What About Youth Group?
By John Nixdorf
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #48, 2002.
John Nixdorf takes you on an insider's tour of youth group ministries. Learn how to evaluate how useful your church youth group will (or won't) be to your teen's Christian life.
If you are homeschooling a teenager, questions may have begun to form in your mind. "What about youth group?" "Should I encourage my child to participate?" "Should I require my child to participate?" Maybe you have questions about what's going on at the youth group at your church and wonder about the answers you're getting.
The purpose of this article is to provide food for thought for homeschool parents at the point of making decisions about their children's participation in a church youth ministry.
Warning: This article contains generalizations. It is based on my personal, therefore limited, experience; and an extensive, if somewhat eclectic, study of the literature of youth ministry over the past couple years.
First of all, a youth ministry is no substitute for parental instruction both by word and example. It is very tempting to want to back off as children become teens. Yet teenagers need parental guidance and attention just as intensely as do newborns or young children. Sure, you may not have to bathe or dress them, but they still require your love, affection, and careful training.
Most homeschoolers are familiar with the scripture:
Deuteronomy 6:4-7 (NIV) Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
No mention of youth pastors, or Sunday School teachers for that matter.
In fact both youth ministry and Sunday School are very recent developments in the history of the church. Activities targeted specifically at youth came into being in the mid-19th century at about the same time as the rise of government education, for some of the same reasons. Sociological shifts resulted in parents looking to others for help raising their children. Organizations like the YMCA and YWCA, and the Sunday School movement emerged to help pass Christian values from one generation to another.
In the late 19th century a parachurch youth organization, the Society for Christian Endeavor arose. Spurred by the competition, various denominations developed their own in-house programs. In the mid-20th century parachurch organizations such as Young Life, Student Venture, Youth For Christ/Campus Life, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and others were established. Christian colleges began including youth ministry in their curricula.2
Today it is practically assumed without question that participation in a Christian youth group is a valuable and desirable, even necessary experience. However, in his report Third Millennium Teens, Christian researcher George Barna offers the following observations on youth ministry:
the church is where teen spiritual progress is made
spiritual development in teenagers depends mostly on their family
today's youth group attenders are tomorrow's church leaders
today's youth group attenders are tomorrow's unchurched
Barna further states that:
Many of the church leaders talk about the importance of the family, but in practice they have written off the family as an agency of spiritual influence. Their assumption is that if the family (including teenagers) is going to be influenced, it is the organized church that will do the influencing, primarily through its events - worship services, classes, special events, etc. This philosophy causes the impetus behind youth ministry to be fixing what is broken - that is, to substitute the efforts of the church for those of parents since most of the latter do not provide the spiritual direction and accountability that their children need.
But there is a procedural problem here: kids take their cues from their family, not from their youth ministers. God's plan was for the church to support the family, and for the family to be the front-line of ministry within the home. Teenagers may glean some truths and principles from youth leaders, but the greatest influence in their lives will remain their parents. What are youth ministries doing to serve families rather than usurp them?... perhaps the most significant product a youth ministry could provide would be helping parents to have a healthy marriage and not get divorced. We discovered that such an outcome was of far greater impact than having kids learn verses, sing praise songs, or donate money to the homeless - all of which are good and desirable activities, but simply not as life-changing as having parents who can model a Christian life for their kids.3
Some people might think Barna's remarks to be overblown for effect. There are a great number of very sincere, very godly youth ministers, paid and volunteer, working very hard and facilitating very good things in the lives of many young people. The points I'm attempting to make quoting Barna are: that you should not assume that youth group is necessary for the spiritual development of your teenager; and that there is no substitute for Christian parent's constructive involvement in children's lives in helping guide their own children to Christian maturity.
Second, don't uncritically assume that just because the youth group is sponsored by your church that it will necessarily be a physically safe or spiritually wholesome place, or a profitable use of your children's time. There are many ideas about how to do youth ministry, not all of which mesh well with homeschooling. The value of the youth ministry also depends heavily on the experience and ability of the youth minister and other adults involved.
Unless you are blessed to attend a church composed primarily of homeschool families, most of the teenagers in the youth ministry will attend an institution - predominantly the public school system with perhaps with a few Christian and private school students in the mix. Regardless of which institution they attend, the institutionalized students will very likely reflect the values and customs of their school peers, with whom they may have a much stronger relational bond than they do with their parents. Their parents, wondering what happened to the sweet children they used to know before they turned into teenagers, may be in a reactive damage-control mode, or may have given up altogether.
When a teenage girl shows up wearing not much more than a wide belt and two Band-Aids, it isn't necessarily because that's how Mom dresses. It is probable her parents have simply given up trying to get her to put some clothes on. Same thing for the boy with earrings and a tongue stud who spends his waking hours listening to Marilyn Manson (who, incidentally, attended a Christian school)4 on his personal stereo.
There is no generally accepted "right" way of doing youth ministry. No matter how things are done at your church, they are being done that way because that's the way the people running the program decided to do them, not because there is a scriptural mandate to do it a certain way (although some ways are more closely consonant with scripture than others), and not because of a body of objective research that says that one particular way is the best.
One way to assess the way youth ministry is done at your church is by the extent to which parents are invited (or required) to be involved. At one end of the parent-involvement continuum is the "Family Based" youth ministry where parents, with the help of their church, develop and implement the program. Parental involvement is required (otherwise, no program). The job of the youth pastor, if there is one, is to act as a resource to facilitate the parent's work.5 At the other end is the "Youth Pastor Based" model where a youth pastor is hired by the church to organize the program (or a brave volunteer is recruited to do it for free). A staff of young adults (typically young, on the theory that only people in their early to mid-20s can successfully identify with the youth, and vice versa) is recruited to help with the program, and substantive direct parent involvement and contact with the youth in the program is either de-emphasized, or prohibited outright. Some of the better-known parachurch youth ministries like Young Life, Wyldlife (Young Life's Jr. High ministry), and Student Venture run more-or-less in the "Youth Pastor Based" mode.
Things To Look For In A Youth Ministry
Parent Involvement. Are you welcome to get involved in hands-on ministry with the kids as a teacher or small group mentor, not just relegated to the role of taxi-driver or ATM machine? If so, you are a long way towards knowing this will be a suitable and safe place for your teen. You'll know firsthand what's going on and who's working with your kids, and you'll have the opportunity to influence the program.
On the other hand, at your church substantive parental involvement may not be permitted. It may be either outright prohibited, strongly discouraged, or subtly but firmly impeded in one way or another. There is a school of thought among some youth ministers that the process of growth to spiritual maturity requires that at the high school age children need a "safe place" free from parental pressure and harassment. A place where they can feel free to ask tough questions about their faith and faith struggles. A place where they can talk about issues like sex, pornography, drugs, alcohol, etc. without having to worry about sending their parents into orbit. You do well to be both suspicious and concerned if this is the situation at your church. The youth minister and staff may just not want you hanging around asking inconvenient questions and exposing themselves to parental scrutiny, and are using the "safe place" argument as a smokescreen.
Purpose and Planning. The youth pastor should be able to tell you concisely why there is a youth group at all, and should be able to sketch out the group's objectives for at least the next year. That is, the youth pastor should be able to give you a fairly coherent idea of what the group will be doing and why.
One well-known youth ministry professional has identified five core purposes for youth ministry: Fellowship, Discipleship, Worship, Ministry, and Evangelism.6 Ideally, a youth ministry (or church for that matter) will have a balance between these purposes.
What Bible Content is Being Taught? A well known authority on youth ministry has stated "Because most junior highers are biblically illiterate (especially outside of the church), much of our work will be preevangelism, laying the foundation and building a framework for the gospel."7 While this may be true of unchurched junior (and senior) highers in general, and is perhaps true of some teens even at your church, it is probably not true of your children who likely have been taking Bible as a full subject since before kindergarten. You may find your children doing an in-depth study of the Minor Prophets during the week in your homeschool, then having a simplified, basic introduction to Jonah and the Whale in Sunday School or youth group. Variations on "How to survive in public school" are frequently the sole topic week after week in youth group, and may be almost totally irrelevant to your homeschool child.
Can the group leader provide a written syllabus of the teaching plan for the year? If not what kind of indication can he or she provide about what's going to be taught, and what are the year's activities? Don't hesitate to press for specifics, especially if you get a response like "Uh, I like to keep it loose to respond to issues as they come up" which can be code words for "I usually prepare at the very last minute."
Who Are The People Working With the Teens? What Are Their Views And Qualifications? Are you a literal six-day creationist? If so does it matter to you if the teacher holds a day-age view? What about a "theistic evolution" view? All three of these views can pass muster in some fairly conservative denominations. The teachers may even believe in Darwinism. After all that's probably what they were taught in school.
Do the ministry staff believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth, or are they moral relativists? Do they even know the difference?
What are their Christian testimonies? Are they members of your church, or just hanging out? What kind of screening process is used to determine whether they should be working with teenagers at all?
What qualifies them to work with teenagers? Experience in public education is in some ways an anti-credential. Formal credentials in youth ministry don't necessarily mean anything either (although they may be very useful). A love for Christ and for teenagers are the best credentials of all. Make sure the staff have both.
What do they know about the Bible? There's a strong possibility your teenager may have been a Christian longer, and know more about the scripture than some of the youth workers. Are at least some mature, knowledgeable Christians on hand to help with more difficult questions?
To Whom Are The Youth Ministers Accountable? Churches are organized in all kinds of ways. There are formal lines of accountability, and informal. Sometimes these get tangled, or are not entirely clear. However, if there is no point at which the youth minister is obliged to constructively respond to parent's concerns (as opposed to just listening more or less patiently and nodding her head like one of those little dog figurines in the back window of a car), there's something wrong in the system.
While the youth ministry staff will probably not respond to every idea, comment, and concern you may have in exactly the way you wish them to, there needs to be a direct channel for resolving serious concerns dealing with physical safety and basic Christian orthodoxy. The ministry also needs to be generally responsive to parents' wishes as a whole with respect to curriculum and activities.
Where Do The Other Adults Stand On Issues of Concern To Teenagers? The youth pastor, volunteers, and parents of other teenagers in the group may have, and teach, a much different viewpoint than you on issues like dating, teen sex, birth control and abortion, tattoos, piercings, modesty of dress, appropriate music, approach to popular culture, etc.
To give an example, although a discussion of dating and courtship is way outside the scope of this article, consider the issue of dating (this being but one of many areas where a youth ministry can subtly undermine your teaching at home). Conventional wisdom among youth ministry professionals is that teenagers will date. That dating is in fact a healthy, even required part of growing up (a view not held by this writer, but mentioned here for illustrative purposes). The emphasis in most youth ministry literature is on guiding teenagers in their dating so it is a constructive, not destructive, experience.8 A typical youth group discussion of dating would cover how old do you have to be to date, and how far is too far to go with respect to physical contact? In case you wondered, the consensus seems to be that 16 is the minimum age for single-dating; and that contact up to and including hand-holding and an occasional brief peck-type kiss is on the OK side of the line, while French-kissing and beyond are on the "not-OK" side of the line.9 If you are a proponent of some form of courtship you might prefer that your teenagers not be tutored on dating at church, or even encouraged to date. If you were ever a teenager, you know that physical contact between a steady-dating teen couple is highly unlikely to stop at an occasional brief kiss, no matter what the youth pastor says.
The group may spend time having the students delve into the teen psyche discussing topics like "How does how you feel about yourself compare with how other teens your age feel about themselves?" Maybe you think this kind of monkeying around with your child's affective domain is appropriate, and a valuable use of your child's time; maybe not.
What Do The People Who Will Be Working With Your Children Know/Think About Homeschooling? The youth pastor at your church may actually know little if anything about homeschooling. The literature of youth ministry contains virtually no discussion of homeschooling. A common assumption is that homeschooled kids are basically the same as public schooled kids. There is usually little recognition that homeschool kids have a radically different life experience than public school kids.
Some youth pastors view homeschooling as an escape from the real world, think that the public school is where the evangelistic action is, and that homeschool students are sheltered, and will be incapable of having a robust faith as adults. If this is the case at your church, at best you may be able to convince them otherwise. At least you should attempt to get them to keep their opinions and disdain for homeschooling to themselves. Invite them to drop by your home, and "school" them on homeschooling. If they visit the local high school campus, they should be able to manage to drop by your house once in four years.
Similarly, the chances are good that your teens may get ragged on by institutionalized students with remarks like "Homeschool is easy; you don't have to do any real work." Let your teens know they may be in for some ill-informed criticism. Plus, since the public school kids in the group have probably peer-bonded with their classmates, there is the possibility that your homeschooled teens will be either subtly, or not so subtly, excluded from the group socially (not that that is necessarily a bad thing).
How is the material presented? A well-respected authority on youth ministry has suggested the following conversation starter "Inflate balloons and condoms. Toss them to your group members, and watch their reactions. Then ask: Is safe sex an 'untouchable' subject? Why or why not?"10 To capture the attention of the typical jaded adolescent, youth ministers sometimes reach to come up with startling and outrageous illustrations and activities. One formula for doing youth ministry is to have some form of entertainment or activity to attract students, make sure they have "fun," then settle the kids down for a short Bible lesson. You may not think that batting condoms around, having shaving cream races, or other zany antics are a profitable use of your child's time. Make sure you know what's going on.
Concern For Physical Safety. Does the group demonstrate an appropriate concern for the physical safety of the students? Are safety rules observed on outings: buddy system; qualified supervision for activities like water sports, rock climbing, etc.; protective equipment appropriate to the activity; traffic laws observed driving to and from activities; first-aid training for staff; permission slips and emergency contact information collected; etc. A life-altering accident can happen in an instant. You don't want your child (or any child for that matter) to be killed or maimed because whoever was in charge of the youth program was lax about safety.
Willingness To Work With Special Needs Students. If you have a special needs child is the youth ministry willing to work with you to make reasonable accommodations, or is the response "Most youth ministries aren't equipped to work with kids with disabilities"?
There is a school of thought in youth ministry that says "Go after the gifted and talented kids. Spend your time with the leaders, the cream of the crop, and the rest will follow." Notwithstanding the lack of compelling evidence that this approach actually works, it overlooks the fact that Jesus called to himself the despised, the sick, and the poor.
If you have a special needs child, will there be a place for her? Sure, nobody's going to spit on her shoes, but will she be welcomed into full participation in the group, or just quietly ignored and edged out to the fringe of the group? Although it is unlikely that anyone will actually say "Keep your kid at home, we don't want him," you may find the youth pastor uninterested in doing anything more than the absolute minimum necessary to pretend to have made an accommodation.
What's a Parent to Do?
Working Within the System. If the group at your church is agreeable to your being involved, and you are convinced that it is a safe and profitable place for your child to be, roll up your sleeves and dig in. Don't worry if you don't feel particularly gifted with respect to teaching, or even relating to teenagers. In an active youth ministry, there are many needs. You may be able to work behind the scenes to help organize a retreat weekend or service project. Or just pick up snacks on the way to the meeting, hang out in the back, befriend the teens, and make yourself available to talk. Once you get into it, you may find you have more to offer teenagers than you thought.
If you get involved, get educated. Learn as much as you can about teenagers, read widely, and take advantage of any training opportunities that come your way.
Make a dedicated effort not to be a pain in the neck. Homeschoolers sometimes become so used to making every decision concerning their children's education, and having everything exactly their own way, that they find it very difficult to work with a group. Hold fast to your essentials, and be prepared to flex graciously on the non-essentials.
Resist the temptation to focus on your child. You're there to help with the program for the benefit of all the students, not just yours. Don't single your child out for criticism or nagging. If you don't nag the other kids about washing down a helping of choco-frosted sugar bombs with a quart of Mountain Dew, don't nag your kid. In fact, unless there is an issue of physical safety, respect for others, or observance of group rules at stake, try to look the other way at merely irritating behavior whether its your kid or not.
Doing It Yourself. Homeschoolers will be comfortable with this one. Set your objectives, then develop your lessons and activities. Use this as an opportunity to fill in any gaps in Bible or doctrinal instruction that your regular curriculum may possess. Soak in the contact time with your teens; they won't be around forever and the day will soon come that you won't be able to spend time with them anytime you want.
The drawback is that however much you might want to think that you're the only adult contact your child needs, adult role models in addition to parents can be very valuable in reinforcing what parents are trying to teach. Look for opportunities to connect your teenager with other Christian adults who can provide godly counsel and reinforce your teaching. You also may find yourself stretched a little thin time-wise trying to be the camp counselor, mission trip leader, game leader, Bible teacher, and coach all at the same time you're doing regular homeschool with your teen.
Working with Other Homeschool Families from Your Church, or Other Churches. You may be able to work with other homeschool families to gain leverage on your individual efforts and talents. Then again organizing homeschoolers is like herding cats. Just agreeing on a time to meet can prove to be an insuperable obstacle. Be prepared for hard work and possible disappointments.
Finding Another Church. Conventional wisdom among youth ministry proponents is that if the church you are currently attending doesn't have a suitable youth ministry, you should find a church that does. If you are convinced that participation in youth ministry is needed for your child, and the previous options are not workable for you, this may be your best option, particularly if you don't have a strong denominational affiliation, are new to town and "shopping" for a church, or have been at your current church only a short while, not long enough to put down roots.
There are several downsides however. First, you don't want to model "church-hopping" to your children. It can have a destabilizing effect on your children's spiritual growth to be shuffled around. Second, youth ministry is only part of the total picture when it comes to what your child gains from any given community of believers. Preaching, worship, missions activities, teaching ministry, theological orthodoxy, doctrinal distinctives, community, and evangelical outreach are just a few other aspects to take into consideration.
A less drastic alternative to finding another church is to simply allow your child to attend a group at a church other than the one where you are a member. Just remember that all of the questions and evaluation criteria you would use on the group at your own church will also obtain with respect to another church's group.
What happens in a youth ministry can permanently shape your child's life for good, or ill. Participation in a constructive, relevant youth ministry can reinforce what you are teaching at home, and may provide opportunities that would be difficult or impossible for you to provide on your own. On the other hand, your child's spiritual growth and condition may be permanently damaged by even just one bad experience with a youth ministry, no matter how well-intentioned the persons running the program may be.
Nobody on earth cares as much about your kids as you do. Sure the youth pastor "cares" about your kids as part of a group, but if your kids get lost in the shuffle, or have a bad experience, "Oh well, things happen." While youth pastors graduate their mistakes and start over with new teens every year, remediating a bad experience can turn into the work of a lifetime for you and your child. One well-known youth ministry speaker and author puts it this way: "An immature or irresponsible leader cannot hurt mature adults too much - but he or she can do lifelong damage to a teenager. Young people are easily hurt, easily used, easily misled, easily disillusioned."11
Ultimately, it's your responsibility, and your decision. But then as a homeschool parent, you knew that already.
Callihan, David and Laurie, The Guidance Manual for the Christian Homeschool, Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ. 2000.
Colson, Chuck, Answers to Your Kids' Questions, Tyndale, Wheaton, IL, 2000.
McDowell, Josh; and Hostetler, Bob, Josh McDowell's Handbook on Counseling Youth, Word, Dallas, TX., 1996.
Nappa, Mike; Nappa, Amy, and Warden, Michael D., Get Real: Making Core Christian Beliefs Relevant To Teenagers, Group, Loveland, CO, 1996.
Rainey, Dennis & Barbara, Parenting Today's Adolescent, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1998.
Weidmann, Jim, White, Joe, Parent's Guide to the Spiritual Mentoring of Teens, Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.
- A tip of the hat to Dave and Laurie Callahan, noted homeschool authors, who first used the title "What About Youth Group," and graciously granted permission for me to borrow it. Also thanks to Dave Callahan for offering some very helpful suggestions during the writing of this article.
- For a detailed look at youth ministry, including its history, refer to Dunn, Richard, and Senter, Mark, Reaching A Generation For Christ, Moody Press, Chicago, 1997.
- Barna, George, Third Millennium Teens, Barna Research Group, Ventura, CA. 1999, p. 66-67.
- Mueller, Walt. "Marilyn Manson, In Love With Hate," CPYU Spring 1997 Newsletter, Center for Parent and Youth Understanding, Elizabethtown, PA.
- For more information on family-based youth ministry, and the family-friendly church, refer to:
- Freudenburg, Ben, with Lawrence, Rick, The Family Friendly Church, Group Publishing, Loveland, CO. 1998
- DeVries, Mark, Family-Based Youth Ministry: Reaching the Been-There, Done-That Generation, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1994
- Clark, Chap, The Youth Worker's Handbook to Family Ministry, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997
- Fields, Doug, Purpose Driven Youth Ministry, pg 50, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998.
- Veerman, Dave, Dave's Complete Guide to Junior High Ministry, pg. 51, Gospel Light, Ventura, CA, 2001
- McDowell, Josh, and Hostetler, Bob, Josh McDowell's Handbook on Counseling Youth, Word Publishing, 1996, p. 121-8.
- White, Joe, and Weidmann, Jim, Parent's Guide to the Spiritual Mentoring of Teens, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, IL, 2001, p. 541.
- Veerman, Dave, "25 Controversial Discussion-Starters," February/March 1992 Jr High Ministry Magazine, Group Publishing, Loveland, CO.
- Hutchcraft, Ron, The Battle For A Generation, p. 69, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1996.
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