(June 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 6)
I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, for Thanksgiving at the Romines when I was offered my first glass of sweet tea – that is, real southern-style sweet tea. I was in love. What an amazing concoction! I proceeded to drink the rest of the pitcher. Before that day I had tried tea a thousand times but I never cared much for it. It did the job of thirst quenching well enough but that’s about where my desire for it ended. Once I tasted this sweet potion (must have been one part tea and one part molasses) I realized that all tea before this time had been missing something: the right flavor of tea and a whole lot of sugar.
Something is missing in modern evangelical youth ministry. To tell the truth, it seems many things are missing. What would a group be like that had the proper ingredients?
In this article I would like to point out two missing ingredients in many evangelical churches’ youth ministries. And much like the sweet tea Mrs. Romine made, these ingredients are no secret. They are nothing new or revolutionary. No, the sad fact is that they have been sitting there on the counter like so much sugar since the inception of the church.
The Centrality of Teaching the Word
Our concerns with common methods
I am taken off guard every time a salesman calls our church trying to sell some new program that is the next “must have” for our ministry. A salesman or two has even tried to impose a guilt trip on me for not wanting his program. It is appalling to me that a person would think that the church needs their hip program in order to succeed. With what measure are they gauging success? I thought we were given all we need for life and godliness through the true knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 1:3)? Am I naïve and idealistic, or worse, pompous and smugly self-righteous?
Of course, I don’t think that of myself. I truly believe that we are not giving the Bible a fair shot in our churches and in our youth ministries. Somewhere along the line we started believing that we could serve young people better if we structured our programs around fun and excitement. Teachers forfeited exegetical teaching in exchange for “Hot Talks” with teens which characteristically turn the Bible into a devotional book written “just for me” – never mind the concept of authorial intent. At some point we decided young people could not handle deep teaching so we contrived new plans and came up with “fresh thinking.” The question is, Are these plans and programs bringing kids to the “fountain of living water” or are we just pacifying them, contenting ourselves with good morality and compliance? I think we must admit that much of the youth ministry world has bought into the theory that the Bible alone cannot get the job done.
It is time to consider how to take back the ground we have so easily surrendered. We have given in to pressure for numbers and impressive programs which have the appearance of success but lack the blessing and power of God. Our teenagers do not need another “cool” extracurricular activity. They need to learn how to read, study and apply the Scriptures. This needs to be our focus in youth ministry; this needs to be our goal. Is there room for games, parties and events? Of course, I am not demeaning such things but seeking to put them in their proper place.
We need to faithfully preach the concept of biblical authority. To instill the idea that the Bible is the blueprint for how we walk, talk, eat and breathe and to expound and explain how we can do all to the glory of God (I Cor 10:31). God’s Word is the authority for our lives, our self is not. This is the message our teenagers must hear. I know that in saying this I risk sounding pretentious, but I must ask the question: When did we begin to doubt the power of the Word? What happened to Hebrews 4:12? The program sales reps who scoff at the notion that I would just teach my kids exegetically from a book of the Bible must have forgotten such things. We cannot be badgered into believing that the Word of God is not exciting enough, not relevant enough and not powerful enough for children. If we want to change their lives and reach them in a “relevant” way then we must trust in the power of the Word to convict, encourage, comfort and correct people of all ages.
Our answer for our congregation
After years of searching in vain for a commercial program that would adequately do the job (our church leadership has found that the majority are watered down, filled with error and teach bad Bible study methods) we turned mainly to our own people. They have applied their talents and knowledge into writing age-appropriate curriculum for our children. The job is not yet complete but it has truly proven to be a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.
This is what we have begun to implement at our church: Our 4-5 year olds are being taught selected Bible stories. Ages 6-7 go through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation in two years. Ages 8-9 go through the Bible once again. Ages 10-11 are being taught hermeneutics and Bible study methods. When they get to junior high they learn systematic theology for most of their two years in that department. After all this, they come to me in high school, full of knowledge and stories. I see it as my job to give their faith legs, to challenge them to take all that knowledge and live it. If you think such issues could only be addressed in a topical manner I would encourage you to consider Ecclesiastes, James, 1 John and many other places that really smack us in the face with practical living issues. We do not need to make our job any harder than it is. At the end of the day, when you break down all the pizza eating, parties, small groups and lessons we just want our kids to love God (with all their heart, soul, mind and strength). In order for kids to love Him they must have a relationship with Him and how can they know Him except through His Word? Our first step is to figure out how we can get them engaged in the Scriptures.
I once heard a quote that sums up my thoughts perfectly. I recall John MacArthur saying, “I don’t defend a lion. I just let him out of his cage.” My friends, we have forgotten who we are keeping caged up. We forget our place and, in fact, many times we stand in His way.
We have no greater tool than what God has given to us. It is our program and starting point; without the Scriptures we are helpless, hopeless and powerless. Our starting point is the Word. We must get our youth into the living and active pages of Scripture and let the Lion do His job.
Integrating Youth into Body Life
In a heavy southern accent Abe says to me, “Yer just gonna feed em pizza.”
These were the words of a friend of mine about a decade ago. My friend Abe was asking me how I was going to be different from every other youth pastor he had known. I attempted to answer him with many of my idealistic plans and schemes but every time he would draw it right back to feeding them pizza.
Out of this comical conversation came serious contemplation for me. I really wanted to do something more than what I had seen practiced so often in the world of youth ministry. It is the same pursuit that we all must go through as God’s servants and that is: How do I truly honor God with my ministry? Isn’t this what we all want?
So began the internal dialogue of what makes a youth group Bible based? I have come to the conclusion that the problem begins when we start to think of a youth group differently from the rest of the church body. If we have the money we push them into their own building and get them out of the way – and the teenagers are more than happy to comply and escape from the stifling adults. We train ourselves, and them, to hold teenagers to a different standard.
Have you ever heard someone say that the youth are the “future of the church?” Or, “Wow that kid will do so much for the Lord when he gets “older?” Is there anything wrong with statements like these? Depending on how they are meant there could be a lot wrong with them. For example, we never see this example in Scripture. We never see an age standard for ministry. It is my strong belief that the church is weaker because the youth of so many churches are marginalized.
I have also noticed a trend among teenagers: the alarming attrition of students in the transition period from high school to college. I have seen absolutely baffling statistics of the number of kids who leave the nest, are given freedom and choose to drop out of church. Why? Why do so many kids who grow up in homes with parents who love the Lord and love their church end up never returning to a local body once they leave home? Why do kids decide that church is not a priority in their lives when they have seen how vital it is for their parents? Are we doing something wrong?
I have a few suggestions:
- First, maybe kids don’t see why church matters. Life is good, life is pretty easy and things are going well so why would they need God’s help?
- Second, they grow up in a fun, active, entertaining youth group that fosters a consumer mentality and when they start to attend the regular services of the church they quickly find that the frills are not there. It’s not fun or entertaining so why go?
- Third, maybe they are overlooked and feel lost in the crowd.
- Fourth, we have a generation that is teeming with kids who are failing to connect on a personal level with anyone outside their peer group. It is sad to see kids hiding behind their computer screens and MySpace accounts. They are learning to gather most of their understanding for life and priorities not from the wise but from their peers.
- Fifth, they never became an active, vital, serving, and needed member of the church where they grew up.
The good news is that many of the trends in pop culture can be effectively negated by a healthy church life. Body life in a local church should do wonders for the adolescent struggling to find where he fits in. We need to make a concerted effort to integrate these kids in the ministries of the church.
Let us consider how we typically use teenagers. They get to rake leaves, clean gutters, shovel driveways, help in the nursery and maybe even spread some mulch! Who wants to do that stuff? Nobody, that’s why we make the kids do it! I can almost hear an old-timer say, “It’s good for them.” To be sure, I think they should be used for such things but there is much more they can be doing.
At our church we are learning to involve our teenagers in ways where God has gifted them. Some quick examples are: ushering, playing special music, choir, participating in congregational music (“music team” if you’re trendy), leading youth group worship, teaching small group Bible studies, teaching beginners and primaries, VBS, leading in many ways in Back Yard Bible Clubs, sound room (both audio and video), puppet ministry, prayer groups, decorating, writing, designing, organizing youth group publications and numerous other ministries.
We start them slowly then turn over more responsibility once they have shown faithfulness which, as it turns out, is the same process we use with adults. Teenagers should not be considered an annoyance or plague on the rest of the church. They should be motivated to serve.
I watch a show from time to time called the “Dog Whisperer.” The guy is amazing. One of the most frequent questions he is asked is, “Why is my dog tearing up my yard, couch, shoes, etc.?” He tells them nearly every time, “The dog is bored. He needs exercise. Walk your dog 45 minutes a day and you won’t have the problem.” The dog just needs an outlet for his energy! Many balk at this idea because it requires a lot more work than they honestly want to put into a dog.
We tell our teenagers to behave all the time but how much are we exercising them spiritually? How much effort are we putting toward their development in Christ? Since we are fully aware of the excess energy that teenagers possess, we need to consider how to harness that power and use it for the body.
Please understand that I am saying the following with love and concern: I believe that any local body of Christ that is not using its teenagers to minister is a body out of alignment, lopsided, and off-balanced. We all need church body life – I would suggest that this need is magnified in teenagers.
In truth it is hard work to activate teenagers in body life. But if I am content to just “feed ‘em pizza” what hope can I have for them? We are losing this generation at a staggering rate. Teenagers must see that we need them just as they need us, as is God’s design. These kids are part of the church now and one day will be the future leaders of the church.
All the Right Ingredients
I have just recently become a father and in my eyes there has never been a more beautiful baby. Many times as I hold him, I consider where life will take him and the paths that he will choose. I must confess that there is fear in my heart as I look at the world around us. I see no hope on the horizon for the future moral state of my beloved country. I am afraid of what the future will hold for my son.
Then I consider the church and I find hope. The church is the instrument of God in a dark and confusing world. It is the light that can illuminate the path through the faithful teaching and living of the Word. Tragically, here in our society it seems clear that the light is waning.
Which makes me wonder, what kind of a church, what kind of a youth group will there be for my son? Will I be satisfied to give my son over to a fancy program that has all the attraction and glitter of something important? Or will I be content with a local assembly of believers that consistently teaches my son the truth in a world of lies?
What kind of youth group is there for your sons and daughters right now? Are they learning and growing in truth? John said that he had no greater joy than “to hear of my children walking in the truth” (2 John 1:4).
If your children are not being fed the truth what hope can you have that they will be walking in the truth?