For many Christians this is the time of the year when they’re all abuzz about the wildly popular week-long evangelical event known as Vacation Bible School (commonly referred to by its acronym, VBS).
In terms of the high level of anticipation, collective excitement, Madison-Avenue-style marketing, and pulpit-driven hype, this event has vaulted in importance within Christendom to rival that of Christmas and Easter. If there are only three events on the Christian calendar that get highlighted every year, VBS is certainly one of them.
Because of Vacation Bible School’s prominence in the church, I wanted to take this opportunity to make some observations about this annual cultural Christian phenomenon and (by extension) youth ministry as a whole.
Before we begin, allow me to be brutally honest.
First let me say that it is no secret to the readers of this blog (and those who know me personally) that I am a youth ministry abolitionist. I am passionate about this subject and I’ve pulled no punches in my conversations and my treatises about it, but at the same time I do recognize that many involved in these types of ministries are well-meaning and have the best of intentions. Unfortunately, pure motives and best intentions do not excuse or justify the wholly destructive nature of the extra-biblical model of youth ministry (and VBS).
I also want to make it abundantly clear that I do not believe those engaging in various forms of youth ministry are in danger of Hell-fire because of their involvement or participation (for salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone). I also have dear Christian brothers who are involved in youth ministry (in fact one of them leads such a God honoring and holy life that I feel like a heathen next to him and despair that I will never reach his level of love, grace, and sanctification) and although I adamantly disagree with them on this subject, I can still have meaningful fellowship with them.
But I would appreciate the reciprocal consideration from youth ministry proponents regarding their misrepresenting and making a caricature out of those who oppose youth ministry (and those who encourage others to return to the biblical and traditional church model of raising and teaching children) as is so often done.
In their efforts to preserve youth ministry, critics of family integrated worship and family integrated churches (FICs) often defend their position by warning that proponents of family integration run the risk of becoming overbearingly patriarchal, Pharisaical, legalists who erroneously believe that worshiping together as a family ensures their children’s salvation, who refuse to evangelize anyone outside of their immediate family, and who place their family in higher regard than the Bride of Christ.
These are unfair depictions that I keep hearing levied against those who reject youth ministry for family based worship, yet these critics have failed to cite one example of these extreme wayward families they keep warning about (or claimed to have even met one).
Ironically, even though they reject the FIC model because they believe it has potential to be taken to extremes, youth ministry proponents overlook, make excuses for, or simply dismiss the problems inherent with youth ministry. These are not rare exceptions, they are very common and almost the standard. The mountain of dysfunctionality seen in so many youth groups can be cited (and many have been featured on this very blog) as well as the mind-numbing statistics that have proven the utter failure of youth ministry.
I have yet to become or meet even one of these types of families that youth ministry proponents keep warning that we have a great potential to become. Is it likely that there are some families out there who do fit that caricature? I’m sure there are, but these are the exception, whereas it seems to be the norm to see utter foolishness exhibited in youth ministries; so many of which resemble a scene out of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
I sincerely do not write this missive (some would call it a tome) with the intention to cause division or create animosity among my brothers and sisters in the Lord. I pray that this is not received as derision, but as a thoughtful critique; prompting us to examine why we do what we do. It is meant to shed light on a practice that many promulgate without ever examining or even considering what the results (or ramifications) are. I also hope that this will serve as a clarion call for readers to eventually abandon this practice and return to the biblical model of raising and teaching our children in the Lord. But to those who do not, I will still love you, still fellowship with you, and still consider you my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Allow me to begin by presenting some questions about VBS and youth ministry that I think are worth asking:
No. And fortunately, God did not leave it up to us to wonder if or experiment with whether or not age-segregated youth ministry is a good way to teach children.
The concept of youth ministry is completely absent from the Bible and the Scriptures are completely devoid of any instruction in which the responsibility of raising a child is the job of the pastor or youth minister (a position also not found in Scripture). Scripture clearly gives the responsibility of raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord to the parents, specifically the father (see Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and Ephesians 6:4 for examples), and there is no instruction or example of children ever being separated from their families during the worship of God. Any deviation from this biblical norm should be the exception, not the rule.
“There is no indication from Scripture that children were ever removed from the meetings designed for preaching, Scripture reading, prayer, and worship. But, in our culture, it is automatic and comprehensive.”
“The constant presumption of Scripture is that children were present in the worship of the people of God. In Nehemiah’s time, men and women and all those who could hear with understanding gathered to hear Ezra the scribe read the Law (Neh 8.1-3; Ezr 10.1). Moses certainly anticipated the literal ‘children’ of Israel to be present when the Law was read (Dt 31.12-13). Paul’s letters, intended to be read to the churches, assume the intelligent presence of children (Eph 6.1-4; Col 3.20), and children were present when the Lord Jesus taught (Mt 18.1-5; 19.13-15).”
No. Statistics prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the whole youth ministry movement, which includes VBS, has been an absolute failure as kids continually (and now predictably) reject the faith long before they enter adulthood.
And this is what’s so mind-boggling to me: In spite of the statistics and failing track record of youth ministry, well-meaning parents and church leaders continue to ignore these realities and work diligently to maintain the status quo. These same church leaders and parents then wonder why little Johnny and little Suzie eventually begin talking like the world, dressing like the world, looking like the world, and acting like the world (before they walk away from the church to completely embrace the world). But praise God, although there’s no fruit in their life, they gave their heart to Jesus at Vacation Bible School when they were ten and attended youth group every week, so they’re Christians . . . right?
Sadly, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the kids of Christian parents are completely indistinguishable from the kids of unbelievers. Youth ministry, along with its dismal results, is a classic example of the emperor without clothes.
3). Was the Church able to survive, thrive, and raise up children in the Lord before the advent of youth ministry and VBS?
Yes. To claim that we need youth ministry and VBS to reach youth indicates that we have not only moved away from the prescribed Biblical method of teaching kids, but even from how the church traditionally taught their children for almost 2,000 years.
Usually not. So why do we remove our kids from the main sanctuary just when the pastor is about to deliver the Word? What message does this send to the kids?
A). We need a break from you?
B). You constantly need to be entertained?
C). You’re not smart enough for the preaching to be of any advantage to you?
D). What the pastor has to say doesn’t concern you or have any bearing on your life?
E). We Christians are called to be one body, but it’s okay to exclude you because you’re just a kid?
F). Our expectations for you are so low that we don’t expect you to behave well enough to sit through the service?
Pastor Brian Borgman opines (in this article):
“So here we are, gathered as God’s people, ready to hear the Word of the living God, prepared to receive the manna from heaven, but before we get to this serious redemptive event, we send the kids OUT so that they can go color or get a ‘lesson geared for their age.’ I am in favor of having times where kids get a lesson geared for their age, but it is not when the Word of God is being preached in the other room! We say that faith comes from hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). We hopefully believe that preaching is truly a redemptive event. So why would [we] remove our children? Do we think that little of them or that little of God?”
By claiming or implying that we need to modernize, water down, or make the gospel kid-friendly, are we not suggesting that man has more power over the conversion of the soul than God? Are we not declaring that the Holy Spirit is unable (or needs a little help from us) to convict a child of sin and regenerate him or her? Are we not overtly rejecting the axiom that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16)?
Pastor Borgman asks:
“The assembly of God’s people is where the King of Heaven is enthroned upon the praises of His people. The assembly of the saints is where our heavenly Father meets with His family. The Lord Jesus is present in the midst of His church. His worship is glorious. There is truth and heritage in the hymns. There is love and adoration in our songs of praise. The Spirit of God is in His holy temple. So why would we deconstruct the Divinely appointed worship of God for children? Why would we take the majesty of corporate worship and juvenilize it with happy clappy kids songs and crafts and little homilies?”
Youth ministry and Vacation Bible School is man’s attempt to make the gospel entertaining enough to be palatable to kids. If you disagree, then ask yourself why VBS has a plethora of entertainment-based, kid-based themes? Why is VBS and youth ministry structured to appeal to a kid’s appetite for amusement? Is the message of the gospel not enough? Is the story of redemption lacking?
I again appeal to Pastor Borgman:
“’Children think church is boring and children’s church makes God exciting.’ Does it really? If you substituted Barney for God, the kids would still have the same excitement levels. Frankly, kids think lots of stuff is boring. They are kids. What do they know? Are you really going to allow their childish worldview to shape itself by allowing them to dictate what worship activities are acceptable to them or are you going to patiently teach them about the wonder of worship by making them worship with you?”
It is all too common that while the adults are in the main sanctuary being taught from Genesis about God’s terrifying wrath poured out on wicked mankind and how Noah’s ark was a foreshadow of God’s saving in the promised Messiah (in addition to learning that the prophet Jonah was a foreshadow of the Messiah as seen in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection as well as the story of Jonah gloriously putting on display God’s sovereignty over His creation and His willingness to save even the most wretched of sinners) . . . elsewhere, behind closed doors (and separated/divided from the fathers who are tasked by God with the teaching of their kids), masses of theologically anemic children are coloring pictures of the elephants, giraffes, monkeys and other fun animals that Noah put on the ark, and believing that the story of Jonah is a tale about a fish.
Still disagree with the bleak assessment by Pastor Borgman and myself regarding the current youth culture and VBS curriculum? Then let’s peruse a sampling from the smorgasbord of shallow, theme-based VBS programs that trivialize the gospel in order to make the message of the cross fun and appealing.
(You can view more of these VBS themes here.)
Along with the myriad of VBS programs available to churches comes the avalanche of advertising. When you examine the marketing behind the VBS frenzy, you have to wonder if churches are functioning at the direction of Scripture or at the direction of advertisers.
Here are just two of the many promotional videos hyping up the Big Apple Adventure VBS program:
If you were able to endure these videos, let me ask you, does this type of product marketing, pandering to children, and furtherance of the appetite for entertainment (all in the name of the gospel) cause your children to aspire to the deeper, more mature things of the faith, or does it promote and perpetuate a lack of maturity? Should we be encouraging our kids to mature in the faith, or should we be exampling for them that it’s ok for grown adults to act like children—that this is how a mature Christian man or woman should act? (This is another abhorrent phenomenon plaguing our society where adults—also known as rejuveniles—refuse to grow up.)
Here is another video from the Gold Rush VBS program, much milder than the above two videos, but whose subtle message is just as insidious.
Did you catch it? Did you notice how the the driving thrust behind this VBS advertisement is the utter disengagement of the son from his mother while the solution provided is of an external source? There is obviously no healthy relationship between the child and his mother, and his affections are then set toward a figure or person outside that of his own family (and it’s not God, it’s a man panning for gold).
The message here is clear: Your disengaged, disinterested, disenfranchised child needs our VBS program for spiritual nourishment. And the visible church is perpetuating this warped philosophy!
Instead of encouraging children and parents to knit their hearts together in common love of Christ, the church has bought into the adolescence lie that kids are inevitably going to disengage (and even rebel) from their parents, so this video assumes this erroneous view of the parent-child relationship and capitalizes on it in order to advance a VBS program. Don’t we receive enough of this kind of indoctrination from secular TV, books, and movies that constantly portrays kids and parents with estranged relationships as normal? Why are we who are of the church not taking a stand?
In his article The Invention of Adolescence, Otto Scott observed:
“Throughout all the previous centuries of Christianity — and of Judaism before that, twelve had been considered the age of maturity. Both confirmation in the Christian religion in Pre-reformation centuries, and the Bar Mitzvah in Judaism (then and now) took place at that age. Thereafter, a young person was expected to behave as a responsible adult, and to assume a place in adult society.”
What’s good for the goose . . .
We rightly reject silly theme-based sermons when a church introduces it in the main sanctuary, but we don’t even bat an eye when we employ silly theme-based sermons with our own kids. What’s the difference?
We boldly renounce the man-centered programs employed by the seeker-sensitive megachurches which are designed to reach the “unchurched,” yet we accept this same pragmatic approach to evangelism when it comes to our children. Does anyone else see the irony (or hypocrisy) in this?
We love to learn from the stalwarts of the faith such as Ryle, Spurgeon, Owens, and Edwards, yet when it comes to our kids we’re content with them learning from youth ministers who act like children, theologically shallow panda bears, and Bob and Larry the talking vegetable duo. Oh, how we short change our kids when we underestimate their ability to grasp plain gospel truths.
Again, Pastor Borgman notes:
“The way we minister to children often does nothing more than betray our lack of confidence in God’s Word and Spirit and His appointed means. It also often reveals a short-sighted understanding of human nature and the power of God unto salvation.”
Now, does the average five-year-old understand such doctrines as propitiation, imputation, and the penal substitutionary death of Christ? Usually not. But is that the child’s fault, or is it the fault of the father not taking the time to train up his child and instead, relying solely on youth groups and VBS?
I have personally exampled such concepts as Christ’s substitutionary death to my children without all the gimmicks. When they have done wrong I’ve suggested to them that I will take their innocent baby brother and spank him for their transgression. It’s amazing how quickly they grasp God’s unmerited favor, His amazing grace, and His wonderful mercy when you couple biblical doctrine with examples like that . . . and I didn’t even have to dress up like a vegetable or put on a puppet show to do it.
Busy, busy, busy.
Parental instruction and catechizing of children was effective for all generations before youth ministry, and it is still effective today to those willing to take the time to do it. The big difference between then and now is that Christian parents today are too occupied with “stuff” to be bothered with tending to the shepherding of their own children. And astonishingly, the modern church has made it far too easy for parents to continue to abdicate this God-given responsibility to someone else (as well as keeping some parents so busy with various church functions that they see very little of their spouse and kids). The Evangelical American church is guilty of helping to divide the family; turning the hearts of the children away from their parents and toward a youth leader.
It’s hard for me to understand why Christians (especially Sola Scripturists) weigh everything in light of Scripture (rejecting what fails the Berean test) yet youth ministry–which has absolutely no Scriptural support–is blindly accepted. And it’s even more mind-boggling to me that when presented with these facts (including the abysmal failure of such programs) we continue on this course. Why? Why do we continue to practice an unbiblical methodology whose fruit is the mass production of lukewarm religionists and false converts?
Continuing to reject God’s prescribed (and proven) method for teaching children, and continuing to tenaciously cling to a failed, man-made, man-centered methodology that all but guarantees your kids will grow up to reject the faith, is not only utter insanity, but it ensures the destruction of the next generation of the church.
In all fairness.
I would be remiss if I ended my critique without examining what I consider to be the best argument for Vacation Bible School: “VBS provides an opportunity to get kids (and some parents) into church to hear the gospel message.”
One could argue that VBS is a form of outreach much like a convalescent home outreach, a cancer ward outreach, a prison outreach, or even street preaching.
Assuming that what is presented at VBS is actually the pure, unadulterated gospel and not a watered-down, candy-coated aberration of God’s redemptive plan for mankind, then I concede that—as an outreach tool, and if the gospel presented clearly is not eclipsed by amusement—then this is a remotely viable argument in favor of VBS, but it still has consequences.
Here are some of my reservations that lead me to tread very cautiously in this area and why I feel the risks of this type of age-segregated ministry outweigh the alleged benefits:
1). One must always remember that what you attract them with is what you must keep them with. If kids come to church because of games, pandas, and rock music, they will expect this type of amusement all the time or else walk away. And when we make feeding the flesh part of what draws people to the assembly of the brethren (and not their love for Christ and Christians) then the flesh will always crave more attention, more entertainment, and more stimulus. What was new and exciting last year just won’t be good enough this year, and you’ll quickly find yourself (like the world) pursuing the ever-elusive next big thing.
2). What unnecessary and undo strain on church members does this cause? How much time, money, effort, and energy is spent on making VBS a success, and what toll does it all take on those involved? If we’re going to be pushed to our limits (and beyond) shouldn’t it be for the sake of the gospel? Can we still reach people with the gospel without over-extending ourselves with unnecessary pressure to dress up the gospel with decorations, skits, games, crafts, and other peripheral distractions that require so much of our time?
A dear friend of mine (who is a VBS proponent) admitted to me that the preparation and execution of a recent VBS week at his church caused stress among many of those involved to the point that the ugly side of some people bubbled to the surface.
3). Desiring to reach the youth in your community is commendable, but at what point does the cost to your own kids and the other kids in the church outweigh your desired results?
In an effort to reach children outside the church by employing various amusements–while simultaneously dressing up the gospel with silly programs–what message are we sending to our own kids inside the church? When we trivialize the gospel, as is so often done with age-targeted, theme-based programs, the impact of the gospel is diminished among our own kids and in the end they are the ones who ultimately suffer for it.
Even in those rare cases where we don’t use entertainment to attract the kids and the gospel is presented clearly, without reservation, does our time and attention to these outreaches come at the detriment to our own kids?
I have seen (too many times) all the hours put in at youth groups or VBS by a parent whose own family (specifically their spouse and/or children) are neglected.
When did sacrificing your family for ministry become the accepted norm among Christians? There’s a reason pastor’s kids commonly rebel and are often known as the worst behaved. I would argue that their father’s neglect of them for the sake of ministry is a large contributing factor.
Both youth groups I attended when I was younger (at two entirely different churches) come to mind. They were both led by a husband and wife team and both of those marriages eventually ended in divorce. One can’t help but speculate that if they had stepped down from their commitments to ministry in order to work on salvaging their marriages, they may still be together today, and that would have been a much better witness and testimony to those they were trying to reach. I’m certain that these tragedies are not isolated cases, and I wonder how many other marriages have been sacrificed on the altar of ministry.
A few years ago I stopped in at another church one evening during the middle of the week to speak to the pastor. He was busy assembling a basketball hoop for the youth group with another man from the church. I knew that this other man’s oldest son had moved out of the house and completely severed all ties with his family, this man’s next oldest child (still living at home) was in her teens and in rebellion, and his youngest son was an obviously undisciplined child in the church. I remember thinking to myself back then, Why isn’t this man at home with his family working on that obvious problem? (And this observation came long before I arrived at my current opinions about youth ministry.)
Currently, this man—and now his entire family—are all very busy in the affairs of the world. His family has been fractured and it doesn’t appear that youth ministry was of any spiritual benefit to his kids. What I have noticed, though, is that his children have adopted their dad’s love of sports and politics. Too bad he didn’t example for them a love of Christ equal to or greater than his love of worldly affairs. It is amazing the influence a parent can have on their kids, positively or negatively.
Let’s be honest: The very foundation of most VBS and youth ministries is nothing more than pragmatic, unbiblical, man-centered, entertainment-style programs designed to lure youth into church, baiting the hook with promises of fun and excitement with the purpose of switching from fun and frivolity to deep matters that aren’t so fun and amusing; subjects like sin, death, judgment, Hell, eternal torment, and a bloody and battered Savior hanging from a rugged Roman cross in order to take on our sins (and absorb God’s wrath) while imputing His own righteousness to an undeserving people. How one can effectively make the transition from amusement and frivolity to the grim realities of the gospel to a group of kids hyped up on Mountain Dew and pizza provided by the church is beyond me (this is presuming, of course, that there are still some churches out there that are even attempting to present the gospel in such an unadulterated fashion).
So what do the “unchurched” kids and their parents walk away with after a Sunday morning in youth group or a week at VBS? One message that is inescapable is that Christianity is entertainment-driven, just like their secular world. And what does the church walk away with? The hope that maybe, if the kids had a really good time, they’ll be back next year.
If your church has been participating in VBS for a few years now, do you know where those kids are today? Where will this summer’s VBS kids be five, ten, fifteen or twenty years from now?
One of the worst consequences of such programs of VBS and youth ministry is that they inoculate children to the true gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve met many former youth ministry kids, and it’s not a pretty sight. Living a life of gross immorality, they reject the true saving message of Jesus Christ because, after all, they already “did that” (repeated some meaningless prayer asking Jesus into their hearts) when they were a kid.
Don’t believe me? Try street witnessing sometime. You’ll be amazed at how many professing Christians you’ll meet who are in full-blown unapologetic sin, but they’re o.k. because they “got Jesus” years ago at a youth camp. It is a heartbreaking but true axiom that it’s easier to reach a pagan in the jungle with the message of the gospel than a carnal professing Christian who grew up in church youth groups.
A final word of encouragement.
Please examine the history and results of the youth ministry movement and seriously weigh the negative affects it will ultimately have on your own kids (and family) before it’s too late. Your kids will benefit so much more when they are taught by their parents as God prescribed, and it is such a great and fulfilling joy to teach your little ones about the faith.
Fathers, I encourage you to teach your children “when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.” Oh, dear Christian, do not abdicate any longer this God-given responsibility andrewarding pleasure to anyone else.
If you are at a loss of how to train up your children, how to teach them, how to conduct family worship time, how to properly instruct them, or how to get your children to sit through an entire church service with you (even infants . . . yes it can be done), either myself or many of our faithful readers would be honored to instruct you, direct you to more resources, and encourage you in your endeavor to take back the responsibility of teaching your kids about the God that saved you and the God whom you’re praying will one day save them.
Yes, you can effectively teach your children, and yes you can keep them with you throughout the service to hear the Word of God preached from the pulpit. Once you start doing this and begin to see the fruit, you’ll regret that you didn’t do it sooner, you’ll wonder why anyone would want to outsource this wonderful privilege to anyone else, and you’ll be perplexed as to why so many in the church are opposed to it.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:4
Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the LORD your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:12-13
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:14-15
For further consideration on this subject, I highly recommend the following resources :
Examining Youth Ministry: Why I’m a Youth Ministry Abolitionist (Free audio download)
Semper Reformanda: Children in Worship Abolitionist (Free audio download)
The Role of Children in the Meeting of the Church (CD available for purchase)