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Youth group as “discipleship incubator”?

Youth group as “discipleship incubator”? April 4, 2013

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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