Tag Archives: intergenerational ministry

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.

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!


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.


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.)

the future of youth ministry, episode 4

i led a late night discussion at the national youth workers convention this past fall on “the future of youth ministry”. in preparation for that discussion, i emailed a few dozen friends with better youth ministry minds than my own, and asked them to complete the sentence, “the future of youth ministry….” about 15 of them responded (often with more than a sentence!). i’m posting them here as a series, sometimes with a bit of commentary from myself, and sometimes merely as a reflection-prod. would love to hear your responses.
episode 1
episode 2
episode 3

while the last episode, with kara powell and brad griffin’s comments, focused on intergenerational ministry, andy root and lars rood (hmm, last name similarity?) narrow that focus a bit more to parents. i have noticed that discussion about youth ministry often makes these two subjects (intergenerational ministry and parent ministry) one and the same; but they’re not. there’s some overlap, to be sure; but the intergenerational question is more focused on helping teenagers rub shoulders with the whole community of faith, while the parent question is more focused on the role of parents in the faith formation of teenagers, and understanding the family systems teenagers live in.

mini bios:
andy root (andrew, if you’re looking for his books and such) is the associate professor of youth and family ministry at luther seminary. andy’s first book is on the top 10 youth ministry books list of lots of thoughtful youth ministry peeps: revisiting relational youth ministry. after that, andy cranked out 3 books in the time it takes many to read 3 books (relationships unfiltered, the promise of despair, and children of divorce). in short: dude is wicked smart.

lars rood is, in my opinion, one of the next wave of youth ministry voices. the lead youth minister at highland park presbyterian church in dallas, lars is one of the very, very few practicing youth workers with a doctorate. he’s got a book coming out soon, and i expect will have much more to say to us in the years to come.

here’s what andy and lars had to say (andy mentions more than parents, but i’m grouping these two together since they both touch on that question):

Andy Root
In the next few decades youth ministry will need to face the following: a way to actually work with families in a very complicated familial cultural locale, a way of dealing with pluralism–being able to claim the particularity of Jesus without it sliding into rigidity, and to find a robust theological position that connects revelation (the way we understand God’s revealing presence) with our practices and strategies of day to day ministry.

Lars Rood
I’m scared of one thing. How much we are going to have to shift things to draw parents into their faith for the first time. I think parent ministry is going to be a huge new reality of youth pastors.

here’s my 2 cents: i think there has been a LOT of talk about engaging parents and working with parents and parent ministry (and “family ministry”) in the last 10 or more years. but, other than youth workers trying to increase communication, and offering a parent event once in a while, i’ve seen very little rubber hitting the road. mostly what i see are middle aged youth workers changing their titles to “pastor of family ministries”, or something similar, as a way of sounding like they’re doing more, so they can warrant a salary on which they can survive. yeah, that’s snarky and pessimistic; but it’s what i’ve seen. i’m sure there are myriad exceptions; but they’re in the minority.

all the research out there (like christian smith’s stuff) shows us what we know, but often don’t want to admit: parents have a WAY bigger impact on their teenagers’ faith than we do. when we DO admit that, it’s usually our rationale for a student who didn’t respond to our amazing ministry efforts.

so what to do? i think lars brings up a good point: we have to engage the faith formation of parents. “but that’s not my job!” some would say. well, maybe it needs to be…

the future of youth ministry, episode 3

i led a late night discussion at the national youth workers convention this past fall on “the future of youth ministry”. in preparation for that discussion, i emailed a few dozen friends with better youth ministry minds than my own, and asked them to complete the sentence, “the future of youth ministry….” about 15 of them responded (often with more than a sentence!). i’m posting them here as a series, sometimes with a bit of commentary from myself, and sometimes merely as a reflection-prod. would love to hear your responses.


kara powell and brad griffin’s responses are a nice pair. and as it should be — kara and brad are two halves of the team at the fuller youth institute. and much of their “sticky faith” research and writing these days has been focused extensively on the content of both of their responses…

Kara Powell
I think the future of youth ministry is one in which the age-segregation that has dominated the church ends and we move toward the type of intergenerational community and integration God intends. We’re seeing in our research how important intergenerational community and relationships are to Sticky Faith.

Brad Griffin
The future of youth ministry must move toward more intergenerational connectedness, more valuing of and partnering with parents, and less programming fluff.

i really resonate with what kara and brad say. it’s hard to argue with, since it’s coming straight out of their research. it’s also representative of the research of the national study of youth and religion, conducted by christian smith and others. kenda dean reports on this latter research most directly (for christian youth ministries, at least) in her book almost christian. and, as i’ve posted about here multiple times, i’ve found a good deal of resonance with robert epstein‘s teen 2.0 (and conversations with him).

all of this research and writing, blended with my own observations, leads me to this conclusion: most of our approaches to youth ministry, developed in an era when autonomy was a primary need of teenagers, and when the american church was particularly gung-ho about creating age-based autonomous ministries, has resulted in a church experience, for most teenagers in churches with active youth groups, that isolates teenagers from the adults in the church. one of the many results of this (certainly there have been positives, as well as negatives), is that we don’t provide teenagers with meaningful adult relationships outside of those adults who are either paid to be with them (youth pastors) and those who volunteer to spend time in the age-based ghetto (youth ministry volunteers). in other words, most teenagers in our churches with youth ministries don’t rub shoulders with adults being adults.

teenagers don’t get to watch adults doing adult things.

teenagers don’t get to practice being “apprentice adults” in the adult bits of the church.

by the way, this is true for teenagers in most areas of their lives, not only in our churches — we’ve just bought into the way culture at large addresses teenagers, either with good motives or not-so-good motives: put them over there.

this isolation from the adult world that most teenagers experience lacks on-ramps to the world of adults. no wonder extended adolescence has become our new cultural reality.

i’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater and completely do away with youth ministry. there’s a small, hipster movement of churches doing just that (“we don’t have a youth ministry, and we’re proud of it!”). i find that most of those churches are really just saying that they have other priorities that are much more important to them. but i do wonder if it might be wise for lead youth workers to intentionally choose a new job description (yes, easier said than done), from “lead programmer for teenagers” to “champion or lead banner bearer for teenagers”. the former is all about creating the ultimate space of isolation (stating t it negatively, to be sure); and the latter could be about being the voice — the gadfly — in the congregation, charged with the role of finding ways for teenagers to connect with adults, of not letting the congregation forget the teenagers in their midst.

what are your thoughts?