A Response to Divided: The Film & Family Integration (Part 1).

Amateur filmmaker Philip LeClerc noticed a disturbing trend among his peers: they are leaving the church in droves. In order to discover whether this was the fault of the church, the parents, or the youth themselves, he set out on a journey to find answers. Thus Divided: the movie was born.

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The main idea of the film is that contemporary youth ministry is not Biblical. Youth ministry programs not only separate youth from adults, they influence parents to abdicate their responsibility as the primary Biblical educator of their children. The result is a generation of teens who were nursed with flashy programs, shallow Bible studies, and no real adult instruction.

Divided: The Movie raises some questions that desperately need answers. All the statistics show that our older teens are leaving the church en masse. Can this exodus truly be traced to the simple division of youth and adults in church?

This is not a new issue. The front cover of the July-August 1995 issue if Group Magazine boldly declared “Abolish Youth Ministry!” The article is an interview of then, 20 year youth ministry veteran, Ben Freudenburg. Here are some of his comments:

…the reason we have to change is that the church’s outreach to teenagers isn’t working. If we continue to do youth ministry the way we’ve done it in the past we are going to continue to see a failure rate rather than a success rate.”
“What I see youth ministers often doing, and we’ve trained them well to do, is say to parents: “Bring your kids to church and I’ll teach them the faith, and I’ll encourage their Christ-like living. I’ll shape their values. I’ll teach them how to be servants. I’ll teach them how to witness. I’ll help them to be in Bible study. I’ll provide prayer groups for them. You just bring ’em.

Ben Freudenburg now heads a family friendly ministry whose goal is to train parents to partner with the church in faith and family formation to the third and fourth generation.

See his website: http://www.familyfriendlypn.com

Divided: The Movie doesn’t break new ground. It raises questions that were raised by Group Magazine in 1995: why is youth ministry not working? Our industry definitely needs some self-evaluation. I don’t think the solution, however, is simply to eradicate youth ministry or to shut down any age divided program. Even Ben Freudenburg said: “I don’t believe youth ministry should be abolished. Rather, the way we do youth ministry does need to change.”

Like most issues, the problem is infinitely complex; and causation is difficult to ascertain. Rather then lumping the blame on youth ministry, I think we can trace the exodus to five core issues.

First, there is the Christian family issue. It was addressed at length in the Divided: The Movie. It is true that according to the Shema, the father and mother are the primary parties in charge of educating their children. It is also generally true that Christian parents are not actively teaching their kids the scripture. Outside of perhaps a dinnertime prayer, parents are not praying with their kids. Outside of church attendance, parents are not incorporating spiritual disciplines into the life of the family. Divided: The Movie is right that this is problematic.

There is a second problem. It is the Non-Christian family issue. Most youth groups are reaching youth whose parents are absent, indifferent, and not of the faith. Of course these parents are not going to be educating their children in the faith when they, themselves, don’t believe.

This was why Sunday school was created in the first place. It was an attempt to educate the children whose parents had abdicated this critical responsibility. The fact that a church has youth whose parents are not teaching them is good thing. It means that the aforementioned church is fulfilling the Great Commission by reaching the fatherless. Nonetheless, these motherless and fatherless teens do not have family role models and are statistically at a high risk of dropping out.

The third issue is an industry issue. For good or for evil, American ministry is deeply intertwined with ministerial vocation. That is, churches are hiring people to work with teens, and people are looking for jobs working with teens. The vocational side of youth ministry presents some challenges that contribute to our problem.

Unfortunately, youth ministry is sometimes viewed as the intro job into real ministry. It’s where people start. There is an unwritten belief that no one of quality would want to actually stay in youth ministry. As a young prospective minister, you do your time, gain some experience, and then move into a real job. I do not agree with this sentiment, but the industry makes it very clear. Just about every pastor I’ve ever met made his beginning in youth ministry. The majority of youth ministry positions are part-time. If they are full time, they are usually lower in pay (and in respect) than, say, the minister of music or education. I’ve even known experienced youth pastors in their fifties who were fired because the governing body decided they were too old!

This upside down industry practice does two things: One, it insures that there will be a high turnover rate for youth leaders. Two, there will always be a lack of quality people running our youth ministries. The statistics tend to vary on this issue, but the average youth pastor stays at a church for somewhere between nine and eighteen months. As many of you know, very little can be accomplished in that amount of time. Short term ministry yields little fruit.

I am not suggesting that youth ministers lack quality. I am only suggesting that quality people do not stay in positions where they are not paid enough to feed their families. I am suggesting that quality people don’t stay in positions when they know they are going to be let go at the first sign of a gray hair because they supposedly can’t relate to the teens.

The bottom line is that the very teenagers about whom we are so concerned are being led by a group of underpaid, under-respected group of ministers-in-training who will not stay for more than a year. This is certainly contributing to the problem.

The fourth issue is a ministry culture issue. Churches tend to create two churches with two cultures. In youth ministry circles, a church’s main service is often referred to as ‘Big church.’ Big church has a particular order, a particular style of music, and a particular culture about it.

In attempts to better reach young people, the typical Wednesday night youth program is clearly different from the Big Church. It also has a particular order, a particular style of music, and a particular culture about it.

What churches do, then, is create two very different ministry cultures that rarely interact. There is a demographic wall of separation. It’s almost like having two churches that meet in the same building.

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Consider the case of a particular high school senior who was brought up in the youth program. His parents aren’t believers so he doesn’t get Biblical role models from home. He is not necessarily comfortable with church culture, because it was not part of his upbringing. He’s not accustomed to the formal dress, and the style of music is nothing like the music on the radio. Even the way the pastor speaks is of a different culture. But that’s okay, because the youth ministry is tailored to him.

In the youth program he gets to worship God with songs that sound similar to what he listens to during the week. The environment is up to date. They sit in chairs, not pews and are guided with projector presentations, skits, and cutting edge videos. He hears sermons from a person who can speak teen lingo, but who also limits religio-speak. In short, the culture of the ministry fits him perfectly. He learns, worships, fellowships, and becomes more like Christ. Then he graduates.

Most churches do not have a strong collegiate ministry nor do they staff for it. So what is he supposed to do now? The expectation is that he moves up to ‘Big church.’ Of course he had been reluctantly going to big church for all of these years, but they had a great youth Sunday school program and all of his friends were with him. Maybe the church even had a separate youth service. Nonetheless, although many of his friends have gone off to college, his only option is to attend the under-funded and comparatively smaller college Sunday school class and attend a service that is of a completely different culture. Moreover, the service is stacked with people who are, for all intensive purposes, strangers. At the end of the story, he will be one of the eighty percent of youth who leave the church during the first year of college.

The last issue is a developmental issue. Even if our churches skirted the edge of perfection in how it reached teenagers, many high school graduates would still leave the church. Why? Because of normal developmental issues associated with the coming of age.

This is a season of testing for them. No matter how well we train them or how strong our programs, they are going to quickly be confronted with an avalanche of new ideas, new temptations, and new worldviews. Although some of these same temptations existed during high school, there were, in most cases, structures and boundaries that made it easier for them to choose the right path.

When they go off to college, it will be the first time that they have adult freedom and low levels of accountability. This time is the ultimate test of their faith and some will fail.

Divided: The Movie, while bringing to light a much needed discussion, provides limited answers.  I agree that there must be some changes in the way we practice youth ministry, but this film is an overreaction to the problem. Simply tearing down every wall of separation is not the solution.

In the next post, I will propose some solutions that are more balanced and workable.

Here’s the film’s official website: http://www.dividedthemovie.com/

You can also watch the film here:

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