Note: This post is offered in recognition of the end of Hostess and the sweetness they produce, the Twinkie: Back in the day when our children were much younger I developed a habit that I soon jettisoned because, well, it was stupid. Whenever I went on a trip I would bring them back a candy [...]
Note: This post is offered in recognition of the end of Hostess and the sweetness they produce, the Twinkie:
Back in the day when our children were much younger I developed a habit that I soon jettisoned because, well, it was stupid. Whenever I went on a trip I would bring them back a candy bar or some junk food like twinkies. I guess I felt bad for being gone; giving them a treat like a twinkie (who doesn’t like twinkies?) would make it better.
It didn’t take me long to figure out this is not a great way to lead your children to appreciate a healthy diet! Children love junk food. A part of me will miss those twinkies myself. But a continual diet like that will not lead to ideal physical maturity. At an early age our children discovered a love for more robust dietary delights as well. I remember Josh digging into his first prime rib at about age six and wanting more of it than I could afford.
The church has too often assumed that the way to communicate to teenagers goes through the vehicle spiritual junk food. I would submit young people want, and from my experience, CRAVE, meat. Recent books such as You Lost Me, Already Gone, and The Next Christians demonstrate a hunger by the younger generation for truth served up heavy and real. Students learn trigonometry in school, so they can learn theology in church. Enough of treating youth like elementary school children on break when they attend a youth function. I have spoken at large youth gatherings where almost no student brought a Bible. Why? Because youth pastors have not taught youth that God’s Word matters, even in a church service! A few year ago one nationally known youth leader made the following statement to youth pastors at one of his conferences: “Young people today will not listen to a message longer than 17 minutes.” I have to praise a student pastor I know who was there. He told the so called “expert” that he would be apologizing to his students for bringing them to a conference where the very leader of the conference so disrespected them. Such a ridiculous notion ignores the capacity for students to sit through movies, class, or even wait in lines at theme parks. Worse, it shows contempt toward the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and the place of preaching in the Christian church. It further treats students like children, not young adults.
Greg Stier is far more on track when he states: “Within the pages of Scripture we have everything we need to truly be successful in youth ministry.” (Outbreak) Most student pastors would agree with that statement. But most do no practice it in the attention given to serious teaching of the Word to youth.
I fear too many today who work with students have without even realizing it minimized the role of the Word in their ministries. In her stirring book Almost Christian, Kenda Dean contends that too many in the church are not guilty of being poor communicators to students; we communicate very well, just the wrong things. We communicate moralistic therapeutic deism, a me-centered, moralistic approach to the Bible that teaches Bible trivia more than a gospel-driven life.
We should teach youth that truth has no fear. We should take on their hardest questions. To paraphrase a line from a movie: They can handle the truth! We should put the very best Bible teachers in the church in the student classes. I had six different teachers in my six years as a youth in Sunday School. I remember three. One I remember because he acted like a teenager and ultimately had an affair, shipwrecking his influence. I remember two others not because they were cool, but because week after week they taught the Bible. I cannot for the life of me remember the other three. They made no impression.
I presented a paper on this subject at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting in Colorado a few years back. Two professors of student ministry attended the session. During the session I made the statement that too many youth ministers learn youth ministry from youth ministers who learn it from youth ministers. One of the professors, who admitted he could not deny what I said, asked what degree we offered at Southeastern for youth pastors. I told him we offered the perfect degree: the Master of Divinity! A student pastor needs theology more than others on staff because students will ask the hard questions if allowed to do so. Give them truth not twinkies.
A postmodern culture awash in a sea of relativism needs truth to be proclaimed more clearly, not less. Barna found that about half of America’s teens believe that Jesus committed sins, and only about a third believes in hell. Teaching that is neglected in one generation is rejected in the next! He adds: “While youth ministry has become a standard ministry program in tens of thousands of churches, there has been surprising little growth in the involvement of teenagers in the life of the church over the past decade.” (Real Teens)
Barna’s research from his book Real Teens echoes my conviction that when you get to the bottom line, students still seek truth: ”When pressed to identify the single most important reason why [unchurched youth] attend [a church] youth group. It turns out that relationships bring the kids to the place, but they will not return unless the church delivers the goods. What are they looking for? Substance. Burning, practical insights about God was listed twice as often as anything else as the most important reason for returning. The fellowship, the games, the music, the casual and friendly atmosphere–all those elements are important to getting kids in the door — the first time. Getting them there on subsequent occasions requires those benefits plus solid, personally applicable content.”
In other words, if you are going to pamper youth with spiritual twinkies when they need — and often long for — the meat of truth, leave student ministry and work in the nursery. If you have a chance to speak to youth, please teach the Word of God. Make it applicable: I had a DMin student discover that youth need a little more help in applying the Scripture to life than adults. We need to help them. But we do not need to spoon feed them Gerber Bible Smoothies or Veggie Tale moralism.
The Millennial Generation stands as the largest group of teens in US history. They want a challenge, something real. Give them the Word. It is real. It is more than relevant–it is significant. Help them see how it matters. Give them a higher motivation than “read the Word because I said so.” Help them to think, to see the world “Christian-ly.”