Church Youth Groups
by David Crank
(from Volume 2 issue 1 of Unless the Lord ... Magazine)
A youth group is considered a must for most churches today. It is just expected. When families are looking for a new church, a "good" youth group is often a major consideration. Yet, in home school circles there is a fair amount of criticism of youth groups. Are youth groups really something "good" or something "bad"? Why is there criticism of a church institution that is so universally accepted?
What is Wrong with Youth Groups?
Peer Influence / Pressure. For some home schooling families, the biggest concern with youth groups has been peer influences and pressure. One of the prime reasons that many home school is to shelter their children from bad peer influences and peer dependency. When there is an active church youth group, teens may spend a great deal of time together and without the direct supervision of their parents. This can result in the same peer influences and dependencies that often occur in the public schools.
Now hopefully most of the peers in the church youth group are better influences than godless teens at a public school. But it is not uncommon for there to be at least a few involved with drugs, immorality, pornography, etc., within the church youth group. Many of the teens may attend public schools or otherwise have many interactions outside of church that have been poor influences on them.
Even when all of the youths are home schooled and from families with identical convictions, there remains some concern about keeping company with fools. Even the best of teens still have a measure of foolishness as a result of their immaturity. The more time they spend with others similarly foolish, the more likely their foolishness will rub off on each other and grow rather than diminish.
Worldly Youth Groups. Sometimes the concern of parents is the apparent worldliness of a youth group. They feel the group is too focused on recreation and a good time and insufficiently so on godliness, Bible study and serving Christ. Parents may be concerned with the sort of music played during meetings and outings, or the extent of dating and the types of interactions between boys and girls that occur within the group. Parents may see a group that seems to be following teenage fads rather than being the kind of examples they would like their children to be.
Immature Youth Pastors / Leaders. Sometimes the concern is more with the leadership of the group. Many youth pastors are barely beyond youths themselves in age and maturity. They often begin this ministry right out of Bible school, spending most of their time with youths but little with more mature adults. This is not healthy for their own maturing and growth in wisdom. Though a youth pastor may be a wonderful example of commitment to Christ, he may be a poor example of adult maturity and wisdom.
Lack of Biblical Support for Youth Groups. Sometimes youth groups are criticized on grounds that the Bible nowhere instructs the church to form youth groups, nor does it provide any positive examples of something similar. Lack of a Biblical endorsement may suggest the need to carefully evaluate the practice with Biblical principles and wisdom. But this hardly seems a sufficient argument for rejecting all church youth groups.
All Youth Groups Not Created Equal
All youth groups and group leaders are not the same. There is wide variation between differing groups and leaders. Some youth groups may seem totally worldly and totally out of control. Other groups will seem to be much more godly and focused more on Bible study, witnessing and serving others. Some leaders may be very mature and godly. There are even a few 50 year old youth group leaders in existence! The youth pastor may himself be a homeschooler who holds very similar convictions as your family.
Youth leaders can put together whole family activities or father/son & mother/daughter activities for the youth. So we can't lump all youth groups together and say they are the same - they are not. Some may have real potential for benefiting your youth. He or she may receive beneficial teaching, may have positive experiences which aid Christian growth, and may find good Christian friends who truly are a positive influence. Other groups will have significant potential for harm. Most will probably be something of a mixed influence - some good mixed with some bad.
All Youths are Not the Same
Some youths know what they believe, have strong convictions, are not concerned about acceptance and are fairly well prepared to stand alone. These may find it easy to become leaders and influence the group in a positive direction. Others of our children will more likely be followers and will find it harder to stand against the group or to boldly challenge what they are doing. Not all of this is a matter of training and maturity. Inborn personality also makes a lot of difference in how much they want to please and be accepted and thus how hard it is for them to stand alone.
Youth groups can often have a positive benefit in the lives of young people from non-Christian homes. The youth group can represent a real opportunity for evangelism and outreach, if the unbelieving youth can be brought in and there is sufficient wise adult leadership to reach them.
A youth group can sometimes be a godsend even for some homeschoolers. You may be having a real problem with your son or daughter in an area. Perhaps there is a degree of rebellion or a "wall" you have not been able to break through. The right youth group and youth leader could be part of the answer - if God chooses to use them for this. The question is always whether the youth leader and/or other young people will be positive or negative influences. Will someone effectively reach out to him there?
Youth groups can sometimes be a blessing to a youth and thus to the whole family. However, I believe there are several root problems with the way most youth groups operate which create some negative impacts even when much else is good.
Age Segregation. Youth groups result in regularly segregating teens from adults and younger children. This is popular with the youths and is the norm in our age segregated society, but is it really best? Within a family the younger children tend to emulate the older ones and all aspire to become like their parents. But when children or youths spend much time segregated from other age groups, their focus easily shifts to being like their peers. This reduces their focus on becoming mature adults. Teens need a lot of regular interaction with adults to aid their maturing and making the transition to adulthood. A youth group with a few adult leaders does not meet this need.
The youth group can become almost like a faction within the church. You end up with a group of believers who mostly keep to themselves for fellowship and follow their own leader (the youth pastor). What was designed to meet the needs of one age group becomes a tool to divide the church. The adults likewise leave the youth mostly to themselves, excluding them from the true life of the church.
Identity. The youth group can become a very close community, meeting together in different forms two or three times a week. This very closeness, which can be beneficial, can also create a significant sense of identity with the group. Teens are very susceptible to this, particularly in a society with a separate teen culture. This can become a problem when a youth begins to identify more with the group than with his or her own family. The youth group can compete with families for the loyalty of their youth!
Influence. Parents are meant to be the primary influence in their children's lives. Youths are the responsibility of the parents, not the youth leader. Yet the youth group and group leaders can come to have a large influence, sometimes competing with that of the parents. This influence can be either good or bad. Youth groups can play a major role in parents losing their children's hearts, even when many influences are good.
Of course there are many other potential influences that may draw children away from parents and create rebellion. It can be peers at a public or private school, or peers at a job or at certain sports activities, etc. Likewise influences coming through music, TV, movies, and books can be damaging. It is unfair to just single out youth groups which are often less harmful and better influences than some of these.
Father's Leadership. The Christian father is responsible for leading his home and teaching his children the Bible. Of course fathers aren't perfect and sometimes fail to carry out these responsibilities. The father who is really trying to do this, but struggling a bit, can easily find himself in competition with the youth pastor. For the full time youth pastor, preparing and teaching lessons is a big part of his daily job. The father often has much less time to either prepare or teach. The youth find it easy to rely on the youth pastor rather than their father for Biblical teaching and advice. The youth pastor is more available, more practiced, and is seen as “their pastor” just as the adults have “their pastor” (not a good viewpoint). Whose teaching and leadership are they following? Whose advice do they seek? Unintentionally, the youth pastor becomes an obstacle to the father's spiritual leadership of his own family. But a youth pastor is not an adequate substitute for a father teaching his own children.
Youth groups have encountered recent criticism for good cause, but it is unfair to paint them all with the same brush. Some have been used powerfully by God in the lives of Christian youth. Yet, there seem to be some root problems with the basic design of most youth groups today. Even when they are very well led, there are factors which often mix harm with good.
Does this mean we should never let our children participate in a youth group? I don't think it’s as simple as that. The benefits for some may far out weigh any harm. But we should realize the potential for harm even with the best of youth groups.
What should churches do concerning youth groups? The easy suggestion would be to disband them. However, with an existing church with a youth group, it is rarely that easy. Youth groups are very ingrained in most churches. Major conflicts could erupt unless most of the congregation is really sold on this idea. An approach for many established churches might be a gradual transformation of the youth ministry. It might begin with a whole family Sunday school instead of age segregated, or youth activities including whole families of the youth.
The youth group might refocus to emphasize Bible studies and service and experiment with joint adult & youth Bible studies and service projects. As the joint activities increase, youth only meetings might decrease. It would require some retraining of parents to include the youth and take part in whole family activities and ministry. Fathers and mothers need to bring their youth along to various adult church activities as they near adulthood (i.e. men, take your 17 year old sons with you on a church men’s retreat).
Once something like a youth group becomes traditional, it is hard to change! Yet we need to reexamine our church traditions in light of Scripture and the results we are seeing. We must consider whether our practice is something “good” that is keeping us from what is truly “best”. What is really God’s best for our churches and our youth? And for your own family, you must also judge what is truly best. Will the youth group at your church more likely be a benefit or a harm to your youth and your family?