Last week I satirically alluded to the importance of young adults attending church and youth group, lest they should fall into an early, chronic church consumerism. Some might respond, however, that though church is an indispensable means of grace, youth group is unnecessary. After all, neither youth pastors nor youth groups appear in God’s Word; and, indeed, the onus for transmitting the faith to the younger generation falls unmistakably on parents (cf. Deuteronomy 6:7; Ephesians 6:1-4). Why, then, have youth groups at all? And, should we decide to have youth groups still as a support ministry, why the histrionics about youth who don’t attend regularly?
Fair questions, these.
I would submit some cautious replies. I confess at the outset that I will employ experiential arguments in defense of my thesis. I am not generally a fan of experiential arguments, for they lack the weight of reasoned biblical argumentation. (The trouble with arguments from experience, after all, is that someone else may have a different experience—and who is to judge between them?) Nevertheless, as I noted above, I haven’t got much in the way of biblical support for youth ministry—only a vast and distressing lacuna—so I’ll make do with what I have. I acknowledge at the outset, though, that my conclusions will have to be tenuous because my premises are necessarily so.
I want to be especially wary of teaching human traditions as the commands of God (Mark 7:8). The Bible regularly enjoins participation in the local congregation and submission to the authority structures of the church (e.g., Hebrews 10:24-25; 13:17; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Ephesians 4:11-16); however, nowhere does God command youth to attend a mid-week gathering aimed at them especially. Thus, attendance at youth group is not a question of obedience to God’s commands, but rather a question of discernment and wisdom for widely divergent families. Should all families send their children to youth group? If not, who should? And why?
Who Needs Youth Group?
Based on my experience in different contexts, cultures, and churches, I would say two very different groups of students would benefit immensely from regular attendance at youth group.
First, youth who attend public schools should probably make youth group a priority in their lives. At least in the United States, public education is now intentionally anti-Christian, indoctrinating children with a worldview fundamentally at odds with Christian belief. This is not just a question of specific issues, such as naturalistic evolution, but a comprehensive approach to truth. The sad fact is that this indoctrination process is remarkably effective. Fewer and fewer Christian teenagers have a robust biblical understanding of the world, and fewer still can meaningfully engage with culture where they do disagree. Biblical knowledge is at an agonizing ebb. And while I grant that parents could supplement and correct the false teaching their children receive at school, the cold, hard truth is that few do—or do enough anyway. For these reasons, I believe youth who attend public schools should attend youth group regularly, to receive the instruction and equipping necessary for their circumstances—especially with university looming on the horizon, where these challenges will intensify!
Second, youth who are homeschooled should probably make youth group a priority in their lives—but for very different reasons. Indeed, one of the main motives for homeschooling is to pass a biblical worldview on to one’s children. However, what is often lacking in children of homeschooling families is an ability to engage winsomely and boldly with the culture around them (occasionally even including the other kids in their youth groups!). Homeschooling runs the risk of being unbiblically insular: children receive an abundance of Christian worldview, but have little skill at communicating its message to those in desperate need of it. For this reason, I believe youth who are homeschooled should attend youth group regularly, to have opportunity to engage with the lost and struggling meaningfully—and to learn how to do so more and more effectively.
Who Might Not Need Youth Group?
While I believe youth group should benefit every teen who attends, nevertheless I can see two groups who—given the constraints of time and energy—need not make it a priority in their lives.
First, youth who attend Christian schools might not need to attend youth group regularly, though it would depend upon the school. Two questions must be asked of the school: (1) Does the school provide truly Christian education, or is it merely a private school that Christians attend? That is, does the school not only teach the content of the faith (e.g., Bible classes taught by professionals trained in the subject), but also the practice of the faith? Does the school have a compelling discipleship structure, and is making disciples the top priority of the school? (2) Does the school provide opportunities to engage with the lost and struggling, so that students learn to communicate the gospel winsomely and boldly? This might happen through regular outreach events or through welcoming a percentage of the student population that is not Christian. If these two criteria are met, then it is very likely that those youth could forego youth group if they had good reasons for doing so—provided they belong to the second group too, however.
Second, those youth who participate fully in the “adult” ministries of the church would not need to attend youth group regularly. By full participation, I do not mean spectating during the service and volunteering to hold small children in the nursery. That is not fellowship as Scripture defines it. Rather, full participation requires using one’s gifts to serve the church, leading to mutual edification and outreach, and partaking in genuinely Christian relationships. These would involve mutual confession, encouragement, admonition, prayer, and accountability. If a young man or woman enjoyed that sort of fellowship with other members of the congregation—in a small group, for example—while using their gifts to build up the church, they could forego youth group.
A Final Caveat
Of course, my whole argument demands that the youth group reflect a functioning biblical community, having the same priorities and ministries that Scripture enjoins. A spineless, shallow, merely entertaining, or even merely relational group isn’t worth attending regardless of one’s educational situation. If the heart of the youth group is seeing who can drink a soda through a dirty sock the fastest, then I would strongly encourage all the youth in the church either to participate in the “adult” ministries fully or to seek reform prayerfully and lovingly. If, however, the heart of the youth group is equipping young men and women become to become fully-devoted followers of Christ—making disciples, that is—then I can only encourage participation.
 By “regular,” I mean often enough to be a functioning member of the community: i.e., using one’s gifts to serve others in the group, and developing relationships of sufficient depth for accountability and admonition.