It is an interesting place to be when I read something and find myself saying, “Yes, but also no.” This was my experience reading a well meaning and solidly written banner article on The Gospel Coalition*.
I agree with Gulledge on his reasoning. Probably a lot of young seminarians reject leading a youth ministry for these reasons. Pride does seem to be an underlying factor in a lot of them. Especially his refrain about preferring comfortable city churches over smaller rural ones. Most likely the kind of men who would spurn youth ministry in a rural area, would also reject planting a church in the same spot. It is an enormous misunderstanding of what a call to word and sacrament may require. An interesting twist on having actually counted the cost of obedience to Christ, and thinking that you can make a deal with him but instead cutting one with the Devil. A pastor out for fame, money, and comfort may leverage his gifts to gain the world but…
That aside, and you should have seen this coming, I do have an additional point that should be added to the list.
The 8th Reason it’s Hard to Find a Youth Minister
Youth Group doesn’t work. And a lot of young men coming up through seminary know that and have seen it first hand. Gulledge alludes to this in his first point. Parents see youth ministers as babysitters, because at the end of the day they are glorified babysitters. Youth ministry implicitly promises to keep your teens on the straight and narrow, by somehow being cool, relevant, fun, and “lightly” doctrinal; while you go off to do real church, or fellowship without that dark cloud glued to their iPhone lingering around your peripheral vision, huffing away exasperatedly. Mush of the dross comes from the seeker sensitive movement with the whole, if you build the programing mom will come, and drag the whole family with her, idea of church building. And naturally that lead to an enormous emphasis on the cool factor, with the obligatory sermonette (probably about kissing dating goodbye) slapped on to keep it all church like.
Light on teaching, high on culture/relevance (Relevance… as Screwtape might say, “Beelzebub what a useful word.”) is not any way to bring up a child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I would kill to see a youth group at a mega church ditch the name, the band, the general trappings, in favor of teaching the Heidelberg Catechism, only. But this doesn’t happen because the god of youth groups is not the Father Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth, but attraction. Those attractions come in all shapes and sizes, from the 90’s, strangely, traffic themed version with names like Fuel complete with a gas pump on the stage and a traffic light in the corner. To the early 2000’s coffee shop vibe of booths and acoustic guitars. To todays “Authentic” groups that resemble counseling sessions with pizza at some point. All are more interested in buts in seats, photo ops, and matching T-shirts than they really are about Jesus. Christ is practically just another sticker slapped on to the front of the kick drum on stage, present, noisy, but not the center of the attention.
The Weak Link
A (but obviously not the only) fatal flaw of the vast majority of youth groups is the fact they are a visible personification of the blind leading the blind. The typical model, as pointed to by Gulledge is to hire a young seminarian, or a man fresh out of, and put him in charge of the teens. Typically with very little oversight, unless something goes horrifically wrong. Then he is summarily thrown under the bus.
The problem is that the most impressionable in church are thrown together with whomever the church could find who seemed, “cool” but has a complete and total lack of wisdom, experience, and, depending on the seminary, knowledge. And in a lot of cases that young man either tries to set himself up as an idol or guru. Neither of which he should be or is (This gets increasingly tragic as the man ages and still tries to look cool). The issue is that this is “church planting” with guardrails. Rather than impressing on the young man the deadly seriousness of what a call to Word and Sacrament means, he is introduced to ministry in the most superficial way, and he is encouraged over the most superficial success’s. Youth ministry is a training ground, but not for serious pastors and teachers, but for the next generation of shallow, appeasing, doctrinally flexible church CEO’ with a great TED Talk Sunday service.
Meanwhile the youth, are left following this guy who deludes them into thinking their good times inch deep understanding Scripture counts as Christianity. Think for a moment, how many have been shocked and stunned to hear, “depart from me, I never knew you.” because their faith was in platitudes from a young hip youth minister and not in Christ.
Seeing the Light
The idea of youth groups is a bad one to begin with. The “success” stories, though it is preferred they are called testimonies, are clearly more an in spite of rather than a because of. It is almost a one to one comparison for every kid that flourished there is one who was set back equally, and the bast majority just rolled through until college gave them an escape. For further proof just look at the retention number of high school graduates that move to the college ministry. The precipitous drop is more than telling.
The good news would seem to be that the light is beginning to be seen. Voddie Baucham has been railing against youth ministries for years, and perhaps that work is finally paying off. Or, possibly the thing is beginning to kill itself. It would seem that more and more young ministers are actively avoiding working in youth ministry, some for selfish reasons and others simply because the evidence is getting overwhelming.
My suspicion is that established, and goodly sized churches will not kill off their youth groups any time soon. However, I do hope that increasingly it will be the case that church plants and replants will eschew the concept all together. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing that doesn’t work over and over again, then perhaps young church planters are learning form their dementia seeker suffering forbearers. The role of the church is to worship God through the two sacraments and the right preaching of the Word. Matt Chandler pithily pointed out that historically the church has been a small powerful movement and recently has become an enormous impotent one. Would it not be better to stop lying to teenagers about the state of their souls so we can pack them into a Wednesday night concert and call it ministry and instead have stronger families where parents are responsible for their children and are then themselves brought more into conformity to Christ? That just seems to be to be more, what’s the word? Biblical.
Some Objections Met
Q: But how are young seminarians supposed to be trained if they learn with the training wheels of youth group?
A: Apprenticeship to a pastor seems fair, or call it an internship. Put them through the ringer. Have them sit through elders meetings just to learn, not have a voice. Make them preach to the whole congregation, Sunday nights if they need training wheels. Review their work manfully. Send them out to plant a church, shoulder them with real responsibility.
Q: But what about the teens need to socialize?
A: They will figure it out. There is no shortage of ways for teens to get in touch to arrange social functions. If teens need to spend time with other teens it would be better for them to do so in houses under the supervision of Godly parents. There is very little difference between dropping the kids off at a hang out spot and a youth group. One just tends to frown more on envelope pushing modesty and sprinkles Jesus over the whole affair to make it appear respectable. Generally youth group is seen as a sanctified club. And by that I mean the kind with velvet ropes and a bar not the kind wearing fez’s and having funny handshakes.
Q: But how will the teens hear the Bible taught on their level?
A: The Sunday sermon. From their parents. Bible Commentaries. Humanity has never before lived in a day where so much clear, solid Bible teaching is more readily available. Tozer reminds us that intellectual laziness is a sin. Laziness is a sin that teens oxymoronically work hard at. Proverbs was written to Solomon’s two young idiot sons, and a ton is devoted to laziness. Teenagers are not stupid, stop assuming they are. They should be taught, pushed, raised up into understanding. Dumbing down the gospel for teens is patronizing to them and disobedient to Christ. If they won’t learn from a parent who loves them enough to do the hard work of discipleship, what makes you think they will listen to a puffed up seminarian?
Given the chance to pastor a church I would work toward the complete elimination of the youth ministry. Failing that I would task an elder or older deacon in the church to run the thing as a heavy Bible Study, and greatly encourage parental participation. Churches survived for centuries without a youth room, minister, or six flags “mission” trips. Baucham is not wrong to point out that what we are dealing with is not an actual ministry but a cottage industry. It is one of those products that doesn’t work but people keep buying it, such as the type sold late at night on television to gullible seniors.
There can be bad reasons for young ministers rejecting offers to lead youth ministries. But there is one very good one, I pray that it is the leading cause of their spurning.
*Granted this tends to happen more often than not these days.