Youth group as “discipleship incubator”?

Parents, if your older teen or young adult child was in a church-based or parachurch youth group during their high school years, I’d value your response to the questions below. If you are a young adult who logged time in your youth group, I’d like to hear from you, too. (And oh yes – I’d love to hear from past and present youth pastors, too.)

Two questions: Did the youth group experience help or hinder the process of “owning” your/your child’s faith? Why do you say so? 

Yes, I know there have been many, many studies, books and articles written on this very topic. I’m not asking these questions  to see if I can add anything to those discussions (I probably can’t). I am wondering about what the youth group experience tells us about the way we in the church do discipleship (simply defined as being with Jesus, learning to be like him). Youth groups, after all, tend to define themselves as discipleship incubators. 

I’ve had a few conversations recently with people who’ve taken a backwards glance at their own youth group experiences and suggested that those experiences confused, rather than clarified, what it meant to walk with Jesus. I thought I’d throw the question out here in order to discover what you might have to say about how the youth group in which you or your teen participated has contributed or detracted from the process of spiritual formation. Did it equip you or your child to “learn how to learn” to be like their Lord as you/they moved into adulthood?

I do not believe a youth group should ever be the main shaper of a teen’s faith, though I also acknowledge that for some kids, it can be. (My own sporadic attendance at Young Life and a before-school Bible study during my high school years the extent of my own early group discipleship experience.) I believe a group of committed peers led by caring, mature adults who aren’t a kid’s parents may be what’s needed to help a teen find his or her place in the big “C” Church.

However, that ideal does not seem to match reality for many. Including my own family.

My husband and I were intensely serious during our years of active parenting of our three kids about discipleship a la the Shema. That didn’t exempt us from making plenty of parenting mistakes along the way, as every parent will. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 clearly demonstrated to us that our children’s spiritual formation was our responsibility. We could choose to outsource parts of it via VBS, camp and Children’s Church/Sunday School, but the bottom line was that God had given us the task to transmit our faith as we lived, worked, played and prayed together. When our kids were younger, we recognized that the Church was meant to be a supportive community in which our family was planted, and wasn’t our children’s sole source of spiritual education.

We also recognized that as our kids moved through their teens, this Shema-based understanding of discipleship would include other companions with whom they would be learning about their faith. It was our role to transfer the reins of responsibility for their lives into their hands, simultaneously making the shift from guiding them to walking alongside them. It seemed that the primary bridge into the adult faith community was via youth group participation.

They participated in a couple of groups during those years. One, at a neighboring church, was okay for a while. Since our family didn’t attend the congregation, our kids tended to be a bit of an afterthought to the other kids. When we began attending a church with its own youth group, they began attending.  As they years have passed, we have heard from our kids that the experience did far more harm than good to their faith, with the largest share of the issues surrounding the self-serving adult leaders who left a trail of damage in their wake.

One 19 year-old “apprentice” youth leader at the church was involved in a secret friends-with-benefits relationship with another youth leader. When the relationship was exposed, a harsh, judgmental “temporary” youth leader took over. She was great at generating the proper insurance forms for youth group trips to the water park, but was terrible at welcoming any but the squeakiest-clean church kids into the group. She filled her teaching with the standard issue moral therapeutic deism fare (“Don’t have sex before you get married. Behave nicely when you kids go as a group to the pizza place so you’ll be a good witness. P.S. – Read your Bible every day.”) In the name of making disciples who would be terrifyingly self-controlled and always, always good just like she was, she shamed kids who had questions or had ever failed or struggled in any significant way. For too many kids who hoped to connect with God and a community of friends, the youth group was not a bridge into adult faith. It was a barrier.

I’d like to hear your experiences. If you’d prefer to email me, click here. Otherwise, please leave a quick comment below to answer those questions (Did the youth group experience help or hinder the process of “owning” your/your child’s faith? Why do you say so?)

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  • anonymous

    For my children, youth group was an epic fail.
    The peer pressure to lie to parents, smoke pot, watch movies/videos/websites…(whatever, same plot new setting) and bullying was so much stronger than any of the positives that came from the group. Because my kids didn’t want to participate in the pot, drinking, bullying most of my children’s friends were non-believers because the Christian kids didn’t want to hang around them.
    As to how successfully discipled my children are? Well, in the eyes of most of the world I would be told that they are committed Christians. In the eyes of some believers, I would be told that they are casual Christians. But, it’s only the eyes of God that matter.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Anonymous, thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like you and your kids made the right choice to distance yourselves from the spiritual sinkhole of that youth group!
      It’s ironic that your kids found safety and security in their friendships with “non-Christian” kids and that the “Christian” kids were so toxic. Do you think the youth group kids felt they were secure in their lousy behavior because they wore the “Christian” label, or they simply didn’t care?

  • Our three children, now 21+ and in various stages of launching, all consistently attended youth groups. Our older two grew up in a small church as part of a youth group that felt more like a family and under the leadership of a godly, solid and stable young man. He made it a practice to personally disciple the kids, and most of them thrived under his leadership. Our youngest participated in a huge youth group at a mega-church where teaching happened on a stage. Not the same as discipleship. However, he learned from the teaching and seemed to grow a bit through his involvement.
    All three of them went to Christian colleges, (they had attended public schools through high school) and it was the intense “doing life together” discipleship with some solid leadership (or even not-so-solid) that generated the greatest growth spurts in their spiritual development.
    By the grace of God, they are all following the Lord. As I look back, it was no doubt a combination of factors. My husband and I did our best to follow the Lord every day, and I believe we were at least consistent (not perfect!) in that we were the same people at home as we were on Sunday mornings. I don’t think our children saw any hypocrisy in our faith. They are also the beneficiaries of generations of prayerful people. I often think we have no idea what power such prayer unleashes. Being part of a smallish church family was also instrumental in their spiritual development. They knew all the adults and children, the quirks, the strengths, and the challenges. Their youth groups contributed to their discipleship to the degree that they benefited from relationships with more mature followers of Jesus. Things seemed to click for them at some point in college. Our children thrived in Christian colleges, but I know of others who are also experiencing powerful spiritual growth under the leadership of Christian organizations on secular school campuses. In summary, I believe the most influential discipleship happens in relationship; it does not happen from a stage or through a “program.” As I write this, it occurs to me that these thoughts apply to making disciples of any age. We need to do life with those who are following Jesus a few steps ahead of us and then invite others to follow a few steps behind. I’ll be interested to read the response that you get.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Judy, I appreciate your story, particularly your note about your children being the beneficiaries of the prayers of the earlier generation of saints in your family. That is an intangible, immeasurable, mountain-moving factor, isn’t it?
      And this: “Their youth groups contributed to their discipleship to the degree that they benefited from relationships with more mature followers of Jesus…We need to do life with those who are following Jesus a few steps ahead of us and then invite others to follow a few steps behind.” You’d alluded to the fact that you were a part of a smaller church during your kids’ growing up years. Was it from that church family that your kids connected on a discipleship level with more mature followers of Jesus? Or was it that the church contributed to a safe environment that allowed your kids to grow up without a lot of collateral spiritual damage?

  • almost anonymous

    Three kids, three different experiences with youth group, all in their 20s now, all faithfully churchgoing.

    Child #1 was fully immersed in the youth group scene from junior high through high school – student leader, brought lots of friends to youth group, involved in all retreats, conferences, activities. This child experienced extreme rejection from both adult leaders and youth group peers because the group so focused on the “unchurched” and the broken, that she, being churched and from an intact family, was ostracized as “not one of us”. She persevered through it, went on to college, found healing in the more mature small groups of a college church. Married to a Christian guy and is actively involved in her present church.

    Child #2 loved junior high youth group, but upon entering high school, announced that academics, sports and youth group were too much for him to handle and sports weren’t going to be the one area to go. We agreed, asking him to find and commit to a low-key, spiritual connection. He choose FCA, 7 a.m. at the high school. Went faithfully, hated it. Went on to college, barely went to church, sporadically attended what I’d refer to as a “remedial” campus crusade group. Interestingly, as a student athlete, he seemed to grow the most spiritually and informally by being on teams that had a few Christian athletes and the occasional Christian coach. As an adult, he now gravitates toward a more orthodox church setting and is involved with a small group because he feels he should be.

    Child # 3 went to junior high youth group, stopped when child #2 stopped, went to FCA only when child #2 did and refused to do anything after child #2 went away to college. Experienced rejection from Christian friends in high school because of the cliquishness of that particular group of kids. Appeared to go spiritually “underground” during most of high school. Went away to college, got involved in a solid group of campus crusade people, eventually married a Christian guy and faithfully attends church.

    The two consistent things for all three of them were that we always attended church together as a family and that we faithfully prayed for them through it all. (I prayed weekly with a prayer partner for all our children for years.)

    The only real difference I see high school youth group making with child #1 is that she seems to have a greater sense of service and is more likely to become involved in ministry. This seems to me to come out of that time of youth group service and is not just a part of her natural personality. It would appear to me that the really positive spiritual “youth group” growth experiences for my kids didn’t not occur until their college years!

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Almost Anonymous – You’re the second parent here who has noted the power of prayer as your children were growing up – see Judy Allen’s comment above.
      I wonder if the positive spiritual youth group growth experiences your kids experienced during their college years were positive because they were “on their own” (so to speak), able to choose based on who they were and who they wanted to be. It sounds like you gave them some freedom to do so during their high school years, particularly on behalf of #2 and #3 child, but your family culture of prayer and consistency in church attendance discipled them in deeply formative ways.

  • This is a great article, Michelle. From my perspective, youth group shouldn’t be “blown up” as some say, but should be reformed–in every church and every situation. We’re a small church so we don’t really have one except that we do work indivually and have a fairly robust jr-high group.

    But growing up in Church, I think a few things have to be considered. For one thing, we should teach our Christian kids the gospel and the scriptures as if they haven’t heard them, in fresh new ways. We sometimes assume the gospel and assume sanctification and growth, then go into therapeutic deism mode when we find out that these good Christian kids actually have issues and problems and commit sin.

    Secondly, I wonder if the paradigm of “young Bible college graduate with the coolest hair” is a bad one. I think its better for kids to learn from an older figure, who can parent them in a way, who can be a third-party wise person who patiently sows the gospel into their hearts. I also think the youth group should work in concert with parents, both equipping parents and mentors but also equipping kids to study and know God on their own.

    Lastly, we really tend to enable immaturity with youth group. We tend to affirm immaturity in a way that says growing up and being a responsible adult is somehow passe. And now we then extend that attitude to college ministry. At some point, kids should be encouraged to be adults and grow up and demonstrate maturity. I think we do this by more emphasis on gifting, talents, and vocation. I heard so many vague references to “God’s will” growing up, but what is that exactly? Can you explain it me? But when a trusted authority figure affirms some talent and gifting in a kid and even walks them through a sense of “mission”, it can be powerful.

    Just two cents.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      That fairly robust junior high group at your church may be just a couple of years away from morphing into an honest-to-goodness youth group. Good on you for having the goal of working in concern with the parents, too.
      You are most definitely on track about the goal of youth ministry should be maturity. (Really, shouldn’t that be true of ministry to every demographic?) I’ve known a few youth pastors who had the twin goals of (a) becoming a senior pastor themselves, using the position as a sort of apprenticeship for themselves and (b) trying to stop their teens from fornicating on missions trips. Neither one exactly screams “maturity”.

      Coming alongside a kid and affirming what God is doing in their lives is sure a step in the right direction. Thanks for your .02, Dan. I would say it’s worth a little more than that. 🙂

  • Sarah B

    I know I am late to this discussion, and I guess that is one of the consequences of being a slow cooker.
    Michelle, I appreciate that you raise this issue. I agree that youth ministry ought to be a place of discipleship and I would take it a step further and say that is not any more or any less than the role of the church as a whole, and that youth ministry is just one subset. The real question is then two- fold. Are we as adults building a faith in Christ that is robust and transforms who we are? If so, are we intentionally sharing that walk in a transparent manner with the young people in our churches? I think if we can honestly answer those two questions that will make great strides towards youth ministry that builds disciples.