by Nate Davis
Every year, youth workers expend vast amounts of energy and resources planning programs and events that are aimed at reaching students who seem to be slipping away despite their best efforts to keep them plugged into the Church. Snowboard camps, skate demos, christian rock concerts, and house boating are just a few of these big ticket events that are failing to make the lasting impact desired. It’s no wonder that youth workers who live in the trenches are overcome with feelings of despair and frustration as they see their best efforts amount to very little in the grander scheme of things. Yet there is still a silver lining in our situation: being at the end of one’s rope can often lead individuals to come up with new and innovative ideas to reach students that can make a real difference.
The current state of youth ministry has led some youth workers to begin exploring new ways of doing youth ministry in the hopes of making a real impact on the lives of students. Scott T. Brown is one of those individuals. In his book, A Weed in the Church, Brown explores what it would look like if modern youth ministry as we know it were done away with and instead it was replaced with a model that relies heavily on age-integrated ministry and paternal influence. The central thesis in Brown’s book is that modern youth ministry (defined as an age segregated youth ministry that separates students from their families for discipleship purposes) is a weed in the church that is hindering, even strangling, the spiritual formation of both students and the church as a whole. The crisis, according to Brown, is seen clearly when one observes the present landscape of youth ministry—students on the whole are biblically illiterate, the staggering rate of students (between 40-88%) leaving the church after graduation, and the loss of the biblical ideas of manhood and womanhood amongst students. Brown observes that, in addition to these sobering circumstances, modern youth ministry tends to operate within a context that is either (a) contrary to scripture, or (b) opposed to scripture.
Brown’s thesis is centered on the idea that in modern youth ministry, churches have abandoned the only source of authority for the Christian life—that being Scripture alone. Brown goes on to observe that age-segregated youth ministry does not find its roots in a biblical practice, but rather in a model that came about as a result of pagan influence (i.e. Plato). Due to this influence, modern youth ministry can lead to nothing but failure, since it is inherently destructive by its very nature.
While Brown does admit that there is no step-by-step plan for dealing with the issues that have resulted from the embrace of an age-segregated youth ministry—he does offer three insights that must be held as core convictions by churches that wish to make a difference in the lives of students. First, it is imperative that a church has a vision for what a biblical church life looks like—this vision must be inclusive, not age-specific. Second, Brown states that courage is required by leadership to take drastic measures in dealing with firmly fixed realities—it doesn’t matter if change makes people angry or uncomfortable, being obedient to biblical authority is the most important thing. Lastly, he believes that churches must be willing to lay a biblical foundation for the future of youth ministry—this means making the tough choices and sticking with them while keeping the biblical vision of church life in mind.
Brown believes that saving modern youth ministry is no longer an option for those who wish to minister to disciple adolescents. Like a weed that infests and destroys a garden, it must be uprooted. In its place, a new foundation can be laid that embraces the commands of scripture as it builds strong families through biblical methods while establishing biblical authority in the home. Furthermore, it will work towards making the church a true family as it encourages biblical womanhood (and manhood) and as it provides intergenerational worship and education. In doing so, the church ministers to youth without corrupting them through creating and sustaining a destructive youth culture that come as a the result of age-segregated programs that foster division rather than unity.
I am not entirely sure how I ought to respond to the things that Brown has proposed in his book. On the one hand, I agree with his recognition that there is a serious problem that exists in the current state of youth ministry as well as there being a need for more intergenerational ministry to occur in the church. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if he is throwing the baby out with the bath water in the way he works out his methodology. While there are some things that youth workers can learn from Brown’s book (like looking in depth at some biblical principles that support intergenerational youth ministry), I am not entirely convinced that what Brown presents is going to be encouraging nor helpful to youth workers who are seeking to make an impact on the lives of students with the message of the Cross.
What Brown observes about the current state of youth ministry is of the utmost importance, there is no need to deny the severity of the issues at hand. There is something not working in the way we are doing ministry, and it is imperative that we do something about it. But throwing out the whole of modern youth ministry practices? Brown seems to have gone too far. In divorcing human experience and tradition from his interpretation of scripture, Brown has opted to use definitions of words like “youth” and “church” that no longer mean what they did in the times during which the authors of scripture were writing. This is problematic on several levels, primarily since the authors of scriptures had no conception of what the modern perception of the word “youth” meant when they wrote the things they did. In fact the modern idea of “youth” that we are familiar with today came about after WWII—it created an entire sub-culture in the wake of changing the makeup of the typical family. It makes no sense to try to equate one to the other. (Read “The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager” for an in depth look into the development of adolescents as we know it today.)
Additionally, in rejecting everything other than scripture, Brown limits the God-given ability of youth workers to be creative thinkers who engage students on their own level (much in the same way Paul did on Mars Hill when teaching the Greeks using their own idols as illustrations). Lastly, much of Brown’s work is centered on the idea that discipleship occurs solely within the traditional family structure. Yet sadly, as we know, the “traditional” family is mostly a bygone relic of the past—as much as we would love to uphold this tradition, it is foolish to base an entire ministry plan on an ideal that is no longer applicable to the masses. In doing so, we ostracize the students and families who don’t live up to the bar that we have set for them.
Let me be clear on this, Brown’s motives and intentions are pure—but it is clear that his methodology is off. I would recommend A Weed in the Church to my friends in youth ministry as a book to spark conversation and theological reflection about the ways in which we go about ministry, but I would not advise that any of Brown’s methods be taken to heart. It seems that Brown’s proposal stands at one end of the spectrum, and the practices of modern youth ministry at the other. It is our God given calling as youth workers to live in the tension between the ideas espoused by Brown and the best practices of modern youth ministry. In doing so, we find the still place in the pendulum swing that fosters the best environment for spiritual formation to occur in the lives of students.
by Nate Davis