Youth Pastors: I Admit, I’m at a Loss for Words.

Youth Pastors: I Admit, I’m at a Loss for Words. September 8, 2013

I was married to a preacher, I think I mentioned before, with Biff sliding very quickly into a position as a youth pastor. The trend of using youth pastors to minister exclusively to high school kids began when I was a new convert to fundamentalism–a trend that declared that young people must have fancy rock-concert-style ministries and tons of fun and diverting stuff to do, or else they’ll get bored and wander off. By this time the idea is all but axiomatic for most churches.

Disengagement rates for young people in Christianity are huge–and a pressing problem for most ministers and churches. By “disengagement,” I mean that once a high school kid gets into college and past it, there’s anywhere from a 50-75% chance that that kid will stop going to any church regularly, stop reading his or her Bible, stop praying, really just stop doing anything that really interfaces with the religion that he or she practiced in high school. They may still call themselves Christian–the rise of the “Nones” notwithstanding, it’s still the dominant religion of our culture–but they’re not members of any churches or–just as importantly–lending their voices and money to the cause. It isn’t hard for me to see that youth ministries are a response and reaction to a trend that began many years ago. Surely if kids have fun and see church as a hub of social activity, that’ll hold them over till their adult years and keep them practicing the religion instead of discarding it.

That isn’t how it’s working out at all, though, and I’m sure that a big part of the blame for these disengagement rates lies in the condescending and insulting nature of most churches’ youth ministries.

Portrait of a pastor at the age of 35.
Portrait of a pastor at the age of 35. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Not exactly a youth magnet, I’m guessing.

Look at any large church, and you’ll very likely see that it features a thriving youth ministry complete with a hip, handsome young youth pastor who is creeping up on the wrong side of 30 but still dressing and acting like he’s in college. He’ll talk like the young people do, act like they do, and have a dramatic story about a past filled with sex and drugs, as well as perhaps some tattoos and maybe even, in the hipper groups, piercings in at least one earlobe. Like as not he’ll have no formal background whatsoever in theology or education. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he is very friendly to high school and middle school/junior high kids and he can get them very excited about Jesus (for foreign readers: the name depends on where you went to school; in one place, I went to a Middle School, while in another those same ages of kids go to Junior Highs; there’s some very pressing reason for the naming convention, but I sure didn’t see any difference).

I got to meet a great number of youth ministers when I was married to Biff, as you can imagine. Biff wasn’t paid for what he did, and indeed many are volunteers, all hoping to eventually get the attention of a larger church that can afford to pay them. It’s like anything else in fundamentalism/evangelicalism–for every superstar like the fellow we’ll be discussing today, Matt Pitt, there are dozens and dozens working their rear ends off without pay hoping to break into the big leagues.

Youth pastors are definitely a special breed of their own, but even by their standards, this youth pastor in the news lately takes the cake. I was completely speechless, even me, knowing what I do about youth pastors. It took a little time to really get my thoughts together about this incident.

Matt Pitt, a small-town Alabama youth pastor, was in many ways representative of the group. Young but aging way too quickly, he discovered his calling and built up a following. Like most of them, he claimed a dramatic past with drugs and a dramatic turnaround to a new, clean life high on Jesus. He built up a huge following, at one point boasting 5000-7000 kids crowding into his venues to attend his services. He got to meet and work with superstars like Franklin Graham and give talks all over the place, and even at one point started up a reality show about his ministry team’s lives. Though people had some major issues with his arrogance and his inability to be honest and accept mentoring, though his total lack of theological education caused some friction with some other leaders, he still seemed like he was heading straight for the top.

You’re all waiting for the “TIMBERRRR!” Don’t try to fool me. I know you are. And it’s okay. I was too.

And here it is: Matt Pitt really likes cop culture. No, I mean he really likes it. He’s apparently obsessed with it.

Lots of boys grow up wanting to be police officers when they get older. Some of them actually do join. Some want to, but just aren’t constitutionally up for it–I’ve known plenty of those sorts, and weirdly, now that I think back about it, all of them were former drug abusers. But it takes a special sort of man-child to be incapable of joining, yet pine after the culture so much he starts pretending to be a cop. At first he expressed this desire by just asking for an honorary badge; he’d seen one of his friends with one, and was jealous. He asked the police department in his area if he could have one. The request was a no-brainer; police tend to like evangelical leaders, and they liked his work, so they gave him one. The gesture soothed him, but not for long. He began to use the badge to make people think he really was a police officer.

People pretending to be real cops is not a situation that real cops really like to see. They frown on that, in fact, so much that it’s a crime to do it. So when Matt Pitt went driving around last year flashing blue lights at people to make them pull over so he could get somewhere faster, he got into a lot of trouble. Having blue lights on your car isn’t illegal, but using them if you aren’t a cop is very illegal. But this was small-town Alabama, Matt Pitt was still a big-name Christian leader in the area, and so he was let off the hook with probation. He returned to the ministry without mentioning the incident, as this news article describes, and though the crowds were a lot smaller and other pastors were a little more hesitant to expose their youth groups to his preaching, things looked like they were set to progress again. Christians are generally short of memory and long on forgiveness. All Pitt had to do was behave himself for a couple of years and all would be fine.

Well, leopards don’t change their spots (as I’ve mentioned before). Of course he did it again. This time there was a gun cache involved, an escalation and fact that I’m sure doesn’t exactly relax anybody in uniform who has to respond to these complaints. He had a gun hidden in the woods and drove his four-wheeler over there to get it, and a homeowner living nearby saw him rooting around very suspiciously and called 911. When the homeowner came to ask what was going on, Pitt identified himself as a police officer and left. The police arrived and were not happy at all to hear someone’d impersonated an officer and in response to his action, they issued a warrant that Pitt managed to evade for a good long while.

Pitt, at this point, was in a world of trouble. Not only had he impersonated an officer again, but he’d broken his probation rules from last year when he did that same exact thing and was now hiding from an arrest warrant.

But wait, it gets better. While he was basically on the run from the law, he dropped by a TV studio or two to talk to them to tell “his side of the story” and assert his total innocence.

It’s so hilarious to me that he did that, because that’s what controllers and abusers do–they have to spin doctor. They can’t have people believing whatever they want, willy-nilly! They must be walked through events very carefully so the controller comes out on top (fine example: when I finally fled Biff, he called and plowed into every human being we knew, even people we hadn’t talked to in years, to ensure they knew that he was a sweet innocent godly Christian man who’d been wronged by his evil, lying, cheating wife before they could talk to me about anything). Matt Pitt was hiding from an arrest warrant, so obviously the best thing to do is go to a TV station and try to convince everybody he’s really very innocent.

It didn’t work too well; he came off as “incensed and aggravated,” with more than a few people I’ve heard noting that his disjointed, aggressive behavior seemed drugged out or indicative of a manic episode. He lied during during the interview a few times, insisting that he’d gotten the badge as some kind of thank-you from the police and not as a direct request he’d made to get one, and also insisting that he’d been forced to plead guilty to last year’s crime because his lawyer hadn’t been present–something that was painfully quick and easy to disprove.

The reason I’m mentioning the interview is that it seems to me that Christian leaders–especially the toxic variety like Pitt–seem to think that the same stuff that works on their loving sheep will work on outsiders with no particular reason to cut them slack. I’m sure it was a huge shock to Pitt that the reporter didn’t accept his weird justification for impersonating a police officer. I’m sure that it’s equally shocking to him that audiences who see his interview aren’t persuaded that he’s innocent. Apologetics authors do the same sorts of things–their arguments work great on the already-converted, but way less well on skeptics and outsiders who have no reason to sympathize with the argument.

Of course, what his attention-seeking, spin-doctoring stunt actually did was tell the police exactly and precisely where he was at that moment, so they converged on the TV station, while inside, a stunned reporter was informing the astonished youth pastor that the honorary badge was not actually a real badge that let him do real cop things–a revelation that stunned him. When he came outside and realized there were police out there, he ran for it, because that’s what innocent guys do.

I’m sure it was an incredibly dramatic chase up the side of a mountain to a cliff, ending with–I am not kidding here–a plunge off that cliff forty feet down to the street below and a ditch. He’s lucky he’s not dead or seriously injured, but was able to climb out of that ditch under his own steam, at which point he was arrested. He’s now sitting in prison while his defense attorney is demanding lists of everybody who’s gotten honorary badges to show that they were given out inappropriately–a tactic described by the Sheriff’s Office as downright delusional: “‘If this is the kind of fantasy defense his attorney has dreamed up then I truly feel sorry for his client. I mean that sincerely. I didn’t know you could find attorneys in dreamland. I hope they aren’t expensive,’ he said.” I can see why he’d say that–I’m not sure how that strategy is supposed to do anything to help Pitt, but at this point, maybe nothing really can.

I’ll be right up front with you folks: Pitt isn’t very different from the youth pastors I’ve known and have heard about since leaving the religion. What’s terrible is that since he took that “leap of faith,” the other people in his ministry have begun insisting that the arrest and accusations are just a huge coordinated attack–probably a demonic one–aimed at ending the ministry. Pitt himself has said that the attacks on his ministry are racially-based because he “reached black kids.” It doesn’t look like he’s going to learn the life lesson from this event that his god might have wanted to teach him, any more than he got the hint last year.

If youth pastors actually produced long-lasting results, which to me involves kids who remain in the religion after they get out of high school and out of their parents’ house, that would be one thing. But they don’t. Disengagement happens even when kids get whipped up into a downright frenzy during these light-show-filled, fog-machine-enhanced, rock-concert-style ministry sessions. Maybe it happens even more than if these same young people were just taught alongside older people or mentored without all that flashy stuff. Slowly I’m seeing churches and ministries begin to question that conventional wisdom and even eliminate or radically restructure their youth ministries in response to the abysmally bad results that “traditional” youth ministries see. Of course, it isn’t hard to find loads of other sites and ministers who insist that youth ministry in its current form is needed and essential. I know how that is. It must be hard to see hordes and throngs of shrieking, screaming, waving, crying, singing, shouting kids and think that there’s just no way that any of this could go wrong. But these leaders need to get past those images and look well beyond that one revival night.

I know this might sound a little weird coming from someone who isn’t a Christian. But I don’t think that it is. I’m against toxic Christianity, and these super-ostentatious displays and arrogant, ignorant youth ministers represent, to me, some of the most toxic outgrowths of modern Christianity. When a kid spends his or her adolescence enjoying the best showmanship the Christian world can possibly offer and getting stuffed full of rah-rah and cultural indoctrination, then heads out into society and discovers that almost none of that stuff applies or is even valid, that’s painful. It sets up the cruel dilemma by telling that kid that it’s either the indoctrination or reality. I don’t want any kid to feel the pain that I felt when I realized that nothing I’d been taught was true. I don’t want to see kids drifting through their college years trying to resolve all that cognitive dissonance on their own. And I especially don’t want to see those kids pop up on Facebook pages and in forums stomping their little fetties and insisting that creationism is true or displaying their rampant ignorance of the Bible and then see them get humiliated by the beatdowns that happen. None of that’s fun to experience.

If I could suggest anything, it’d be this: if a church really feels that young people are its future, then its leader should be especially careful about who is allowed to be the face of that church and the liaison between the youth and the leadership. Youth ministry shouldn’t be this separate branch of the church, unrecognizable save for having the same attitudes about current cultural battles. And it should be led by someone who has been educated in both Biblical history and context, not just a tattooed ex-druggie dipstick screw-up who can get kids whipped up into a froth. But yeah, I know. What do I know? I’m an apostate. But I’m very sad when I look at all those pictures of the Basement kids in their B-gear swag and their hands raised above their tear-streaked faces; I can’t help but think about what their first year of college is going to look like. I wish I could make it easier for them, but I know that’s not possible. It’s just such an unnecessary amount of pain that’s coming for them.

Next up, we’re going to talk some more about young men and women, Rape Culture, and a soccer mom type whose shaken-finger went viral. You probably already know what I’m talking about, but if you don’t, then you know where to be in a couple of days.

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