time to stop running Spiritual Formation Boarding Schools

my latest “Mark: My Words” column is out in the new issue of Youthwork Magazine (UK). i got a little ranty this time around (i know: so surprising from me, huh?).

boarding schoolI have a problem with the concept of boarding schools. I realize that there are times – say, when families are missionaries in a context where the options for secondary school are extremely limited, or for a troubled teenager whose needs surpass what a family is able to provide – when boarding school makes sense. But, in general, packing up a child or teenager and sending them off to a place where the education and care and emotional nurture and identity shaping is farmed out to professionals paid for that service? Yeah, as common as this might have been historically (at least for people of financial means), I’m not a fan.

It strikes me as very Baroness Schroeder, the selfish fiancé of Georg von Trapp, in The Sound of Music, who selfishly looks forward to getting the von Trapp children out of the way.

I’m guessing that if I lined up 100 youth workers – people who know and deeply care about teenagers – the vast majority of them would agree with me.

So why is it that so many of us youth workers are willing to run Spiritual Formation Boarding Schools?

In the 1970s, we set off on a grand adventure in the church, creating youth groups for the intentional spiritual nurture of adolescents. All good and well. Sorta.

Our misguided notion was that teenagers, due to their developmental need to differentiate themselves from their parents, and their healthy (at least potentially) search for identity, thrive best in homogeneous groups. That idea might not have flown with our churches, who needed to fund these efforts and create space for them, were it not for the fact that most adults find teenagers to be, in a word, annoying. So it was a lovely little bit of symbiosis that youth workers wanted to retract teenagers from the life of the church and adults in the church, like Baroness Scrhoeder, thought, “Perfect! Then this place can be more about me!”

For decades, we worked to “perfect” this isolating approach, thinking we were just nailing it.


Now we find out an embarrassing little truth: post-teenagers don’t do so well at holding onto their faith when their only experience of formation was in the context of an age-group ghetto. Teenagers often appear to thrive, spiritually speaking, while actively involved in our Spiritual Formation Boarding Schools. But it’s not sticky.

But we’ve created a bit of a monster. Imagine being the sole teacher at a regular educational boarding school, trying to convince the administration and parents that they’ve got it wrong. Right: resistance, even loss of employment.

I don’t want to put the blame at the feet of parents, or our churches; in a sense, they’re only expecting what we’ve promised (“We’ll spiritually develop your teenager. We’re the experts at this. You can go back to your regularly scheduled life.”).

Reintegration of teenagers into the life of a congregation, after decades of isolation, is messy and complex. There aren’t hundreds of success stories to copy; there isn’t a five-step, foolproof plan.

But this truth is clear: teenagers need the church, and the church needs teenagers. We can either take clumsy and courageous steps in this direction, or we can ignore the truth, or we can create new post-youth group pockets of isolation to postpone the problem for another generation (ha! Let the next round of youth workers deal with it!).

I’m not a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” guy. I’m not suggesting a ridiculous (and foolhardy) pendulum swing of shutting down our youth work or youth groups. We don’t need an either/or response; we need a both/and response.

I’ve become keenly aware of my inability to spiritually transform the lives of teenagers. But if my true motivation in youth work is to see teenagers grab hold of a lifelong faith, I simply must adjust my systems of isolation. I simply must be proactive and creative in helping teenagers find meaningful places of belonging in our church, not only in our youth group. The alternative (the way we’ve been doing it) might make me look good, but ultimately, it’s a disservice to the very teenagers I’m called to.

14 thoughts on “time to stop running Spiritual Formation Boarding Schools”

  1. Good stuff. I recently made the decision to move middle school ministry completely off of Sunday mornings (starting this fall) so students can worship with their families in the main service (or serve in other ministries). Our Sunday morning middle school gathering has been great, but we decided to lean into the Wednesday night idea so students can have a place for community with other Christian middle schoolers in the mid-week while also experiencing what the body of Christ really looks like on Sundays… multi-generations and a whole lot of mess. I know our response isn’t a perfect response, but I have been really pleased to hear more positive feedback from parents than negative feedback. Parents actually WANT to worship with their kids and learn along-side of them. Go figure!

  2. My attempt to co-partner with parents and non-parent adults in creating an inter-generational youth experience . . . was met with resistance (from those that purchased & renovated the house at the corner & hired a “youth coordinator”) and unemployment (when the parents only made an effort to transport teens when convenient for their schedule and I was unsuccessful in recruiting non-parent “transportation angels”. . . I even offered to come to where they lived (40 miles away in three different directions) and have satellite meetings). I understand that after my departure, some parents tried to meet after morning worship every other Sunday . . . and that did not work either. Since local sporting events are the number one priority for this particular congregation, maybe an intergenerational spiritual formation experience can be developed for AT THE GAME.
    I have done more “youth ministry” at my supplemental part-time job at the skating rink than at the church these past few years. Didn’t Jesus go out to where folks were hanging out? rather than wait for them to come to His wonderful program/facility!?

  3. I resonate with this and year 2 of youth pastoring started trying stuff to move in the direction of integrated/multigenerational youth ministry direction. The thing I tried that worked awesomely with my primarily 60+ congregation was asking for help with a Friday night youth supper meal, and then after they got used to that idea – that the youth were eating together weekly at the church instead of meeting 7-10PM – inviting the adults to come join us at the table so we could all chat together. Many of my youth have no experience of family mealtimes – honestly, they come for the home-cooked meal first, and some undivided adult attention and care next, and then after the meal they’re all warmed up and happy to talk about God stuff and pray together in the discussion time. Next phase – integrating caring adults (not just college-age volunteers) into the discussion time. I’ll keep you posted :)

  4. Youth group is the church analog to public education that separates children from families into age-segregated groups. It’s going to be tough to completely undo age-segregation in the church when it continues to be the cultural default. But I think it’s the right direction to go.

  5. Toddh,
    I’d love to hear Marko unpack this just a little more, but I don’t think he’s advocating for the need to completely undo age-segregation in the church. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on why a complete “undo” is necessary. Our church is neck-deep in trying to undo segregation here and there….but I haven’t heard too many proponents of complete integration. What does that look like?

  6. KJ – ok, I misspoke a little there. I don’t think “completely undoing” is realistic or prudent. I think what I was trying to get at was changing the mindset that champions age-segregation as the best way to do youth ministry. Once we all start to think differently, then it will be easier to initiate some new practices around the new mindset. I say that as someone who is trying to think differently myself, and who helps to run a youth ministry that is still largely age-segregated, but trying to move in a new direction. It will be difficult to imagine things differently with the public education model in place that separates students by age though. I think it’s processes of institutional isomorphism that are working against the church being able to dream of non age-segregated alternatives.

  7. I agree and I disagree. In a church (not to be named) I had worked at for years…I could barely handle the adult service (yawn), much less drag my (own) kids or middle schoolers to service with me. It was more like punishment. In that context I liked seeing teens (and kids) have their own service because the quality was so much better. Instead I tried to be strategic and intentional on connecting students to big church in serving contexts like VBS, Combined Mission Trips, service projects, taking them to all-church activities with the “larger church body.”

  8. and I also hate to add…my own youth numbers have greatly gone up where I am serving now…because the cool church in town is going in the direction you are advocating for. So instead of buying into it, I get a ton of new families and teens who come on Sunday morning to my youth program because their church “has nothing for their high schooler.” Often we as youth workers get “graded” and “paid” by reaching “benchmarks” (which are always attendance numbers). “Sticky faith” isn’t even on the radar screen of those above us who measure our value and worth as staff members….and we as youth workers start to miss the point too.

  9. Gina, you seem to be assuming that my suggestion that teenagers be integrated into the church only means Sunday morning stuff. And be sure to notice that I clearly wrote that I’m NOT advocating for the dissolution of youth ministry or never having a separate youth activity or function. It’s the wholesale isolation I’m naming as a failed experiment.

  10. Yes, for sure… I like your how you said “we need a both/and response” I guess I am more responding to the churches who are trying to apply what you are advocating for in all or nothing ways…by stopping their Sunday programs and kicking their students out to big church (and thus they end up at my program!) But yes I realize that’s not what you are necessarily saying to do.

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