Youth Group Observation

Recently I was sitting in a little diner located in a tiny town in Washington State. Our power had gone out, so I was taking advantage of the free WiFi and a massive plate of chili cheese fries. As I worked online via my laptop, a group of teenagers came in. They were excitedly chatting, and the adult woman with them was asking what kind of pizza they wanted (gluten free apparently). Before long they were sitting at one of the double booths for what turned out to be their midweek Bible study. Although I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, it was impossible to not overhear their conversations, since they did opt to have this meeting in a very public place and sit right across from me.

I regularly went to several youth groups growing up, and at the time I loved them. I was also a youth pastor myself back in the day. But now I’m seeing this situation from a very different perspective. Here are the thoughts that came to mind as I discretely observed the event.

1. The whole point of the meeting was indoctrination. Sure, it also involved social interaction and some good life advice about how to study for tests in school, but the main focus was to corral these teens’ minds into “correct belief”. The youth leader emphatically told them what truth was and discouraged doubt. She did so in a very amiable, down to earth way, and was doing her best to be “relatable” to the teens so they would more easily absorb her message. Instead of teaching them HOW to think about these very important issues, she (and most religious leaders) was putting all of her energy and knowledge into pushing HER idea of truth and reality onto these young, impressionable minds. Instead of showing them how to find out the truth for themselves, she told them that she already knew what truth was, and there was no way it could be wrong.

2. Kids and teens need fun and social interaction. That’s why they love youth groups. Many youth also crave the attention, affection, and approval of an adult authority figure, such as a youth leader. Youth groups specifically target these needs and blatantly exploit them to more easily indoctrinate children and teens with a specific religious ideology. I now view youth groups and Sunday School with skepticism and suspicion, because I was heavily involved with them growing up and I know exactly what the motivations of the leaders are.

3. Would this woman, or any other youth leader, have spent the same amount of time and energy with these kids if religious indoctrination wasn’t their primary goal? Would they have cared to take the time to get to know these kids and help them through life issues if their religion didn’t tell them to proselytize to boost the ranks of the Faithful and save others from hell? I wonder, where are the adults who will give their time and devotion to teens without any expectation of reward (i.e. conversion)? The message in that group, although inviting and laid back, was clear: You need to be a Christian. If you’re not a Christian, we will lovingly peer pressure you into becoming one. If you are a Christian, then you need to make your faith even stronger, squelch any doubts, and get your friends to become Christians too.

I met one of these teen girls afterwards. She noticed me working on my laptop and asked me if I was writing a novel. We had a lovely conversation about following your dreams, even when it’s hard work, because it’s possible to have the kind of life you dream about. She was a science minded individual who found my freelancing career and upcoming school plans very inspiring. Although we didn’t really talk about faith or God, she did ask what I’d gone to college for and I said it was a Bible college but I wasn’t religious anymore. I hope that seeing a successful person living her dream without religion will cause her to think about her own faith. Let’s be clear- I don’t really care if she believes in God. I had no intention of forcing my own beliefs on her. I DO care about her being indoctrinated by adults she trusts to tell her the truth about life, instead of being taught how to make her OWN opinions about faith and the supernatural. My hope for her is that she thinks for herself, whether that means she stays a Christian or finds another explanation of life that makes more sense to her.

I’m not saying youth groups are all inherently evil, or that this youth leader was a terrible person. Having been a youth leader myself, I know that she likely cares very much for these teens and has the best of intentions. However, many people do damaging or wrong things with the best of intentions… the intentions themselves are not nearly enough. Sometimes our intentions are misguided.

If what you teach is truth and that truth can be discovered without the aid of a human teacher, if God is able to reveal himself to anyone, then teaching children and teens to think for themselves should not be something you’re afraid of.

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5 thoughts on “Youth Group Observation

  1. While I am a Christian and I don’t think the Bible is a matter of opinion, and I do think we need to share the Gospel with everyone I also think the Bible is infallible,but we (mankind) are not. I also think we should teach youth to ask questions, to think for themselves, and sometimes they won’t come to the same conclusion, but we can not brainwash people into faith and we should quit trying. Faith is something God gives us. However something to consider, I believe those who don’t trust in Christ will go to Hell, I love them so I share the Gospel. Could these people be trying to do the same as an act of love but in the wrong way?

    • First off, I understand where you’re coming from. I used to think the exact same way when I was a Christian. I’m a little blunt sometimes, but I don’t mean it in an offensive way. Tone of voice is hard to convey online. 🙂

      Let me ask you this. How do you feel about (peaceful) Muslim teachers indoctrinating kids and teens with their beliefs concerning Hell, Allah, sin, etc? Would you feel comfortable with an Islamic teacher telling impressionable children that there is no doubt that Islam is true? What about Hinduism or Judaism, Taoism or Voodoo or one of the thousands of other smaller religions people still follow today?

      Perhaps now you can see why I object to your beliefs being used to indoctrinate children. 🙂 When you don’t believe a religion is true, seeing children indoctrinated to believe it without question becomes a very unsettling experience.

      Just because you believe Christianity is true doesn’t mean it actually is. Muslims, Hindus, and people of countless other religions think the exact same way you do, except about their own religion. Everyone is so certain that their religion alone is correct. So who’s right? Which religion is acceptable to indoctrinate children with? Only the one you happen to believe in? I understand people’s motives, but that doesn’t make indoctrination acceptable or healthy.

      If God is real, he should be able to reveal himself to anyone, without needing to rely on infallible humans to do it for him. The Christian focus on witnessing and indoctrinating children, to me, suggests that it’s a purely human effort rather than a genuine supernatural experience. No specific belief system should be pushed on a child; they should be presented with the evidence, shown different views, and encouraged to make up their own minds.

      • First I thank you for respectfully responding. Second I wanted to say that my original reply was an agreement, youth should be taught and educated and should know to always question, because there can be only one truth, and who know if anyone’s right. This is different then indoctrination, but I know it could be easy to blur the lines.Now I don’t think God needs us, that salvation is through faith and faith through hearing God’s word. Whether it be from someones voice or through the direct reading of the Bible. And that is someone has a true Faith it is accompanied by a genuine repentance which is always supernatural because no human effort can change a heart.Thank you for your time.

      • I appreciate your response and for taking taking the time to read my blog. 🙂 I agree that it is easy for the lines to become blurred at times; I think that’s why I am so affected by youth groups and such now. It’s so often indoctrination, or near indoctrination, but very cleverly disguised. I have never heard of a Christian youth group that will admit to the attendants that Christianity could be wrong, that there’s a chance God may not exist, and that they should research all belief systems and decide for themselves which one is true.

        I do disagree that no human effort can change a heart. Many people in many belief systems, including belief systems that don’t involve belief in the supernatural, have had amazing life changing experiences. I believe humans are very capable of changing themselves, and saying that we need a deity to make those changes not only diminishes what we’re actually capable of, it also contributes to the idea that we need outside help to change and thus not being changed can be attributed to God or the Devil rather than a lack of effort on our part.

  2. “I do disagree that no human effort can change a heart.”
    this is profoundly true, human effort is biggest thing can change a heart.

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