What is a Youth, Anyway?

Justin Johnson

Youth ministry is a mess. A large reason for this is that youth are perceived as children. Their toys are more expensive, and they can dress themselves (sometimes), but they are shamefully treated not much different than children.

As a youth I would find this offensive.

Imagine a youth who was the head of the church instead of being pampered by a lesser equipped, more tolerant of the world “leader”.

Perhaps this youth is the pastor of all the older men and women in the church. They spent their time reading, working, raising their children. Imagine a youth that was to be the example for the older folks in doctrine and in behavior.

“Wait,” you say, “that is not a youth!” Au contraire, it is. It is a Biblical example of a godly youth. Sadly, this particular youth would be overqualified to be the youth leader in many ministries nowadays.

1 and 2 Timothy are often called the Pastoral Epistles. They are used to train church leaders in ministry how-tos. Paul wrote them to a young man named Timothy: he was a youth.

“Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” – 1 Tim 4:12

The Bible describes no such thing as youth group, so Timothy grew up and took the role of a real leader. This youth was to be an example. This youth was to “give attendance to reading, exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Tim 4:13). He was a church leader, not a child.

Why then, do we feed our 21st century youth doctrinal pablum and despise them by kicking them out of the adult lessons? I’m sure Timothy had the inside scoop on what younger people enjoyed and how they thought. By today’s standards he would have made a model youth group leader, except modern youth leaders do not know as much doctrine.

Youth and Doctrine

There seems to be a perpetual myth that youth cannot or will not listen to doctrinal teaching. This has been shown to be incorrect time and time again.

Years ago, Lifeway research stumbled upon the idea that “teens are looking for more from a youth ministry than a holding tank with pizza.”

Barna surveys find that youth flee the church because it does not meet their spiritual needs. Apparently, bigger concerts, more activities, and passionate adventures are lacking in the department of doctrinal understanding.

Now, trendy youth ministries are explaining that “theology is coming back into fashion in youth ministry.”

Fashion? Apparently it’s an oldie, but a goodie, since Paul taught that youth should attend to doctrine two thousand years ago.

As children grow into adults they need the same doctrinally edifying teaching as adults. They need the same lessons about spiritual growth, doctrinal foundations, and the church that every other believer feeds on.

The Result of Treating Youth as Children

If youth are uninterested in mature Bible study, then they need to reevaluate their spiritual priorities. What is labeled as “new generational thinking” could just be the church enabling immaturity.

Imagine church meetings that started with 30 minutes of music, incorporated games and videos, ignored the Bible for the use of contemporary references, and were treated more like places to meet people than places of Biblical learning. Wait, that is the modern church model.

There is an entire generation of ex-youth group members that think the church should be what they were exposed to in childish youth ministry: entertainment focused, emotional environments, watered down teaching, and culturally relevant.

They are no longer youths. They have started churches all over the country adopting the downgraded youth group experience and offering it as a pattern to the church. They were called “youth” and were despised, and the result is an immature church in desperate need of a doctrinal foundation, the one laid by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 3:10-11).

A Job for Youths

If the next generation of the church is to grow at all it will be because we have raised the bar for ourselves and especially the youth.

The “professionals” say “that involves getting teens to understand the theology behind their faith, and to raise the bar for them, rather than dumb it down.”

Paul charges his youth to “teach no other doctrine”, “hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me”, and,

“Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” – 2 Tim 4:2

Youth in the Bible had wives, jobs, and fought in battle (Mal 2:14, Zech 13:5, Lam 3:27, 1 Sam 17:42). Youth were adults, albeit young adults, and learned responsibility as disciples, pastors, leaders. They were anything but children.

We need doctrinally intelligent responsible youths to stop the slide of the church into spiritual immaturity. Putting youths into groups and patronizing them as lesser adults is not helping.

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Published: January 28, 2012
Last Modified: December 21, 2021
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