What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and you do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. –James 4:1-2

In a Christian culture, where just about every child raised up in the Church gets baptized, and around one-half to two-thirds of those students end up leaving the Church, we must begin to ask serious questions about our assumptions about youth ministry. As 1 John 2:19 reminds us, “they went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” At some point, we must come to the conclusion that many, many of the professions we have moved towards baptism have not been sincere. I do not say this to tear down the hearts of those who have ministered in the past but merely to hold up the “fruit” of our ministries to the measure of God’s word (mine included). And what God’s word shows us is that many students have been able to participate in a Church strategy that has not forced them to deal with their unbelief. That is my premise in the following discussion: students are not facing their sin. They are participating in contexts that allow them to remain in unbelief, never confront it, and then one day it draws them out of the Church to show they were never really a part of it to begin with.

Notice the time in life in when most people fall away from the Church: promotion from youth ministry to adult ministry. Now sure, many students move away from their home Church or hometowns, but researchers know this. There is sufficient research to show that we aren’t dealing with teens that are merely moving churches. They are leaving the Church. So why is this time so critical? Because it highlights the environmental shift that takes place: students, for the first time, are forced to join a ministry strategy that does not contain all the values, assumptions, and philosophy of their generation. In other words, for the first time in their 18 years of church participation, they are truly learning what it means to be a part of the Church: self-denial (Matthew 16:24). For 18 years, they’ve experienced context after context filled with their preferences, their likes, their interests, and so on. Suddenly, they are thrust into a context where (hopefully) a buffet of multi-generational/cultural preferences are being used to elevate Christ. And therein lies the great value of intergenerational ministry: it forces our selfishness to the surface. The Church is a bride that revolves around the selflessness of Christ. We express our worship of him by imitating his selflessness towards others (Philippians 2:1-11).

The argument against intergenerational or family ministry is this: there’s nothing age-specific (or at least not enough) for the students. So? The normative requirement for faithful biblical ministry to children is discipleship starting with parents and then extending to other adults in the congregation (Titus, Ephesians, Deuteronomy, whole Bible, etc.). So what we really mean when we say there’s nothing age-specific is this: Children/youth will not enjoy Church to the point where they have the will to attend unless it is age-segregated. So why is there so much capitulating in terms of generational segmenting? Because it is easier. What doesn’t come to the surface when we all get our way? Our sin or will for self-referential ministry strategies. What keeps people, specifically kids and teens, coming to our programming? Making it all about their generation. But what else is happening when we do this? We create environments where selfishness is not being addressed. We create environments where we, as parents, do not deal with the selfish unbelief in our children’s hearts. Even more, we as parents don’t deal with our own fears and failures towards discipling our children. In a multi-generational ministry, when the fruit of our student’s desires not to participate in the Church fellowship arise, those desires need to be investigated not capitulated to.

How do we do this? We must recover a word-centered self-examination of ourselves and our children. Our behaviors and frustrations reveal something about us: our unbelief. As James 4 reminds us, “what causes quarrels and…fights?…your passions…You desire and you do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (1-2). In other words, when we find our students do not like the fellowship, we must uncover what beliefs are really driving such behavior. Merely creating an environment where sin lies dormant does not help sanctify us. In fact, it helps us skirt by without really dealing with our sin. No doubt, age-segmentation is much easier, but is it real? The Church is the wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10). God’s wisdom is manifest in our love for one another as a people who have no earthly motive for desiring one another. When we operate out of our flesh, we won’t want the Church. That desire must be fought with the Word of God not catered to by the bride of Christ.

In terms of youth ministry, this means as youth pastors and parents, we must buckle down and fight the real battles. These battles are the car ride and living room conversations when both ours and our children’s selfishness rear itself. We must be prepared to respond in grace and truth. Most importantly, we must be ready to respond with a biblical view of human behavior, not the reductionistic psychosomatic view so prevalent in our culture (see Kenda Creasy Dean & Christian Smith on moralistic therapeutic deism). Sure, there are patterns and observations the social sciences help us to discover but their presuppositions about human nature/behavior are fundamentally different from Scripture’s assessment. As Christians, it should be unacceptable to us to let a naturalistic narrative interpret behavior that God has given clear diagnostics for:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and you do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. –James 4:1-2

By no means am I calling for an easier or more numerically promising model of ministry. I am pleading that we repent of our pragmatism and be sincere in our diagnostic about our children: most do not believe. Jesus said “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). It should not surprise us then, when we are so quickly baptizing everyone who makes a profession, that many leave the Church. Jesus himself tells us that the path to life is narrow and few will find it while the path destruction is broad and many will enter. Let us see that if our ministry models are so easy that the world is coming in without having to confront their sin we are probably not dealing with believers nor faithfully engaging unbelievers. As ministers of the gospel we must be prepared to confront sin not create contexts where it is easy to hide. I do not write this to judge. I write this because the Judge has already explained this in his word to us. May we be faithful to share His word with all that they may be saved (Romans 10:17).