Original Opinion Piece for Thursday, June 19 (’14)
The article below is the second part of a five-part series on what is wrong with youth ministry in the United States. Part one is here.
It may help to read this article from Charisma News. The article is shocking and reactions to it have gone from draconian (“Abolish youth ministry!” or “Abolish traditional church!”) to drab (“Eh…nothing new.”). The guys at Ten4Word were not surprised by the reactions or the statistics. We believe youth ministry is helpful, but only if done in a way that embraces and submits to God’s ordinary means of grace (an idea we’ll mention below). It is also worth noting that surveys and books, whether national or not, consistently show an abysmal conversion consistency among youth/teenagers. The questions remain: What’s wrong with youth ministry? Can anything good come from youth ministry?
We believe there are at least seven characteristics that a faithful youth ministry should embody to ensure our children are biblically discipled. Moreover, we believe that where these seven are present, any teenager who refuses to submit to Christ will not have recourse to point the finger of blame back upon his church. The blame will rest upon himself. We also believe that faithfulness in these seven provides fertile ground for God’s Spirit to change lives in the new birth and transform families in repentance.
In this post, we’ll cover the first of seven characteristics: A faithful youth ministry must be relentlessly Church-focused.
There are spheres of authority in a child’s life. Two are family and Church. Once converted, our primary allegiance shifts from our physical to our spiritual families. While some revolt against this concept (especially, but not exclusively, controlling parents), the Scriptures are clear that an eternal family takes priority over a temporary one even if the temporary maintains a certain hold on us. Some will quote the 5th Commandment against this idea, but the 5th Commandment affirms it by affirming the principle of submission to primary authorities. Even if unconverted, a person’s primary responsibility is to their Creator. Is it not more so after conversion when his hatred for God is turned to love (Rom 8:5-8 and 2 Cor 5:17)? For the unconverted, authority is Self. For the converted, it becomes the love of Christ compelling us to proper love and respect for others, beginning with God (2 Cor 5:14) and flowing towards compassion and commitment towards his people, the Church (Mt 18:1-35). If this were not so, the authority of God-ordained elders in a church, empowered to pursue wayward, straying brothers who may not know they are in danger of sin’s awful grip, would not be spread across the pages of the New Testament as a regular means of sanctification for God’s people (see esp. Mt 18:15-20; 1 Pet 5:1-11).
From Genesis to Revelation, human history and God’s revelation indicate there are only two types of people: the Seed of Satan and the Seed of Christ (Gen 3:15; Rom 8:5-8; Rev 21:5-8). For those who submit to Jesus, they have been spiritually removed from the former and placed in the latter by God who has guaranteed this uprooting and replanting is permanent, even after death (Col 1:13). There is not a third category called “casual church attenders and youth”. This changes everything, especially how we regard men according to their physical identities (2 Cor 5:15-17). While I am still a McGuire man, my primary focus and authority is Christ. My new and permanent identity is not Scotch-Irish, but Blood-Bought and Christian. My family name is temporarily “McGuire” while simultaneously “Christian”, but one day, the McGuire will fade and give way to a permanent redemption in Jesus. Consequently, in the present, I am still called to respect my parents, but ultimately, I am under God’s authority to love him and his people, a more beautiful and permanent family, over and against the McGuire clan, especially any time those two allegiances are in conflict. If they are in harmony because my family and I are all Christian and members of the Church, then all the better: as a family, we are called to restructure our lives and routines to be in service to all God’s chosen people beginning with our local church. How many youth ministries conceive of family and youth in this way? How many consider youth according to primary, God-given identity before they consider them as members of the youth program or biological families? The youth group is not the Church; it is one age-group within the Church that is called to focus on harmonious living and loving/edifying interaction with all other age groups (Titus 2:1-10). In a way, a youth ministry must work itself out of usefulness to youth as they mature and grow into responsible membership to the rest of the Body. Until they do, we believe it illogical to say, “Youth ministry is unbiblical!” Any time you have any Christian speaking to young people, you have youth ministry. We are focusing here on what characterizes one that is faithful to Scripture and emphasize strongly that it must make Church central. In this regard, the youth cannot do much. They can seek out, but they cannot force action upon adults. The adults of the church—all of them, from widows to newlyweds—must come to the youth in an act of humility in fulfillment of Paul’s command in Titus 2:1-10. The mature must model such godliness to the immature, especially because the young do not expect it as this is not what is modeled in typical socio-educational fields in which they live and move and have their being.
On the other side, however, youth ministries that pull youth away from their families is not biblically mandated and, in fact, violates God’s command for parents to be the critical teachers and shepherds of their children (Deut 6) under the supervision—not dominance—of the shepherds of the church (1 Pet 5:1-7) until such time they are ready for marriage (Gen 2:21-24). Perhaps, in certain situations, it is necessary for a church to encourage a child to stand firm against their family when a youth converts while their family does not and the family exhibits hostile behavior to the new child of faith. Their family may not understand and the hostility may be rooted in ignorance or, of course, it may be rooted in hatred for God and everything their child now embodies, especially the young convert’s new affection for Christ and the Church. In such a circumstance, they cannot honor their parent’s wishes to avoid “those pesky Christians and their religion.” Respectfully, he must say with the Apostles, “You must judge whether it is right to obey man or God” (Acts 4:19; 5:29), and “God has commanded I not neglect meeting together with the Church” (Heb 10:25). If they are not hostile, however, the 5th Command still applies and he must live honorably towards his biological family while never, in any way, neglecting his spiritual family to whom he owes service with the gift (of speech or service) God has provided for his people’s maturation in spiritual wisdom (1 Pet 4:7-11; Eph 4:11-16; Col 1:9-14). He hasn’t been saved to be an island and individual. He has been saved to be part of a people, a body attached to a Head, who is Christ (Col 2:18-19). If God takes us from one family, he places us with another. This is the great doctrine of “adoption” that is spoken of so wondrously in the New Testament (Rom 8:15; Eph 1:5). However, It is tempting for youth workers to draw students to a program instead of to a people. Programs do not save, do not confront sin, do not reprove, do not encourage, do not grieve or comfort or rejoice with, do not celebrate your adoption, and generally, cannot show the person and work of Christ to those who need it. But the Church can. The Church is commanded to. The people of God can and they must or they lose the distinction of being Christ’s people and become another country club or community center. A faithful youth ministry pulls children to the rest of the Church, whom Jesus died to purchase and cleanse, in supportive relationship with Christian parents as they model such love of the Church, and not towards dependence on youth ministers or programs.
I have belabored the point about identity for two reasons. First, it is foundational: who we are determines what we do and become. Second, we exist in a culture, whether Christian or not, which distrusts and dislikes authority and is suspicious towards whatever appears to be externally religious in symbol and practice. However, this is precisely the type of Body Christ has saved. It is noteworthy that the Scripture says Jesus came to save a Church, a people for himself (not a group of isolated individuals), and to cleanse and wash her from all sin, and glorify her at a future time in the New Heavens and New Earth (Eph 5:25-27; Rev 21-22). Moreover, the New Testament describes Church as a gathered, fellowshipping people committed to outward religious practices like frequent attendance for public worship (Acts 2:42-47; Heb 10:24-25), generous giving (2 Cor 9), singing (Col 3:12-16), clear authority structures (1 Tim 3:1-13), submission to teaching and those who labor to teach (1 Pet 5:1-7), order when the local church gathers for worship (1 Cor 14:26-40), discipline from authorities (Mt 18:15-20), and using spiritual gifts to serve other Christians (Eph 4:11-16; 1 Pet 4:8-11). These are but a few examples and references. At the end of the day, we must remember these structures are in place for our joy. Missing this misses everything. Ignoring the Church risks ignoring a critical reason we were saved.
With these things in mind, perhaps we are losing our children because our children were never a part of us to begin with. We have failed to preach their joy-filled new identity, or to teach them to savor in joyful adulation their adoption as sons of God, and they have failed to place the pursuit of God over their pursuit of the teenage soup du jour. There’s blame enough to go around. But as 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us to show they were never of us.” The other verses in 1 John 2 contrast two groups of people coexisting in a single Body, a local church or group of churches to whom John wrote. Some will leave, he confirms, but their departure is not cause for alarm regarding a failure of God to keep his promises of salvation. Stop blaming God. Stop blaming each other. Their departure should cause us to wake up and take notice that some in our pews are not what they appear to be. Perhaps the statistical scares used as tactics for suggested revolution in how we “do” church are only 1/2 right (i.e., they were probably never converted, and yes, we do need to change how we think and continually affirm and push to be “church”). Perhaps our programs are not aligned with God’s salvation for his people demonstrated in the identity-changing signs of communion and baptism, both of which proclaim the Lord’s death and our new allegiance to him as our Father as well as God’s sign of ownership upon his people. A new family bath coupled with a new family meal are provocative markers for a new life. Start looking to yourself and your churches.
In John’s day, some were denying the divinity of Christ. In ours, our children too often do the same by their practical atheism in day-to-day living: “I’ll do what I want because I don’t really believe Jesus has authority in my life.” This is Romans 8:5-8’s lawless, fleshly existence. It’s not too late to pursue the right truths and means of growth for the church’s children, but it must begin with our own hearts and the values we proclaim by our pleasurable pursuits. Are we showing our children a relentless love for Sunday morning Church or Sunday morning pre-game shows? If asked, would they say their homes made them more familiar with the sacred team colors or with the sacred hymns and chants of a 2,000 year-old living Church? Which do you exemplify to those ever-watchful eyes even when you can’t get two words out of their teenage mouths?
Any youth program or minister that seeks to build a program rather than the people of the church is sadly building a body of work that will never remain with the Body of Christ. His students do not know Christ because they do not know the Church, those whom Christ came to cleanse and purify. Ask a high school student what he thinks of his church, his elders, his deacons, the widows, the married couples, the children’s ministry, etc., and you will know if he knows the purpose of his salvation: to fundamentally shift his identity from his own interests to the interests of those with whom he is being saved by Christ for Christ and to cleanse Christ’s people (cf. Phil 2:1-11). How are the students of your church thinking about their identity? Is it a baptized, church-centered, loving identity? Or is it one that seeks to be entertained by tickled-fancies and games and trips? Youth ministry that does not take seriously the ministry priority of the entire Church is failing on a fundamental level. Nothing wrong with fun and games. Everything wrong with fun and games when ministry is tacked-on like a crazy uncle you try dealing with only on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. They will leave us showing they were never of us. Our resulting grief will drown out any joy.
Lastly, the mission of the Church must not be lost, diminished, or confused with social revolution. Youth often want to change the world. That’s great, but if they are unwilling to change their attitudes towards their parents, they are hardly fit to change the world. Bringing water to needy African villages is not the immediate reason why Jesus shed blood on the cross. The mission of the Church is not clinics and schools, though those are wonderful missions for Christians to do. The Church is meant to proclaim the liberation of sinners from sin and death (Col 2:15)—this is Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. Any youth ministry that builds a program of social relief at the cost of powerful preaching of Christ crucified has horribly missed the boat. It’s telling that nowhere in the epistles of the New Testament do we find rules and regulations for cultural revolution. At best, we are told for slaves to submit to their masters and masters to treat their slaves as brothers, wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to cherish and nourish their wives, etc. While this may revolutionize a culture, that is not why it was written. Paul says he wrote these words because how we treat one another in the church is a public demonstration of the Gospel’s validity (Eph 5:25-32). Where is the starvation relief program mentioned in which the Church has to be engaged? The after-school programs? Medical clinics for the uninsured? Nowhere. Some attempt to deduce it from places like James, but the Church’s primary mission is proclamation in preaching. Once saved, we must encourage believers to engage their spheres of influence with transformed thinking and love, but we must be cautious not to have them think that is the Church’s goal. Moreover, the gifts of the Spirit, which every Christian has received in some measure, is given for the building up and maturation of the Church, not society (Eph 4:7-16; 1 Pet 4:7-9), even while it is entirely appropriate for the Galatians 5 “fruit of the Spirit” to overflow in abundant fertilization as “salt and light” of the culture at-large. The gates of Hell will not stand against the Church as we preach the Gospel supported by the gifts of God towards one another. I have no such confidence that Hell’s gates will fail against my soup kitchen. We have no guarantee of success when we confuse our primary mission with secondary social niceties (Ps 110:1; Mt 16:13-19) and, in fact, have warnings against it (2 Tim 1:8-14; Rev 2:1-6).
So…what’s your church up to? What are you up to? What does your supper table sound like? Griping? Fear? Anxiety? Entertainment? Or sincere support of pastors and participation in the proclamation of the Gospel? If you fail to engage your heart in earnest prayer and support for this primary mission, expect abysmal results once teenagers leave home for college. They will go out from us and show they were never of us. We never were the Church to them, so they never saw it and, seeing more immediately pleasurable realities in college compared with the clarion call of Christian prudence and suffering for the sake of holy joy, they will go in and wallow in the mire of the day. But if you and your church remain faithful, then expect another word—one of comfort:
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Be relentlessly Church-focused, which is to say, relentlessly focused on the Gospel of reconciliation and the gifts of the Spirit manifesting themselves in the playground of pews and people. This is the first characteristic of biblically faithful youth ministry.
Next week, part 3 in the series on youth ministry, and the 2nd-5th characteristics of biblically faithful youth ministry.