Youth Group Lock-Ins: Proof of Adults’ Naivety (or Their Bad Memory)

lock in

by John Ellis

Several months ago, I watched an Australian news program about people who can remember every moment of their life. Apparently, scientists who study this kind of thing have studied it and concluded that some people do have the ability to remember almost every moment of their life. Most of those who were featured in the segment viewed their memory as a curse. Actress Marilu Henner (Taxi, Noises Off), on the other hand, finds her extraordinary memory a blessing. For me, as someone with a really good memory, I found the segment and its subjects fascinating. I can’t remember every moment or day of my life, but I remember a lot. Far more than most people, I’m frequently told.

I can remember whole days, many days; my earliest memories are from when I was around one-year-old. I remember my thoughts and feelings during a litany of moments that are stacked up in my brain. Sounds, smells, and visual cues frequently cause me to flash-back to moments from my past. Those memories are vivid. The looks on peoples’ faces, their responses, what they were wearing, what I was wearing, my internal questions, the ambient sounds, all of it.

I mention my memory to say this: I understand why many well-intentioned adults believe that youth group lock-ins are a good idea. They apparently don’t really remember what they were like as a teenager; they don’t seem to be able to recall what they thought and their primary motivations. They definitely don’t remember what their peers were like as teenagers. I do. And I remember almost every moment of every single lock-in that I went to. Very little good happens at a lock-in.

One of the lock-ins I attended was accidental, and my friend and I didn’t stay for the whole thing. It was after a Milton High football game. Our third buddy, the one with the car, met a girl at the game (as he always did). That meant that my friend and I had little choice but to go to the after-game lock-in at this girl’s church.

After we got there, our “chauffeur” and his new girlfriend disappeared. My friend and I wandered around. Finding ourselves unwillingly herded into the youth group room where the youth pastor and the “good” kids were having a Bible study, we became bored. At the first opportunity we split (which, adults, if you could remember it, you would remember that those aren’t opportunities that are difficult to find).

Having made our way to the darkened sanctuary, my friend found the light switches on the wall and flipped them on. Almost immediately, several couples who were scattered around the room popped up from between the pews and yelled at us to turn the lights out. My friend, who was far more peeved than I was about being there, responded with some decidedly non church worthy words and stormed out. Laughing, I followed him. We left the lights on.

On our way out the building’s front door, we also told an astonished and mortified adult about the kids in the sanctuary. We did that out of spite.

The night culminated in me and my friend having to hitchhike back to our other buddy’s house. We had no idea where he was. To this day, I still don’t know where he went. He showed up at his house early in the morning and promptly fell asleep, completely unbothered by our grumblings about him abandoning us. My overall point? Teenagers cannot be trusted. Every moment of that anecdote and every step of me and my friends’ actions that night should cause parents to tremble with much fear. If you believe that the kids making out in the sanctuary is the most important take-away, you need to go back and reread it.

The thing is, whether you want to admit it or not, you know that when you were a teenager, you couldn’t be trusted either. Not really. So, assuming you disagree with my thesis about lock-ins, why do you believe that today’s teenagers can be trusted? Surely, you don’t think that you can out maneuver and outwit them? You can’t be that naïve, can you?

I could relate more horror stories about what took place at the lock-ins, back of the youth group bus, in the pews during the service, or wherever groups of teenagers gathered. Some of the stories are far more disturbing than the one above, but, in the issue of discretion, they are going to remain in my memory banks (that, and I have friends who would not be happy if I ratted them out, even though it’s been around three decades since our miscreant activities took place).

The rejoinder, of course, will be that I’m unfairly conflating my experiences across the board. Maybe. But think about it. I have no doubt that if most of you work your memory “muscle” and think back to when you were a teenager, you’ll realize that my experiences are not an anomaly.

Look, the heart is deceitfully wicked, right? We can agree on that, can’t we? The brains of teenagers are not fully developed, correct? The pre-frontal cortex, the part that’s involved in decision making is still in the process of growing and developing at that age. This is one of the reasons, if not the reason, insurance rates drop so drastically after the age of twenty-five. And, somewhat repeating myself, all of us were born with rebellion against God drilled deeply and unmovably, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, into our heart.

Much of my impetus for writing A Godless Fundamentalist is the naïve approach well-meaning Christian adults take towards the teens under their charge. Christian adults are often guided by the unstated (at times stated) belief that their job is to keep the soil of the teens’ hearts free from weeds and rocks. If they do a good job, they think, all will be well. No! That’s dangerously wrong. Far fewer “saved” teenagers are actually saved than many adult Christians are willing to admit. Not only are many of the teenagers at lock-ins teenagers, they are also unregenerate.

Having spent several years working at a Christian youth camp, attending one of the Christian school movement’s flagship schools, as a student at Bob Jones University, and interacting with many people from a variety of youth groups around the country, I’m more than comfortable asserting that my experiences are not as unique as many people want to believe. Those who promote a youth group culture that includes things like lock-ins are doing a disservice to the teenagers they’re called to serve.

I’ve already done much of the heavy lifting about why I find youth groups problematic (you can read that by clicking here). Lock-ins may represent the worst aspect of youth group culture. There is no reason for lock-ins to exist. Or, rather, whatever good and valid reasons do exist can be accomplished elsewhere without the added specter of hormonal, hyped-up teenagers being watched over all night by increasingly weary adults.

A couple of years ago, while chaperoning a lock-in, a pastor in Georgia live tweeted the whole thing. It was quite hilarious. Many of the responses from other twitter users verified the truth of what this pastor was humorously tweeting. The dominant theme was the growing tension between the tired and sore adults and the increasingly hyper teenagers. In his tweets, this pastor recognized that any slippage in his watchfulness would – not could – would result in tragically sinful results. Laughing along as I kept up with his tweets, I thought to myself, “Why are you doing this then, brother?”

While there is nothing wrong with finding and providing wholesome entertainment for teenagers, that’s not our primary job. I often remind my kids that I’m not the entertainment director on the cruise ship of their life. As parents, teachers, youth pastors, and Christians sitting in the pews, our primary job is to share the gospel with those under us, pray for them, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, do our best to model what it means to follow Jesus for them. After that, we’re called to protect them and to help guide them into making choices that won’t have negative repercussions down the road. Sometimes, we have to protect them from themselves. All that adds up to cause me to conclude that the risks that accompany lock-ins so overwhelmingly swamp whatever rewards there might be as to render lock-ins unwise, at best.

Soli Deo Gloria


2 thoughts on “Youth Group Lock-Ins: Proof of Adults’ Naivety (or Their Bad Memory)

  1. Well said. I remember coming to a church and learning that the kids, during a lock-in, had had an incident where the police were nearly called, leading to a big exodus from their youth group, and one of the featured games at the lock-in was “beer pong”, except with Mountain Dew. The interesting thing was that nobody else around even appeared to know why this was objectionable.

    I think a good portion of it has to do with the fact that we’ve done a good Pharisaical job of pushing out the “possibly objectionable” portions of life to the point where we don’t “get” what’s really going on in a lot of areas. I think it actually makes us more vulnerable to big sins, because we don’t learn the “cues” that we’re getting in deeper than we ought.

    Liked by 1 person

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