Youth Ministry: Helping or Harming?

By | November 12, 2011

This is a review of the documentary called Divided. I’ll warn you up front, this movie may well be very challenging and upsetting. But I think it is right for the most part. So I challenge you, especially pastors and fathers, to take the time to watch it and consider what it says.

Before moving any further, let me first say that I was a youth group kid. I was very involved in my church’s youth group growing up, and I believe that it helped me to make healthy choices through my youth. So I’m not coming to this documentary with any chip on my shoulder, bad experiences, nor bitterness toward youth groups—just the opposite.

In a nutshell, the basic message of this documentary is that youth ministry isn’t biblical, it is not very effective, and may actually be harmful. The conclusion is that children really need to be raised by their parents, and that youth ministry can inadvertently take away from this.

Personally, I am and have been for a long time, very concerned about the ineffectiveness of church in general. I haven’t thought about youth ministry in particular, because I feel it’s just one piece of a whole system and paradigm of ministry. So in this way, I don’t feel Divided goes far enough. It’s not just youth ministry which needs reformed, but the way we do church in general. It is true that, going only from the bible, you won’t come up with modern youth ministry—but you won’t come up with modern church either. Now just because something isn’t specifically prescribed in the bible doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong or forbidden (as some might suggest). However we need to be open to questioning these things, especially if they don’t seem to be working.

Point blank, the contemporary western church as a whole is completely broken. All this is why I am a supporter of “organic” church. This is where church is a family like community which is focused on and following the leading of Jesus, and in which everyone—including youth—participate and contribute. If we were doing church this way, the whole debate over youth ministry would be virtual non-existent.

In the middle-class, evangelical suburban church, there tend to be a reasonably high percentage of intact families. Suggesting that the solution to youth ministry is to train and encourage parents—fathers specifically—to guide their children works in this context. However we have to deal with the fact that a very high percentage of families in our society are broken, with parents incompetent to train their children to follow Christ. For example, in one city church which I serve at, men are virtually non-existent, and the children of a woman likely have different fathers.

In these contexts, simply saying that children our the responsibility of their parents is obviously problematic. But this brings us back to organic church as a solution, because church as the bible pictures it is a family. So youth, even if not trained by their own parents, are raised by a family.

I don’t believe my experience in youth group contradicts the rest of what I’ve said. This is because I and the rest of those from my youth group who have continued to follow Christ, all had strong Christian families. Youth group was supplemental, not the primary source of spiritual formation and guidance.

In summary, the traditional western church is alarmingly ineffective and dying. God is still working in people’s lives despite our poor systems. But God’s working through (despite) what we’re doing isn’t justification for continuing to use broken systems. We need to return to the bible, not only to reimagine youth ministry but to reimagine church as a whole. This is the only way to turn things around and to begin to start making a significant impact once again.

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