A few days ago, my friend and fellow youth pastor Ryan turned me on to Divided: The Movie.
Apparently, this has been getting out there. In it, the filmmakers point out the crisis of young people leaving the Church, showing that it could be anywhere from 40-88% of teens leave the church once they are out of high school. Anyone who works in youth ministry and takes it seriously know all about those statistics.
So the filmmaker sets off on a quest to find out why teens are leaving the Church in droves and what the solution to this crisis is. They ask great questions. However...
They "know" the answers before they even begin.
What is disguised as a documentary is actually an infomercial for a group called The National Center for Family-Integrated Churches. They begin by constructing a Straw Man: that modern youth ministry is universally about fun and games with no real effort toward discipleship and led by young, hip, cool guys who call themselves youth pastors. To construct this Straw Man, they use carefully edited interviews with teens at a Christian music festival. From here, they go into their pitch, talking with the intellectuals behind the documentary who espouse their philosophy of family-integrated, father-led discipleship. They claim that for the first 1800 years of the church all education (religious and otherwise) was done in the home or as integrated family units. (This link shows otherwise.) They further argue that age-segregated ministry, including Sunday School and youth ministry, are pagan, Darwinian, and antithetical to the teachings of Scripture.
They argue that to end the rapid exodus of young people from the Church, age-segregated ministry should be abandoned and churches, in order to be faithful to God and Scriptures, must use family-integrated discipleship models. In other words, modern youth ministry must be abolished.
Without going into to too much detail, here are my issues with this:
1) If you are going to be presenting the best and brightest of your side in an argument (or, better still, as a "documentary filmmaker," don't take a side), you should present the best and brightest from the other side. I am sure that there are people who believe in youth ministry that could have given a better understanding and philosophy for youth ministry than those teens at the music festival. They did interview Mark Ostreicher and Walt Mueller, but most likely ignored anything that would be antithetical to their viewpoint. But next time, why not give Doug Fields or Kara Powell or, you know, any other youth pastor in America a call. Oy.
2) Is anyone else sick of Straw Man arguments against youth ministry? Have any of these people even been to a youth group meeting before? I have never once been a part of a youth ministry that was purely attractional, purely fun and games, or purely centered around a really hip, young youth pastor. I am sure they exist, but let's take a more nuanced approach to understanding youth ministry. Blurgh.
3) Is anyone else sick of either/or dichotomies? Why is it that certain Christians can only see the world this way. My way is right, your way is wrong. Instead of abandoning all age-segregated ministries for family-integrated ministries, why not do both? Why not make youth ministry and children's ministry more family-oriented? Why not provide opportunities for both age-specific discipleship and for whole-family discipleship? Why not help equip parents for their role as primary disciple-makers and have youth pastors minister alongside of them as a supportive, secondary disciple-maker? There are already people working to get the church moving in this direction, such as Orange and the people at Fuller Youth Institute are hard at work addressing the youth exodus.
Those are my thoughts for now. For better thoughts than mine, check out: