Most of you probably know we met with our church in homes for 5 years here in Indy. In that time we didn’t have organized ministries, and our kids of all ages gathered with us in the living room.
One of the concerns that would come up every now and then would be our lack of a youth group. What about our teens and their need for interactions with kids their own age, others they can relate to?
We always decided against it. Part of that was simply how small our church was, but most of it was because Jesus didn’t make youth group part of his church. Once when he preached, there was a boy there who gave him his lunch to be shared with thousands of others. In Paul’s letters to both the Ephesians and the Colossians, he gives commands to the children–children who were present to hear the letter read. In other words, kids of all ages were right there as part of the church hearing the same message their parents were hearing.
Perhaps that’s not a strong enough argument for some. Some think that the gospel should be made more relevant or maybe even more entertaining to reach young people. But Jesus never made his gospel flashy in order to make it appealing to others or make them want to be part of it. He simply used words along with a righteous life, and people came by droves for this good news. The flashier we have to make the gospel, the more revealing the heart issue is. The issue that we don’t believe this salvation is the best news ever. We don’t rejoice enough in it alone because we don’t think we’re all that bad, that apart from this gospel, we’re doomed. And so we need to dress up the gospel, because it’s not good enough on its own.
Miriam almost drowned a year ago. We couldn’t get to her and were standing helpless in a creek watching our little girl bob under the water over and over. God miraculously sent two beautiful women who were close enough to her to jump in the water without hesitation and pull her to safety just in time. We didn’t respond with, “Man, we’re grateful. But it would have been better if you’d done it with some spotlights or amazing music. And actually, if you could provide pizza for her next time, too, we might even come back to thank you later.” No, we pummeled the soaking wet women with hugs, sobbing our gratitude because they had saved our girl’s life. We took their picture. I kept looking for them throughout the day because I just wanted to hug them one more time and thank them again and again. And I still pray for them and cry praising God for their placement and timing.
Good news is good because of the news itself, not because of the delivery method. And the good news of Jesus saving us from totally destruction and eternal death is the best news that could ever be. If we really got that, every other tool the church uses to try to impress us toward Jesus would just look dumb.
If what I’m saying is true, though, why do well-done youth groups seem to draw teens closer to God and to each other? Why do they produce a fire in youth that isn’t easily squelched?
It’s because these youth groups function more like the church than the church does.
I was raised in a healthy youth group. I still care deeply about those brothers and sisters with whom I did so much life. But here’s how that group worked:
I was blessed with a godly director who cared more about our spiritual well-being than how cool we thought he was. So we studied Scripture together, we prayed together, and we sang together. So far, so good. Same as the adults.
But we also were in each others’ faces all the freakin’ time. Our youth director did plan fun, ridiculous activities. Q-tip wars, anyone? But outside the planned youth group times, we were almost together more. If something was wrong or I had news I wanted to share, I would call one of my youth friends (no texting in them there days). If a new movie was out I wanted to see, I’d invite one of the youth to go with me. Pretty much every Wednesday night a few of us would go out to eat for pizza or burgers, and we’d sing intentionally off-key to the radio on the way. If a friend was in need, we’d go as a group to their house to be with them. We called each other out when we saw sin and reconciled with each other over and over. The girls started a tradition on our own to meet at one of our houses at Christmas for breakfast and singing silly Christmas songs, complete with an ornament exchange. We knew everything about each other.
This, I believe, is the way the church is meant to function, regardless of age. But we’re a prideful, independent generation. We don’t like to have to lean on others or give up our important schedules to pour into the church or be poured into. Especially when we start families, we get very inward. The inner family becomes number one, and everyone else fits as is convenient. We forget to text others to check in on them or share our heart. We forget to share meals with those in our circle, to invite them to go with us to the museum. We cringe at traditions because we simply see them as another calendar entry. We forget that laugh-so-hard-you-cry inside jokes only happen with time together. Many of us function okay as a small family but forget we’re part of a much bigger family. This bigger family is the church.
Ironically, even though youth groups get this together-as-family aspect so well, youth groups aren’t realistic. After college, there will likely never be another time in life when your people will only be those who are the same age as you. And in my experience, we usually struggle to break down age barriers when reality finally kicks in. We still look for those who are in the same exact season of life as us. But God wants older men and women to disciple the younger ones. He wants younger ones to sit at their feet. He wants it all mixed up and jumbled together. I don’t believe he necessarily wants the church to have a strong youth group to grow young people in him. I do believe he wants the church to function like a youth group, but across ages and life stages and financial statuses.
I think youth groups feel needed mainly because we stink as a church to embrace anyone who isn’t majority. In my experience, that’s the married folks, preferably with kids. The core ministry of the church focuses around this majority group and marginalizes the rest. Those who aren’t in that category end up being outsiders in the church. Therefore, the outsiders feel the need for a group of outsiders like them and we create things like youth groups (and singles ministries and senior ministries and on and on). What we miss is that the church as a whole is supposed to be a whole bunch of outsiders joined together for support. When we only seek out those just like us and are unwilling to put in the hard work to become close–really close–to those who aren’t like us, we stop functioning as the church. And that’s one reason I think many youth groups do a better job looking like Jesus’s church.
It’s important here for me to say this post has nothing to do with convincing you that you should do away with youth groups or pull your kid out of one. Each church has it’s own needs, and often that includes a ministry that’s mutually beneficial for all the believers who are part of that local church, like youth groups. But I do challenge us to strive to function as a church more like a youth group, without holding back and totally in each other’s faces all the time for everything under the sun. If the church functioned more like this, maybe our youth wouldn’t crave an outside ministry just for them so much. And we wouldn’t think they needed it either.