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Unintended consequences of “cool” youth ministry

Unintended consequences of “cool” youth ministry

Matt Marino, Episcopal Priest and Director of Youth and Young Adults for the Diocese of Arizona writes the blog post: “What so uncool about cool churches?


In the blog, Marino argues that the focus on building big youth group and getting kids to make “decisions for Jesus” is failing to make disciples:

In an effort to give people something “attractive” and “relevant” we embraced novel new methods in youth ministry, that 20 years later are having a powerful shaping effect on the entire church. Here are the marks of being market-driven; Which are hallmarks of your ministry?

1. Segregation. We bought into the idea that youth should be segregated from the family and the rest of the church. It started with youth rooms, and then we moved to “youth services.” We ghettoized our children! (After all, we are cooler than the older people in “big church”. And parents? Who wants their parents in their youth group?) Be honest: Have you ever thought you know more than your your student’s parents? Have you ever thought your youth group was cooler than “big church”?

2. Big = effective. Big is (by definition) program driven: Less personal, lower commitment; a cultural and social thing as much as a spiritual thing. Are those the values that we actually hold?

3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. The inventers of this idea, Willow Creek, in suburban Chicago, publically repudiated this several years ago. They discovered that there was no correlation between the number of meetings attended and people’s spiritual maturity. They learned the lesson. Will we?

4. Christian replacementism. We developed a Christian version of everything the world offers: Christian bands, novels, schools, soccer leagues, t-shirts. We created the perfect Christian bubble.

5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation. We imitated our culture’s most successful gathering places in an effort to be “relevant.” Reflect on the Sunday “experience” at most Big-box churches:

Concert hall (worship)

Comedy club (sermon)

Coffee house (foyer)

And what about Transformation? Is that not missing from these models? Where is a sense of the holy?

6. Professionalization. If we do know an unbeliever, we don’t need to share Christ with them, we have pastors to do that. We invite them to something… to an “inviter” event… we invite them to our “Christian” subculture.

7. “McDonald’s-ization” vs. Contextualization: It is no longer our own vision and passion. We purchase it as a package from today’s biggest going mega-church. It is almost like a “franchise fee” from Saddleback or The Resurgence.

8. Attractional over missional. When our greatest value is butts in pews we embrace attractional models. Rather than embrace Paul’s Ephesians 4 model in which ministry gifts are given by God to “equip the saints” we have developed a top-down hierarchy aimed at filling buildings. This leaves us with Sunday “church” an experience for the unchurched, with God-centered worship of the Almighty relegated to the periphery and leading of the body of Christ to greater spiritual power and sanctification to untrained small group leaders.

Does not all of this work together as a package to leave us with churches full of empty people?

Marino concludes that this market driven “youth ministry of preference” leads to the later absence of young adults in churches. Do you agree?

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Mike Orr

Just a bit of pushback on these points of “Whats so uncool about cool churches?”

1: Segregation. When I was a teen, I wanted a chance to be goofy and be myself, let down my guard. I could do that in a “segregation” of what was my youth group on Sunday evenings. I still went to church with my parents on Sunday mornings. We should not assume that whole congregational worship that includes students is left behind for favored mini-churches on Sunday mornings of segregationalized children’s room, youth rooms, etc. If it isn’t working in your church, change it. Segregation is important for stage of life learning. A fifth grader has different questions about God than does an eleventh grader. A twelfth grader has questions that can’t necessarily be answered in “big church”.

2: Big = effective. Actually, big = more youth learning about Christ. It’s a big assumption of Marino’s that these big youth groups are completely program driven and thus less personal. Big = it once was small, but the environment/teaching/structure lent itself to kids actually inviting their friends to church; therefore it grew. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it may have grown BECAUSE it was so personal.

3. More programs attended = stronger disciples. More programs attended = more programs. Willow Creek’s Reveal study was an incredible read. But, the idea isn’t new. In fact, there’s a book called Simple Church by Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger that speaks to doing fewer things better and being intentional about Spiritual growth steps in the programs that you DO do. I agree that we should be looking at how much we’re doing and cutting back to be more focused and intentional in helping people grow in their spiritual walks.

4. Christian replacementism. Agreed! We’ve been followers over the past couple generations, rather than leaders in our culture. The churches that risk much, impact the community much and actually change the culture around them.

5. Cultural “relevance” over transformation. Why not have a cafe in a church and make the church a place where people want to ‘Hang out’, rather than just get in and get out as fast as possible? Environment is key to Big-box churches…they recognize that if they can make a youth room feel like a starbucks mixed with a bit of pool hall, mixed with a bit of concert venue, kids will beg to come there multiple times a week and want to invite their friends, and want to engage in relationships there, and want to have philosophical discussions about God there, and want to do their homework there, and will want to use it as their home base to serve their community. Would that be said the same of a cold room with plastic chairs and a linoleum floor with no personality?

6. Professionalization. In the mega-churches I’ve been a member, that is the exact opposite of what is taught day in a day out. It is a mantra that the church is a place to equip lay people to be ministers in their family lives, with their friends, and with their co-workers, etc. The pastor’s job is to teach in a way that engages all people into furthering their relationship with Christ and to teach the congregation on what it means to share their faith with others.

7. McDonald’s-ization: Agreed…many church leaders seek what is easiest, rather than what is best for their congregations. We live in a time where we “borrow” from others, rather than take the time to understand and evaluate who we are and where God is calling us to go. It is ok to research what has worked in other congregations to connect people to others and how transformation has taken shape in their spiritual formation paths, but to copy and paste outright is wrong.

8. Attractional over missional. People are attracted to mission. So, if your church is all about mission and serving others, rather than being the best country club in town, most likely, the church will grow. A church that is attractional in the sense of having set designs, an incredible praise band, and light shows isn’t bad…that is a comfortable style of worship for many people. But, that style can’t be lumped in to being called attractional… Gothic architecture of grand Cathedrals is attractional; intented to create a sense of awe and reverence. Our church worship styles should all point to God and point the way to loving one another, as God has called us to do. To assume that a different worship style relegates God to the periphery is a dangerous generalization which contributes to the gap of traditional churches from their non-denominational sister churches in the Body of Christ.

I believe the bigger question here is “are we distracted from learning from one another in a digital age and from reaching the Sight and Sound Generation with the love of Christ?” How do we challenge how we programmatically create ministries designed to grow our congregations spiritually? When do we stop pointing fingers at Big churches as being out of touch or ineffective in connecting God with their communities and start learning from one another?

I think young people have been privy to the ugliness of politics in the church in the past generation and scandals in churches left and right; and this fact has led to the disillusionment of young people to organized religion. We see through the corruption of health and wealth pastors, we see through the political propaganda of Focus on the Family, and we see through the intolerance that many so-called Christians use to exclude others all in the name of Christ. I believe THIS is what has led to the absence of young adults in churches, not for the reasons listed in “what’s so uncool about cool churches?”

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Carl Badgley

as a former youth pastor i agree fundamentally with the ghettoization of youth within many church cultures.

at the same time, there are reasons for why many of these practices began. for instance, there is a purpose for youth sundays, and that is simply to give youth a moment when they are empowered to show that they can lead, can minister, that they do have something valuable enough to offer the broader community. something that does not consist in simply offering a pancake meal on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

this does not mean that these practices should not be changed, altered, or even removed at this point. it does mean we should pause a moment to see why they were instituted in the first place.

secondly, i agree that turning churches in to their secular equivalents is a wrong turn. if i want a coffee house, then i'm going to go to a coffee house, not a coffee house with a worship service.

however, there are commonly shared human needs and values expressed in a variety of social outlets. just because one shares a light breakfast in the foyer talking with other members and carrying on socially does not mean that the 'holy' has somehow evaporated out of church life.

your point on 'professionalization' puzzles me, however. i cannot remember in any of my reading where this has not been a problem. either in more liturgical, more evangelical, or other traditions within christianity. even the pauline letter to the ephesians may be making an off handed response to this in chapter 4 where the various gifted ministers are said to be there for the equipping of the whole body to do the work of the ministry.

blaming this on current youth ministry or culture within the church seems misleading at best.

which brings me to my final criticism here. again, i agree that the church trying to be 'cool' is fundamentally a mistake, for many reasons that aren't even theological. however, as you point out, using the term contextualization, let's not mistake incarational moments with relevance. there is a time and a place to be a 16 year old from the high school down the street. and to ask them to be anything other than that is to refuse the real incarnational moment that is being offered.

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Rob Huttmeyer

To take this theme a little further, Thomas Bergler in The Juvenilization of American Christianity writes how the changes in youth ministry has essentially become the norm for American Christianity.

However, this is not exactly new news. The problem is not so much with many in youth ministry but in parishes in which this is what youth ministry is thought to look like. Essentially youth ministers are now charged with killing the monster they created.

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Adam Wood

Thank you!

And it pains me to see the small and medium sized parishes (most parishes) are aspiring to this model in a desperate attempt at growth.

Separating young children from worship turns into separating teenagers. Separating teenagers leads to teenagers separating themselves when they grow up. What exactly do we think is going to bind people to a tradition they never actually had a chance to experience?

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