I get calls periodically from people who have moved to our city and are searching for a church. At some point in that conversation they will usually ask what kinds of programs do you have for kids. I explain that we offer Bible classes on Sunday and Wednesday with a curriculum designed to help kids learn the Bible and understand God’s will for their lives. I add that we have families who host devotions to give the kids an opportunity to talk about God’s word in a more informal setting. I sometimes add that our kids enjoy getting together to do all kinds of things (movie night; basketball), but these activities are planned and organized by families and not part of our work as a church. It’s at this point that I usually begin to sense impatience on the other end of the line. Sometimes they will ask, “Is that all?”
I understand their frustration. Coming from other places, sometimes people have much higher expectations. Most churches offer a much larger menu of activities for young people. I went to the internet, checked out some church websites and made a list. Most churches have an entire section of the website devoted to youth and the activities they offer. These included…
- youth concert
- dodge ball tournament
- lock in
- wacky, tacky Christmas party
- pizza night
- TRX Suspension Training (promised to train youth like the navy seals and help them get into shape)
- school for the performing arts (dance classes in jazz, hip hop styles; theatre arts; private music lessons)
With so many activities to coordinate, churches must have a paid staff member (in larger churches more than one) whose job it is to coordinate it all. His job title is, youth minister, because it’s his job to “minister” to the youth. This is the arrangement that you will find in most churches.
If we are not careful, we can start looking at all the options other groups offer to their youth and begin to believe that we aren’t doing enough for ours. I’ve had parents complain that we simply did not provide enough activities for the kids. When I pressed them to identify what else we should be doing, the answer was to schedule more movie nights, laser tag outings and activities like this. Now where did these ideas come from? It’s certainly not from scripture. These were things they saw other churches doing. Ultimately they were suggesting that we look to the denominations that are caught up in the youth group movement and take our cue from them. Let me state plainly that, if we cave to this pressure, we will be taking the wrong cue. The last thing we want to do is look to the youth group movement to figure out how to help our kids. I say this for three reasons.
1. The youth group movement deemphasizes what kids need most.
While youth group activities are certainly fun (who doesn’t enjoy a good pizza and a game of basketball), they do little to help teenagers know God and His will for their lives. If we want our kids to be wise, avoid sin and live pure lives, then we need to teach them the Bible, not buy them another pizza (Psalm 119:9,11,99).
Some in the denominational world are beginning to figure this out. For example, the website gotquestions.org posed the question, “Why are so many young people falling away from the faith?” In responding to this question, the authors made two interesting observations. First, they noted that “most church youth programs tended to focus their energies on providing entertainment and pizza rather than focusing on building up the young people in their faith. As a result, our teens are ill-equipped to face the challenges they will encounter in the world upon leaving home.” Second, they offered this interesting counsel at the very end of their response, “The church needs to take a hard look at its youth programs. Instead of performing for them with skits, band and videos, we need to get back to teaching them the scriptures…Frank Turek, well know Christian author and lecturer…put it this way: ‘We’ve failed to recognize that what we win them with…we win them to.’ The bottom-line is that Christian parents and our churches need to do a better job developing their hearts with the Word of God…” (gotquestions.org). These statements are not unusual. There is a growing chorus of voices in the denominational world that are calling into question this entertainment approach of the youth group movement.
God never made it the mission of His church to serve as a recreational center for youth. Kids have lots of opportunities to play basketball and eat pizza. Parents can ensure that they do this with a good crowd. Churches must remain focused on giving kids what they need most – an opportunity to know God and His will for their lives through a careful study of the Bible.
2. The youth group movement disengages parents from the process.
I suspect that most people involved in this movement would complain that this is not the intent. In fact, I’m sure youth leaders would complain that they want parents to be more involved. But is not what happens. Busy parents abdicate their responsibility and leave it to the youth minister to raise their kids. I had one youth group leader complain to me that parents were dropping off their kids at the church building on youth night and expecting him to take care of their spiritual needs. What makes this arrangement even worse is that this job is often left to an inexperienced college student who knows little more about life and scripture than the kids he’s supposed to be training. Worse yet, he may have some very wrong ideas (about Bible authority, drinking alcohol, etc.) that he passes on to the kids. Many will eagerly soak this up because they can “relate” to this young guy. Are people unable to see that this is just a bad idea?
The Bible teaches that the task of teaching children belongs to parents (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Ephesians 6:4). No youth minister (or Bible class teacher for that matter) will ever be able to fill the gap left by parents who do not teach their children at home. Whatever a congregation may supply in the way of Bible teaching as part of its work should be little more than a small supplement to the great bulk of instruction that takes place in the home.
3. The youth group movement has been a colossal failure.
There were some assumptions behind these efforts to offer kids food and fun at worship services. First, it was assumed that you could not get kids excited about simply studying the Bible. Second, people assumed that if you could lure kids in with promises of pizza and basketball, then you could throw in some Bible periodically and this would help them remain faithful.
Let me be clear: both assumptions are absolutely false! First, young people can be inspired to love God, to worship passionately and to love His word without carnal inducements. Second, luring kids with pizza and trying to throw in some Bible along the way does not help them remain faithful. Many studies have been done over the last decade to determine how many kids drop out after high school. The numbers vary greatly from roughly 60% in one study to almost 90% in another. But no matter which study you choose to believe, all of the numbers are bad. Take a group with one hundred young people and, on average, 60-90% of them will leave after they finish high school. Put simply, the methods used by the youth group moment are not working. In fact, they have been a colossal failure!
Some in the denominational world are beginning to acknowledge this. Before his death in 2004, Mike Yaconelli was a national leader of the youth group movement. One writer described him as “the guy” in youth ministry. However, in his article entitled, The Failure of Youth Ministry (Youth Worker, June 2003), he made some amazing admissions.
“Youth ministry doesn’t have any staying power. Young people flock to Christian concerts, cheer Jesus at large events, and work on service projects. Unfortunately, it’s not because of Jesus; it’s because they are young! The success of youth ministry in this country is an illusion. Very little youth ministry has a lasting impact on students…let’s be honest. Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry. What does that mean? I don’t have a clue.”
Mike Yaconelli may not have known what to do about this problem, but God does! The Bible supplies us with what we need to bring up children who will be faithful to the Lord (II Timothy 3:16-17). I am as disturbed as the next guy about how many of our young people fall away. But let’s be clear about one thing: the denomination up the street with its vast array of youth activities does not have the answer. God does. If we want to get things right with out kids, we need to quit looking at other churches in town and get back to His book.