Dancing Jesus: Why the Church Has Failed the Youth — Part I

Part I

“I want someone I can tell my problems to.”

When I heard this from a sophomore male during a group prayer at a recent youth event I was shocked for a number of reasons. One, I could relate. Two, he shouldn’t be alone. Here in this moment he shared a deep longing in his heart neither I (only a helper for the weekend), nor the youth pastor, nor his father, nor any other mature Christians in the church were filling. He had very little sense of belonging, of support, and of direction.

Why? Why was he so alone yet so surrounded? What are we surrounding our youth with these days that they still feel alone even among friends, activities, games, and youth events? This young man epitomizes an unfortunate trend in today’s youth ministry, where the youth feel isolated, alone, and in need of something more.

Patricia Hersch in her book A Tribe Apart describes the scene of kids going to school in her town,

“Out there on the corner, even my own children fall into the shadows as they join their peers in another world before my eyes. They have stepped inside the adolescent community, a perplexing place where kids these days are growing up among themselves, out of the range of adult vision. I run past the bus several times as it goes from stop to stop, and I am aware of how distant they seem, how separate. I wonder why and whether anybody else cares.”

My heart turned when I read this. And I wanted to say I care, Christians care, the Church cares. But then I wondered if I, they, we really do.

Starving for Something More

Youth ministry has become the equivalent of the kiddy-table at Thanksgiving dinner. The miniature plastic picnic table with plastic cups and forks and knives and if she bats her eyes at grandma and insists then the Cinderella teapot also. Towards the end of the meal heaps of red Jell-O and cranberry sauce are cuddling with the carpet, and mounds of mashed potatoes and yams and steamy gravy are here, there, and everywhere. It’s a mess. So the adults send over young cousin Bobby or Sarah to keep them under control. And the same mess happens only instead of the adults cleaning it up it’s Bobby and Sarah’s responsibility.

“The form of the church is cockeyed,” says Frank Brown, a pastor in Dallas, Oregon for the past 25 years. “A lot of things [in youth ministry] are just entertainment. We have fragmented our youth from the extended family and created a sub-family.” Brown began his ministry as a youth pastor in the San Francisco area.

“I preached straight Bible doctrine,” says Brown about his first youth ministry position. “It was about the word of God. When you can create appetites in your kids it becomes a runaway train.” By the time Brown left his first youth ministry a year later he was drawing more numbers then the actual church. “It was kind of embarrassing,” Brown admits.

Brown said he taught the kids to serve. They would visit drug rehab centers, and group homes (the ones with the least visitors), and they would send letters to the elderly in the church.

“Teaching of life skills and service is important,” says Brown. “That’s an important part of what youth ministry should be about.”

Youth ministries today are entertainment driven, a higher-level daycare of rafting trips, water balloon nights, lock-ins, pizza, movies, candy, and games. But churches end up competing for kid’s time against school activities like sports or band and all the other activities where parents rush to and fro to drop off and pick up and rush off again.

Churches are isolating the youth. Instead of adopting them and leading them into the church family. Youth ministries have their own pastor, sometimes their own building, and even their own services. It’s the youth here, and the “big people” over there.

“Without a proper view of God, you can’t meet people’s needs,” says Dr. Marty Trammell. “I think if you’re going to meet kids’ needs you have to teach theology. [Youth ministry] is put your arm around the person and let them know you’ve been there.”

Trammell is known as the “Love Doctor” on campus of Corban College in Salem, Ore. where he is a Humanities Professor and author of Redeeming Relationships. Trammell, also the Family and Youth Pastor of Valley Baptist of Perrydale, Or. began his ministry as a youth pastor. Trammell said he incorporated early, a family-oriented approach to youth ministry.

“By the time they’re 13 they’re apart of the adult community,” says Trammell. “They’re an adult now, we want them to be thinking like that. The older men and women sit down and talk with the teenagers. They don’t come to me and say this young person is having a problem. They first go to them. There is a lot of encouragement.”

Trammell also emphasizes parental involvement in the youth activities. Asking the father’s to speak at least once to the youth group.

“I think if you spend more time with the youth group you find your kids are easier to live with. You see dad’s and mom’s grow. The dad’s can [grow to] teach because they learned to teach in the youth ministry.”

Trammell unveiled to me the cover for his book before it was released, asking me if I understood the images’ symbolism: a zipper. It was fitting for the subject of his book as well as fitting for the subject of re-integrating youth into the family and community of our churches, especially their own families.
Families are designed to be a heaven on earth and when youth’s families don’t provide that then the church must.

A high school girl called me crying recently. We met for coffee and sat outside of the 24 hour Starbucks in the cold weather. I listened as she told me under tears and sobs about her mother’s second divorce, about her friend in prison, and the guy she just broke up for the second time.

I say this only to set up what she told me about her church. She said she would go to her church’s meetings and push for more effort to be put into the youth group. She made suggestions and gave advice. The pastors and the elders of the church told her she should lead it then.

This is often our church’s attitude to the youth. Go and do your own thing, they say. And so the youth do, creating a fragmented sub-culture.

When I was in high school I helped run the weekly outreach program at my youth group. I came with the idea of Club X. We turned the building into a club scene with loud music and spiraling lights and a juice bar. We did our own thing. We entertained ourselves. And it was pointless without the rest of the family. It was empty entertainment, if that. As our youth entertain themselves they are hurting, lonely, and isolated. Broken off from the rest of the church.

“I just want someone I can tell my problems to.” What does entertainment do when our youth are eager for something more?

Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part 3 here.

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