Is Youth Group a Safe Place for Your Kids?

by | Nov 15, 2018 | Uncategorized | 15 comments

Is Youth Group a Safe Place for Your Kids?
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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.

Youth Group should be a safe place. Is your child's youth group safe?

People who made a big difference in my life! Our youth leaders Gord and Brenda (front at either end), two of my best friends, and three parents. We were a great community!

(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:

You are the light of the world. You need to be a light in your high school. Go there and minister, even if the culture is completely anti-Christian, even if you are mocked, even if you are bullied, even if you have no friends. And then come back to youth group where you’ll do the same thing.

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?

And what if I told you that a lot of typical parenting advice makes rebellion more likely?

I interviewed 25 young adults, trying to figure out what made them rebel or not.

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.

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.

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:

Matthew 18:19-20

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the end of the age.

Is Youth Group a Safe Place for Your Kids? Why focusing on outreach too much can hurt kids.

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.

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!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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15 Comments

  1. Emily

    My own youth group experience was pretty pathetic – almost non-existent. I didn’t hear the gospel presented clearly until after I started university!
    However, we knew that a good youth group is important. For our oldest (in a demographic trough at church with only one other kid his age) we found a great group at another church in town. He went there, loved it, and the leaders were so gracious and accepting that he wasn’t going to show up Sundays but was totally involved otherwise. It was a good balance for him.
    At the moment we have a strong group, with great leaders. The theme for this term is ‘how to share your story’ – they are teaching the kids how to talk about the gospel and digging deep. Kid #2 is changing her schedule (dropping something else) so that she can be there on time and not miss the first 30 minutes! (Last year the first 30 minutes were “gym time” anyway, so she didn’t care if she missed that part.)
    Kid #3 is in another demographic trough. This is his grade 6 year, so next year he’ll be jr youth age! He’ll need more than our church has to offer, and we need to work out how that will look.
    One solution to the “asking too much of teens” that I saw a while ago I thought was fabulous. They essentially had two youth groups. One, on Friday nights, was the “fun” group. Lots of games, a bit of Bible teaching, more games, snacks. The other group met on Sunday afternoons, and was very much a Bible study. As kids on Fridays wanted more depth, they were invited to join the Sunday group. Most of the Sunday kids went Fridays, too, so there was a lot of overlap. It was such a good balance!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I like that, Emily–the Friday and Sunday! I think that’s so important. My own kids were in a youth group that focused on outreach a little too much in their formative years (Rebecca wrote about that in Why I Didn’t Rebel) and interestingly, I don’t even think that the outreach was that effective in the long term. Kids need depth if they’re going to stay with the faith. They don’t just need fun, or flashy studies about how terrible the church is, but we “really get it”. You know what I mean? There was too much divide between the teens and the rest of the church, with the feeling being that the rest of the church was just stoddy, while the teens really understood how Jesus was relevant. But it made it feel as if once you weren’t a teen, there was no place to go, because the church itself was pathetic.
      Rebecca’s running the volunteer program at the church where she’s at now, and one of the things she’s focusing on is how to do more cross-generational things–like get the youth involved in a regular praise team, or on a sound team, rather than on a “youth” praise team or a “youth” sound team, because then they meet other older Christians who can mentor them, too.
      It should be about community, you know?
      And I hear what you’re saying about the trough. That does happen!

      Reply
      • Emily

        We have a “youth worship team” which my older two are both involved with.
        The leaders this year are amazing – they are not simply leading the team and dragging the kids along for the ride. They have the kids leading a prayer, or helping choose songs, and are totally trying to get the kids to step up (as they are able – these are still teens!).
        Also, the youth team leaders are trying to get the kids integrated into the other teams. Weirdly, the push-back is coming from the established teams who don’t want change. (OK, maybe not wanting change isn’t so weird after all, but really!).

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I love that! I think when kids serve in the church, they’re actually more likely to grow and get fed. There’s something about serving in community that really makes a difference, far more than just attending a youth group.

          Reply
  2. Anon

    I appreciate what you have to say about letting off some pressure on our kids to be missionaries in most of their extracurricular time.
    This is one of my greatest frustrations when those around me condemn homeschool because they say their kids need to be missionaries to their friends and teachers. Especially for those who struggle greatly socially or academically, I wouldn’t want to pressure them to yet fulfil a solo outreach program as well. I’m not sure I see the fruit of letting your kid stick it out in a horrible school environment (I’m definitely not saying all public school is this way) for the sake of the gospel or fear of them being too sheltered at homeschool.
    Sure, I love the idea of every child having the confidence to share the gospel in class and hallways every day. But like you said our adult missionaries get training, and they’re adults. Let kids be kids and feed and train them spiritually before expecting outreach. Actually, I’m wondering if outreach would happen a little more naturally as the child is fed spiritually well.
    My youth group days were alright. My leaders wife had favorites and I was sure she hated me, for reasons I didnt know. There was no warmth towards me from her and I’m wasn’t the only one but her husband was very approachable and liked by all the youth I think.
    We did end up having quite a number of unbelievers attend youth , which I thought was great. And then the older kids in youth were split up into smaller groups that met at a different time, if I remember correctly.
    These times were meant for personal sharing, prayer, and deeper spiritual growth. It was never said you had to be a Christian to join but it was clearly geared for those who wanted growth.
    I might quote you next time I’m in a homeschool vs public school debate: “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.” Yup!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Glad you liked that line!
      I agree with you–outreach happens naturally as kids are fed well.
      My girls found outreach quite natural once they got to university, and even at their part-time jobs. But that’s because they were from a secure place, I think.

      Reply
  3. Ashley

    Wow, what an awesome post! You’ve articulated things I’ve been uneasy about, but have come up with the words to say.
    I think my youth group was pretty good. Visitors were very much welcome, but it was definitely for us “church kids.” I do remember really not wanting to go my first couple of years, because I was so afraid of having to testify in front of my friends, and sometimes they would ask us to say what God had been doing in our lives. It was such a hard, awkward age.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I will forever be grateful for my youth group. It really was a great place, and I made so many good friends that helped me not care about high school itself at all. It really can have an amazing effect when done well.

      Reply
  4. Natalie

    I would definitely agree with your points in this post. But I also think finding a quality youth group that’s not too small but also not too big is probably the biggest challenge for parents.
    The church I grew up in was very popular in our community with a large congregation and, thus, large youth group. Lots of caddy/popular kids were in it as were the regular/non-popular kids like me. It was hard for the two youth leaders to wrangle around 40-50 kids on any given Sunday morning or Wednesday evenjng. The pastors were great and they did get into the word, but a lot of their message seemed to fall on the deaf ears of the populars, who kept on acting superior at high school and youth group alike. I’m not sure how that could’ve been addressed other than having smaller groups and more one-on-one mentoring.
    My brother had another not-so-great youth group experience at a different church in our community (both the ones we went to were evangelical / non-denominational). He was in jr high, and his leader who was in his early 20s was getting married soon. They were discussing sex and purity and saving sex for marriage (which I’m sure the leader backed up with scripture because that was a good bible-teaching church). But all my brother remembers is how much that leader talked about how excited he was for the wedding night. And apparently the way he came off to the boys (my brother, at least) was more like sex was what he was looking forward to most in marriage. Almost like his new wife was a piece of meat he couldn’t wait to devour. Anyway, that seriously turned my brother off to that church but also Christianity as a whole, and he became agnostic for all of high school and college. He fell away so far that after dating his one and only girlfriend (a very materialistic non-Christian) and having her break up with him, he and his new gf/rebound fling had unprotected sex that resulted in my nephew! The exact opposite result of everything he’d been taught at home and in church as a child.
    Anyway, my point is, even in a church where the word is preached, you really have to pay attention as a parent to the quality of leaders teaching your kids and also the dynamic of the other “Christian” kids there, because those too can act like wolves in the sheep pen.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Natalie, I’m sorry about your brother! And that’s so true about the quality of the leaders and the quality of the kids. There was a similar dynamic in one youth group my daughter attended, where the “popular” kids who were in all the leadership positions in the youth group were not the ones who actually loved Jesus. They were just the ones who were cool who could attract other kids out to youth group. But what’s the point in attracting other kids if you’re not actually spreading the gospel?
      And the problem with youth groups, too, is that we often put very inexperienced young twentysomethings in charge. Often the kids are more mature than the leader! And considering how important that position is, I think churches need to rethink how they do youth leadership in general.

      Reply
  5. Phil

    Speaking from my own experience my memories of my Youth Group are fond. I say this despite I was being groomed for molestation by our Youth Minister. He only lasted a few years anyway and my memories are more focused on the people who were safe and the people who led by example in their lives. Looking back we were extremely light on the message vrs the fun. However here is my take. I loved going to Youth Group. I couldn’t wait. Not because I was actually getting the message but because it was fun and safe(for the most part). I would go so far as to say I was a non believer because I had abandonment issues and did not trust and was already deep into sex and usually on the cusp of getting into trouble. But just by being in the church whether it was for Youth or whatever that reason: I was there: That message that I am saying I did not get? – That message saved my butt! Because when I was 30 years of age I had such inner turmoil that I had to come clean and get right with God. He answered my prayer – it wasn’t even a prayer it was an inner plea – God please help me! He told me it would be OK. So you can argue with me all day long – the fun got me the message. I want to say that I agree with what was written and I think we should all want that for our kids. If you can find that for your kids you have been blessed. If you can’t or don’t even know what message your kids are getting in Youth Group – maybe the message is being delivered through a different learning curve. I can say that was true for me. I believe that my kids Youth Group has a good balance and on the whole aligns with the thoughts here. I am so thankful for that.

    Reply
  6. Mary

    I find the “missionary” argument for sending kids to public school a bit weird! I think the emphasis in raising our kids should be on nurturing and growth both physically & spiritually…. wherever they are!
    We are all gifted differently. Not all teens will be “gossiping the gospel” with their peers, but nor do they need to be as long as they are learning how to LIVE the gospel! Developing fruits of the Spirit & a Christ like attitude is an effective witness in itself that can lead to quieter but perhaps more authentic opportunities to share the gospel.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s very true!

      Reply
  7. B. O.

    You can’t expect unbelieving teens to be good missionaries, can you? The most important thing is to get the kids to actually come to understand the Gospel and trust Jesus alone. I was raised by a single Christian mom, attended a youth group the latter part of high school, but came out a self-righteous sinner still in desperate need of the Saviour. I was blind for so many wasted years! I was 32 years old when I came to understand the Gospel and exactly what it meant for me!! 32 years!!! And it was a miracle straight from The Lord! I came to the end of trying to be good, seeing that I couldn’t and was just a sinner in need of help. I searched for answers to no avail and gave up, saying, “God, you are God, so you obviously know how I can be saved. I give up looking. You show me.” Within 2 weeks or so, He did!!! I saw Jesus nailed to the cross, bearing all my sin! ALL of it GONE forever! I was set free! No more guilt or shame! No more fear! Joy, Peace, Love!!! Hallelujah! Thank you, JESUS!!!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly. We need a relationship with Jesus first.

      Reply

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