My wife (a former youth minister) has said this repeatedly (screamed it in fact), but now national studies are supporting her experiences with evidence.
Too many church youth groups are making three fundamental mistakes:
- The youth group is about having fun and entertaining teens, rather than educating them about the biblical text, its possible interpretations, and modeling proper Christian behaviors of service and compassion. Ski trips and pizza parties, while useful for occasional team building, should not be the core of a youth group’s activities. (Nor should “really relevant worship” for that matter, but that’s another story. I’ve come to believe that “worship” has become the new “doctrine,” which is emphasized by churches to impart a sense of self-assuredness or personal benefit, and distracts Christians from focusing upon the more important, yet difficult central aspects of Christianity like service to others and nonviolent dispute resolution. But I digress…)
- Parents rely on the youth minister as a babysitter and scapegoat, and often blame the minister for their child’s spiritual (and academic, and social…) shortfalls, when evidence shows that it is the parent (go figure!) who is actually the most influential person in a child’s spiritual development. The youth minister is not the reason your child is failing math, not the reason he’s a punk, and not the reason you can’t get him to clean his room or call home when he’s out late. If your child is misbehaving and causing problems in youth classes, it’s most likely because he feels it’s the one place he can get away with it. Sending your wreck of a child off on a ski trip when he needs to learn how to sit still, keep his mouth shut, respect others, and not act like a reprobate does not help his cause.
- Free expression and the permission of teenage angst are favored by many parents (when they don’t have to deal with it!) above modeling and insisting upon proper behavior in youth classes. All too often parents send their problem children to youth group with the hope that the youth minister can cure in one hour a week what the parent has been unable to prevent throughout the child’s entire lifetime. Worse yet, kids who act up and disrupt youth classes are often backed by their parents, who refuse to believe that their perfect child could possibly be at fault for disturbances in youth group classes.
According to new studies by Kenda Creasy Dean highlighted at CNN.com:
Your child is following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible.
Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.
Allow me to translate:
YOUTH GROUPS ARE NOT THERAPY SESSIONS FOR YOUR KIDS! While they may be places of refuge where kids who may not have safe places at school to develop socially can thrive, this is not the primary purpose of church youth groups. They are not social clubs. Church youth groups should exist to instruct teens about the Bible, and to teach kids how to work together collaboratively to serve others and resolve differences peacefully – that is, to act like Christians! YOUTH GROUPS SHOULD NOT BE VENUES FOR MISCREANTS TO FIND RELIEF FROM THE PROPER DISCIPLINE THEY SHOULD BE FINDING AT HOME AND AT SCHOOL!
Youth groups that exist purely for the social benefit of teens may be beneficial to some teens’ self esteem, but lacking any deeper foundational instruction that helps shape their behavior and teaches kindness toward others, youth groups become worthless. They simply perpetuate the same social cliques present on any school campus.
The study, which included in-depth interviews with at least 3,300 American teenagers between 13 and 17, found that most American teens who called themselves Christian were indifferent and inarticulate about their faith.
So, they learned how to ski, and how to make jokes in class, but they never got around to learning about what the Bible teaches, because that wasn’t “cool.” And now they are giving you problems at home, and don’t care much about faith, and you’re upset that the youth minister didn’t “fix” this, when it was the parents who insisted upon the ski trips over the textual studies and discipline to begin with. Again, go figure.
Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good — what the study’s researchers called “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
And this is the problem with “fun” (only) youth groups: when they don’t have fun, or actually have to do something “hard” like learn, or serve, they see this as a failing of Christianity and leave. And the sad part is, it is often because the parent insisted that the youth minister provide more fun activities and spend more time trying to appease the child’s wild behavior rather than insist upon a solid biblical curriculum, and authorizing the youth minister to discipline the child when necessary.
Dean, a United Methodist Church minister who says parents are the most important influence on their children’s faith, places the ultimate blame for teens’ religious apathy on adults.
Some adults don’t expect much from youth pastors. They simply want them to keep their children off drugs and away from premarital sex.
Others practice a “gospel of niceness,” where faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers. The Christian call to take risks, witness and sacrifice for others is muted, she says.
Simply put, you cannot blame a youth group or a youth minister for failing your kids, especially if some youth advisory committee is tying the hands of the youth minister and dictating what he/she should be doing. As Dean’s book, Almost Christian, concludes, a child’s behavior is the result of a parent’s parenting, and not a youth group. Of course, most would say, “Duh. That’s obvious anywhere, not just church,” and they’d be right, except, of course, in the mind of a distressed parent looking to a youth group to fix a poorly parented child, and to deflect responsibility and blame the youth group for the child’s problems if it fails to do so.
Youth groups should be fun, but that is not their primary mission. If a youth group is nothing more than a social activity club for teens, it is lost. And don’t be surprised if the students are lost soon thereafter, especially once they learn that a rational knowledge of what one actually believes, a life of service, and proper behavior are non-negotiables in an adult life of faith.
(HT: Jim West)