Should We Turn Protestant Congregations Into Playgrounds for Youth?

I have experienced it; you have experienced it: one enters a church congregation hoping for some solid spiritual food, including a well-planned and relevant sermon, the singing of some of the truly great and inspiring hymns, but one comes away about an hour later feeling spiritually-malnourished. The service opened with the clear on-stage presence of several youths armed with 'twangy' electic guitars and - within minutes - their dreadful drone was ear-splitting, not calming and soothing. The sermon was, perhaps, an evangelistic appeal addressed to the young, but it was thin with no depth of spiritual food. Maybe on the way out you complained (as I have done) that this is no way to treat sincere church-attenders of a more mature age, but you will have got nowhere.

Should Modern Protestantism So Willingly Be Buying Into the Current Western Obsession With Youth?

Jesus said, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20). Mark records that we should preach "to every creature" (Mark 16:15), but Jesus also warned Peter to "feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17), this would be an ongoing responsibility of all Christian ministry. Timothy was a young man, but Paul did not advise him to go away and form a "youth ministry," rather, he advised him in this manner,

"Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry." (2 Timothy 4:2-5).

It is clear that the New Testament urges us to preach the biblically-defined Gospel (not your version or my version of the "gospel"), to all - without showing favour in any direction. Despite this we now appear to have an army of "youth pastors" - ever heard of a 'senior citizen pastor'? Or 'pastor for the over 50s'? I haven't. Moreover, James specifically rejects any concept of showing evangelistic favouritism in any direction (James 2:1)

It was eight long years ago that I wrote an article on this website called 'Beware New Strategies For Church Growth.' In that article I complained that the youth evangelistic movement had gone way overboard, causing actual harm and division within Protestant congregations. Everything was being staked on being 'youth-oriented,' to the degree that older congregation members were feeling neglected and under-valued. Whilst never doubting the good intentions of many of those involved, my point was that - in all too many cases - all sense of balance and proportion was being jettisoned.

I pointed out that it is a responsibility of church congregations to 'feed the flock.' Gospel outreach should never lead to this vital spiritual feeding being neglected, yet in some cases that I have been made aware of, much spiritual feeding was also watered down in order to be "relevant to youth."

Right now the 'street pastors' thing is pretty big here in the UK. I don't deny for one moment that much good may certainly be accomplished through that generally worthwhile endeavour but - again - it is largely youth-focused. Recently a 'youth pastor' had an interesting email conversation with me. He told me how much money his congregation was putting into both street pastors and other youth outreach work. It was a lot! Moreover, he also told me that he saw it as his job to continually put pressure on his senior pastor to do more for youth work. I stopped his enthusiastic outpouring quite sharply by asking him, "And how much time and resources are your congregation putting into outreach initiatives to the elderly?" There was a long email pause (if an email "pause" can ever truly occur). An hour later this man emailed me back. He stated, "Wow, you certainly pulled me up in my tracks! But you have given me serious food for thought at the same time. We don't put anything into outreach to the elderly at all, but we should."

Unfortunately - while not denying that there is a certain importance to youth outreach initiatives - this whole movement came out of that section of the church which popularized several other heretical teachings and tendencies:

The trouble is when we put too much emphasis on youth we are buying into this society's obessesion with youth, as manifested in the almost idol worship of pop stars, trendy young film stars and footballers. This is a society-wide trend and is an obsession of our age; we tend to worship youthfulness. But Christians should not go down this path. Our gospel outreach initiatives should be TO ALL - regardless of age group or background.

Nothing I say here is meant to undermine the worthy work of many unselfish and dedicated Christian volunteers in areas such as 'street pastors,' or any related area. Indeed my words are more intended for those senior ministers and pastors who have been swept along for rather too long by a flawed strategy of making churches more "successful" by having more young people. It has been ill thought through, but whereas some congregations are now pulling away from it, many others show few indications of wising up.

Robin A. Brace. August 28th, 2012.

My original 2004 article on this general topic remains