my thoughts on ‘divided: the movie’

“every generation, in the history of the church, has had its defining issue. in our generation, the issue that’s facing the church is whether parents will be able to raise up a new generation for the future”

really? that’s our defining issue? you can’t think of any others?

that’s a direct quote from the documentary film ‘divided the movie.’ weeks ago, an online friend sent me a link to the film and asked if i knew i was in it, and what i thought of it. i’ll admit – i was kind of excited… until i watched it.

i’ve been sitting on this for weeks now, because i general try to avoid ripping on things in christendom (unless it’s snarky fun, like my old ‘jesus junk of the month’ awards). i know, or believe, that the creators of this film had good intentions. i believe — i choose to believe — that they were genuinely and rightly concerned about some stuff they saw in youth ministry and the church, and were motivated to use their trade to do something. and so much of what i think they were trying to say aligns with things i’ve been trying to say. all that to say, i really, really, really wanted to like this film. but i hated it.

i still wasn’t going to blog about it, though.

but i keep being asked about it (partially because i am in it, for about 5 seconds). i think people must assume i have something to do with it, or at least that the filmmakers had cleared it with me, or at least that the filmmakers had informed me. none of those assumptions would be true, i’m very sad (and slightly angry) to report.

the original guy who had contacted me knows the filmmakers. i do not. when i told him i was thinking about posting about it after all, he told me that he thought the makers would not be offended if i offered an honest critique, rather than just sarcasm or flippancy. that was a good gut-check, as my normal approach would have be a tendency to sarcasm or flippancy, at least some of the time. but resorting to sarcasm on this one is really just using a tool the filmmakers used that really frustrated me: tearing down straw men. more on that in second.

here’s the film’s website, where, at least at this point, you can watch the entire movie online. you can decide for yourself, and not agree with my slant. if you watch the bonus material clips, you’ll see more truth about this “film” revealed, which is that it’s less of a film, and more of an extended promo piece for the national center for family integrated churches.

so. the basic premise of the film is that parents should be responsible for the spiritual nurture and upbringing of their children and teenagers. good. i’m with them there. and we have plenty of research now (in addition to theology) that backs up the impact of parents taking the leading role. good. they also contend that isolating teenagers from the rest of the church is harmful to them. good. i’m with ‘em on that one too. and, they say that intergenerational relationships are key. yup. go get ‘em! let’s preach together!

but…

the problems from there on out are so numerous i hardly know where to start (and certainly don’t know where to end). but let’s start with that straw man thing. if you’re not familiar with the phrase, the idea is that it’s easy to tear down an idea or set of ideas if you construct a fake version of the idea in the first place. that approach is employed throughout the film. some examples:

– the oddly earnest young adult narrator (whom we can only assume is present in the film to give it a sense of ‘i’m one of them’, but who instead comes across as a puppet of some adult with a bigger agenda) interviews teenagers at a state fair like event (is it a christian festival? i think it was), asking about their various beliefs. from the three or four we’re shown, we are to conclude that all teenagers are going to hell in a handbasket. conclusion aside, the methodology of showing us a few selected camera-in-your-face interviews with teenagers, given pop-quiz questions about their faith in front of their peers, is hardly research. you got on a plane to film that?

– same thing is true for the filmmaker’s visit to the simply youth ministry conference. i’ve never been to this event (sure hope to someday!), but i know it’s a good event. i thought the filmmakers portrayed youth workers as idiots. and there’s not much more infuriating to me that that kind of set up.

– there’s a giant rabbit trail fairly early on about how many teenagers no longer believe in a literal 6 day creation. this is offered as the ‘shocking proof’ that we’re in deep doo-doo, and is corroborated only by ‘experts’ who would be promoting this point of view themselves.

– in fact, throughout the entire film, the ‘experts’ (who are all from an extremely right wing edge of the church; there’s not even a moderate interviewed (well, other than the clip of me!)) are there to offer soundbite, emotionally packed, fear-tinged, support of the film’s points, points which are–in theory–being suggested by a 19 year old in a snappy vest with a big travel budget. that math is not working, on any level.

when you construct straw men, then tear them down, it’s all very easy to be mean-spirited (which this film is), cocky (which this film is), and protective of your biases (which this film is). in fact, i think i can safely say that the whole thing is extremely manipulative (a lie?). for the narrator to say that he wonders about some things, and he’s setting off on a quest to find answers, becomes an obvious falsehood. there was no honest inquiry here. there was no genuine journalism. what there seems to have been is a well-funded donor with a pre-determined set of agenda items.

i was deeply bothered by this one underlying thrust that eventually got said in clear words more than once, even put on the screen in text:
‘there’s not a shred of evidence from genesis to revelation that age-segregated programmatic youth ministry ever existed.’

so? what a completely absurd claim! but it kills me, because there could have been some good stuff in there — i agree we have too much age segregation! i agree our youth ministries have been too program focused! but saying this approach to youth ministry is wrong because it’s not found in the bible?

ok, first of all, ask a jew how children and teenagers are trained in spiritual matters. you are not, i promise, going to hear a story about nuclear families (the way they’re defined in america, btw — not the way families were understood by a single original reader of the bible) doing all the work. kids were sent to training with a rabbi. at least through age 12 or so, when they were bar-mitzvah’d. and that was about the age at which they were expected to begin functioning as apprentice adults in that culture. and when the family was involved (certainly, they were, as all of culture revolved around the extended family relationship at that time), it wasn’t just dad (which increasingly, becomes the cry of this film, near the end. moms seem to fall by the wayside as the film progresses, leaving kids without dads SOL), it was a freakin’ clan! grandparents and aunts and uncles and that weird cousin benny. why do you think jesus’ parents weren’t worried about him for 2 whole days when he wasn’t with them on the trek home from jerusalem? was that a failure on joseph’s part?

secondly, let me list a small, non-exhaustive list of things most likely found in the churches and theologies of the filmmakers (many of which are in my church and theology also) for which ‘there’s not a shred of evidence from genesis to revelation':
– baptismal pools
– church buildings
– hired clergy
– church budgets
– the word ‘trinity’ (though i certainly believe the concept is there)
– church busses
– sound systems
– children’s ministry
– men’s ministry
– women’s ministry
– senior adult ministry
– christian radio

i’m going to stop there, before i actually get snarky (that wasn’t, believe me). to say that youth ministry has to go away because our approach to youth ministry isn’t found in the bible is what, ultimately, pushed me to post on this.

if you read my post from last week, thanking youth workers for their work, on behalf of a dad, you’ll see some of my (righteous) anger surfacing.

let me try to land the plane here. yes, there are problems with the approach we’ve developed for youth ministry in the past four or five decades. i hope The Youth Cartel can do something about some of those. but the issues are much more complicated that simply pulling kids out of youth ministry, or shutting down your church youth ministry. i think youth ministry needs to change (that’s why The Youth Cartel is all about ‘instigating a revolution in youth ministry’); but i think youth ministry needs to stick around. yes, for those countless teenagers who do not have parents who will take the lead (i almost broke my ‘t’ key when i just typed ‘do not’, i was typing so hard!). but not just for them. i need youth ministry to stick around for MY CHILDREN! and, darn it, the guys who were in my last small group were from awesome homes, all with 2 original parents, all of whom were highly engaged in the faith development of their teenage boys. and i PROMISE YOU (YES, I’M YELLING) THAT EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THOSE PARENTS WOULD SAY THEY (AND THEIR SONS) NEEDED ME.

(breathe)

i want us all to talk about this stuff, because i think it’s massively important. i applaud the filmmakers for taking a risk. frankly, i’d enjoy some healthy and feisty dialogue. we should do a panel on this at some youth ministry event! “Divided over Divided the Movie” i pray a blessing, not a curse, on their heads. and i hope that somehow, as god has done over and over and over again through my flawed messages, that god will use your film to draw parents into relationship with their teenager sons and daughters. if that’s the result, i will will praise god with you. if it’s not, maybe we can still praise god together.

after i wrote this post, i discovered that my friend walt mueller, of the center for parent/youth understanding, wrote a fantastic post on divided a week ago. honestly, it’s a much better post than the one you’ve just read, and i encourage you to read it.

(btw, the filmmakers make an attempt to address some of my arguments in the FAQ section of their site, but not adequately, in my opinion.)

42 thoughts on “my thoughts on ‘divided: the movie’”

  1. sorry my comments were turned off there for a few hours. it was unintentional, and must have happened accidentally when we moved my blog into its new template.

  2. They had a booth at the Nashville YS. To my surprise one of the guys working the booth was a “former youth worker” at a church that I have spoke at several times. I was short of shocked to be honest. I guess he forgot about the lives that were changed at his student ministry events.

    I heard his spiel enough at the booth to know what the movie was going to be about. I am shocked to be honest, this guy was a youth pastor. I believe he got his undergrad in Stu min. I had a hard time not laughing, I spend my time in public schools doing school assemblies and if there is anything that I have learned that teenagers learn best when you speak their language. Not just with words, but with media. To me the idea of ending youth ministry is as appalling as hearing the news that we decided to only send missionaries to the field that speak english. Anyone that speaks the native tongue must leave the field. I am passionate about family ministry. But every time I tell my story of between my parents there are 7 divorces. There is a gasp followed by over half the kids in the room raising their hands saying that their parents are divorced. The family is broken right now. So we can’t rely on family ministry to be only solution. This movement saddens me. To know that there is a movement of churches that is going to miss the mark on reaching a generation.

  3. Hey marko.
    Thank you! I posted my take on the film on my blog site. (www.jameshooper.org). Of course it’s not as well articulated as what you wrote. Thank you for “defending youth ministry”. I am a product (if you want to call me that) of youth ministry, and it’s one of the reasons I am in student ministry today. Thank you!

  4. Hey Marko,
    I read Walt’s review the other day. I wondered if something would appear on your blog. I haven’t seen it yet but I plan to go look at it today. Thanks for your honesty. I’m saddened as a guy who’s been in full-time youth ministry for a decade now that someone is out there so blatantly trying to destroy it, not that they are the first ones to do so. I really hope that churches will not just accept what these guys have put out there as truth.

  5. Tim Challies nails it…
    “The sad irony of Divided is that this film and the movement it supports will undoubtedly cause plenty of its own division. And, indeed, it must! It majors on the minors, making family integration the pivotal and central doctrine for the church. It identifies a genuine problem but attempts to solve it in a way that elevates methodology instead of the gospel message. It’s a destructive message wrapped in a poorly-made documentary. The church would do well to ignore it.”

  6. It’s probably too late but it would be cool if there was a discussion or forum that could be led by you at NYWC San Diego this fall discussing the film.

  7. I enjoyed the film for the first 5 minutes. My head exploded at the halfway mark and I didn’t finish it. I appreciate your thoughtful unpacking of the good, the bad and the ugly side of Divided. What I hated most was that the movie uses language that I am using, and I don’t want important matters (parent involvement in faith development) being mixed up with 6 day creation issues.

    Again, well said.

  8. I know it wasn’t an exhaustive list but you forgot…Christian film/documentaries…they’re not in the Bible either

    though there is a potential case for Jesus as the first youth pastor (how old were those discisples? and they sure seemed to be camping out and doing missions work a whole lot) and if not Jesus then Paul as the first one-on-one mentor with Timothy

    now Seniors ministry, that’s a much harder case to make, seems like they’re all supposed to be helping out in the children’s, youth and twenty-something ministries (Titus 2:4)

  9. I’m with Kevin above. Would make a great discussion at NYWC. For me, this would be a top 3 workshop/session to attend.

  10. Thanks for the nod Marko! Honestly. . . the way this film was made and the way it put forth the basic premise. . . questioning it’s message makes one feel a little naughty. But the more I thought about it, the more I believe I was correct in questioning notions and methodologies that are quite leaky and suspect. You too. Still, I think we need to watch it and interact with it as it does raise some issues we need to address. . . and that you and I know both know we have been addressing for quite some time! Now for the fun part. . . someone needs to put a stopwatch to the thing to see who had a bigger role in the film. . . you or me. I think you win!

  11. Marko, thanks for taking the time to put your “typical” nature aside, and share with us an honest take on this film. As I watched the video it was most certainly designed with a particular bent in mind; nothing subtle there. While I can get bind the idea that we cannot become too complacent in YM or the church as to not ask critical questions of ourselves and our motives behind our ministry. I could not get beyond their premise that if Scripture doesn’t explicitly offer an account for something, that thing in question ought not to be done or exist. If this becomes the foundation upon which to base our lives on, how then would those involved in the film justify the most basic of things in life. Not being as disciplined as you Marko to put aside my sarcastic side… The Bible never talks about film as a medium to educate, yet an entire film and web resource kit has been produced to do just that.

    It seems to me, that in an effort to accomplish a very good thing; the re-involvement of the family back into the spiritual development of the child, the makers of the film have gone too far to one side as to suggest the complete removal of YM from the context of the mission of the Church.

    In the end, that’s simply too extreme for me.

  12. To me there were little clues throughout the film that these are very right-wing, ultra-conservative people. That doesn’t mean their thoughts are wrong… it just provides a clear and obvious bias from conception to delivery.

    The bonus features on the videos website play all of their cards. I watched those first… then saw the ramifications of their beliefs played out everywhere. (The way the narrator interacted at the concert was clear, right?) You saw a lot of ties in those videos.

    The narrator, in the beginning, talked about his parents pulling him out of youth group. Well… he didn’t explore who his father is or why he pulled him out, he just implied that it was for his son’s best interest. Maybe it was? But the implication was that his father was right and all the rest of the parents in the church were wrong.

    Jesus never called us to separate from the world. But I’m afraid that ultimately, that’s the goal of the financiers of this work. I went to college at a very conservative bible college. In that place there were reasonable people with conservative view points and there were extremist with unreasonable and extra-biblical positions. (As mentioned in another comment, the belief in a 6 day literal creation narrative is a requirement for salvation, etc.) I just wish this “documentary” had been created with more than one vantage point of conservative Christianity. It’s not telling the whole story… it’s trying to create a new story with a very old, tired one.

    As another commenter pointed out… it feels like the whole point of the “documentary” Divided is to divide the church.

  13. Should I be offended or simply laugh? The agenda is so far one-sided, narrow minded and completely off-kilter. There is not a mention of any team-based ministry between parents and youth staff, no mention of how a balanced ministry works; just piss poor “findings” from carefully crafted “research”. These people have no clue. However, they do have a plan to fix it all for you: BUY their movie for $19.95, their book for $15.95 or their bible study for $15.95. These three will make your church tons better and address the needs… right?

    Look- We all know youth ministry has had some hiccups in the past, just like every other ministry out there. But to negate the need of a youth pastor, especially one who gets the need for a team-based approach to ministry, is just a knee-jerk reaction to a problem. It is not creative. It does not seek to resolve or even play with the tension. Unfortunately, all this film (and its resolutions provide) does is DIVIDE.

  14. Would it be bad to admit that the church his dad pulled them out of was mine? I was not the youth pastor when they walked away but heard plenty about it when I came.
    I know the brothers personally and was asked to be interviewed. I asked a few questions back after seeing what direction they were heading and they never responded.
    The church I serve at currently that they brothers left is, in my opinion, a very family based ministry. We don’t have youth church, we have a ministry that desires to reinforce what parents are teaching (if what parents are teaching is biblical). We have students serving in all areas of the church and don’t have a youth area during the weekly service. We encourage students to sit with their family.
    Although I don’t think I started writing to defend the church where I serve. I started writing to say, the answer to youth ministry is not sitting holding hands as a family and singing Kumbya, the answer is allowing students to own their faith. Allowing students to encounter Christ and be transformed from the inside. As students leaving youth ministry? Yes, but I would venture to say that the Inter generational church has kids leaving also.
    What is broke is our framing of the Gospel. What if there is more to this Jesus thing than church? And maybe we need to tell students that their whole life is Gods and to stop wasting it playing video games and watching Glee.

  15. Adam – I will be at NYWC San Diego. I would be down for a discussion on the short film. I still have a lot of questions and concerns about it and talk about with friends from my area who are actually in the film. So if there were a get together I guess I am saying I would be apart of it.

  16. It was sad to see the straw man being constructed in the first interview with a teen. It is also sad to see another group of Christians playing the “either/or” game with the methodology when it’s just as easy to consider a “both/and” approach of family-based ministry and age-specific ministry? It was a shame because they were responding to real issues and asking important questions, but it was overshadowed by an obvious agenda that colored their answers.

  17. I have a hard time with the implied approach that the church in the past hasn’t been biblically-based and Spirit-led. They make it sound like the church was a bunch of pagan idiots that fell for something as stupid as “Sunday school” and now we (who better understand Scripture) have to clean up their mess.

    If you check out the extras “A special message from Scott Brown,” he ends with saying, “for a long time now we’ve set aside the Word of God for the sake of our traditions. Isn’t it about time that we set aside traditions for the Word of God.” I have a problem with how arrogant that sounds, as if he is untainted by any tradition…unlike the current church (except for his, of course).

    Sorry if there is too much sarcasm in there.

  18. yeah, I recently posted about this movie too… I enjoyed it. I thought it brought up many great questions and topics that need to be discussed and looked at, I agree though it was biased and a borderline, if not a completely, a promo for this organization, but nonetheless very thought provoking, which I appreciate. Seeing all of you respond and blog about the topic, and even consider to carry the discussion on at NYWC is exciting! I hope there is at least a “meet-up” at NYWC or a panel discussion on this movie where you guys even consider bringing in the film makers themselves to interact with people such as Walt or Marko… I think that’d be a good/cool example of unity and how we can disagree yet still interact lovingly together… and in the end not be divided on this movie “divided”

  19. Despite all the problems plaguing youth ministries for the past however many years… despite all the stats that your fun n games aren’t working…. I fear that youth Pastors everywhere will find this message extremely hard to digest. How could it get a fair listen? It attacks their lively-hood, their ‘ministry’ their ‘calling from God’, therefore I fear it gets dismissed out of hand, and doesn’t even get a listen. Plus, how many pansy, cowardly men want to respond to that high of a calling? None of us do… we’d rather drop off our kids on Wednesday nights, and go play with our iPhones, and watch football rather than engage and disciple our children.

  20. One last comment… So many of the comments above reveal the deep ignorance and bias we all have when something we hold dear is attacked. You may not have liked what you heard… you may have thought that some in the film were arrogant, or had an agenda… maybe some of the stats were a bit skewed…. but what could you possibly disagree with?
    Parents raising their children?
    Man is to be the head of the family?
    That parents are the spiritual leaders of their children, not 23 year old ‘pastors’?

    What is so offensive about these very basic Christian truths?

    Prophetic messages are never welcome. Youth ministry is failing, more lights, skits, videos, and games aren’t going to fix it.

  21. @Tom. The offensive parts are not in regards to parents raising their family, nor man leading the home; it isn’t even parents spiritually leading their children. It is the fact that the movie starts off with an obvious bias, a bias that constructs a perception that is not commonly accepted (as Mark says, a straw man).

    Have youth ministries made mistakes? Sure. Have we attempted to “win” souls with lights, skits, videos and games? Probably. There is not doubt that we have messed up along the way, but the reality is that this is not the truth of student ministry as a whole. Lights, skits, videos and games are merely tools, tools that are becoming less of a reality these days as we see a theological shift in youth ministries and church in general. Silos are being broken down and a more generational, family approach to ministry is being embraced, as if church were a tribe.

    Youth ministry is not failing; it is merely shifting, evolving into a more integrated role within the context of church as a whole.

  22. Good response Marko. It is truy biased, untrue, and not truly honest. Not truly honest or it would not have been so biased in its interviews. Just from the standpoint that some of those interviewed did not even know how their interviews were being used in this piece. I totally agree that we the body of Christ segregate by age all to often but we are really more divided because of other issues more than age segregation. To say “…modern youth ministry is not founded upon the Word of God but upon the ideas of men” is to me a lie! Before God on my knees…this is a lie. He has done so much through Youth Ministries and Sunday School programs. How many out there are following Jesus closely because of either of these methods within the Church. God has spoken into your lives through Sunday School and Youth Ministries. I am a such a person, and have been a Youth Pastor for 31 years. And no, I am not saying this to save any job of mine. It is a ministry…not a job anyway. Rather I see Youth Ministry having the ordained work of God in thousands of lives over the years. It is at least comforting to know that God is bigger than these biased agendas…by so called “experts”.
    Paul Hargreaves – Youth Pastor and proud to have served Jesus by serving children, youth, AND families!

  23. I have been a youth ministry volunteer for over 20 years and viewed the film with great interest. It makes two very flawed conclusions: youth ministry 1) has no biblical basis and 2) is eroding the family and the parents’ role as the major influence on their children’s spiritual direction.

    It’s insufficient to assert that the Bible makes no clear statement about the need for youth ministry: i.e. “Thou shalt have a youth ministry.” What is necessary is to look at what Jesus did. His disciples were young, and He encouraged them to leave home and follow Him. He knew quite well that this was necessary to focus on their spiritual growth so that they in turn will eventually lead others. Additionally, Proverbs says to “train up a child in the way he should go.” To that end, it is often quite necessary to focus only on children/youth themselves and pay exclusive attention to them for this proper, directed training to happen. Youth ministry serves that purpose.

    Regarding the conclusion that youth ministry is tearing up the family and the parents’ role in the spiritual upbringing of sons and daughters: that is not the fault of youth ministry; that is the fault of us weak and broken people in our efforts to direct the ministry. Yes, in many churches those who lead youth ministry have erroneously concluded that the ministry itself must take over the role of being the number one influence on the kids’ spiritual training. That is why it is so important that youth ministry incorporates – as a vital part of itself – a ministry for the parents to assist and guide them in their vital role of being the major influence upon their children. Rather than an anathema to parental influence, youth ministry that is true to biblical principles can work hand in hand with parents. To simply eliminate youth ministry is nothing more than falling prey to the idea of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  24. I agreed with the movie. I still have not heard a Biblical reason for youth groups. Why divide the Church? We all need one another. Even if one wants to have some meetings that are geared toward young people, wouldn’t all benefit from hearing whatever truth from God’s word is being presented? There is no real reason to divide the Church. Praying for all those involve to wake up and start worshing God in Spirit AND truth.

  25. They didn’t get your permission to be in the movie? Well that is bad taste.

    These folks have an agenda and there is a lot of information on the internet about this movement that started in the homeschool world. This movie was just a way to put fear into people, it is not offering a real discussion of any problems. Thatmom.com does a great job of looking at the FIC movement. Also check out this website to learn more:
    http://reformedbaptistfellowship.org/2009/09/09/the-relation-of-church-and-family/

    Youth Pastors are part of our church body and serve the needs of God’s children and the community as a whole. Keep up the good service to our Lord.
    My two cents, eliza

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