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.
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