Coming up this Sunday thousands of Christian families will park their cars, unbuckle car seats, unpack strollers and begin walking toward the church building. But then, something strange will happen—like a fork in the road, the kids will run to the right while the adults go to the left.
While most parents are oblivious to the spiritual ramifications of this directional detour, something is being taught every time this divide takes place. To the children, it is a consistent and indoctrinating moment that says:
- My church is here and my parent’s church is there
- My church is fun and my parent’s church is boring
- My church leader is my pastor and my father is not
But the parents are not free from this influential ritual either. To them, it says even more:
- My children aren’t ready for “real” church yet
- I am not qualified to teach and disciple my children toward biblical understanding
- It is not mine but the church’s responsibility to develop my child’s spiritual growth
- I, unlike the youth pastor, am incapable of relating to and understanding the spiritual journey of my child
- It is acceptable for me to not grow in my role as the primary spiritual teacher for my child
Ultimately, if I can be frank, much of the church has embraced a system where parents can outsource their responsibility for the spiritual leadership of their children to the youth pastor, youth program, or youth camp. But what if modern Sunday School was more harmful than helpful to the spiritual development of your child? What if this cultural church tradition had nothing to do with the Bible? But most of all, what if the Bible’s instruction for teaching children spiritual matters was actually in conflict with this unanimously practiced church tradition?
If our test for what is acceptable in the local Church is whether or not it is found in the Bible, we’ve got some serious changes to make. Take light bulbs, for instance—no mention of light bulbs in the Bible, yet our homes and Churches are filled with them. It’s not that they’re unbiblical. They’re merely extra-biblical. Just because something isn’t found in the Bible doesn’t make it wrong. The real test is whether or not what we are doing is at cross-purposes with what the Bible teaches us to do.
As believers, we’ve become so enamored of our good intentions and innovative ideas for “doing church” that the only question being asked by church leadership is, ‘How can we do this better?’ However, when it comes to the extra-biblical activities of the Church, maybe it’s time we ask ourselves, ‘Should we be doing this at all?’
In other words, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should and just because something seems smart, doesn’t mean its right.
But much the same way we expect a door to have a doorknob, we absolutely expect a church to have youth programs. Ask any church-shopping couple and near the top of their list is a giant gold-foiled “youth ministry” or “Sunday School” or “mid-week youth group” or “weekend youth programs” or “children’s church” or “young adults group”—after all, any church without them would be like… well… a door without a doorknob.
But you won’t find the mention or even the idea of Sunday School or youth programs in the Bible. So, how did something that isn’t found in the Bible become central to what the Church does?
Let’s take a brief historical journey. The Industrial Revolution (roughly 1760 – 1840) in Great Britain created a vast need for dirt-cheap labor. Interestingly, this is the birth era of the now ubiquitous Sunday School.
At the time, the children of the poor, and especially orphans, provided the cheapest labor that could be found. Soon the gears of eighteenth-century English industry were churning out profits, through the exploitation of these unfortunate children. The novels of Charles Dickens, such as “Oliver Twist” and “David Copperfield,” capture the desperate plight of those caught in the merciless jaws of institutionalized poverty. The immorality of exploiting the homeless hoards of orphans on London’s mean streets was unconscionable to Christian philanthropists, but what should be done?
In common missionary fashion, the need was narrowed down to three initiatives: These children needed the Gospel, a moral education, and the ability to read, although this was easier said than done. Between 1802 and The Factories Act of 1844, the only restriction to child labor was that they couldn’t be worked more than six days per week and 12 hours per day! As a result, Sunday was the only available day to instruct them in spiritual and moral matters.
The Need: Thousands of illiterate, homeless, immoral, orphans.
The Answer: The Gospel, moral education, instruction in reading on Sunday.
Sunday School was literally “school”—a place where illiterate, poor children would be educated and evangelized through being taught how to read the King James Bible.
Put simply, the creation of Sunday School was a missionary effort to evangelize the working-class orphans of London. Within a few decades, however, this missionary movement became the modus operandi of virtually every church in the developing West—not just for the less fortunate or orphans who, devoid of Christian parents, needed the gospel and a moral education, but for every socially stable child from every Christian family.
In his private writings, the nineteenth-century writer and minister J.C. Ryle brought clarity to how many well-intended Christian conventions eventually become sacred practice, “Experience supplies painful proof that traditions once called into being are first called useful, then they become necessary. At last, they are too often made idols, and all must bow down to them or be punished.” Whether or not Sunday School and youth programs were in his crosshairs, his quote captures with precision the current reality.
While youth ministry is, manifestly, extra-biblical practice, we mustn’t forget, as mentioned above, that scriptural absence does not necessarily signify scriptural disobedience. In other words, just because something is not in the Bible isn’t the test of whether something is acceptable or not. The test is whether or not that extra-biblical activity practiced in the local church is preventing or undermining what God’s Word has already instructed.
How does the “given” of youth ministry fare when tested against the Bible’s specific teachings on the spiritual formation of children? First, who does the Bible identify as the responsible party for teaching children and young people about God? Is it a willing person in Sunday School who passed a background check or some unmarried twenty-something who is hip on today’s culture and can “relate” with today’s youth? Does the Bible have anything to say about this?
Consider Deuteronomy 6:5-7, where God is speaking His mind on how your family is to learn the principles, practices, and moral laws of God:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”
Ephesians 6:4 continues with, “And, you fathers, don’t provoke your children to anger: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
It’s clear that God intends for the parents, and explicitly fathers, to take direct and active responsibility in teaching his children about who God is and what he expects. Are there exceptions? Of course. As sin continues to ravage and fracture families, alternatives must be sought because, like those orphans in London, kids need instruction in real time. The standard, however, . . . the “norm” according to the Bible, is that God has given the primary responsibility of teaching children about Him to that guy called “Dad”—not to the K-12 Sunday School program and not to the “cool”, single youth leader a few years older than the High School kids.
Whether or not it is intended, the typical Protestant church strongly discourages parents from discipling their own children by creating endless programs that are designed to do the discipling for them.
Additionally, any church that doesn’t regularly remind Dads and Moms that the theological and moral education of their children is the responsibility that God placed directly on the home (not on the Church) is teaching and encouraging a lifestyle and culture within that church that is contrary to what the Bible teaches.
Take a moment to ask yourself: In my current Church gathering, am I regularly encouraged to be the principle teacher and spiritual guide of my children? Am I challenged to embrace the responsibility of imparting the knowledge of God to my children? Does my pastor admonish me to understand that God will hold me accountable for how I have led my family and how I have taught and modeled the truths of Scripture to them?
Sadly, most will answer “No” to these questions.
The extra-biblical approach of supplanting the discipleship role of parents in their own families is a direct assault on the biblical culture intended for Christian families and, consequently, the Church. The time has come to consider the genuinely destructive results of a Church culture that removes from the home the primary responsibility for theological and moral training.
Are there positive results to be found anywhere in the church’s youth programs? Absolutely. Just like those London orphans, many kids have received the grace of God through hearing of the Gospel at just such a gathering. It’s a tragic day, however, when Christian parents are so ill-equipped, poorly taught, and badly led that they must rely on others to do what the Bible has directly stated is Dad’s (and by way of implication, Mom’s) duty.
A Church lead by mature, biblical leadership teaches men how to walk in the responsibilities that God has given them in leading their families—not in usurping a father’s role and responsibility by making the discipleship of his own children unnecessary.
Are you caught up in the extra-biblical church culture that sidelines Dad & Mom or are you a warrior being trained and encouraged to enter into the epic battle every parent faces: discipling your children to know and love their Heavenly Father?
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If this article has not convinced you about the unbiblical nature of youth ministry, consider watching this powerful documentary which reveals the roots and scriptural deficiency of this protected church tradition.