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September 1, 2011

Are Youth Groups Biblical?

New documentary 'Divided' says they’re not only unbiblical, but dangerous to families.


Every Wednesday night during the school year, I join other adults to meet with high school students to study the Bible. According to the new documentary Divided, now showing for free online, this practice is unbiblical, worldly, and dangerous to families—not to mention an extension of evolution and paganism.

From my 12 years as a volunteer youth worker, I know that just as churches are flawed, so are youth ministries. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve course corrected; pizza and eating goldfish are no longer the meat and potatoes of youth discipleship. And these kinds of conversations must continue; we have to challenge what we do and ask tough questions including: Why are so many church kids leaving their faith behind?

Divided is supposedly asking the same question. It’s billed as a “journey to discover the truth about modern youth ministry, with this question in mind: ‘Is it an issue with the church, the kids, the parents?’” But this 60-minute film isn’t interested in fair exploration or discussion. Instead, it is propaganda, a commercial for the Family Integrated Church movement, an association of interdenominational churches which view age-segregated, peer-oriented youth ministries as “family-fragmenting” and unscriptural. The movie both begins and ends with the logo for producing organization The National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC).

The movie begins with a young filmmaker, Philip Leclerc, saying he’s seeking answers to his questions about youth ministry. But by the end, that quest feels like a ruse—a fake journey for answers he already knew. (Leclerc, who made the movie with his brother, admits his father pulled him out of high school youth ministry.) By the time Leclerc delivers his final verdict—“God didn’t ordain youth ministry. He didn’t create Sunday school. He did create the church and the family”—it’s obvious he’s been toeing the company line from the start.

The most striking evidence: Almost every Divided interview is with supporters of the movement, including extended time with NCFIC director Scott Brown (who is credited as an executive producer). Other interviews (like those with youth pastors at the National Youth Workers Convention) are truncated and used strategically—to the point that they can feel as if they are used out of context.

This is not the only questionable methodology. The film is filled with scare tactics, vague overstatements, experts with random credentials like “Jake’s Café,” broad-brush painting and sketchy statistics like this from Britt Beemer of America’s Research Group: “90 percent of kids had so many doubts before college you could drive a semi-truck through.” How many doubts create such a hole? Are we talking an 18-wheeler?

While some featured adherents of the movement present welcomed nuance (aka “this approach doesn’t work in all contexts but it does in ours”), most draw a black-and-white picture that youth ministry is not mentioned in the Bible—and is therefore categorically dangerous. They go on: Age-segregated programs date back to paganism and are actually schemes to get evolution into churches. (Get it? Students advance from first grade to second just like Neanderthals to humans). All nuance is tossed aside in the thesis that youth ministry must be eradicated wholesale in favor of fathers, and fathers alone, instructing and mentoring young people.

We as a faith community must continue discussing how we reflect the model of church and ministry in Acts and the epistles. Unfortunately, the video equivalent of an angry letter-to-the-editor doesn’t extend that conversation.

Watch the trailer here:

Divided Trailer from NCFIC on Vimeo.


I've watched the film now several times and apparently Todd you weren't paying enough attention to even accomplish the most basic task in writing an article, spelling names and places correctly, "LeCleric" and "Joe's cafe." it doesnt take a rocket scientist to watch the movie and see the proper spelling would be "Philip Leclerc" and "Jakes Cafe'." What else did you fail to interpret properly from this movie?

"...this 60-minute film isn’t interested in fair exploration or discussion."
Instead, it is propaganda, a commercial for the Family Integrated Church movement, an association of interdenominational churches which view age-segregated, peer-oriented youth ministries as “family-fragmenting” and unscriptural. The movie both begins and ends with the logo for producing organization."

Let me ask you what movie or documentary made today doesnt open or close with a logo from the production company? I'm proposing Michael Moore needs to start hiding his production company name at the beginning and end of his movies from now on? *sarcasm*

My response would be, at least they're open to stating who they are and not trying to hoodwink you into thinking they're someone else. I think it's unfair to state that this young man "Philip Leclerc" didnt start on a "journey" judging the filmmaker's intentions.

My advice Todd would be to re watch this film with biblical glasses on. You never posted ONE single Scripture passage in your article, which should be the basis of this discusion. Instead you took pot shots to try and crumble a film which looks seriously at passages in scripture like no other film today. My challenge would be for you to dare and take a serious look at the scripture and next time when you write for "Christianity today" use the glasses please.

It seems there are many things wrong with many of the ways youth ministry has been done over the years. Some of the most glaring include using youth ministry as a sort of para-church outreach organization instead of a discipleship ministry within the discipline of the local church, entertainment rather than Scriptural orientation, and the attempt to instruct young people as if they were not also under the authority and instruction of their parents as their primary disciplers (Dt. 6).
I fear, however, that this film, and perhaps this movement aims at the wrong targets. Instead of a basic argument from the relative silence in Scripture and an over-reaction to "youth groups" as the source of all pagan evil. Perhaps a better tactic would seek to gear any meetings of young people (or older people, for that matter) to more closely adhere to the wisdom of Scripture in what and how discipleship should look for any specific believers. An example of age-specific instruction within the church might be gleaned from such Scriptures as Titus 2 and 1 John 2:13-14. The strength of an argument against youth groups from the, otherwise, relative silence of Scripture on this topic would also remove pulpits, microphones, mens' ministries, and the contemporary form of the sermon from our churches as well, if followed to it's logical conclusion.
Perhaps a better solution to the evils of what has become the common model of youth ministry might be better addressed by treating younger men and women in youth groups as though they are expected to mature in Christ, if indeed they are believers. Addressing this local church youth ministry as an actual ministry of the CHURCH, meaning a gathering of BELIEVERS coming together to be discipled under the Word of God and under the authority and discipline of the local church leadership - NOT a free-for-all-MTV-plus-a-Scripture-push to get 'kids in seats', whether or not they have any semblance of true and living faith. The problem with most youth ministry is not age segregation, it's ecclesiology. Every believer needs the whole church, not just his parents, in order to experience Biblical growth, and if one way within a local church to express the outworking of Titus 2 ministries becomes a gathering of believers of the same age, even a young age, then praise God! Still, we must not neglect the Scriptural priority of the parents' role OR neglect the needfulness of the whole church ministry and good ecclesiology for the life of EVERY believer regardless of age.

Michael, in your defense Todd did miss some obvious spellings, which is pretty poor journalism. In his defense, this movie is a pretty strong propaganda piece with shoddy scholarship.

I watched it, and I was appalled at the mistaken exegesis in the case of Uzzah, who died because he did something that had been expressly *prohibited*, not because he did something God hadn't asked him to do. Youth Ministry is no more prohibited in scripture than video production, so frankly (following his reasoning) we should be surprised that Mr. Leclerc used this medium rather than speaking from an agora somewhere.

The fact is that this documentary in no way "looks seriously at passages in scripture like no other film today". It's an endless repetition of "the Bible doesn't talk about youth groups, so they're wrong." The Bible also doesn't speak of syncopated rhythms, powerpoints, wealthy pastors (of whom a few seem to have been interviewed), bulletins, websites, video production (maybe these are modern-day 'graven images', right?), cars, airplanes, the stock market, and a whole host of other things.

What scripture DOES talk about was a man (Jesus) who was not a father, but gathered a group of youth (the disciples were likely in their teens), took them AWAY from their fathers, and built a church with them. It speaks of a boy named Samuel separated from his parents and dedicated to the LORD. It speaks of a young church leader by the name of Timothy that was so young that people weren't taking him seriously--a man who was trained and discipled not by his father, but by an apostle. It speaks of Christ ministering to a flock of kids who obviously weren't just sitting sedately next to their parents--and I daresay he probably didn't deliver a sermon to them at the intellectual level of the book of Hebrews. But of course, none of those are examples of a a youth group, child education, or extra-familial discipleship, since they didn't eat pizza or use flannel-graphs, right?

The fact is, Scripture was never intended to be the exhaustive compendium of authorized means of worship, witness, and life. It tells us what we need to know to see God for who he is and be shaped into his image, but it doesn't tell us that movies are "good" or electricity is "acceptable." The omission of these things don't in any way prove that movies are the devil or electricity is an abomination.

QUIT TRYING TO MAKE SCRIPTURE INTO SOMETHING IT'S NOT. There's no Bible number code, and the Bible was never intended to tell you if you should drive a Ford or a Honda. We're to "be all things to all people, so that by all possible means [we] might save some." (1 Cor. 9:22)

That said, I perfectly agree that the dissolution of families is likely the cause of much of our children leaving the church--but that can be traced back much farther than just this generation. Why are today's fathers such lousy spiritual leaders? Likely because their fathers were as well--and neither of those generations had youth group.

Yes, we need stronger families, but over 1/2 of marriages end in divorce: the church can help with some of that need, but will never fully replace families. The solution is not to get rid of Youth Group, or nix all education designed to meet child where they're at developmentally, but to help train and develop more godly fathers and families, and use those other avenues to support that.

This is a documentary done by a filmmaker using clips designed to make his point: not a comprehensive journey to arrive at well-considered conclusions. If it had been, you'd have seen some child development experts or Christian education professors from Christian colleges or seminaries. It raises some good questions I think, but comes away with a lot of ill-considered (and some flat-out ridiculous) answers. Sunday School and Youth Group are not a satanic plot to undermine families any more than paid pastoral staff preaching on Sundays is a pagan practice that prevents adults from reading God's word for themselves. (Seriously, who comes up with this stuff?)

Disclaimer: I am a youth pastor. I wish our youth had better parents, and our church is doing what it can to help them be that. I hold Scripture in very high regard (ie. it is authoritative and inerrant), and I teach from it, not around it. I also work at a church that recently received a vast influx of new families when another similar church in town cancelled their children's program in the interest of simple church: I for one am glad that we have a solid Sunday School and AWANA program, because if the choice is negligent parenting plus nothing vs. negligent parenting plus solid discipleship programs for youth, I choose the latter.

Gee, silly documentary. Youth groups are no more "unbiblical" than are senior pastors and youth pastors!

The entire movement that produced this documentary is predicated on the "Regulative Principle," which dictates that "everything we do in the corporate worship of God must be clearly warranted by Scripture, either in the form of an explicit command, or by a good and necessary inference." The problem with this principle, in worship or elsewhere, is that Scripture itself doesn't provide it. At all. It's developed outside of Scripture. So they have essentially violated their own principle in advocating their own principle. That is pretty disingenuous--or at least incompetent--biblical interpretation.

This film and issue is only one of many surrounding evangelicalism in America. Yet it is a VERY GOOD FILM, that should be prayed about and meditated on. To many Christians have forsaken their biblical parental responsibilities because they love money and desire two working parents in the home. They let a humanistic state raise their children, turn them over to immature youth pastors (Some are very good, but most are just there as a stepping stone into a Pastoral position). There is a reason we are losing the youth of this generation. we need FIRE not programs. We need men to disciple their families and restore the family altar and not be a negligent father, allowing others to do your job. Youth groups can serve a purpose. They should be used to teach the parents how to disciple their children and hold them accountable to that purpose. When are we going to stop following the world in raising our children and running our churches and let Messiah be the head and the Holy Spirit and Scripture our guide. Go listen to some Paul Washer or Voddie Bauchman sermons on sermonindex about family before you judge this movie.

The churches I see today are nothing like what is portrayed in the Acts or the "early church"...BUT what I have seen is the lame healed, the broken hearted comforted, and a generation start to become fully ALIVE where I find myself ministering and of course circles of people are being involved in. We use wilderness adventure and the fruit is quite unbelievable. My life is completely about becoming the feet and hands of Jesus. Simply making a stand and not criticizing or complaining. Our world has sooo much potential. When will people stop 'serving' and expecting salaries, benefits, pats on the back and start LIVING and becoming the example? Youth leaders and workers I'm talking to you! I'm 27 and have been burned and hardened from shotty youth workers and fasade of 'youth programs', but you know what?...I pursued the Lord with all of my heart, full heartedly and ever since I prayed those ridiculously dangerous prayer and actually stepped out into places where I wasn't in control or comfortable I have seen the unbelievable. Honestly. I am part of a generation that is alive and well. We need men of God to RISE UP and be men of integrity, excellence, and honesty. Men whom are willing to lay down their lives for another. Men whom are humble and walk with confidence in WHO THEY ARE in Christ and forget about what they are trying to accomplish or obtain. We have no models, and no-one supporting us. BUT, there are some whom are taking charge and going for it on our own because too many people are sitting back and complaining! Show me a REAL man and I'll follow him. Show this generation a REAL man and it will follow! And from that women will have godly men to trust and support in this very endeavour!

If I have offended you, then RISE UP and become great! God loves YOU and created you for a LIFE ABUNDANT when you seek HIM and him alone! I have decided to stand up and inspire this generation, will you?! Seriously?!

I honestly think this movie is a waste of time to bicker and argue about, it'll touch and provoke you as it may. But the Jesus I know uses things like this to spark us into action and change the world by encouraging and loving one person at a time! If whomever reads this would say "YES!", I'll strive for that, then think about the change the world already has by us stepping into something GREATER THAN OURSELVES...just as Jesus modelled from his first breath!

Cheers on the journey my friends!

Thank you for this article! I sat watching this 'movie' with my jaw on the floor. What obvious propaganda that NEVER-ever 'explored' anything but glorified a man-made church model.

Yes, I said man-made. Just because the Bible does not specifically state something does not mean it forbids it. Just because children are addresses in church in the Biblical times, does not mean it is wrong to have programs developed just for them. Just because fathers are told to teach their children does not mean others can't help in that role. In fact, WHO was praised for teaching Timmothy? Go look it up. (hint, they had OVARIES!! Oh the horror!!)

What do these FIC people expect for youth like I was? My parents were not Christian. They had no interest in God and were not thrilled with mine. What about kids like me? ANYTHING other than 'stay under your own father' from these people would hake them into massive hypocrites. So, I would be screwed. I am thankful for a wonderful, Biblical and Godly youth group that was the driving force behind my faith growth and development.

Funny, how you claim that youth groups drive people away. Have any of you supporters ever talked to the walk aways? The very vocal, anti-Christian atheist? They WERE NOT driven away by youth groups. If you want to address walk aways, then talk to the walk aways. Read the blogs of the walk aways, etc....you just might be shocked as to what actually does drive people away. FIC/QF/P movement has PLENTY of walk aways, too....many who become vocal atheist, or struggle with the belief in God.

This does not even address the horrid, un Biblical, treatment of women in these circles...

Wow, harsh review and Christianity Today won't even allow the National Center for Family Integrated Churches to advertise with them. Perhaps those that are asking questions about the reasons why thousands are turning away from youth groups and who the NCFIC is should take the time to check out their website and listen to Dr. Voddie Baucham explain on the blog section of the site. http://www.ncfic.org/blog

Spelling corrections have been made on the article. CT regrets the initial spelling errors.

There's some good discussion here. Bring it on! But keep it civil.

I must point out the irony of those in the Vision Forum camp who are complaining about a negative review. Their own press release calls the film "controversial" and states that the documentary "threatens to shake the foundation of modern church design" and that it "recommends the dissolution of youth groups." The press release also states that they recognize "the potential divisiveness of this paradigm shift," and the filmmaker, again in the press release, says that youth workers for decades have been "corrupting" the youth generation.

So, when there IS controversy -- which they predicted, and essentially *invited* with that press release -- they complain about it? Hmm . . .

I'm not a member of FIC movement but I do agree with their view on youth groups among other things. I think it is very sad that the church today does not have a problem breaking up family on days of worship. The church should be reinforcing families and helping parents to become disciplers. I think many parents see youth groups and childrens church as places to drop off the kids while they have a great time in their adult service. I'm sorry but I really struggle with that! We need discipleship in the church, not from paid professionals but from parents. If parents are not around integrate children and youth into family groups within the church. Maybe we have become too fragmented as a society for this to work without a lot of effort, but it can work. The church needs to think about what affect it's children's and youth programs are having on children and their parents.

I don't know that I would ever say youth groups are "wrong," but it is interesting to consider that after an age where the church has tried so hard to reach out to youth with various youth ministries such as youth group there have never been more youth leaving the church. I wonder more if youth groups are simply ineffective.

Looking back at my own personal experience with youth groups, which I attended all throughout my teens, they had little to no impact on my own Christian walk. In fact, I was never farther from the Christian walk than when I attended them. There was a strong social emphasis in all of them, which was great in the group I had friends and not so great in the one where I knew nobody. It felt very high-schooly. I never felt like the topics were that intellectually challenging. I suspect many teens would benefit more from attending an adult Bible study. I think it would be a better way for teens to mature, both spiritually and mentally - to study the Bible alongside seasoned Christians and learn fundamental doctrine etc. rather than focus solely on "teen" issues.

I have to agree with Kevin. Just because the Bible doesn't explicitly mention something, that it's wrong, is a silly notion. Not only is that not true, but holding such a belief is believing something not mentioned in scripture, thus making it fairly self-contradictory. It's one of the biggest problems I have with "Bible alone" theology. (The other being how so many churches arrive at different conclusions using the "Bible alone.")

This documentary seems to be out to be controversial for the sake of being controversial but it doesn't really seem like it has anything much to say of any merit.

Are Youth Groups Biblical?

What other things are Not Biblical in todays churches?
A whole lot.

Where are the spiritual growth and development fruits, of all of these Not Biblical things?
Nowhere to be found.

Is it a close case thing?
Probably it is.


Not having seen the movie, I can't comment on the film itself, but the whole concept reminds me of a publication I once saw from a group that believed children should never be separated from their parents, ever, not even for Sunday School (and certainly not for school--only homeschooling was acceptable), because even at church, children might come in contact with ideas or teaching their parents did not approve. All I could think was that there would be no checks and balances at all if the parents themselves had any bad theology or wrong ideas, and that the children would be utterly clueless with how to deal with the world when they grew up themselves. Apologetics would be unheard of, since they would never have heard an idea to defend against, and their own faith might take a massive beating someday when they finally heard a new idea and had no defenses against it! (I had a friend in college who was completely shell-shocked when she left her parents' home after a very sheltered life, and hers wasn't nearly as sheltered as these people were recommending.)

Another thing to realize is that it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. You can have youth ministry AND family ministry. My kids all come to the worship service with us. Then we all go to our respective Sunday School classes. We all study the same things (our church teaches on the same topics each week at all age levels), so we can all discuss it together afterwards and during the week. Mid-week, the kids go to their youth groups while we go to our adult Bible Studies or classes, but we also go to small fellowship groups in homes as a family...whole families (and singles, basically people of all ages from infant to senior citizen) meeting together. Families are also encouraged to go on mission trips and do community service together, though there are also youth-specific mission trips and community workdays. We have no shortage of family fellowship, but if we spent every second of our lives together, I think the empty nest syndrome could make everything implode...assuming the kids didn't completely rebel.

I don't know that I would ever say youth groups are "wrong," but it is interesting to consider that after an age where the church has tried so hard to reach out to youth with various youth ministries such as youth group there have never been more youth leaving the church. I wonder more if youth groups are simply ineffective.

After watching the movie through once, and then skimming through it a second time, my personal opinion is that the movie does present a few valid points.
The one I would like to address is "this idea will not work everywhere."

Some of the comments made above were about breaking up family worship time. There are a variety of churches that have a wide range of how they 'schedule' worship. In my church, we have age graded Sunday School (preK - Ladies 3)but we come together for Worship. We do have Children's Church (K-4th) which is led by an ordained minister, and Preschool Children's Church.
Once a month all the children are brought back into the Sanctuary to be with their families in 'big church'.

So, is how we do it incorrect? Or maybe the churches that separate Adult, Youth, and Children into their own worship areas (kind of like mini churches in the same building)?

What about Sunday night service when all of us are together in the sanctuary?
What about Wednesday nights when there is a prayer meeting, Youth group, and AWANA? Is this against scripture because we have separated groups? We ARE discipling them. There are adults (fathers, mothers, grandfathers......) that are doing the teaching. Is this wrong?

It was mentioned that parents, fathers, should be doing the teaching and discipling....but I have a number of students whose parents are not believers, or just don't feel like coming....but these students find rides or drive themselves to church. I can assure you it isn't for pizza and juice (don't have it here). If we disband youth groups and rely on their parents what will happen to them?

*disclaimer: I am a Youth Pastor and oversee the Chiildren's ministry of the church as well*

I have been a youth ministry volunteer for over 20 years and viewed the film with great interest. It makes two very flawed conclusions: youth ministry 1) has no biblical basis and 2) is eroding the family and the parents’ role as the major influence on their children’s spiritual direction.

It’s insufficient to assert that the Bible makes no clear statement about the need for youth ministry: i.e. “Thou shalt have a youth ministry.” What is necessary is to look at what Jesus did. His disciples were young, and He encouraged them to leave home and follow Him. He knew quite well that this was necessary to focus on their spiritual growth so that they in turn will eventually lead others. Additionally, Proverbs says to “train up a child in the way he should go.” To that end, it is often quite necessary to focus only on children/youth themselves and pay exclusive attention to them for this proper, directed training to happen. Youth ministry serves that purpose.

Regarding the conclusion that youth ministry is tearing up the family and the parents’ role in the spiritual upbringing of sons and daughters: that is not the fault of youth ministry; that is the fault of us weak and broken people in our efforts to direct the ministry. Yes, in many churches those who lead youth ministry have erroneously concluded that the ministry itself must take over the role of being the number one influence on the kids’ spiritual training. That is why it is so important that youth ministry incorporates - as a vital part of itself - a ministry for the parents to assist and guide them in their vital role of being the major influence upon their children. Rather than an anathema to parental influence, youth ministry that is true to biblical principles can work hand in hand with parents. To simply eliminate youth ministry is nothing more than falling prey to the idea of throwing out the baby with the bath water.