When youth group is “contrary to scripture”

A reader recently asked in a comment if I would write about my experiences with youth group and church camp. I can’t. I didn’t have any. Youth group, you see, was too worldly. It was too fun-based. It wasn’t Biblical.

My parents are part of the family integrated church movement. This movement, which is pushed by Doug Phillips of Vision Forum among others, inveighs against segregating the family by age within the church and teaches that youth group programs result in divided families and youth who leave the church.

Last year a documentary called “Divided: Is Age Segregated Ministry Multiplying or Dividing the Church?” was released. This documentary, which argues that the modern youth ministry is “contrary to scripture” and has been failing the church, has been highly touted by Doug Phillips of Vision Forum, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, and many prominent leaders in the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movement. Here is a trailer:

What solution does the family integrated church movement offer? That the church be made up of families rather than age segregated, and that young people should be given religious instruction by their parents rather than by Sunday school teachers or youth group leaders. Here is the link to the Christian Patriarchy movement: God has ordained the family to be the basic unit of society and the basic unit of the church. Anything that impinges on the self-autonomy of the family and on parents’ authority over their children, whether it be public schooling or church youth group, is to be rejected.

One key verse of the family integrated church movement is Deuteronomy 6:6-7.

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

This passage is interpreted to mean that only parents should be the ones instructing children in God’s commands. Not surprisingly, it is also a key text of the Christian homeschool movement, and is used as evidence that God wants parents, not schools, to educate children. And not surprisingly, the growing family integrated church movement was born within the Christian homeschool movement.

Today we live in a very multidimensional world where young people no longer need to follow exactly in their parents’ footsteps as they may have largely done several centuries ago. Instead, children are released into the world to chart their own courses and choose their own beliefs. It seems to me that the Christian homeschool movement, the Quiverfull movement, the Christian Patriarchy movement, and the family integrated church movement are all built on a foundation of fear of this reality, and on a desire to raise children to be clones of their parents’ beliefs at all costs. In the face of a highly divergent reality, each movement offers parents the assurance that their children can be shaped into good, Bible-believing Christians – if parents will only follow this or that formula.

The family integrated church movement, then, simply offers parents one more solution to the problem of youth rebellion: Don’t send your children to youth group where they may be infected by unBiblical youth pastors and worldly peers; instead, keep your children under your watchful eye and instruct them in religion yourself. In many ways, this is simply a natural extension of homeschooling children in order to “shelter” them and “teach them God’s truth.”

I’d like to take a moment to offer some quotes on youth culture and the church youth group from Vision Forum’s description of its “Rethink the Youth Culture” toolkit:

One of the hallmarks of American culture in the late twentieth century was the revival of the cult of youth. With its roots in Greco-Roman paganism, the worship of youth and the rise of a distinctively family-fragmenting vision of teenage life has dominated our media, our entertainment, our schools, and the very fabric of modern life. But nowhere is the conquest of the cult of youth more evident than in the Church.

Frustrated with the absence of real parental involvement in the lives of the next generation, and desperately hoping to reach young people with some Gospel influence, the modern Church in America has drunk deeply from the youth culture phenomenon. This is most obvious in church youth groups, youth-driven worship programs, and even Sunday Schools. Now, after more than a half-century trend, the results are in, and they are not good — our youth are defecting en masse from biblical Christianity.

This trend has long been recognized by researchers — the fact that 61% of youth abandon the church during their 20s — but a common assumption has been that young people lose their faith due to their college experience. Thanks to penetrating new research spearheaded by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, a startling conclusion has emerged: Youth who regularly attended the most conservative, Bible-believing churches in America during their teen years were, in their hearts, already gone. To quote Ham and Beemer: “They were lost while still in the fold.”

Ham and Beemer have also uncovered hard evidence to support this surprising conclusion: that “Sunday School is actually more likely to be detrimental to the spiritual and moral health of our children.” Those who faithfully attend Sunday School are more likely to leave the church than those who do not — and to doubt the Bible’s reliability.

The evidence is in: The Church’s current model for reaching young people through youth groups and Sunday Schools is a failure. These programs are not only, on the whole, falling short of their aims, but they are actually contributing to the epidemic departure from biblical principles on the part of young people, as well as the massive defection from the Church of Jesus Christ. In short, the Church has proven to be its own worst enemy.

Sunday schools and youth groups are failing. Children raised in Bible-believing churches are leaving the faith. What solution do Vision Forum and the family integrated church movement offer to combat the problem of youth defection and the failure of church youth programs? Family-centered worship, of course.

The biblical example is for entire families to be present during corporate worship. Age-segregated worship is rooted in evolutionary humanism, not biblical Christianity. “Suffer the little children” to be in the presence of God and begin to experience the true blessing of family-centered worship.

A pattern emerges: Remove outside influences. Remove subversive information. Uphold the family as the final – and only – source of authority for raising and educating children. Homeschool, attend a family integrated church, raise your children on the teachings and literature of Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy. Perhaps then, once you’ve done all that, you will have found the perfect formula for ensuring that your children will replicate your beliefs and lifestyle. The alternative, after all, is failure.

In conclusion, then, yes, I grew up attending a large evangelical church, and yes, it had a youth group and church camp and all the rest, but I never attended them at all. Instead, my siblings and I attended the regular church service with our parents every Sunday without fail in line with the teachings of the family integrated church movement.

Note: Some of you have suggested that these movements are “cults” or together constitute a “cult.” While there are certainly cult-like aspects – especially in the isolation from outside influences and indoctrination in one viewpoint – one requirement of a cult is to have a cult leader who exercises direct power over his followers. The overlapping movements discussed here have many diverse leaders, not all of whom see eye to eye, and none of whom have direct power over their followers (except perhaps Bill Gothard). Some followers of these movements are influenced by one leader but not another, and some of the leaders don’t even see eye to eye with each other. So while you might call IBLP a cult, or try to argue that Vision Forum is a cult, I don’t think you can lump all these movements together and give them the term “cult.” 

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Gordon

    I take “Already Gone” or whatever it was called as a very positive sign.

  • DaveL

    Those who faithfully attend Sunday School are more likely to leave the church than those who do not — and to doubt the Bible’s reliability.

    …And there can’t possibly be any explanation for that, other than Sunday School being an evil plot by evolutionary humanism.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      Trust Ken Ham to get in a dig at his favorite whipping boy, evolution. The guy is soooo predictable.

      • Rebecca M

        I love the humanism part. “This isn’t biblical! It is awful!It must be a result of a belief that says people should lead ethical lives regardless of faith!”

        Because THAT is very logical. For sure.

  • Anne

    As someone who attended Sunday school, youth group, sermons, and then fell away, I think Hamm has a point. Sunday School and youth group encouragement me to read the Bible directly, and to discuss it. Sermons were about passively listening to someone telling me what they thought the Bible said. Because I had read the Bible repeatedly and closely, I clould see how the pastors twisted the text to fit their agendas. Because it was a sermon instead of a discussion, there was no mechanism to examine the issue further (and woe to any woman questioning the pastor). You could either ignore the errors and accept authoritarianism, or try to learn more regardless. I took the second path before finally accepting that it was a losing game – like debating the proper pronunciation of elvish. Smart people may disagree, but in the end it’s all fantasy.

    • Ron403


      The story you tell is very similar to the one my youngest children tell, although the religion involved is different.

      A teacher telling his/her students, “that’s simply the way it is” is really going to (1) piss off and (2) turn off a kid who thinks for him/herself.

      In the end, they didn’t accept the errors or the authoritarianism and both found solace in the sciences.

    • Josephine

      I agree with your point that the focus of knowing the Bible, reading for yourself, etc that exists in youth groups can lead to non belief. Those that are that interested in dissecting the Bible are probably mostly interested in truth, and it won’t take too long before they find that truth is elsewhere.

  • Ron403

    “Now, after more than a half-century trend, the results are in, and they are not good — our youth are defecting en masse from biblical Christianity.”

    I don’t think this is a situation unique to biblical Christianity.

    For example, our four children were raised as Bahai’s in a progressive and worldly, Canadian family. We fully participated in the Bahai community and our children attended children’s classes. They were also free to interact in the bigger world. Our big mantra was (is), moderation in everything and, yes, we did say “No” when necessary.

    Today, none of our children are religious (one is openly atheist)and we love, like and fully support them. Further, they are good people (although our youngest (sixteen) is a major pain in the @#!).

    In the end, my wife and I don’t think we did anything wrong. Instead, we’re proud that we taught our children to think for themselves and that they are good people. We’re content that they (try to) live by the golden rule and that they appreciate diversity, which is, of course, the antithesis of the pattern you identify:

    “A pattern emerges: Remove outside influences. Remove subversive information. Uphold the family as the final – and only – source of authority for raising and educating children. Homeschool, attend a family integrated church, raise your children on the teachings and literature of Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy. Perhaps then, once you’ve done all that, you will have found the perfect formula for ensuring that your children will replicate your beliefs and lifestyle. The alternative, after all, is

  • anotherone

    This was my experience exactly. We went to Sunday School as young children, but youth group was da debil. And my parents were dead set against any kind of age segregated friendship, so I never had friends my own age. Even by Vision Forum/super conservative homeschooling norms my parents were extreme when it came to the matter of friendships.

    My parents always said that age segregation was modern and evil, and that “teenager” was an artificial construct (they didn’t use those words), and that after all, adults didn’t confine their friendships to people within 2 or 3 years of their own age. So, we were expected to be “friends” with adults. And with small children. And everyone talked about how “mature” we were. Which meant, we uncomplainingly spent large swaths of our time doing childcare, and we parroted what the adults around us wanted to hear in a crazy sham of “maturity.” Not surprisingly, we had no social ability whatsoever to relate to our peers in larger society, but that was a badge of honor, because those people were LOST. And they made baby Jesus sad with their orgies and heroin and shit.

    Of course, another problem with teenagers being “friends” with adults is that it’s a one-sided, artificial friendship. Sure, we interacted with conservative Christian adults in my parents’ circles, but it wasn’t friendship. For real friendship, you need equal footing and give and take, and no sane, mature adult is going to talk about the difficult things they’re grappling with to a teenager in an equal, relationship-of-peers way. It just doesn’t work like that. (And because we weren’t allowed to have any emotion but happy contentedness, we weren’t exactly baring our souls either). So what the relationships consisted of was us parroting back what adults wanted to hear, and adults patronizing us. Not in the most negative sense of the word–they were kind and caring, certainly. It was just patronizing in that it wasn’t an equal relationship at all, or an honest one.

    • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

      Wow, anotherone. I can so relate to your experiences! While we were involved in our youth group, since our church was Amish Mennonite, youth activities were as sheltered as our home life was. And because that contact was typically group activities and there was little time or support for individual friendships, I never had much of a chance to develop meaningful relationships with others–let alone with anyone outside our enclave.

      My Dad used IBLP/Gothard BS to bolster his dependence on child labor (and later adult child labor) for running the farm and household. So there was always a “spiritual” reason he could drag up whenever there was a chance of our getting too attached or involved with someone who threatened his little kingdom. Gah! And the fact that his relationship with all seven of his adult children is strained today is simply evidence in his mind, I’m sure, that he didn’t shelter us enough.

  • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

    As usual, great analysis, Libby Anne!

    I wanted to comment on your note at the very end. The distinction you make is so important and one that can be difficult for people outside this loose collection of movements to understand. From my exposure/engagement in this brand of fundamentalism, I would say that the cultishness is happening largely at the level of the family. This can be incredibly insidious since, well, who is prepared to argue against close family ties?

    But all you have to do is think about the isolationism involved, for example, in a family-integrated church such as described above where everyone homeschools in an effort to shelter children from all outside influences and each father is crowned king of his castle, and your BS detector should be chirping like a smoke detector.

    As a result of my own experiences in fundamentalism and later research, it seems important that people in the mainstream recognize that there’s not a clear dividing line between cults and non-cults. Instead, it’s more useful to identify cult-like characteristics and address them specifically–whether they show up in the workplace, a faith community, a family or wherever. No one intentionally starts or joins a cult–it’s the behavior that happens along the way that makes a group become cult-like.

    • anotherone

      “I would say that the cultishness is happening largely at the level of the family.”


      Naomi, you’re so right. It really helps to know that I’m not alone in these experiences, and happening upon Libby Ann’s blog a few months back is one of the most healing things to have happened to me in a while.

      I think I’m older than most of you–my parents were at the beginning of the homeschooling movement, and so there are very few people in my age bracket (pushing 40) who had the same experiences as me.

      There weren’t blogs like this when I went to college (hell, we didn’t have internet on campus until my senior year), and I didn’t know anyone who had a similar upbringing and felt like I did about it. I was among my parents’ oldest children, and we were always the oldest kids in the very small circle of people my family saw fit to let us be around, so I didn’t have any peers going to college at the same time.

      I remember trying to explain to my friends in college what my upbringing was like, and I couldn’t articulate it very well. Even though they were all conservative Christians at a conservative Christian college (which now has a very large population of homeschoolers), my experiences were well beyond the pale of what any of them had lived. All I could say was that my family felt like a cult, and that I felt like I had escaped from a cult.

      I was so angry. And so relieved to be gone. I think my friends figured I was being exaggerative and melodramatic (and I was, a bit). Eventually I stopped trying to explain, and as I carved my own space away from my family, I felt less need to talk about it. But it sure is nice to feel like there are other people out there who understand (not that I’d wish this shit on anyone).

      • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

        Awesome! Well, to meet another (ex-) homeschooling pioneer–not about the other parts of your story. I’m less than five years from 40, so not much younger than you. Few things have been more ostracizing than being a homeschooler in the early ’80s! Sheesh!
        It’s been so affirming to me as well to find blogs by adult survivor-daughters of these families. I would have given my right arm for that kind of support and understanding back in the day when emancipation felt so far away.

        If it’s any consolation to you, my older sister who homeschools her four children (and does so with an entirely different framework than my parents did) reports that at homeschool conventions she is only one of very few second-generation homeschoolers. They (conference speakers) predict that any time now the second-generation is going to surge forth in all its glory, dozens of children in tow, but I highly doubt it. Too many of us wised up and got the hell outta there.

        I suppose age-segregated church is to blame. Heh, heh.

  • boysenberry jam

    They are hitting the wrong segregation issue. In modern Evangelical churches, age/status segregation is beyond ridiculous. I’ve been in Evangelical churches where adults are divided by age, marital status, and the ages of their children/not having children. And if you don’t fit in one of the categories, you aren’t welcome. You’re essentially considered a problem. When I still was inclined to attend one and moved to a new community at age 29 and single, I was literally told by the woman on the “welcome” call for one church that I could come to their church if I wanted to, but “we don’t have a place for someone like you”. Had I been divorced, there was a group to assign me to. Had I had a child in spite of not being married, there would have been a group. Had I been single, childless and 25 or under, there was a place. But 29, single and childless…no place. Go away please. Or show up for worship and be quiet.

    • Nurse Bee

      I do agree that this is true for most churches. Even remaining in my small hometown church during my college years, my only way of remaining involved (besides attending the regular service) was to help with the youth/childrens’ ministries.

      My husband and a couple of his friends did start a post-college/career group at a large church. We had a variety of people: singles, marrieds, divorced with/without kids, ranging in age from mid-20s to late 30s. It was a great group and I’ve never quite seen anything like it again.

      Our church now is smallish, but we just have general bible studies for all ages. The bible study we currently attend has two couples the age of my parents, so no age-segregation.

  • http://jadehawks.wordpress.com/ Jadehawk, cascadeuse féministe

    penetrating new research spearheaded by Ken Ham


  • Didaktylos

    Just a thought – how does military service affect those brought up in this sort of environment?

    • Anne

      My upbringing wasn’t nearly this severe, but as part of a military family, the constant moves facilitate the isolation. The family is the only constant, and to the extent there is a group beyond the family, it’s the church.

      • Didaktylos

        I was actually thinking more in terms of how a person brought up in this milieu is affected should they subsequently enter the service.

  • Meggie

    “These programs are not only, on the whole, falling short of their aims, but they are actually contributing to the epidemic departure from biblical principles on the part of young people, as well as the massive defection from the Church of Jesus Christ.”

    I would love to know where they get their evidence. Have all the people who have left the church been interviewed about their reasons for leaving the church? Are the people attending Sunday School and Youth Groups members of the church to start with? My children left my church because they outgrew Sunday School and church was “boring”. Does this count as leaving the church because of attending Sunday School? I guess it is partly to blame because it taught them to expect church to be fun. (They attend different churches now, which have youth activities.)

  • Katlyn

    I grew up in one of these “segregated churches” where I went to Sunday school instead of “Big church.” My experience was totally different than these guys are talking about. I think the difference was I had amazing pastors and teachers, that were male and female, young and old, visitors and regulars.
    My dad has always told me that my faith far exceeds his own and that brings him joy (and he was raised in a “nonsegregated church).

    I have a love and a fire for Christ, not for these human made rules these men (only men O.o) are talking about. I got so much out of youth group and being able to share my faith with kids my own age. I felt totally on fire when I was in public school and able to tell people about my Jesus and all that he has done for me. I didn’t tell people to try and “save them” or to convert them but only because I love Jesus so much I couldn’t not tell them about him. Even today I am the same. People think I am a little strange but that is okay. I love to tell people about the Prince that became the pauper because He loved me so much. He came to the flesh to show His love for us. I had that made in my heart when I was seven years old and never looked back.

    If they are blaming the segregation for the children’s falling away, then they need better pastors and teachers, they needs less rules and more grace, they need less theology and more Jesus. Brainwashing kids into following their parents does NOTHING for the heart of the person. On the outside they may be clean as a whistle, but internally it is a constant battle.

    • Judy L.

      “Brainwashing kids into following their parents does NOTHING for the heart of the person.”

      That’s really their point, though. They aren’t interested in hearts; their goal is to create and control little automatons who will obey without question. This kind of religion is pure tyranny and the only individuals who matter as individuals are the men.

  • Pteryxx

    These various movements may not technically be cults in and of themselves, but they’re cult facilitators and cult apologists… they’re a cult culture.

    • Leni

      Cult-inspired pyramid scheme was the first thing that came to my mind.

      Or maybe a meta-cult. (I just made that up, but it kind of seemed to fit.)

      Or perhaps like an instruction manual for creating your own little familial cult.

      Maybe this is a topic for another discussion, or perhaps it’s some failure to understand on my part, but I can’t read these descriptions and not think “cult”.

  • http://janeyqdoe.com/ Janey Q Doe

    Firstly, check out the cover for that video and the matching ugly, ugly shoes of the father and son. Not sure why you’d want to be like them.

    Anyway, I find it difficult to swallow the idea that people take sociological research conducted by Ken Ham seriously. It’s not like the guy cares about evidence or anything. We don’t know what kind of research he did, but it seems like a mighty bit of confusion between correlation and causation. That said, there is a good chance there is some truth to his claims. I can see where the segregated church might lead to a bleed as the kids get older.

    Firstly there is the issue that parents who allow their children to attend the youth activities are likely to be less dogmatic than those who don’t. Children from a more open family are also more likely to diverge from their parents’ path because there isn’t the fear of rejection and ostracisation that you might otherwise get.

    Secondly, participation in segregated activities opens children up to ideas that do not strictly follow the parents’ ideas.

    I’d love to see some more detail on his research, though, because I’m unsure what he constitutes as leaving. For someone as bonkers as Ham, I suspect that attending a different church or becoming a casual churchgoer would be enough for Ham to class you as leaving the faith.

  • elizabethstiles

    “They [teenagers] were lost while still in the fold.”

    Yup. That was me. And I went to age-segregated church too!
    What a coincidence! Most kids go to Sunday school, and most young people fall away from the church in their 20′s.

    But what brings them back to church, in the fullness of time?
    “Socialization. I was lonely in a new town.”
    “I dunno. I just felt like I ought to go, to be a good person.”
    “I wanted to raise my kids the way I was raised, in a community.”
    “I wanted to do charity work, and be involved in the community.”
    “Contacts.” “Friends.” “My spouse made me.” “I like the music.”

    Perhaps Ham accidentally struck some truth in his statements. Sunday school does drive people away from the Church, because it encourages them to read the Bible and learn about their faith. Humans naturally think and try to synthesize what they learn into a coherent whole. But if the overall Faith makes no sense, the only people comfortable in it are those who don’t think about it much, or who don’t care about inconsistencies. (How do they do that?)

    As a young adult I did try to make church work, for several very good reasons. The problem was always the belief system. How often I wished I could un-see what I had read in the Bible, or successfully twist it to fit one of the “sensible” interpretations offered! How often I wished I could forget the Biblical truism learned last week, when it flatly contradicted the reliable Biblical teachings of this week. How often I wished I could shut down my mind and just be cheerful with the good people I admired. These were not fundamentalist worship communities, and I certainly wasn’t the only intelligent person in the room. So what was wrong with me? The bad advice I got at the time was that more and deeper Bible study, more fellowship and togetherness, more careful group learning, would fix it. Quite the opposite effect occurred. Earnest thinking made the experience so much worse.

    To this day, if anyone can explain how to participate in Church without believing in God, or becoming a hypocrite, or poisoning innocents with my atheism, I would love to hear it, truly. The benefits of membership are real, for self and the community.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight


      (Still too religious for my taste, but they don’t actually expect you to believe anything.)

    • neuroturtle

      About a third of my local UU congregation are atheists. The first time I went, the leader gave a great sermon on philosophy and social justice, and then people went to a room and talked about it. And some people disagreed, and they were taken seriously! It was awesome. I think Unitarian Universalism is a great place for atheists who want the structure and activities of a church.

      If you’re in a larger city, you may also be near an Ethical Society, or maybe a Secular Humanists Meetup.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    A lot of the point of youth group is to snag people whose parents aren’t regular church-goers. I guess vision forum only cares about the select.

    • http://janeyqdoe.com/ Janey Q Doe

      That was one of the things that struck me as odd about this whole business. I always thought that youth group was more about recruitment. I was invited to so many youth group activities by friends as a teen that, had I accepted, I would have most likely bought into the whole shebang. They always did cool things like roller skating and bowling on a Friday night, too, which was SO MUCH about recruitment.

  • Gordon

    I was one of the people who ran the youth group and delivered children’s liturgy. It is the thing I am most ashamed of.

    I just have to hope that I wasn’t any good at it and that none of it stuck with them. Or that it had the effect Ken Ham claims.

  • Sal Bro

    As others have touched on and my own experience, the most important corrupting influence of Sunday School was that it gives kids a unique opportunity to present and discuss ideas within a group of their peers. I definitely did not have the same confidence or opportunities elsewhere in my church to speak–particularly when older men were present.

    These evangelical groups recognize the danger in giving teens an opportunity to formulate their own ideas and have those ideas be given merit by making them worthy of discussion. It reduces the suffocating grasp the patriarchs have on kids’ minds. Heaven forbid (literally) kids ever learn to think for themselves.

  • Andrew

    The real problem is not Youth Group, or Sunday School. Rather it is the Calvinistic approach to the teachings. What is missed is most kids aren’t really a believer in the first place and when they come of age they leave. Secondly there is really bad handling of Biblical truth. What is overlooked are when passages are similes or a metaphor. Also being a literalist is also a problem. This is why folks religious world goes hay wire and end up doubting Biblical truth, because their Sunday School teacher/Youth Group leader was wrong to begin with, omitted topics like living as a single person, and never taught the Gospel of Grace and instead spending to much time in the OT. I cannot recall any Sunday school teacher teach any NT except the four Gospels and Revelation. Pastors’ have sermons fared better, but have yet to hear a sermon on Peter’s and John’s complete epistles.

    • Gordon

      If only they’d thought to colour code which parts were literal and which symbolic!