Back Doors and Youth Ministry

If you’ve been in evangelicalism for any length of time, you’ve likely had a common experience: seeing people leave your church.  Sure people leave and join churches, but in many churches there’s as much leaving as there is joining…and the ones who are walking in the front door are often two steps away from the back door of another church.

RearChurchDoor

What’s even more frightening to many is how so many people, mostly under the age of 25, are walking out the back door of the church into nothing.  They’re walking away from church altogether, not walking into another church.  The statistics of young people flooding out of evangelicalism are alarming, and I’ve written on such things before.  Others have too, and over at Hip and Thigh, Fred Butler interacted with a Charisma article and commented on the back door tsunami of young people splashing out of many churches.  Fred summarized the article and then offered some response to it, and I chimed in with my thoughts on the comment thread.  Apparently I said something good and some folks asked me to post them as a separate post, so here is a quick summary of the Charisma article’s points:

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.

The gyst of this point is that the church doesn’t interact with popular culture/issues but rather hides from it.

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

The gyst of this point is that church (and the Bible) seems shallow, boring and irrelevant to “real life.”

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

The gyst of this point is that church seems both arrogant towards modern science and ignorant of it.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.

The gyst of this point is that Christian kids are drowning in a sex-obsessed culture and most don’t feel that the church is giving them much help beyond unreasonable expectations and judgment for failure.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

The gyst of this point is that church proclaims an exclusive message in a world where there are no exclusive messages allowed, and this proclamation is often done in ignorance of other contrary opinions.

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

The gyst of this point is that church doesn’t celebrate all the doubts that the young people have (about anything and everything) and provides no help with depression.

Here’s an edited version of my response:

I’ve actually come to similar conclusions and have realized that a large foundation of the problem lies in youth pastors and youth ministry.

Now I honestly and seriously don’t hate youth pastors or youth ministry, but the church has committed seppuku in adopting the whole youth ministry framework that was invented in the 1950’s. I actually see youth pastors as victims of a counter-biblical system that evangelicalism has built (essentially out of nothing) and continually tossed them into.

Youth pastors are expected to be glorified camp counselors who are less educated, less mature, less skilled and less elder-qualified than “real” pastors.  They get paid less than “real” pastors and we don’t expect them to be “real” pastors.  Christians have somehow allowed a non-existent biblical category of leadership to infiltrate a majority of evangelical churches. Quite seriously, there is a whole cadre of “pastors” in evangelicalism who would likely fail any serious ordination exams, aren’t usually elder-qualified, and aren’t generally seen as the guys in the church who someone would turn to for actual pastor help or to resolve theological or practical issues…and yet we expect them to fix everything that is wrong with the youth (and their families) in our churches.

Does-not-compute

Going through the six reasons why young people tend to leave churches, I’d suggest that the main problem is the sub-biblical model of youth ministry that churches use.

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.

Youth Pastors are often the folks who bring “every whim of doctrine, crackpot theology, and wack-a-doodle idea out there” into the church. They’re often guys who naively utilize teaching material from companies like Youth Specialties, blissfully unaware that companies like Youth Specialties are run by people with horrible theology and a serious agenda to spread that theology.  When people think of the Emergent Church Movement, they often don’t connect the dots in the main way it infiltrated the church: Youth Specialties was behind some of the biggest selling emergent-church/neo-liberal literature of the past 2 decades.  Tony Jones‘ material was published by the Emergent/YS label (YS being short for Youth Specialties), as was the theological sewage from Doug Pagitt, Dave Tomlinson, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Renee Altson, Mike Yaconelli, Spencer Burke (with Stanley Grenz), Dan Kimball, and many others.  A few books I just listed had forwards written by Phyllis Tickle, and she’s an openly declared enemy of the rational thought, not to mention Christianity.

Seeing that the postmodern gestapo (or “liberals in skinny jeans” as Albert Mohler called them) was running the biggest publisher of youth group curriculum of the past 20 years.  Is it any wonder that the following points are big problems now?

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

 The main reason why “teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow” is because it is.  I don’t really see how that’s surprising given that the youth pastors who teach them are the wells from which they draw, and those wells aren’t terribly deep (which again, is more the fault of those tho train and employ them as anyone). The reason why church has become a Vegas show for many is because far too many youth pastors don’t have anything of actual substance to offer their youth groups.

I mean seriously.  As long as young people are attending church, behaving withing certain respectable parameters and generally having fun, youth pastors are seen as doing their jobs.

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

The church is antagonistic to science because often, the youth pastors that kids have teaching them don’t have any serious understanding of issues related to creation, apologetics or scientifically related issues (i.e. eschatology, the resurrection, etc.)…let alone the theological/exegetical tools to arrive at a position.

I mean, for real.  How many youth pastors do you know that could even have an idea where to begin in dealing with the gutterball atheist rhetoric at your local community college?

Lincoln

I say this as a guy with a B.A. in Youth Ministry from my country’s largest Bible College.  I sat under the tutelage one of the biggest names in Youth Ministry. In my Youth Ministry degree, I was taught diddly squat about the Bible because the guys who taught me didn’t think it was sufficient for “real” ministry.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.

Kids have shallow views of sex because, again, most youth pastors have shallow views of sex. I remember having a conversation with a youth pastor once about premarital sex and why it was wrong, and after an hour or more he admitted that he didn’t really know WHY it was wrong, but he was sure THAT it was.

Not much of a help to young, hormonal kids.  That’s one of the reasons I wrote this and this.

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

See point 4, and I’d also suspect that one of the biggest problems in youth ministry is that a whole lot of youth pastors lack some basic, practical understanding of Christian theology.  I’m talking about an understanding of things like sin, the judgment to come, the death and resurrection of Christ and the Gospel in general.

Don’t get me wrong.  All youth pastors know the lingo (i.e. “Jesus died for your sins”) but I’m not convinced that too many can explain the lingo at any serious level of depth.

Why Jesus?

Why death?

What does that have to do with Heaven?

heaven

An articulate understanding of God and the gospel is the only thing that can make sense of the exclusive claims of Christianity.

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

The doubt issue arises for the reasons given, but I’d suggest that kids are also not taught any solid doctrine of scripture from a young age so when they get older, they have little qualms about tossing the Bible out the window.

That, and my experience is that most youth pastors I meet secretly have serious doubts/struggles that they either (a) are scared to face, or (b) don’t have the tools to face.

That’s why many of the guys I graduated from Bible College with aren’t in the ministry anymore.

When churches incinerate their youth pastors for failing to accomplish an impossible job with grossly insufficient tools and understanding, the youth pastors are understandably burned.

What’s worse though are the ones who survive generally tend to graduate up the ladder to senior pastors at some point, having learned precious little but having cultivated a long-standing experience in doing ministry in a sub-biblical, or contra-biblical, way. That’s also probably a large part of why so many churches are doing so poorly (and inversely why so many “I went to Heaven” books are selling millions of copies).

A ill-trained guy with 10 years experience doesn’t magically become properly trained without getting proper training somewhere along those 10 years.

Again, I don’t hate youth pastors.

I hate the youth ministry paradigm that has been sold to the church.

snake-oil-salesman

The problem isn’t the fact that churches have youth pastors, but rather the nature of what constitutes a “youth pastor”.

The solution to the mess isn’t family integrated ministry; that just moves the problem from inadequately trained vocational leaders to entirely untrained lay leaders.

I’d dare suggest that the solution is to take the “youth” part out of “youth pastors.” They need to be trained properly; given sufficient theological and exegetical tools and training to do the job of a pastor, and then given actual pastoral work to do and expected to shepherd, preach, teach and oversee the ones with whom they’re charged.

They need to be made into real pastors who are biblically articulate men, wise beyond their years, worthy of respect and able to confidently discharge the works of their ministry.

The church needs to stop handing them off to Bible Colleges in order to make them into glorified camp counselors…and then getting mad at them when they act exactly how they’ve been taught.

Until Next Time,

Lyndon “I don’t hate youth pastors…seriously” Unger

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16 thoughts on “Back Doors and Youth Ministry

  1. Perhaps it would be a good idea to encourage Bible school graduates to spend a few years working at a secular job while being involved in a church as a layman before they begin working as pastors. God called many people to service while they were doing other kinds of work such as being shepherds, fishermen, or tax collectors. Even Jesus spent several years working as a carpenter before he began preaching.

    • Wait. Why?

      Why would training someone for job, and then placing them in a role where they don’t use that training for years and forget most of those skills, somehow lead to them doing that job better?

      Using Jesus and the apostles as a model seems to indicate that people go to Bible college when they’re older, not that they get training and THEN work secular jobs.

      • Excellent post … I agree with Clyde, however I believe the secular work should be there from a very young age. A strong work ethic along with being saturated with Christ glorifying influences will develop a person who will stumble but will also be equipped to turn to those who will exhort them to carry on. (where are the Paul’s and Timothy’s?) I am grieving as I truly do not have a sound Biblical church in which to worship my precious Lord. As a woman I feel very vulnerable as I dare not question “why” the church goes through the motions of ‘holiness’ but in reality is a social club. If I want “socialization” well, I can get that anywhere.
        Many of our pastors not just the youth pastors have brought in “every whim of doctrine, crackpot theology, and wack-a-doodle idea out there” into the church.
        Thank you for this post.

    • Absolutely right. Let them experience the world the youths deal with daily then know how to apply their real training first in secular setting then come and operate in church.

      • How does a youth pastor apply their “real training” in a secular setting?

        What IS their “real training?”

        I don’t know why people think most youth pastors have never had a job before their first youth pastoral position…or what getting a secular job would do to benefit the pastoral work they do.

        If I were to guess, I’d suspect that the perceived problem is immaturity, being a bookworm, a bad work ethic or social inability?

        How does secular work fix those things?

  2. I agree with all you’ve written, but I do wonder. Maybe another reason these young people believe the church is irrelevant and leave is that they’re … not born again. Could this be the elephant in the room no one is mentioning?

    • Well, that follows from the idea that many youth pastors may or may not properly understand the gospel, though it is super hard to establish objectively.

      You want to regularly give kids the Gospel, but you also don’t want to assume that most of them who profess faith aren’t saved. That just leads to a youth ministry where nobody ever grows.

  3. As a long term Youth Pastor (17 years) I want to say that this is probably the best post you have written in a long time. ( not that your other posts are poor…this one is really good)

    The good news is that in the youth worker world there is a growing tide of thought that would resonate with everything you have written. Many of has seen the exact same thing are working towards better equipping, mentoring and training young youth pastors that need depth and guidance. The best thing that ever happened to me was to work in church that had depth and therefore pushed me to learn and grow deeper. They have always seen me as pastor and not camp councilor and that was very special indeed .

    Keep up the great writing Lyndon!

    • Thanks Lee.

      There certainly ARE good guys out there doing youth ministry. I’m very thankful that you worked in a church that pushed you to grow deeper as well. That’s another rare situation indeed.

      I’m glad I’m not the only one thinking this as well!

  4. Very very good post. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about my years working with youth and feel the same way as you do (though you thought through it much more than I did and articulated better). We need to put “pastor” back into “youth pastor.”

  5. I apologize for using the term ‘secular work’ (I’ve never really appreciated that term)
    Everything, absolutely everything we do is to glorify the Lord and Saviour. Colossians 3 and Ephesians 6 comes to mind … All of Scripture is replete with having a servant’s heart; a pure heart. It doesn’t matter what your calling in life is.
    I have witnessed too many churches putting a special emphasis on “youth ministry”. Let’s just preach and obey the Word.

  6. Pingback: Some things I have read on the internet | clydeherrin

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