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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Youth Ministry

It doesn't take a lot of intelligence to see that the marriage of the Bible (the lifelong union of a man and a woman for the purposes of procreation and complementing) is not the marriage of today. Nor is it any great insight to see the erosion of this position over the past century. It wasn't big steps, of course, but it wasn't invisible. There was the feminist movement that sought to free wives from the biblical construct of "wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord". There was the "free love" movement of the 60's that sought to free couples from the biblical construct of sex within marriage. There was the "no fault divorce" concept that sought to free married couples from the biblical requirement of a lifelong union. There was the romance of the media that sought to eliminate the biblical concept that husbands and wives were meant to complement one another rather than warm each other's hearts. And, of course, we're now at the "marriage equity" stage where, having stripped off all the components that made marriage marriage, they seek to eliminate the biblical concept of "husband and wife" and leave it at "spouses", whatever the gender. And children? Children are a nuisance or, at best, a rare and prized possession. So far have we drifted in such a short time from the original concept that to even suggest my biblical definition (the lifelong union of a man and a woman for the purposes of procreation and complementing) is generally regarded as ludicrous. "No one thinks that anymore."

What has this to do with youth ministry? I fear that I see the same thing happening in the church.

A couple hundred years ago families went to church together. The notion of "Sunday School" didn't start until the late 18th century, and they were started as schools, an opportunity to give poor kids an education. They spent their weeks working in factories, so folks like Robert Raikes promoted the idea of teaching them to read on their day off -- Sunday. The Bible was their reading primer, so that worked out well. When state education was established in the late 19th century, Sunday school became a solely religious endeavor. Prior to this, all families who went to church went together. The religious instruction they received was either from the pastor or the parents.

Now, of course, we live in a different world. Most conscientious Christian parents looking for a church will choose that church with a keen eye on the ministry afforded their children. What kind of youth ministry is there and does it reach my kids' age group? Lots of families elect to go to larger churches precisely because they provide the best age-distinct groups. (It seems obvious that to have age-distinct youth ministries you would need to have the numbers for it.) Churches of practically any size include a "youth pastor". Typically, a "youth pastor" is not a real pastor. He's more of a pastor in training, a youth himself to some degree. He wouldn't be the senior pastor of a church; he's too young. In fact, he may not even be a "he". But he's fun and he knows how to interact with kids. He knows how to entertain them and to speak at their level and to hold their interest. So a good youth group would have the music of the day and games and fun with, hopefully, a little truth snuck in there for good measure. And this is a good thing.

I see some serious problems here. We see all around us the disintegration of families (as we see in the simple decline in "marriage" itself), yet we are encouraging dis-integration of families in church. "Youth ministry" is designed to provide something separate from the parents and even, preferably, stripping out each age group from any other, separating parents from children and siblings from siblings. Yet we affirm the family as a unit. Isn't that a little problematic?

Sunday school in general and "youth ministry" as a whole serves to remove parents from the equation. Parents don't work with their kids; they drop them off. The content is not up to the parents; it's up to the youth leadership. The progress is not monitored by parents if it's monitored at all. But the Bible holds parents in general and fathers in particular responsible for the spiritual education of their children. Isn't that somewhat problematic?

Indeed, by taking children out of church services and removing youth from their families, parents are relieved of a lot of what should have been their responsibilities. They are no longer required to teach their kids how to behave in church. They don't have to provide spiritual instruction or disciple their children. (When was the last time you heard of parents discipling their children?) They don't really have to involve themselves in their kids' lives hardly at all because, after all, they're going to church! What could be better? And at this point the biblical concept of parental responsibility has eroded in the same direction that "marriage" has. Isn't that a little problematic?

Most of all, family cohesion is cancelled. We've all heard, "The family that prays together stays together." Seriously, how many families today pray together? They don't even eat together. The model of a "good Christian family" would have the kids going to AWANA on Wednesday night and the teens off to their "teen club" (that's probably dated now, too, isn't it?) on Thursday night and Mom is off to Women's Bible Study on Tuesday and Dad does the Men's Breakfast on Saturday and we've got everyone neatly ministered to ... completely separated from each other. That is not cohesion. That's incoherent. Isn't that a little problematic?

I grew up with "youth ministries". My parents changed churches when they saw indications that their kids were losing interest in church. I know the importance of conscientious parents in finding good ministries for their kids and I know the values of youth ministries. I just wonder if, like marriage, we've been sliding this direction so long that we've become accustomed to a dangerous condition and now would find a biblical approach a bad thing. Woe to Christians when we decide that a biblical approach is a bad thing! And woe to the church when our "ministries" encourage the dissolution of God's key component of all society. This seems a bit problematic to me.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

My observation of youth ministries is that they are not much more than fun and games. Teens, especially, have been observed behaving as if in public school. THEY should be in the service with adults, because they ARE young adults. There is no need for separated ministries. Even for young children, they should grow up learning to sit in the pews and listening. Our kids NEVER were in some class instead of worship service. We are dumbing down our kids in Church the same way they do in gov't schools, and making it all about peer orientation.

Marshall Art said...

Awesome post, Stan. I've never really considered this, aside from a recent post that, I think, was at Dan Trabue's blog, regarding removing kids from services or holding Sunday school at the same time as services.

If there is one place where an entire family, to say nothing of community, should be together, it is Sunday service.

My church tries to have a monthly men's breakfast, but more for the purpose of dealing with church maintenance (or "men's work") with just a bit of ministry thrown in. This was in order to provide a men's equivalent to the Women's Guild, which has a rockin' rep in our church as the group that gets things done. To some extent, I see no issue with such things, especially as men and women have distinctive issue that benefit from the input of others of the same gender. But this is balanced by the many events we hold for the benefit of the whole family, which most of our events are.

We do have a Sunday school class for the kids held during Sunday service. I don't much care for this idea. Despite the fact that we are small, in a small 19th century building that makes "quiet rooms" an impractical expense, I believe it is far better to weather the outbursts of babies and toddlers, and the fidgeting of older youngsters, in order to maintain the proper church going experience and dynamic.

Devoting some time for kids is OK as long as it doesn't lead to the type of division to which you allude. There are benefits to kid focused training, but only to help them understand what might be a mystery from the lips of the preacher giving the sermon on Sunday. And also, such training should not take the place of parental training, unless the parents themselves are in need of religious instruction at the same time. This is too often the case, though.

Timothy said...

Hi Stan,
I think great minds think alike. :)

Craig said...

In the interest of full disclosure I'll say that I am married to a Kids Ministry director, and have spent years volunteering in both kids and youth ministry situations.

It seems to me like the goal of kids/student ministires should be to support the family as the primary place for Christian instruction of children. Too many parents would rather the church take that responsibility, and to many minisrty folks are willing to take it. I would rather see the church picking up the slack from parents, than kids getting nothing from either.

There are also a few kids ministry folks who think that it is important that kids be in worship with their families. Again, a lot of the desire for seperation comes from parents as others who don't want worship disturbed.

Stan said...

I'd love it if a youth ministry was geared toward families rather than youth. That is, I'd love to see a youth ministry that intentionally and even mandatorily involved parents and family. It wouldn't be a "drop off" like it is today, where parents drop their kids off for youth events. It would operate specifically with aid and input of parents.

There is a sense in youth culture (and I think it has always been there) of wanting to have a "just mine" thing going, explicitly for the purpose of being away from parents. I'd love to see that remedied rather than fed.

Craig said...


I guess I see it as both/and. I think that the kids/student ministries need to include parents as well as give parents support and tools for ministry at home. At the same time I see the value of placing kids/students in places where they can be led/mentored by folks closer to their own age as well. I also see great value in using older kids/students in leadership positions where they have opportunities to be led/mentored while doing the same to others younger than themselves. It takes a concerted effort and the right people to do well.

Stan said...

Yes! I'd like to see all that and parents incorporated. I suspect that the answer would be "That's too much work." (On a similar suggestion to a pastor, that was the response he gave me.)

G. HUBBARD said...

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Stan said...

Do they need answers apart from parental or family influence?

David said...

Being of the generation that has grown up going to youth groups I think I have a unique perspective. I got to do both, as we moved a lot. When we were in "big church" we didn't necessarily listen to the sermon, but we were taught by our parents how to sit still and behave. When we got into Sunday school classes we had good old flannel board "studies" that I look back on and think of so much fluff. They weren't preparing us for meat, but spoon-feeding us watered down milk. As I got older, youth group activities became more about entertainment and socialization. This is from different churches, so it wasn't just "my church". As an adult, I now see the benefit of keeping your children with you. My church doesn't have Sunday school. We have a nursing room because of a recent influx of "new members", and a crying room for parents of toddlers to bring them for a short time so as to not interrupt the worship (ie sermon) of others. As a church, we feel the importance of parents training their children, so we rearranged our seats so we have a section in the back for parents to train their fidgety kids. I believe both parents and children will benefit more from the "hard work" of learning to sit still in church before actually listening to the sermon, so that once they get older, it will be easier to listen to the sermon since they won't be looking for that distracting "fun" lesson that grabs their attention but floats away on the next breeze.