I served as a Youth Pastor for a couple years. It wasn’t a career objective of mine. When you’re on staff at a church, especially a small one, you need to be a jack-of-all trades. And since I was raising four teenagers at the time, I was a perfect candidate.
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy being a Youth Pastor. But there were a number of things working against me.
- Time — It’s hard to make significant spiritual impact on a kid when you have them for, basically, an hour a weekend (assuming they attended every weekend), and you’re only serving part-time amidst other ministries.
- Class make-up — In my case, we often had to combine junior high and high school students, the interested and uninterested, the squirrelly and the serious, making class sizes and serious discussions virtually unmanageable.
- Parents — “The student is not above his teacher,” meaning “It’s hard to produce a dynamic spiritually-alive teen when their parents are spiritually lukewarm or spiritually dead.”
- Expectations — Entertainment versus Discipleship; was I there to just keep kids occupied and provide an “alternative” experience, or make thoughtful, compassionate, genuine Christ-followers?
Anyway, I’ve kept in touch with some of those kids as they’ve journeyed out and, through interaction with their folks, am aware of others. Where are they at spiritually? From my perspective, I’d say about one-third of them are spiritually healthy. The rest have fallen away, no longer attend church, and/or have distanced themselves from the religion of their parents.
So is this my fault?
I think there is good reason to take a hard look at youth groups and the types of kids they are producing. Has our methodology or approach contributed to the rise of the Millennial Nones? Has the Church produced a generation of spiritual rebels and drifters?
In his excellent book Generation Ex-Christian, Drew Dyck suggests:
In the 1980s business thinking took the world by storm, changing the way many congregations in North America did ministry. Perhaps nowhere was the impact felt more profoundly than in youth programs. Instead of placing the emphasis upon discipleship, the focus shifted to attracting large numbers of kids and keeping them entertained. Not necessarily bad goals, but they’ve had some ugly, untended consequences. Today many youth ministries are practically devoid of any spiritual engagement. Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights. Church researcher Ed Setzer describes most youth groups groups as “holding tanks with pizza.” Recently I asked Josh Riebock, author of mY Generation, to solve a riddle for me: why are so many teenagers, who were active in youth group, leaving the faith after high school? His response was simple. “Let’s face it,” he said. “There are a lot more fun things to do at college than eat pizza.”
As I mentioned above, youth pastors often have a lot of things going against them. Some of them simply feel called to serve in the church and, along the way, spend a season as youth pastor. So they’re not “all in” from the start. Some of them, like me, get the job by default; youth pastor is just a ministry stepping stone. Many others, like I did, have to deal with misguided expectations, demographic issues, time constraints, and parents who do little to reinforce any spirituality you’ve imparted. Nevertheless, there’s much truth to Dyck’s summary.
The contemporary evangelical concept of Youth Group may be fundamentally flawed.
How you correct this problem is another story. What I wanted to highlight from Dyck’s book is what I consider an essential observation the author makes. In his section on Drifters, Dyck writes:
One of the major reasons they drifted away is because the relational bonds to committed Christians were weak or nonexistent. In order to win them back, we must rectify that destructive isolation. When you bring them to church, seek to widen their circle of Christian friends. Don’t let them settle into secluded pockets of the congregation. Introduce them to older Christians, and younger ones. Ask them to serve. Invite them to small groups, prayer meetings, and fellowship times, places where they can grow in the faith and form lasting relationships with mature Christians.
…Those young people who had relationships to older Christians were far less likely to abandon their faith.
Of course, this assumes that a church HAS and IS PRODUCING “mature Christians” for young people to develop relationship with. But that’s another story. This idea of not allowing our youth to “settle into secluded pockets of the congregation,” cuts cross-grain to one of our most sacred modernistic approaches: target groups. Accordingly, people are consumers. Find out what they’re buying, and you have an “in.” This approach inevitably turns the church into a convenience store for the spiritually needy.
- Women’s Group
- Men’s Group
- Singles Group
- Seniors Group
- College Group
- Divorced Group
- Recovery Group
- Youth Group
Whatever happened to being a community? This approach is particularly problematic as it relates too our youth.
Somehow we’ve come to believe that sticking all these mixed-up, insecure, struggling adolescents in the same room to play air hockey and “discuss” the Bible will significantly impact their lives. Sure, when they get to college they’re still playing air hockey. But they’ve “graduated” from the Bible to Howard Zinn, switched allegiances from Christ to Che, and swapped their sweet church friends for anarchists, Marxists, feministas, and the campus beer pong champion.
Not only should we be cautious about watering down the Gospel with activities and events under the premise of “reaching” youth, we should reconsider whether the very structure of our youth groups doesn’t undermine the thing we’re trying to accomplish — to integrate young people into the larger Christian community.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that closer relationships with more mature Christians will produce other healthy Christians. But rubbing shoulders with “spiritual adults” and being more spiritually, socially, and intellectually challenged has got to be better than playing video games with their buds. And, as Dyck points out, maybe it’s this lack of challenge that is really hurting our kids.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to accomplish this is not re-thinking the current youth group models, but finding mature older believers worth being modeled. Which means that while the contemporary evangelical concept of Youth Group may be fundamentally flawed, the alternative might be equally unreachable.