One young man, a disciple, was wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They grabbed him, but he left the linen cloth behind and ran away naked. (Mk. 14:51-52 CEB)
This week has been one of contrasts. I have spent the week celebrating the fantastic news that a team of four of our roughly 10 youth has qualified to attend Destination Imagination Global Finals the end of May. We may be the only church team there (though certainly there will be some religious private schools represented), and so we will not only have the opportunity to inspire and nurture these kids’ God-given creativity, we will also have a nearly unique opportunity to witness about our faith in Jesus in the midst of a largely secular, international event.
At the same time, I am part of a few clergy groups in social media, and a couple of members have shared their frustrations with youth group issues. One is mourning the loss of a committed family, who has chosen to attend one of the area non-denominational megachurches so that their youth can have fun with their friends, and one who is frustrated because parents at her church are working it so that their kids only have to attend the “fun” parts of an upcoming confirmation retreat.
These two contrasts got me thinking about my own experience in youth groups, and I want to share my thoughts on why small youth groups may be one of the great gifts to the church. I mean this as a space of reflection for both pastors and parents in which we need to do some soul-searching about the purpose of youth groups in general. We have gotten far too caught up in the party aspects of youth groups, and our youth are paying a price. Barna recently released a study that this rising generation has double the number of atheists of any other currently alive generation (see https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/). I think what we are doing is leaving our youth unprepared for the realities of life by watering down youth groups. The consequence is that when challenge comes, they are left, like the young disciple in Mark, fleeing the scene naked and unprepared.
While I am going to argue that small youth groups are more agile at preparing our youth to live a life of faith, of course I will acknowledge that there are exceptions in both cases. A small youth group can be clumsy and disorganized with no clear direction, and a large one can be structured in a way to behave like a strong small group. But my own experience, limited as it is, tells me that intentionality is needed to avoid either scenario.
So here are my reasons to argue for the value of leaving your kids in a small youth group, even when there is great pressure to move to the shiny big church down the street:
1. The kids get personal attention – the reason I bothered to do Destination Imagination with roughly half of our youth group was that I knew the talents and passions of the kids we had, and I knew that this program would fit a good number of them. And that is just the thing – with such a small group, the leaders get to know the kids well, and they can adjust curriculum and activities around the gifts and passions of the kids. Likewise, we can adjust to fill in holes that are there in their faith upbringing. Large groups have to do a broader sweep.
2. It makes a difference when your kids aren’t there – In a group of 10, if one is missing, everybody notices. In a group of 50, not so much. At a time when egos are so fragile and solid relationships are so important, wouldn’t you rather have your kids in a place where people could take the time to notice your child isn’t there? And if you think your youth who can drive is going to youth, wouldn’t you like to be able to readily confirm that? (Believe me, more than one youth in my experience has lied to parents about where they are – it comes up when they don’t show up in a small group).
3. Few to no cliques – In the large youth groups I have experience with, cliques form pretty rapidly. In a small group, that is practically impossible because everyone is needed for every activity, and thus sectioning off and doing your own things can't happen. This means that everyone from the quirky, awkward kid to the popular athlete learns to work together, which is much more like the reign that Jesus calls us to. We need the whole body of Christ to know how to work together rather than learning how to stand apart and judge one another.
4. Everyone in the group gets experience leading the church – Most youth groups have at least one “Youth Sunday” in which they are responsible for leading the entire worship service. In my experience with large groups, we routinely went to the same 10 or so kids to lead the service, probably because they (or their parents) were reliable and they were decent speakers. You know what we do for Youth Sunday with a small group? All hands on deck. Everyone is needed, which means everyone gets experience leading. Maybe that shy one who is really feeling God pull on her heart to serve in a called way but who is not great at volunteering right away gets ignored in a large group; she won’t in a small one. Also, because small youth groups are often parts of small churches, youth frequently find themselves on committees and organizing church-wide mission projects, again because the church-at-large also needs all hands on deck.
5. You get empowered, instead of popular, girls – This note is specifically directed to parents of girls who pull out of mainline denominations that allow for the ordination of women and start attending non-denominational churches that practice Complementarianism. The vast majority of non-denominational churches still do not allow women to be senior pastors in their churches. You may think they do because you see them listed as pastors of evangelism, or pastors of Christian education, or pastors of music ministry, etc. They will never be Senior Pastors, though. This is because these churches believe that women have gifts, just different gifts than men, and those gifts are meant to complement the leading ministries of the men. Here’s the thing, though. A man can serve in any of the ministries I listed above as being where you might find women. Women cannot serve in central leadership in those churches. When you pull your daughter out of a mainline church to go to a non-denom (probably because she was whining that all her friends go there), you are effectively saying to her, “Dear daughter, we would rather you be with your friends and be popular than be affirmed as an equally beloved child before God. Now go be pretty and say yes to all the men around you, because they are your authorities.” Please, for the love of God and your daughters, stay where they are equally valued!
6. The kids have direct access to the pastor – Ok, probably the greatest challenge of a small youth group is having trained leaders willing to lead them, usually as volunteers. Because small groups do rely so heavily on volunteers, most pastors I know keep a pretty sharp eye on those groups. That means that the pastor is likely involved on some level, maybe a very personal level. In most small churches, for example, the pastor teaches confirmation, which is the bridge year between youth and childhood. As a result, not only does the pastor get to know your kids well, your kids get to know the pastor. When I have been involved with the youth group on some regular level, I routinely get asked important faith questions by the youth. I also have counseled more than one of them through important challenges and crises. At churches where there is professional staff in the youth department, that is not the case. Now, you may say, well but then they have their own pastor. Sometimes. Sometimes a church hires someone who has been through seminary and has a depth of theological training. All too often, though, churches with a big budget have hired a college student because she or he is “cool” and can relate to the kids. Yeah, they can relate to the kids – they are kids! Rarely are they prepared to wrestle in depth with the kinds of questions some of the youth invariably have. If you don’t think they have deep questions, you aren’t hanging out with them. Which leads us to my next point…
7. Your kids won’t drown in shallow water – I recently went to a funeral for a young man who was killed in a car wreck right before he was graduating college. He was raised a Methodist in small churches, but had started going to one of the flashy non-denoms in the area. The pastor of that church was giving his eulogy. The pastor not only had nothing to say about the young man except that he was a good kid (I can only assume he didn’t know him well or he would have had much more to say), the pastor also had NO THEOLOGICAL DEPTH to offer all of us grieving his loss. All he could say was the equivalent of “God wanted another angel.” The service itself was so unsatisfying, no one in the room was crying. No one was even smiling with warm remembrance. We all just sat there, shell-shocked. It was one of the most disturbing funerals I have ever attended, with absolutely no catharsis. Here’s the thing – that is the theology your youth will get in those churches. We call it 90 second theology – there is a 90 second answer to every one of life’s questions. Well, I guess, there is, but not one that will actually help you handle the complexity of life. In large youth groups, 90 second theology works well. In small ones, someone eventually challenges you on it and you have to go deeper. That will prepare them for real life.
8. They develop faith over skiing skills – Part of the draw of the big youth group is the flashy events. Ski trips. Beach trips. Big parties. Most small groups just don’t have that kind of budget. They do cool things together, but mostly local ones. Instead, they spend their time actually learning about Jesus. Parents, ask yourselves this question: “What is the purpose of youth group?” If it is another social activity, why bother? Extra-curricular activities do it better most of the time. Why crowd your kids up with another thing to do by taking them to another place where the purpose is hanging out, unless your real goal is just to let other people do the majority of raising your kids? If your goal is to instill in them a faith, and one that will carry them through all kinds of joys and traumas, then look for a youth group that is actually teaching them how to do that. It can still be fun; it just needs to remember where its focus is. In my experience, small youth groups (or ones that know how to behave like small youth groups) do that best. So think twice before you uproot your kid for the popular place. Stay where you are, and often you will have given them faith. When the challenges of life grab hold of them, they won’t only have a linen shirt that easily pulls off, leaving them naked before the world. They will stand firm and hold tight to Jesus.
Feel free to share your own thoughts about the plusses and minuses of each size group. Also, in a shameless plug, if you want to help us get our youth Destination Imagination team to Global Competition, because one of the challenges of small youth groups is a small budget, visit https://www.gofundme.com/wesley-umc-destination-imagination.