You should know that, while I am a youth pastor, I don’t plan on having all or even most of my posts related to the subject of youth ministry. Something recently came up, however, that I thought might be a nice introductory post.
I had the opportunity to view Divided, a somewhat controversial new movie about youth ministry produced by the National Center For Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC) and directed by the Leclerc brothers. You can actually watch it free online for a limited time. The premise of the entire film is that “modern youth ministry is contrary to Scripture,” but really, the film goes way, way beyond that. I’ll explain below.
It’s important to point out in the beginning, however, that this isn’t a new argument. The idea that youth ministry is not only unfounded Scripturally but opposed to the Bible has been argued ad nauseam. At the same time, however, I am deeply troubled by how youth ministry has been done in many contexts in America, so when a proponent of the Family Integrated Church (FIC) movement writes a book, I’m in the habit of reading it. I have always found voices like Voddie Baucham to be incredibly helpful. This is why I was eager to watch the film.
So what about this movie? As someone who not only has a youth ministry major but also has been a youth pastor for the past five years in the Twin Cities area, am I now convinced that my college major and ministry position are somehow deeply unbiblical? That I have wasted not only my four years of undergrad work, but my previous five years as a youth pastor? Not hardly. I’ll tell you why.
A Fun Movie to Watch
First of all, let me say that in many respects, Divided was a fun movie to watch. The Leclerc brothers are obviously very talented filmmakers, and their eye for cinematography makes the film not only engaging, but, dare I say, entertaining (which itself is ironic, considering that using entertainment and “worldly tactics” to get students interested in what you’re saying is a method that the movie lambastes, but I digress).
I also agreed fully with many of the ideas presented in the movie: the mandate for men in the church to raise up and disciple their families; the family being the primary place where discipleship of children/adolescence takes place; the need to get away from program based ministry and engage more intentionally in an organic, and at times even integrated, model of church; the destructiveness of entertainment-based youth ministry and the wrongheaded tendency of teaching in youth ministry to be based on the lowest common denominator. All of these are major themes in the movie and I whole-heartedly agree with them.
A False Dichotomy
But here’s the problem. Why does any church, anywhere, need to choose between actively discipling the parents in the church and having additional supplements and outlets for the training and equipping of young men and women? In other words, I’m not saying that the FIC understanding of church is wrong. Far from it. As a youth pastor I often find myself resonating with the FIC model, and refreshed by authors and writers who advocate for the primary role of the family in the discipleship of students. However, the Leclerc brothers and the NCFIC make it sound as though any age specific model that any church has ever offered is contrary to the Scriptures and therefore offensive to God—that it has been influenced by Darwin and paganism but not the Bible. This is unquestionably the point of the entire film. This assertion, however, is not only untrue, but a false dichotomy.
We don’t need to choose between the primary role of discipleship that the family plays in the lives of students and a ministry that teaches, preaches, and lives out the gospel specifically with students. A church can (and sometimes even should) do both. That is to say that the church should always be raising up fathers to disciple their families primarily. But sometimes, and depending on the context, the church should spend at least some time building specifically into young people with the gospel.
One of the ways the film sets up this false dichotomy is arguing two points throughout, and these points can, at times, seem utterly contradictory. For instance, one individual taking the FIC point of view on youth ministry argues that the reason that youth ministry in the church is dangerous is because it keeps youth from having many fathers, many grandfathers, and many brothers and sisters in the family of God (and I agree that this is a danger, incidentally).
But the very next person interviewed says that the reason youth ministry is dangerous is because it turns the hearts of the youth away from their fathers and toward many different people in the church—such as youth pastors, adult youth workers, and peers. But which is it? We need some clarity here. Are they saying that youth can and should have many fathers, grandfathers, mothers, grandmothers, and brothers and sisters (mentors and peers) in Christ, but none of those people are a threat to turning hearts away from fathers unless that person is a youth worker? If so, what specifically about a “youth worker” makes him or her dangerous in turning hearts away from fathers in comparison to others in the church? Something seems strange here.
I would suggest that the reason they sound contradictory is that they’re setting up a false dichotomy. Why can’t it be both? Why can’t a child have their hearts turned in a positive, loving, respectful way to both their parents and their pastors? After all, even if youth ministry is non-existent in the church, children and students in the church are still going to have pastors and pastoral authority. And the Scriptures still command everyone in the church to submit to their pastors. So what do we do with that?
Do we really want our students not to have positive, loving, growing, engaging, respectful, and equipping relationships with their pastors for fear that it will turn their hearts from their fathers? Is it really an either/or situation? Or is the idea for children to have both a healthy relationship with the pastor/elder role in the church and have a deep relationship and love for their parents, who have the primary role of discipleship? In other words, I don’t understand why students can’t be influenced in a meaningful way by a pastor without that relationship threatening the family. But this is exactly how the movie portrays the student/youth pastor relationship.
Actually, this is only one of many false dichotomies presented in this movie. According to this film, you probably cannot both have age-specific classes and be a biblical church, believe in an old earth and have a high view of Scripture, or attend a rock concert and be committed to teaching against worldliness. And the list goes on.
A False Representation
If you have seen the film, at this point you might be saying, “okay, but Jeremy, didn’t you watch the movie? Both sides were presented and the FIC model clearly won out.” My answer to this is that yes, I did watch the movie, and both sides were presented in the same way that both sides are presented in a Michael Moore film, such as Bowling in Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11. You have to be cautious when viewing any documentary, because they obviously are crafting an argument. Granted, it’s more beneficial when a film says at the outset that they are crafting an argument rather than stating that the filmmaker is simply a person “on a journey” who is looking for answers, but we have to expect this when viewing documentaries.
The producers of this film were obviously very careful with who they selected for interviewing and equally as careful in the editing process. Straw men are easy to knock down, and the NCFIC create their share of straw men in this film.
Are there problems with the way many churches do youth ministry? Absolutely. Does that mean that all modern youth ministries are the same? No. Does it mean that there is only one biblical model of ministering to youth and family? Absolutely not.
Tim Challies, who wrote a review of the film a couple of weeks ago, is absolutely correct when he says that “there are many conservative, biblical Christians who reject FIC and I am sure it would not have been difficult to interview a couple of them.” So why didn’t they? If it is true, as they claim, that nobody is able to make a reasonable argument from Scripture for youth ministry, why not simply interview some people who reject the FIC model? The reality is that if biblically faithful pastors like John Piper, Tim Keller, and Josh Moody, to name only a few, all have churches that from time to time use age specific models as a supplement to family discipleship, it is uncharitable not to let them explain why they think this is biblical before charging them with sowing “pagan seeds.” It’s one thing to question the timeliness of certain methods for today. It’s another thing entirely to assume that these men do not have any biblical grounding for the way they do ministry.
This misrepresentation is actually the most disappointing part of the entire film, as Challies Explains.
“Perhaps my biggest disappointment with the film, then, is it lumps all non-integrated churches together. Those that have Wednesday evening classes for children end up in the same category as churches that have entire Sunday morning services geared specifically to entertaining the teenagers. Churches that have an evening set aside for youth fellowship end up in the same category as churches that build their whole youth ministry around partying and Christian rock. This is not only uncharitable, but also utterly ridiculous. According to the subtle suggestions of this documentary, even the best youth programs are utterly unbiblical and will cause most of the young people to fall away from the faith. That is complete and utter nonsense.”
Challies has put his finger on the fundamental problem with this film. It is this misrepresentation that robs it of its credibility and therefore decreases its effectiveness. This is heartbreaking and unfortunate, as the movie has so many great things to say—but it was completely avoidable.
A Few Remaining Problems
There are actually several other key problems with the film itself, such as (1) the statistic upon which the entire movie is based (the claim that roughly 70 percent of churched students will walk away from their faith in college), (2) the remarkably absurd claim that the movie actually devotes considerable time to that youth ministry is founded on paganism, and (3) the unconvincing attempts to make the FIC model of doing ministry a biblical mandate for every church.
For further thoughts on the trouble with this statistic, I would suggest an article by Kevin DeYoung entitled Beware the Over-Hyped Stat, where he actually calls this statistic of 70 percent of young adults leaving the church “a classic example of a good statistic gone bad.” Tim Challies also writes an excellent piece on this stat entitled I Am Unalarmed, where he states that “far fewer than this number abandon the church when they have been raised in homes and churches that treasure and model and celebrate the gospel.” Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, offers a general warning in his article entitled Evangelicals Behaving Badly With Statistics, where he claims that statistics in the church are commonly abused by individuals who “are usually trying desperately to attract attention and raise people’s concern in order to mobilize resources and action for some cause.” While I am certainly not attempting to make light of this problem, we would be wise to heed DeYoung’s warning and “beware the over-hyped stat” that is at the core of the film.
For further thoughts on the biblical nature and history of age specific ministry, I would suggest the book Four Views on Youth Ministry and the Church, edited by my seminary advisor, Mark Senter. It not only contains an FIC argument, but three others also, and these authors charitably and directly interact with one another in the book, leaving the reader in the end to realize that no ministry model is perfect. The reality is that the ministry model that works in our context in New Hope might not be the right model for a church in Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, New York City, or anywhere else.
So overall, this movie presented two extremes: Entertainment based youth ministries that exist primarily to give students a fun experience, and family integrated churches that believe age specific ministries to be completely unbiblical. My position would have to be somewhere in the middle.
On the one hand, entertainment driven youth ministry is destroying the spiritual life of students in America. There have been numerous articles written from youth pastors on this topic. As Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean have noted well, students in our generation don’t hold to the gospel as much as they do a moralistic, therapeutic deism. The hard reality is that we do need to continue to head toward a better way of doing youth ministry that expects more of students. As Mark Driscoll notes in his book, The Radical Reformission, “the American concept of adolescence excuses immaturity among young people and welcomes rebellion and folly as rites of passage. In our kingdom culture, young people are identified not as adolescents but rather as Christians of whom Christian living is expected.”
Youth ministries need to give students the truth—the gospel of Jesus Christ—as the gospel is not only what brings them into the kingdom, but what brings them transformation. If I only have three years with students, I’m going to spend those three years relentlessly teaching the gospel. And we certainly need to recognize the role of the family. The family is the primary discipleship force in the lives of students, which is why we have ministries at our church that are designed to come behind the family in this role and to train up men to take on the leadership of their home.
I also completely understand when churches see the need in their context to not have an active youth ministry. Youth ministry can become dangerously over-programmed to the point where the mission force of the church is stripped from their community because they’re always at church. This is one of the reasons why I think FIC is one among many models that is seeing real fruit and benefit for the kingdom of God.
On the other hand, I think that describing the FIC approach as the only biblical model is uncharitable and disingenuous. Paul’s words have to be pretty strained in Ephesians and Colossians to somehow make them mandates for family integration in all situations. The reality is that we need to have many different models of family ministries in order to figure out what will be most effective in different contexts.
But that could be (and probably should be) another post altogether. The bottom line is that while Divided offers some great thoughts about ministry, it may actually cause needless division—more division, actually, than the age specific ministries they are challenging. So, while it could be great to watch this movie (there are so many great challenges throughout the film, especially in the last few moments), I’d suggest that you do so cautiously. Normally I’d advise viewing a movie like this with a grain of salt. For this movie, though, I’d bring the whole shaker.