What to do?

This situation, I’m sure intended to teach something about faith and persecution, unleashed both some trauma and lots of criticisms. A decade or two back our high school football coach staged a shooting (of himself by another) in order to “teach” the football team something.

The issue today is not to jump on this youth pastor but to discuss this question:

What principles do we need to teach youth pastors so they learn not to exceed limits as was done here? I’d love to hear from some youth pastors what they have learned.

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — The men burst into the church classroom and ordered the 15 teens in the youth group to the floor.

They covered the teens’ heads with pillowcases and bound their hands. One man waved an unloaded gun, and another yelled, his face daubed with camouflage paint.

The kids gathered at the Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church and had planned to partake in youth ministry activities at 7 p.m. Wednesday (March 21).

Instead, they found themselves face down, hugging the linoleum floor, said the Rev. John Lanza, who described what happened. If they listened, they wouldn’t get hurt, their assailants said.

It sounds terrifying, but there’s a catch: The raid was fake, staged to show the teens the perils faced by Christian missionaries in the world’s trouble spots, Lanza said.

Yet it traumatized one 14-year-old girl so badly that her mother filed a report with the police, claiming her daughter suffered a busted lip and bruised knees.



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  • Luke Allison

    The AG are an extremely foreign-mission-focused denomination…almost Mormon in their drive to get young people to commit to a period of missionary service. This is par for their course. Our students attend an AG youth camp every year, and a whole day is always devoted to stories of persecution and periods of listening for God’s call to ministry or the mission field.

    The shock value (and reckless nature) of this story is also not surprising, as every year we’ve had to run interference for something or other that the speakers at this camp have said. Last year, it was a story (at a junior high camp) about the speaker’s wife mistaking his loogy in the toilet for a miscarriage. No joke. To middle school. We got a lot of phone calls about that one.

    In a bigger youth group, this type of thing is unimaginable, simply because there’s so much liability and so little pull with parents. Not to mention the wide variety of students: autistic spectrum, some prone to seizures, some suffering from abuse at home….it would simply be unthinkable to do something like this, no matter the lesson learned. I hope this guy learns a lesson himself.

  • gingoro

    Given that I know of a Presbyterian pastor in the USofA who is favourable to hidden carry such a prank as the youth minister pulled could be q

  • Kel

    I’m curious as to whether or not the youth pastor sought counsel from anyone at all on whether or not to stage this raid. My guess is probably not. It would be hard to imagine the senior pastor, board of elders or anyone in leadership condoning it.

  • Paul

    One idea is to make sure youth pastors know how people best learn and become disciples. Perhaps knowing more about learning theory and how it applies to discipleship would be helpful? Big events, whether fake raids or giant rallies in stadiums, rarely produce the lifestyle changes desired over the long term…there are better ways to communicate truth in my opinion.

  • Dennis

    It’s two sided… We need to teach churches to hire mature people to do youth ministry and pay them accordingly… Nah… sooo… We better concentrate on the YP. You shouldn’t even be considered to work with kids unless you have done a 4 year internship with a mature person of God who will teach you that youth ministry isn’t about youth at all… it’s about kids, parents and touches every age group in the community.

  • Jeremy

    Here’s the principle: If the real deal would traumatize someone, then don’t do it without their prior knowledge or consent. Not that difficult really.

    Also, never let youth pastors do anything without adult supervision. (;

  • DRT

    Our elementary public school would have a DARE program presented by a police officer each year where the kids are told that they have to make a poster, and they will not let them graduate if they don’t make a poster.

    All three of my kids were quite shaken by this and had nightmares about not graduating from school.

    Each year my wife would call the school and they would simply laugh it off as ridiculous and they would tell her that most kids don’t care what a Police officer has to say.

    Tell the youth pastor that good kids are sensitive to bad events and we have to protect the least of these from the impression of bad events.

    Back it up with stories like this one to make the point.

  • AHH

    Not to make light of it, but as I was reading and before I got to the end, I thought it was going to be a “this is what will happen to Christians in America if Obama is reelected” political lesson for the kids.

  • The problem here is that perception is reality as far as our brain and emotions are concerned. This could easily leave some kids with PTSD at the very least. Interestingly enough, according to the first place I saw this, the law recognizes that fact, so this youth pastor is up against the same charges as if he pulled this for real. That is a harsh version of logical consequences!

    Of course, the same point could safely have been made with a simple dramatization of the same situation. The kids could then choose to participate or just to watch.

  • MatthewS

    In more than one town I’ve lived in, the AG youth group was energetic and popular with Christian kids all across town. Many of them are big on emotional involvement.

    If you think about it, people complain a lot that churches are out of touch and using antiquated methods. I’ve known of these kinds of raids in the past and they make me cringe but you have to grant that they certainly made some kind of point and they certainly had the kids’ attention. It was a very experiential lesson.

    I’ve known of a number of skits and object lessons that were lower-key than this but done with a somewhat similar goal of shock value. Camp skits with “realistic” portrayals of hell, for example. In the end, my opinion is that the net value from it is rather low and in reality it is a well-intentioned effort that mostly results in being a fun project for the leaders to pull off.

    Lesson learned is probably not to do things that could realistically give some poor kid PTSD!

    To be fair, it can be very hard to engage kids’ brains and actually teach them to think. I sympathize with the desire to appeal to emotion as a way to teach but I think an over-emphasis on the emotional aspect is just as bad as ignoring the emotions altogether. Somehow it needs to be a holistic lesson.

  • MatthewS

    Here’s a suggestion: get the kids to create and perform a song, skit, poem, painting, slideshow, story, movie or some other creative expression in front of the church. The performance would be intended to convey the lesson at hand – such as the real-live danger faced by missionaries. They would create it and practice it and therefore hopefully own it themselves. It would give a chance to talk through it as they go.

  • JohnM

    Kel #3 – Unfortunatley I do not find it hard to imagine a senior pastor condoning such a stunt, given the other kinds of things I’ve seen them condone, participate in, and even initiate. Of course some of these senior pastors started out as youth pastors. Whether they did or not they’re probably just haven’t grown out of the kind of thing they learned when they were in youth group. Been going on a long time.

    On the other hand, PTSD? Charges? Oh well, guess that shouldn’t suprise me nowdays either.

  • Jon

    I read that the senior pastor was in on it, and parents were informed. The youth pastor should have given specifics to parents, and required permission slips at least. I wouldn’t have done it in a regular youth meeting, to avoid springing it on any newcomers.

  • As I’m a youth pastor, I’m offended by the attribution of this sort of behavior to the immaturity of youth pastors. Half of the problem that we youth pastors face is that parents and pastors think we are immature and treat us accordingly. In reality, the problem is that majority of the time parents and senior pastors define maturity according to their own image. A youth pastor can’t and shouldn’t look or act like a senior pastor or a parent, but to act otherwise isn’t to act immature.

    Some youth pastors are immature. Some aren’t. Some are more mature than their senior pastors. But this behavior–tying kids up and throwing them on the ground at gunpoint–is stupidity. No youth pastor should be dumb enough to pull a prank like this. And it’s a result of a particular religious mindset rather than a level of maturity.

  • Jon

    @kyle #14 I agree and am disappointed in the lack of respect towards youth workers in the discussion of this post.

    The more I think about it, the. Ore I think there must be A LOT more to this story. Something smells foul.

  • It wouldn’t surprise me if Middletown’s proximity to Three Mile Island has some role in this community’s story. I also have seen some unusual things in the Pennsylvania & NY Assembly of God churches. At the time, I recall being uncomfortable, but now, I’ve come to disagree completely w/ many tactics I saw/experienced, finding them emotionally manipulative & unhelpful spiritually, at the minimum.

    Kyle & Jon, ISTM you’re being defensive rather than trying to understand how & why something occurred that did cause some trauma to some kids. We don’t always know what will affect children. I recall I asked my mother to write me a never-before-or-since excuse note from Part II because I had nightmares & awoke crying after viewing a pro-environmental film Part I, in which animals were slaughtered, beaten to death, shot & skinned. My HS physics teacher hadn’t anticipated such a response.

  • Ann,

    I’m not being defensive. I’m simply saying that immaturity among youth workers is not universal. Not even close. And I don’t think immaturity is the cause here.

    And I’m sorry if this offends you, but I can’t possibly equate seeing a film about slaughtering animals with being bound and held at gunpoint. It may have been traumatic, but it’s not the same.
    Also, you’re talking about a mistake your high school physics teacher made. I’m guessing the problem there wasn’t immaturity. Or maybe it was. Should we start making jokes about how immature physics teachers are because of your individual incident?

    My point is, if we want to have youth ministers who feel empowered in their (our) work, we need to stop dismissing them (us) as immature. Many of the youth ministers I know (including myself) have a stronger theological education than many of the pastors I know. I know dozens of young life leaders who (if I had a child) I would trust with my child in an emergency.

    Incidents like this one are not common to all youth ministries.

    Parents–if you want to help your kids and your youth workers, stop treating your kids and your youth workers like infants. Trust us. Empower us. Don’t be dismissive of us. We do this work because we care about kids, and because most of the time we remember what it’s like to be in their situations better than you do. But we’ve grown up out of those situations. We can walk alongside your kids responsibly.