TEENS, YOUTH GROUPS AND REAL CHURCH

New studies are revealing that a majority of teens in the US abandon their faith on graduating from High School. The reputable George Barna, some time ago, documented that 61% of N. American 20-somethings who had been churched at some point during their teen years are now spiritually disengaged, i.e. neither attending church (I thought we are the church), reading their Bible or praying.

The National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC) is saying that the church youth group itself is to blame, claiming it’s too shallow, entertainment-focused, and unable to train mature believers. In fact the Center has stated that youth groups themselves are not even biblical. Center spokesman, Adam McManus, states he is not surprised by the statistics, adding that youth groups create peer dependency, i.e. teens focus on their equally confused peers rather than their parents or their pastors (any less confused?! my comment). Such peer dependency leads to immaturity, greater sexual activity, drug experimentation and rejection of the authority of the Bible. I quote McManus, ‘American Christians are finally waking up to the disconnect between the clear teaching in Scripture in favor of family-integration and the modern-day church’s obsession with dividing the family at every turn… the good news is that practices in the churches related to youth groups are changing dramatically. Twenty years ago no one was even asking the question.’

Let me further ‘confuse’ the issue by stating that ‘church’ as generally understood and practised today is hugely disconnected from a truly biblical ecclesiology. ‘Church’ as we know it today has its roots in its 3rd century institutionalisation and professionalisation by Emperor Constantine [see my relevant blogs and dissertation  in support of this statement – also the writings of many on the church today, both popular and academic].

A few random principles, off the top of my head (not much left there):

  • The Church is the expression of a divine family, viz the Trinity.
  • The first church (Eden) was a family [my dissertation, p. 71ff].
  • The family was basic to the OT revelation of God and the fulfilling of God’s purposes in his created world. We can read up on Abram’s call in Gen. 13 and God’s promise that through his familial and spiritual offspring all peoples on earth would be blessed. Moses preaches his last sermon (series of sermons) on the plains of Moab with all Israel assembled before him, reminding them of God’s steadfast love for his people and their familial responsibilities: Dt. 6:1ff, ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up… Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates…’
  • Take the inter-testamental period. The synagogue model within Judaism arose out of the twin destructions of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BC and 70 AD. During this period, while much religious activity rotated around the temple and eventually the synagogue, the Jewish home remained the most important centre of spiritual life. ‘Foundational to all theory on the biblical concept of family is the Jewish teaching that the home is more important than the synagogue‘ [B. Knowles, my dissertation p. 167]. The ‘Church’ as we know it is yet to grapple with this crucial concept and implement it.
  • On to the NT revelation. Jesus learns from his parents, and takes care of his mother and siblings until the age of 30 – only then does he commence his earthly ministry as described in the Gospels. The apostle Paul in Eph. 6:1ff indicates that parents, in the power and wisdom of the Spirit (5:18) and attended by the promised blessing of God, are to model Jesus to one another and to their children, bringing them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
  • The Reformation (1500’s), while reforming Christian doctrine (grace, faith and scripture) unfortunately left ecclesiology largely untouched. Martin Luther glimpsed the real thing (as to the ekklesia) but would never see his dream realised. In fact the Reformers (Calvin, etc) just fell into another form of church institutionalism, present with us to this day.
  • The 18th century theologian and revivalist, Jonathan Edwards, stated ‘Every Christian family ought to be, as it were, a little church.’ This is in fact being realised in ‘organic house churches’ around the globe today.
  • We can conclude that the Church has done a poor job of communicating to parents that they are the primary disciplers of their children.

Some practical observations, from my experience as ‘pastor’ of traditional, denominational churches for too many years:

  • Why is that contemporary churches insist on appointing a ‘children’s pastor’ or a ‘youth pastor,’ the latter often being a young adult a few years out of school, with very little life experience, physically and emotionally immature (hormones raging) and spiritually ill-equipped to head up the youth ‘program?’ (I hate that term!).  A mature, respected, married Youth Developer in his mid-forties admitted to me at a pastors’ fraternal that the above scenario was a scourge in his denomination, possibly the largest in the world. A week ago I heard of another young adult youth pastor who had been sexually intimate with a member in his youth group, with huge negative fall out  – frankly, I blame the church leadership rather than the young man in question.
  • Has the Sunday School (Family Bible Hour, Children’s Church, Youth Church) been totally without impact? By no means, as I myself can testify. Is it the primary spiritual care-giver? Not on your life.
  • Am I saying there is no need for teens to gather socially and with their Christian peers for fun and fellowship, as opportunity arises? Of course not. I facilitate teen groups at a local township school. Are such gatherings meant to be the heart-beat of the Church? I think not.
  • The joy of inter-cultural, inter-generational inter-action in a small, healthy organic fellowship is unbelievable. Kidz with dysfunctional parents get to see parenthood modelled and demonstrated toward them. Healthy parents and grandparents become spiritual fathers and mothers, after the example of the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 4:14-17), and much more.

The real challenge is getting from institutional, traditional church to ‘real church.’ Its hard to reverse a river that has been flowing in a particular direction for 1,700 years. But then the God of the Bible specialises in doing the impossible! It seems he might just be doing that outside of the institutional and traditional church structures we have been familiar with for so long…

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