We Need to Have a Good Discussion About Youth Ministry. You Won’t Find It In “Divided”

image courtesy visionforum.com

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.


About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in Bible, church, education, parenting, religion, videos and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to We Need to Have a Good Discussion About Youth Ministry. You Won’t Find It In “Divided”

  1. My husband and I worked as interim youth leaders when our youth pastor left for military training. In that brief time, we saw several kids come to Christ, several kids graduate from the youth group and move onto college (that come back to the church whenever they can). And one young man is now a youth pastor himself. The funny thing is, we always thought we were failing as youth leaders, like we were fumbling through the whole experience.

    The point is, the reason I am able to report those amazing statistics is because God is amazing. It isn’t the youth pastors, kids, or the church. We knew we weren’t called to be youth leaders, but God called us at that moment and time, and he equipped us with what we needed, and we stayed humble and allowed him to work through us (despite our faults). There is a new youth pastor now, and the ministry has grown even more. A majority of the kids began coming by themselves. Now their parents also attend the church…now that’s a family integrated church.

    Great post!


    • Thanks, Michelle! I love hearing stories like yours, and you’re right. Any success we have is not because we’ve latched onto the perfect strategies, but because of the God we serve. Good reminder for everyone!


  2. Hollie says:

    I have mixed emotions about this subject. Honestly, I see the church in crisis when it come to its youth. But much of the western youth as a whole is in crisis, churched or unchurched. We, as Americans, are raising self centered, entertainment oriented, gluttonous children. Not all are…but many are. And, honestly, they are learning from us…the parents. How can we not think that our overindulgent, selfish lifestyle will not transfer to them? Once again…not all parents are…but many are. I think the church has adopted many of the world’s philosophies, and not just when it comes to youth ministries. How many churches really act as social clubs? Do we really need give aways and gimmicks to get people in the door? But on the other hand are these worldly philosophies that the church has adopted wrong or evil or even un-Christian? I am not so sure.

    I have often wondered what the Apostle Paul would write to us. I mean he spent two whole books of the Bible dealing with the Corinthians and their church issues. I wonder what he would say to the US. How many books would it take?

    I am more of a literalist when it comes to Scripture. But times do change. I am not so sure this movie’s perspective of what a church should look like is as cut and dry as they make it seem to be. But the parental role is discipleship…that, to me, is very evident. (Notice I say parental.) The Father’s role in discipleship, honestly, I think is also important. Is it more important than the Mother’s role? In my opinion, probably not.

    The culture has changed. I remember I was speaking with a friend that believed house churches were the only truly Biblical church. That is the way that Paul and the early Christians did it. They did not go to a building to have church. They taught and prayed and discipled within the homes of the believers. And she is right. But they were are also persecuted and martyred for the name of Christ. Church had to be done in secret. If they could have had access to a common meeting place, would they have? Or if you look closer, in many of the cities Paul ministered in on his missionary journey, he started in the synogauge. Isn’t that a meeting place for Jews to teach their beleifs?

    I think maybe I have more questions then I do answers. and…I am not sure if that is a bad thing. And sometimes I think we, as Christians spend so much time debating the fine points of this philosophy and this way of doing things that our eyes are not on the bigger picture. The lost.

    Why do we have to be so DIVIDED in everything. We serve the same Christ. Each church is doing its best to fullfill His calling the best way they see fit. Maybe we need to stop pointing fingers at each others practices especially ones that are secondary issues and start loving each other. Start showing a lost and dying world who we are in that we love one another.


  3. kevin b says:

    When are you reviewing Captain America or Transformers 3? This review gave me a headache.
    I guess everytime I have seen kids changed, blessed, or making true commitment means nothing to the filmmakers? I mean really, is youth ministry the problem? Are those poor, underpaid, beat-up people that spend hours of their own time, neglecting their own needs and the needs of their families, to blame because an 18-year leaves the church? What about parents, what about the fact that they are 18, and that is the time in a lot of people’s lives when they go off to discover themselves (See..Into the Wild, or better yet, read it). Maybe the church is the problem, because there is no financial committment to youth ministry, no real prayer support, no nothing. But then I look at a church like Decatur First or Sherman, and I am sure others on our district, that really do seem to care about their kids.
    It sounds like the makers of Divided are unhappy babies.


    • I liked “Captain America” very much! I thought it was visually engaging, it was sort of refreshing to have a super hero who wasn’t a tortured soul, and I didn’t realize Chris Evans could act.
      There ya go! 🙂

      You know, for a fundamentalist true believer, nothing good that you point to will make a difference. It doesn’t fit their blueprint, and that’s all that matters. More than once the documentary said something like, “The Bible doesn’t talk about youth ministry,” or, “The office of youth pastor is never mentioned in the Bible.” It’s the regulative principle, except that they don’t live up to it, since I’m guessing most of them have church buildings and use instruments in worship. They get to decide when it’s okay to “innovate” and when it’s sinful, and the rest of us just need to knuckle under to their tactics. They’re worse than babies; they’re bullies.
      And that’s my morning rant.


  4. Pingback: What Divided Got Right | Strange Figures

  5. HP says:

    I don’t think the church is doing anything wrong to make the teens leave. I think it is as simple as, teens grow up and stop going to church. Their parents start letting them have more freedom. They start dating. Maybe some of them start attending a different church with girlfriends or boyfriends. They get jobs, start staying out later at night, etc.

    I think someone should run a new study and find out how many of these teens that leave the church actually move to a new church. There are lots of reasons. Maybe the family actually moved to a new community, the family became unhappy with their current church, teen starts going to girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s church, etc. I bet the statistics would look a lot different.

    Eventually, many of them return to church, even if it’s not the church of their youth. They get engaged, married, have children (not always in that order). They get jobs and move.

    I am a little surprised that someone actually made a movie about this. All of that being said, I think youth programs are quite beneficial to the kids that participate in them. They don’t need prizes or fancy programming, just a group of kids and a couple of adults that care. When I was a teen, we had some pretty darned cool adults around. 🙂

    I can’t believe I used “all of that being said.” I hate that.


  6. Mark Copley says:

    Thanks Sharon, this is a great post and quite accurate. Thank you!


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