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.