The Main Activities of a Biblical Youth Group
Preaching the Bible — Doctrinal Teaching — Exhortation — Activities — Standing Behind Parents
Preaching the Bible
Preaching must be the center point or focus of a Bible-believing work. If we want God to be pleased with what we are doing, preaching must be the focus. (Peacock, Kindle Locations 436–437)
The main thing that a young person needs from their youth group is preaching.
There are surely lots of other things that youth need to help them grow in the Lord, and we will cover them in later sections. But when a teen walks into a youth group, Sunday school class, or church service, the thing that will help them more than fellowship, games, activities, relationships, music, entertainment, and service projects is preaching from the Bible.
If we study the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels, we shall find that, although he performed many miracles, and showed great compassion in healing people’s bodies, the greater part of his ministry was given to preaching. Mark begins his Gospel with the words: “Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14). And at the end of his ministry Jesus commissioned his followers to “‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15) (Williams)
It’s no coincidence that preaching is the one thing that is minimized most in modern youth ministries. Modern ministries look at preaching as a necessary evil. They view it as something that should be replaced with more up-to-date methods of getting the gospel message across. Preaching is pushed to the corner of the youth ministry agenda and rushed through in a few minutes after hours of games and music. Youth preachers are sloughing off studying for messages and instead are delivering hastily prepared lessons purchased from youth ministry resource companies. This is because the devil knows it is God’s main method for dealing with Christians in the church, and he has worked to steal this important weapon from our arsenal.
Look at a few scriptures that emphasize the importance of preaching:
It is a divine command — Mk. 16:15; Mt. 28:18–20; Jhn. 1:1–2; Mt. 10:5–7; Mk. 6:7–12; Lk. 9:1–6
It is rooted in God’s grace — Eph. 3:7–9; Isa. 6:1–10; Ro. 15:15–16
It is empowered by God’s Spirit — Ac. 1:8; Isa. 61:1–3; Lk. 24:46–49; Ac. 2:1–11; 4:8–12; 10:44; 1Co. 2:4–5
Jesus Christ himself came to preach — Mk. 1:38; Lk. 4:43; Eph. 2:17
Jesus Christ’s own ministry involved much preaching — Mt. 4:23; Mt. 11:1–5; Lk. 7:18–22
Jesus Christ commissioned his disciples to preach — Mk. 3:14–15; Mt. 10:5–7; Lk. 9:1–2
It is a natural part of the church’s life — Ac. 8:4; Ac. 3:11–26; 15:35
It is a trust from God — Gal. 2:7; 1Th. 2:4; 1Ti. 1:11; Tit. 1:3
It is an integral aspect of key ministries in the church — 1Ti. 3:2; Eph. 4:11–12; 2Ti. 4:2–5; Tit. 1:7–9
Its importance to Paul — 1Co. 1:17–18; Ac. 9:20–22; 18:5; Ro. 1:14–15; 1Co. 1:22–25
It is an apostolic command — 1Ti. 4:13; 2Ti. 4:2
The importance of preaching for salvation — Ro. 10:14–15; Isa. 52:7; Ro. 10:17; 1Co. 1:21
The importance of preaching means preachers and teachers will be judged more strictly — Jam. 3:1; Ro. 2:17–24 (Manser)
God could have delivered the gospel message a lot of ways. Have you ever wondered why he didn’t write the gospel in the stars, or etch it on the side of a mountain? For some reason, God has chosen preaching as the method of delivering it. The passage that is so familiar to us, “faith cometh by hearing,” is actually a passage about preaching. Here is the passage in context:
8 But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; 9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. 12 For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. 13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. 14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? 17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
There are all kinds of ways to give out the message of the gospel. You can read it in a tract, or hear it in a song, or receive it by way of witness from a Christian, but the main method God has given is a man standing before a crowd and proclaiming it. He did this in part to confound the wisdom of the world.
1 Corinthians 1:21
21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
Yet when modern youth ministries see the foolishness of it, instead of accepting it as God’s way, they try to prop up all kinds of other things. God is pleased by preaching. When the preacher stands and opens the Bible and delivers in public what God has spoken to him in secret, the Holy Spirit moves between the preacher and the people, and a supernatural work is accomplished that does not happen any other way.
Preaching the Bible: It’s a Spiritual Weapon, Not a Carnal One
2 Corinthians 10:4
4 (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)
Preaching is a spiritual weapon, not a carnal one. There is a spiritual transaction that takes place when a preacher opens the Bible and delivers God’s message to spirit-filled Christians. A young person can come into church completely in the flesh, out of fellowship with the Lord, and be able to fool everyone into believing that he or she is fine. But when the preacher opens the Bible and the Holy Spirit begins to work, it stirs up the spirit that is inside the listener and goads them toward repentance.
The Christian teen needs to be reproved, rebuked, and exhorted, and the preacher is told explicitly by Paul to preach the word in order to accomplish those goals.
2 Timothy 4:2
2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
There is an authoritative action that can take place when the words of God are preached that cannot be equaled by music, fellowship, or counseling in a relationship setting. A reproof or a rebuke will usually be softened when you’re just having a conversation with a friend. “Sure, Sally, that dress looks great on you. It doesn’t make you look fat at all. Maybe try one with vertical stripes, though, instead of horizontal ones?” Preaching literally means “a stab or thrust,” and the same regular, weekly, forceful rebuke cannot be done through gentle relational conversations. We soften our words with our friends, but in the pulpit the preacher has no friends, foes, or family. He only focuses on faithfulness to the words that the Holy Spirit has given him.
Biblical preaching is supposed… to have a thrust and present a charge to the people in such a way that it is authoritative on behalf of God. (Peacock, 70–71)
There is exhortation that takes place from Christian to Christian, but it only happens every once in a while at church. It is done haphazardly and piecemeal. Face it, counting on other teens in the youth group to exhort your kids is like counting on your pet dog to clean up the kitchen for you. It may lick up some food off the floor, but you’ll hardly say the floor had been cleaned.
If a teen sits and listens to sermons week after week, they will get exhortation that is thought out beforehand, biblically based, and regular. The best thing a parent can do for their teen’s spiritual life is to get them under preaching a few times a week. It is a regular, routine spiritual meal that cannot be replaced with once-in–a-while spiritual snacking.
Some parents may want their kids to get into a ministry where counseling is heavily regarded and available. In modern America, we have a tendency to lean heavily on therapy, and if kids are pushed towards it it can lead to egotistic attitudes. Counseling sessions usually consist heavily of kids talking about themselves and their own problems, while preaching causes them to listen. There are mental health instances in which psychological therapy is needed, but for most mentally healthy kids preaching is sufficient and will answer most of the problems for which parents would desire counseling. Dr. Ruckman mentions this explicitly:
No pastor would have half his people to counsel, that he has coming to him, if those people regularly attended every message he preached in a two-year-period; that is, if he was a Bible-believing preacher preaching the Bible. In that period of time any member of that congregation would have heard his problem preached on and the solution to that problem given. (Ruckman, The God-Called Preacher, Kindle Locations 2571–2574)
The word of God is a sword that is wielded by the preacher for the good of the Christian who hears it.
12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
This passage tells us that when a teen hears the words of God, it doesn’t just go in one ear and out the other. The Holy Spirit drives it into the soul and spirit, and it works on the hearers’ minds and hearts. You may think that kids aren’t listening, but you’d be amazed what God is doing in their hearts through preaching. Even the toughest of kids are softened by preaching and are affected when they sit and listen to the words of God preached.
Preaching the Bible: It’s a Necessity, not an Accessory
Notice also in the verse above that Paul instructed Timothy to preach in and out of season. It does not matter if folks feel like it is not a good time to preach; preaching must be done anyway. We may get too busy for a lot of things, but, like food and water, we cannot get too busy for preaching. Paul did all kinds of great things in ministry. He fasted and prayed, he gave and he served, he wrote letters and visited churches. But in all these things, Paul said he could not get by without preaching.
1 Corinthians 9:16
16 For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!
Notice that Paul said preaching is a necessity. It is not something that is optional based on cultural acceptance. It isn’t a luxury based on whether people are interested in hearing it or have extra time to kill. Preachers cannot poll the community to see if the youth desire to hear preaching, and they cannot preach less or more based on the responsiveness of the kids in attendance. It is a necessity for the preacher to “tell them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear” (Eze. 3:11).
They must not be so concerned to please their congregations, or be influenced by the criticism or praise of others to the extent that they forget that they are accountable to God in Christ. James, in his letter, takes this whole question of pastoral accountability a step further, and warns that those who are teachers of God’s truth will be under greater condemnation than others if they are not faithful in preaching that truth (James 3:1). (Williams)
We are told in the Bible that the time will come when the people will not endure sound doctrine, but preachers are to preach anyway. It is the fundamental task of a preacher to preach. They should feel an urgency, an insistency to preach. One preacher said, “I preached as never sure to preach again; as a dying man to dying men.” A youth group must not denigrate that earnestness, but rather the ardor should be pervasive. The youth pastor should itch to preach to teens. He must have a sense that time is short, an uneasiness in knowing how much the kids are being preached at from the world, and a conviction that every opportunity must be seized to stem the flood of the world and preach to young people the words of God.
Take, as an illustration, the health risk of dehydration that is common to the elderly. As they get older, they don’t sense or feel thirst like they did when they were younger. They have a tendency to feel able to go about a full day and only sip on a small glass of water. Many older folks are taken to emergency rooms because they unwittingly dehydrate themselves, not even recognizing their need to drink.
In the same way, when Christians get away from the Lord, we lose the ability to sense our need for the water of the word of God. A real danger for young Christians is to spend lots of time in youth activities and little time hearing the words of God. They often don’t realize they are becoming spiritually dehydrated. The pulpit can be a spiritual watering hole, where even if they have neglected the Bible throughout the week, they are brought to it and are freely given a drink.
Preaching the Bible: Energy and Enthusiasm
Youth preaching shouldn’t be boring and dry.
I must confess that I would rather hear people laugh than I would see them asleep in the house of God; and I would rather get the truth into them through the medium of ridicule than I would have it neglected, or leave the people to perish through lack of reception of the message. (Charles Spurgeon, quoted in Wiersbe, Warren and David)
The youth preacher should be enthusiastic and full of zeal and the Holy Spirit, and should work to keep the attention of the young people. It won’t do much good for kids to come hear a sermon from a preacher who is not excited about what he’s preaching. If the preacher himself is bored, how can we expect kids to stay awake? But if the preacher cares about his message, he will use the full breadth of preaching faculties that God has given examples of in the Bible. This means the sermons should be full of humor and soberness, plain speaking and sharp irony, straightforward declarations and poetic dynamics, systematic teaching and allegorical illustrations. Biblical preaching is interesting preaching.
Don’t be fooled into thinking, as the modern church teaches, that kids won’t endure old-fashioned preaching. To adapt an old saying: if the preaching is on fire, the kids will want to watch it burn. Teens will enjoy it, and their walk with the Lord will be improved by hearing it. It’s true that preachers can get dry, and it’s true that the world can dull the listener’s ears. If your kids consistently come home bored by the preaching, check up on the youth pastor to make sure he’s not serving up boring, dusty, dehydrated milk. If he is, pray about talking to the pastor about helping the youth pastor improve his sermons. It’s too important to let something like that go. If he is preaching with zeal, work on your kids throughout the week to stir up their interest in spiritual things. It may help to turn off the TV on Saturday night and spend some family time in prayer and Bible devotions.
Sunday the sermon was sluggish,
’Twas hard attention to keep.
The theme was faultily chosen,
It almost put me to sleep.
Monday was blue with sheer boredom;
Tuesday was carnal by choice.
Wednesday my conscience was wakened
By pleas from a still, small voice.
Prayer meeting left me uplifted,
Loyalty lingering long.
Thursday my heart was responding;
Friday His nudging was strong.
I came to thorough repentance
The following Saturday;
I yielded in full surrender
As all on the altar I lay.
Sunday the sermon was perfect,
Superb and quite at its peak;
Amazing how greatly that pastor
Improved in the space of one week!
— R. W. de Haan
Preaching can be tough on the flesh. It’s not easy sometimes to sit and listen week after week. But a youth preacher should work to make the message understandable and exciting for the kids to hear. The teens will still have to put down their flesh, but when the spirit is left to listen, the kids should hear a message that is full of life and enthusiasm, and livens them as a result.
That doesn’t mean that youth sermons need to resort to modern gimmicks in order to keep the attention of teens.
1 Corinthians 2:4–5
4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: 5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
Modern youth ministries have turned preaching into a sideshow. On one podcast, two youth minsters shared with each other what they called “bits,” which are what comedians have named their small snippets of material. Preaching can use humor, but it is not stand-up comedy. It should not be overrun with humor so much that the message is lost. Have you ever picked up your kids from youth group and asked them what they learned, only to hear the reply, “I don’t remember, but it was really funny!” All we’ve trained them for, if that’s the case, is to like stuff that’s funny.
Other youth ministries use movie clips, songs, skits, and elaborate props in the middle of their sermons. If your youth pastor’s sermons remind you of Carrot Top, run fast and run far. These things should not be necessary if the preacher has met with the Lord and is zealous to deliver what God has given him.
Surely such a preacher will be a man in earnest, and will win an earnest hearing, compelling attention by his contagious zeal and enthusiasm. (Pierson)
Preaching the Bible: Special Subjects for Youth
One of the best things parents can do for their teens is to get them involved in regular weekly preaching services at the church. This is more important than attending the youth group. Please don’t pull your kids from the preaching service to go play ping-pong in the youth room. If youth were only able to go to church or to youth group, they would be far better off attending church and listening to the preaching of God’s words.
What place, then, does youth preaching have? Should they just sit in adult church? They could, but youth preaching can tackle on a more regular basis the unique themes related to young people. There are parts of the Bible that are written specifically to youth.
6 Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded. 7 In all things shewing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine shewing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, 8 Sound speech, that cannot be condemned; that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you.
In this passage, Paul gives Titus instruction on special subjects of preaching and exhortation to young men, with an understanding that they have a tendency towards foolish behavior. Face it, we’re dumb when we’re teens. We did the dumbest things and thought it was cool. Remember parachute pants? Vanilla Ice? What were we thinking? The truth is, we weren’t. In fact, much of the book of Proverbs is written from a father to a son, giving him special instructions for casting away foolishness and simplicity, and helping him learn knowledge and discretion.
1 The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel; 2 To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; 3 To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; 4 To give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion.
Young people are also surrounded by foolish counselors, friends their age who have no experience, insight, or understanding, but who still don’t hesitate to give their opinions and guidance on all kinds of decisions. We all believe that our own teens are wise sages, but we look at their friends and, well, we’re less impressed. Consider this: our wise sage teens are getting advice from those dopey friends. Dopey Jim from down the street is telling your son how he should act around girls. If that thought doesn’t cause you to reserve your son a permanent seat on the front pew at church, nothing will.
Rehoboam is an example of a young king who listened to such counsel to his own peril.
1 Kings 12:6–8
6 And king Rehoboam consulted with the old men, that stood before Solomon his father while he yet lived, and said, How do ye advise that I may answer this people? 7 And they spake unto him, saying, If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever. 8 But he forsook the counsel of the old men, which they had given him, and consulted with the young men that were grown up with him, and which stood before him:
Preaching that is directed at youth can offer opposing counsel for our kids who are getting such poor advice from their friends every day.
Teens also face temptations that are not as prevalent for adults, and the subjects can be dealt with from a more pointed and direct manner in a youth group. In church, the kids may get preaching on these subjects once in a while, whereas in a youth group they could get warnings on these specific sins much more regularly. Teens should be warned in preaching about lust (2 Tim. 2:2), drinking (Prov. 31), purity (Psalm 119:9), and obedience and submission to parents (Eph. 6:1–3). They deal with sinful amusements (Prov. 28:4), bad friends (Prov. 13:20), wicked role models (Prov. 19:27), worldly philosophies (Col. 2:8), and outspoken enemies to their faith that parents don’t deal with. Face it, how often these days do you get tempted to sneak out with a group of friends to a “cool” party on Friday night? Your friends are all home on Friday night eating potato chips and watching basketball. We aren’t tempted by “cool” anymore. Cool has left the building.
So these may seem like cliché youth subjects to adults, but they are issues that teens face on a regular basis, and regular preaching on these subjects can be a refreshing aid to Christian youth.
9 Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word.
Preaching the Bible: Preaching, not Programs
I do believe we slander Christ when we think we are to draw people by something else but the preaching of Christ crucified. — Charles Spurgeon
We’ll discuss the problem with church programs in another section, but suffice it to say that they aren’t working. Lame, connect-the-dots discipleship courses and Judo for Jesus classes are empty alternatives to the rich treasure of the preaching of God’s words. To throw away preaching for programs is like trading tens of thousands of dollars for Trump University. That money had lots of value and could be used for tons of benefits, but you traded it for a hokey system from a smiling guru. But at least with Trump U, you get a photo with a cardboard cutout of the big orange man himself. That’s kind of neat. With church programs, you’ve traded preaching and got nothing of value in return.
Biblical preaching accomplishes more in the lives of a young person than any well-oiled, modern church program could ever dream of. Preaching’s reach is sufficient to touch the prodigal that is far away; its scope is wide enough to include those on the margins; its language is universal for any culture; its resource can supply any need. A young person who regularly receives Bible preaching gets a full breadth of help to nurture their spiritual life. They get the seed from which their spiritual life can grow (Luke 8:11). They get water (Eph. 5:26), milk (1 Peter 2:2), bread (Matt. 4:4), and meat (Heb. 5:12) for their nutrition. It will be a light for their path (Ps. 119:105), a mirror for their introspection (James 1:23–25), a hammer for their agitation (Jer. 23:29), a sword for their fortification (Eph. 6:17), and a fire for their motivation (Jer. 20:9). If all your church has for young people is preaching, it has all that is needed to plant and nourish and grow the spiritual life of your teen.
Doctrinal Teaching: Laying a Biblical Foundation
One of the most important things a teen group can do is teach young people the Bible. It’s not in vogue these days, for sure. I even heard the pastor of a large church say that he does not care about teaching people the Bible; instead he only cares about changing people’s lives. That sounds noble, and it’s true that Bible knowledge alone will not create a Christian, but it is wrong to use that fact to throw out Bible teaching.
The first application of scripture is doctrine.
2 Timothy 3:16
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
Before the application of scripture, we have to know what it says. We have to be able to parse out the teaching itself; otherwise the application can be misguided. Some people may think that teens will be bored and not want to hear Bible doctrine, but if it is presented in a way that they can understand, from a teacher who is excited to teach it, Bible doctrine can be interesting and enjoyable for teens to learn.
Don’t underestimate their ability to learn the Bible. Some of the most memorable times we’ve had at youth camps have been when teens have stayed after church to sit around — sometime for hours — asking their pastor Bible questions. They ask all kinds of things, including questions about eternal security, prophecy, the judgments, what heaven will be like, and even more advanced doctrines like dispensationalism. In our class, the kids have devoured topics including the life of Christ, cults, and theological studies.
We shouldn’t think that teens are not able to grasp these doctrines. They can learn them — and they should learn them, as they form the foundations for the beliefs that will shape their faith for the rest of their lives.
Exhortation: Teens Need Support and Prayer
There’s no doubt that teens face unique obstacles and hurdles to their walk with the Lord Jesus Christ. There are times when they need encouragement to keep walking with the Lord, and there are other times when they need help getting past a unique problem. A good youth group and youth pastor can be that extra help they need.
13 But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.
Because a young person spends so much time in the world, it can be easy for them to grow calloused to the Lord. The daily grind of school and life and giving in to seemingly small daily sins can cause their spiritual life to grow cold. This verse tells us that we can help teens break down that callousness by exhorting them. When a teen comes to youth group, a youth director can chat with them, ask them about how things are going, and let them know they are praying for them. An encouraging word from an adult and another teen can be a regular tool that breaks up the hardness that could be forming around a teen’s heart.
1 Thessalonians 5:11
11 Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.
Teens can edify one another in a youth group through praying for each other and encouraging each other to keep going in spite of tough times. They can build up each other’s faith when they see that other teens are trying to live for the Lord. When they see other teens making it through difficulties, it can teach them about enduring trials themselves.
24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
A teen group can be a source of positive peer pressure in a world of negative pressure. Teens that they should be praying, but when they come to a teen class and hear other teens praying, it can provoke them to do it themselves. Teens are naturally influenced by other teens.
I once heard an older youth pastor say that if he stood at the front of a church and offered a lollipop to everyone in the congregation, the little kids would raise their hands first. They would be followed shortly thereafter by the older folks. The middle-aged people would pass, because a lollipop is not worth the calories. If we’re going to spend those calories, we’ll spend it on something good, like ice cream. But the teens would be the last to raise their hands. They’d look around to the other teens in the crowd and see who was raising their hands. They would only want to be a part of the lollipop crowd if their friends were part of the lollipop crowd.
Teens experience so much negative peer pressure in the world. As parents, we cringe when we see our teens’ eyes darting around to their friends for acceptance and see them being influenced so easily by other kids. But a youth group can be a good source of positive peer pressure. When they see that it’s okay to be pure, and okay to love God, and okay to pray, and when they see that they aren’t the only teen in the world who loves the Lord Jesus Christ, it can encourage them to keep growing in their faith.
Activities: Fun for Fellowship’s Sake
What place do activities have in a church youth group? On one hand, I’ve seen groups who do many activities, but for all the wrong reasons. They use activities to draw kids to the youth group. But it’s hard to justify that Biblically — and it doesn’t even work. On the other hand, some groups won’t do an activity unless there is preaching involved.
I’d like to propose a third function for youth activities. I believe we should view activities as youth-styled church fellowships. Churches have fellowships for adults, usually a few times a year. The purpose of these events is so the members can get to know other folks who they haven’t had time to meet during regular services. It’s also to have some casual conversations with church members you don’t speak with very often, which helps them grow closer and be better at exhorting one another, praying for each other, and encouraging each other to keep going for the Lord. For adults, this means sitting down around a meal. Everyone brings a dish and has a potluck dinner in the fellowship hall. This is a great way for adults to fellowship. We love it. Food and fellowship makes for a nice, relaxing afternoon.
Kids, however, hate it. A church potluck dinner is about as far from a good time as a teenager can imagine. Kids just don’t fellowship by sitting together over meals. They will do that with friends, but they won’t just sit down across the table from a teen they don’t know and strike up a conversation in order to get to know them better.
This is where activities have a place. Kids can come to a youth group activity where they play some games and get to know each other. It breaks the ice, gets them past their fear of talking to new teens, and helps them see that they are all just regular kids.
One year at youth camp, our adults noticed that the kids weren’t mixing up very well. There seemed to be a lot of tension in the group. The response to the preaching was a bit stiff, and the kids weren’t talking to each other much; they were sticking to the small groups they came with. They simply didn’t know each other that well and were nervous around each other. So before a service, I called up all the seniors who were there. I announced that some younger kids might be intimidated by these giant teens who were lumbering around them — but that they actually were all just big teddy bears and nothing to be afraid of.
Once the seniors were up front, I asked them to sing the old song that Barney the Dinosaur was famous for: “I love you, you love me…” They acted out the song and sang it to the younger kids. Everybody laughed; the older kids stopped trying to act so tough; the younger ones realized that the older ones were approachable; and it allowed the kids to get to know each other better without the tension. That simple, silly thing broke the ice and allowed the kids to have Christian fellowship with one another.
Adults don’t need this. Sit us old fogeys around a bucket of fried chicken and biscuits, and we’ll talk and get to know each other. Teens need something a bit more interactive to get things moving.
So once again, I’m advocating for a simpler view of youth ministry. Activities don’t need to be these big, complicated events designed with a marketing spin to get kids excited about coming to church. They’re just fellowships, kid-style. If we think about them this way, it makes a lot of other questions easier to tackle.
How often should we do them? Whenever we see that the group is fragmenting and they’re not as close as they could be. This is probably a lot less than every week. Maybe it’s only a few times a year. It can probably be rolled into church fellowships to make it even simpler. When the church has a fellowship, why not have a youth section where the youth leader plays table games and gets the kids talking? This creates a clear link between the youth activity and the church fellowship.
The church doesn’t need to provide activities for the sake of activities. Kids have plenty of opportunities to play sports and hang out with friends. They can do this on their own without the church outlaying resources for this. It’s redundant. How often have you, as a parent, felt guilty about not bringing your teen to yet another church activity and wondered if you were messing up your child’s spiritual life by missing this week’s scavenger hunt? We’re busy enough as it is, and we don’t need more activities for the sake of activities. Also, it gives kids a false idea of what the church is for and about. It’s not a rec center.
There is one exception that I’ve seen that I’d like to mention here. In some locations it’s not true that kids have plenty to do outside of church. In your area, there may be nothing else for kids to do but get into trouble. This can be true, for example, in small towns where sports clubs and malls don’t exist. It also might be true in urban areas, where the local hangouts are filled with drugs and other bad influences. In these cases, I would view the youth ministry as being something different from a simple church youth group.
It might help to compare these ministries more to those of church schools. Churches often start schools in areas where the community schools are not great places for kids. In these cases, they are trying to provide a good alternative, to offer something that is void in the community. This is a specific calling for those churches, and the ministry is usually a major focus for them. Similarly, churches may feel called to provide a youth center where local kids can hang out, play sports, get tutoring, and generally provide something that the community simply does not offer. This is a special case and shouldn’t be true of every church. Just like every church doesn’t need a school, every church doesn’t need a youth center. If you’re in an area like the one described here, it may be something to consider prayerfully as you’re looking for a youth group. Even then, however, the Lord may not lead you to be part of a church simply because it has a youth center. Often in these situations, churches will band together and use the facilities of one local area youth center that a single church is providing.
Standing behind the Parents: Your Personal Amen Section
There is no substitute for parents. No matter what a youth pastor does, it pales in comparison to the influence that parents will have on their kids. So what role can a youth worker take when the parents are already in church, trying to raise their kids in a godly way?
When a parent is raising their children in the Lord, a youth worker can be an “amen” section for them. They can come into agreement with what Mom and Dad are trying to teach their kids, and they can act as a support to their instruction. The most important thing a child can have is good instruction coming from inside the home. When a youth worker echoes what the child is hearing at home, it solidifies that instruction.
If a good friend recommends a restaurant to you, that’s the strongest recommendation you could get. But if, after the friend recommends it, you then read a good review in a newspaper from a restaurant critic, the recommendation is strengthened and given additional authority. A youth pastor can act as an outside authoritative voice from the Bible that solidifies the messages that teens are already getting at home. When this happens, when youth pastors stand behind the parents as a second voice, “amen-ing” the parents, youth work is most valuable.
For example, imagine a mom and dad who are teaching their kids to “obey your parents in the Lord, for this is good.” That message is so important, and we can see in our world and in our churches the messes that are made when kids are not taught to be obedient, but are rather allowed to disobey without consequences or are allowed to do whatever they want with no rules. Obedience to parents is a great thing that can be taught at home by parents. I can hear you “amen-ing” me about this right now, from wherever you are.
But now imagine that the child, after hearing their parents instruct them about this, attends Sunday school where the teacher is teaching a doctrinal lesson about Jesus being subordinate to his Father. Along the way, the teacher mentions that Jesus is a perfect example for young people who may struggle with obedience to their parents. Even the Lord Jesus Christ submitted to the guidance of his Father, so teens can look to Jesus for an example to follow.
When the teens hear this, it is an echo of what their parents have already taught them. It is a Biblical doctrine that strikes their heart from an unexpected angle, and the Holy Spirit may use that to remind them of what their parents said. The teen feels God confirming their parents. That’s powerful! That’s the power that God intended for kids to be able to receive when they’re part of a local, Bible-based church. Not a replacement for the parents, but a Biblical “amen” to the parents’ instruction.
With this in mind, talk to your child’s youth pastor. Let them know how they can stand behind you. Let them know for what your teen needs prayer and the subjects on which they could use preaching and teaching. You have a Christian brother who has been called by God to be in your corner, ministering to the spiritual growth of your teen — praise the Lord and put him to work!
A Special Note on Spiritual Orphans
A teen’s spiritual parents should be their actual parents. Significant research shows that the parents play the largest role in shaping the spiritual lives of teens.
Parents of teenagers appear to play an important role in the character of their children’s religious lives. In the immediacy of parenting teenagers, parents may feel a loss of control and influence over their teens, but nationally representative statistics show that the religious practices and commitments of parents remains an important influence on the religious practices and commitments of their teenage children. (Smith, 115)
However, what if a teen doesn’t have parents in church? What if a teen comes to church seeking the Lord, or is brought to church by a friend and gets saved and wants to grow in their relationship with God? When a teenager does not have parents who are active in church, a youth pastor and his wife can have a significant impact by way of acting as adopted spiritual parents.
In the absence of parental encouragement by example to attend religious services, religious congregations that offer teenagers organized youth groups — particularly those with full-time, paid adult youth group leaders — seem to make a significant difference in attracting teens to attend congregational religious services. Well-developed, congregational-based youth groups with established youth leaders likely provide teens who lack active parental support appealing doorways into and relational ties encouraging greater religious participation in the life of religious congregations. (Smith, 117)
So we see that the research shows a positive influence that youth leaders can have on kids who don’t have spiritual parents. This doesn’t mean they are hooking the kids into a church-based relationship, however. The difference is subtle but important. The methods that modern youth groups employ have to do with kids attending church to see the leader, or because they don’t want to disappoint the leader, or because the leader is encouraging them to attend and they don’t want to let them down. What I’m advocating, instead, is the type of relationship that fills in the job of parents who are not teaching their kids spiritually. The kids then don’t attend church to meet up with the leaders, but because they have a genuine relationship with the Lord, which the leader has helped them to build. The crucial question is: Who did they come to see? The leader? Or the Lord?
On this point we don’t have clear scripture instructing the church. We do, however, have principles that can guide us. For one, God does give specific instruction to Christian parents on how to raise their kids in the Lord.
And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
There are two main parts to raising kids in this verse: nurture and admonition. To nurture something means to foster and encourage growth, to feed it and help it develop. Admonition is counseling against faults and gently reproving. The plain fact is, kids who get saved and come to our churches, whose parents are not in church, may be getting everything they need physically from their parents. They may even have great parents who are providing for them emotionally and mentally and even morally. But they will not be getting spiritual encouragement and spiritual food to help their relationship with God to grow and develop. They will not be admonished, counseled against spiritual faults, and reproved against sin. Young people have personal needs for these things that go beyond corporate preaching and teaching. They need instruction for their unique situation and their unique place of spirituality.
1 Timothy 5:1–2
Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; 2 The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.
The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; 4 That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.
We are instructed to treat our churches as families. Older women are to teach younger women. Men are to treat older men as fathers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters. It makes sense that teens without parents in the church would benefit from older men and women taking up the responsibilities of being spiritual fathers and mothers.
Paul himself claimed to be a spiritual father to Timothy. In 1 Timothy 1:2 Paul calls Timothy “my own son in the faith.” In 2 Timothy 1:2 he calls him “my dearly beloved son.” This probably means that he led him to the Lord. It seems though, from the language, that there was a special father-son relationship there, which may mean he acted as a spiritual father to him. Paul mentions the faith of Timothy’s mother and grandmother, but not of his father.
When my father and my mother forsake me, then the LORD will take me up.
God is particularly concerned with the care of orphans. We have a compassionate God who is concerned when he sees sheep without a shepherd, wives without husbands, and children without parents. We should look at this character trait of God and desire it in our own lives.
What will these young people do if we neglect them? If they are not receiving spiritual nurture and admonition from their physical parents, where will they get it? If we as churches don’t take up the spiritual orphans God has given us, God himself can and will do that supernaturally for them. But instead of standing back and claiming that this is God’s job only, we should consider, on a case–by-case basis with the youth in our churches, how we may be able to stand in the gap and help fulfill the missing role of spiritual nurturing and admonition.
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.