The following blog post will critique the article: Youth Groups Driving Christian Teens to Abandon Faith (CharismaMagazine) written by: Abby Carr. The article can be found here: http://www.charismamag.com/spirit/church-ministry/18920-youth-groups-driving-christian-teens-to-abandon-faith. I’m also drawing on the book “A Weed in the Church” by Scott T. Brown (found here: https://ncfic.org/uploads/products/A%20Weed%20in%20the%20Church.pdf) and the documentary “Divided”. Please note that while I may not agree with everything said in these places, that I do hold much respect for the conversation which they have enabled and for what they have taught me about youth ministry that I was unaware of before. The article, book, and movie are exceptionally well-done and worth using for personal or research purposes. Highly recommended.
If you’d like to read more about my thoughts regarding young adults in the church you can check out my sermon looking at the book “Hemorrhaging Faith” put out by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada here: https://debdebbarak.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/restriction-and-retention-why-canadian-young-adults-are-leaving-the-church/.
For years, youth ministry has been one of the most important aspects of the Christian church. Although more popular among Evangelicals, even the mainline groups have picked up on the movement over the last several decades and have made an effort to reach out to the high schoolers in their neighbourhood.
Throughout my junior high and high school days I was a faithful youth group attender. I went to all of the sessions and once in my later years of high school even began occasionally helping to lead classes and events. It was then no surprise that by the time I was a student at Tyndale I was interning at various churches working closely with the youth pastors.
What do I remember from those high school days in terms of my relationship with the church? While, there were definitely times of struggle in my own spiritual life in those days. Nothing crazy. I never walked away from the church and experimented with the things of this world. I knew already by that age I wanted to be in the ministry and was thinking about how everything I did would affect my life’s path. I remember many happy memories in youth group, but to be honest, what I remember the most is probably how much fun I was having. It wasn’t until I went to Tyndale that I experienced really hard core Christian youth groups. Youth groups where the teens were truly on fire for Christ, sharing their testimonies, praying for one another fervently, and really living the Christian life. What I experienced, by and large, before Tyndale was probably just the average youth group. A bit of sharing, some snacks, and then lots of fun in the gym. And on the surface level there is nothing wrong with that. At the very least when kids are in the church they are in a safe place away from the pressures of the world and if they hear about Jesus and learn some good morals while they are at it, well, so much the better.
By the time I was in my graduating year at Tyndale and definitely by my first year in seminary I really began to have my serious doubts about where churched young adults were headed. This has been an area of extreme concern especially as I envision my future in ministry. If the youth are leaving the church then will there still be a church to pastor 10, 20, or 30 years from now?
One haunting line from the documentary “Divided” is this, “We had lost them long before they had left the church.” Sure, it’s great if we can have fun with the kids while they are in our midst. If we can impress them by being a “cool youth pastor” and a hipster, but in the end of the day that is not enough to sustain a willingness in anyone to maintain their Spiritual life. They will out-grow us as their youth pastor and by the same token they will “outgrow” God and the church.
I truly believe that this is an area that we can’t ignore but that we need to give much consistent thought to. By the time I had finished grade 12 my church had already decided that not enough youth were attending Sunday school and so maybe we just shouldn’t have it. This should not have had to have been the case. At age 20 I was interning for a very liberal Christian denomination where I was explicitly told that I was “overwhelming kids with religious aspects only and should focus more on fun.” The point of the youth group was not so much for religious instruction but to be entertaining. Personally, I’m not there to be a “religious clown”. I do (or at least I like to think that I do) have a fun side to me and I love adventure. I’m down for motorcycle rides, bungee jumping, and scuba diving, but in the end of the day if that’s what you’re expecting of me as your youth pastor, I’m sorry. I just can’t do it. I’m into leading kids to that real relationship with Christ which is ultimately the most exciting journey anyone can live.
Now, I also don’t completely take the angle of this article and documentary which I believe to be fairly conservative compared to where I stand theologically. I did find it an interesting argument to say that age segregation came from pagan roots and, to be honest, I think it has its pros and cons if we use it in the church. But do I think we should get rid of youth groups entirely? No, I do not. I know that statistically it is proven that only a handful of young adults remain in the church, but at least it is a handful. If a youth group can lead even one kid to Christ then it is enough.
For me, youth group was totally worth it and without youth group I don’t know where I would have found my spiritual fuel. Service trips and conferences may be short lived, but I still find myself drawing on those experiences 7 and 8 years later. Who knew that a trip to Toronto would end in me being an associate member of the church we stayed overnight at 5 years later? Who could envision me still remembering this one line from a conference I attended in 2006 “You can’t be a vanilla Christian. You got to be chocolate, rocky-road or something”? Thanks, Mike Preschon! And the trip to Mennonite World Conference in 2009 still shapes the way I approach my seminary studies and my keen desire to get to know people from different cultures. No one could have envisioned the type of impact those things would have on me – after all, I was just a 14 or 15 year old kid!
So, I would encourage churches not to knock youth ministry down at all. It definitely has its place and is a useful tool for encouraging kids to really get to know Christ. When I was in Indiana I attended a really wonderful Charismatic church for their youth group. The funny thing was I was 21 and I was hanging out with kids as young as 12 and yet there was something about this group that really drew me in. This church didn’t believe in age segregation. They had the pre-teens mixed with the young adults. The idea was that the young adults would mentor the pre-teens and we would all grow up Spiritually together. It was a wonderful concept. The youth pastor always delivered timely messages to us that spoke to me as a 21 year old just as it did to the 12 year old. The youth pastor also combined having fun with really solid Scripture. He once told me at a pool party “Not to sound sacrilegious but I can worship God in this pool or while I’m at church. The idea of our faith is not to separate the two – we got to live them both out!” He could not have said it any better.
When I think of the future of youth ministry in the church I do get worried. I don’t know if youth groups will still be around in my kid’s time or grandkid’s time. I don’t know how many of my high school buds are seriously plugged into a church and will remain that way. But there is something far scarier than this. I’m more afraid of churches completely losing the vision and completely giving up on the youth and young adults in their midst. I’m more afraid of churches believing so hard in the fact that their youth ministry will fail that they don’t even make the effort to be that positive mentor to one kid. It’s for this reason that I urge you pastors and you churches to keep pressing up. Even in the face of what might look bleak remember that Christ has a purpose and a plan. Remember that He has entrusted these high schoolers into your care and that He isn’t asking you to take all the responsibility on yourself. He isn’t asking you to change the statistics completely and start a revolution where all young adults end up back in their parent’s churches. But He is asking you to be faithful to the flock and to that one young man or woman who really needs your help and support.