Hi and welcome back! Of late, we’ve been checking out the hilarious, utterly-lacking-in-self-awareness ramblings of aspiring youth evangelist Greg Stier. Obviously, his target customers, youth ministers, value and adore All Things Youth Ministry. However, youth groups in white evangelicalism aren’t actually very effective at their stated goals. Today, I’ll show you the fantasy — and the reality — of youth groups.
(Previous posts about Greg Stier: Evangelicals’ False Predictions About Evangelicalism; Counting False Costs; Greg Stier Counts the Costs; Mobilizing a Teen Army for Jesus; The Falling Away of the Young; Dare 2 Share and the Sabotage of the Young; Soulwinners Hope to Score More Sales in the Pandemic; Greg Stier Thinks Teens Will TOTALLY Save Christianity; The Redemption of Johnny Lawrence; How Teens Will Save Christianity; Greg Stier’s Reframing Game.)
Greg Stier wrote the post we’re examining today back in November 2015.
It’s important to note that in summer 2015, Christians first began to recognize their own decline. It’d been going on for years by then — I think beginning in 2006 — but white evangelicals in particular lived in denial of this reality until 2015 — and Pew Research’s groundbreaking Religious Landscape Survey.
And all their illusions dissolved at the seams.
So by November 2015, the tribe had flown into a full-blown frantic attempt to reverse that decline. They’ve been there ever since.
Of all the demographics white evangelicals were losing quickly, young adults represented the biggest slice of the Nones-and-Dones pie that Pew Research served forth. Not only were they leaving, they were not returning — ever. Sure, evangelical leaders spoke of this retention disaster. Some sounded the alarm for years before 2015. But now, everyone knew for sure: teens and college students in particular were fading right out of evangelical churches.
As a result, evangelicals began paying particular attention to youth ministry. That meant they trained a laser focus on youth groups.
Christianese: Youth Groups.
Church youth group is like the ultimate casual hangout where you get Christian points just for showing up.
— Blimey Cow, “Ten Kids You Meet at Every Youth Group.”
In Christianese, a youth group is the collective group of children, teens, and unmarried college students served by a church’s youth ministry. Evangelicals collectively call the people in a youth group young people.
From the collective youth group, the church leaders divide the members into similarly-age-grouped Sunday School classes. Members receive Sunday School lessons in smaller groups. Then, they all converge together for group worship and activities.
When youth group members get married, of course, they must begin attending the young marrieds class. They can’t remain part of their youth groups anymore.
(They have been tainted. By sex. Unlike the youth group members. Totally.)
In a lot of ways, youth groups function a lot like any other obligatorily-social group of similarly-youthful people thrown together. Indeed, very few young people voluntarily choose to associate with youth groups. (Some do though.) But for the right young adult, which is to say an authoritarian leader/follower in training, youth groups can fulfill some important functions. And for a young adult aching for friendships and feelings of acceptance, youth groups can be a lifeline — though the other young people in these youth groups deeply resent being forced into the roles involved.
In this video, for instance, an adorable Christian YouTuber reveals the “Ten Kids You Meet at Every Youth Group.” Unsurprisingly, he pays particular negative attention to under-socialized kids who lean on their youth groups very hard for acceptance, activities, and attention:
I’m not saying he’s wrong at all. After all, I knew kids exactly like these in my youth groups. But at the time, I didn’t realize exactly why there seemed like so many more of these sorts of people in youth groups than in any other social contexts.
Because there definitely is a reason why that’s so.
The Fantasy Greg Stier Sells.
In his 2015 post, Greg Stier advises parents to force their teens to attend youth group meetings.
Greg Stier promises parents many things about youth groups. In his opinion, these groups:
- Provide teens with ministers who mentor them and model proper Jesus-ing for them. That seems like quite a stretch. I’m always hearing about youth ministers in trouble with the law, and usually that trouble involves them doing the opposite of Stier’s promise.
- Provides [2a)] a “community” that is free of “bullying, gossip, slander and hatefulness (which can destroy a teenager’s self-identity).” Also [2b)], this community demands service of teenagers, who gosh, need to be doing more of that anyway!
- Reiteration of point 2B above, plus the youth pastor will “challenge” teenagers to slam their peers with sales pitches, which will totally result in sales and new members for the groups.
- Offers teenagers “theology.” Except for the Book of Amos, amirite? LOL! We’ll see in a moment how great that theological training is.
- Reiteration of point 2A above, but Stier pitches it as a “safe place to confess and confide.” Hopefully, those teens know that youth ministers aren’t actually bound by confidentiality laws, and hopefully they know just what awful gossip mills evangelical churches tend to be.
Once again, I ask:
Was Greg Stier ever a teenager himself? None of this sounds even remotely like anything I ever experienced in actual youth groups myself.
Really Counting the Costs.
As I mentioned recently, I considered myself quite a pariah in my school before conversion. In truth, I actually was doing a lot better than I thought. Years after I became a fanatic, an old friend of mine mused in some bewilderment that I’d been very popular, and the people who had liked me felt very hurt when I became a religious fanatic and abandoned their company.
At the time, I only marveled that I hadn’t felt accepted or liked at all. I wished — and still do — that I’d known about their love when it mattered. No, instead I was lonely, so very lonely, and evangelicalism found and fed something in me.
With my conversion, I entered this absolute whirlwind of social activity, life-altering SPEERCHUL BATTLES, the end of the world coming any day now, and a divinely-handed-down sense of meaning and purpose. Church filled my weekends and my evenings so completely that my mom worried aloud that I was in a cult.
Youth groups became the central hub of all that activity.
At the time, though, I didn’t notice that my social circles were shrinking more and more and more. Nor did I notice that my churches generally were anything but spiritual oases.
The Reality of Youth Group.
I went to a youth group meeting at my church for the first time in a while, and I forgot about how awful it is.
When I was evangelical, I belonged to two different youth groups.
The first one was part of that Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) megachurch I joined. The second one was part of the first Pentecostal church I attended.
Both churches boasted large congregations with enormous youth groups, though the first one was much bigger. While I was there (mid-late 1980s, when roller-skating was still a popular pastime), they were fundraising to purchase a defunct supermarket next door to convert to a roller-skating rink. And the church intended this rink to be used by the youth group as a whole. That’s a lot of young people!
The Pentecostal youth group was nowhere near that size. That said, it still contained what was, for me, an overwhelming number of children and young adults.
And being around them was like being in a high-school production of Lord of the Flies with a thin Jesus coating.
Youth Groups’ Drag on Retention.
It amazes me that Greg Stier and his pals push as hard on youth group membership as they do, considering the obvious drag youth groups are on evangelical retention rates. I turned up literally millions of hits for the phrase “my kids hate youth group.” Here’s a sampling from page 1:
- “What if they don’t want to come to youth group?” The very authoritarian Vineyard Youth USA site advises to force them to come anyway.
- “7 Truths You Need to Hear If You Dislike the Children’s Ministry But Love Your Church,” from a Christian mommy blog. Her advice: stop expecting so much from youth ministry, but change churches if you really can’t cope.
- “I Hate Going to Youth Group.” A youth minister offers counsel to other such workers in how to deal with their typical deluge of teens who hate being there. At no point does he suggest these teens maybe shouldn’t be there.
- “Why My Teen Hates Your Youth Group.” A youth minister’s three teens told her they don’t like youth groups, and she gets a “lump in my throat” at what they had to say.
- “My Teen Doesn’t Want to Go to Youth Group. What Do I Do?” The youth minister writing this column advises forcing teens to go anyway. Features bonus gaslighting and manipulation directed at both parents and teens!
All of these were written by firmly-believing evangelical Christians, so none of them talked much about teens’ overwhelming rejection of evangelicals’ endemic sexism and bigotry. One Catholic ex-youth-group-member did, but that was it for page 1.
Do these entries, written as they are by actual evangelical youth ministers for the most part, make youth groups look appealing to teens and young adults? Or do they accidentally highlight just how much emotional manipulation goes into the job?
Would youth group members, upon reaching maturity, see churches as a positive or negative place after having been subjected to this manipulation?
No, instead I see youth groups as singing the clarion song of authoritarianism.
The State of Youth Groups’ Theology, 2020.
It’s also hilarious that Greg Stier sees youth groups as providing solid “theology” to members.
Every single survey I’ve seen in the past ten years from evangelical groups has had adults wringing their hands about how poorly young evangelicals understand their own religion — and its sourcebook. Calvinist group Ligonier has been keeping track of this very trend for years in their hamfisted way.
Youth groups’ leaders swing between the two extremes of mandatory fun and hardcore learning. Plenty try to drive in the middle lane between them. Either way, the results never vary: young adults graduate from these groups with little to no knowledge of theology, and no one approach seems to enjoy better retention rates anyway.
I’ll just say that I learned a helluva lot more about the Bible after deconversion than I ever did while Christian.
Really, they might as well send the little darlings out for weekly Frisbee Golf tournaments every Sunday. They could write Bible verses on the goals. That’d make it plenty-enough Christian, if their other swag is anything to judge by.
Perhaps because youth groups are so mandatory in evangelicalism, youth group members themselves tend to be the worst hypocrites ever. Looking back, I can’t blame them for doing whatever they could to get their kicks. With the wisdom of long-ago hindsight, I don’t even blame them for trying on the emotional costumes of their authoritarian parents and trotting out the same hypocritical behavior they saw in the adults of their world.
At the time, though, it bothered me enormously.
The hypocrisy of those SBC youth group members really opened my eyes — in the best way, but not one I appreciated at the time. In fact, I left the SBC largely because of them.
Soon after, I joined that Pentecostal church largely because of the living testimony of an ethereally-sublime schoolmate of mine, Angela. And I found the youth group to be far better-behaved.
However, they were just way better at putting up a front than those SBC teens had been. I’d soon come to learn they were just as clique-ish, just as mean, and just as hypocritical.
But by then, I’d settled on extremist fundamentalism as the way to ensure my own safety from Hell. I was stuck with these hypocrites.
Stumbling Over Stumbling Blocks.
Of course, I tried very hard not to let others’ hypocrisy bother me. My Dear Leaders had said many, many times that it shouldn’t. A popular phrase at the time ran, “Don’t let the Devil steal your joy!” Being upset over hypocrisy meant letting the Devil do exactly that.
However, a determined little voice in the back of my head wondered:
Shouldn’t youth groups be way better than secular groups? Shouldn’t TRUE CHRISTIAN™ kids full of Jesus Power, radiating Jesus Auras like nobody’s business, be better than secular kids? If Jesus was real, then shouldn’t Christianity — the religion Jesus supposedly started — make its adherents into better people than they could possibly manage on their own?
In short, shouldn’t true beliefs, truly believed beliefs even, also be lived beliefs?
To me, the answer was always a strong yes. That’s one of the reasons my own hypocrisy bothered me so much. I knew what it indicated, and I didn’t want to face that reality for a very long time. It meant something I couldn’t deal with yet. So the observation went into my Deal With It Later pile.
(Christianity is very difficult to practice as a lived belief, and there’s a reason for that difficulty. It produces a bumper crop of hypocrites every year, and there’s a reason for that too.)
The Stumbling Block of Mandatory Fun.
In similar ways, it bothers me more than I can possibly say that so many Christian parents force religious indoctrination and mandatory religious attendance down the throats of their children. It cannot possibly turn out well for any but the most eager-to-please, authoritarianism-addled children.
And there just aren’t nearly as many of those sorts of children even in evangelicalism anymore to keep Christianity afloat.
Once again, I am hit with a real truth about Christianity, and damn it all, I have Greg Stier to thank for reminding me of it:
Nothing about Christianity even hints at a religion full of actual objectively-true claims, much less one that compels belief and affiliation on its own merits. Its leaders have always relied on coercion to get their desired results. Always. Without coercive power, Christianity becomes irrelevant in short order.
Every single thing evangelicals say about youth groups only points to that truth.
NEXT UP: “The Gospel” has super magical Jesus powers! Did you know that? We’ll check out some of them tomorrow! See you then!
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