Learning through Life

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Hampshire, United Kingdom
I love how our day-to-day life can teach us lessons to help us understand our past, challenge our today, and inspire our future. We can learn through experiences, situations, conversations, songs, books, nature ... the list is endless! Live with eyes ready to see, ears ready to hear and a heart ready to be touched.

Unbiblical Youth Church?

‘Developmental Group Work with Christian Young People inevitably leads to the Formation of Unbiblical Youth Churches’

  Discuss this statement in the light of a Theology of Youth Ministry

‘The development of youth congregations in the UK, whether they are discrete groups within existing churches or youth targeted church plants, continues to attract attention, theological debate and analysis.’[1]  To begin to discuss the various elements included in the title without openly interacting and engaging with the different arguments presented, would be naive. My experience of Christian young people integrating well into the main church led to the conclusion that youth churches were unnecessarily exclusive and therefore unbiblical.  However, as a reflective practitioner, I acknowledge the presuppositions and basic assumptions that are built upon my previous experience and awareness.  In order to gain a more extensive understanding of the apparent need for youth churches I interviewed leaders and members of several youth churches, as well as reading the different views held by various practitioners.
Group Work
Leslie Button identifies that ‘to be human is synonymous with being in communication and in relationship with other people, which demands of us a range of social skills’.[2]  Group work provides opportunities for individuals to develop their social skills, their personal resources, and in their relationships they establish with other people.[3]   A group can simply be defined as a number of people that have a common position, interest or purpose.  A young person will belong to many different groups during their adolescence, including classes, friendships, family, leisure and demographic groups.  Golembiewski identifies three main categories that form the dynamics of a group: the structure, characteristics of individuals and the process that a group develops in order to operate.[4]  No two groups have the same dynamics.  This has been evident in the youth work I have been involved with.  Although the location has remained the same throughout, the aim of the group, and the process employed to achieve it has altered as the individual members of the groups change. In essence, what worked well one year, didn’t necessarily work for another.  At present, the dynamics of Impact[5] has changed significantly due to the loss of several members to university, to the extent it may be more effective to dismiss the group totally and create a new one, with fresh aims, and a new dynamic.  

All new groups go through several stages as they develop.  ‘These are recognisable markers which loom up and pass by as the group becomes one which means something to the members and which accomplishes the task for which is it convened.’[6]  There are many different theories regarding group development, but most theories fall into two categories: sequential stage theories and recurring phase theories.[7]  Tuckman’s group development structure is perhaps the most well known example of a sequential stage theory.  In contrast, Bion’s theory suggests that a cyclic pattern exists as a group works at achieving the task. Both these theories help when scrutinising the behaviours within, and effectiveness of a group. 
Tuckman’s linear developmental stages are: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning.  Tuckman’s theory allows a group to work through a process beginning at the formation of a group (forming), working through difficulties and power struggles (storming and norming) to the completion of the task (performing).  Tuckman’s later addition of the fifth stage, adjourning, allows a group to acknowledge its completed task and dismiss.  The application of this model allows the closure of Impact without a sense of failure.  The group achieved its task, and there is no longer any need for that same group to exist.  The existing members can reform, with a different task and a new group can take place.

Bion’s cyclic theory has given valuable insight regarding the behaviour identified at Take Off.[8] The dynamics and behaviour of this group change regularly, and viewing this as a cycle helps the leadership of the group focus positively on the group’s purpose.  Bion suggests each group continually works through three main stages: dependency, where the group behaves totally on the leadership; pairing, when two members are drawn together to change the leadership of the group; and finally, flight and/or fight, as it is recognised that in order for the group to continue its task, the fight for leadership must continue, or flight from the group becomes necessary.  Take Off seems to go through this cycle regularly and has seen several individuals leave as they give up the fight for group control.  Four weeks ago saw the return of Jack and Simon, two members that left when they realised their attempts of influencing the rest of the group were not effective.  The group seemed far more settled without them, so their return stirred mixed emotions.  However, since their return they have worked with the leadership and the group instead of against it.  As Bion’s theory would suggest, the repeated pairing of members is to be expected, although the nature of the ‘fight’ will probably be different each time.  

The growing population of youth churches forces the practitioner of Christian youth work to look at the concept of group work made popular by McGraven: The Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP). ‘This principle asserts that: ‘People like to become Christians without crossing racial / linguistic / class / cultural barriers.’  In other words, they prefer to remain who they are culturally while changing to being a Christian.’[9]   Those in agreement with the HUP asserted that not only would congregations grow more readily within such distinctions, but the ‘distinctions themselves were commensurate with the providence and purpose of God for the Church.’[10]  If adopting this principle makes it easier for young people to become Christians, why is there so much controversy surrounding it?  The main criticism focuses on exclusivity within homogenous groups.  Ashton and Moon argue that the existence of generational barriers within a church does not embrace the unity of Galatians 3:28.[11]  However, whilst this verse speaks of the unifying power of Jesus’ death for salvation, it does not explicitly state that the divisions will no longer be in existence practically.  The various arguments surrounding the different theological views of the HUP will be debated in more detail later. 

It is a recognised sociological fact that people form groups with their own kind, and this is especially evident in youth work.  Not only does the group share age as a common factor, but the subgroups often formed within generation groups suggest other similarities including tastes in music, leisure, and fashion.  Within Take Off there are several obvious groups, which tend to stick together, although they are beginning to stretch their boundaries into other subgroups at times.  The main groups within the larger group are: sports group, new people, school group, and the churchgoers.  It remains a challenge to the youth team to create respect amongst the groups and encourage interaction between them.  Insofar as reaching the youth group as a whole with the gospel, the HUP would suggest interacting with each group separately and sharing the gospel in group appropriate ways would achieve a higher level of effectiveness.  Whilst the overall purpose of Take Off is to introduce Jesus to every member, one of the tools used for this is within the context of relationship building.  To break Take Off into subgroups regularly would accentuate the barriers already in place instead of working towards unity.
Congregation or Church?
‘Recent discussions in Britain have suggested that the unique needs of young people require an expanded sense of what we mean by ‘the church’ if we are to take the evangelisation of youth seriously.’[12] Grudem identifies three main purposes of a church: ‘ministry to God, ministry to believers, and ministry to the world.’[13]  Using these purposes to define various youth formations, there are two main youth structures that could be understood as ‘church’: youth congregation and youth church.  The main distinction between these two formations is that a youth congregation is attached to a parent church, whereas a youth church is primarily independent.  Whilst youth congregations may meet and worship generationally, they receive support from, and integrate into the parent church at other times.  This could be in a morning service where all generations worship together, or in cell groups, or community projects.  Whilst some youth may only attend the youth congregation, inter-generational integration is encouraged.  Youth churches do not generally have this inter-generational interaction.  Their services are usually run by the young people themselves, and focus purely on a worship and teaching style that appeals to the youth.  The majority of young people attending a youth church will view it as their home church and will not attend an inter-generational congregation as well.  It is this youth church formation that will be debated in this paper.  Youth Church A and Youth Church B both fit into this category, although their vision and structure differ. 

Youth Churches – Unbiblical?
Ashton and Moon suggest that ‘it is often those things with which we are least comfortable with that have most to teach us, because they pave the way to new insights and do not merely reinforce our present attitudes and opinions.’[14]  As my experience of Christian youth work has been limited to youth congregations and groups, my original thoughts on the formation of youth churches were that they were unnecessary and unbiblical, as instead of reflecting unity they encouraged division.  I was uncomfortable with the idea of a youth church.  However, having researched the subject, and interacted with various views, my attitudes and opinions were challenged, and to a certain extent, changed.  Although my experience of developmental group work with Christian young people would not suggest the inevitable formation of a youth church, the evidence would suggest that in some cases this might be the most effective way of ‘churching’ young people.  
There are two different approaches when considering the biblical principles of youth church: centripetal and centrifugal.  ‘Centripetal efforts draw movement towards a central point … Centrifugal strategies spin energy towards the periphery.’[15]  In other words, it is ecclesiology verses missiology.  
Ecclesiological Perspective
‘Christianity is necessarily personal but is essentially corporate.  Reconciliation with God also implies reconciliation with others.  That reconciliation needs to be visibly expressed across racial, cultural and generational barriers.’[16]  Instead of reflecting this reconciliation, youth churches often put generational barriers in place.  This is one of the main concerns with youth churches.  How can they demonstrate the unity we share in Christ (Galatians 3:28), when they exclude different generations?  The two youth churches I interviewed demonstrated different principles regarding this generational segregation.  Youth Church A stated that although it doesn’t have strict age limits, it ‘doesn’t encourage under 11’s and over 25’s.’[17] I am uncomfortable with this approach; just as I would be if a church said we they are not exclusively a ‘white’ congregation, but they do not encourage ‘black’ Christians to join.  I find the approach of Youth Church B far more comforting, as although they aim to be culturally relevant to the youth, one of the leaders states ‘we do what we feel God is saying and who ever comes are most welcome.’[18]  This approach accepts that the style of service will generally be more relevant to a particular group, but happily welcomes anyone who feels they want to be part of the church. 

In the Old Testament, the family was the primary group in which the stories of God were told and experienced. There is theological significance in the family in the Old Testament as the ‘family also lies at the centre of God’s covenant promises.’[19]  It must be recognised that our experience of a Westernised nuclear family today is far from the familial units of the Old Testament.  The bet’ab (Father’s house) was the smallest of the familial structures, but this would still contain between fifty and one hundred members. This Old Testament familial unit, and that of the New Testament, was the prime provider of support and sustenance.[20]  The bet’ab can be viewed paradigmatically as the local church congregation.  The local church should be where God is worshiped; teaching takes place, and support and providence offered.  Church should be ‘family’ especially with the breakdown of many families in this generation.  An inter-generational church can work at offering  ‘subsitutionally redemptive relationships’ in a culture that readily groups generations together.[21] Youth churches, which are mainly mono-generational, cannot offer substitutional relationships.  If young people are not integrating with other generations, the biblical model of familial protection, providence, and the passing down of wisdom cannot take place. The model of youth church embraced by Youth Church B actively encourages interactivity between generations whilst remaining essentially a church for youth, such as joint parish services and social action projects.[22]  Whilst Youth Church A has encouraged members to integrate with other generations at times, the evidence offered suggests the amount this happens is insufficient to provide a structure in which meaningful inter-generational relationships can develop.[23]
Youth work should create opportunities for social skills to develop, which includes learning to relate to those in other age groups.  Recently the members of both youth groups at Wessex invited their parents to a three-course meal at church.  The youth planned the evening, prepared the food, worked in teams, and they interacted with the adults they were serving.  Inter-generational interaction is also encouraged on Sunday evenings after church when the youth ‘invade’ a church members house.  Not only has this created opportunities for youth to engage with adults within the church, it allows adults a chance to converse with teenagers, demonstrating love, support and an interest in their lives.  Church and youth leaders should work together at integrating youth into the life of the church, empowering them to explore and develop their gifts, whilst allowing space and opportunities for them to worship and learn in culturally relevant ways.  ‘I believe this vision of a Church for and with youth is not only sustainable, it represents a more rounded, theologically astute vision of Church.’[24]
Missiological Perspective
The command to ‘go into all the world’ in Matthew 28:19, suggests that as youth workers we need to do more than sit and wait for youth to come to us.  ‘Most of these adolescents simply will not be drawn to a church congregation, even if it is a loving, caring and inclusive family.’[25]  Many young people share the view that ‘normal church’ is boring.[26]  If these youth are to be presented with the gospel, workers will need to enter the world of the young person and demonstrate the gospel to them there. Youth churches generate an opportunity for this to happen.  However, if this HUP ‘is elevated into a normative principle we are forced to present convincing evidence to show that the New Testament Church was structured on homogeneous lines.  There is no clear evidence that this was the case’.[27]  Does this implication suggest that the absence of such church structures in the Bible deems youth churches ‘unbiblical’?  I don’t think so.  Whilst their structure may not be found in the Bible, they are clearly fulfilling the missiological purpose of church far better than many heterogeneous churches.

‘Young people are finding it hard to relate to church, they’re finding it hard to fit into church, they’re finding it hard to utilise church as a good fishing boat from which to go fishing.’[28] Leaders of youth churches work at creating youth friendly atmospheres, presenting the gospel within their culture, and encouraging the youth to contribute to the church in many different ways.  One young person from Youth Church B implied that they feel more involved as the service is aimed at them.[29] This feeling of involvement is something that sadly is not experienced by youth in some adult focused churches.  Youth generally look to ‘belong’ before they ‘believe’, and youth churches provide a good framework for this to happen.[30]  By creating a sense of belonging, youth that attend youth churches are not only more likely to stay, but they are more inclined to invite their friends.  However, youth leaders must be careful that in an attempt to make youth feel comfortable and welcome, they do not concentrate too much on one aspect of the gospel and avoid others.  Ecclesiastes 10:9 says; ‘Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment.’ Recently I challenged our youth team (and myself) with this verse, as I felt that in order to remain relevant, and ‘in there’ with some of the youth, we were encouraging them to have fun, but we were avoiding the second part of this verse and turning a blind eye to certain behaviour that should be challenged.  Youth churches require spiritually mature leaders in order to keep a good balance between being culturally relevant and scripturally discerning.  
Developmental group work with Christian young people does not, in my experience, lead to the formation of a youth church.  However, I am aware that the support, encouragement and integration that the young people in my group experience as members of the main church, is not the same as the alienation many youth encounter in other churches.  If young people are not given opportunities to develop socially, emotionally, and spiritually within their local church, youth leaders may start to consider alternative frameworks.  Youth Church A and Youth Church B were both set up to see young people develop in their awareness of, and relationship to, God.  Although youth churches do not offer many of the benefits of an inter-generational church, they do allow young people to experience God in an atmosphere they are comfortable in and feel part of.  The two youth churches I researched suggest that even within the youth church structure there is an amount of diversity, and to label them all as unbiblical would be unfair.  Although the homogeneous structure of youth churches may serve the missionary purpose of the church effectively, to fulfil its ecclesiastical function inter-generational integration must take place.  Churches benefit from the enthusiasm, creativity and openness to change that youth embrace, and the leadership and congregation should work hard at providing them with a sense of belonging and worth.

Would love to hear your thoughts - comment box below Endnotes!

[1] Graham Cray, ‘Youth Congregations – The Best Biblical Bridge?’ YouthWork,   12.
[2] Leslie Button, Developmental Group Work with Adolescents, London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, 1.
[3] Leslie Button, Developmental Group Work with Adolescents, 1.
[4] Golembiewski, ‘The Small Group’ quoted in Brenda Vernelle, Understanding and Using Groups, London: Whiting and Birch, 1994, 9.
[5] Impact is the 15+ age youth group at Wessex Christian Fellowship, Basingstoke.
[6] Brenda Vernelle, Understanding and Using Groups, 28.
[7] David W. Johnson and Frank P. Johnson, Joining Together:  Group Theory and Group Skills, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991, 19.
[8] Take Off is the 11 – 14 age youth group at Wessex Christian Fellowship, Basingstoke.
[9] Graham Cray (ed.),‘Mission shaped church’, Church House Publishing, 2004, (pdf), 108.
[10] David Hilborn and Matt Bird, God and the Generations. Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002, 183.
[11] David Hilborn and Matt Bird, God and the Generations, 187.
[12] Pete Ward, ‘The Youth Church Question’, in Kujawa, S. A. (ed.), Disorganised Religion: The Evangelisation of Youth and Young Adults, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1998, 131.
[13] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994, 867 – 868.
[14] Mark Ashton and Phil Moon, Christian Youth Work, Bletchey: Authentic Media, 2007, 6.
[15] Mark Senter III (ed.), Four Views of Youth Ministry, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001, xiii.
[16] Graham Cray, Youth Congregations and the Emerging Church, Cambridge: Grove, 2002, 5.
[17] email to author, 21st October 2008. Question 2.
[18] email to author, 11th November 2008, Question 2.
[19] David Hilborn and Matt Bird, God and the Generations, 150.
[20] David Hilborn and Matt Bird, God and the Generations, 150.
[21] Nigel Argall, ‘Talking about Youth Church’, Youthwork, May 2004, 10.
[22] email to author, 11th November 2008, Question 5.
[23] email to author, 21st October 2008, Question 5.
[24] Pete Ward, ‘Taking Youth Church Further’, Youthwork, May 2001, 55.
[25] Chap Clark, Four Views of Youth Ministry, 29.
[26] Youth Church B, Survey Answers, Question 1.2.
[27] Eddie Gibbs, I believe in Church Growth, np: Fuller Seminary Press, 1993, 127.
[28] Mike Pilavachi, ‘For the Audience of 20,000’ Youthwork, Dec 1999, 23.
[29] Youth Church B, Survey Answers, Question 3.11.
[30] Pete Greig, ‘It’s Church, Jim’ Youthwork, Oct 1999, 21.

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