When I was a teenager, I went to a small youth group where we were lucky to get about 12 people out every Friday night.
We were very close. We did everything together. They were my lifeline.
Over the years we lost touch, but last week I had a thought, and I contacted a whole bunch of them to see about a reunion (it’s been 30 years since I graduated high school). We’re trying to plan one now!
One thing that was neat about reconnecting with everyone was realizing that in our small group of 12, 5 are now in ministry, and only one has divorced. Most are following God. But at the time, we all definitely had issues (and not everyone believed at all).
But our youth group was a safe place, and we were encouraged to go deep with God. It wasn’t all flashy about youth rallies or the typical youth talks about not bowing to peer pressure, etc. We did real Bible studies. And it had a great effect on me long term.
(Incidentally, I think my mom must have been taking this picture. She should have been in it!)
Because I was thinking about that lately, I remembered a post I had written a few years ago on whether or not youth group was still a safe place for kids.
And I thought it might be worth talking about again!
So here’s what I wrote back then:
In a post where I was writing about how to make it more likely kids will stay Christian, I noted that children of Christian parents who went to Christian schools or were homeschooled were far more likely to still embrace Christ as adults than were kids who went to public schools. I had some push back in the comments from people saying that you really shouldn’t shelter your kids, and the public schools need them there to be missionaries anyway.
I understand that point of view, but two other events lately have made me wonder if we ask more of Christian teens than we would ever ask of ourselves.
1. Several people I know recently quit jobs and took new ones because they found their work environment toxic
2. A youth group I know has fallen on hard times because the vision has become blurry
Let me explain how both of these things relate, by looking at the pressure we often put on Christian teens. Personally, I believe that Christian kids NEED a place where they can be safe; where they can be with other Christians and just talk about God and feel accepted and feel loved and feel relaxed. I think that place should be a youth group, because they should be getting that Christian fellowship inside the church so that they can go and minister outside (and just LIVE outside).
But with the way that many churches structure youth programs, they don’t have that. Most churches see youth group as an outreach, so that kids no longer have a place where they can be with Christian friends.
Here, then, is what happens to these kids:
We say to Christian teens in youth groups:
Now, we may not say that in so many words, but many kids have very toxic schools, and they can’t escape. If adults had to spend all their time in an environment with people who chose very different lifestyles, who pressured them to do things they didn’t want to do, and where they had little in common with anybody, those adults would likely leave. As I said, I know several adults who have recently left jobs behind because the environment was just too toxic.
We have the luxury of doing that. Kids do not. It’s very difficult to change public high schools.
If you’re in a bad environment as a teen, you’re stuck.
Now, not all teens have horrible high school experiences. My husband certainly didn’t, and I got through school simply by focusing more on my part-time jobs and my (healthy) youth group and ignoring the kids I went to school with. Yet there’s no doubt that many kids find high school extremely emotionally difficult, largely because the culture is so antithetical to what they believe.
Those kids especially need a safe place where they can be accepted and where they can talk about their faith–namely a strong youth group.
What about the argument, “yes, but isn’t youth group supposed to be a mission field?” That’s certainly valid. But here’s the thing: the adults who spend all their time among people who disagree, and who have very different lifestyles, and who are difficult, tend to be missionaries. They aren’t “regular” adults, because the “regular” adults tend to take jobs with people who are like them, or at least whom they find friendly and interesting. When they’re in a toxic environment at work, they often leave (if they can).
Now, I do believe in missions and outreach, but we don’t require all adults to do this full-time. We do, however, ask it of teens.
What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?
We ask Christian teens to go into what is more or less a very hostile environment for them, their entire working day, while we do not ask the same of ourselves. Then we ask them to continue that environment at the place where they are supposed to be fed.
My kids do not go to public high school, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t spend any time witnessing. I can’t go into too much detail on a public blog, but let’s just say that they each are involved in part-time jobs and extracurricular activities where they talk a lot about God to people who aren’t Christian. They do what we ask adults to do; they just simply aren’t immersed in a negative culture 100% of the day.
Here’s another thing: when we send out adult missionaries, we train them for it. They expect opposition, and they learn to deal with it. When we send Christian teens into a negative environment, we expect them to handle it, even though they are only teens. And we don’t always give them a place to be fed in return.
If teens struggle, I’ve heard people say the equivalent of, “we can’t take them out, because they need to be missionaries“. That doesn’t wash with me, because we don’t even ask ADULT Christians to do that. (whether or not we should ask adults to do that is another story). So if your teen is really struggling in high school, or is becoming very depressed, then we parents should take that under consideration, rather than feeling that they should suck it up because it’s a mission field.
But that’s not the only problem with the way we’re raising Christian teens in outreach oriented youth groups. When adults are involved in a church community, we expect to be fed.
We form small groups so that we can talk with other adults about Scripture, and pray for each other, and wrestle through the hard things in life. Then we also have outreach activities. We reach out to neighbours and invite them to church. We volunteer in the community. In short, we do both. We get fed, but we also do outreach.
When it comes to teens, though, we often ignore the “feeding” part. Most churches see youth groups as one of their main outreach platforms. We want to get as many teens out to youth group as possible, so we make it a fun, relevant night for teens in general. We don’t go deep into Scripture. We just present the gospel, or a watered down version of it, so that other kids will feel comfortable. Our main emphasis is on helping non-churched kids feel comfortable.
Again, this is a very worthy and important goal. If a church is not involved in outreach, then the church will die, and it is not fulfilling the mission that Jesus set for us in Matthew 28:19-20. But if you look more carefully at those verses, it is not only about outreach. Jesus said:
We are to do outreach, but we are also to feed those who have already accepted Christ.
We are to do both outreach and discipleship–or feeding the flock.
When youth groups are too focused on outreach, then those who want to go deeper with Christ often don’t have a place where they can study the Scripture or ask the hard questions. And so these kids flounder, and become otherwise disillusioned. Most churches are too focused on adult growth and not enough on adult outreach. We let adults in the pews have it pretty cushy. We go to small groups and Bible studies and have friends and don’t really do enough reaching into the community.
But at the same time, I think we ask too much of our teens. We ask them to focus only on outreach, but we don’t give them enough time and opportunity to really grow in the Word. Most of our teen activities are oriented around outreach, and not around spiritual growth. So we expect our kids to be missionaries in hostile environments, even when we ourselves would not be, and we expect our kids’ involvement in church to be oriented around outreach, even when ours is not.
Perhaps the answer is found in the middle; we need to give our teens opportunity to grow, and not expect them to be mature missionaries at 14. But we also need to make ourselves get out of our pews and do more outreach ourselves, rather than relying on the kids’ and teens’ programs to grow our churches.
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My rule of thumb when it comes to teens is that we should never ask them to do more for God than we are willing to do ourselves.
If we do, then we’re not being good stewards either of the children that God has given us, or of the mission that God has given us to the wider world.
So, to sum up: no, we should not shelter our children unnecessarily. We need them to be involved in outreach. But we also need to recognize that they are still young Christians, and giving them opportunity for growth, and protection from attack, is not unreasonable as parents.
When I think back to my own youth group experience, in retrospect, we weren’t focused on outreach, though we did bring friends at times. We had real Bible studies–not just looking at fads like “why teens don’t like the church” or things like that. We actually went through parables, or one of the epistles together. We prayed.
Not everyone was a Christian at the time, though almost all are now. Not all of us took it seriously then, though we almost all do now. But we all came out, week in and week out, because it mattered and we had good friends. And I honestly think it made a difference in our lives.
What do you think of your own youth group experience? Do we ask too much of teens? Let’s talk in the comments!