I’ve been involved in youth ministry for 20 of the last 34 years. Yep, I did the math. I racked up six years as a teenager, heavily involved in my church youth group, eight years as a lay youth leader when our church had no youth pastor, and I’m now in my sixth year as a youth group parent. In all three of those roles I’ve accumulated wonderful memories, some regrets, and many questions about how youth ministry might be improved.
So it was with genuine curiosity that I started watching the documentary Divided, in which a young man named Philip Leclerc sets out on a journey to find out why so many young people leave the church. There really is an important discussion to be had regarding the discipleship of teenagers and young adults. You just won’t find that discussion taking place in “Divided”. What you’ll find is a foregone conclusion in search of supporting evidence (no matter how flimsy). You’ll also find “failed youth ministry” used as a convenient entry point for promoting much larger goals. But I’ll get to all of that in a minute.
First, a few admittedly minor observations about the film. The film had better production values than the average Christian film, I’ll grant you that. But we can always aim higher, can’t we? And so to those involved in the production, here are my notes: (If you’re not interested in my nitpicking and only wonder about content problems, skip ahead)
1. Enough with the vests and the snug fitting jeans, Philip. You’re working too hard to look like a hipster while disapproving of hipsters . Too much.
2. And speaking of hipsters, you interviewed Brett McCracken? Really? His book was almost as slanted as this documentary and he’s an authority on nothing but how to create a sloppy stereotype.
3. What in the world happened to Kevin Swanson’s face? As filmmakers you’re responsible for making your interview subjects look human, and that was a major fail. His white lips were seriously freaky.
4. And as for the first interview segment with Scott Brown, this was a case study in over cutting. Look at Scott. Now look at Philip. Now back to Scott. Repeat an alarming number of times. That entire segment was like a traffic accident. Scott Brown is very well spoken, but listen to Philip slosh through the words “controversy”, “surrounding” and “contemporaries” at around the 22:45 mark. Youch! Good time for a second take, fellas. Or watch Philip fidget and smirk and mutter as the camera keeps cutting back to him. It’s like someone trying to get through a job interview while desperately needing to go to the bathroom.
But enough about that. If the documentary was simply a bit amateurish I’d be amused, not irate. The meat of “Divided” is where the problem resides.
“Divided” is backed by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches. I’m glad to see that fact acknowledged in the opening credits, since it tells us that this is not simply the result of one young man setting out to “find answers”. I am intrigued by much that I’ve read about the family church movement, but it’s clear from “Divided” that NCFIC is promoting far more than simply family church. My first clue? When the documentary opens with Ken Hamm. As the film quickly makes clear, the problem is not simply youth ministry, but anyone who doesn’t believe in a young earth. Also anyone who enjoys “worldly” Christian music. And anyone who thinks there’s a time for fun. And Sunday school. Yes, Sunday school. I guess they didn’t lead with that in the advertising because Sunday school is so beloved. But “Divided” is an indictment of all age segregated ministry, every last bit of it. It’s also strongly anti-public education. And “Divided” is very, very patriarchal.
I read comments about the movie on several different sites. Over and over, people kept asking the same question: why does the movie mention fathers so often and say so little about mothers? There’s no need to be puzzled; just do some research on the men who are interviewed. See how many of them (Brown, Voddie Baucham, Douglas Phillips, R.C. Sproul, Jr., Geoffrey Botkin) are connected with Vision Forum. Vision Forum is a brain trust for the Biblical Patriarchy movement, and it’s spokespersons are articulate and persuasive. But what Brown, Phillips, and Baucham (the most heavily featured interviewees) are persuading the viewer toward is not just a rethink of youth ministry, but the pater familias system, supported by a woodenly literalistic approach to scripture. Meet the new fundamentalism, same as the old fundamentalism but with better haircuts.
Of course, my reaction to the film could simply be rooted in ideological differences with the creators, right? Well, no, I think it goes deeper than that. Let me raise some very specific observations and questions:
1. The “problem” the film attempts to solve is that 88% percent of young people will leave the church for good by age 18. Good luck finding what methodology was used to get that figure. Lifeway Research has a study on the same subject, with easily accessed research information. Its figures are still not good news for the church, but they show one-third of those who leave, returning to the church by age 30. If that’s true, does it change the conversation in any way? You know what they say about statistics. The sloppy use of them calls Divided’s credibility into question.
2. Why not ask students who’ve left the church why they left. Many assumptions are made in this film about what the church is doing wrong, but no one is interested in hearing from those we’re all concerned about. Philip Leclerc speaks early on about his friends who left the church; wouldn’t interviews with some of them have been an interesting addition to the conversation?
3. Why is a family integrated church service never shown. It’s talked about enough – why not show at least a few seconds of a church putting it into action.
4. The voices represented in the film are ridiculously one sided. There is no interview of any length presenting a positive picture of youth ministry. The filmmakers couldn’t find someone to articulate another point of view? Please! Teens who are interviewed are almost universally edited to sound dopey and shallow. I salute backward red cap guy who managed to sound thoughtful and somehow avoided the cutting room floor.
5. There is no acknowledgement of the soul searching and reforms that have been taking place within professional youth ministry in recent years. The critique of event-driven youth ministry has been coming from within leadership for years, but you wouldn’t know it from this film.
6. The leaps….oh, the leaps this film makes! From Rousseau to Robert Raikes as if one led inevitably to the other. From the story of Uzah in 2 Samuel to the suggestion that the church is being similarly “judged” for adopting youth ministry. That particular jaw dropper leads to the statement from Leclerc to Brown, “So what you’re saying is, that scriptures are binding and they don’t leave us an excuse.” Here’s the message, folks: anyone who disagrees with NCFIC is in deliberate, open rebellion against God.
7. After a youth pastor is interviewed anonymously saying that his best efforts to disciple teens are failing – the only currently ministering youth pastor that the film allows to speak for more than a few seconds – Leclerc makes another masterly overstatement (they’re all over this film): “If even the most diligent attempts to run youth ministry programs with serious and and godly content are ineffective, it seems to affirm my growing understanding that no matter how you do it, conducting age segregated programs goes against scripture and simply doesn’t work.” Case closed. No need to hear from any youth pastor, or teen, or parent, or former youth group kid who might have a more positive account to share.
At one point near the end of the film, Leclerc says he started his journey with “1,000 questions”. I call hogwash. The folks behind “Divided” started with a conclusion and took the only road that would get them there. Surprise!
For an excellent, substantive response to “Divided”, read Tim Challies review.
Tomorrow I’ll write about what “Divided” got right, some good questions about youth ministry, and why this all matters. And I promise, that post will be shorter.