By D.A. Bass
Published June 2008
When it comes to youth programs and youth ministry, one of my biggest challenges has been to overcome the persistent myths that attach to the current model. Even when the car is careening towards the edge of the cliff, people in the car still say, “I’m not driving, what can I do? The scenery is so pretty. We’re going so fast, we can’t stop now. It is so comfortable in here, what’s the worst that can happen?” The reality still remains: We are headed full speed, albeit luxuriously, towards the cliff! It is time to re-examine our assumptions toward the speeding car of youth programs. Here are seven of my most often encountered myths of contemporary youth ministry:
1. The Youth Pastor is better “gifted” to minister to my children than me – A few moments of reflection should be enough to dispel this myth, but it is surprising how it persists even amongst thoughtful evangelicals. In the first place, your children are intrinsically wired to shape their worldview under your authority and with you as the exemplar par excellence, despite how inadequate you may feel about being these things. With all of your warts, faults, and foibles, you – the parent – are still the first and best teacher of your child. Unless you fritter it away, you have the love, attention, respect, focus, molding power, and disciplinary opportunities to teach your child as no other! What a wealth of tools you are provided initially to determine the direction and shape of your child’s very soul. What have you done with them? The idea that another “professional” can do a better job of training and educating your child is a doctrine of our pagan culture. The omniscient superiority of the professional is precisely one of the tools used by the world to wean you and your child from family to state. They have had generations to hone this system, and it has become very intimidating! The “professional” day care worker is better equipped to nurture your infant; the “professional” pre-school teacher is better equipped to teach your child to read and give him a “head start” (the very name of a government program) in education; the “professional” teacher is better equipped to teach your child from kindergarten to post-graduate school. Like sheep for the slaughter, Christians not only turn over their children obediently to this system during their six-day workweek, but also naively adopt the very model for their churches. Of course, it is not very long before, as former youth minister Jim Von Busch notes (see our companion article, “Youth Ministry Wasted on the Young”), parents effectively forfeit their authority over their children. Later, they wonder why their kids have rejected their faith and drifted from the church and become alienated from parents and family. Just because a young man is charming, charismatic, well-meaning, and, perhaps, “apt to teach,” does not mean that he is the appropriate one to mold and shape your child. Far too many Christian parents have been charmed by the pipe and song of the Myth of the Professional.
2. My child needs the “fellowship” of kids his own age – The Peer Culture is the new family in our emerging progressive state. Today, from cradle to grave, children are taught to get from peers what they used to find in family. By sheer dint of time and opportunity, children find emotional release and dependence from their friends. They quickly realize that, unless they find a group of peers with whom to bond, they will be aliens in a strange land in school, playground, and sadly, even our churches. Instead of safely relying upon the natural bonds of love and trust in his family, the child is forced to form bonds with peers long before he is ready. Instead of thriving in the security of the love and nurture of mom, dad, and siblings, gradually being introduced to the world of outside peer relationships, he is thrown into the uncertain melee of other immature personalities to form relationships willy-nilly. In the midst of all of this, the child is expected to maintain emotional health. The same holds true for every other faculty of the child: his intellectual and physical and sexual development become peer determined. Is it any wonder our kids are intellectually vapid, physically over-developed, and sexually debauched? What is tragic and sinful in this is that the contemporary, evangelical church has adopted this very model to supposedly raise “Christian” families in the church. The biblical model in the church is a vertical model (relationships built with old and young) versus the horizontal model (relationships built primarily with peers). Instead of experiencing the gracious, mature spirit of a senior citizen in a Bible class, he is taught to pity and despise age while being segregated with peers in children’s church; instead of helping a child 2 or 3 years younger than himself find a Bible passage or even tie his shoe, he is taught by his peer regiment to demean and despise anyone younger. Additionally, the authority previously held by the parent is subtly transferred to “the group.” Clothes, music, morals, political opinions, and religion all are determined by the amorphous, changing standards of the peer group. Baptizing these things with a Christian logo does not change the inherent wickedness of the deed. “Christian rock” or “Christian rap” or sleeping only with fellow Christians or adopting the political views of a “really cool” youth director is no substitute for the biblical model parents are expected to follow. Far too many Christians have relinquished their offspring to the ravages of Peer Culture, even in the name of Christ.
3. I don’t want my child to feel “different” and alienated from his friends – This is a corollary of the previous myth, but heard often enough distinct from it that it can be treated separately. First and foremost, it must be acknowledged as a capitulation by the parent, an abdication of the father’s authority to that of the peer culture. Additionally, if the parent is honest about this, it is also an admission that the parent does not want to feel alienated and different from his friends and peers. After all, it was good enough for me – and I have ceded my authority to my peers long ago in the very same system – and it is good enough for my kids. We do not want to seem strange. Keeping our kids in the worship service – tears and burps and fidgeting galore – while everyone else dumps theirs into children’s church will be embarrassing and make them (read: us) feel odd and different. Keeping them in a Sunday School class where old men and women use words like “propitiation” will not only confuse and bore them, but make them feel strange when their peers are being entertained by a video several classrooms away. It may be right to follow the biblical model, but we prefer to go with the flow. That is precisely what the contemporary church declares when it adopts the world’s model of ministry rather than having the courage and integrity to be “strangers and aliens” in the world.
4. A thriving youth program is a sign of a successful, effective church – This is an evangelical shibboleth., a presupposition so engrained in the contemporary psyche that it is heresy to think otherwise. Seminaries and Bible schools have entire departments established for youth ministry, and young men dedicate their entire careers exclusively to youth ministry. For many families, the youth ministry becomes the criteria for selection, even to letting the kids choose the church, based upon their preference for the youth program (itself an abandonment of parental authority). A moment’s reflection will expose this argument for what it is: Another uncritical acceptance of a pagan model. But in America, nothing succeeds like success. How can a paltry, weak, struggling mother and father compete with the brick and glass of a mega-church, replete with the game show host charm of a young, charismatic youth director, and the smiling gregariousness of dozens – if not hundreds – of his peers? Even though God has chosen the weak things of the fallible, geeky parents to shame the wise things of the mega-church, our first instincts lust after what glows as so successful and attractive. No one can argue that such churches are not successful and effective – they certainly are that! But at what are they successful? They have successfully and effectively broken a fundamental covenant bond, the bond between parent and child in the nurture of the child. They have successfully and effectively segregated the child from elders and youngers, weaning them from parental authority to peer group authority. They have successfully and effectively reduplicated the pagan model of the world in the very place where it should be anathema, the church. Indeed, a thriving youth program glitters as if gold, but, as many disillusioned parents have discovered a generation too late, it is a fool’s gold that produces shallow, biblically illiterate Christians at best and faithful, confirmed worldlings at worst.
5. My kids are turning out Christian, so what’s the problem – This is once again a failure on the part of the parent to fulfill his obligation to evaluate that to which he exposes his child and take action to remedy or enhance the situation. It is a further breach of his covenant duty as a father or mother. In the first place, it begs the question as to what is “a Christian.” If it means that the child has come forward, prayed the sinners prayer, and been born again – and that is pretty much the extent of it - then the parent has woefully neglected his duty and will have much to answer for before the Lord. Yet this is the bloodless life-sign that constitutes the sole responsibility of most parents towards their children. A good picture of what makes a Christian “Christian,” is outlined briefly in Al Martin’s What is a Biblical Christian? I recommend it to you for a treatment of a topic too extensive for the purpose of this article. The point is that a covenant child is one who, by definition, is not only regenerate, but thoroughly trained and equipped for every good work. He or she is prepared for their Christian role in society, have ingrained a well formed and self conscious character, and find themselves poised for marriage and child-rearing. Traditionally, the family has been that institution which passed on not only a bare salvation, but an entire culture and, in the case of the West, an explicitly Christian culture. When compared to this mandate, the modern youth program is woefully inadequate to support the family in this venture. The thin gruel of choruses, featureless, “relevant” Bible studies, and the occasional two week mission trip or river rafting adventure does not cut it. Your kids may be “turning out” Christian, but they are turning out precisely like the alienated, spiritually defenseless counterpart in the world!
6. The youth program is only a neutral vehicle, a cultural vessel that we in turn fill with Christian content – It’s only a program, after all; what is so inherently wrong with a legitimate neutral tool of culture we can use? This myth is held onto tenaciously to justify the perpetuation of youth programs, even when many of their weaknesses have been exposed. It is founded on the illusion that culture can somehow be neutral, that it does not matter what form a ministry takes as long as its content is Christian. This, indeed, is true for many things concerning the faith: It matters less what specific ceremony is performed in any given culture, as long as the marriage is biblical, chaste, and done in the name of Christ. The currency of a country matters less than the actual giving in line with biblical principles; the language into which the Bible is translated matters less than the fidelity of that language to the Greek and the Hebrew text. But it is a different story when the form matters as much as the content. It is a different matter when God insists not only on children raised as Christians, but that they are raised so in families, by the father! You are to teach the commandments and statutes to your children in a family context (Deuteronomy 6); you are to teach them the wisdom of God for daily living (Proverbs 1:8-10); you are to teach and model temperament to them (Ephesians 6:4). Time and again, the scriptures confront us with a father’s responsibility for training and teaching a child, with no tolerance for “delegating” the lion’s share of it to society or even a well-meaning program at the church. The very form of a covenant relationship requires a federal representative to teach and administer the covenant to the other covenant members. In a familial covenant, that federal head is the father. Thus, the church program, by its very nature and structure, takes children out from under the authority of the father, making of him a covenant breaker. Should the church be a party to making fathers disobedient covenant breakers? Even if the father agrees with what is being taught in the youth program down to the crossing of the “t” and the dotting of the “i” the youth program is still in rebellion and working counter to what the father is charged with doing himself, by the mere fact of its existence! In the world, this is not unintentional. Our pagan world system fully intends to degrade parental authority by pulling children from the context of families for longer periods at younger ages. The longer he is under the authority of teachers and principals and the sooner he begins to conform to the formative power of peer pressure, the sooner he becomes a son of the state, even if he still resides under your roof. The church, like a mindless ape, mimics this behavior by adopting the very model that undermines the biblical model of authority. Programs are not neutral; they are not mere objective vessels that we can fill with Christian content! Even as Marshall McCluhan observed concerning TV’s inherent communicative power, “The medium IS the message,” so we must point out to one and all that, “The family IS the ministry!” Do not surrender by substituting, “The ‘program’ is the ministry.
7. Even if you are 100% right, I still feel utterly inadequate to do it – This is really a corollary to #1 above, but is felt so strongly by so many people that it needs to be treated separately. So often in life, even when people are persuaded of the rightness of something, if they still feel incapable of doing the right and addicted to the wrong, they persist in it. Believe me, as a fellow fallen creature, I know this to my bones. And so, when compared to the slick, glitzy, Super Bowl half-time special professionalism of youth programs, most parents feel like a bad act on American Idol, about to get the gong! Why even try, why even compete? Yet you must get it through your head and to your soul that God has still ordained you father, you mother, to train up a child in the way they should go. What God has ordained, he will bless, when that thing so ordained is done in obedience. Even when you are at your geekiest, even when your family devotion seems stumbling and half baked when compared to the seminary trained youth pastor, even when your trip to the local zoo cannot compete with the beach evangelism trip to Florida during spring break, even when your vocal rendition of Amazing Grace on family night sounds more like someone stepped on a cat when compared to the crooning, guitar strumming choruses of Pastor “Bono” Bob, you are still living and ministering within the ordained covenantal bond of family. Believe it or not, God will bless this, long before he will bless the other! Those of us so obedient have seen it, too. My son was created to look to me, his father, as the very paradigm of authority and a model of what it means to be a man and his first and best teacher. He has been hardwired in his nature to believe and conform to what I teach him. Early on, at least, he actually wants to please me and do what is right. What a gift! What a privilege! What have I done with it? As one small example, I take the exhortation of the wisdom literature seriously: “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction…” (Proverbs 1:8) The books of the wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon) were designed to teach godly wisdom and the way of salvation to children. As covenant documents, they are tools to be wielded by fathers on behalf of their sons and daughters, often graded for growth throughout the stages of life. Thus, even my halting, unprofessional efforts are used by God to form my son’s spirit and character. When I disobey and forfeit this currency of authority to a church program or wet behind the ears youth pastor, I can no longer expect God to bless as he has promised. O father, do not be afraid. Only start where you are and God will bless your efforts and develop your skills as a father. He will bless obedience, but – make no mistake about this – he will punish disobedience. What of the church? Do they have no role in the raising of children whatsoever? By no means! The church has an integral role to play in the raising of children, but not in the contemporary church model fashion. In our next article, we will address the positive side of what the body of Christ does in the care and nurture of youth.