Tag Archives: youth group

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 youth group experience

adam mclane, ys’s online community czar (or something like that), has had a running series of posts on the ys blog over the last couple months of ys staff telling their own youth group stories. i finally got around to answering adam’s questions, and he posted this bit about my own story:

Mark Oestreicher (everyone calls him Marko) is the President of Youth Specialties. As you would suspect, as the President he’s technically in charge of everything we do here. The best way you can follow what Marko is up to is to subscribe to his blog, ysmarko.com. Recently, I had the chance to hear a little bit about Marko’s experience in youth group.

What was the name of your youth group?
we didn’t have a name! I don’t think any youth groups had names back in the dark ages. But I do remember that the basement of the church, occasionally flooded and always moldy smelling, was where we met, and was called “The Hub”. It was filled with groovy carpet squares on the floor (easy to replace after the next flooding) and youth-created psychedelic painting on the walls.

Do you remember the first time you went to youth group? What was it like?
my older sisters were in the youth group, and I couldn’t wait to get in it. When I was in junior high, we weren’t part of the youth group (that changed when I was in high school, and my church hired a full-time junior high pastor long before that was a normal thing to do). The youth group really became the social center of my life. All my friendships and activities revolved around that group (and my high school choir!).

Tell us about your youth leader.
my high school pastor had a huge impact on my life. His name is steve andrews, and he’s the pastor of a large church in the detroit area now. He took a personal interest in me, and invested a lot of time in me. There’s no question that I’m in youth ministry, all these years later, in great part because of steve. Many of my friends have similar stories.

Share a memory of an activity you did as a group.
I’ll never forget the awkwardness of a junior high retreat that was all about sex. It was extra uncomfortable for me, because I had a massive crush on a girl who attended who was obviously more, uh, advanced (shall we say) than I was. I remember walking down the railroad tracks with her, and casually asking her, “So… What do you think about what the speaker’s talking about?”

What’s one thing that you learned in youth group that has stuck with you since graduation?
I’ll never forget when Terry Prisk, the youth pastor when I was in junior high (and now a pastor of a church in brighton, MI), stopped me in the hallway of the church and said, “Oestreicher, you’d make a great youth pastor someday.” I remember the exact spot, and can perfectly recreate it in my mind, even though that building has since been leveled and turned into a strip mall and condos.

If you could relay a message to your old youth pastor, what would it be?
thanks for believing in me, and holding onto the hope and belief that God was at work in my life, even when outward evidence may have been to the contrary.