An Open Letter to Mark Driscoll
Let me start by stating that I like Mark Driscoll. I believe that Mark has a great heart for communicating the Gospel, is a very engaging and knowledgeable teacher, and is a lot of fun to listen to (and learn from). That said, Mark recently posted a note on his Facebook page entitled “Is Your Youth Group Accomplishing Anything?” (check it out here) that I do not completely agree with. So take a minute or two to read Mark’s thoughts, and then feel free to read my response below.
I too, am tired of attractional ministry, and the fact that a majority of students leave the church after they graduate high school. (I am also a bit tired of hearing the whole 60-80% statistic. It is seriously getting to the point where it is like hearing the 18-month myth about youth pastor longevity). I also echo that ministry is about getting deeper and beyond a surface message to really disciple and impact teenagers. But I am not so certain that getting rid of traditional youth ministry altogether is the right way to go about it.
I personally am someone who believes that there is a place for traditional student ministry. The programs that we run are means to an end, and so long as we remember that, they have a very valid place. In my own ministry we run a Friday evening program entitled Friday Night Flood. We open the doors to our church (we are blessed to have a full gym, and can offer a few other things that appeal to teens) for three hours each Friday night, and meet teens where they are. They come in and have fun, eat food together, compete in our short, goofy (and sometimes gross) challenges, and hear the Gospel presented in many relevant ways. Sometimes it is a testimony from a student themselves, other times it is a story shared about what happened in Scriptures. Sometimes it is Scripture itself. But each of our volunteer staff spends intentional time at this program meeting students who are coming from unchurched backgrounds. They are hungry for someone to take an interest in them. Someone to come alongside them and share their life. Hungering to be loved unconditionally. And in that time and that space, we are able to make that connection with them, and help them connect with God in a real way. Granted, we are not getting outside the walls of our building and we are asking teens to come to us. I am still trying to find ways to change this aspect.
Now, of course, our ministry is not built on this one program. It happens to be our best attended program, and still a scary number of students come in and out without making a genuine connection. But in the end, the path to Him is a narrow one, and not all will choose to follow it. Most will walk away. It makes me wonder how many of our 60-80% of teens (and young adults) who are falling away from the church are ones who would choose to do so whether or not they outgrew the age group dedicated to them. But if our program can help encourage and grow that 20-40% who are genuinely walking with Christ, then it is well worth it in my book.
Through this one program, I personally have built relationships with teens who are suffering broken homes searching for a solid father figure, teens who have been arrested for poor decisions and need someone to forgive them, and teens who are simply lost and searching for guidance in how to live their life. In fact, one teen in particular dropped into my home for a small Bible study last week because of his connection to Friday Night Flood.
It is true that real discipleship will be extracurricular. All real ministry will be extracurricular. Every minute of it. But the meetings, the games, the retreats and mission trips – they all have their place. They each serve a purpose in nudging teens to ask questions, to search for deeper. To want to get to know God more. And yes, they do tend to segregate teens off from parents, and we hear the lament that the churches are becoming more and more fragmented, and church unity is dying off. This is true. I cannot cover that one up. I have met very few teens over the years who are willing to give up their comforts to worship with the older generations, and older congregants who are unwilling to really share in the experience with teens.
I am all for full-blown inter-generational ministry. I would love to see it happen in every church in the country. But the reality is that nearly every church has groups that are age, gender, or life-stage specific. There is good reason for this (though some of those groups should really be disbanded, because no real growth is happening there. Most churches have these groups too). Traditional Youth Ministry gives students a space to connect and be introduced to others who want to minister to them. Every church needs to evaluate their own ministries. Yours sounds like it is on the right track, and your move to smaller groups of real, discipleship-oriented community is fantastic.
Now, Friday Night Flood is not flashy by most comparisons. It is a very laid back evening. But it does attract teens. Some come for the gym. A few come for the food (we do provide home-cooked food free to all, and more than a couple are coming from homes where dinner is an afterthought in their home due to budgetary reasons, or because their parents are too busy to care or prepare a meal). But most teens who come through our ministry are searching for adults who will love them and will minister to them at a real, life-altering level.
Traditional Youth Ministry just provides a space for this to start. And so long as we keep the proper perspective, then I feel traditional Youth Ministry should be kept around, just so long as it doesn’t sell teens (and God) short on opportunities for real growth and discipleship.