The Youth Church Experiment: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Youth Church can be driven by cheese, polished with hero-worship, beached on consumerism, flooded with inappropriate age groups or simply swallowed – Jonah style – by so many One Direction puns that the best thing to do is vomit it up on some desert shore in the vain hope of finding some real mission to do!

However, Youth Services can also drive a dying church back into relevancy, bring ship-wrecked souls back to dry land and provide a community rich in authenticity and deep in missional effectiveness.

If you’ve spent any time thinking about Youth Work, odds are you’ve thought about Youth Church before; whether to run one, why not to run one or how it fits with ‘regular’ church. I don’t think I’ve ever met a youth leader who doesn’t have a strong opinion on the Youth Church or some experience of either its stunning success or devastating failure.

I’ve run and been part of several Youth Churches and Services over the last fifteen years and I’ve changed my opinions on them more times than I change my socks.

What I hope to present here is a wee snapshot of where I’ve come out. What is it, what are the pitfalls and the ways – I hope – to to it properly!

I do not hold the only relevant opinion – please feel free to comment, share, poke and be part of the conversation.

What Is Youth Church?

Let’s start with the basics – Youth Church covers a spectrum of gatherings from a basic, semi-regular, alternative service for a specific young age group, through to teenage driven Churches complete with sacraments, pastors and a solid organization structure.

They often cross-pollinate elements of youth clubs with church services and they might add bits (like prayer stations) from alternative and emerging worship gatherings.

This makes youth services nearly as varied as the regular services they emulate. In most Youth Church services, however you will probably find things like crowd games, modern band-led music, a talk of sorts, some kind of response and maybe food. There should always be food… always!

A Wee Bit Of History

Youth Church is nothing new. Before the Sunday School Movement led by Robert Raikes (incidentally the great granddaddy of my Greek lecturer!) in 1780, Children up to age twenty-five met regularly together for teaching and worship in ‘Children’s Church’ across the UK. Raikes effectively split this into smaller, age-specific classes and divided the well oiled team of adults up to all become teachers (regardless of gifting) – which is why today we have to spend hours fussing with rotas and driving square pegs into round holes. Grr.

Youth Services enjoyed a brief comeback during the 1940’s particularly through the Billy Graham rallies, then they came back with a vengeance in the 1960s when mainline denominations started to accept developing Pentecostal values into their gatherings. New Wine’s 1993 brainchild ‘Soul Survivor’ has added something of a standard or template for many Youth Gathering’s today.

Youth Church today is often at the heart of thriving Youth Ministries and, done successfully, can be the defibrillator to the dying heart of a church!

So What’s The Problem

There are two:

First, they are often responsible for splitting a church, sinking a ministry and creating a generation of bottle-feeding Christians.

Second, they create deeper layers of segregation in the Church which is simply not a Biblical practice.

Let’s look at both of these in a wee bit of detail:

Note. I’m using the word ‘often’ below to show the potential danger zones and not to categorize all Youth Church projects. Hopefully, if you read beyond the problems section you’ll find out how massively in favor I am of Youth Church and how it can be used to great effect! 😀

First

A classic scenario in the UK is this: a church hires a very likeable, charismatic young and often generic Youth Leader. They pump money into his budget and don’t keep his work accountable. Said Youth Leader starts three things: an open youth club, a big show-based event and some kind of Youth Church.

After 2 years the youth work is ‘thriving’ but then the youth leader gets a better offer and moves on. The youth club implodes (or more likely explodes) because the volunteers can’t handle it. The event stops being popular because it was all based around that one person. Finally, the Youth Church now has no feeding or missional structure and so slowly breaks down too, leaving the church with less than it started with.

This highlights the first part of this issue: Youth Church is often dependent on immature ministries.

It’s quite hard to create the critical mass of people needed for a Youth Service from scratch or from the average sized UK youth group. This usually means you need feeder programs like open youth groups or big one-off events. These can provide a quick number boost but usually under the enormous strain of both leaders and budgets. More importantly though these programs tend to be incredibly leader-centric and skip the important stages of discipleship, service and the youth integrating with the wider church (*see endnote).

These programs often create a whole youth work world that is totally isolated from the church. They then suck the resources from the church until dry – and in the worst cases effectively leave the church altogether. I’ve seen two Youth Churches split from their church and try to sustain themselves as Church plants – both inevitably failed and left everyone worse off.

I just hinted at the second part of the issue: Youth Church often bleeds leaders and churches dry.

Even in the less extreme cases than our scenario above, Youth Services still tend to only have a minimal resemblance of the church they are a part of. As such they either leech its resources or – even more unhealthily – try to push on without the needed support. This chews people up and spits them out.

I developed a Youth Service like this and for three years was run by three amazing but very, very tired people. Of course they all quit and now it looks nothing like it did!

The young people start to develop their idea of Christianity, Church and Jesus based on that single styled consumerist experience.

The more pressing issue off the back of this though is what kind of Young People does this create?

So the final part of the first issue: Youth Church often develops highly Youth Church-dependent Young People.

Youth Churches often fall into two categories; youth led and adult led. The former with the right supervision are generally the better of the two, however in both cases they are churches designed solely to serve those within them.

The music, style, games – everything – is aimed at young people. It’s aimed to reach and serve them where they are at which – if done in isolation, like Youth Church often is- develops an incredibly consumerist experience.

The young people start to develop their idea of Christianity, Church and Jesus based on that single styled consumerist experience. When they meet something that doesn’t fit that experience, or more likely when they outgrow it, they ditch it.

Without regularly mixing young people with the whole body, learning to integrate with the family, instilling a sense of community belonging and service, and creating a healthy youth community within that – young believers won’t grow into whole believers.

Second

Church in the Bible refers to the body of believers both globally and locally and, although we do see people-specific gatherings we do not see people-specific churches.

Some groups go the whole hog and say that all youth work should be disbanded because of this. A couple of years ago a bunch of Christian film makers created the documentary, “Divided: Is Age-Segregated Ministry Multiplying or Dividing The Church?”

I don’t go that far, but I do think they are on to something really significant – you simply don’t find any model of Youth Church in the Bible.

What you do find is a gathering of young people in the Disciples. You find mentoring of young people through Eli and Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy etc. You also find significant young people used by God throughout every stage of salvation history for instance David, Josiah, Esther and Mary. This forms our Biblical foundations for youth work.

Its not an argument from silence however; the Bible is clear on what a church should be which contradicts a youth-only congregation.

When it comes to church it’s definitely a family affair. Every member serves the others in community to both reflect the nature of God and reach out to the word beyond. When you start segregating parts of the church you are effectively doing extreme amputation surgery which, according to 1 Corinthians 12, we’re all going to feel!

We like to paraphrase verses like Matthew 18:20 as ‘when two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name – that’s church.’ Not only does this drastically misinterpret the verse but it totally removes it from it’s context which is about loosing a brother to sin. Church is the body of believers, varied and unified. Without both unity and diversity you don’t have a church you just have a club.

Because a church necessitates variety and diversity I do believe its helpful to have specific teaching and discipleship groups and programs – but these generally should not separate to form whole congregations apart from the body, and like all separated covenants in the Bible, should only do so in order to be reconciled. Churches and Parents have the primary responsibility to raise young people – not Youth Programs.

So Is The Youth Church Lost?

No. Now that we have the bumpers up, let’s throw the ball and hit some pins! There are some specific ways that the Youth Church can be a healthy part of Church as a whole. Let’s look at some:

Youth Church As Supplement

When not replacing regular church, Youth Services can provide a very helpful place for young people to explore their faith and worship in relevant and safe ways that whole congregations just cannot cater for.

I currently run a small Youth Church-styled gathering of about twenty – thirty young people from eight or nine different churches. We meet to supplement what is happening in their churches in a relevant way while providing a community of young people that no one of those churches could on its own.

We meet outside of service times, know all of their pastors and work hard to find out if each young person is being integrated as part of their home church.

Youth Church As Transition


For many young people they love Jesus but the church is totally alien to them.

Youth Church can provide a safe place to sample and talk about church activities and elements without the sometimes overwhelming pressure of it.

Youth Church As Place Holder

Sometimes the tragedy is that the only church available to a young person is drastically inappropriate for them. Youth Church can provide an environment to grow as a Christian while the local church trains and develops who they are to be more approachable to young people.

For this to work you need a realistic idea about growth, a personal active involvement and voice in that church for the young people to be in a serving relationship with.

Youth Church As Reconciliation

I meet so many young people that have been so burned by church that they have all but given up on it – however they may stick with Youth Church for a while.

Done well and sensitively this can provide a space for healing and hopefully restored faith in church as a whole.

Youth Church As Training Ground

Unfortunately – and much to my continued displeasure – many if not most ministries and jobs inside regular church services are inaccessible for young people. Youth Church can be a safe and accessible place to develop skills and gifts and to learn to serve.

All Youth Churches I have worked with have had young people on planning teams, in bands, running games, driving publicity and occasionally doing talks. Youth Churches also allow you to run young people specific local missions.

Youth Church As Culture Yardstick

Odd thing to say perhaps, however Churches should he ahead of and driving culture not a generation behind it.

Youth Church is a great place to develop culturally relevant material and styles which can through healthy integration be bought into the church as a whole.

Youth Church As Worship Developer

Similar to culture yardstick, Youth Church is often made up of ready-to-try-anything young people who can gauge, test and try new worship songs, prayer methods, service elements and styles of approaching God.

These can then be sensitively shared with the church as a whole.

Youth Church As Community Hub

A healthy collection of youth projects needs a place of general overlap. A Youth Church is a great place to bridge gaps between evangelistic and discipleship programs.

Often you can fill the space with community-driven activity and ideas that reflect a Biblical view of church but doesn’t make anybody too uncomfortable.

Youth Church As Match-Maker

A random one to end with but my current youth group is going through the pains of relationships and love triangles at the moment. *sigh.*

Youth Church not only provides a good sampling of potential Christian partners, but also an open and social place of Christian accountability for those blossoming relationships.

Conclusion Type-Esq Thoughts

Having sat for the last three hours writing this in the midst of being off work with a relativity nasty virus I’m not entirely sure how it will come across! However over my last fifteen years I’ve been involved with many Youth Churches and Youth Services and have seen and made some tremendous errors!

However I’m not a baby-and-bathwater person and I would love to see the Youth Church thrive and help drive the church into growing health.

Does every youth program need one? No! Should every church have one? Definitely not – but if you do, seek God and seek whole church health through it. Be in it for the long haul and let the youth programs you already have drive it rather than trying to use it as a youth work kickstart.

Have fun. Love young people. Love Jesus. Love Church.

 

* I am in favor of both open youth groups and one-off events however in the UK I believe these should generally be shared ecumenically and often with the help of dedicated charities like YFC or Urban Saints. This spreads the load and allows more intentional followup through a variety of churches.

Slow Club, Mark Yaconelli

Mark is the son of my youth work hero, Mike Yaconelli, and in many ways he is just as epic. His passion is to bring interested adults into the lives of young people who know how to ‘be’ with God, ‘be’ with themselves and ‘be’ with teenagers.

This wee clip shares with us some encouragement to s l o w d o w n and see the gifts that God has laid out for us.