Original Opinion Piece for Thursday, July 9 (’14)
Theology matters all of the time. That statement is not hyperbole. Two polls let us observe the sobering ramifications of the anti-doctrine, anti-intellectual, theologically shallow methodology that pervades so much of the evangelical youth ministry. First, from Barna Group and second, this survey conducted by the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches. Should those numbers not convince you of the aversion to doctrinal precision within evangelical youth ministry, I suggest you tag along with your teen to the next youth gathering at your local church.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that there is more than an even chance you’ll find the youth engaged in games that resemble a party at Chuck E. Cheese more than a church function. The bible may be referenced—or even read—but you should expect Scripture ripped from its context to appease the felt needs (what are those, anyway?) of the young adults. Actual exegesis (taking the meaning from the text rather than putting meaning into it) of a text and emphasis on biblical doctrine will certainly be avoided because doctrine, as we’re told by many in church youth ministry, is boring and boring simply doesn’t produce numbers. If your experience doesn’t leave you feeling like you just attended a birthday party, laced with Christian jargon, instead of a bible study, than count your church among the dwindling minority of churches in America that take the instruction of our youth seriously.
Zeroing in on where the fault lies for the mass exodus of teens from churches across the nation is similar to nailing jello to a tree. To be frank: it’s a multifaceted problem that deserves a more nuanced discussion than time or space will allow me to address in this post. So, where do we start? Most youth ministry critics approach the issue by highlighting leaders: most youth groups are run by unqualified youth leaders. Many youth leaders simply aren’t equipped to teach the Word of God. Since those who teach will be held to a stricter judgment, this should concern us on many levels. I concede the critics possess a valid argument in many instances. The results speak for themselves. The fruits of theologically shallow teaching among the youth group movement are transforming some churches and groups in to nothing more than proponents of moralistic therapeutic deism.
Other critics may point to the countless plug-and-play youth group programs that promise to engage and entertain teens with man-centered methodologies that supplant a comprehensive study of the Bible. Actual exegesis of a given text tends to be replaced with “relevant” topical bible lessons that fail to answer the tough questions most young adults are wrestling with. Granted there are many more issues critics will raise than the ones I briefly touched on, it’s my opinion their arguments fail to address the foundational issue. Make no mistake: inserting biblically competent youth ministers and ridding the church of man-centered methodologies will be a welcomed step in the right direction; but will not be enough. It was never supposed to be.
In an article published at Charisma News, Adam McManus, a spokesman for NCFIC, rightly identifies what I believe is the foundational cause of the theological ineptitude of America’s evangelical youth. McManus says, “…The church needs to begin to equip Christian fathers to communicate the gospel to their families. Today, Christian parents are beginning to realize that they have not fulfilled their spiritual duties by simply dropping off their kiddos to Sunday school and youth group, allowing other parents to disciple their children by proxy.”
The bible clearly articulates that our children’s theological and doctrinal training begins in the home. Fathers and mothers are the primary instructors of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Biblical instruction should not be isolated to Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. The role of parents, especially the Christian father, is clearly defined by the bible. Notice the words of Moses, inspired by the Holy Spirit, in Deuteronomy 6. Here we quote only verses 4-7, but the entire chapter plays the same tune:
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.’
The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Ephesus, says: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Christian parents are failing to impress upon their children God’s commandments and proclaiming the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ. So the question we should be asking is, “Why are parents willing to outsource the spiritual training of their children to the church?” Have Christian parents become lazy or ill-equipped or fearful to train up our children in the things of God? It wouldn’t be surprising given that too many youth ministries are mirror images of their supporting and doctrinally weak congregations that dot the evangelical American landscape. There is no doubt that we’re experiencing the trickle down effect of shallow theology.
So what is the solution? It’s apparent that I can only scratch the surface, but suffice it to say that the answer is fairly straightforward.
Reform begins at home.
Parents, me included, must avoid the temptation to outsource our children’s biblical training. We cannot sacrifice our children’s biblical training on the altar of convenience. We must commit to what God’s Word clearly reveals to us: parents are responsible for raising their children in the admonition of the Lord. Parents must commit to being biblically saturated and doctrinally precise. Parents must teach the Word and their life must line up with their doctrine. Most importantly we must not deviate from the clear teaching of Scripture because it is our guide. Let us not doubt the Word of God and His promise of the sufficiency of Scripture. Paul, writing to Timothy, affirmed the sufficiency of Scripture saying, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Admittedly, the suggestion that reform begins in the home is abstract and lacks practical application for parent(s) who struggle to find time for biblical instruction or simply don’t know where to begin. How do we remedy that without falling in to the same traps I mentioned above? Three suggestions that, if done every day, would probably take less than 20 minutes total: pray as a family, read Scripture as a family, and go through a question or two of a Protestant catechism as a family (these were designed, by the way, for families to use at home!).
Our children need to hear us pray to God, no matter how inarticulate and odd we sound. It is important that our children see our dependence on Christ and His promises through prayers. Open your bible and read a Scripture passage every day to your children. Discuss the passage together and welcome the hard questions that you may be confronted with (perhaps: why did David cut off foreskins to marry a girl? Or…what is a foreskin!?). Make time to walk your child through the Puritan Catechism or the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Catechisms aren’t intended to supplant the bible but rather to explain historical Christian doctrines in a question and answer format. Make time to instruct your child in the ways of God.
Our hope and prayer is that God would raise up discerning parents who would seek a church that is faithful to the Word, the kind of parents who dedicate time to the study of orthodox Christianity and pass those doctrines on to the next generation of Christians. Thankfully we know that God is faithful and He will build His church, but let us submit to His Word and admonish our children in the ways of God for His Glory. If we are to reform youth ministry in America, we must remember that reform begins at home.