call it “outreach.” What they’re actually doing is marketing. They are creating viral announcement videos and social media sharing campaigns, and the number of shares, likes, and views dictates what they say and how they say it in the future.

Warning flags should go up if you visit a church, they give you a tour of the youth facilities, and your kids beg you to attend because of how fun it will be. If Sunday mornings feel less like a day set apart to worship God, and more like a weekly trip to Disney World, what will become of our teens’ spiritual development? What cues about God, preaching, prayer, church, and the Bible are we offering up for them to subconsciously absorb during this, their most impressionable, years? Why are Wharton-trained businessmen with profit motives teaching our supposedly called-of-God pastors to treat our kids as customers in the business of the church?

A poster hangs outside Bill Hybel’s office (pastor of the megachurch, Willow Creek). It says: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” These questions are lifted not from St. Peter but from Peter Drucker, the patron saint of management. (Twitchell, 254)

The church is not a business. Offerings are not revenue streams. The Lord Jesus Christ is not a product offering. Sermons are not sales pitches. Youth ministries are not theme parks. Your children are not prospects.


Postmodernism: Deconstructing God’s Truth

We’ll touch on postmodern youth ministry only briefly. It needs to be included in a study of current youth ministry philosophies because it is a trend that grows alongside the world’s acceptance of postmodernism. However, most parents will see this as wrong very quickly, since it is an emerging idea that is mainly posited by the younger generation. Since this paper is for parents, we won’t spend much time debunking it. You should only know that it exists, that its ideas are growing, and that you should watch out for signs of it in any youth ministry that you are considering for your teen.

Postmodernism is the philosophy that states that there is nothing really real, but reality changes depending on who is viewing it.

For example, consider the subject of pain. A doctor may study a certain type of pain and classify its effects on the body, but the doctor will have a very different understanding of pain than the patient who is experiencing it. For the patient, the doctor’s understanding of pain is flawed. To take this further, imagine there is a second patient who experiences the same pain, but who also has mental health issues. To this patient, the same pain is experienced in a whole different light, and the first patient’s view of the pain is not really real.

This is a rough example, but postmodernism would point out that every patient is different, and indeed every doctor is also different. They have different backgrounds, experiences in life, and ideologies, which color their experiences of pain and make each others’ definitions untrue, for them.

Postmodern youth ministry seeks to recognize this worldly philosophy and adapt to it in order to reach those who embrace it. Here is an example of a frustrating encounter with a lost youth who embraces postmodernism. You may begin to recognize some of the verbiage.

Christian: “The Lord Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world.”

Postmodernist: “That’s great, I’m glad that, for you, Jesus died for the sins of the world.”

Christian: “No, Jesus didn’t just die for me, he died for the whole world.”

Postmodernist: “Right. For you, he didn’t just die for your sins, but for everyone’s.”

Christian: “You don’t understand. It’s not just for me, it’s for you, too. He died for you and for me.”

Postmodernist: “Cool, I’m glad you’re able to see Jesus in a way that makes sense to you. For me, he’s a great mythical teacher.”

The Christian walks away from this conversation feeling befuddled, and the postmodernist walks away feeling enlightened.

If you’re old enough, you may be tempted to link this idea with those of the hippies from the 1960s. Hippies embraced the idea that whatever works for the individual was fine for them and should be respected and applauded. But that is actually considered modernism, not postmodernism. Postmodernism takes it a step further, or, rather, deconstructs it further backward. Postmodernists would say that it’s not what works for you that makes a thing good, but rather how you see a thing is the only thing that is actually real — and maybe there is nothing definitely real at all.

One postmodern illustration goes like this: Three umpires are talking after a baseball game. The first is a traditionalist, and he says, “There are balls and strikes, and I call them as they are.” The second is a modernist, who says, “There are ball and strikes, and I call them as I see them.” The third, a postmodernist, says, “There may be balls and strikes, but they’re nothing until I call them.”

If this all sounds like semantics and gibberish, that’s because it is.

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal used a classic hoaxer’s tool — impeccable credentials — to dupe the editors of Social Text, a respected academic journal of cultural studies. Any number of observers — not all of them cranky and conservative — maintain that the entire field of postmodern, post-structuralist theory belongs to another class of hoax, namely highfalutin flimflam. But Sokal went them one better. In his paper Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, Sokal argued that recent advances in quantum physics support the idea that physical reality is nothing more than a social construct. The editors didn’t follow much of the science, they later admitted, but were pleased to publish a contribution from an established scientist. Too bad the article was a sham. In revealing his hoax, Sokal invited those who believe the laws of physics are cultural conventions to test them from his 21st-floor window. (Hayden, 36)

We may laugh and shake our heads at these ideas, but modern youth culture is pervasive with this philosophy, and youth ministries have adapted to include it. They adapt by throwing out details of faith, like the person of Jesus Christ and the necessity of the blood atonement, and instead allow faith to be painted in bigger picture, more inclusive terms. They would not explain the Lord’s Supper, for example; they would only experience it and allow the congregation to define it for themselves.

The kind of Christianity that attracts the new generation of Christians and will speak effectively to a postmodern world is the one that emphasizes primary truths and authentic embodiment. The new generation is more interested in broad strokes than in detail, more attracted to an inclusive view than an exclusive view, more concerned with unity than diversity, more open to a dynamic, growing faith than to a static, fixed system, and more visual than verbal with a high level of tolerance and ambiguity. (Webber, 27)

We may be tempted to think that this system is reserved for ultra-liberal churches and gatherings not typically labeled as churches, but its ideas are pervasive in mainstream churches as well. Modern youth ministers are quietly bringing in this type of philosophy. If your child’s youth minister prefers to have discussions in groups rather than preaching, or if they prefer to meet with the group outside of the church building, in coffee shops or parks, or if they seem to be inclusive of other religions rather than exclusively pronouncing that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, then you are seeing postmodern thought in practice.

Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity emeritus at Harvard Divinity School, applauds this shift towards postmodernism within the emerging-church movement in his book The Future of Faith.

In the past two decades the emerging-church movement has spread in mainline churches… They try to assign equal weight to both the message and the context so that a new version of the old story can take shape… They experiment with settings, like cafes, in which two-way exchange rather than one-way preaching is possible… When I first visited India, I was surprised to find Christians there sitting cross-legged on the floor to pray and pictures of Christ teaching in the lotus position… All the signs suggest we are poised to enter a new Age of the Spirit and that the future will be a future of faith. (218, 219, 222, 224)

When we hear our youth ministers telling us that the method changes but the message does not, remember the above quotes from Cox. This outlines the next logical step down that path, “a new version of the old story.” It’s one where culture shapes religious beliefs, inclusiveness is the goal, and we try to understand other religions as much as we attempt to get others to understand our own. This idea, he says, has spread to mainline churches, and youth ministries are often the laboratories where modern ideas are incubated. If you see your child’s youth ministry showing signs of postmodern activities, you may be tempted to think it’s just a generational shift in worship style happening. It is actually a shift in the fundamentals of faith itself.

Experientialism: Faith Cometh by Feeling?

We come to our knowledge of God through the Bible.

The old axiom goes: fact, faith, feeling. We hear the fact of the gospel, we put our faith in it, and then we get some kind of feeling of peace or joy as a result of our faith.

Experientialism turns that on its head. Oestreicher says:

Faith is still the fuel, but in a postmodern world, most teenagers (not all) come to a place of faith through their experience of the Divine in others, in themselves, in nature, in spiritual community, in Scripture, in popular media, in pain, with the poor and mistreated, and through all the other myriad places where God can be found. This experience (which always has an intimate place with feelings) becomes a pathway to faith. Facts are still there […] but facts support faith and validate experience. (102)

This is one of the most dangerous philosophies of modern youth ministry, and it is permeating the church world. It is heresy, as plain as it comes. The Bible is clear that no matter how good an experience might be, it is the fact of God’s words that brings about faith and then gives feeling, not the other way around.

Romans 10:17
17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

The word of God comes first; it brings the truth of our sin and of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to pay for our sin. We can then decide to put our faith in that gospel or not. When we do, a good feeling may or may not come. But we are told not to trust our experiences, because our experiences can lie to us. Think of all the people in the world who have experienced strange, unbiblical, spiritual phenomena. There have been reports of people seeing statues crying blood. Others have seen visions of angels, demons, the future, heaven, or hell. These things cannot be trusted. Mary K. Baxter wrote a book called A Divine Revelation of Heaven after purportedly going there and seeing it. After the book became a bestseller, she released a sequel based on a second divine vision of hell. It’s too bad there are only two places described in the Bible, or she could have had a bestselling trilogy on her hands.

These experiences can be explained by many things besides God. Some people may have a deep emotional response to a concert or sermon. Others may be sleep deprived or depressed and see hallucinations. Still others might actually have some kind of experience, and it may be of God, or it may be of the devil. The devil is known to mimic God.

2 Corinthians 11:12–15
12 But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. 13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.

What people may think is a spiritual experience from God, may actually be a show from Lucifer himself. When the devil appears, he appears as an angel of light. He looks like a minister of righteousness, not evil. You cannot trust your experience; it will lie to you. As a matter of fact, when the antichrist appears on earth, he will fool the world into worshipping him as God, by doing signs, wonders, and miracles. He will deceive people through their experiences.

Matthew 24:24
24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
2 Thessalonians 2:8–11
8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: 9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, 10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:

Even if the experience was from God, we still would need to line it up with the Bible before accepting it, and we couldn’t trust it over the scriptures. The Apostle Peter had arguably the greatest experience of God possible. He saw the Lord Jesus Christ in person, transfigured into his heavenly form, talking with Moses and Elijah. This experience is what we call the “Mount of Transfiguration,” and it can be found in Matthew 17. But Peter references it later on and says that the Bible is to be trusted over that experience.

2 Peter 1:16–19
16 For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. 18 And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. 19 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

So even if we had a great experience from God, the Bible is a more sure word of prophesy, and we do well to heed it. This isn’t the case with modern ministries. The facts of the Bible are set aside, and groups seek to create religious experiences instead. They desire to get the kids to feel something for God then later on to try to define what they felt. Oestreicher confirms this:

“[We need to be] intentionally proactive about providing teenagers with opportunities to experience God, not merely hear facts about God […] raising our voices together in songs to God, […] serving the poor, fighting injustice, caring for those in need. When teenagers — whether they are already followers of Jesus or not — experience this kind of worship-in-action, they have an enormous opportunity to have a tangible experience of God in their lives. This often leads to faith.” (104)

This view, of course, ignores that fact that many, many people do all these things in the context of charities, not church. You can go to a rock concert to raise your voice and sing. You can volunteer with lots of charities to serve the poor, fight injustice, and care for those in need. Many people working for charities don’t experience God as a result of this; they actually experience the opposite: self. Good work without God creates pride. It can create a sense of self-goodness and a lack of a need for God. The Pharisees in the Bible are a great example of this. They did more good works than anyone in their day, and they missed God completely when he was standing right in front of them. With this in mind, you can see how dangerous it is to have an experience before the facts. Satan can use that experience to entrench kids away from God. If you bring your kids to build houses for the homeless before they have a relationship with God, it very well may set them on a life of doing good without God. They may feel they don’t need God at all.

Satan never tried to get Adam and Eve to do something we’d call evil. He tempted them with something we’d call good. He tried to get them to be enlightened, to understand the difference between good and evil, and to be as gods. These are all good things. But they were good without God. And throughout history, Satan has not tried to make men evil — he has tried to make men good without God. Philip Mauro wrote about this in his book The World and Its God.

[Satan’s] plan did not disclose as its object the destruction or the injury of the race; but that, on the contrary, he represented himself as solicitous for the well-being of humanity, and for the achievement by it of the best possible results that are attainable apart from God. (31)

Placing experience before facts is a great way to make sure this happens.

It is also a great way to entrench kids in false doctrine. How many times have you spoken to someone who believed in speaking in tongues and could not be convinced otherwise, no matter how much scripture you showed them? They will regularly say that they can see what the Bible says but that they still trust what they felt. They spoke in tongues and it felt good, so it must be of God, no matter what the Bible says.

Oestreicher promotes this faith in spite of the facts, pushing the blind trust of experience over Bible truth.

These experiences of the Divine become sustaining markers in the journey of an adolescent, more than a robust factual knowledge base could ever be. When a teenager is sitting in third-period science class and hearing arguments that might undermine her factual knowledge (as strong as that might be), it will be her experience of God — last week in her spiritual community, last month in the soup kitchen, and last summer on the mission trip — that sustains her faith in the face of seemingly objective facts to the contrary. (104)

There is no need just to learn the truth: just rest on the good feeling you got from the mission trip. First of all, this is the kind of nonsense that gives justification to the world. The world believes that we have no facts to back up our claims and that we are blindly following our feelings. They’re right about modern youth groups, apparently. It is a shame, too, because there aren’t any lessons that are being taught in science class that can’t be overcome with scripture. Sometimes you have to take the scripture by faith, but it is the scripture we are resting on, not feelings.

What will your child do when their feelings wear off? Our kids come back from youth camp excited for God, but they forget it very soon after. The feelings change, but the facts of the Bible never do. Feelings are not sustainable. They change rapidly, especially for teenagers. This is one reason that youth groups are constantly changing. They’re always trying to create a new feeling to replace the old one that wore off. It also explains why youth groups are trying to create programs that mimic worldly entertainment. They are copying those programs in order to copy the feelings that those programs generate.

Even if the feelings didn’t change, they are still never promised as the thing that brings us closer to God. The feelings come as a result of our relationship with God, not as a cause.

Galatians 5:21–23
21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

Feelings are the fruit, not the root. Joy and peace come from the Holy Spirit, not the other way around. Anyone who tries to get love, peace and joy, might end up with another spirit before they get the Holy Spirit. This was certainly true in the 1960s. The way to get a good feeling is to read your Bible, learn about God from the facts, and apply that truth to your heart and your daily life. Live the facts you’re learning by faith. Let the Holy Spirit have free rein in your body, and the fruit will be love, joy, peace, and the other things mentioned above.

Pragmatism: Using Whatever Works

Pragmatism might be summed up in the phrase, “use whatever works.” Here is a list of questions and answers found in the pragmatic approach to ministry taught in one youth ministry seminary:

‘How does this philosophy view ministry essentials? Does it meet the needs or wants of our students? What are the apparent criteria for starting a new program? Students would probably attend if we do this. What are the apparent goals of ministry? To see this program grow (in numbers, budget, popularity). What are the apparent criteria for evaluating the program? Is the program growing? What are the apparent criteria for ending a program? A better way is found that attracts more people. What is this philosophy’s underlying assumption? Our job is to reach people, the more the better. What is the inherent strength of this approach?’ While there is wide and justified criticism for a ministry that focuses all only on numbers, there is the obvious fact that numbers represent individual human beings for whom Jesus died. To dismiss the focus on numbers as shallow and irrelevant overlooks the obvious fact that youth ministry without any youth is not a very effective youth ministry. (Adapted from Anthony, 56–57)

When Andy Stanley, pastor of a large church in Atlanta, said, “Your ministry is perfectly designed to achieve the results you are currently getting,” he was attributing the results of ministry not to supernatural workings of the Lord, but to the structure of the church. If you’re not getting the results you desire, change until you do. When you start to get results, you’ve found what you should be doing. You could call this “results-driven ministry,” and it is pragmatism, plain and simple.

Surely a church youth group is the last place you’d expect deception and underhanded practices, but when the goal of the group is to get more students and to use whatever works, the leaders can be tempted to “bend the rules” or to be deceptive in their messaging and practices in order to achieve their goals. This is the old temptation that says “the end justifies the means.” They might think that since their motive is good, it’s okay to be deceptive in their methods. Or maybe they simply get blinded to how deceptive they’ve become, because they’re too busy reaching for results.

A good example of such deceptiveness is found in Getting Students to Show Up by Jonathan McKee. His book gives youth workers a step-by-step process for attracting kids to their ministries. In one passage, he describes how he started a new ministry from scratch through a parachurch organization called Campus Life.

Right off the bat, we can objectively see that the name of the organization is meant to sound like a regular activity-based group and that it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. A student reading that group name on a list of campus groups could not pick it out as Christian. Yet the goal that Jonathan McKee stated that he had for the group was to reach unsaved students for Christ and to turn them into committed disciples (23). It is disguised and deceptive from the start. But it goes much further. To start the group, he invited two kids from the school to talk about what they’d like to do for activities in the group. He describes his conversation.

‘Have you ever gone camping? Have you ever gone waterskiing?’ Slowly the students began to open up more. They shared about their experiences, and then I said something about how we’re planning several camping and waterskiing trips with Campus Life because Campus Life owned a waterski boat. ‘Every year we start with a big pizza bash where kids get all the pizza they can eat and all the Pepsi they can drink for $1.’ The students’ faces lit up. I asked them, ‘How many friends do you think you could bring to that?’ (104)

The next week, he invited those students and their friends to his house for root beer floats and games. He then gave what he calls “the talk,” where he tell us he is going to be completely upfront with the kids about how they will “talk about who God is and how they can get to know him,” which sounds great, but then he goes on to give us his exact talk. It is cloudy and deceptive. To appreciate the deceptiveness here, just imagine for a moment that you’re an unsaved college kid at a school club called “Campus Life” when the leader gets up and says this:

We’re glad so many of you came out this week, and we look forward to hanging out with you this year. At Campus Life we do a lot of fun things like tonight, as well as trips, retreats, crazy events, and camps. But Campus Life is more than just fun and games. We realize students are looking for answers to tough questions. At Campus Life we’ll have discussions about issues you’re dealing with in your lives. We’ll talk about friends, peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, gangs, and other topics related to what you’re going through. Sometimes these topics will lead to discussions about God because we feel that’s an important aspect of life. Every person on Campus Life staff is a Christian and cares about students and the decisions they’re making daily. Don’t worry, we’re not going to try to get you to shave your heads and join a cult or something. We just want to provide a safe place where you can dialogue about some of the questions you have about life, and maybe get some of those questions answered. I think you’ll find that Campus Life is a great place to hang out and have fun. Speaking of fun — we’re having our big pizza event in two weeks, and we want you to bring as many friends as possible. (Share more about the event.) But right now we’re going to have some root beer floats! (106)

I am not trying to throw McKee under the bus. I know you don’t get into ministry for fame and fortune, and I’m sure he holds the good motive of reaching kids with the gospel. However, we can’t use improper means to reach this correct end. Pragmatism is the root cause of this kind of approach. Also, what are they teaching the Christian kids about honesty, when the kids know that the group’s purpose is to make disciples, but they say that their purpose is fun? They are teaching deception. I don’t want my own children to get that kind of lesson from their youth pastor, and I don’t want to be responsible for teaching that kind of lesson to other people’s kids.

Pragmatism: False Positives

The pragmatic approach is also misleading since many results can be faked or misread. A youth group that is judging the ministry by results and that is doing activities that are deemed successful based on results is opening itself up to being led by deception. Kids are excellent at being fake for the benefit of the adults around them. I’ve seen kids who had two different social media accounts; one where they posted everything for their parents and church leaders to see, and another, anonymous account where they led their real life with their friends. This is extremely common. I have heard a former police officer tell the story of how he used to do security work at rock concerts. He would watch the teens get dropped off by their parents, wave goodbye, then immediately go into the bathroom and change outfits into something their parents would never let them wear.

Let’s be honest. How easy and normal is it for adults, not teens, to fake their spirituality to the leaders of the church? Have you ever told the preacher you enjoyed his sermon, when you really didn’t pay a bit of attention? This is commonplace. The evangelist Billy Graham tells the story of an exchange he had once on an airplane. A man in the section near him was obviously drunk and was being loud and rude to everyone around him. He was even making crude remarks to the flight attendants, and it was getting on everyone’s nerves. Finally, another passenger said to the drunk man, “Hey, buddy, let’s ease up a bit, don’t you know who that is sitting right there? It’s Billy Graham!” The man perked up and replied, “Wow, how about that? Let me tell you, preacher, your sermons have sure helped me!”

In my mind’s eye, I picture a modern youth group with hundreds of kids showing up for weeknight youth programs. The group is lauded by everyone who sees them as being successful. Then I see those same kids leaving the youth program and going back to their regular, non-Christian friends and living worldly lives devoid of any relationship with God. Leaders who deny this are doing so against all the evidence.

Further, any youth group that is allowing itself to make decisions about the direction of the group based on the results they are seeing on the outside, is actually letting the teens lead the group instead of the adults. If the teens show up for a certain type of event, they do more of those events. If the teens stop listening during Bible preaching time, they cut back on the Bible preaching.

This is backwards. We ought not to be letting the teens direct the church; the church ought to be directing the teens.

Driven by Fads: Chasing the Next Big Thing

The culmination of all this — seminary educations, conferences, modern philosophies, competing books and ideas — is that our youth groups are constantly changing and chasing the next big thing. When one person’s idea seems to be successful, by their measure of success, the idea is marketed to and adopted by the rest of the churches. A few ideas rise to the top of the popularity pile and have great penetration into churches in America. The purpose-driven movement was a prevalent example of one such idea. There are many other models, including the integrated family, the gospel-centered movement, the emergent church, simple youth ministry, relational youth ministry, and Orange’s strategy-focused model. Depending on which church you attend, you could encounter any one of these models or many others.

In the world of contemporary youth ministry methodology, models are everything. From the frenzied merchandising of youth ministry products to the hype of the newest program, event, or philosophy, the North American youth ministry movement seems to be increasingly susceptible to fame, marketing, and spin. Most professional youth workers who are struggling with uninterested and disengaged students, complaining parents, uncommitted leadership, and unsupportive senior level staff and laity will too often jump at anything and everything that may help to jump-start the ministry. This eventually translates into a youth ministry methodology that ultimately measures success by the interest and enthusiasm of students (and their parents), the pat on the back from the leadership of the church, and the perceived relative stability of the program. Then when the current model, plan or program fades or students lose interest, the youth worker frantically searches for the next hot thing to get the machine up and running one more time. (Black, 81)

If you’re wondering what model your church follows, simply ask the youth pastor. He will most likely name a book that he is currently basing his ministry around. The good news is that if you don’t like the model, you can wait a few years and it will be changed to whatever he reads next. The bad news is, by their own admission, what he reads next is not likely to be the Bible.

Program Driven — What Do You Have for the Kids?

One of the drivers of modern youth groups is programming. Programming means building machinery that will do the work of the ministry, get kids involved, and grow the attendance of the group. One of the questions parents ask as they are looking for a church is, “What do you have for the kids?” When youth pastors get this question, the answer usually comes in the form of a program. Here is the description of the high school ministry at Saddleback Church in California, which is considered a model for youth groups around the country:

HSM is our High School Ministry here at Saddleback Church, serving students in 9 through 12 grades. HSM shatters the stereotype that church is boring! Our weekend services are created to celebrate life in a way that is fun for believers and welcoming to those who don’t normally attend church.
We offer an experience that allows students to worship God in a way that makes it easy for them to invite their friends. We also strive to connect our HSM students to each other by encouraging them to join an HSM Small Group where they’ll learn more about how to grow in their own personal relationship with God.
Join us on the weekends in the Refinery:
Saturdays at 4:30 & 6:30 p.m.
Sundays at 9:00 & 11:15 a.m.
You can also invite your friends to the Refinery during the week. The Refinery is our newest building at Saddleback, designed with students in mind. Whether you want to come and get some homework done, play games, grab a bite to eat, or just hang out with your friends, the Refinery is the place to be! (Saddleback, web)

This is the main programming that is being promoted to parents at Saddleback, among other programs. It includes fun weekend services that make it easy for them to invite friends, small groups so the kids can become friends with each other, and a recreational center for the kids to hang out and play games. Churches all over the country have programs similar to these. The idea is that if kids will come to the rec center, they can hang out with other kids in a positive environment. Games, sports, a café, a lounge, and more are all there to get kids excited about coming to church. Worship services include loud bands from every genre imaginable, and preaching is brief and entertaining. Small groups are places where kids are supposed to be “doing life together” (Celebration, web).

Programming is pandemic. It has become the answer to everything. We know we are supposed to be doing something, so we answer with more programs, instead of with a stronger relationship with God. Borton says: “The aroma of Christ should stand out in our lives. And in our student ministries. But often […] the smell of the numerous programs cluttering our student ministries overwhelms the aroma of Christ” (3).

All of these programs become machines. They follow a strict formula to look successful. As long as attendance is up and growing, and the kids are having fun and doing outside activities that are related to spiritual things, the ministry is said to be working. And if the kids are excited to attend the groups, the parents feel like they have accomplished something. Since the parents constantly struggle just to get their children to attend church, they feel like they’re winning just to get them to be a part of these programs. They feel as though their kids have some kind of spiritual life because of their attendance and participation.

Chap Clark is the associate professor of youth and family ministries at Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes about the activity-based ministry problem in his “Response to [a fellow youth pastor’s paper:] the Preparatory Approach from a Missional Perspective.”

Your comparison between the activity-based and ministry-based youth ministry philosophies was an important reminder that so many youth ministry programs–maybe even most of them–operate in knee-jerk, responsive entertainment mode of simply trying to keep the young people in the church. I believe the article is absolutely correct in its stinging critique of an activity-based ministry that is created without purpose, vision, or strategic structure. Youth ministry must have a driving reason for being that goes beyond a baby-sitting mentality, beyond the need to keep students too busy to sin… It is a stretch to even label this kind of thinking “youth ministry.” (Clark, Four Views)

A spiritual life is about fellowship with God, walking with God, and having his presence in your life. These programs don’t need God to look successful. They need activity. Even Doug Fields, youth pastor and author of Purpose Driven® Youth Ministry, admits this (even though he uses it as a straw man to later implement more programming).

When a church (or youth ministry person) primarily values hype, there is little need for spiritual leadership. A non-Christian could become a “successful” youth worker at that kind of church by increasing activities, launching new ideas, and boosting attendance. With a little investigation, you probably wouldn’t find any measurable difference between this type of youth ministry and a local non-Christian service club. Both use hype to attract. (28)

They have fallen into the downward spiral of programming. The trend goes like this: Man, movement, machine, monument. God calls and uses a man to preach his words to people, which changes their hearts and causes them to become Christians and disciples, true followers of the Lord. These Christians form a movement around the man, and there is a group of people listening to the preaching and being ministered to by God’s man. Soon, however, the movement begins to organize. They see good, positive results from the movement of God that are happening on a consistent basis, and they start to classify those results as a secular organization would classify them. Conversions. Attendance. Excitement. Friends bringing friends. Socialization. Service work. Faithfulness to the group. When the group leaders start to look at the results instead of looking to God, they begin to formulate ways to recreate those results outside of the original way that God created them. Instead of following the man that God called and letting the Holy Spirit work through his preacher, they start to form programs that accomplish their newly perceived results.

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

Want to create attendance for church services? Make the services fun and exciting. Play games at the beginning of the service, get some bands together to make it feel like a rock concert. Have a speaker who is more like a comedian or motivational speaker than a God-filled and God-called preacher. What kids wouldn’t want to go to a weekend event with games, a rock concert, and a motivational comedian?

Once the goal (attendance) is in place, and the leaders have identified how to reach that goal, they have formulated a program that can be repeated week after week to reach that goal of attendance. The movement has become a machine. Listen to Mark Oestreicher as he explains that this is exactly what modern groups are doing.

The sense was — and remains, as I contend — that if we can build the right program with the coolest youth room and hip adult leaders and lots of great stuff to attract kids, then we’ll experience success… [When we started we] used these programs and methods to provide a context for meaningful relationships with teenagers. But rather quickly, the programs and methods became king, and the only real measurement of success anyone in youth ministry cared about was ‘How many kids are coming?’ (59)

Oestreicher is lamenting the failure of programs. He recognizes that what is currently happening in youth groups is not working, and his book is about trying to move to the “next thing” in youth ministry. Unfortunately, he correctly diagnoses the problem but then offers up the same solution under a different wrapper. He suggests instituting a new type of program to replace the old program.

This success=quantity formula is straight from the evil one, and permeates many, if not most, of our churches. (139)

Notice this isn’t a minority of groups. Mark Oestreicher, the leader of Youth Specialties, one of the largest youth group resource publishers in existence, is stating that this ideology is pandemic.

It’s so much a part of our thinking now that it’s almost impossible to think differently. I’m passionate about not being impressed by numbers, but when a friend recently shared with me (in humility, to be fair to him) that he had more than 800 junior highers attend his winter retreat, I couldn’t help myself: I was uber-impressed! I assumed it must be good. I assumed it should be copied. (139)

Notice here his first reaction is to copy their program. If it was genuine movement from God, it could not be copied. This is the mistake of modern ministries. Copy the program to get the same results. Sing the same songs, play the same games, have the same speaker, use the same promotional campaign… get the same results: attendance. It is totally missing the mark.

Now, numbers do mean something. They just don’t always mean things are good or right. If a youth group jumps from 12 kids to 40 kids, then it should be noticed and questions should be asked: ‘Is it because we’re providing a safe and loving place for the kids, or because we’re putting on a really good show?’ Likewise, if a group slowly drops from 40 kids to 12 kids, then different questions should be asked: “Is it because we’re irrelevant or unsafe or exclusive? Or is it because we’ve decided to stop merely entertaining kids and giving out really cool door prizes?’ (Oestreicher, 139–140)

Now we come to the main point. He is to be commended for wanting something more important than entertainment. He is right to ask if the attendance is only there because of door prizes and a good show. But he misses the mark by suggesting that the real reason the kids should be there is for something he deems more important, in this case “providing a safe and loving place for kids” and “a relevant and safe environment.” He is suggesting that the goal should be attendance for the right reasons instead of the wrong reasons. What if he is successful in building “a safe and relevant place for kids?” What does that have to do with God? A library can be a safe and loving place for kids, as can a school or a Boy Scout troop or a soccer team. In a few short years, he’ll be lamenting again that the group is a machine and that the kids are still coming for the wrong reasons.

When we try to come up with our own goals outside of a Spirit-led movement and working of God, our best and highest achievements still don’t make it off the ground. They are lowly, small, pittances of success compared to what God wants to do for us. God wants us to fly, and we are content to crawl. He wants us to mount up with wings as eagles, but we are too busy building contraptions for rolling around in the dirt. The goal should not be attendance at all, or any other small-minded aim. The goal should be for God’s man to obey God’s voice and to do whatever God wants for that congregation at that time. God will lead us into achievements we never thought possible and in fact were not possible through any earthly inventions and programs.

Does this sound vague? It should be. We often have too much of a desire to define God’s plans and goals, to take them over in our zeal and ambition to be a success and to set God aside so we can get the work done. “Thanks, God, but we can take it from here,” is the modern conversation between ministers and the Lord. Since we can’t know or define what God wants to do, we make our own plans instead of just leaving it to him and trusting our future to his hands, by faith.

Also, God’s plans often do not involve “safe and loving environments.” The church in Acts did not provide safe environments for kids. The disciples were in constant danger and always moving from place to place to avoid being killed. Throughout history, young people have been martyrs for their faith, glorifying God and being “obedient unto death.” Bible-believing kids today are loners in school and suffer criticism and are ostracized from their peers. They are mocked for their stand on the Bible and their loyalty to Christ. They suffer loneliness and sometimes depression for the struggles they face as Bible-believing Christians in a world that hates their Savior. Biblical youth groups should experience times of strong prayer and weeping, encouragement from other kids, equipping for battle, self-sacrifice, and sweet communion with God. That doesn’t really fit with our lukewarm, Laodicean, suburban, soccer-mom Christianity. Many parents simply want a nice place for their kids to have fun in a positive environment. However, that may be the reason we don’t see much happening radically for God these days. We haven’t given God the chance to do anything radical with us.

Purpose-Driven®

You may recognize the term “Purpose Driven.” It is a method of driving church growth that became extremely popular in the 1990s and that spread through many churches. The author is Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California. He wrote a book called The Purpose Driven Life for Christians and The Purpose Driven Church for pastors. It’s hard to overstate how much influence these books have had on churches. According to the Purpose Driven Life’s Wikipedia page:

A May 2005 survey of American pastors and ministers conducted by George Barna asked Christian leaders to identify what books were the most influential on their lives and ministries. The Purpose Driven Life was the most frequent response. The Purpose Driven Church, Warren’s previous book, was the second most frequent response. (Wikipedia, 2015)

You may remember a trend among churches that involved the members participating in a program called “40 Days of Purpose.” This was part of the strategy that pastors were encouraged to use to bring a church into the purpose driven system.

On its surface, as is the case with most errors, it seems like a fine system. But upon deeper study, we see it for what it really is: a business-based and marketing-minded church growth program in a spiritual-sounding wrapper. That Rick Warren has used classic marketing techniques to grow his church and to shape his purpose driven program is clear to marketing professionals, but it is a label that Warren has fought to hide and deny. In his book Shopping for God, James Twitchell, a non-believing professor of advertising for the University of Florida, exposes Warren’s methods.

What his critics complain of is his incessant marketing, but what I find particularly noteworthy is that when one of his marketing acolytes, Greg Stielstra, wanted to use Saddleback as an example of buzz marketing in his “PyroMarketing: The Four-step Strategy to Ignite Customer Evangelists and Keep Them for Life,” Warren complained to their mutual publisher, HarperCollins. He didn’t want to be seen as a marketer. How ironic. That’s like Bill Clinton not wanting to be considered a politician. (274)

After the success of The Purpose Driven Church, Warren’s youth pastor, Doug Fields, wrote Purpose-Driven® Youth Ministry. It had a great deal of success as well and has been implemented in youth groups all over America and around the world. If you’re searching for a youth group for your teen today, there’s a good chance some of the churches you are considering either are using the purpose driven program in its entirety, or at least have been influenced in some way by it.

Fields lays out nine components of a purpose-driven youth ministry: perseverance, participating leaders, parents, planned values, process, programs, potential audience, purpose, and power of God. There are, of course, a few good things in there to make it palatable to churches and parents. Of course you must have perseverance and the power of God, but these are the bookends, the acceptable principles at the beginning and end that hide the true problematic elements that advocate turning the church into a programmed machine.

I know this is a harsh assessment, but the sad part is that Fields, and probably many of the youth ministers who adhere to this, know it is true. They know that they have gone too far in creating programming that will operate as a machine, but they are simply not letting go of the ministry enough to let God produce the results. I say this with confidence because the very first chapter of Fields’ book describes the realization he had in the early days of his ministry that he could not do this on his own, but rather must rely on the power of God.

The students in your youth ministry don’t need your clever ideas and great programming skills. They need a living model — a man or woman of God who is passionate about his or her faith. Your passion will be contagious. Students will want what you have. Your faith will help you develop a strong foundation for a healthy youth ministry. (38)

Fields is so close here. He recognizes that God uses a man with a relationship with him to lead a youth group, but he goes too far in saying that it’s simply the foundation for a healthy youth ministry. The truth is, it’s not the main thing, it’s the only thing. In this way, he goes where many modern churches go. They start with God, then they go on in their own power and organization skills. They build it out until God is far in the rear view mirror and the whole program can run as a machine with or without God. Consider the evidence: the chapter in Fields’ book on the power of God lasts from page 27 to page 40. The rest of the book is dedicated to building out programming to run the ministry. The book is 395 pages long.

Going Off the Rails — Driven by Purpose instead of God

Before “power of God” comes “purpose,” and this is the crux of this ideology. It focuses on five purposes that the Lord gave for the church and requires youth ministers to examine their program in light of these purposes. The five purposes are evangelism, worship, fellowship, discipleship, and ministry. If the programs don’t fit into one of these purposes, they are to be thrown out. If a youth pastor is trying to build a program, they should look to these purposes to determine which purpose the program fulfills and should make sure their overall youth ministry is properly balancing these five purposes.

Again, this sounds nice, doesn’t it? We’re all tired of doing things in church for the sake of doing them, or doing things because they’ve always been done that way. And what Christian hasn’t been part of a church where they felt like one thing was emphasized to the exclusion of something else that they thought was more important, or that at least should be given equal importance? This is, however, a straw man. They raise up these purposes so they can do whatever they think is expedient to accomplish them.

Think about what happens when a church raises something up as a guiding principle or flag to follow. That thing they are raising sets the standards, sets the rules, and the people who are looking to the flag are willing to lay down everything else to keep that flag raised.

In a Biblical church, the drivers are the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and his words. The preacher is the shepherd; he meets with God and shepherds the church based on God’s words and God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit. When the Bible is lifted up as the plumb line (Amos 7:8) by which to judge all things (1 Corinthians 2:15), and the pastor is the leader that the church follows (1 Peter 5), then God has free rein to lead the church as he pleases, and the direction and activities will stay within the confines of his words. The main activity of the church will be preaching, and the people will be able to fulfill what God wants for them in their own lives as they respond to the preaching of God’s words.

In a purpose driven church, the purposes are held up as the flag to follow, the activities are lined up to the plumb line of the purposes, and the programs are judged by whether or not they are accomplishing those purposes. This leads to a great number of programs all created to check purpose boxes. Ministry becomes a program. Evangelism becomes a program. Worship becomes a program. Fields says, “A purpose-driven youth ministry will have programs and structures that reflect these purposes.” (17)

If a church is not reaching lost people, they will say that the evangelism purpose is not being fulfilled, and they’ll start an evangelism program to fix it. If the programs bring in lost folks, they will applaud it as working; if it doesn’t, they’ll throw it out and try a different program. The end result is really a program-driven church that is hiding behind the veneer of Biblical purposes. It’s justification for the machine. It is better hidden, but it will produce the same results: a church that operates as a pragmatic organization, without any need for direction, guidance, or blessing from the Holy Ghost.

The purpose driven model is massive. It produces the most programmatic, systematized, and complex church machine of all the modern ministries I have studied for this book. Fields’ book is hundreds of pages of structural detail, and it would be impossible for me to go into everything in this brief space. Instead of detailing everything, and the problems with each of the particulars, I’ll simply illustrate the depth of the programming with a few examples from the book. In the first example, Fields explains how he uses processes to guide spiritual growth.

For students, a process serves as a spiritual growth map they can follow. By connecting a program to a spot on the process, students can easily see where they are on the youth ministry’s strategy for growth. It’s like looking at a mall map and finding the “you are here” dot. When students see where they are in the spiritual growth process, they can be challenged to take the next step and attend a program sequentially designed to further their faith. (210, 211)

This sounds so appealing because people are naturally drawn to numbered, step-based, self-help programs. 12 steps to freedom from alcoholism. The 30-day guide to total health. Reclaim your focus in just 3 weeks. The 7 habits of highly effective people. 7 simple steps to financial freedom. These are all actual titles from bestselling self-help books. Oh, and don’t forget Rick Warren’s own 40 Days of Purpose.

Fields lays out an 18-step growth program for teens.

1. Friendship evangelism challenge
2. Hot-night events
3. Weekend worship services
4. New believers’ class
5. Dinner for ten
6. TNT: teens n’ temptation
7. Ministry teams
8. Class 101
9. Area Bible study small groups
10. Class 201
11. Discipleship tools:
• Quiet-Time Journal
• S.A.G Five
• Hidden Treasures
• Rootworks
• Bank of Blessings
12. Praise and Worship
13. Missions Monthly
14. Bible Institute
15. Class 301
16. Ministry team leader
17. Student leadership
18. Class 401 (213)

The parents who see this might be enamored by all the possible activities for their kids. Kids could come to church seven nights a week all throughout high school and not attend everything they have to offer. But as any fad-dieter knows, step-based programming is a false prescription. The reason it’s so difficult to pin down the exact problem with fad diets is because they seem to be completely reasonable and logical ways of dealing with the problem. But when we really think about it, we realize that the reason they fail is because they deal with surrounding issues, making the dieter feel like they’re accomplishing something while distracting them from making real changes in their relationship with food.

In much the same way, purpose driven programs are offering get-spiritual-quick fad Christianity in 40-day self-help programs. The results are the same as the fad diets. When the kids stop the programs, they stop their Christianity, because they never get at the core issue, which is building the teen’s relationship with the Lord.

Purpose-driven youth ministry is a cancer on the church. It feeds and grows because it is being built to grow the programs themselves, and it is assumed that if the programs are growing and the people are moving through them, they are successful. Parents assume that if their kids are moving through the programs, they’re being successful. And the whole time no one is asking if our kids are actually building a relationship with the Lord, or are just part of a successful program. Fields gives offhanded recognition to this in a single paragraph at the end of his section on processes.

A process will not guarantee spiritual maturity for those who complete it. It’s possible for a student to make it through your process and not have the spiritual depth you anticipated, because commitments to programs don’t necessarily indicate growth. Jesus faced that same issue with the Pharisees — their feet followed a process but their hearts didn’t follow their footsteps. We need to look for signs of spiritual maturity measured by a commitment to Christ, spiritual growth, serving, and expressing faith through everyday circumstances. (227)

I say this is lip service because Fields, ever the believer in processes, never gives us a program for measuring spiritual growth. He just says we need to look for signs. But in a church where kids are going through an 18-step systematic program, how could you tell? You’ve built the perfect place to hide, with plenty of crutches they can lean on without ever getting better. Somewhere that feels nice and spiritual. It would be difficult for the kids themselves — much less the people watching from the outside — to realize that their personal relationship with the Lord was lacking if they were involved in such drastic programming.

Teen Spirit Driven — The Cult of the Kid

There is a spirit in teenagers that is very different from little children and from adults. It can be described as excitable, enthusiastic, energetic, emotional, angsty, emotional, curious, and rebellious. For us older folks, it can be frustrating, but it also can energize us and cause us to hope for the future. As a result, churches have sought to grow their youth groups for the wrong reason. They desire to capture that spirit and to use it to liven up the church. You may have often heard the observation in churches, “Our church needs more young people to give it some life.”

Couple that desire to harness the energy of the youthful spirit with the burden of saving our teens from a rebellious spirit, and you have a dangerous mixture for a church. We end up with churches that create social clubs for kids who can be caged up or unleashed at will, depending on whether they want to use them or sequester them. If you’ll excuse the crude comparison, many youth groups are like the Incredible Hulk, with churches who aren’t sure if they are helpful or hurtful, and at any moment could be our heroes or our villains.

Andrew Root made this observation on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Eight Theses on Youth Work.”

Depending on the denomination and its political views, this spirited youth counterculture movement was interpreted either romantically or immorally; we needed young people in the church because their spirit was either so great or so corrupt. Either way, North American youth ministry was created to capture the spirit of youth for the church and often still exists for the same today… Even today we claim that we need young people in the church, for their spirit will revitalize a dying institution, and if we don’t have them in the church then their spirit will be corrupted by the culture. (Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, 120121)

Have you witnessed a church that was guilty of this? It often happens when an older church recognizes that the congregation is skewing towards seniors, and the spirit of the church is a little more reserved. People start to suggest that they should hire a youth worker to bring in some kids to liven up the congregation. Because the church feels like it is dying, they will often have a desperate and urgent desire to capture, contain, tame, and employ the poignant nature of the teen spirit. This results in churches tolerating new practices and programs in youth groups with little regard to scripture. Older folks get uncomfortable with the direction but are quieted and told that the youth are the future of the church and that there will be no church without the youth. This is exactly what Bonhoeffer warned against. In his first thesis, he states:

Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God. (Bonhoeffer quoted in Root, web)

Root observes that one of the reasons Bonhoeffer was so passionate about this subject was because he lived in Germany during the 1940s and 1950s and saw what the National Socialists had done with the youth. He lamented that Hitler used young people for their spirit and did not care about their souls. It is extreme to think that churches do not care about the souls of teens and only want to reach them for selfish reasons, but this should cause any church to pause for introspection. What is the motive behind our outreach to youth? Is it because we sincerely care about seeing young people saved? Or is it because we care about seeing our institution saved?

When we see the youth as the future of the church, we create a people-driven program for them, a kind of cult of young people, or at the very least a unique social club within the church, operating under their own unique, more flexible rules and standards. This can appeal to parents, because we want our kids to have friends and to learn good social skills, and we look for that in the church. While it may be that kids will learn good social skills as a result of being a part of a youth group, this should never, ever become one of the goals. When it does, the focus is taken off of Jesus Christ and is placed on people. Youth pastors become organizers of a social community or tribe, where the Lord is just another member.

Communion is true community with Christ in the mix. (Oestreicher, 74)

This wording gives the impression that a youth group is akin to a group of people at a party, and God is simply one of those people. As we discuss in detail in other sections, God should be the source of the community, not a member of it. He is the bond that holds the group together. Without him, there should be no bond. But groups are busy trying to build bonds based around the teen cult — the types of music kids listen to, or the sports they play, or the games they like, or the activities of which they want to be a part.

Once modern youth ministries create a group that is held together by their love of rock music, for example, they attempt to throw “Christ in the mix” in order to have some kind of effect on the kids. It would be admirable, for example, for a coach of a basketball team to try to pray before games, thus reminding the kids about the Lord in everything they do, but this should not be the posture of a church’s youth ministry. Ministers are not called to start basketball teams; they are called to preach. Hooking kids with socialization then trying to invite God to the party is light years away from being a scriptural church. The bond is Jesus Christ. Without him, the group ceases to exist.

Today’s youth culture is more splintered than ever. Go to a high school cafeteria and you’ll see the kids grouped by subcultures. The “goth” kids are on one side of the building, while the athletes sit at another group of tables together. The cheerleaders are talking, but they don’t mix with the chess club kids. Modern youth ministries recognize this and try to create all kinds of subgroups to make the kids feel comfortable in their own unique spirit. Andrew Root summarizes it this way:

We seek to take on practices (even programs) not for the sake of drawing (capturing for the church) the youthful spirit. Rather, we seek practices and programs that move us into the presence of the living Christ. What we do in ministry is framed not by the question, “Will the kids (the spirit of youth) like this?” (125)

When we operate based on meeting with the Lord and not answering to the culture of teens, our youth groups, instead of being fractured by social sects, will be the most diverse groups of teenagers around. We will see country kids talking with city kids. Athletes praying with mathletes. Musicians spending time with computer programmers.

An example of this is seen in the New Testament. The twelve disciples came from all walks of life. Fishermen, businessmen, tax collectors, young men, and older men. They did not stick together based on their cultural similarities. Their common bond was Christ. I imagine Matthew couldn’t hold a long discussion with Peter about their jobs or their interests. Peter would start talking about mending nets, and Matthew would try to discuss bookkeeping. Peter was a rough outdoorsman, and Matthew would be used to the shade. Their socializing wasn’t about themselves and their interests. It was about the Lord.

Our activities should be driven by the main goal of strengthening teens’ relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ. Creating a teen cult driven by the teen spirit will create divisions and factions based on what they like as individuals, instead of creating unity around the Lord. And it ultimately brings them to church for yet another reason, besides the main and only reason — to get closer to God.

Personality Driven

One frequent problem in today’s youth groups is that they are guided and directed by youth pastors instead of senior pastors. Many young preachers jump into youth work with the idea that they are going to create and lead their own ministry, while the church is just a loosely connected overseeing entity. Mark Oestreicher admits this is a problem in his book, Youth Ministry 3.0.

At the end of the day, what is a youth group other than a church within a church, a ‘youth church’ semi-connected to the whole but distinctly other?” […] Isolated youth groups have done just as much harm as good […] Find meaningful ways for adults of all ages to connect to the work of the youth ministry and attempt (with noble failure being a necessary part of the process) to find paths for integrating teenagers into the lives of adults in your church. (57, 107)

Doug Franklin explains one way this happens naturally, outside the work of the youth pastor.

It’s not that hard for a youth ministry to become an entity of its own — or a “little church.” In fact, this approach is inherited. It starts in the church nursery, then into the children’s ministry, to middle school, and finally into high school. When the teens in your youth group were seven years old, they probably functioned inside of the children’s ministry, without really knowing what’s going on in the rest of the church. They may have joined their family in the adult worship service for the beginning (during the music) but then were whisked away to a “kid-friendly” service (typically before the pastor’s sermon). But in middle and high school, that perspective changes. The expectation of most churches becomes that the students must begin to integrate into the “adult” world of the church, but still maintain separate programming.

Regardless of where this approach originated, take a minute to consider the divide that often exists between youth ministries and “big church.” Typically, youth ministry is the segment of the church that most reflects the processes and programs of the church as a whole (small groups, discipleship, sermon/teaching, service projects, mission trips, evangelism, worship) while still being separate from the “big church.” The youth ministry often has its own small groups and its own worship times, and often its own space in the church, too.

Many people in church leadership will point to separate programming as the reason why the youth are disengaged from the rest of the church. Inevitably, there will be some form of a divide between most youth ministries and the other ministries of their churches, a chasm that often rips churches apart. (Franklin, 54–55)

When youth pastors are driving the direction of the youth group and creating a church within a church, it creates several problems. The youth don’t feel like they go to the church; they feel like they go to the youth church. They develop a relationship with the youth pastor and not the pastor, and they go to the youth pastor for counseling. They attend youth group events exclusively, or they only attend church events and services reluctantly. The adults notice that the youth group seems to operate as its own entity, never participating in church life, always off doing their own thing, and seemingly out of step with the direction of the church. It can cause all kinds of discord and discomfort among church members. Also, when the kids graduate out of these youth groups, they are forced into an entirely new church that is new and unfamiliar to them, and many of them quit as a result.

Another problem is that some youth pastors are at constant war with their pastors. They want to do things their own way, whether it concerns teaching, music, activities, or anything else concerning the direction of the group. On one ministry podcast, a group of well-known youth ministers take questions from their audience of youth pastors. Time and time again, there are questions from the audience asking how to deal with pastors with whom they don’t agree. You get the sense that these youth ministers are rebellious toward their pastors and are looking for ways to get out from under their authority.

In his excellent book The Disconnect: Bridging the Youth Pastor and Senior Pastor Gap, Doug Franklin describes to youth pastors a typical rift that can occur.

Do you, your leaders, or other staff members ever say things like …
“The ‘big boys’ upstairs want us to change this now.”
“The ‘mother ship’ has called a meeting next week.”
“My students don’t like going to ‘big church.’”
Usually when we start talking like this, it’s because we consider ourselves a separate entity from the rest of the church. It’s a sign of a disconnected culture and disloyalty. It plays out in everyday actions and everyday conversations.
Youth pastor Andrew is talking with his assistant and discipleship leaders about an upcoming youth event. They’ve decided to do a fall fest and want to cart bales of hay into the newly built sanctuary. The assistant suddenly asks a probing question: “Do you think they’ll care if we pile a bunch of hay into the sanctuary?” Everyone stops for a second to think but eventually laughs it off, with Andrew pointing out that in this case, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” As the discussion moves on, one of the boys’ discipleship leaders asks if anyone got the latest memo from the “guys upstairs.” “Even though they cut our budget so every office would have new glass doors installed for liability sake, they’ve now mandated that we can never have our doors completely shut. They must always be open at least 6 inches. How ridiculous is that!” (Franklin, 54–55)

If this is the attitude the youth leaders have, what could they possibly be teaching the students about submitting to those who are over them? If your teen is attending a group where the youth pastor is not in sync with the pastor, where he is constantly teaching something that is in opposition to the pastor, or where he is consistently undermining the leadership of the church, it may not be a healthy place for your teen to grow spiritually.

This really is not far from the problem of the parachurches that we cover in another section. Just as the parachurches are creating their own entities not under the authority of the church, these kinds of youth ministries are operating outside the leadership and scope of the church. They are not under any kind of Biblical authority or leadership. They cause the attendees to feel less connected from the church of which they’re a member of, and they don’t provide any real staying power for the teens once they leave the group.

The guidance and direction of youth groups should be done by the pastor, not the youth director. The youth director should find out what the pastor wants and work to fulfill that. There should not be a war of beliefs between the pastor and youth director. If the youth director does not agree with the pastor, he must work to change his beliefs to match the pastor, or he should quietly leave. Not doing this can create all kinds of trouble, and the kids will be the ultimate casualties in the war.

Mission Driven

One of the pervasive trends of modern youth ministry is what they call a mission-driven, or missional, approach. Chap Clark, defending missional youth ministry in a chapter titled “The Missional Approach to Youth Ministry,” defines it this way:

Therefore, youth ministry as a mission is defined as the community of faith corporately committed to caring for and reaching out into the adolescent world (of both churched and unchurched young people) in order to meaningfully assimilate them into their fellowship. (Black, 80)

Evangelism is good, and it certainly is the responsibility of Christians to witness to the lost and preach the gospel. However, when the church takes on evangelism as a purpose of assembling, rather than as the work of individuals, it has a tendency towards overreach. The church is a called-out assembly of believers. It was established as a place for Christians to assemble, outside the world, to exhort each other and to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. Because it is supposed to be an assembly of believers, non-believers naturally will feel a bit out of place. We know that unbelievers will come into our churches since they are open services, and we should work to make them feel welcome and to include the gospel in our preaching in case lost people are listening, but churches should not have evangelistic services week after week.

When evangelism becomes a major focus of modern church services, they begin to look at their programs in light of how a lost person would view them and then seek to make them more comfortable for these unchurched people. Churches try to create environments that lost kids will be attracted to, and then ease them into accepting Jesus. This is why we see so many youth groups hosting Christian concerts, fairs, after-school programs and weekend parties. They are trying to get lost kids to attend something they’d like to experience, and then slip in the message of the gospel.

If a lost person wanders into the church, we should do our best to welcome them and be friendly, but they are going to feel a measure of discomfort. They aren’t going to know the music or even like it. They won’t understand the language or get the message. They aren’t going to feel like it’s a place they are familiar with, like a concert or a party. So what do we do for lost folks who come in by themselves? Should we act as if they don’t belong or as if they wandered into the wrong room and need to be shooed out? Absolutely not. Instead, individuals in the church should work with them in a friendly manner as they would work with their own lost friends.

Lost folks don’t need to feel like church is a familiar place; lost folks need to be saved. They need to be born again and to receive the Holy Spirit, who will then help them begin to understand what’s going on in the church. The Holy Spirit will also guide them “into all truth” and teach them what they need to learn in order to be a Christian — not just saved, but a follower of the Lord. So individual Christians in the church should be on the lookout for visitors, to work with them one-on-one and try to lead them to the Lord. This is the best way for us to welcome the lost into our church.

Turning the teen service into a seeker-friendly evangelistic program is not only unbiblical, it is untenable. The first thing that seeker-sensitive youth groups attempt to do is to look at their services as a lost, unchurched person would look at them. They then tear down anything that would be unfamiliar or nonsensical to the unchurched teen. The music is changed into secular music that the unchurched would listen to. The Bible is not preached because the unchurched young people don’t read it or understand it, and preaching is replaced by self-help styled talks, such as the unchurched would get from talk shows. Consider this advice from church consultant Reggie McNeal in his book The Present Future:

Missiologists do cultural exegesis. Missionaries understand that being culturally relevant is critical to an evangelism strategy. The point is not to adopt the culture and lose the message; the point is to understand the culture so we can build bridges to it for the sake of gaining a hearing for the gospel of Jesus. (51)

This sounds nice, and we might like the idea of not adopting the culture but rather building a bridge so people in that culture can get to Christ. But if we continue reading, we see what McNeal means by building a bridge. He advocates throwing out the words “lost,” “saved,” and “repent” and doing worship services using the instruments and music of the world.

I am amazed at how many congregations will cheer denominationally produced videos of foreign mission efforts that include contextualized worship experiences (native dance, native instruments) but, when the lights com on, rant against the same strategy in their clubhouse. This shows up dramatically in the worship wars. North American church club members are quite willing to deny this privilege even to our own church kids… (52)

So we find out that “building a bridge to the culture” in practice means placing the culture inside the church so that the world can feel comfortable there. That’s a short bridge. It’s actually less like building a bridge, and more like draining the moat. In the name of reaching the lost, or to use the modern euphemism, the unchurched, we have become them. As we show in our section on results, the unchurched aren’t walking into these culturally relevant rock shows and viewing them as a bridge to Christ; they are taking a look around and determining that they don’t need it because it’s no different from what they already have.

Besides the fact that the search for relevance has resulted in redundancy, it is also unsustainable because we don’t live in a monoculture. In one city, there are kids who like a certain style speaker and those who can’t stand that style. Others don’t want to be talked to at all but want to learn on their own through research or discussion. When it comes to music, we don’t even just have to deal with rap, rock, and country anymore. There are many different subgenres of each. If it was even acceptable, Biblically, to use worldly music and speaking styles in church, how would we even begin to include them all? It’s just not possible to create something that is going to be comfortable for all the different types of culture that exists within a five-mile radius of a typical church.

The message of the gospel is preached by an individual; it isn’t disseminated through a program. Individual Christians have shunned their own responsibility and have passed the responsibility of evangelism and discipleship to “the church,” meaning the organization and programs of the church. But evangelism was never meant to be a program. It is done by preachers in public and individuals one-to-one.

So how should youth groups reach lost teens? By Christians who preach the gospel to them. Christian teens should be witnessing in school and at the places they hang out. They shouldn’t simply be meekly inviting kids to a church program; they should be witnessing to them, telling them the gospel message, and asking them to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. Once a teen gets saved, they come to church, the place where saved people gather. It’s really quite simple, but when we have a breakdown on the front lines — teens witnessing to the lost — then the church feels the need to pick up the burden and program the evangelism.

Turning evangelism into a program of an organization, instead of a work of the Holy Spirit through individual Christians, has cleared the path for modern youth ministry outreach programs to morph into marketing machines. There exists a link, a kind of kindred relationship, between growing a church through outreach and growing a business through marketing.


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

Copyright © Sam Magdalein 2016.

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