After watching it last night, I remain sympathetic to filmmaker Philip Leclerc’s conclusions, but not his argument.
Leclerc argues that the crisis of young Christians leaving the faith is a form of judgment against the church for failing to organize itself according to biblical principles. In particular, the documentary insists youth ministries replace the father’s role of instructing children how to lead a Christian life. How did we get here, the movie asks, and what can be done about it?
It’s hard to get a bead on just how far Leclerc thinks youth ministry writ large has fallen, there’s one segment in which students’ ambivalent responses to whether or not the Earth is thousands or billions of years old are taken as evidence of failure. Maybe it is, but not in the way the movie seems to think.
The film proposes a nonexistent link between the Sunday School movement and the modern youth ministry, as part of an unbroken chain of unbiblical ideas about age segregation seeping into Protestant religious practice. This chain starts with Robert Raikes and runs through G. Stanley Hall and John Dewey, whose thinking, the movie is quick to point out, was influenced by the theory of evolution. R.C. Sproul Jr, the Calvinist theologian and minister, is quoted as saying the sunday school movement, and by extension the youth ministry of today is the result of the church uncritically adopting modern ideas about education. He fails to apprehend the fact that a primary if not the primary purpose of Sunday Schools was to teach children how to read, a skill without which a Bible is useless. There are several other missteps, someone says that youth ministry constitutes a betrayal of the Reformation, and pastor Craig Houston is quoted saying that children are sometimes barred by ushers from entering church services. This is clearly not the norm in any denomination.
Nor is social segregation unique to demographically normal Protestant churches. During college I never joined a campus ministry because they seemed to be little more than groups that only associated with one another, who just happened to engage in corporate worship a few days a week. Just like youth group, it was a social circle of good people more than a congregation. They weren’t of it, but they weren’t in it either.
But is the high number of young Christians leaving the church in middle and high school really a result of the preeminence of youth ministry? This is where the movie is less persuasive. The biggest difference between today’s Sunday schools and youth ministries is that most youth ministries, which cater to middle and high schoolers, don’t have activities during the regular service. Kids don’t have to pick one or the other, though I suspect some parents allow them to.
Having spent some of my high school years as a somewhat circumspect member of the youth ministry at a congregational church in Arlington then The Falls Church–a considerably more orthodox place than most of the congregations in the movie–I was well exposed to today’s youth group and all its theatrical charms. Our youth pastor rode a motorcycle in the fellowship hall once. I find it extremely unpersuasive that there could be any sort of pedagogical link between the Sunday schools of old and today’s youth ministry, mainly because–the movie’s clarity on this point is one of its great strengths–the emphasis is on creating a Third Place for the young people outside “the world” and providing “relevant,” which usually means dumbed-down, teaching.
The difficulty with creating that Third Place is that youth ministries have to make that place compelling. That usually entails summer camp-like games and other gags, which if you’re lucky the pastor will relate to some sort of digestible theological point. When they worship, it’s usually in that contemporary mode that elevates PowerPoint to the status of icon and rock and roll to liturgical music. That probably sounds curmudgeonly, but it’s more of a problem than most Christians acknowledge. Leclerc briefly criticizes contemporary Christian music, which is admirable because–and I say this as someone who loves both Christ and rock and roll–rock music is a poor vehicle for engaged worship. I think it was Greil Marcus that once said that the defining characteristic of rock music is the creation of an unstoppable sonic force, a force felt deep in one’s bones that under the best of circumstances brings a groovy body to the verge of losing control. For this reason the grouchy old graybeards of the culture war were right when they warned rock music and Christianity were incompatible, strictly speaking, though they probably went too far calling it Satanic. Combine the idea of losing control with the other main attribute of contemporary worship–reading off a PowerPoint presentation–and you have the most poisonously checked-out mode of worship in the history of Christianity. When that leads right into a youth pastor’s facile message about bullying or not having sex or how drugs are bad or any number of important but banal topics compared to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, is it any wonder that kids have begun to seek the beautiful and profound elsewhere?
All this is to say that a church is undoubtedly better when it worships as one body, which is the thrust of the movie. But youth ministry doesn’t usually prevent that, so the filmmaker’s focus there means he ignores the fact that many adult churches suffer from the same problems as youth ministries do in the movie. Recognizing that this might be a cheap shot of an example, I saw megachurch pastor Joel Osteen last weekend, who kind of personifies cheap theology and the death of liturgy. After the national anthem, the three distorted guitars (call it the Trans-Siberian Anthem) hadn’t even gone silent entirely when when they launched into the first worship song. Conveniently, everyone was already standing, so Joel didn’t need to ask. The “Night of Hope” was structured as a series of brief talks punctuated by songs, followed by a sermon lasting about a half hour. An American Idol star gave his testimony.
Joel Osteen is a heretic (at Nats Park he talked about the value of forgiving oneself), so I don’t mean to suggest an equivalency with the kind of youth ministries critiqued by the documentary, but I think it’s fair to say he represents a metastasis of the same sort of leavened Christianity.