Thursday I addressed some of my problems with Divided, the new documentary about youth ministry. In fairness, I want to agree with the film on one thing. Parents have the primary responsibility to disciple their children in the faith. As obvious as that fact may seem, I think parents and youth workers alike lose sight of it at times. I know I did. When I was a youth leader, I had as little contact with parents as possible. To be honest, I was afraid of the parents, and (especially in the first few years) identified far more with the teens. My communication with parents amounted to handing out schedules and asking for money and signed permission forms. I certainly didn’t see myself as partnering with parents in ministering to teens.
Now that I’m a youth group parent, I see how wrong my approach was. I want to be involved in my children’s spiritual lives, and I think I have much to offer them. But I’m also grateful to have other adults in their lives who join my husband and I in the work of discipleship. That’s where I depart from the folks behind Divided. I don’t view our youth pastor as a threat to my authority as a parent. That’s authority the filmmakers barely recognize, given that I’m a mother and not a father, but I digress. “Divided” turns discipleship into a zero sum game. In their way of thinking, if my daughter is seeking counsel from her youth pastor, she can’t be seeking counsel from her parents, as well. If she’s building relationships with kids in the youth group, she can’t be building relationships with the rest of the church. Whose soul is that narrow? Whose capacity for connection is that impoverished?
Still, as I mentioned yesterday, I do have concerns about youth ministry. I have twelve years ahead of me as a youth group parent (yep, did the math again). I’m also Director of Christian Education in my church, and hope to continue in that role as long as God allows. I care deeply about the spiritual formation of our children. So here are a few questions I think we’d do well to think about, regarding youth ministry specifically, and all “age segregated” ministry.
1. Are there ways in which traditional youth ministry has alienated teens from parents, rather than strengthening family relationships? Are there practices – however unintentional they may be – that diminish the place of parents in the lives of their children? If so, what changes need to be made?
2. How should youth pastors view their role: as serving youth, or as serving youth and their families? What will be the impact on ministry of each perspective?
3. If parents have shifted responsibility for spiritual instruction onto the church, what can the church do to encourage parents to live up to their calling? (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, Ephesians 6:4, for starters)?
4. While still providing age appropriate instruction, how can children and teens be incorporated into the life and ministry of the worshiping community?
5. What about children and teens whose parents are not involved in church? How can the church minister to them without the assistance of their parents? Are there ways in which the church can communicate respect and support for even the unbelieving or uninvolved parent?
In my first post I said that I’d wrap up with my thoughts about why any of this matters. Why bother responding to the documentary at all? For starters, I think “Divided” did a serious disservice to the wider family church movement by tethering it to other, disputable issues like young earth creationism and patriarchy. Secondly, the faulty arguments in “Divided” provide an easy out and convenient places to lay blame, rather than a thoughtful response to the problem of young people leaving the church. It’s much easier to think that teens are leaving because of that darn lock-in they attended last year, than to listen to their real reasons.