I remember my high school youth group with fondness. Death-defying games, sitting legs-crossed on Berber carpet, acoustic guitars and songs sung in a round, overhead slides slid the wrong way, worn out back pocket Bibles…these images stir my heart as much as they cause me to grin and chuckle.
Most of the lessons I heard then I’ve forgotten now, but I still remember the godly leaders who invested in me. I still remember pivotal moments where my fledging faith leaped forward with deeper understanding and new commitment. I loved my youth group.
I loved my church, too. I did not always understand what the senior pastor was saying, but I knew it was important and I listened as best as I could. Youth group and “big church” intertwined to profoundly shape my spiritual journey. I never saw one as a threat to the other. The two were a powerful combination.
But maybe I was wrong. I know some people think so.
Adam McManus thinks I’m wrong. McManus is a spokesperson for the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches (NCFIC), and he has recently said youth groups are “crippling the body of Christ.” His solution? We should “throw out the youth group structure entirely.” Seems a little extreme, but maybe he’s right. After all, who needs another round of chubby bunny anyways?
So bye-bye youth bonfire. Farewell paper-rock-scissors. So long Kumbaya. And good riddance! What a bunch of silliness!
There, I feel better already.
While I certainly agree youth ministry has become bloated with pop culture rubbish, I just can’t dismiss it entirely. I can’t go the whole way. I can’t approve completely shutting down youth groups. And I don’t think you should at your church either.
Some of McManus’ concerns are no doubt valid. He calls for greater age integration in churches, and we would do well to hear this call. But cancelling youth group is a misinformed and misguided solution. If we as the church follow his advice, we will harm the next generation. We will bypass the benefits of a ministry focus seen in the scriptures and confirmed in church history.
Youth Groups In History
Working with a separated youth group (i.e. “group of youth”) is no fad or recent invention. Youth ministry by any other name is still youth ministry, and we see it all over the pages of church history. Catechesis programs for young believers played a critical role in the life of the church for centuries.Many of our church heroes have led youth groups too.
D.L. Moody famously led a large youth group in the 19th century. And more recently, the ministries of Dietrich Bonheoffer and Francis Schaeffer both featured youth groups at Zionskirche and L’Abri, respectively. Few will question the value of these men or ministries, which made a dramatic impact on the next generation. They were the lifeblood of the church, but these veins of ministry run deeper than just church history.
“Youth Groups” in Scripture
The Bible itself testifies to an age-targeted approach to ministry. Psalm 78 issues a specific and pointed charge to teach the next generation. What it calls for is something more than just family integrated worship. Telling the next generation certainly includes integration. Let’s get our children in corporate worship! But Psalm 78 is calling for a more intentional project than just that.
Jesus took a more targeted approach too. He welcomed the children in one way and adults in another. And the training he gave his young disciples was far from integrated. Indeed, it actually hinged on their willingness to leave the crowd and receive additional attention and instruction.
The Apostle Paul continued this practice. In his letter to Titus, he gives special instructions for various age groups. He calls for a unique curriculum for the older men, the older women, the younger men, and the younger women (Titus 2:1-6). Properly executed, modern youth ministry can be seen simply as extension of these kinds of age-based emphases found in the Bible.
Youth Groups Today
As a longtime youth pastor myself I will be the first to say youth groups can be severely flawed and misdirected. We have too often perpetuated secular adolescent culture rather than entering it to transform it. We have at times been too separated from church life. For this reason, I welcome the admonitions given by such people as Cameron Cole and David Wright. We have much work to do indeed. But in the mean time, let’s not panic and overreact.
Don’t cancel youth group just yet! Remember its roots. Remember your roots, and let us lovingly reform our youth ministries for the sake of the church and the next generation.
 Gary Parrett and J.I. Packer, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, p. 52
 Richard R Dunn and Mark H. Senter III (Eds), Reaching a Generation for Christ, pp. 106-107.