Are youth groups a way parents outsource their childrens' spiritual formation? David Fitch thinks so, in his post, "Youth Groups Destroy Children's Lives." "The basic evangelical practice of "youth group" - i.e. isolating youth from the greater life, ministry, growth of the congregation - is intrinsically dysfunctional and smacks of age segregation; teenagers need to be mentored ; engaged in ...real productive ministry - they fact that they are generally not is reflected in the massive number of American church kids that go off to college; never return to church."
These are the things I'm pondering as I read Fitch's post:
1) This fall, a young woman in the U of Oregon grad school has begun attending VCC. Her parents served an Evangelical Free Church in Utah, so she grew up, perforce, without the usual Evangelical Youth Group Experience. The only "group" she had was her church... and it was marginalized, in the greater Mormon culture. The first thing she did when she came to us was to volunteer to help teach Sunday school.
2) Another new couple, whose children are grown, made this observation: "People get saved at [Church A]; they send their kids to [Church B] when they become teenagers; they wind up at [other churches] when the nest is empty.
3) ISTM that part of our protestant DNA is fearing Church, so we have gone the other direction, and so allowed our ecclesiology to be formed by the culture, often rationalizing this as evangelization. Consumer cultures emphasize catering to markets, and measure success by market share. If ministry is understood in terms of markets, then youth ministry will view youth as consumers, and seek to isolate and elevate them, in order to better target and play to their wants and perceived needs. But this is just the opposite of biblical spiritual formation. Instead of persons being formed by the ministry of Word and Sacrament, youth themselves form ministry as consumers.
1.) YOUTH GROUPS FOSTER PEER ORIENTATION. Youth groups segregate the youth from the adults creating programing geered towards them as a separate culture. This creates a gap between the youth and the adults culturally. This then leads the youth to look to their peers for orientation into life. This I contend works against the discipleship of youth into Christ. I contend this peer orientation is disasterous for the lives of our children.
Of course our culture at large already does this. And our parents generally eat it up. It’s a fact that, due to the economic and cultural changes of modern society, children/teenagers have been segregated in school classrooms, and targeted as a separate niche consumer market by culture industries. As a result, they look increasingly to their peers for a sense of right and wrong, for values, identity, codes of behavior. They have less connection with adults either in or outside immediate family (you need both) as role models for life. This undermines healthy development and fosters hostile and sexualized youth culture. Children lose their true individuality, become overly conformist, desensitized and alienated. Being “cool” matters more to them than anything else. This is American culture! In the words of child psychologist Gordon Neufeld (a book I’d recommend), peer orientation undercuts the necessary parental connection in that parental nurturance cannot get through, is always insecure, cannot bring the child to rest, and is unable to be fulfilled (closeness unmet). As such peer orientation crushes individual development.
Youth groups that play to this peer group dynamic create the playground for all of the above developmental issues to explode. This leads to the next observation.
2.) YOUTH GROUPS UNDERCUT WHOLISTIC COMMUNITY FROM WHICH A CHILD CAN LEARN FAITH IN CHRIST AS A WAY OF LIFE/RELATIONSHIP, NOT JUST INFORMATION SLICKLY DELIVERED.
As Neil Cole has put it so well here (click on “What about kids in Organic Church?”), children learn about the living God by being in living relationships within a community where God is present. Once Jesus becomes infotainment, once it becomes a program, detached from real relationships, it loses its reality. It takes on the character of a learning experience in competition with other learning experiences. That’s a competition I’m just not interested in. In the midst of all these learning programs, children are consistently learning their allegiances from real life interactions with adults they respect. They sense insincerity and/or lack of integrity immediately. The life in Christ becomes attractive through the irresistable love of Christ that is shared visibly in and around our life together. If children are not immersed in this world, chances are they will find church boring and irrelevant. They will not withstand the discipline necessary to be shaped into something more than immediate gratifications. They will not have the wherewithal to give it time and learn what “Jesus is Lord” means as that reality by which we live our lives into His Kingdom.
3.) YOUTH GROUPS TOO OFTEN TRY TO ATTRACT YOUTH PLAYING TO THEIR WORST INTERESTS.
It’s a mistake to try to “attract” youth to discipleship with either social occasions that play on their sexual insecurities or music entertainment that plays on their desire to be “cool.” There will be times I am sure to attend the occasional rock concert or have the occasional social time together. But what the church should do for its youth most of all is foster spaces for meeting God where they can be trained to listen for God and commune with Him in silence, in prayer. Mark Yaconelli does a great job explaining this basic thing. I have seen this basic concept transform youth groups overnight in churches of some of my students. I also think the other best thing we can do for youth is organize mission trips to places in need around the world where youth come together to sacrifice and make a difference for the kingdom. This kind of mission trip (as opposed to a resort-like vacation) is a spiritual practice we must regularly encourage and fund in our churches. Again, I have singularly seen this practice transform the lives of youth in churches I have observed or worked with. Generally speaking, we need to be involved in mission in our everyday lives and take our children with us as we minister in our everyday lives (the other day I suggested to someone take their children to the hospital with them in praying for the sick – this was not a good idea because evidently our children bring germs that adults don’t … oh well).
In closing, I believe the youth ministry of a church is vitally important. But we must discern carefully what we are doing. Whether we have three youth or fifty, we need youth leaders to do things to foster authentic adult relationships with the youth. Let us make the community aware that we ARE A COMMUNITY and we have to treat our youth as among us and indeed take responsibility to love them, pray for them, watch over them, initiate them and model Christ before them and with them. Let us foster safe spaces for them to ask all their questions and learn how to listen for God in their lives. Let us do mission trips and bring them with us in all the ways we participate in Christ’s Mission in the world. ! At Life on the Vine, these are the things we’re ever working on.