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.
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 ...