Youth Groups: A Good Idea or a Bad Idea?


youth-group-04

by John Ellis

As a teenager, I loved my youth group. On Sunday mornings I eagerly entered the youth group room, which contained not just a ping pong table but an air hockey table, too. I mean, what teen boy doesn’t enjoy hanging out with friends and flirting with girls?

After our Sunday school lesson was over, we’d easily slide back into our pre-class activities. The only hiccup in our fun was having to make sure that we made it to our seats in the sanctuary before the worship service began. To be honest, that wasn’t really that big of an issue. Since we all sat together, usually crammed into two pews, we were able to continue our teenage activities, albeit in far more muted ways than in the youth group room.

During the service, we passed notes, talked in mostly hushed whispers, held hands under a Bible, and took it as a badge of coolness if and when the pastor (my father) paused his sermon to glare at us if we became too unruly. Getting called out by a visiting preacher made you a legend in the youth group.

As soon as service ended, we’d make a bee-line back to the youth group room or the basketball goal in the church’s parking lot. Whatever we were doing, it was together. At times, the youth pastor would be present, like on scheduled youth group activities and camp. But, for the most part, my youth group existed as an almost separate entity from the church.

While recognizing that youth groups do not have to look like mine, the reality is that many youth groups, if not most, over the last forty years or so have looked very similar to mine. During the last few years, leaders in the youth group movement have stepped forward to say that they had made a mistake, youth groups are not the best idea. In fact, without a lot of foresight and expended energy, energy that could probably be best utilized elsewhere in churches, youth groups tend to be a bad idea.

Personal anecdotes aside, although in the issue of honesty, those anecdotes have helped shape, to a degree, my beliefs about youth groups, I too believe that youth groups are not the best idea for three main and interrelated reasons: Youth groups have the tendency to create a third category of people that the Bible doesn’t recognize. They also unhelpfully steer into the teen culture. Finally, and maybe most importantly, youth groups remove unbelievers from the godly influence of Believers.

A Third Category of People

We learn from the story of the Bible that there are only two types of humans – God’s people and not God’s people. All the way at the beginning, after Adam and Eve joined in an alliance with Serpent-Satan to overthrow God’s authority, we begin to see this.

It’s set up in Genesis 3:15 when God promises that the seed of the woman will crush Serpent-Satan. We know that the true seed, the true Son, the true King, the true Priest, the true Prophet, the true Israel, is Jesus Christ, the final Adam. He fulfilled the promise of Genesis 3:15. And those who are repenting of their sins and placing their faith in Jesus are in Christ, they are counted as God’s people. Therefore, Paul can write of the Church in Romans 16:20, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

Being in Christ, means that the Church, his bride, are participants in Jesus’ defeat of Serpent-Satan.

However, throughout the Bible, not God’s people are at odds with God’s plan to save His people back to Himself. This is why Jesus told the Pharisees that they were doing the work of their father the devil. The seed of the devil is at war with the seed of the woman.

Because Serpent-Satan is cunning, he’s sown his seed among God’s seed. Speaking of the world, Jesus gives the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13:24-30. In verses 36-43, he explains the parable.

Jesus says that at the end of the age, on the final day when he returns, those who are Satan’s tares and who are not God’s people (wheat) will be revealed and Jesus will, “throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42).”

The only way to be counted as one of God’s people is to repent of your sins and place your faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Refusing to do so gives evidence that you are counted as one of not God’s people. Dying in your rebellion finally proves that you are counted as one of not God’s people.

The point being, you are either one of God’s people or one of not God’s people. Youth groups tend to create a third type of human – treated as God’s people while not God’s people.

Many people who grew up in the youth group movement have personal stories that involve repeating a prayer at a very young age, being baptized at a very young age, and then being fed an almost steady of diet of moralism while their parents and youth pastors exerted much energy in protecting them from the world. Except, most of us were the world. We didn’t need to be protected from the world, we needed to be saved out of it.

Assuming the normal iteration, youth groups are echo chambers filled with feigned spirituality. Operated as a sort of a mini-church, the expectations within youth groups are inescapable. And those expectations are dominated by the expectation that you are a Believer. Except, unlike local churches, teenagers don’t generally have a choice to attend. It’s incumbent upon them to conform whether they want to or not. Considering that much of the teaching is generally focused on moralism (how Christian teens should live in contrast to unsaved teens), it’s relatively easy for teenagers to conform enough to where the few adults present never really ask if their charges are truly repenting of their sins and placing their faith in Jesus.

The thing is, even with the best intentions rooted in a robust soteriology, youth groups are going to tend to treat unsaved teenagers as saved and saved teenagers as a time bomb waiting to explode in a cloud of lustful sin. Saved, yet not saved. Being sanctified by the power of the Spirit, yet incapable of being led by the Spirit without a heavy dollop of moralism and rules. The issue of the heart is rarely treated. As in, teens’ hearts of stone need to be turned to hearts of flesh.

Instead, the majority of teaching directed at teens by youth groups is moralism. That’s what many of the parents want, after all. For those parents, youth groups are seen as counterweights to the bad influence of the secular classmates of their teenager. Unfortunately, unless the heart is changed by the Spirit, no amount of moralism is going to matter in the end. Problems will continue to multiply, and unregenerated teenagers will learn how to externally play the part without every really confronting the root issue of their rebellious heart.

And many of the problems parents and youth pastors agonize over and moralize to the kids about are exacerbated by the prevailing teen culture.

Teen Culture

The concept of teenagers as most of us view it is a modern invention and luxury. For the record, I am not opposed to the concept as a whole. But the reality is that the modern-day concept of teenagers brings with it a whole bevy of problems that many of us do not adequately understand.

Historians see the invention and rise of the automobile as the single greatest factor in creating our concept of teenagers. Automobiles brought teenagers freedom.

By freedom, I don’t mean the freedom to make decisions, even important decisions, or being treated as burgeoning adults. Since time began, teenagers have been active and important participants in the life of the family and community. Their energy, strength, and vitality were valuable resources throughout most of civilization’s history when the vast majority of humans struggled under subsistence living. Teenagers were necessary to help ensure that their families and communities survived, much less flourished. In fact, throughout history, teenagers tended to have more responsibility than modern teens.

However, in the past, the contributions and responsibility of teenagers were mediated through the experience and wisdom of adults. And those are two important ingredients missing in modern teen culture.

Because of the freedom provided by automobiles, teenagers have the luxury of hanging out with other teenagers almost exclusively. Now, with the added dimensions of smart phones and social media, many teens live in an echo chamber created and curated by other teens. The helpful mediating and instructive influence of adults is circumvented more often than not.

Youth groups steer directly into that, fostering the unhealthy echo chamber of teenagers guiding and affirming each other in their teenager-ness.

By “teenager-ness” I mean the belief that their experience and knowledge is authoritative for making worldview level decisions. Any adult being honest will laughingly acknowledge that their perspective of themselves and the world while a teenager was woefully inadequate for use when interacting with worldview level questions. And this leads to the third reason why youth groups are most likely going to be problematic.

The Removal of Unbelievers from the Godly Influence of Believers

If given the choice, teens are rarely going to choose to hang out with adults. I not only understand that, I empathetically expect that. However, and my empathy aside, I do not believe that teens should be given that choice in certain circumstances, especially not regarding the local church.

In His mercy and kindness, God hasn’t asked us to follow Jesus in a vacuum. His Spirit calls Christians to worship, praise, and serve God together in a local community of Believers called the church. One of the myriad of benefits provided by the local church is the mutual edification provided by Christians.

As a parent of two kids, one of the greatest benefits of our church is that my kids get to be observers in the midst, so to speak. In fact, beyond just mere observers, my children are befriended, counseled, exhorted, and evangelized by a diversity of Christians. My wife and I steer into that, being eternally grateful for how young adults in our church family are willing to invest themselves into the lives and souls of our two kids. Why would we surrender that, even if only a little?

The answer is, we won’t.

Youth groups partition off teens from the adults in the church; youth groups separate the unbelievers from the godly influence of the Believers.

I believe very strongly that teenagers (and younger kids, too) should be rolled into the overall life of the church as much as possible. Our job as Christian parents is not to entertain our kids. Our job is to show and tell the gospel of Jesus Christ. Shunting them off to lock-ins, roller skating parties, and other fun youth group activities is not the best way to do our job. Whatever devotional is presented during youth group activities is swamped by the hormones hyped up by the activity. And this applies to youth group environments on Sundays.

Modern teens are not lacking in entertainment and leisure. Although they probably don’t understand this, much less appreciate it, today’s teenagers live an existence that teens of the past didn’t have the luxury of even dreaming about. Church does not need to fill that void, because no void actually exists. What the local church can and should do, though, is push back on the teen culture by sharing and living the gospel through as much interaction with the adults as possible. Churches should be looking for more ways to facilitate teenagers interacting with the adults, not less. By definition, youth groups strive to limit the interaction teenagers have with the Christians in the church, even if they wouldn’t articulate it that way.

I recognize that in our consumer minded culture, my beliefs are not popular. Sadly, many professing Christians look for a church home that checks off the boxes of programs that they believe serves them. Except, the faithful and right preaching of God’s Word is what serves us, primarily. The fellowship of the believers is tied to that. I do not believe that youth groups aid in exposing teenagers to either.

Soli Deo Gloria

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9 thoughts on “Youth Groups: A Good Idea or a Bad Idea?

  1. Tough one. If you have a teacher who is gifted, and committed to solid teaching and not to stupid games, I think you can do a lot with a teen Sunday school class. But, that isn’t always the case. I think the biggest obstacle is often the parents.

    At my church, we didn’t have a teen Sunday school for a while. The teens clustered together during Sunday school with the adults. They looked on their phones, whispered to each other, kept headphones in, wandered in and out, and generally didn’t care what on earth was going on. Their parents didn’t say anything to them. This is part of a larger issue out here, in the Pacific Northwest, where I sense little culture or expectation of Christian service among the teenagers. This isn’t their fault per se; the parents set the pace.

    Your remarks about not assuming they’re saved is good. The teens in my church now have their own Sunday school, in a desperate attempt to see if a class among their peers will help them care about the Scriptures. The teacher is a good man, and the class is built on discussion of books of the Bible, verse by verse. However, I truly believe over half the teens are not Christians.

    Everyone (except nursery, aged 0-3) is in the main worship service. I don’t assume folks are Christians, and constantly urge folks to repent and believe the Gospel, and ask them to question whether they’re really saved. The teens are there, but many of them don’t care. They’re playing the game. I could be wrong, but that’s my take. The teen years are hard and confusing, and I may be too harsh with my assessment. I do know they’re hearing solid teaching from em and the teen Sunday school guy. I hope the Spirit uses it.

    How to integrate the teens better? I don’t know. They just don’t seem to care. About anything. They don’t talk to the adults, and the adults don’t talk to them. I don’t know why. They segregate themselves, but this isn’t a phenomenon we’ve encouraged or fostered. I don’t understand it. We hope to do activities once per month soon, with a different family hosting the teens for a meal with a Bible study and activity afterwards. Perhaps that’ll help. But, I really don’t understand the teen dynamic in our church. It saddens me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed.

      As I read your comment, I realized that I didn’t do a good job of clarifying (didn’t do it all, in fact) that I wasn’t writing about teen Sunday school classes. We have a middle school class and a high school class, and I believe that age-focused/appropriate teaching is helpful. We do try and make sure that we’re not fostering an environment where the teens feel like they’re a group unto themselves.

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  2. Thoughtful and well argued as always, couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the traditional youth group. Appreciate your wisdom and willingness to share, and always enjoy reading your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I appreciate your thoughts and agree that often youth groups are as you have described them. But I’d also offer that we might expect the health of the youth group to reflect the overall health of the church, though perhaps not always.

    I have been a youth group skeptic, and I think that I probably still am at heart. But at our church we have been so thankful for our youth group and the manner in which is it run. Our experience here has been nearly the opposite of what you’ve described. The youth ministry centers around the SS classes on Sunday morning but also meets Wednesday evening while the younger kids have AWANA. The teaching is sound and deep. It isn’t centered on “teen topics” but on teaching a Biblical theology and worldview. There are multiple teachers for each age group (MS and HS) who are godly men, some elders. After the teaching time the kids are broken up into small groups according to grade and sex where they meet with one or two leaders to share in prayer and to talk about the teaching they’ve heard. Because there are so many spiritually mature believers pouring into the lives of these kids, they can’t escape the influence of believers if they remain in youth group. Of course, some kids are more involved and some are less involved.

    There are games, and there is fun. But there is discipleship and growth in a way that I’ve not witnessed in other youth groups. The youth kids are encouraged to take part in an Age2Age ministry in which they are partnered with an adult who is 50+. They make opportunities to get to know each other over the course of 9 months or so. Many of the kids participate. They’re also encouraged to participate in a service ministry called Students Ministering to Students where they’re taught how they can serve others in the youth by encouraging them in the Lord.

    Our church has a Biblical counseling ministry that is growing, and I would attribute the health of our youth group, at least in part, to that ministry and the focus on discipleship within our church. Many who are involved in the Biblical counseling ministry are also involved in the youth ministry, and all of the youth leaders have at least some formal training in Biblical counseling and discipleship. The youth are also encouraged to attend a 2 day counseling conference that our church holds each March, and some of them have.

    I certainly don’t intend to convey that all of our youth are believers. They’re not. And they’re not treated as though they are all believers, praise God. They hear the gospel constantly and are pointed to Christ and reminded of their continual need for Him. But many of them are believers, and they do encourage each other in the Lord. We’ve seen this first hand and are so thankful for those who have poured their hearts into these kids, specifically our kids. 🙂

    This is just another perspective that I wanted to share as our youth group has been a great blessing to us and our kids and others in our church.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing, Christy. From what you’ve described, it sounds like your church is being extra intentional in guarding against the problems I’ve described in my post. I’d love to learn more about the Age2Age ministry. I’m also curious to learn more about what your church does to help guard against the youth group feeling like a type of a para-church organization within the larger body.

      I pray that I’m wrong and that the majority of youth groups are like what you’ve described and not what I’ve described.

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  4. John, your thoughts are always deeply appreciated and probing. What you have described is heart wrenching to me because I started out 52 years ago as a youth pastor, and God blessed me with a such marvelous ministry I almost feel guilty reading your sad description. Just 10 days ago I posted a FB post, with pics, of the first Colorado camping trip I led with that growing group where I started out. It was such a blessing to read the responses of my “kids” (now all grandparents) post their remembrances of that trip. Their words did not reflect the adventure of the gorgeous mountains just over the ridge from Aspen. No, they reflected on how God met with us around the nightly campfire and in the morning Bible teaching time.

    I started with six kids. The total emphasis was outward. It was all about reaching others. By the next summer we took over 20 on that trip. In four years 65 went. During the year our weekly evangelistic youth activities reached between 75-100 kids. Our Sunday evening youth chapel (before the evening service) ran around 50. Sunday evening singspirations were 3 or 4 times a month and kids would openly share what God was doing in the lives. Kids regularly got saved — not walking an aisle, but being dealt with by adult leaders or other older young people. I didn’t know any better than to do what I was trained to do by my wife’s youth pastor, the legendary Don Nelson.

    He thought us to serve, and not be served. He taught us to bring our friends to youth activities that were designed for them — not us. He taught us to carry our Bibles to public school and witness. Yeah, his activities were legendary (not indoor church rallies — but what he called the “natural dynamic”), but it was the commitment and dedication of the young people that God used to reach kids for Christ. He taught us that the “youth program was the extension of the pulpit ministry, training youth to reach youth today.” He drummed that dictum into our heads so that I can hear him today saying it word for word.

    That youth group was in Minneapolis, MN, and in 2001 we held a reunion and over 100 attended. That was 40 years after. In 2015, we held a reunion of the group I lead in Normal, IL from 1966-1970, and over 40 were able to come. When I pastored in St. Paul, MN in the 70s one of the protégés of the Normal group joined me as youth pastor and we saw the same things happen there in a very inner-city setting, with many kids reached from housing projects. I have FB contact with a number of those “kids” today. They were totally down and out bus kids.

    I realize the retort will probably be — but that was a different day. Yeah, but one of the things that we built, excuse me, God built, was youth groups that were at least 50% kids from non-church families. It was a good six months before we had our first conversion in Normal. It was during a retreat, and unbeknown to me two girls in the group had their invited friend in a back room during the preaching service. They couldn’t believe it that their friend actually trusted Christ as they dealt with her.

    I had been preaching to the kids for six months that our job was to sow the seed, and then to trust God to turn hearts to Christ. That night broke the ice. We didn’t have dozens of conversions, but practically every month kids were coming to Christ through the direct ministry of the youth group. To be sure, as our group, and church, grew, we began to attract Christian families that wanted their kids in our youth program. When I left that church in 1970 a friend mine, who was trained under Don Nelson, led the group for four more years. They grew larger and stronger. Ron was followed as youth pastor by one of the youth converts during my ministry and he continues on in a pastorate today in another state.

    We were just dumb enough to trust God and do it. Trust me we faced drug issues, and all kinds of things. My Bible college roommate was reached because Don Nelson bailed him out of jail for running a mid-night auto equipment theft ring. The two of us served a south pastors 40 miles apart for a time. Been there. Been down the road of hard knocks. Just believe that God is still powerful. No tricks and gimmicks, but somebody has to get down there in the trenches and live with them.

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    • Brother, thank you for your comment and for your years of faithful ministry in the service of our God. Praise God for the fruit that the Spirit is still bringing forth from your labors as a youth minister. Believe it or not, I’m actually happy to hear of youth ministries that prove me wrong.

      Some of this comes down to philosophy of ministry, decisions and priorities that we all have to make in full faith before God, but decisions and priorities that we can’t say with 100% certainty is the absolute right way to do things, right? From what it sounds like, you and your fellow co-laborers were prayerfully intentional in the ways you went about youth ministry, and God has been pleased to bless your efforts. Your testimony is an example that I can learn from and, but the power of the Holy Spirit, strive to emulate.

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      • Unfortunately, I have to agree with much of what you wrote about how youth groups have been allowed to devolve into pop culture incubators. What you said is what I’ve observed as the years have gone by in churches where it used to be different. Where I might disagree, is that I don’t believe the fault is with the concept of “youth ministry”, but with the way youth “work” in the church has devolved into a quasi entertainment-therapeutic-pop culture faux ministry.

        I would also disagree about the cause of this malaise. The impotent moralistic emphasis that you reference has been, in my opinion, a symptom of the malady, not the cause. But to be sure the attempt to impose moralistic standards on young people without genuine biblical sanctification has been a devastating failure. I gave a workshop in Christian school conventions in the 70s & 80s that sounded a warning about that threat. I said the greatest threat in Christian schools would be the failure to produce godly young people. You have highlighted that reality.

        Here are some thoughts about the cause of this current climate in Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches.
        1. Evangelism shifted from gospel preaching and witnessing that depended on Spirit conviction, to head-hunting and counting numbers.
        2. Godly living became defined by “standards”, or cultural accommodation in evangelical circles, rather than biblical truth and godly examples.
        3. Entertainment became the summum bonum of the culture, and evangelicalism and fundamentalism fell right in line.

        You rightly identify the pernicious character of today’s teen (and, now, tween) culture. But where did they get it from? Adults and parents, of course. Most of America’s culture is awash in ungodliness. Most evangelicals feel very confident that their sanitized indulgence in entertainmentism (big-time athletics, media consumption, in-the-moment adventures, etc., etc.) has been somehow healthily ingested into a Christian lifestyle. History will truly tell the truth — won’t it?

        These are just thoughts, not intended to be a comprehensive argument or philosophical position. Many complex and evolving social factors are at play. I do not wish to argue against your position, and, in fact, I wish you well. But I am also aware that one of the biggest problems teachers face in Christian & public schools is the overbearing parental pressure for performance inflation for their kids.

        The individualism and entitlement mantra of our culture has further threatened the intact families that are left. Our daughter is an experienced teacher, with a grad degree in communications theory. She has never had the kind of pressure from parents — many good people— in over 25 years to advance their kids. Secular youth sports are known to be fields of combat between parents, coaches, et al.

        I don’t say this with a negative or defeatist attitude. I see it with an evangelistic spirit. However, the one thing that bothered me about your article was a lack of specific evangelistic strategy expressed. If you are blessed to see your family used as a significant gospel vessel, you will be faced with how do you bring “community” to the fruits of true evangelism. I predict you’ll be back to some kind of necessary group dynamics.

        My mentor in youth ministry, Don Nelson, wrote an M.A. Thesis entitled: “Causal Factors Relating to Failures in Youth Programming in the Local Church of the New Testament and Suggested Biblical Solutions“ by Donald E. Nelson , Pillsbury C.B. Bible College, May 1965.

        He attacks two influences that dominated evangelical Christian Ed dynamics of the post war era. (C.E. in the evangelical academic world at that time referred to church education— not Christian schools.) He saw that the idea of “Christian Nurture” from liberal theologian, Horace Bushnell, had invaded CE teaching from respected places Moody Bible Institute and other practical training sources. Also, he really assailed the educational philosophy influence of John Dewey on evangelical youth ministry philosophy. Dewey’s learning by doing, and experiential truth has been a guiding influence in American education for well over a century. Nelson traces some of those influences into broad evangelical practice of the post war era. I think it became the impetus for the platform of most evangelical youth ministry leaders since.

        In contrast Nelson developed a ministry that featured hands-on leadership training of teens, deeply involved adult and young adult leadership interaction, and constant challenging of the young people to be used of God to reach their peers with the gospel. Nelson had standards for leaders — not the foot soldiers. He was criticized for being militaristic, and that was a fair criticism. He was a product of WWII, but served as a medic and chaplain’s assistant on the Burma Road. He probably did more ministry than soldiering. However, he had a deep respect for the spiritual discipline needed to advance the gospel.

        His main scriptural emphasis flowed from 2 Timothy 2:3 as found in the KJV. But his emphasis followed more closely what we read now of that passage in the ESV or NASB. He had a message about “chocolate soldiers” that was a classic.”Endure hardness” would be his constant challenge, and then he would give you a big “in the face” encouragement and say, “Courage!” with a broad smile.

        God bless you in you endeavors. I will keep reading your missives.

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