Well do I remember the evening I accidentally crashed the Mayor’s Art Gala. I remember the burn in my teenage lungs as I raced my bike downtown, striving to reach my youth group on time. I remember unbuckling my helmet as I burst through the doors of City Hall, where the group had planned to meet “outside the library.” But most of all, I remember halting there, alone in my sweaty street clothes, engulfed in a sudden swirl of dignitaries sporting suits, ties and dresses. What was with the live music? Whose hor d’oeuvres were those? And where was my youth group!?
Sheepish as a moulting penguin among swans, I padded through the classy crowd to tug at the library doors. Locked.
The good news is I did find my youth group—outside the other library entrance on the other side of City Hall. Sorry, Mr. Mayor.
Yep, that night definitely marked one of my more salient youth group memories. What else stands out in my mind? I remember anticipating the awesome games, but dreading the awkward ones–like the one where everyone had to crawl around on the carpet trying to pull each other’s socks off. I remember how great many of my friendships were most of the time, but also how out of place I could feel at other times–like when the other teens were competing to see who could lodge a safety pin the furthest into their own arms. As far as spiritual lessons go, I remember that an intern talked about the beatitudes, and a pastor compared sin to kryptonite. I remember a youth rally where a speaker asked, “When you look at a forest, what do you see?” I remember hearing my own voice call out, “Squirrels!”
But beyond all that, I don’t remember a ton.
Honestly, the bulk of my spiritual, intellectual and interpersonal foundation-building didn’t happen at youth group. How could it? Youth groups go on for a couple hours once a week during the school year. Life, however, goes on all the time. And life is full of influences. How many of those influences disciple students to look like Christ, and how many disciple students to look like the world? How can youth groups redeem their hours to maximize the kind of discipleship that fosters a faith-filled friendship with Christ instead of a fatal friendship with the world (James 4:4)? How can churches transform that time into brick and mortar for strengthening students’ spiritual, intellectual and personal foundations?
How can youth groups give kids what they really need?
That’s what I recently asked a few Christian young adults–all former youth group grads–circled around a living room. In the conversation that followed, they identified at least five ways:
1: Teach the Bible.
“I would have loved as a teenager to do in-depth Bible studies,” one young woman declared straightaway. “We did memory verses, but I would have LOVED to learn the historical context of the verses and actually study the Bible intensely. Doing sword drills is great, but they don’t teach you much about what the verses actually mean.”
The woman a couple of chairs to my left agreed. “In the first youth group I went to, there was very little to do with the Bible. They didn’t teach us how to read the Bible or go over the importance of it, saying ‘This is a sword; here’s how you use it.’”
“That certainly fits with what I heard from different campus ministry leaders during my travels,” I confirmed. “They see so many Christian students who grew up being filtered through age-level church programs only to arrive on campus without really being able to articulate what the Gospel is, or what the Bible teaches, or how the Gospel applies to every part of their lives.”
Like those campus leaders, I have to wonder: if students don’t leave their homes and youth groups with a firm foundation in Scripture, then what are we doing? Students don’t need to enter campus, the workforce and life understanding how to pull people’s socks off. More than anything, they need a deeply-grounded, action-producing, life-transforming understanding of the word of God.
2: Emphasize discipleship over entertainment.
All too often, however, youth groups aren’t so much concerned about Scripture-centred discipleship that equips youth for the future as they are about student-centred entertainment that retains youth for the present. That’s not to say fun is never a useful, attractive and effective tool—it is! But if churches want to seriously equip students, then entertainment can’t be the sole focus of the church’s investment in its young people.
“Having fun has its place,” the woman to my left explained, “but it has nothing to do with spiritual growth. If you [only] entertain people, you will lose them, because you’re saying that God on His own isn’t good enough. You’re saying, ‘I’ve got to make Him better.’ But Jesus never entertained His disciples.”
“Though He did turn the water into wine,” the first woman voiced my own thought.
“That wasn’t entertainment,” the other responded, “that was necessity. That was meeting a need for someone.”
Earlier in the conversation, the first woman had also agreed how her youth group would have benefited from a stronger discipleship focus.
“The one youth group I went to was just about having fun,” she’d shared. “I did have fun, and I still know lots of the kids there, but I don’t remember learning anything spiritually.”
3: Mind the battle.
The reason why entertainment shouldn’t be the main focus, according to these young adults, is its limited ability to arm students with tools to survive the battle around them–tools to defend their faith, guard their hearts and minds, make Biblically-grounded decisions, and discuss tough topics in truth and love. (See also: Top Nine Tips for Christian Students Going Into Secular University.)
“When students go to school the day after youth group,” the woman to my left observed, “they’re bombarded with all this stuff from culture. My youth group was about packaging church to make it interesting, rather than teaching us, ‘This is serious. This is life or death for eternity. We’ll play another time; do sports another time. But let’s get our Bibles out and talk about how we’re in a battle, every day. You’re going to be bombarded by hard topics. You’re in a battle for your mind, a battle for your soul.’”
Adopting this mindset might not make youth groups seem especially “lit,” but less babysitting and more bootcamp might be just what youth facing daily spiritual warfare need.
“I think if some youth groups develop more of a spiritual emphasis like this,” she added, “they’ll have kickback where they’ll lose some people, but they’ll strengthen the ones who stay. They’ll have to constantly pray and ask the Holy Spirit, ‘What do You want to do this week?’ Maybe that’ll be a game one week, but something else another week.”
4: Emphasize objective truth over subjective feelings.
“Another problem,” she continued, “is that youth groups don’t often teach how Christianity is not about what we feel. It’s about the opposite of what we feel, nine times out of ten. We try to create a feeling-based atmosphere for youth groups, but that’s the opposite of what the Christian walk is.”
Reflecting on this later, my thoughts turned to the Psalms, where David brought his restless emotions under subjection to God’s truth again and again.
“Why, my soul, are you downcast?” he asked in Psalm 43:5 (NIV). “Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
Flip through the Psalms, and you’ll find that many of them—even the most soul-wrenching laments—conclude by contemplating an eternal God rather than temporary emotions. How would youth ministry be different if we, like David, set our focus higher than our own experiences?
5: Make room for being real.
Speaking of the Psalms—ever notice how when Psalmists express their feelings and struggles, they’re nothing but authentic about it? Notice how they don’t hesitate to probe deep, difficult and even painful topics? David doesn’t glaze over the deep-set consequences, grief and regret of the sexual immorality underlying his confession in Psalm 51. Aspah doesn’t shy away from tough questions in Psalm 73, when he asks God why the righteous suffer while the bad guys seem to be living the dream. But how many students really feel safe to express their real questions, struggles and doubts? And if they did, how would their churches and families handle it?
“Churches often avoid the heavy issues,” one of the young adults observed, “topics that maybe would make them lose members. But those are the things students are going to be up against.”
“Yeah,” the guy across the coffee table from me agreed, “when a leader asks, ‘Does anyone have anything to pray for?’ there are ‘acceptable things’ we can ask for prayer about, but we can’t voice our real struggles.”
“We need to be real with these kids that these struggles are normal,” chimed in someone else, “but also sinful. These are real things kids are going through, so we need to be clear. We need to say, ‘You’re going to be tempted, this is going to be hard,’ but we can’t stop there. We also need to give students the tools to protect themselves. We need to give them Scripture passages that talk about what they’re going through and give them someone to talk with who’s gone through similar things.”
Another score for mentorship! I thought.
Regarding verses to encourage students fighting temptation, someone may have mentioned Hebrews 4:15:
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
Another weapon which came to mind for arming youth against temptation is 1 Corinthians 10:13:
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (NIV.)
To effectively arm youth with tools for living purely, however, the youth leaders, Christian parents, and other mentors need to model how to use those same weapons. We need to be living examples of the kind of purity we want students to emulate.
“One of biggest problems we have in the church,” one of the young adults summarized, “is that we’re not consistent. We don’t need perfection; just consistency. We need to apologize when we mess up. We need to be real.”
The moral of the story:
As I thought back to my own disjointed youth group experiences—art galas, safety pins, squirrels, socks and all—I didn’t regret those lessons. But I did wonder what would happen if we, as the body of Christ, strove to make the next generation of youth groups even stronger. What would happen if we became more intentional about giving kids what they really need? What kinds of students would graduate from youth groups that armed kids with Scripture, emphasized discipleship, minded the battle, promoted truth rather than feelings, and were—in short—real?
I guess a youth group like that could adopt any number of forms or features, specific to the students, their culture, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But whatever the specifics, one thing’s for certain: it would be a youth group to remember.