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Do Youth Groups Hurt the Church?

Do Youth Groups Hurt the Church?

by Mike Duran · 25 comments

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.

Your thoughts?

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Luther Wesley November 15, 2012 at 11:35 AM

I currently am a youth pastor, small group leader, newsletter coordinator, etc in a small country church and like you said many of us have to be jack of all trades.

We also only have a handful of teens at any one time so big budget attractions are not for us…and would not be anyway. Discipleship should be the emphasis of any small group ministry that is worth doing within the confines of the church and one well grounded disciple is worth a lot. That does not mean we do not share the gospel with all by planting and watering all the while praying God to give the increase.

What I believe we must remember is to make the Scriptures relevant to them without watering down the Truth found therein. While asking questions they have more access to false information than any generation In history and we had better be prepared to answer them with gentleness and respect.

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Jon Mast November 16, 2012 at 8:02 AM

“What I believe we must remember is to make the Scriptures relevant to them without watering down the Truth found therein. ”

YES!

I’m a pastor in a small church — which means I’m also the youth minister. While a very awesome woman helps organize and so on, I’m the one really figuring out what the devotional quality is. We do a number of things. We do have fun — at least most of the time! — but it’s grounded, I hope, in Scripture. For instance, we watched The Avengers together. Afterward I asked, “Is Loki right? Were we made to be ruled? Do we seek subjugation?” It led to a very fruitful discussion on slavery to sin or to Christ.

So you find the applications that strike them and show them how the Bible really affects them in their lives — and it comes more alive.

There’s an excellent book — “Already Gone” by Ken Hamm and Britt Beemer. It posits that the reason children leave the church is that they were never equipped with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. I pretty much agree — teens need to know how powerful the Word is as well as how to use it. If they abandon their armor and weaponry, that falls on them. If we never equip them, it’s on us.

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SWC November 15, 2012 at 11:45 AM

Well, I’m looking at this from the standpoint of both a former youth group worker and a member of the singles community. There are honestly times when a specialized group is a good thing. I’m a member of a church that is incredibly family-focused, and frankly, I wish we had a singles group that I could retreat to sometimes, so I could stay in fellowship without having marriage and procreation shoved down my throat.

But speaking as a former youth group worker, I have to say that I understand your doubts about youth groups. On the one hand, it’s great to have programming that shows youth that Christianity can be fun and cool. But on the other, sometimes I wonder if we would be better off showing our youth how to actually live as Christians. Maybe instead of youth groups, we should have youth service clubs, where we take the youth out and feed the hungry and help the elderly. Maybe we should have mentoring groups where two or three youth are matched with an adult (of whatever age/marital status) in a mentoring relationship–not to act in loco parentis, but to guide and teach in the spiritual realm.

Of course, the other issue is that, even though I was raised in a Christian family, I experienced my own crisis of faith during my sophomore year at college. Sure, I was at a state university, but I was a member of a large and active Christian community on campus. But I was meeting people who came from other walks of life, and seeing my life and values through their eyes made me re-evaluate everything. Yes, I came to the conclusion that I did believe what I had been raised with, and I wanted to learn even more about my faith. But not everyone does.

Studies have shown that people who marry often return to the church…while young single adults may drift away. Because Gen X and Y are waiting longer to marry, or choosing not to marry at all, the church isn’t reaching a lot of these people any longer. (See Robert Wuthnow’s book “After the Baby Boomers” or Wright’s “Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told” for statistics, etc.)

Anyway, to come full circle with my extremely long comment, I think it isn’t necessarily youth groups that are the culprit here, but perhaps the church failing to continue speaking to a generation of youth who are graduating from high school and college without spouses and who suddenly feel they are being distanced from their church community because they are no longer youth group age, but not married.

Just my two cents. :)

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april March 15, 2013 at 3:40 PM

I completely agree with you. It’s no disrespect to people who get married but after youth group you’re a young adult and there’s nothing there. After youth group there’s this strange sea of young adult age… where people don’t have ministry until they become adults… aka, get married or have families. I’ve attended women’s bible studies with an honest desire to learn about God but all the focus seems to be is on our role as women aka to have families. There a disconnect somewhere…

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Jenni Noordhoek November 15, 2012 at 11:53 AM

For years growing up, my parents didn’t approve of youth groups because they were ‘useless’ for the reasons you gave. (they also did not approve of Sunday School for similar reasons) They never checked into the specific youth groups/sunday schools and how they were run – they just disapproved of all youth programs because this is what they were told youth programs were like.

However, both of the youth programs I was in post-high school pre-college (between the ages of 18 and 20) have been healthy, Bible-based, and mostly well-organized. [I cut the one youth program some slack as it was run by a seminary student who was still finding his footing but was very well-intentioned despite his lack of ability to control rowdy 16yo's]

Removing your child from youth programs isn’t the answer. Becoming more involved is. At my church we have multiple parents who run small groups as well as befriend the high schoolers individually and make sure they know what’s going on in their lives. They’ve been good to me as well despite that I’m older than the other kids working through the same issues.

So I try not to come down too hard on youth programs. It’s an individual matter, not a problem in general.

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Joel Q November 15, 2012 at 11:59 AM

When you’re serving pizza and video games as a way to interact, that’s all you are going to get back.
It comes down to two main things for youth (AND THE CHURCH AS A WHOLE)…
1. Teaching the Word.
2. Creating Relationships.
I know that’s a pretty simplified list, but that is what will build people, drive people, encourage people.
Teaching the Word to youth, there are numerous ways, strategies, etc. that anyone can learn how to do… to engage them, to interest them. That is truly the easy part of this equation.
Now relationships, that’s that hard part. The Messy part. But if you want to lead, train, impart, etc. you’re going to have to get messy with people. And to do that with the churched, and unchurched, is something most people don’t want to do.
You don’t have to have a special gift or calling to work with youth (or adults), you just need to be able to work on a true relationship. That will keep people connected to each other, to the church, and to God.

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Heather Titus November 15, 2012 at 12:19 PM

This is why I love my church’s youth group. They meet once a week for a Bible study on Sundays before church, and once a month for a service project. They’ve done everything from hosting a dinner fundraiser at the church for missions trips, to cleaning and painting at the local crisis pregnancy center, to bell-ringing for the Salvation Army at Christmastime. It’s not absolutely perfect, but I do think it’s better for the kids than just getting to play video games and eat pizza. I wish I’d had something like this as a teen, instead of the “youth-group-but-not-a-youth-group” that I attended where we basically played games and hung out once every couple of months, with a worship and prayer time tagged on to the end. Even though we had quite a number of parents and college-age kids involved in setting up the events, it just wasn’t a healthy environment (though in part that was due to the leader’s family’s extreme legalism and ridiculous rules.) I’m all for letting teens hang out and have fun, but I do believe that they need some structured service time and Bible study time as well.

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Kessie November 15, 2012 at 12:21 PM

It really does depend on the church. When I was a teen, our youth group was laughably bad. But now my siblings are young adults, they have a very good group at their church. So it really does depend. It also depends on the kid.

For me, I always wanted to be treated like an adult. Not this funky not-quite-evolved pupae of an adult. I always sought out adult Bible studies, and when I was old enough to join Bible Study Fellowship, I loved it. I liked the viewpoints of older Christians, as well as girls the same age as me.

This age-segregation of our society is destructive. Older people need young people to keep them young, and young people need older people to keep them steady.

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Melissa Ortega November 15, 2012 at 12:35 PM

My husband and I worked as youth pastors for approximately ten years and one thing we learned is that you can prioritize your efforts trying to engage kids that are simply switched off or determined to waste their prodigal inheritance, or you can latch on to the ones who already are engaged and really train them up. Looking back, I realize that we often had this out of balance. I think if we had funneled our energies into the kids who were the hungriest and trusted the Holy Spirit to engage better the ones who didn’t seem hungry, we would have done a better job. Sometimes, that off-balance creates a weird perspective – the disengaged kids get the attention and the energy, and the ones who are solid are left in the corner. It almost teaches them that the disengaged are more valuable.

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Bobby B November 16, 2012 at 9:12 AM

I agree with this completely. 1000%. I’ve spent one year as an interim youth leader and two as a sponsor and even in that short time, looking back, I can see the logic in really putting effort into the kids that cared, even though you’d think it should be the opposite.

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Katherine Coble November 15, 2012 at 3:04 PM

As time goes by I realise that my limited exposure to Youth Ministers wasn’t necessarily the norm. But in our particular sect of Christianity the role of Youth Minister invariably went to a series of hapless Peter Pans who used the job as an exercise to celebrate their arrested development. If there was a guy with well-connected parents in the congregation who couldn’t find work elsewhere because he was too “laid back”…well, that’s who got to be the Youth Minister.

I went to a Christian School and had daily Bible courses that included deep doctrinal discussions that often carried over to our English and Social Studies classes. I know not all 15 year olds are having discussions with their peers about Transubstantiation. So I get that I was slightly unusual.

Yet every time I attempted to go to Youth Group I went expecting Bible Study and an adult Christian to offer me spiritual insight and guidance. I was instead met with endless pizza parties, boom boxes blaring Petra and a token “God, thanks for the awesome grub and good times we’re gonna have here tonight” prayer.

I don’t have the fondest memories of Youth Group, nor do I have much use for the concept. As I’ve grown older I’ve met youth ministers who are the polar opposite of those I experienced so I’m not as prejudiced against them as a whole. Still, though, I have a lot of anger (I’m working on it) toward the men who gave so little guidance to my peers that every single one of them ended up massively screwed up on drugs or getting girls pregnant at 15. Those people went to church for God’s guidance and got pablum with a side of pepperoni and ping pong.

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Bobby B November 16, 2012 at 9:19 AM

Katherine, your words bring to mind some trips I took as a teenager to summer church camp…where I watched mid-twenties men and women (the youth leaders) act like celebrities. I distinctly recall one young youth pastor allow one of his more attractive, blonde students to sit on his lap while he talked to others. Not even kidding. If they weren’t doing things like that, they ignored the students and hung out with the young camp counselors, who acted like an elite club that the teenagers tried to access by hanging around them like groupies. Obviously, I’m generalizing a bit but sadly when you’re a teenager it’s that kind of stuff that stays with you.

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D.M. Dutcher November 15, 2012 at 9:13 PM

I don’t know. I think people assume that there’s some ironclad process or method where we can safely pop out Christian teens who smoothly transition to adults without a hint of doubt or loss of faith. I think just having people who you can be friends with in a youth group is a big thing, because all these relationships with adults aren’t the same. We’re creating as a Christian culture precocious kids who seem mature for their age and relate with adults well, but fall completely to pieces because they are often isolated and fall into a mentor-pleasing mode of faith.

I know youth group helped me as a teen, if just because the youth minister served as a role model and was approachable. And spent time with us. I also spent time in normal services, and even attended weekday ones, so it’s not always a form of segregation. If anything it should be a supplement, and it can be fun. A lot of us also needed friends out own age, and experiences to bind us together. We didn’t need to only be a volunteer workforce, which is what a lot of churches see us as.

So I am in favor of it. I think people must realize that teenage rebellion and even loss of faith is something that happens as a result of them forging their own identity, and the role of the teaching is to give them something they can know and choose to accept, not conditioning for a result. All the talk of retrenchment really feels like micromanagement.

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Jenni Noordhoek November 15, 2012 at 9:16 PM

[quote] I think people assume that there’s some ironclad process or method where we can safely pop out Christian teens who smoothly transition to adults without a hint of doubt or loss of faith. I think just having people who you can be friends with in a youth group is a big thing, because all these relationships with adults aren’t the same. We’re creating as a Christian culture precocious kids who seem mature for their age and relate with adults well, but fall completely to pieces because they are often isolated and fall into a mentor-pleasing mode of faith. [/quote]

^^THIS. ^^

as the young person here who is looking back on her teenage years and wondering what she and the people around her could have done better – this is so true.

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Christian November 15, 2012 at 10:27 PM

I remember when I attended youth group. I thought it was beneficial – we’d get together to learn more about God and have fun as a group of believers (and some non). We had a fairly balanced program involving Bible study, teachings, discussions and the usual fun events you’d find at a youth group. Some years later I helped to lead a youth group and it was fun but rather frustrating at times. We had a good, balanced program but attendance was limited due to sporty commitments or kids just not being interested. We noticed this especially with the youth events that involved Bible study, teachings and discussions. If kids aren’t interested, there’s not a whole lot you can do. Without support from parents, there’s not a whole lot you can or much consistency. Some were supportive, others less so. Also, some parents who had been part of the church for years and years, had the rattiest kids and let them get away with almost anything. Sometimes it made youth hellish. But let me get back to the good. I think there is good in youth groups. They can be a form of discipleship and I think kids need something that focuses on their age levels. Mentoring and mixing with believers of different ages, all of that is supremely important too and shouldn’t be sidelined in the process.

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Thea November 15, 2012 at 10:54 PM

When it comes to questions of “how do we most effectively help ____?”, I turn to 1 Corinthians 13:8, specifically where it says “Love never fails”. It then talks about these miraculous and awesome things (speaking in tongues, prophecy, and knowledge) and how they will cease to be effective, how they don’t always work. But that first sentence is: “Love never fails”.

I honestly believe that the one thing that will always be effective in drawing people to Christ, in bringing them healing, in helping them with the mess of their lives, in teaching them who God is, that one thing is love. Specifically, agape, the kind of love that God has for us, the kind of love that has to do with unconditional value for another person. All of our programs and bright ideas will at some point fall flat on their faces, but love never fails.

If we want to help youth and help the church in such a way that is guaranteed to be effective, then our method has to be all about love. Real love, of the kind that God is and has for us.

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Jessica Thomas November 16, 2012 at 7:20 AM

“Perhaps the biggest hurdle to accomplish this is not re-thinking the current youth group models, but finding mature older believers worth being modeled.”

Funny you should say this because at my church’s education team meeting, our youth pastor mentioned this will be our focus…I think he said the ideal is 5 adult mentors to one child, which will be a difficult ideal to meet, but it’s worth shooting for.

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Bobby B November 16, 2012 at 9:05 AM

It’s all about the health of America’s church. Since the church is sick, America’s sick, too. Everything else flows from this: Youth leaders more interested in lots of kids in attendance or being cool (I cannot tell you how many youth leaders, chaperones, sponsors, etc. I’ve come across who care more about their standing with the kids in the youth group rather than the spiritual health of the kids or said adults’ role as a mentor). Christian parents hoping the youth leader will turn their child into Billy Graham while they do nothing. Christian parents who don’t care. On and on.

Back to youth groups, I’d say if the Word is being preached and kids are given opportunities (sometimes, admittedly, you just have to make them…I was one of those) to serve, like soup kitchens, street evangelism, taking over a church service one Sunday of the month or year, the aesthetics don’t matter as much. When I was a youth leader, I held video game nights for the guys and we solely played games and ate pizza. We did nothing else…no prayer, no devotionals, no nothing because I wanted a dedicated time for them to just relax and be together. We did the other things during Sunday nights, Wednesday nights or Sunday school (all three of which I taught…ah, the joys of a small church).

The parents. There will be a MASSIVE difference in youth groups where parents live Godly lives themselves, encourage their kids to and so on versus a group that, well, doesn’t have that.

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Nikole Hahn November 16, 2012 at 1:00 PM

We’ve got a great youth leader who combines fun with teaching. He was called to be a youth pastor. But I know what you mean. I can’t believe in some churches that they have video games available on Sunday.

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Jill November 16, 2012 at 6:15 PM

My experiences with youth group were terrible. It was the same social paradigm as anywhere else–the cool/upper middle class kids ran things, and the youth pastors only approved of you if you were great at sports, which was all youth group was about. Basically, it was just another example of rampant tribalism: God loves you no matter what, but we don’t because [fill in the blank]. Thank God that he’s the one the does the saving, not youth pastors. Youth group made me cynical; God gave me faith. That faith compelled me to study the word of God on my own. Are all youth groups as bad as the ones I experienced? I doubt it. Some youth leaders are actual, for real mentors. Praise God for them–mentoring is a lost art in today’s world (or so it seems to me).

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BK Jackson (@BKJacksonAZ) November 17, 2012 at 6:03 AM

You’ve posted on a topic I’m really wrestling with and I look forward to logging in later today to read the discussion it generates. I’m not a youth pastor, but I work with the Junior Highers on Sundays and the youth pastor and we as youth leaders struggle to deal with this.

I just came back from a youth workers conference in early October which addressed much the same issues–in particular, emphasizing building community, and ministering to and involving FAMILIES not just the youth in youth activities.

Yes, we need to do a better job of community within the church. But the other big struggle is that so many of the kids have parents who don’t go to church, and those parents are very hard to reach–literally. As a society, we have become a world of cold, impersonal human beings–we are extremely compartmentalized, and in technological lockdown. It makes interacting with each other extremely difficult.

I wish I knew how to break down that barrier. Back in the old days, we’d visit with families, begin building community that way. But that’s harder to do than ever before.

It is very frustrating.

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Michael Trimmer November 18, 2012 at 3:19 AM

I think you had a very American specific experience of what it’s like to be dealing with youth work issues in the Church. In Britain, at least in my experience as being a young person in these groups, it all looked very different. Our church had a socializing group that met on Friday evenings, and we also had a specific youth bible study experience which happened on Sunday after church. We didn’t try and mix the two, but we were friends with the people from Fridays who we shared our Sunday evenings with too.

In terms of being over-separated by having specific groups, I think as long as those groups come together for the Church issues, there isn’t any danger really. I think the problem of going the other direction is really worse, and has far more potential to divide and frustrate people, particularly if they are new to the Church. I’ve been single, and thus frustrated when the main church meetings have been on the subject of the Biblical nuances of maintaining a healthy marriage (not that such things don’t have implications for single life, its just they weren’t made clear), and I don’t have children presently and so am unengaged when we have a church meeting that discusses the Biblical pattern for parenting (again, yes it is relevant for me in the future, and I’m sure there are things in my own life where it is useful to have such knowledge now, but such things weren’t made clear) . The logic behind the specific groups is to deal with particular issues that individuals have. You really can’t deal with lots of these in a more plural group setting. But if these groups are all encouraged to come together for the main Sunday service, then it should be fine. You have a community that listens to messages that are true on a level that isn’t situation specific. That’s fundamentally what the Gospel is.

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Andy Decker November 24, 2012 at 8:17 PM

I have been a pastor for seventeen years and some change. At high tide the congregation numbered in the mid-forties. Here is what I’ve noticed about youth groups. Visitors approach and say they are ‘shopping’ for a church. This is a very telling way to put things. It speaks of a consumer mindset among believers. Those with children always offer the great advice that the church should do more for the youth. Those visitors with children then move on to the next church. It is the farthest thing from their minds to join and start something for the children. Remember, they see themselves as consumers and not as servants. It is the very rare visitor who asks about doctrines. And more rare still are those who see a need and seek to fulfill it. The schools are great at segregating people ino age-groups. This mentality bleeds into the church and home. Let me just ask, where are the youth groups in the Bible? BTW – I like your website. Very thought provoking. Keep up the good work.

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Jon Mast November 25, 2012 at 12:20 PM

Ah, yes… The all-too-normal, “You know what our/your church needs? It needs X.”

“Well, that’s a great idea! I can get you resources to get started.”

“No, no! I can’t do that; I just think it would help.”

You make a point that I’ve taken very much to heart lately: There’s no Sunday School or Youth Groups or any such thing in the Bible. Parents were to train up their children. Who’da thunk it? I’ve been attempting to get that thought going in my congregation… I’ve gotten very little traction thus far. Sigh.

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