Does Your Church Look Down on Youth?
Mary Jones was born in Wales in 1784 and came to know the Lord at the age of 8. Her family did not own a Bible, and the nearest one was over 2 miles away. She had such a hunger to study God’s Word that she saved up for years, and it wasn’t until she was sixteen that she had enough money to buy one. The only problem was that the closest place to buy Bibles was twenty-five miles away. She made the walk, often taking off her shoes and going barefoot so she could spare the soles of her shoes. When she arrived at the store, there was only one Bible left, but it was already promised to someone else. However, when Rev. Thomas Charles heard her story, he sold her the Bible. Mary Jones’ passion and hunger to have her own copy of God’s Word inspired Rev. Charles and prompted him to form a society to provide Bibles to the people of Wales—it became known as the British and Foreign Bible Society. Teenagers like Mary have been making an impact for the Lord throughout history by simply living for Christ with zeal and passion. I am afraid, though, that many churches in America discount the contributions teenagers can make to the cause of Christ.
When we offer students mostly games instead of solid Bible teaching, when we do not equip them and give them opportunities to serve the church, or when we treat them like big kids instead of young adults, we are telling them – whether we realize it or not – that it’s not their time yet.
Essentially, we try to entertain them instead of equipping them to be workmen who can correctly handle the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Paul told Timothy, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe,” (1 Tim. 4:12). I have wondered sometimes if the way we teach and train teenagers in the church is actually a way of “looking down on them.” Are we selling them short and putting the bar too low?
A story in USA Today proclaimed, “‘Bye-bye church. We’re busy.’ That’s the message teens are giving churches today. Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity—prayer, Bible reading and going to church—lag as well.” If we are in fact losing our teenagers, maybe it is time to start asking some questions about the way we are doing youth ministry.
Where’s the Beef?
A few years ago, Wendy’s came out with a commercial in which an older lady went around to fast food establishments asking, “Where’s the beef?” The slogan would make a great T-shirt for teens to wear to youth services, church services, and small groups Bible studies! Many youth are hungry for God’s Word like Mary Jones, but are we giving them strong biblical content (beef) in our messages? Or, are they only getting milk and not solid food (see Heb. 5:11-14)?
Southwestern Seminary hosts a Youth Ministry Lab every spring, during which all the teenagers attend a “Lions’ Den” where they can ask any question they want of our President. I am always so impressed by the types of questions the students ask about the Bible and their faith. The questions demonstrate in many cases a depth of faith that convinces me that age is not necessarily a prerequisite for spiritual maturity.
In our churches, we must make sure that we are teaching our youth in such a way that they are equipped to deal with difficult questions.
Make no mistake, when they leave us and go to college or out into the workplace, people will ask them tough questions about their faith. Some students crumble under this scrutiny because they have not been given a foundation for their faith or the necessary tools in order to search the scriptures for themselves.
David Kinnaman, director of research at The Barna Group, said, “Much of ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul—not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond highschool. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation.” Things must change.
Who are the Influencers?
Paul told the Thessalonians, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thess. 2:7b-8). There is no more perfect picture of what ministry looks like than people sharing the gospel and their lives with one another. However, you must be careful about who you allow to “share life” with your students.
In some cases the church has become so desperate for volunteers that we allow anyone who signs up to be in a position of influence over our students. Just because a person is willing, does not mean that he is the right person to help.
Lifeway Research has found that one factor contributing to teenagers remaining engaged in a church after highschool is that five or more adults made a significant investment in their lives, personally and spiritually. It should not be surprising because the Bible emphasizes the importance of older men and women in the faith investing in those younger than they (Titus 2:1-8). Just as Titus 2 gives guidelines for spiritual mentors, the church today should do no less. I believe it would be better to have fewer teachers than to have teachers who do not model authentic faith and demonstrate sound judgment in front of the youth.
When we do not have standards for people who are allowed some influence over our students, we communicate a subtle message to the students that it is not important for them to have standards. When we spend most of our teaching time trying to tell funny, entertaining stories or teach simple, surface lessons, we communicate that it is not important for the students to dig deep into Scripture. And when this happens, we are in essence “looking down on our youth.”
I am so thankful that the adults in my church did not have a low view of teenagers! When I got saved as a freshman in highschool, these adults played a huge role in discipling me in the faith so that it truly became my faith. They taught me to dig into God’s Word regularly and gave me many opportunities to serve in the church (other than just serving snacks once a year at Vacation Bible School—the only time many churches allow students to serve!). For four years, I was fed a steady diet of God’s Word through my pastor, youth pastors, and small group leaders. When I got to college and had teachers that ridiculed Christianity, I knew how to answer them graciously and with maturity because this is what had been modeled to me. The churches need adults who will not water down the message nor lower the expectations for our youth.
 For the account of this story, see Diana Severance’s book Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History (Geanies House, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2011), 230.
 Cathy Lynn Grossman and Stephanie Steinberg, “Teens getting less involved in church groups, research shows,” USA Today (August 11, 2010), 4D.