Friday, May 10, 2024

Too Hot to Handle: Days of Programs Past

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: The Young People’s group in my local church seems defunct. It wasn’t lack of leadership — they had a stellar, unselfish, thoughtful leader, who had had great success in the past, most recently with a large and active cohort that had just moved on to college / university / career plans. But when the older class graduated, nobody came in to fill the ranks. It seems that the new generation of early-teens were involved with other things: sports, computers, other programs. Not only that, when asked, their parents seemed to see no particular reason their kids ought to be meeting with other Christian kids for spiritual or social activities. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a generation of parents that isn’t totally convinced that getting their kids involved with other Christian young people is very important to their development.

So that’s new.

Waving Goodbye to YP

I wonder, Tom, are the days of Young People’s programs past? Is anything lost there if it is? Were they the right idea in the first place? What would you say to a group of elders that was realizing that a church without a young people’s program was becoming a reality? Does the church owe us to have some specialized program for teens? And if it does, do parents have any obligation to use it? There are lots of good questions we could ask about that.

Tom: Well, that’s definitely a fair bit to chew on. Let’s begin at the beginning. “Are the days of YP programs past?” I think they might well be. Gen-Z has been taught to value (i) entertainment, (ii) their own preferences and opinions, and (iii) the virtual world over and above the real world, and that includes many kids from Christian families. There are exceptions, where parents were diligent about policing internet use, but the vast majority of kids that age would rather be playing Counter-Strike online than studying the Bible in some dingy basement. I don’t like that thought, as I have been heavily involved with teens in times past, but it may be the sad reality. Your local church is far from alone.

I guess we also may need to distinguish “kids from Christian families” from “Christian kids”. There are occasions on which they pass for the same thing, but time often shows they are not.

IC: Oh, quite so. In the Young People’s groups of my youth, there were three types of participants: (a) Christian kids, (b) kids from Christian homes, but whose tastes and loyalties turned out to be questionable, and (c) kids from non-Christian homes, some of whom were Christians and some not. The blend was always a challenge for any youth leader. In one case I’m thinking of, the genuinely Christian kids were the moral and social leaders, with great effects for all. In another, the (rather jaded and indifferent) kids from Christian homes were dominant, and the results were a disaster for pretty much everyone. Dealing with young people is always a risk in that respect. The group dynamics have to be carefully watched, on the one hand, but on the other, too much “being watched” and not enough liberty to practice (even sometimes by trial and error) suffocates the kids.

Feed My Lambs

But is it important work? Do we need to be doing it?

Tom: Sure, absolutely. I don’t know the basis of the claim, but I’ve heard it argued all the Lord’s disciples were fairly young men, some probably in their teens. And even if they were not, adult believers always have an obligation to make sure both our own children and younger professing Christians in the churches are properly discipled rather than left to rot on the vine. “Feed my lambs,” the Lord said to Peter. If we don’t do that, we may as well say goodbye to the version of the church we embrace. Christ’s work will go on elsewhere, of course — the “gates of hell” and so on — but we will not be a meaningful part of it, and our efforts in our own day will have been substantially frittered away. And the worst thing about that is that it’s our own generation who are doing the active frittering.

IC: The generation previous to the present parents supported YP work, for the most part. It’s this new generation, the one that has early-teen kids now, that sees no particular point. As for their children, I don’t blame them one bit for absorbing their parents’ indifference.

But let’s suppose (without reason to suppose, of course) that the parents of this generation do whatever things previous generations of parents have done (or not done) at home, and that many still expect church attendance from their children on Sunday. What would be the harm if the Young People’s program in particular were gone? I mean, it’s one thing to see we need to teach our children; it’s another to say they need to hang out with each other on Friday or Saturday night at the church, and do their own group Bible study and social activities … or is it?

Tom: Well, I think you’re being a mite generous in assuming this generation of parents is doing the things our parents did with us: daily Bible reading and so on. I think that’s highly unlikely. If they are, well, good. But it’s hard to see how a child could enjoy the things of Christ in his or her home while growing up, then come to their teen years and suddenly and completely lose interest. Sure, it could happen here and there; there are always outliers. But not across the board, which is what we’re seeing today.

Pairing Up

Let’s be frank: Young People’s groups are about Christian kids pairing up with members of the opposite sex, or at least trying to. So when you tell me nobody in that early teen age range is interested in getting together to study the Bible with kids of the same age from their local church, what you are telling me is that: (a) the teens in your church hate studying the Bible so much they will even give up opportunities to chase members of the opposite sex in order to avoid being subjected to it, (b) the teens in your church are uniquely uninterested in members of the opposite sex, or (c) the teens in your church have some secular outlet for their interest in the opposite sex, which means they do not make it any special priority to partner up with fellow Christians.

Maybe there are other possibilities, but none of them sound good to me.

IC: Right. That’s my worry. I worry that the parents have not made spiritual growth to maturity a priority for their children, and that the children are now not seeing the point of pursuing it. Moreover, having not seen what a vigorous spiritual life actually looks like, they are not convinced it is at all important to find a spiritually motivated partner. After all, when you’re not planning on going anywhere yourself, it doesn’t matter who you team up with, right?

But perhaps this is too much to deduce from the death of YP programs.

The Value of Teen Bible Studies

What I would question is your description of the value of Bible study activities in the program. I think they are valuable, because they are often the first opportunity a young person takes to learn things without his or her parents watching; and that’s a step in maturity and initiative. Maybe the initial motive involves only the social possibilities; but the end result can be much more than that, I would say. I have seen that.

Tom: Oh no, I’m not at all disparaging the value of Bible study activities. I’m just being realistic about teen motivations in attending Bible studies. They are not usually hormone-free. One may attend a Bible study in hope of pairing up and not have it happen, but incidentally learn all kinds of things about the Bible that serve you well in later life. That is a fine outcome. But I find it weird when young teens have no interest at all in meeting other young teens who have something in common. That seems odd ... unprecedented even.

IC: Well, the assumption has to be that young people have not lost all interest in the opposite sex. However, secular studies have shown that young people today are opting for less conventional social relationships. For example, dating and socializing in person are down, and things like pornography and sexting are up. That’s a product of the video age, which is radically changing the social dynamics of teens. For example, this article is really something every parent should know about. And is that what’s happening here? Or is it that these young people are still opting for embodied sexuality, but not with Christians? Or are they behaving like their secular counterparts, and going online? This is something that really needs to be investigated — by every parent.

Exploring Alternatives?

Tom: That’s a horrifying thought, but it’s not, to the best of my knowledge, what 12- and 13-year-olds from Christian households are up to en masse. There are probably exceptions, and it’s worth looking into, but without evidence, I wouldn’t assume that’s what’s going on across the board. If you tell me it’s common practice in the mid- to later-teens, I’d believe it, but there’s a hormonal component to sexual interest that is only just kicking in at 12 or 13. In my experience, it takes a little time to develop the social skills to get up to speed in that department.

All the same, if you can demonstrate that’s where our 12- and 13-year-olds from Christian households are at today, then it will not surprise anyone if studying the Bible is of minimal interest to them.

IC: The problem with large-scale studies like that is that they can only tell you what the average teen is up to; not what your teen is up to. That’s why the investigation is necessary — to find out if what you’re dealing with is that, or something else. One thing for sure: there has to be an explanation why what was considered essential for Christians in their early teens a few years ago is not being considered as even an interesting option now. Something has changed. The yearning to find a partner is not insignificant in that stage of development. If YP’s is not serving that function anymore, then why not is a very important question. It’s also the stage at which spiritual independence needs to be cultivated; and if that’s not being sought anymore, we surely need to know why.

Tom: Oh, I completely agree. Something is really wrong here. I just can’t decide quite what it is.

Something Rotten in Denmark

You asked what one might say to a group of elders that was just coming to the realization that a church without a young people’s program was their new reality. And then you suggested at one point that we have to consider the possibility that the spiritual needs met by young people’s groups in previous generations are now being met in other ways. I realize that you’re trying to cover all the bases here, and trying to be fair, but I’m going to call foul on that. It just ain’t so. There is nothing spiritual about teens staying home and playing videogames, or getting involved in secular sports leagues to the exclusion of fellowship with other Christian teens at a critical juncture in their spiritual lives. There is nothing spiritual about so-called Christian parents who think those priorities are just fine.

I think I would say this to the concerned elders: something is really rotten in Denmark. How did we get here? Is the problem primarily in the previous generation? I think it might well be.

IC: Well, yeah … I was giving them credit for still doing spiritual activities, if indeed they do. And you’re right to think I was just giving them the benefit of the doubt, and don’t think they’re actually doing much of anything, really. But I was not thereby suggesting that spiritual needs could actually be met by things like video games. Those aren’t needs, and they aren’t spiritual.

I was trying to ask something like “Well, if parents do have family devotions, and teach their kids to study at home, and send them to Christian camp in the summer, and still have them in Sunday School or at least in the main meeting on Sunday, then what’s the harm in letting YP’s go? It’s only one of many strategies they could be using.” So I mean that the spiritual needs were still being met by spiritual means, but just not through a youth program.

The 2020 Christian Family

But probably that’s too much benefit of the doubt even to give. I just see it as a possible elder’s response to the claim, “Your loss of YP’s signals something bad.”

Tom: Fair enough. I hope elders would be more astute, but let’s deal with all the possibilities. I do not believe for a second that the majority of the Christian parents of today’s teens are still doing family devotions or even working too hard at encouraging their children to study the Bible on their own. Maybe they are sending them to Christian camps, but even then, camp is usually only one week of 52.

do believe those parents are sending kids to Sunday School, though I doubt they have too much idea what is taught there and whether it is doing any real good.

So, yes, I’m blaming my own generation and the one right after it for the state of our youth. I think we are the villains here. And I don’t think there’s much of an argument to be made in our defense.

IC: Okay. Well, I haven’t got any data on what the average Christian parent is doing with their child’s spiritual nurturing, so I can’t say anything about that for sure. What we do know from sound sociological studies is that many nominally Christian teens have a very weak, immature and incorrect understanding of their faith … for whatever reason. On average, they’re apparently becoming what’s called “morally-therapeutic Deists” rather than real Christians. That is, they believe there’s a God who exists, and that thinking there is one is “good for you” morally, but that he’s not really involved in actual life. So some parts of the message are definitely not reaching them.

The Church’s Role

Tom: Okay. Let’s go back to your next question: “Does the church owe us to have some specialized program for teens?” My answer would be no. Why would it? That said, those who have responsibility in the churches certainly owe today’s teens some serious concern about how they turn out. That might mean creating a standard youth program, or it might mean initiating something else entirely.

IC: Tom, do you think we also made a big mistake some time ago, allowing ourselves to think of church programs as a sort of replacement for the teaching of a Christian home? And maybe, just maybe, we’re now seeing that programs aren’t enough. Maybe our teens are telling us that, even before we realize it, by voting with their feet. Is that possible?

Tom: It’s not only possible, I believe it’s inevitable. When you remove serious commitment to teaching Christian truth from the home, you can hardly expect the church to offer a viable substitute.

IC: But it seemed to for a time. That is, though it was never enough, there were parents even in our generation who were relying heavily on that program to cover all bases for their children. Our generation did have some knowledge of the Bible, and we were experienced in “doing church stuff”: but we had inherited a lot of it on the backs of our parents’ real effort, and took it for granted. We didn’t invest the time to pass any of it along, or very little of it, anyway. And now, I think we’re down to the children of our children, who are so far from first-hand spiritual engagement that they’re really asking what was the point of it all in the first place. And we are not ready for them with the answer.

A Fair Description

Or is that not quite the right description of the situation?

Tom: No, I think that’s fair. As to your last question, “Do parents have any obligation to use the programs their churches put in place?” I think I might say this: First, when we are talking about 12- and 13-year old kids, whether children attend any church program is very much up to their parents. Mine stopped making me go to anything I didn’t want to attend at age 16, and I think that’s a reasonable compromise. But in most cases a twelve-year-old doesn’t know what’s good for him and shouldn’t be the last word on those decisions. Someone with the ability to see beyond the immediate desires of the child has to evaluate the worth of these programs. So the looming obsolescence of youth programs is definitely a parental issue, not just a problem with kids and their preferences.

Secondly, to the extent that a church’s elders are attempting to offer some sort of solution to their children’s spiritual needs, then it is incumbent on parents to do one of two things: either support your elders and back their play by promoting the initiatives they have in place, or else offer your elders a viable alternative to traditional youth groups, assuming you deem them inadequate for your kids’ needs.

If parents can’t be bothered to even do that bare minimum for their own children, I have great difficulty blaming “the church” for the current situation.


  1. A good discussion, and it covered the questions that need to be asked. I think you're both right, that this has been a multi-generational fade-away from faith development as a core aspect of family life. I see this sort of pattern in families in my line of work. If mom and dad didn't do something or didn't know how to do something then they were unable to teach it to their children. Then, those children become moms and dads who have the same deficits and therefore cannot pass along what they don't know to their children.

    This is also where the church could come in. Of course parents have deficits; none of us knows everything. So if people from outside a family give input into a family then that family stands a chance of importing new skills that would otherwise be absent. This is part of my work as a therapist--figuring out what someone doesn't know and then teaching it to them so they know it firsthand in their own life.

    Sadly, I don't see in my church how the people with spiritual understanding and skill have a way to transfer those skills into the lives of others. There's no real venue for this to take place or with regularity. This process requires the rabbi-disciple kind of relationship where the ‘rabbi’ has a very intentional, frequent and long-term input into a younger person's life. It also requires the ‘disciple’ to want this in his/her own life. When church only has a Sunday morning program it lacks person-to-person interaction in any meaningful depth. At my church, we have Bible studies and groups but they use videos or workbooks to 'teach,' so again there is no meaningful person-to-person interaction. Nobody is building up an ability to teach better and nobody is learning from the example and relationship with real-life teachers. Pressing ‘play’ is not a teaching skill.

    What comes to my mind as I think about this is how Jesus could teach a large crowd and then turn and disciple his disciples. There are moments recorded in the Gospels where Jesus teaches the crowd in a lecture style, but then afterwards his disciples ask him to explain what on earth he meant. It shows that lectures can get content out to a large number of people, but lecturers are kidding themselves about the long-term effectiveness of that kind of teaching method for a typical crowd. There has to be that one-on-one conversation afterward to get the content to stick and to help make it applicable in an individual listener's life. I see this in the therapy work I do. People can grasp a concept readily and many arrive already knowing the concept already. It's that process of integrating the concept into his/her own everyday life that is the difficulty. It's repetitive and requires lots of trial and error. It can take many tries to find just the right angle of connection for it to click for someone. Really, it involves the individual’s real self to be present because his/her real self can work with concepts and integrate them into real life. Otherwise people are stuck doing / copying / mimicking things, but they don't actually own that is it them, themself actually owning it in their own self.

    1. Absolutely agreed about the limited value of lecturing a crowd. Thanks for the comments, B. Every once in a while the Lord stirs up someone's heart to do things differently. I believe we are living in a time where that is very much needed. Lots to pray about.