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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