Church youth groups – helpful or harmful?

Every generation of the Church has had to wrestle with how to raise the next generation in a way that develops their spiritual maturity and ability to be “in this world, but not of it.”  Simply having the kids in a ‘church’ is no guarantee they will continue to walk in the Faith.  In fact, having them in the wrong church–one focused on entertaining the congregation rather than exalting the Christ–is one of the surest ways to cripple them spiritually.

Some time ago, Christian pollster George Barna documented that 61 percent of today’s 20-somethings who had been churched at one point during their teen years are now spiritually disengaged. They do not attend church, read their Bible or pray.

According to a new five-week, three-question national survey sponsored by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC), the youth group itself is the problem. Fifty-five percent of American Christians are concerned with modern youth ministry because it’s too shallow and too entertainment-focused, resulting in an inability to train mature believers. But even if church youth groups had the gravitas of Dallas Theological Seminary, 36 percent of today’s believers are convinced youth groups themselves are not even biblical.

I agree with a point in the linked article that churches today are too age-segregated.  Many Bible studies are targeted at specific age groups… but if closed off in that fashion, how does one gain from the experience and painfully won wisdom of one’s elders?  This isn’t just an issue among adults at different stages of life.  Adolescence is sometimes ‘that awkward period’ for everyone — for the teens undergoing it, their parents and siblings, and anyone else around them.  The young man-lings and ladies-in-waiting are a tangled mess of potential, emotions, talents, energy (oh, that they could transplant some of it to us!), apprehension, curiosity, and above all, a desire to be loved.

And all too often, the response of many congregations is “ain’t nobody got time for all that.”  Rather than integrate these growing members of the Body of Christ into what the Body is doing, churches can, sometimes without consciously realizing it, isolate them into ‘youth-oriented’ programs run by paid staff or a handful of volunteers.  After all, “that’s what we have a youth minister for, right?”

I’ve moved around a number of times, and seen churches where teens thrive in the faith, and others where they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’   And I am very thankful that as the older two of my Musketeers have been in this stage of life, they have been a part of a church that thinks generationally.

What do I mean by that?  We do have a youth pastor–a very gifted and spiritually grounded leader who keeps the kids’ focus on Christ, not him (…but one result of that effort is that he is very beloved himself).   The church, however, has not ‘outsourced’ the raising of their teens to this individual.  A broad swath of the church’s adults–and not just those who currently have teens themselves–are involved with supporting the many activities that tie these kids into the larger life of the church.  Yes, there is a ‘youth choir’ — and it often sings praise on Sunday morning right alongside the adults.  The kids attend the main worship service… where many of them sit together down front, and where the pastor often acknowledges them as he applies Biblical wisdom to everyday life.  There are youth Bible studies–but these are not just teens trying to sort out the Word for themselves… they have adult mentors who co-lead with the older students.  There are various youth gathering and socials — hosted by many different families who get to know and love these kids as an extension of their own.  (I have three boys, but it’s not unusual for there to be six or seven in the house at any given time.  The pantry stays in a state of constant fear.)

Which brings up a crucial point: the youth are neither ignored and isolated nor “catered to” as having to be entertained.  They are given a chance to be “kids” and enjoy this stage of life, but are also being taught to be servant leaders with responsibilities to each other and the larger church body.  They take on significant roles in the work our church does, and they also do a lot of the ‘lifting’ that supports activities geared to them.  They are taught to be leaders and examples to the younger children, and are often found working alongside adults with the elementary Sunday Bible classes or Vacation Bible School.

Our church just had its graduation Sunday.  As happens each year, the seniors were loved and encouraged.  Stories–and laughter–were shared of their younger days and compared to their growth since then.   As the memories are shared, it leads to a point: they are then charged with going out into the world and continuing to share the love and energy that has been poured into them.   It is more than a graduation… it is a recognition that they are now taking on the adult responsibilities not just of life, but of Christ’s church.  They’ve been given the Foundation; it is now up to them to let Christ continue to build upon it.

Is this local approach perfect?  No — none are or could be, this side of heaven.  But it gets a lot of things right that so many overlook — making the maturation of its youth an integral part of everything it does.  There are many churches with larger or more developed “programs,” and Sunday morning attendance an order of magnitude greater than ours.  But at some point you have to ask (to paraphrase Scripture): ‘what does is profit the Church to pack the pews, but lose its own children?”  It’s said that charity starts at home.  So does evangelization!

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