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A few years ago I volunteered at an event put on by a national youth ministry.

The evening was fun but grueling. We bobbed for apples, captured flags, and raced eggs across the floor using only our noses. The games culminated with a frigid indignity: I laid on my back and let three giggling teenagers make an ice cream sundae on my face.

As I toweled chocolate syrup from my chin, a leader ordered the teens into a semicircle. It was time for the devotional, which included a gospel presentation—but it was a gospel presentation that made me want to stand up and scream.

"Being a Christian isn't hard," he told the group. "You won't lose your friends or be unpopular at school. Nothing will change. Your life will be the same, just better."

Maybe his words would have slipped by me if they hadn't been such blatant reversals of Jesus' own warnings about the offensiveness of his message or the inevitable hardships of following him.

I glanced at the teens. One was flicking Doritos chips at a friend. Others whispered to each other or stared at the floor. None of them seemed to be listening. And why should they? I wondered. Who cares about something that involves no adventure, no sacrifice, and no risk?

Unfortunately what I witnessed that night is hardly unique. Often ministries, especially youth ministries, are heavy on fun and light on faith. It's fired up entertainment and watered down gospel.

Amused to death

The entertainment emphasis can be traced at least a generation, and perhaps nowhere was the impact felt more profoundly than in youth programs. Instead of stressing confirmation of faith—youth ministry's original raison d'être—the focus shifted to attracting more and more kids to the ministry (which inevitably involved entertaining them). Not necessarily bad goals, but there were some ugly unintended consequences.

Today some youth ministries are almost devoid of religious education. They are "holding tanks with pizza," as church researcher Ed Stetzer has called them. Some use violent video game parties to attract students through the church doors on Friday nights.

Over the past year I've conducted dozens of interviews with 20-somethings who have walked away from their Christian faith. Among the most surprising findings was this: nearly all of these "leavers" reported having positive experiences in youth group. I recall my conversation with one young man who described his journey from evangelical to atheist. He had nothing but vitriol for the Christian beliefs of his childhood, but when I asked him about youth group, his voice lifted. "Oh, youth group was a blast! My youth pastor was a great guy."

I was confused. I asked Josh Riebock, a former youth pastor and author of mY Generation, to solve the riddle: if these young people had such a good time in youth group, why did they ditch their faith shortly after heading to college?

...

Good point.

If our strategy is to win young people's allegiance to church by offering better entertainment than the ...

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Drew Dyck is managing editor of Leadership Journal

Related Topics:ChangeDiscipleshipFaithFutureYouthYouth Ministry
From Issue:Entertainment & Discipleship, Spring 2011 | Posted: May 9, 2011

Also in this Issue: Spring 2011

Preaching is Performance ArtSubscriber Access Only

The way it's delivered is part of the message.

Preaching Hard Truth in the Age of GraceSubscriber Access Only

Toolkit: Preaching

Through a Glass, Darkly

Ministry to the mentally ill.

Breaking the Mold

Christian formation means not letting the world press us into its mold.

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Displaying 2–3 of 3 comments

Gary

January 19, 2012  11:21am

I was a youth pastor in a church where I taught the biblical truths, and practices. ITs not easy to do, I had a handful of kids that actually got it. I set week after week and notices how other churches in the area did it, they would have a turn out of about 20-30 kids. And I rememebr one time asking a teen who stopped by hte house who had came to our youth groups then got involved in one of the other churches. I asked him what was different between them and us, He responded that the youth group where he was going was not as deep. They werea able to play alot more. That really shook me up, I knew I was doing the right thing by teaching scripture, but the thought of other churches discarding biblical truths just to build numbers astonished me. I pray that The church wake up and understand what it is producing. Being a Christian is not easy, its a life long journey of ups and downs, but God's Grace will sustain us if we endure. AMEN.

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Fred Wallis

December 21, 2011  1:28pm

Sobering and yet should have been predictable outcomes. When one compares the tenor of Jesus' lessons with so much contemporary "we do not want anyone to feel uncomfortable" philosophies, one must wonder how such conclusions surfaced. Concepts such as commitment, sacrifice, discipline, and accountability seem invisible in much curriculum of late. Thanks for a good article.

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