Our contractor and I had a very interesting conversation the other day. He’s a solid Christian man who loves discussions that involve theology, the Bible and ministry. We’ve come to a discussion on the problem of youth ministry. My friend is a volunteer youth group leader and has mentored lots of young people. We’ve come to some conclusions.
First, the problem is never just the kids’. In our experience, a lot of problems the kids experience come from our educational system. In their own experience, they just need to fulfill requirements. As a result, many of our kids have trouble grasping logic, reading, and writing. A friend of mine who teaches at a prestigious university (in fact, one of the best private liberal art colleges of the US) bemoans the low level of literacy and writing among the undergrads. This is a common complaint among my US colleagues, even from those who teach grad school. Under such a sub-par situation, it is very hard to teach kids to think.
Second, the problem is never only the kids’. In our experience, most of the problems kids experience come from their parents. Sure, each kid has to take responsibility, but the parents certainly contribute a great deal. Many parents expect the youth program to be the alternative to the streets where dangerous things like drugs, rape, robber and murder happen. The youth program is the healthy alternative to building meaningful relationships. As a result, many parents expect the youth program to the be-all and end-all for all their children’s needs, including social, spiritual and even physical. This mentality comes from a consumer mentality of those who go to church expecting the church to serve them. The children who carry parental baggage also expect the church to meet their every need in the youth program. The church often carries on this dysfunction by serving such felt needs so that other non-Christian youths can come and “be saved.” (from what? I have no idea)
Third, the problem is never only the kids’. In our experience, a lot of problems the kids experience come from the church’s expectations of a youth program. I’m not saying that all churches are guilty of the same thing, but many are because the church membership is also composed of parents. The church often expects the youth program to do too much. The more the church expects the program to reach out, the more the youth program is filled with fun. Under that circumstance, it is not unusual for children to grow up not knowing what they believe and how to think about their faith. The most they can do is to say, “My pastor says.”
What can pastors (and those in leadership) do about it? To counter biblical illiteracy, pastors need to take time to educate on the pulpit and to restructure the youth program off it. If youth is a time to prepare for adulthood, youth program in churches should also be a place to equip young people to face their adult challenges with their faith. Comparing to the Hebrew culture, the Christian church culture is in dire straits. I know Jewish friends who teach “Sunday school” in their synagogue that is devoted to educate the youth all that they need for being a good Jew. Compare this to our average Sunday school or youth program where “outreach” often dominate every aspect until no educational purpose is left. We need to even rethink whether outreach activity in the youth group format is a good thing when we sacrifice discipleship.
If the leadership does not challenge the flock, all the youth will have left when they go to the university is, “Don’t date non-Christians. Marry Christians. Don’t have sex with either Christians or non-Christians before you’re married. Don’t take drugs and don’t be gay.” It’s little wonder that the faith dropout rate for university students is alarming because all they have left is “a lot of fun and very little Jesus.”