Tag Archives: isolation of teenagers

youth ministry as a NOTHING PREVENTS YOU reality

i was challenged by a sermon given this past weekend by a retired methodist bishop, based on the biblical story of the ethiopian eunuch. and it got me thinking about the message and the message our youth ministries should embrace and project.

you probably know the story: the ethiopian eunuch was rich, powerful and elite (traveling by chariot was the equivalent of today’s private-jet-and-limo set). he was, after all, in charge of the ethiopian queen’s treasury. clearly, a very smart man, also, as we first encounter him as he’s reading isaiah (not his native language!) in the back of a chariot.

philip, after hearing from an angel that he’s supposed to head down to gaza from jerusalem, camps out alongside a road. and there he encounters the eunuch who is heading home from jerusalem (the direction is important — and it’s fascinating that the angel didn’t direct philip to the eunuch when they were both in jerusalem).

deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” (the junior high boy in me likes the old KVJ version, though — “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”)

the eunuch went to jerusalem to worship; but would have been prevented from doing so.

after philip explains the prophetic passage the eunuch is reading, about jesus, the eunuch asks an important question: here’s some water — what would prevent me from being baptized?” of course, phil baptizes him, and we have one of the most important conversion stories of the new testament.

there are (and have been) a hundred ways this passage can be projected to our current day. but i’m a youth worker, and i got thinking about how PREVENTED teenagers are today–maybe more than at any time in human history.

  • Massive, culturally-endorsed isolation
  • Kept from the world of adults
  • Viewed as incapable and broken
  • Infantilized – treated as children

To those who are prevented, the gospel says, “NOTHING PREVENTS YOU.” You are welcome as an equal.

Our youth ministries should not exist as well-meaning holding tanks, waiting for maturity and adulthood.

Our youth ministries should not isolate teenagers from the world of adults.

Our youth ministries should not treat teenagers as children, incapable and broken.

Our ministries, instead, should be loudspeakers and labs of a Nothing Prevents You reality.

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.