the problem with “fun” youth groups

Almost ChristianMy 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:

  1. 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…)
  2. 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.
  3. 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

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)

10 Responses

  1. Bingo. You said it well.

  2. Amen!

  3. Bob,
    Right on the money! I see it in the classroom all the time. Alot of these comments could even be directed towards certain churches. great post.

  4. The math teacher is usually not the reason the kid is failing math either. This is well said though. What we see in our schools is the same as what we see all too often in our youth groups: abdication of responsibility.

  5. While I do agree parents should take responsibility, many churches are not giving teens people to look up to. We need men and women who will be mentors to the kids where their learning is life on life. Enjoyed the post.

  6. True for the Australian church situation also

  7. As a current youth director/pastor, all I can say is AMEN! This book is sitting on my desk at home waiting for me to read it. The more I hear about it, the more I want to read it.

  8. See also Mark Holmen’s recent research in ‘Faith Begins at Home,’ and a little older, but with similar findings ‘The Gospel According to Generation X,’ by Darryl Tippens. I will not reveal, however, which of these two gentlemen, upon hearing from visitors at his church of rowdy behavior on the part of a couple of boys in class one Sunday morning, came to the youth minister to demand an explanation for their behavior rather than their parents, in spite of his own research. *sigh* It is ALWAYS easier to complain to or about someone other than the parent, as this inevitably leads to a (best case) scenario of awkwardness and tension, or (worst case scenario) the plaintiff being held accountable for his own offspring. I say, why wait? I am starting a list now, before our baby is born, of people to blame when it doesn’t meet our expectations…starting with Jim West. I think his use of hyperbole in reference to total depravity is giving our fetus unrealistic goals of proper behavior and decorum, which will ultimately end in failure and murdered self-confidence.

  9. I read the CNN article back when it was published, but it’s good to see some dialogue here about it.

    This is what I wrote to a friend about three hours ago, airing my frustration (before reading all this). I teach at a Christian school and one class that I teach is Bible, high school freshmen and sophomores. I wrote:

    Most of the students have been disinterested.  Bible class is so challenging.  Sometimes when I’m so passionate and putting so much energy into a class and teaching it (with slides and pictures and flashy images to make it more interesting for them) and when I look around and see the kids bored stiff (the flashy words, images don’t work!  Maybe they’ve become desensitized by technology overload these days), it can be discouraging to continue my passion to teach Bible at this age level.  It’s the ONLY class that is treated this way at private schools, too! (I had the same problem at another Christian school.)

    So when I look back when I was their age, I can see a little bit what the kids are going through and I don’t have all the answers to solve it to make it better.  What do you do when the kids see Bible as a requirement and don’t really have a whole lot of interest in it?  It’s a big challenge.  A big part of the problem is exactly how we are culturally conditioned in churches!  We’re brought up to think of the Bible as a strictly devotional book to improve our life.  The Bible has RADICAL material in it.  It has TRANSFORMING material in it.  It’s alive and I wish I could get these kids to wake up and realize that.  It seems I, among many other people who may feel the same way, am facing this constant battle with (lax) church culture.  At [seminary] it was such a blessing to have like-minded students of the Word eager to share with each other God’s message, their plans to reach people, etc.  But sometimes when you’re out there among people the brick walls hit you hard that sometimes people just don’t see it as you do and you try so hard to get them to change their thinking.  Living Christianity is supposed to radical and transformational.

  10. jeremy,

    thanx for your comments. you touched on a very important point: the bible, when taught properly and honestly, does have very radical, counter-cultural material in it. much of what jesus said is quite counter cultural, especially to the white, male, upper and middle class world in which we live. likewise, when doing critical biblical study, many of the problems with what many call ‘orthodox’ christianity are exposed. the result is that xnty is not as neat and clean and pro-business, pro-democracy, pro-etc. as many think it is. this causes problems for many folks who want the bible to reinforce existing beliefs about religion and american life, not challenge it. so, universities, schools, and churches hire folks who color within the lines, so to speak. by the time students get to a teacher that is as passionate as you are about the actual material and what the text really says, the students – even at their young age – are often already bored. and if you really dig in the text and show what the text really says, often times you get a call from a parent or a principal or a dean asking you not to be so radical.

    we make church so ‘fun’ for kids, that by the time we ask them to actually think about things, they are bored. i find it fascinating that kids expect to work and learn at school, but expect to play in bible class. that’s the problem. if you don’t have the same leadership and authority in a bible class that you have in a university class, you shouldn’t expect your kids to learn squat.

    thanx again for your comments. -bc

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