You Gotta Keep em Separated..

If you have any number of evangelical Christian friends on facebook, I am sure you have (at some point) seen a blog post or link or article that explains why Millennials are leaving the church. Perhaps they open with some scary statistics and finish off with some broad condemnation. And since you have to blame someone, and given that youth pastors are the last ones to work with teenagers before they go off to college and abandon their faith, we are the often the first ones to receive said blame.

Where did youth pastors go wrong? How can we fix the sputtering failure of modern youth ministry? Forget changing it – get rid of youth ministry all together! If it is too broke, don’t fix it; throw it out. I’m sure you’ve seen any number of variations on this theme, but you might summarize it like this: modern youth ministry is contrary to Scripture, God’s plan for the church, families, etc.

An example of this kind of thinking is seen in the “documentary” Divided. This movie pops up on facebook every 6-8 months, and there are plenty of great blog posts that address what is so wrong with the film in particular. (I usually recommend Mark Oestreicher’s post) I’d like to write broadly about some of the really bad arguments that show up in ‘Divided,’ but aren’t exclusive to it. These ideas creep into conversations about youth minsitry and I think they have to be avoided in order to have any sort of fruitful discussion about the future of ministry to adolescents.

To have some sort of baseline for conversation, I’m going to use the following as my definition for youth ministry:

Youth Ministry is a church’s efforts to train, teach, and program specifically for Jr High and High school students.

With that in mind, here’s what is often said against youth ministry’s existence, and why I think it doesn’t help push the discussion forward:

Youth Ministry steals the job of fathers

I’ve seen this all over the place. Youth pastors, they say, are stepping in where they shouldn’t. The role of raising children in the faith belongs to fathers, not some hip young youth pastor.

I’ll try to leave the male-only-spiritual-education issue aside (but not without a potshot: I’m thankful for my mother’s unique contributions to my spiritual upbringing, and I think St Timothy and St Augustine did pretty well with women as primary spiritual influencers in their lives). Youth ministry books have, for years, recognized that the primary influencers on students’ lives, spiritual and otherwise, are parents. No one questions that. So, the question is this: does youth ministry obstruct the work of parents raising their children?

The answer is, of course, no. It is very easy to imagine programs and efforts that a church might do that augment, instead of supplant, parents’ work in their students’ lives. In fact, on over-emphasis on fathers (and let’s say mothers too) leaves out the potential for grandmothers, uncles, godparents, family friends, etc. Wouldn’t you much rather have a wide family of faith working with teenagers rather than one pair of specific tutors? When done well, youth ministry would come alongside parents, not steal their children from them.

Youth Ministry separates teenagers from the life of the church

Youth ministries, they say, split the church into segments. Rather than a united body, youth minstry creates fragmented worship where youth and adults are functionally in separate congregations. ‘Divided’ points to evolutionary theory as a basis for age segregated programming.

And, to give credit where credit is due, there are plenty of examples where age segregated ministry goes too far. I have only recently actually encountered a church that segregates ages during Sunday morning worship (I’m not a big fan of that), but even if there isn’t segregated worship, many churches have so few opportunities for students and adults to interact that it can easily feel like mini congregations meeting in one building.

But, just like the last issue, youth ministry doesn’t have to do this. I am only most of the way through April Diaz’ Redefining the Role of the Youth Worker (which is shameful because it is a short book), but she does a great job casting a vision of youth workers focusing on integrating students with adults. Just as men’s ministry doesn’t split up wives and husbands, youth ministry doesn’t have to split up age groups. Youth ministry done well would minister to students where they are, which would include connecting them with adults in the congregation, and building bridges across the culturally defined ‘generational’ chasms.

Youth Ministry isn’t Biblical

OK, I don’t want to spend too much time on this – you can hear this referenced in the ‘Divided’ documentary or read about it more thoroughly on their website, (starting with the front page, which reads: “Modern Youth Ministry is contrary to Scripture. Will you take action to change that?”) The crux of this argument, as I understand it, is that the Bible is crystal clear on the method of discipling children – form parents to children. Where is this found? Deuteronomy 4:9 and 6:7

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children”

“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

I’ll let you make up your own mind about how widely these verses apply to child rearing – but when you do, please keep in mind that the New Testament is chock full of non-parental discipling, especially in Titus 2.

Adolescence is a social construct, and youth ministry is complicit in its existence

Both sides of this argument deserve a series of blog posts, but I’ll try and sum the argument up:

G. Stanley Hall wrote a book called ‘Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime and Religion’ in 1904, and this is often cited as a watershed moment in creating a societal definition of the the in-between childhood and adulthood stage that we now call adolescence. From there, they say, we have slowly but surely allowed adolescence to grow into a much bigger thing that it should be. We created (or allowed the creation of) a youth culture, and we foster it by allowing teenagers to wallow in childish ways rather than to help them grow up. So, instead of helping them be responsible, we play messy games.

Fully moving from adolescence to adulthood is a bit of a fuzzy line, but there are a few things that often get cited as signposts that someone is fully an adult and left childhood and adolescence. The adult:

  • No longer lives with parents
  • Owns a home
  • Is married
  • Has children
  • Is financially self sufficient

With any of these criteria in mind, there has been an observed extending of adolescence. You might disagree with any number of these as true markers, but these are still events that are typically happening later and later in life. Youth ministry abolitionists see this as a problem, and believe that youth ministry only enables millennials to stay less-that-adults for even longer.

Extended adolescence is its own beast apart from youth minsitry (since these stages are often not achieved until someone is in their late 20s), but let’s think about this problem specifically in the context of a ministry that targets teenagers. Youth ministries vary in how they encourage maturity. In fact, it is easy to imagine youth ministries that encourage students to grow into their faith earlier by giving them opportunities to exercise responsibility and maturity. There could be a youth ministry that helps teenagers fill out job applications or put together a budget that includes giving back to church and charity. Adults in the church could pressure young people to get married at 18 and move out and start having babies immediately.

Maybe you think that adolescence should be even longer, and youth ministries should play more messy games, and run seminars on how to get along with your parents as landlords once you enter into your early thirties. The point is this: whether adolescence should be a two year event or a twenty year event, youth ministry can accomodate either option. Having a ministry that targets teens doesn’t, by necessity, push the issue either way.

Modern Youth Ministry has failed, and so we ought to get rid of it

There would be two ways to approach this problem (assuming that it is a problem): Either assume that youth ministry is itself flawed, or that maybe the method is flawed. If you believe all the headings above, it makes sense to throw out youth ministry. If you don’t, let’s not be too hasty, and maybe rethink how youth ministry is done rather than throw it out.

It may seem like I am only talking about some nonexistant, ideal youth ministry. You may not have any experience with a good youth ministry that functions the way that I propose they could. But the work is being done to help train current and future youth workers on how to make this a reality. There are studies that have been done on what it looks like for an adolescent to stay in the church after high school: the National Survey of Youth and Religion which has extensive national research, which has then been interpreted and explained by people like Kenda Creasey Dean and Christian Smith. There is the work done by the Barna group, summarized in You Lost Me by David Kinnaman. There is the Sticky Faith Blog, put together by the good folks at the Fuller Youth Institute, which has resources for both parents and youth pastors for helping faith ‘stick.’ And the list goes on and on. There is great work being done to help the church do a better and better job of ministering to teenagers, through youth ministries.

There may be arguments that youth ministry is wrong and bad and horrible and killing the church. I just haven’t heard any that convince me that we can’t do youth ministry better, and that the whole thing has to be scrapped.


Andrew Unger


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