“Youth groups destroy children’s lives,” Fitch told me.
David Fitch is a pastor and writer who I respect, and I must admit I laughed out loud when I read that quote. First off I knew it was kind of an outrageous quote to begin with, so you can see in the comments that’s not exactly what he means. Second, I think David is right in the sense that segregating youth off to a different room, entertaining them and “challenging” them, then sending them to college with very little integration into adulthood (even though in most youth groups they are baptized full members of the church), is just giving kids a simplistic version of the faith does that can actually destroy their spiritual lives. During my time at MHGS it was hard to hear the consistent stories of what my friends where actually taught and expected to believe in
their youth groups.
Last week Christian Century raised a concern about youth groups with an article titled, Is Youth Ministry Killing the Church? Kate Murphy, who served as youth minster, wonders if we are just ministering youth right out of the church. By separating our youth from the church and entertaining them we may be doing little more than leading them anyway from the church. She writes:
Kenda Creasy Dean and others warn that when our children and youth ministries ghettoize young people, we run the risk of losing them after high school graduation….Over the years I’ve worked with young people as passionate and serious about their faith…I think I’ve done youth ministry with integrity. But I may have been unintentionally disconnecting kids from the larger body of Christ. The young people at my current congregation—a church that many families would never join because “it doesn’t have anything for youth”—are far more likely to
remain connected to the faith and become active church members as adults, because that’s what they already are and always have been.
But the more I think about youth ministry I think we really face the challenge that we are ministering them to the mega-church. If we minister to them to experience a complacent faith that is primarily about what they want when they do leave the church they will most likely be drawn to mega expressions of it that requires little from them. Most of the visions of the faith we are giving them is one that is primarily about them. However, I believe most youth will find this unconvincing in college and seek out something other than the Christian faith. Christianity Today has always written recently about the shape of youth ministry and I found this particular interview with Kara Powell helpful.
What other issues do teens face that make student ministry important?
There is a strong link between kids staying in church and their involvement in intergenerational relationships and worship. A couple of important things are going on during adolescence.
First, teens are in a quest to figure out their identity. They tend to try on different identities in different spheres, which leaves them feeling like they live somewhat fragmented lives—they’re one person on the soccer field, another person in school, another person on Facebook, and still another person at church and at home. Autonomy is a second major focus of an adolescent’s quest. "How do I make decisions apart from my parents?" The third is significance. So teens are asking, "Who am I? Where do I fit in? What difference does my life make?" In a sense, those issues are relevant to all ages, but the flame is turned up under those questions during adolescence.
Here I think we find a more complete picture of what is going on with youth, but I am just not sure intergenerational worship is the solve all, as this article proposes it is. If you think about some of Christianity’s relations to these questions in Youth ministry it’s not hard to see how we have failed in this regard. For some Christianity just becomes another personality that gives an identity that often has little to do with any other part of their lives. Although my favorite and what I consider perhaps the most insightful line to consider is this:
Tenth graders study Shakespeare. What are we offering them at church? Nothing comparable to Shakespeare.
It might be fair to say that most 10th graders aren’t all the interested in Shakespeare as they advance in education and deeper into culture, but they most certainly find something to appreciate that leads them to believe that much of what they learned at church isn’t as beautiful or as compelling. But the church, I believe, has one of the most beautiful compelling stories in the world and yet somehow for all ages we have found a way to make that and boring prosaic.