The Minority Report: Is Youth Ministry Unbiblical?

Every Tuesday in The Minority Report, Drew Dixon takes a look at trends in youth culture and offers some biblical wisdom for navigating them.

Scott T. Brown believes that modern youth ministry is “an unbiblical concept borrowed from humanistic philosophies.” That is a bold statement. As the Family Pastor of my church and one who oversees our church’s student ministry, I am very much interested in getting to the bottom of whether Brown’s claims are accurate.

Recent surveys suggest that as many as “85 percent of young people will leave the church by the age of 18 never to return.” I don’t know how these surveys can possibly show that these young people “never” return to church but nevertheless if these surveys are anywhere close to accurate, they are certainly worthy of our attention. Such surveys have encouraged many to take a long hard look at modern youth ministry and ask whether it has succeeded in accomplishing it’s goal of making young men and women into faithful disciples of Christ. Thus the rise of the Family Integrated Church movement (a movement that Voddie Baucham, Paul Washer, and others have ascribed to) and the National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC). Also a documentary called Divided (which can now be watched online) was recently released criticizing modern youth ministry and promoting the FIC movement.The FIC has offered a diagnosis for this mass exodus of young people from the church:  parents have given up on discipling their children and entrusted that task to youth pastors. Consequently, the FIC has by-and-large declared youth ministry “unbiblical.”

Due to the constraints of this column, I will not be doing a thorough biblical critique of the FIC, but I do want to point out a few important problems with the movement. However, first I want to state that I share almost every concern that the FIC has about youth ministry and the local church. I think many churches have done a poor job of encouraging parents to personally disciple their children and I think many youth ministries pull children away from their parents and other faithful adults in the church far too frequently. I think many youth ministries have become a church within the local church due to the way they do almost everything separately from the rest of the body. I think this is unhealthy and discourages spiritual maturity–much of which is gained from observing more mature Christians (Titus 2:1-8).

Because I share these concerns, as a pastor to students, I have sought to develop a student ministry that champions parents, and encourages them to disciple their children. And we have, I believe, cultivated a student ministry that consistently incorporates students into the life of the church as a whole.

There are, however, some obvious problems with the FIC. First by dismantling youth ministry and claiming that parents should be the “youth pastors” of their own children, the FIC is guilty of doing the very same thing that much student ministry is guilty of: they have created a church within the church. The family is not its own church and by making fathers defacto pastors to their children, the FIC also devalues the role of pastors in the local church. Many proponents of the FIC movement have bemoaned the prolonged adolescence that seems to pervade our culture. It wasn’t that long ago in our country that most 18 year old boys were married and had full time jobs. And yet the FIC movement is essentially telling youth pastors to step away from teenagers in the church and to treat them like children.

Proponents of the FIC often quote Malachi 4:6 and claim youth ministry “turns the hearts of children” away from their fathers. I have only been a father for 10 months, but it strikes me as petty to view the work of student pastors as trying to steal the hearts of children away from their parents.  Malachi 4:6 is a promise that God is going to restore broken family relationships through the coming kingdom of Christ and he is going to use a “messenger” to do it! It is not an injunction against modern youth ministry and it certainly does not preclude pastors from exercising a complimentary role in the teaching and discipleship of teenagers.

I believe that parents hold the primary responsibility for discipling teens (Eph. 6:1-4). However, I also believe that the teenage years are an important time of transition for teens–one that we would do well to try to understand. Teens have special needs and struggles that are worthy of pastoral care. We needn’t view youth ministry and family ministry in our churches as an either/or equation. I think our churches and our young people are best served when we see our students as important parts of the body of Christ (1 Tim. 4:12)–people who need both parental and pastoral care and discipleship. The incessant practice of separating students from adults needs to be evaluated and reconsidered and we need to work hard as pastors to help parents invest in the spiritual upbringing of their children. However, these tasks do not make student ministry unbiblical.

When FIC pastors and leaders label youth ministry as “an unbiblical concept borrowed from humanistic philosophies,” they are fighting the wrong battle. We should be encouraging parents to invest in their teens and youth pastors to be encouragements to both parents and teens in that process. As church leaders we need to ask if our age segregated programs have caused churches within the church to form but we also need to avoid making the family into the same. The local church is a special representation of Christ’s bride. It has its own special offices which are designed for the building up of the whole body (Eph. 4:11-16). Youth ministry is no less biblical than small groups or church potlucks. Youth pastors and parents needn’t compete for the hearts of our children when we can, by God’s grace, point them to Christ together.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • MartyT

    Good article. While many entertainment-oriented youth groups are worthy of criticism, FIC doesn’t make a distinction between relatively healthy, gospel-teaching, disciple-making groups and those that exist solely for big numbers and lots of gross games. Sadly, this baby-and-bath-water mindset can become even more exaggerated, leading many well-meaning moms and dads into idolatry of family, who refuse the counsel of the church.

  • Jeff Martin

    Great post Drew. Very level headed and sound thinking to a touchy subject.

  • http://kschaub.posterous.com kschaub

    Thanks for this article, Drew. This is a touchy subject in our neck of the woods, partly because Brown’s church is in Wake Forest, just 30 minutes east of Durham. I’m about ready to pen my own argument for Youth Ministry, probably over the summer. But I’ll say this: when I was first approached by the elders of our church to take the position of Family & Youth Minister, I was an admitted skeptic of just how helpful and biblical YM might be. But over the past two years, I’ve grown to see it as both helpful and biblical when done the right way. Hope you’re doing well, man!

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Marty T – yes that is certainly my fear–the family becomes this ultimate thing (which obviously the family is precious in the site of God) over and against the local church and its pastors which are there for the good of the body and the instruction and admonition of the family as a whole as well as its individual parts.

    @Jeff – Thanks brother! I wanted to treat this subject fairly and still expose some pretty glaring weaknesses of the FIC movement.

    @Kevin–I look forward to your response. I have long wanted to write something substantive on the FIC–I haven’t had the time, so this little response is the best I can do for now. Like you, I have been formulating my thoughts on student ministry over the past 5 years or so and honestly, at times, I was very close to joining the FIC movement, but I time and only further confirmed for me that this movement inadvertently undermines the authority of the local church and the essential role of pastors in the discipleship process of young people who are transitioning into adulthood.

  • Matt

    Great thoughts, Drew! This is an area that our congregations need to address.

  • MartyT

    We had to deal with this in our church a few years ago and it was not an easy process. After 6 months, many meetings and much prayer and discussion, a small group elected to leave to start a new ministry. The FIC folks clearly had a higher view of family and homeschooling than they did the church.

  • http://nickrynerson.com Nick Rynerson

    “The family is not its own church and by making fathers defacto pastors to their children, the FIC also devalues the role of pastors in the local church.”- That is an excellent point. Evangelicalism has a propensity to make “the family” a central (and acceptable) idol.

  • http://ericepps.me Eric L. Epps

    I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the subject (including Baucham’s book and several youth ministry books that start with that same “85% leave by 18″ stat), and this article is one of the rare ones that hit a correct balance.

    It’s unfortunate that so many pit parents against the church (and youth ministries in particular), as though they can’t effectively teach in concert. I know that I plan to intentionally teach my own children as well as place them under the influence of others I trust and respect, especially those who have studied effective ways of teaching for a particular age level.

  • Steve Schuler

    Thanks for a very balanced and rational response to this trend. Personally, as a teenager I never liked youth groups much. I always preferred the company of adults to that of my peers. (Now I prefer the company of college students to that of my peers. Different story.) I have been in churches with youth groups that would have been much better off integrated into the congregation as a whole. Such groups tended to be isolated from the rest of the congregation, both older and younger, and they were often sloppily led and poorly taught. They lacked any sense of purpose beyond keeping kids out of the way so the adults could do their stuff… whatever that was.

    However, I have also been in churches in which the youth group acted as an exemplar in prayer, in service, and in leadership, to the extent that many of the adults found themselves playing spiritual catch-up with some of the youth. Such groups were usually led by a whole staff, including parents of some of the youth, and their activities were seldom if ever run concurrently with Sunday worship services. They were intentionally training the next generation of pastors, teachers, and church musicians. The difference was profound.

    I don’t think every church needs a youth group, and I have some sympathy with churches that have intentionally sought other ways of teaching and edifying the teenagers in their congregations. I think there are good reasons that the New Testament says little about the details of local church organization and administration.

  • Grace Schuler

    As a teenager, I was involved in the youth group and mentoring program, and am a happier, more mature person because of it. I met weekly with an older lady in the church and attended a mid-week youth group where actual biblical teaching took place. As I started discovering that my parents were flawed human beings who were sometimes wrong, these other godly adults in my life helped me process my doubts and misconceptions about my parents and my church, and also encouraged my spiritual growth. None of the “youth” events I attended ever conflicted with corporate worship, and high schoolers were integrated into “adult” Sunday school classes.

    Now as a parent, I do not expect my children to get all of their spiritual training from church. Because my husband and I homeschool, we have many opportunities to teach and train our children during the week. The hour or so that our children are in their age-segregated classes should simply serve as reinforcement to what they learn at home.

    Children will rise to the expectations the adults have for them: if these adults think that the “young people” are not mature enough to listen to a 30 minute sermon without it being punctuated every 8 minutes with a “commercial break”, then they won’t be. But a church that welcomes children into the worship service has to be willing to put up with minor disruptions in their sanctuary. However, a 16 year old should be held to a much higher standard of behavior and participation in the service than a 6 year old should. Churches that have everything geared to be age specific often do not allow young adults to ever “graduate” and become real, functioning adults in the church.

    Families that are too insular run the risk of parents becoming demagogs, whose deity crumbles once their children realize that their parents are flawed human beings. Elevating the structure of the family to divinity is also a mistake. While it is true that God established the family before he did the church, he did not make them to be mutually exclusive, but complementary.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Marty, Eric, Matt, and Nick – thank you for your kind words–I am glad that article was helpful to you.

    @Grace – I really appreciate your outlook and I think you are illustrating my point quite well. If parents are working hard to train their children at home (which is where children spend most of their time as opposed to the church) then one or two age segregated classes a week are not going to hinder their discipleship.The obvious exception would be the youth pastor that is constantly undermining parents authority–that pastor shouldn’t be in ministry anyway though.

    Part of the argument that I was trying to make is that the FIC makes parents and particularly fathers THE pastors of their children–I think that devalues the office of pastor and brings up the question: at what point do children need the care of a pastor?

    Teenagers are in transitioning into adulthood and thus it becomes a time where teenagers often need pastoral care. A good youth pastor is one that offers that in such a way that compliments what parents are doing in the home. A good youth pastor encourages teenagers to love and submit to their parents and encourages them to seek Christ themselves.

    @Steve This might surprise you, but I would actually agree that not every church needs a youth ministry. That said, I also agree that when done thoughtfully and intentionally, youth ministry can be a tremendous encouragement to the discipleship that happens in the home and can be a tremendous source of spiritual encouragement to young people.

  • Donald

    Drew,
    I appreciate you taking the time to address the FIC movement. You have mischaracterized the concept a bit when you say “First by dismantling youth ministry and claiming that parents should be the “youth pastors” of their own children, the FIC is guilty of doing the very same thing that much student ministry is guilty of: they have created a church within the church.” The FIC is about parents performing the responsibilities given to them in the Bible, and for youth to be integrated into the full life of the church. Parents are not pastors of their own churches, but rather should be taking their God-given parental responsibilities seriously – as parents, not pastors. Youth are considered young adults and are discipled exactly the same way as every other adult member of the church. Rather than “telling youth pastors to step away from teenagers in the church and to treat them like children” we are telling everyone to treat them like adults instead of like children. Teenagers (i.e. young adults) should be fellowshipping with their true peers – older, more mature adult believers.
    Your article lacks a Biblical case for youth ministry, which is very understandable since such an argument cannot be made. Hence, the fact that youth ministry is called “unbiblical”. Age-segregated ministry is a reaction to cultural age-segregation that had already occurred as a result of mandatory attendance in public schools in the 19th century. You can read a more detailed history as told from mainstream academia in the 2001 book “Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church”.


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