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October 30, 2006

To worship with the understanding -- at any age

Suzanne Hadley at The Line reports,

"Sugarcoated, MTV-style youth ministry is so over," says Time magazine. The new trend? Bible-based worship. This is good news. Today's teens are craving something deeper than scavenger hunts and rock concerts. According to the article:
Youth ministers have been on a long and frustrating quest of their own over the past two decades or so. Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination. Their conversion has been sparked by the recognition that sugarcoated Christianity, popular in the 1980s and early '90s, has caused growing numbers of kids to turn away not just from attending youth-fellowship activities but also from practicing their faith at all.

And all these years I thought I was the only kid put off by that sort of thing. Although I attended and still attend a wonderful church that I love, I would rather have cleaned all the restrooms in the place than become a regular attender at any youth group that I knew of. I loved the adult activities; I was put off by the teen ones. (In fairness, I attended so few of the latter that I may not have gotten the full picture.) I never could understand why youth ministers (yes, and often young adult ministers as well) find it so necessary to dumb everything down for the younger crowd -- nor did I like it that all of us were expected to like the same things because we happened to be the same age. Obviously segregation by age is much easier than segregation by interests, so it's hard to blame a church for that. But why assume that what they all want when it comes to religious intstruction is books full of Christianity Lite and songs empty of any real content or beauty? The dwindling numbers suggest, paradoxically, that the more seeker-friendly a church becomes, the less church-friendly it makes the kids.

And forget what Time says about "the past two decades." These trends, or something very like them, went on all the way back at the dawn of the last century, according to a biography of the great detective novelist and theological writer Dorothy L. Sayers:

She seems to have sensed [as a teenage girl] that there were two kinds of Christianity, the sentimental, which made her feel uncomfortable, and the Christianity she glimpsed in the lovely language of the Scriptures and in the great churches, where the name of God was surrounded “with scarlet and blue and gold and strange birds and flowers in painted missals . . . In the book called Orthodoxy there were glimpses of this other Christianity, which was beautiful and adventurous and queerly full of honor.” And elsewhere in [her unfinished novel] Cat O’Mary she wrote: "A strict course of exact and dogmatic theology might well provide the intellect with a good, strong bone to cut its teeth on; but . . . to worship with the understanding had already, in Katherine’s school-days, become unfashionable."

So what does happen when teens are taught to worship with the understanding?

Time's article gives some examples:

At Shoreline Christian Center in Austin, Texas, youth pastor Ben Calmer vetoed the purchase of a pool table because it didn't further his goal of increasing spiritual nourishment. Instead he started a class in which the young people wrestle with such difficult questions as, Why doesn't God answer all prayers? No one seems to be suffering from the absence of the pool table. Youth membership has doubled, to 160, during the 18 months Calmer has been in charge. Similarly, teens at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., are embracing the big doses of Bible study youth pastors now recommend. Teen ranks have tripled, to nearly 600, since the mid-1990s.

The Calvary kids [in Bellflower, California] say they too are happy with the more traditional approach. Priscilla Balcaceres, 16, believes she would still be holding grudges and feuding with friends and family were it not for Bible lessons and sermons on forgiveness. "Before attending Calvary, I believed in God and prayed at night, but I was still very bitter and unhappy about many things in my life," she says. "I've learned what it really means to be a Christian, and now I wake up smiling every morning." Meanwhile, Amanda Sinks, 16, spouts verses from Timothy, Corinthians and James the way other teens recite rap lyrics. "There's nothing boring to me about reading the Bible every day," says Sinks, who became a Christian 17 months ago and counts a heightened ability to withstand peer pressure as one of the benefits.

Doctrine and tradition aren't boring? They're actually striking a response in the young, and teaching them to take faith seriously? Sayers would love it. So do I.

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Very interesting article. I was in church youth group in the early 90's, and constantly felt like there was something missing. Sure, we'd spend the better part of 2 hours in stupid activities, and about 5 minutes in devotions. But it was the old 'ask Jesus into your heart'. Never why you should ask Jesus into your heart. Rarely why we need Jesus in the first place. When people don't understand the reasons for their faith, they fall apart later on in life. This has happened to many of my jr and sr high school friends, even those raised in church. Shouldn't churches stand out from the world instead of conforming? It's great that there is a resurgence of the emphasis on doctrine, and growing spiritually instead of a focus on games, socializing, and pizza.

Doug Ward

I really appreciate this article. What struck me as interesting is that the trend seems to be the opposite for the adults. The trend in the larger seeker focused congregations, is to change to look more like the culture to attract the "unsaved". Could this be because the youth of the 80s and 90s are now the adult leaders, and they don't have doctrinal foundation needed?

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