PET VI: Youth Ministry

Problems in Ecclesiology Today VI: Youth Ministry and the Problem of Relevancy

When does a church go too far to be relevant?

The New York Times headline said it all: “Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Game at Church.” The article was about the use of games like Halo 3 to bring youth to church. And thus the irony: “First the percussive sounds of sniper fire and the thrill of the kill. Then the gospel of peace.” The question, as the article points out, is just how far churches should go to reach young people, particular young boys.

The problems with Halo abound. The game is rated M, so no one under 17 is allowed to purchase the game. Yet churches host Halo parties for children who are well under age. This, of course, is a huge draw for young kids, but the churches are circumventing the law in doing so. But what price to churches pay when they attempt to meld the proclamation and worship of a man who suffered and died at the hands of violent men with a game in which you are rewarded for being a violent man? Or, as the article puts it, how can you possibly blend a message of peace with a game that openly rejects peace—a game whose motto is, in fact, “thou shalt kill”? The Times article puts this dilemma brilliantly:
But the question arises: What price to appear relevant? Some parents, religious ethicists and pastors say that Halo may succeed at attracting youths, but that it could have a corroding influence. In providing Halo, churches are permitting access to adult-themed material that young people cannot buy on their own.

“If you want to connect with young teenage boys and drag them into church, free alcohol and pornographic movies would do it,” said James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a nonprofit group that assesses denominational policies. “My own take is you can do better than that.”
Tonkowich hits the proverbial nail right on the head. If a church wants to be relevant to teenage boys, there are plenty of other ways, including handing out pornography and offering beer-on-tap. You could throw in condoms and cigarettes and call it a night. But this raises an important questions: Why Halo 3? Why are exceedingly violent video games par for the course, but bare breasts on a piece of paper completely out of the question? One could easily argue that the video games are the more harmful of the two. All of this leads us back to the same basic problem with American Christianity: we are prudes about sex, but connoisseurs of violence. Americans love their violent blockbusters, but if we see some flesh on screen, parents freak out and churches boycott. (This is the issue raised by the fascinating documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated.)

There are really two issues at stake in this story: (1) how far is too far in the attempt to be “relevant,” and (2) why are churches comfortable with violence but not with sexuality? Both issues are not limited to youth groups, but run throughout American Christianity as a whole. The first question, though, is the one that concerns me the most. The attempt to be “relevant” is, in my opinion, the reason why American churches are dying from the inside-out. Churches struggling with attendance and membership seem to think that accommodating to current cultural norms will increase their popularity (as if this is something Christ called us to worry about). But the opposite is the case. The more churches compromise, the more they lose their witness as “salt and light.”

Of course, this does not mean churches need to be pietistic in their moral values. What it means is that we need to be conscientious about how we engage popular culture. We need to watch and discuss popular films, not simply endorse or condemn them based on what material they contain. We need to listen attentively to contemporary music, not reject it simply because of the language or subject matter or cultural unfamiliarity. We need to understand why Halo is the best-selling video game of all time and talk about it, without simply capitulating to these market trends and then using them for selfish gain.

Finally, we need to radically rethink the nature of evangelism in general. The following statement from the article reflects what I think is a general conviction:
Once they come for the games, Gregg Barbour, the youth minister of the church said, they will stay for his Christian message. “We want to make it hard for teenagers to go to hell,” Mr. Barbour wrote in a letter to parents at the church.
This is a grossly reductionistic mentality which views church simply as a safety net or hospital for people who are otherwise on the slippery slope to hell, rather than as a community of discipleship and mission shaping people into faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Evangelism is not about “fire insurance,” and youth group is not about keeping teens out of hell. The gospel is not about “getting into heaven.” We preach the gospel because we are on a journey of discipleship and sanctification, a process of being conformed into the image of Christ through the power of the Spirit. Evangelism is about mission, not simply conversion. Ministry is about discipleship, not “fire insurance.” Church is about faithfulness to Jesus Christ, not about numbers or gimmicks or relevancy. In order to stop the current bleeding in the church today, we need to learn this anew.


Dustin said…
I thought your analysis was spot on. The American Church, specifically of the evangelical persuasion, is sorely lacking in in-depth analysis of methodology and the "tools" used for evangelism. In fact, it becomes easier and easier to see how the evangelical church could be on the road to handing out cigarettes and alcohol simply as a means to get kids in the door.

What happened to drawing kids to the message (not necessarily a static location) of Jesus through the unconditional love and acceptance exhibited by his followers? In my humble opinion, teens are crying out, in large numbers, for more of that rather than more of what they already have at home.

And in the end, what are you left with once the "coolness" wears off--lots of video games and no one to play them.
This was a kick-ass . . . er, a well-written post, David. Having been a video-game addict during my most isolated and lonely moments as a teen, I think it would be great if churches could build community through gaming. But that community cannot be grounded in an activity over against Christ and (as you said) mission. Kids need to know that Halo 3 is just a game. Master Chief is not the Lord. If God loves us as we are, we no longer need an avatar in some virtual good vs. bad world. In fact, it figures that the world so many kids crave would be a violent one.
Bryan L said…
D.W. have you ever done you ministry? Have you been a youth pastor or a youth leader?

Bryan L
Tia said…
Wonderful post.

As a past member of an Evangelical Youth group, I have raised many of these concerns to my Youth Pastor, who then quoted a verse from Nehemiah, "I am doing a great work and cannot come down." Talk about frustrating...

Oh, let's not teach these students good theology. Let's not worry about teaching them about what it means to be a part of God's Kingdom. Let's get them to church and preach a watered down gospel and then let them play video games, watch chick flicks and so on.

THEN when they get to college, let's complain about the fact that less than half of them remain involved in a church.

oh, what a great strategy.

And people wonder why I have so many problems with my church back home.

Yes, my wife and I have both been involved in youth ministry for quite some time. She and I were youth ministers at our old church in Portland, OR for 3+ years. When we came to Princeton, we were in charge of the youth/English language ministry at a Korean-American church in downtown Philly for about six months. And I have been a pastoral intern at my current church for over a year now. And of course I was very much involved as a youth leader during my high school years.

So I write as someone who has at least some experience. I also write as a theologian for the church and an evangelical deeply concerned about American Protestantism's future.
Bryan L said…
I only asked if you were in youth ministry because often there seems to be a large difference in how people think youth ministry should work theoretically and how those theories actually work out practically. I often hear people talk about how youth ministry should be done and if we just do this or that teenagers will respond to the gospel in amazing ways, and they sound like they have no idea what teenagers are like. They think teenagers are just itching to learn deep theology and really study the Bible (I'm not talking about that one kid who actually was like this when they were in youth ministry and complains now about how shallow his youth group was and has gone on to seminary now.)

So if you don't mind would yu share a little more about your youth ministry experience?

How did you run the youth ministry when you were a youth minister (for example was it on a separate night or did you do it during the Sunday service? Did you play games? How long were your sermons? Did you have worship? Was it a large group or a smaller group? Inner city or suburban? What else did you do?) Did you feel like you made a significant impact? What caused you to no longer be in youth ministry? Any regrets? Any accomplishments you are proud of?

Bryan L
Halden said…
Bryan, how does probing the depths of David's youth ministry experience pertain to the validity of the overall point he's making about the general problems in youth minstries today? Does someone need to have X number of years of deep youth ministry experience to legitimately obeserver that it's absurd for youth leaders to be sponsering video gaming sessions involving highly violent video games? Does someone need to have an expert level of participation and experience in something to make a moral statment about it? By this logic I would have to have been through a divorce to say whether or not divorce is wrong.

Frankly, I find your condescending tone both annoying and unhelpful. David is making a very legitimate point about some problems in many youth ministries today. Rather than just trying to undermine him by looking for a loophole in whatever it is that will make him credible to you, why don't you actually engage his post if you do, in fact disagree with him.

I just don't have time to answer all of your questions. They would require a full-length ministry report. Frankly, with Halden, I think this is rather irrelevant. It's like asking me whether I've actually seen pornography in response to an argument I might make against it. Whether I have or not isn't the point, and one's experience is not determinative of what one's conclusions ought to be.

Your comments seems to beg the question. It assumes that while theory may be all well and good, in practice things change; and therefore when it comes to ministry we are concerned with praxis, with lived reality, not with theory and how things ought to be. It's rather like Niebuhr's argument for political "realism" -- this is how things actually are. (The assumption is that, therefore, nothing else really matters.)

Seriously, though, my point is this: the gospel is infinitely inexhaustible and always exciting. We don't need PowerPoint slides, slick videos, electric guitars, and video games in order to make the gospel appealing. This is a dead-end which will always lead to churches that are all form and no substance. And as I said in my post, this is not a problem limited to youth groups. I see this first and foremost in contemporary churches all over America. I think the whole "emergent" movement is deeply implicated in this problem. The use of modern technology is fraught with the same danger: is this benefiting the gospel, or is it a tool to entice people into coming to church? Are we using this to proclaim the good news, are we using this to be "seeker-friendly"?
Bryan L said…

Since you wonder, I asked my questions because I see a lot of people complain about youth ministry. Fair enough I don’t even believe it’s a valid or needed ministry in the church (well at least not in most churches and not in the capacity it is). But often those people who complain about how youth ministry is run have never even done it. They have all these ideas about how it should be run and what would makes a good youth group. And they go around telling people what they shouldn’t be doing and complaining how they get teenagers into the doors (comparing video games to alcohol and pornography!), and telling them they shouldn’t need that because the gospel is so exciting and it sells itself. And in the end they don’t actually give youth pastors any real help and probably help make their ministries worse than they were before. All this does is bring condemnation on youth pastors. This is phariseeism, putting heavy burdens on people and not lifting a finger to help them. Now apparently D.W. is not one of those no experience in youth ministry people. He actually did it for 3+ years and still ministers to youth. Awesome. So then came my next questions about his experience. I want to know what a thriving youth ministry must look like since D.W. obviously has strong ideas about this stuff, what does a youth ministry look like that D.W. runs. Were kids knocking down the doors to get in and hear the gospel or were they sitting around bored because their parents made them come? Sorry for wondering this.

“Frankly, I find your condescending tone both annoying and unhelpful.”
I’m condescending? I’m unhelpful? D.W. starts complaining about youth ministries which are his 6th “pet” and I’m being condescending and unhelpful and have an annoying tone? What then are y’all doing? Are y’all innocent saints or something? I’m the one trying to have an actual conversation here. I’m the one getting blasted and assumed the worst in my motives.

“David is making a very legitimate point about some problems in many youth ministries today. Rather than just trying to undermine him by looking for a loophole in whatever it is that will make him credible to you, why don't you actually engage his post if you do, in fact disagree with him.”

I agree it is a helpful point and I am trying to engage the post. Notice I didn’t say that he was wrong in his assessment of Halo 3 being used in youth ministry. I just wanted to know if he had experience in youth ministry and if so what his experience was like. Your comparison to having to have been divorced to know it’s wrong is ridiculous and I don’t know why you would even use it. A better example would be people who have never been married giving married people advice or people who’ve never been divorced counseling divorcees on how to cope with divorce, or people who’ve never had kids and have never lost a child counseling parents who’ve lost a child how to deal with that loss. And in those situations yes you need to have been married or divorced or have lost a child to help people deal with those situations. Sorry it’s not a loophole it’s reality. Stop being so defensive.

Bryan L
Bryan L said…
You said,
“I just don't have time to answer all of your questions. They would require a full-length ministry report. Frankly, with Halden, I think this is rather irrelevant. It's like asking me whether I've actually seen pornography in response to an argument I might make against it. Whether I have or not isn't the point, and one's experience is not determinative of what one's conclusions ought to be.”

D.W. where did I ever say you were wrong in criticizing Halo 3? And why the need for comparison to pornography? Where do y’all come up with these analogies? Do you find them helpful? We haven’t even established that halo is a huge moral sin to play. Do you think Christians are sinning on the level of pornography when they play Halo 3?

My question is not irrelevant. My question has to do with the fact that you have strong opinions about Youth Ministry (calling it you 6th “pet”) and it sounds like you have ideas on what it should be like. Fine. Let us hear it. I’m even more interested since you were a youth minister for 3+ years and still work with young people.

You ended your last comment by saying "the gospel is infinitely inexhaustible and always exciting" and go on to say what we don’t need "PowerPoint slides, slick videos, electric guitars, and video games in order to make the gospel appealing." Great! Now what does it look like without those things just relying on the exciting gospel? What does a church look like that runs like D.W. wants it to run (without PowerPoint, guitars…)? That's why I was asking the Youth Ministry question which pissed y'all off so much. Since that is a place where you had an influence and could run it the way you wanted, what did it look like? What would a regular church look like that D.W. runs, not just in theory but in the real world?

You said, “And as I said in my post, this is not a problem limited to youth groups. I see this first and foremost in contemporary churches all over America.”

How many churches have you been in all over America? You must get around.

Look D.W. I’m not trying to piss y’all off or anything (although I obviously have which I apologize for). I’m just trying to have an honest conversation without any hype or big talk. I come across a lot of complaining about the church on the internet, especially theology blogs. But I almost never see solutions or anything that actually works practically. I just see a lot of theory and weighing people down with burdens they can’t carry. In the end all it is, is complaining. I’m hoping this is not the same thing. I’m hoping we can talk honestly about the pitfalls of youth ministry (and the larger church) as well as what some solutions are that will work in the real world. If all we do is criticize others for how they do ministry but we can’t offer anything better then we should stay quiet. If you want to talk about this then great, I’d love to. If you don’t and you think I’m just trying to trap you or you think what I’m talking about is irrelevant then fine I’ll move on and thank you for being straight with me. Please don’t assume the worst of my motives. I have a deep love for the church and want to see it be what Christ called it to be without all the gimmicks and marketing tricks.

Bryan L

Thanks for the response. I think we got off on the wrong foot. First, I'm not upset at you, not in the least. Second, I think your questions are good ones, but I just can't answer them at the moment. Third, I responded as I did, because I felt at the time that either your questions weren't relevant to my post or (and this is what I assumed) they were relevant in a way that I didn't like -- viz. the elevation of praxis over theory. But it seems like you fall into a different category: someone who just cares about the church and wants to talk about it. That's great. Let's keep that conversation going. I'm just not sure I have the ability to provide you with a full-scale description of my ideal ministry. Maybe I'll try to put that together sometime.

I think one of the major misunderstandings is with the title of my post. "PET" does not mean "pet"; it's an abbreviation for "Problems in Ecclesiology Today." I tried to make that clear by putting the title in bold. Sorry for the confusion. The point is that youth ministry is not a "pet" issue for me, and I certainly (!) do not claim any expertise in the field. I am a theologian, not a youth minister or pastor, though I've had experience in those fields.

Regarding my analogy with pornography, I think you read too much into that. The point was that I felt like your questions were probing my personal history when that wasn't relevant to deciding the issue. In the same way, it's not relevant whether a person has seen pornography in order to decide whether pornography is a problem. Does that make more sense?

By the way, I don't think Halo 3 is sinful or evil. But I do think it is deeply problematic for churches to endorse it, and infinitely worse for churches to use it as a tool for evangelism.

Along the same lines, I don't think churches/youth groups should get rid of PowerPoint, guitars, etc. The irony is that my wife and I put together the PowerPoints for our church and I play the bass guitar for worship (and have played for youth groups and churches since the sixth grade). My point was not that churches should get rid of these, but rather that they need to critically think through their use of popular technology and current trends/fads. We shouldn't just accept what is fashionable. I'm not trying to determine what churches should or should not use in their respective ministries. I just want pastors and leaders to think more carefully about how they engage popular culture.

I'm sorry if I sounded like I was "complaining." I'm really not. I care about the church and am involved in the work of the church. But I see problems that need to be addressed and I hope I can help people address them.
Halden said…
Bryan, despite your incredulity, yes, I do find it condescending and annoying when someone comes into a conversation without being willing to engage the topic under discussion and instead rattles off a litany of interrogations to determine if the other person is qualified to talk about the subject.

You wrongly interpret my analogy which is perfectly appropriate to the issue that David wrote about. He was making a moral statement about a particular practice. Whether or not he has a certian level of experience in a certain field doesn't preclude him from speaking about that. You don't have to have experience in youth ministry to question what youth ministers do. That's tantamount saying that you can't question whether or not the U.S. should go to war until you've been the President.

And as for the analogies you tossed out, you couldn't be more wrong about any of them. It's one thing to say that if I haven't gone through a divorce I won't be able to emphathize with divorcee's, but that's a far cry from saying that I absolutely couldn't speak intelligently and helpfully into such a situation. On your logic Jesus could never comfort a grieving mother and the Apostle Paul should never have given any sound marital advice. And all of that is beside the point because the question at hand has noting to do with how experiencing something gives you empathy that you would otherwise lack (no one is denying that), the question here is whether or not we can make moral statements freely and legitimately about situations we have not experienced first hand. It's absurd to say we can't as you seem to be doing. Do I have to have been the vicimt of a genocide to have a legitimate perspective on the morality of that situation? This is utter silliness and I'm really surprised you don't see it.
Bryan L said…
Thanks D.W. for the response. I was expecting the worse (and ready to pack up and move on) and was gladly proven wrong. I'm glad we are understanding each other a bit more. I was understanding your pet as in pet peeve. So I thought your pet peeve was youth ministry (which didn't seem too off to me since it has been one of my pet peeves in the past:-)

Anyway I was interested in your post being that I was a former youth pastor who often listened to a lot of the criticisms about youth ministry and didn’t see any help given (or the help was unrealistic and really didn’t work out practically). It was like people were always wanting to take things away from the youth ministers that worked at getting kids in (games, relevant topical preaching, youthy music...) and not giving them anything in place of those things, so they were just left with a bunch of bored kids listening to a theology lecture and singing hymns, and no wonder the youth group dwindled to a few faithful and parents were getting upset that their kids didn’t want to come.

I distinctly remember a time talking to my pastor who was the associate pastor at a large and very influential church in America for about 20 years. He had seen a number of youth pastors come to that church in those years and he described the 2 types of youth ministers that he saw: 1) the youth minister who is all about games, activities, entertainment and not too deep; and 2) the youth minister who is all about going deeper and getting serious with God and throws off all those "fun" things.
The first always had large groups but didn't go very deep and the 2nd group always had a smaller group of faithful but failed to bring in those who weren't real serious with God.

So what is a youth pastor supposed to do? Is it either one or the other - fun and games or serious deep Bible study? It seems like those kids that are serious about God are going to come no matter what. It's those who aren't serious with God who we close the door on when we throw out all the fun, games and entertainment and "relevant" things. Is it possible to have both? Is it possible to have a service that is more seeker friendly and opens the door to the seekers and then have something in addition for those who are ready and want to go deeper with God and get more serious? This is what Chap Clark describes as a funnel model in his book "Starting Right: Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry". I don’t know but it’s worth considering. It seems though like often I just here that it’s one or the other – all fun and games or always serious and deep. Why? My Christian walk is both along with a range of other things, not just one. Must church be completely one-dimensional?

Now about the Halo 3 thing I have some other thoughts on that but I’ll wait a bit before going into that or just do another post so that it doesn’t get lost in all of this.

Thanks again for your gracious response.

Bryan L
Bryan L said…
Whatever Halden. I don't even know what your talking about anymore. I think you're just interested in arguing instead of actually "being willing to engage the topic under discussion" and to tell the truth you're beginning to come off condescending and annoying. Please forgive me if I choose to just talk to D.W from here on out instead of debating with you something I'm not really interested in debating. Have a good one.

Bryan L
Halden said…
Bryan, I'm sorry if it's too difficult for you to understand what I'm talking about. I thought I was being rather clear, but I'll let the matter lie if you're not interested. I'm not trying to just be an ass or anything, all I've ever tried to say is that one need not have expertise in a certain field to have a moral perspective on things that go on in that field. But, as I said if you can't follwo what I'm talking about and aren't interested in further discussion, then ok. Again, I wasn't trying be a jerk, just seeking to make a point that was never acknowledged or engaged.
Erik said…

As a youth pastor I appreciate this post. The little bit I know you makes me willing to engage your insight and I'm certainly in agreement with you about using technology (or anything for that matter) to aid the gospel, rather than allowing the gospel to set the parameters and use PowerPoint (or what have you) to proclaim that gospel. If I could venture a guess for what irked Bryan (and me, for that matter) was the title of your post. You day say that it is a deeper problem in the church (which should be clear given the series title), but at first glance your title to this post seems to indict youth ministry, full stop. I actually think that youth ministry may be a way through which the church just might recover her counter-culturally calling to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Something happens in churches when young people give their lives to something. Change tends to follow (sometimes it leads to the Youth Pastor getting canned, but that's another topic). All this to say, I almost posted last night, but defensively. In fact, I agree with a lot of what you say, it's just that title seems to indict me as a youth pastor (and many more like me who I know would share your concerns ecclesiologically speaking). I appreciate the post, I guess just not the title. Thanks for making us think, even us "relevance-seeking" youth pastors. :-)
Erik said…
By the way, if you're curious (anyone) to see a real, live breathing youth pastor engage some the issues and questions David raises, I'm hoping to start a series on my blog entitled "A Missional Theology for Youth Ministry." Check in out (starting this week...I sound like an advertisement)

Hmm, I didn't realize the title was off-putting. The title isn't meant to say that youth ministry is a problem. Youth ministry is simply the subject matter or occasion for my investigation of a current problem in the church today. In other words, the title indicates the topic, not the thesis. I'm sorry if this caused confusion.
That said, I don't think Bryan's issue was with the title. If anything, it sounds as if Bryan is actually frustrated with the very idea of youth ministry (at least how it is currently practiced), which means that my title couldn't have been that off-putting. But maybe I read him wrong.
Bryan L said…
Yes Halden, I just find what you're saying too difficult and I can't follow it. Halden, do you even consider how what you write will sound to others before you post it?

Halden, what I'm finding confusing about you is that you seem to not even be reading what I'm saying. D.W. is, but you keep focusing on this side issue and then you accuse me of not wanting to engage the topic. The topic has been engaged and we’re discussing it. It's like we've moved on and we were able to see our misunderstanding and start having a discussion but you keep focusing on whether I think playing Halo 3 is a sin in youth ministry and whether people who’ve never been in youth ministry can look at something being done in youth ministry and say that it is morally wrong. But I’m not discussing that and never have. I’ve never been in Women’s ministry but if I were to find out some women’s ministries were using sex to raise funds for the church I could easily say it’s wrong. So yes I believe you can comment on a whether a practice is moral or not in a field, which you are not an expert in.

You said, "one need not have expertise in a certain field to have a moral perspective on things that go on in that field."

I agree. What I’m talking about is when people who have no experience in a field go and tell others who are actually working in that field how they should do things. They say you shouldn’t do this (and it’s things that are not morally wrong) and you should do this instead. But really what do they know? Sure they can give their opinions on how it should be done but unless they’ve actually been in youth ministry their words carry little weight and it’s just their opinion, which everybody has and I’m not really interested in listening to.

This is where my analogies came from. For example I talked about married people. Halden are you married? Would you want someone who is not married telling you and your wife how y’all should act in your marriage (beyond the obvious moral issues, don’t hit your wife, don’t sleep around…). Do you have kids? Would you want someone telling you how to raise kids and how to discipline them if they’ve never even had kids? Have you ever lost a child or maybe even a sibling? One thing you’ll notice about people who have is that although you can be around them and empathize with them and try to comfort them and talk with them about what they’re feeling (which they will appreciate) ultimately they look to those who’ve gone through the same experience and they listen to them for advice on how to get through it. I would never try to tell one of those people how they should feel or what they should think or how they should act or what will get them through their pain (beyond generalities) since I have no idea. I would just be like one of Jobs friends yapping his mouth about something he knows nothing about. I pointed to divorcees. Have you ever been divorced? Would you want someone who’s never even been married counseling you on how to get through a divorce and how to move on with your life or even how to be reconciled with your ex-spouse?

Halden, do you see where I’m going with this? How this relates to my point about youth ministry is that there are a lot of people who like to complain about how youth pastors run their youth ministries and the things they use to get kids into the doors and some of the activities they have while they are there. They want youth pastors to be completely serious and deep and model the perfect church community in their youth group. And these people have never even been in youth ministry. They’ve never worked with teenagers but they have all these opinion on how it should be done (again we’re not talking about them commenting on whether a practice in that youth group is morally wrong). So if I run across someone who is complaining about youth ministry and thinks they know how it should be run, is it relevant for me to find out if they’ve ever even been in youth ministry? Yea I think so. You may disagree. If so maybe you can tell me why you disagree.

On the flip side you have people who have opinions on how things should be done in a particular field that they’ve been in, yet they weren’t successful in that field. Would you go to a marriage counselor who has been divorced 4 times? Would you go to a family counselor who is estranged from his family? Would you go to a substance abuse counselor who is addicted to crack? I’ve been a youth pastor but I would never think of speaking at a youth pastor’s convention giving advice on how to be a better youth pastor and have a better youth ministry. I might tell someone who was just starting out in youth ministry the things that I did that worked and didn’t work but I wouldn’t act like I know exactly how a youth ministry should be run and criticize everything they do that I don’t necessarily agree with.

Do you see where I’m coming from Halden? Maybe you disagree with everything I’m saying. Fine let me know why. And from here on out let’s try to model the gospel of peace in our dialog or all of our words on that will ring hollow as well.

Bryan L
Bryan L said…
At first your title was off putting because I misunderstood it.

I guess what I'm frustrated with is I run across a lot of criticism of youth pastors on the internet. And these critics paint these youth pastors with these broad strokes and often assume the worst of youth pastors. They tear apart and criticize everything a youth pastor does. They want to take away every tool and resource that he uses to minister to teenagers and get them through the door and they don’t give him anything else to use but a pep talk. They accuse him of seeking to be relevant at the cost of the gospel. They accuse youth pastors of immaturity and call youth ministry a stepping-stone. I can go on and on.

And these youth pastors that are being criticized and torn apart have given their lives to a very difficult ministry that is often very unrewarding. They are working with probably the hardest group in the church, are often not paid and have very little resources or training. They hear complaints all the time from parents and often more criticism from the church than encouragement. They pour their lives in to these young people who often still go off into the world in their senior year of high school and in college. They pour their lives into these teenagers trying to teach and show them the gospel and then they still go off and do whatever they want and then we turn around and put all the blame on the youth pastor for what the teenagers decide to do with their life. We blame them for failing at a ministry that most of us don't even want to do. We won't even lift a finger to help them or take time out to pray for them and then we look down on them for failing or for trying things that will just keep a few extra kids coming every week. I run across this a lot and I think it is wrong.

And your right I am "frustrated with the very idea of youth ministry (at least how it is currently practiced)". I think by its very design it's flawed. We put a whole lot of burden on one person to carry and there is no way they can. And then we blame them when they drop the load heavy load that they've been given. There's a reason why the average pastor is only a youth pastor for a short time (like a year, plus or minus a few months. I can’t remember). That's why D.W. I was curious about how long you were a youth pastor and what caused you to no longer be one. I wanted to know what your experience was like, what you found discouraging as well as encouraging.

I wanted to talk about the problems in youth ministry and I wanted to talk about them in an honest, open and humble way. Is the system itself designed and set up in a way that is ultimately destined to fail? Are youth pastors just a scapegoat for the churches lack of wanting to take responsibility? Are we putting to much weight on youth ministries? Are we taking the responsibility of the family to raise their children in the Lord away from them and putting it in the hands of someone who sees them only a few hours a week (along with 20 to 30 other kids)? What about kids who don't have Christian families? Should youth ministry be more of a supplement instead of the primary tool for raising our youth in the church? How much of the church budget should be devoted to youth ministers, etc.?

I guess that's what I'm talking about. I agree with you there is a "Problems in Ecclesiology Today" concerning youth ministry? But where do those problems lie and what is the root of those problems?

Bryan L
Halden said…
Bryan, I am really not trying piss you off or anything here, but of course internet discussions are always predatory on proper conversational decorum, at least I find that to be true for myself.

When you entered the conversation what you seemed to be intimating in your questions was that if David didn't have level of experience in youth ministry then the points that he made in his post were somehow in question. Maybe I was completely wrong about what you were saying, but the impression that I kept getting was that you really really don't like it if someone criticizes something that they haven't been intimately involved with.

The only point I'm trying to make is that I think you should question the irritation you have with what you perceive as nothing more than 'outsiders' complaining. A theologian who has no experience in youth ministry may still have a valid point that youth ministers should consider. Would it be good if he had experience in youth ministry as well? Of course, but that doesn't mean someone should be dismissed in what they say simply because they don't meet our criteria of who's qualified to speak about something.

I certainly agree that going through something will give one another perspective on it (marriage, divorce, children, etc.). However, that doesn't mean that someone without such experiences doesn't have something important to offer to people in those situations. A case in point is one of my pastors. He was single for a long time during his ministry and in the course of that time he gave lots of input to people in marriage counseling and to parents regarding their children that was sound and needed and very redemptive council. Now, did his perspectives change after he got married? Yes, and he'll be the first to tell you that, but that doesn't mean that he had nothing to give or no wisdom or insight for all the years he was single. I'm not yet married myself, but I assure that nearly all of my close friends who are married would tell you that I have been very helpful in council I've given them regarding their marriages (council that goes beyond no beating your wife, etc.). After I get married will my perspectives and understanding change some? Sure, but does that mean I'm useless and have nothing to offer my married brothers and sisters now? If that's the case then we're back to my earlier question of how Paul was qualified to give marital advice.

I don't want to ramble on. I'm sorry if the discussion got heated, that wasn't my intention. My only point that I would like you to consider is that regardless of people's backgrounds and experience, they may have a lot of valid things to say that we should hear. We can't demand that people have unassailable credentials before we really give them a fair hearing. I certainly agree that people shouldn't just go into a field where they have no experience and act like they're an expert, but I didn't see David doing any of that in his post. He didn't say anything about how youth ministry should be run, he merely diagnosed some problems that he identified (rightly, we both seem to agree). This may be the source of some of the misunderstanding between us. David was giving a moral and theological critique of something going on in youth ministry, not getting up and saying, "Ok, you all are wrong about everything and here's my master plan about how youth ministry should go." If he had said that, then you'd be right in questioning it, certainly.

I hope that clarifies things. Certainly we must all avoid pretending to know how everthing should go when we haven't walked in certain shoes. On the other hand, maybe when someone comes to us with input and they've never walked in our shoes we should listen anyway. After all, God can speak through the mouth of a donkey...

I think you raise some important questions and your insights are, for the most part, right on. One of my biggest frustrations with modern American churches is the low expectations we have of youth pastors and worship pastors. These two positions are considered to be lowest on the totem pole, so to speak. For many churches, neither position requires any theological training. If you are good with kids, then you can be the youth pastor. If you can play guitar and sing, you can be the worship pastor. This is a serious issue that churches neglect to their own peril. Who is more important for the future than our children? And what is more important for the shaping of the community than worship and liturgy?

I wish I had time to answer your questions, but I don't have time and frankly, I'm not qualified to speak on some of those matters. Such a discussion belongs in another post at some other time. I'd rather focus on the topic at hand, namely, the use of contemporary culture to lure people into church. This is what I am concerned about at the moment. The topic of youth ministry as a whole is not my concern, at least not in this post.
Bryan L said…
Fair enough Halden. I guess I'm only asking for humility from those who haven't walked in certain shoes whenever they decide to speak about or to people who have. We can criticize and point out faults but I think we must be careful to not think we wouldn't do the exact same thing.

I remember reading Don Millers book "Blue Like Jazz" where he recounts this conversation with his friend about what was happening in the Congo and what some of the men over there were doing (murdering, raping , etc.) and his friend basically asks him if he thinks he would do any different if he were in that situation. And he didn't think so. Sure that doesn't mean we can't call wrong, wrong or that we can't say something shouldn't be done a certain way. But it does mean we must always stay humble when doing it realizing that things often work out differently in practice than we thought it would theoretically.

And you are right, sometimes it takes an outsider to speak truth into a situation and tell people even though it "is just that way", it shouldn't be and it doesn't have to be. You're right we don't need to walk in everyone's shoes to minister to them, but when we do minister to them we must always do it humbly, realizing it's only by the grace of God that the roles aren't reversed (how cliche does that sound?:-)

Bryan L
Halden said…
Yes, humility is key, probably not just to all ministry work, but even to theological critique of ministerial problems. And I'm sure most "theology bloggers" like ourselves tend to struggle with the sort of theological and ministerial arrogance that is pretty deleterious to the church. At least I know that I do! :)
Bryan L said…
That's cool D.W. sorry if I took the topic a little off base, I wasn't meaning to. I thought since the title was "Pet VI Youth Ministry it was actually about... youth ministry ;-)

I actually have some thoughts on the issue if you haven't moved on.

You said, "I'd rather focus on the topic at hand, namely, the use of contemporary culture to lure people into church."

I agree that that is a failure of the church. Churches giving out iPods to new guests and canceling church for secular reasons and using gimmicks to lure adults and youth into coming to services.

At the same time I realize that often it's not as black and white as that and instead there are some gray areas.

For instance why do young Christians (especially college age) so easily fit in to and adopt the fashion trends of society; the hair, the clothes, the accessories, the music, the movies, everything. You go to a church like this and they seem like they look that way just to attract young people. Would that be a gray area? What about a church that has a movie and theological discussion night? Gray? What about hanging out at a pub over a beer discussing God? Gray? What about using modern music in general in a worship service? Gray? What about the length of service (hour and a half)? I’m sure there are many other areas that we could ask about.

Can we say that the early church did not seek relevance in any ways at all themselves? Can we say that they didn’t take some things from the culture and use them in the church? When I read both the NT and the OT I see a lot of adopting of modern culture and fitting in to the society in certain ways as well as rejecting certain things from the modern culture. It seems like some things were black and white for the church and some were gray.

This post was about Halo 3 in youth services. You said you didn't think it was a sin or evil for Christians to play Halo 3. Ok, so why does it become so bad when they do it at a youth service? Is it only bad when they advertise it to get teenagers to get them to come or is it just bad in general to play a video game like Halo 3 at a youth service? If a college men’s ministry were to get together every Friday at someone’s house and before they studies the Bible worshiped and discussed Christian things, they liked to hang out and play Halo 3 together would that be wrong? If not why does it become wrong with teenagers at a similar type of service?

The Halo thing is interesting because when I was a Youth Pastor I had a youth who was about 17 who introduced me to Halo (I was trying to reach out to him and get to know him). I had stopped playing video games as a teenager but when I played this game I was hooked. I immediately went out and bought an Xbox for that game. This same youth also suggested trying it out on Friday before the service since we have a projector and a nice sound system. It sounded fine to me so we did it and we had a lot of fun playing before the service, just hanging out while we waited for people to show up. It became a staple before the service while we waited (among other things like basketball and group games like Catchphrase). It was just something we did to help teenagers interact who didn’t know each other well and didn’t spend time with each other outside of church (it was an inner city church with people who lived all over the city). One day one of the kids from the neighborhood who had been coming for about a year and who I had seen a lot of change in over that year told me that the only reason he came in the first place was because he heard from his friend who had been coming for a while that we had video games before the service. We never advertised it as such and it was just something we did while we hung out and waited for people to show up. But it had actually drawn someone in who stayed beyond just playing video games. Video games is what got his foot in the door but it was more than that that kept him coming. Now is that a terribly bad thing? Is that a sinful youth group who is seeking relevance above the Gospel and using video games to evangelize (you saying yes won’t hurt my feelings)? Is that a gray area? If so I imagine a lot of youth ministries would fit into that same type of gray area. What do you think? Are there any gray areas in your church or the ministries you are apart of?

I’ll shut up just in case you want to answer.

Bryan L
Aric Clark said…

Huh, I never would have thought of using Halo to get kids in. I have no experience nor really any desire to do youth ministry and I agree that it's a horrible irony. Violent video games or movies (or really any kind of violence) isn't the way to get kids to hear the gospel. Good point.

I'm not sure I can go along with you with your complete skepticism about modern technology or innovation in ministry in general. There seems to be a kind of soft-luddite mentality in some people that has nothing to do with whether the gospel is actually communicated effectively and just resists things because they're "not necessary". I'm with St. Francis - preach the gospel always, use words when necessary. In other words, none of it is necessary, but neither is it a problem. Powerpoint can be a tool just like a 3-point sermon, or the Bible in the vernacular, or countless other variable techniques for passing on the message. I don't see how it's any more problematic than a microphone, or even just architecture with good acoustics.

You'll notice if you read the comments that I don't reject technology by any means. In fact, I use it all the time (see above).

My concern is and has been with how churches appropriate things from modern culture, and I mentioned technology as very similar to how youth groups use video games. Both are often seen as tools for making the church "relevant" and bringing people into the pews. This is the problem that I am trying to guard against.
Damn, Bryan, you're a talker! :)

You're quite right that there are plenty of gray areas. Very, very few things are really black-and-white. You write:

What about a church that has a movie and theological discussion night? Gray? What about hanging out at a pub over a beer discussing God? Gray? What about using modern music in general in a worship service? Gray? What about the length of service (hour and a half)? I’m sure there are many other areas that we could ask about.

I think you might be confused about what I'm arguing against. I'm not saying we should avoid cultural involvement altogether -- that would be an impossibility! There's no such thing as an acultural church. And I said in my post that churches need to engage culture directly. I even talked about movie groups (I've led one at my church for a few years) in the post. The problem is not engaging culture; the problem is using cultural as a tool for manipulating people (either to get them into church or to "get them out of hell").

You'll notice that I didn't say relevancy is itself the problem. The subtitle of my post is "when does a church go too far to be relevant?" Churches have to be part of their surrounding culture, but they also need to be a critical (and self-critical) community. The church's mission determines their appropriation of culture; culture should never determine the nature of their mission. Furthermore, a faulty understanding of their mission ("fire insurance") will inevitably lead to faulty ways of engaging culture, as this story demonstrates.

The difference between your story and the NYT story is twofold: (1) the goal of playing video games in your situation was to become friends while the goal in the youth group was to make converts; and (2) the youth group brings people together in order to proclaim the gospel, while friends get together in order to hang out and have fun together. These are both significant differences. My point is that the rules change when we talk about an ecclesial community. The home is not the church. The church has the responsibility of witnessing to the gospel, and thus whatever it does needs to be in conformity with and in service to this divine mission.
Anonymous said…
way to go brother in arms. thats amazing. i just had a tiff with a youth minister the other day about the very same thing in that we use a worldly violent concept to draw people in to preach something CONTRARY to what we have brought them in with. your sarcasm is spot on and a very real dialog that needs to take place in ministry on several levels

the tools in which we say are a necesisty to draw kids in
why we use some forms of media as appropriate and others as not
and what these forms of outreach truly say about the church and the kingdom
Anonymous said…
i could be reading this comment wrong
"We don't need PowerPoint slides, slick videos, electric guitars, and video games in order to make the gospel appealing. This is a dead-end which will always lead to churches that are all form and no substance."

are you suggesting that these forms of technology are not good for the church? or not a necesity?
and i think
"The use of modern technology is fraught with the same danger: is this benefiting the gospel, or is it a tool to entice people into coming to church? Are we using this to proclaim the good news, are we using this to be "seeker-friendly"?"
are great gauging questions to help decide the above..but do you think...again...that the above are in appropriate within a service/worship

I clarify that comment later in my comments. You'll notice that my concern is not with the technology itself but with the intention behind its use. See the comments for more.
Anonymous said…
yeah i finally got to the end of this drama...good night...
so anyone know why it won't post a link to my blog?!?!? i'm saddened by this greatly

i'm really interested in digressing with you more about your PET. i am actually looking at doing a phd in theological sociology towards ecclesology
Anonymous said…
Hello all,

My name is Kerry, and I am right now 18 still well within in the confines of being a teenager. I have been called to preach by the Lord so that sets me apart a bit, but I believe this is relevant.

I enjoy video games as much as the next teen that dosen't attend church regularly. I go to church every sunday morning and night, and on wensday nights. The church that I attend has never had to use a gimic such as video games to "lure" me into attending the house of God.

The main problem I can see in using this tactic, aside from using the house of God as a lan party location, is that teens will inevitably come for the games, and ignore the message.

What we as believers should be doing is,instead of playing games, pray that the same holy ghost conviction that is going to save them from hell, is going to draw them to church. It is out job as believers to spread the Word, not to save the person. We can't save a soul it is up to the Lord all we can do is point them in the right direction.

I have nothing wrong with playing games OUTSIDE of church. My youth group meets regularly and we will play NCAA football on the Xbox 360. As for the argument of winners and losers, someone always loses in a football game, but after 3 years we have never made someone feel inferior, or excluded them from the group because of their ability in video games, to do so would be contrary to the word of God. Love thy brother is the greatest commandment of all if I recall correctly.

In wrapping up, things of the world have no place in Church. The house of God is a place of worship, and I belive anything not used to worship the Lord had no place there. If you want to attract teens rely on something greater than any video game. The bible says "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." I don't belive anyone will truly be willing to sit down and seriously concentrate on their eternal home if they are still thinking of the last frag they hand just before preaching.

I don't believe it's complicated at all, I don't believe you have to have a PHD in anything to understand what should draw you to the house of God. I myself am a teenager that has never seen a video game played in the house of God and therefor I am living proof that you don't have to have a gimmic to draw young people to the house of God. A little God in your life goes much farther than Master Chief.
Bryan L said…
Good points D.W. Of course you know being that I am a talker I have more thoughts but for the moment I'll leave it at that. Thanks for the conversation. I enjoyed it.

Bryan L
Anonymous said…
I LOVE HALO 3. I'm a youth minister and enjoy playing the game. You should try playing it sometime it's not about killing people. It also has some Bible messages in it too. Check it out and don't be old school Christian. If Halo 3 can reach one person then praise God for that and using Halo 3 to get that ball rolling. It's is illegal for people to buy M games not play them therefore if a Church wants to have kids playing them then that's leagal.