rebelling against low expectations

Youth Ministry: Substance Beats Sugarcoating


“Sugarcoated, MTV-style youth ministry is so over. Bible-based worship is packing teens in pews now.” So reads the sub-headline of a recent TIME Magazine article entitled, In Touch With Jesus.

Dr. Albert Mohler has this to say in response to the article:

“Now, that is an astounding approach — maybe these kids are hungry for biblical substance and something more than entertainment and pizza. Well, they probably still want the pizza, but they don’t want to waste their time in useless and superficial youth programs. After all, they are swimming upstream against an adolescent culture. In many cases, they are more seriously-minded than their parents. They have to be, because the stakes are higher.”

The TIME Magazine article references Calvary Baptist Church in Bellflower, California; Shoreline Christian Center in Austin, Texas; and Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland (our big brother’s church).

The article comments on Covenant Life Church: “Similarly, teens at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., are embracing the big doses of Bible study youth pastors now recommend. Teen ranks have tripled, to nearly 600, since the mid-1990s.”

We would love to hear your feedback on this story. Have you noticed similar trends in your churches and/or youth groups? Use the comment section to let us know -OR- start thread on the forum to discuss it more in-depth.

HT: Agent Tim Online provides some excellent commentary.

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About the author

Alex and Brett Harris

are the co-founders of and co-authors of Do Hard Things and Start Here. They have a passion for God and for their generation. Their personal interests include politics, filmmaking, music, and basketball. They are both graduates of Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia.


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  • *grins* Our lovely SGM church has been like this for the past 15 or so years. And the fruits of it are great…this is what our generation needs. Really, in about 15 years we’ll be the church–not our parents as much. And unless the youth groups change like that ^, we’ll be sunk.

  • I have not seen a similar trend in the youth group at my church which is the main reason my parents are not allowing me to attend any longer. I hear about youth groups that are growing in great bounds spiritually but as I have never witnessed this first hand it is hard for me to imagine being surrounded by so many like- minded kids my age. Reading this gives me a rather bittersweet feeling.

  • When I was in high school, my church tried something like this. Unfortunately, as I got older, the younger ones in the group couldn’t handle real substance. My family’s convictions also changed around this time as we helped to start a new church in the area and no longer had a youth group to attend. As Mark Cahill says, “yoyos, pizza, and Six Flags are killing our teens.” I’m so glad to hear that young people out there are getting excited to learn God’s Word!

  • Our Church doesn’t have a youth group. We are a small Church (around 200-300 people) and there aren’t many teens, most of the teens are on our puppet team (actually a Ministry team) and our goal is to serve not be served. I have never personally been a part of a youth group so i can’t comment on one but I have seen how much growth takes place when teens are the ones serving not the ones being served.
    I look forward to this becoming a wide spread thing and pray that my brothers and sisters in Christ will become stronger and wiser in their knowledge and relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus.

    Your Brother in Christ,

  • There are few things more encouraging to pastors such as myself than to see teens get excited about the Bible. I wish the youth in my church would get excited about it.

  • I just recently got permission from my parents to stop attending my youth group for this reason. I have no desire to drive an hour each way to attend a volleyball game and eat a slice of pizza under the pretense of studying God’s word. Not that I have any issues with volleyball or pizza, but I want something more and I’m not willing to put in the time every week for another shot at superficiality. Our youth group’s trend towards superficiality surprises me because my church as a whole is not that way at all. As Emily said above, reading this leaves a bittersweet feeling.

  • I used to go to a youth group where we actually studied the Word and went deep…then a bunch of jr. high boys became the majority of the group. Finally, I got fed up and left because there was no substance. Where I go now, the leaders are on fire for the Lord as well as many of the kids, although most definately not all.

  • Whatever can be said about the advantages of having or not having a youth group is for another time.
    However, at our church, our elders preach the word to them in season and out of season, and are busily fitting out our next generation to do the same. The church (along with the youth group) is growing in the right direction.
    I personally do not attend our youth group because my famliy believes that best atomosphere for a young person is learning to socialize with adults. I do, however, participate in youth bible quizzing with them on sunday afternoons.

  • I go to a SGM church and our pastor leads the youth. He challenges us with God’s word and gives amazing teaching. We do have pizza afterwards but alot of the time we all get so much into the teaching that it is to late to order pizza! Our youth meetings are always fun but always focused on God!

  • My husband was forced to leave a youth ministry position, partially because he had begun teaching meat. The group was grrowing (in numbers, and in grace) but the parents in the church where threatened that their teens were developing a deeper grounding in the word than they. Rather than live up to the challenge, they wanted the teaching in the youth ministry back to pizza and videos.

  • I’m in Beijing right now, but when I was in the states, I wasn’t allowed to attend youth group for that reason. Neither of the churches we went to were really serious about studying God’s word. A lot of the youth actually struck me as hypocrites, the way they would be in a bible study for five minutes out of 2 hours then head over to a restaurant and slander others. I never cared to go to youth group because none of the people I knew got anything out of it. Here, in BJ, the youth leaders I’ve met are really on fire for the Lord, and the meetings are so much more satisfying!

  • The main reason that I am not all that excited about our youth group is that it lacks substance! There is an ocean to swim in, but instead many people expect us to continue wading in a kiddy pool, seemingly thinking that we can not handle any more. When not given the opportunity and challenge to swim, it is not surprising to me that many step out of the wading pool…

    Please add me to your list of Rebeloutionaries. God bless you!

  • I just wanted to quickly point out that pizza is not bad — and it’s never referenced as pointing to shallow teaching.

    I also believe that as teenagers, as rebelutionaries, we need to be the starting point in changing youth groups around the country. In my sites comment section I have been breifly discussing this with a fellow reader, and it’s leading to some interesting conclusions. I think we’re on the edge of something big — a great understanding. But, of course, the topic of youth groups is a hugely complex issue.

  • My youth group had an amazing experience last winter where we all came forward and talked about our problems and brought it to the group and to God. We grew so much over that weekend and it was so exciting to see how God would use us in the following year. Then we went on a trip over the summer and I left the group. I was stabbed in the back, lied to, and lied about to other students. Several weeks later a leader took me aside and told me that leaving the group wasn’t doing anything but making a big hole where I once was. So I went back. I had a long talk wioth my youth pastor and told him why I left, and why I came back. I went back to my Youth Group to change it. And I am. So yes, there are a lot of youth groups that aren’t as spiritually challenging as they should be, but instead of staying home and complaing about it, why don’t you do something to change it?


  • I can’t really decide about this – in my youth group I have seen the ‘pizza wanting’ attitude especially in our freshmen, however, those of us who have been in youth group longer could care less about fun and games…but that was a growing process over the years.

    When I read this, I had a lot to say on this topic, because of the extremes I’ve experienced with it, so I actually wrote a blog post today of my own experience in this area of ‘sugarcoated Christianity’, because it was way too long for a comment…so my blog post is my comment.

  • I have been /saying/ this for…well, like forever. It’s time that people realize that if you put the food out there, the hungry will jump on it.

  • Are youth groups even biblical? I thought it was the father’s job to teach his children?!? Our church has 12 youth groups. Twelve sets of parents, training and teaching their youth for God’s kingdom. What a concept!

  • Wow, you guys touched on a topic that is quite a issue with me, and one that I believe God has been showing me a lot about in my own life.
    To Sean I say that’s so awesome that your church has 12 youthgroups, with parents who are caring and willing enough to take the time to train their children biblically! That is the best way to train us kids (and yes, I’m calling myself, at 17, a kid) to serve God.
    But, I have to say that unfortunately, not every child born into this world has the blessing that most of us reading the Rebelution have. A lot of kids don’t have parents who are committed to instructing their children in the way that God would have them.

    I understand those of you who’ve quit going to youthgroup because of the shallowness, because I felt that before in our youthgroup. I even started an arguement on the way to summer camp about whether having a youthgroup was even a good thing, but the other kid didn’t take it so well. Anyway, I am in my last year of being in the youthgroup and God has blessed me with the ability to be a leader in my youthgroup, not a leader when it comes to the guys, but with the girls. God has challenged me to pray for the other members of the youthgroup, and I know how to pray for them a lot better because of the time spent together in youthroup. I also felt led to (with a whole lot of help from a friend) setup a “girls only” section on our youthgroup’s webpage. There isn’t a whole lot to it, and someday, I’d really like to do a whole lot more with it, but for now it’s just a devotion that gets updated every so often. I have to remain faithful in my personal time with God so that I can write those devotions. Our youthgroup isn’t all that I’d like it to be, but I’m not quitting because of that, instead I’m turning to the One who can really change the whole group!
    For those of you who’ve quit youthgroup (if it was by your decision and not your parents) I encourage you to go back! Other teens need to see what a spiritually strong teenager looks like. When I saw one, it changed my life. You never know how God may use you! Pray and seek God’s will on this one. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.” Prov. 3:5-6
    ps. sorry for such a long comment!

  • Yes. My church is the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. The official youth conference with rock bands and sillness has fallen out of favor with the serious Lutherans. An alternative liturgical conference with sacraments and hymns has been growing by leaps and bounds ( see

    I think the whole contemporary worship business is a Baby Boomer “let’s stay young and hip” phenomenon that’s not flying with todays young people, who are craving substance.

  • As an “older” guy, I am happy to see this. My particular denomination has been torn asunder by the Emergent Church movement/seeker sensitive piffle. I find it funny that those pushing this insist that they have to go that route to reach a “postmodern” generation, and that young people today can’t think in propositional truth. This reveals the utter stupidity of that position. I think if these people were honest with themselves (and they’re mostly of my generation), they’d admit that reaching young people has nothing to do with it. They didn’t get to rebel with the hippies of the 1960s/1970s, and this is their chance to do it with a religious disguise.

    Harsh of me? Maybe. But I’m having to deal with the broken relationships and broken lives this false theology is leaving in its wake, so I’m a bit testy over it.

    Good job, guys!

  • Good work Gracie! Go to it and follow the Lord Jesus with your whole heart and be salt and light where most people rarely see it!

    Keep praying all of you. I love to see youth who love the Lord Jesus completely, and are seeking to follow HIM regardless of what others say. God bless you all!

    – JN.14:27 Rom.5:8

  • Although my church only has about 50 people, we are Bible based, and our pastor talks directly from the Word. Because we reside right near Boulder (where cults and watered down christianity abound) we are very small. Boulder County is extremely spiritually dark. The only serious Christian peers that I have are in my church. There are about ten of us, and we are currently doing an intense study on I Corinthians. I’ve seen us all grow together through this, but even before we started the study we have all been faithful to following the Word to the best of our abilites. Oh and did I mention almost all of us are homseshooled? There is always light, even in the darkest places. Pray for us as we often times feel sufocated, without any fellowship. We will begin street evangalism probably in Boulder, in December. Pray that we can start a fire in the youth around us! Also pray that if there are serious Christian teens around us that we’re not aware of, that God would bring us together so we could have more fellowship. Thanks!

    If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you desire and it shall be done for you.

    For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with you.

  • I think an important truth to remember in all of this is the importance of parental ministry over pastoral ministry in the youth context. I’ve witnessed my elder brothers in christ go through their teen years, some part of my God-focused youth ministry and others part of less truth-oriented ministry. But I have seen some turn away from the truth after coming from a flourishing youth ministry and others retain their strong faith from the midst of a theologically weak youth ministry. This, I think, is the difference parents can make in the lives of their children.

  • Wow I am so encouraged by the comments for the most part. Esp Gabby’s input. I am a father of 5. My oldest is just 17. I have struggled with the idea of youth ministry for years now. I got involved almost 2 years ago when my oldest wanted to join. I was reluctant to say the least. However my relationship with him was in bad shape and I wanted a means to rebuild. I thought the youth group could be facilitator for that.
    Well after being in a leadership role for about a year. I came to the same conclusion as Gabby. The best or ideal for our young people is for mom and dad to pastor them. However if the parents don’t have that vision or understanding, or what ever you care to call it, well those kids are on there own. Then comes the Church. I do not mean that the answer is to neglect our families and go running to “save” the other youth around us. I do strongly see that incorporating our family while we reach out as part of the answer.
    I have learned so much these past months and am still learing and growing. The Lord has been so gracious to me and I am very thankful.

  • Thanks for the question, Emily. Our church, which began in our living room eight and a half years ago, doesn’t have a youth group. This is not because we’re small — we have since planted five additional congregations in the Portland area, for a total of over 1,200 members — but because one of what we call our “essential reforms” is for the local church to be age-integrated and family-oriented. Another one of those reforms is to make our ministry a lifestyle, not a program.

    We encourage all of the fathers to be a “youth pastor” for their children and their children’s friends. We also encourage families to seek fellowship through activities and events that allow the younger members of the congregation to “walk with the wise” (Proverbs 13:20).

    So yes, we definitely see our church as part of the trend TIME has highlighted. Our church has some really great young people. They’ve grown up hearing sound doctrine preached. They’ve grown up spending time with adults, not just their peers. They have a passion for humble orthodoxy.

    This is not to say we’re perfect, but the fruit of the reforms we’ve made have born much fruit in the lives of many young people. I’m excited to see how God uses the young people I’ve grown up with, and the young people around the world who are catching the spark of timeless Truth, to change the world for Christ.

  • Wow, this is exactly what has been on my mind all week! Talk about the work of the Lord!

    I go to an OPC church and attend the youth group meetings there, but lately, I’ve come to realize that our meetings have become nothing more than just a social event…

    When first coming to the group, the one thing I absolutely loved about it was how meaty it was! We were studying out of the Westminster Cetechism books and were required to memorize the questions for the lesson we were to study, and then write an essay on it of what we thought or got from that lesson. It was so enjoyable and really challenged and encouraged us to turn to the Word of God when we begin to question things or don’t seem to understand the world around us – especially in our youth.

    But as time went on, and everyone got older, we began to slowly discontinue our weekly studies. It started with letting go of memorizing the questions, then, writing the essays, and now, we’ve stopped reading out of the books all together! It was really disappointing. Now all we do is get together, have small chats, see if anyone has any questions about certain things, and we try to come to some kind of conclusion. THEN, we eat snacks.

    Tonight, we actually have a meeting and I was thinking about just skipping all together because I have just become so fed up with the direction we are heading, but since I have read your recent comments from other readers, I found them quite encouraging! It almost gives me a reason to be excited about going to the meeting again, but this time, with whole new view on things! Thanks, guys! :]

    God bless.

  • As i’ve been reading these comments its been so amazing to see the hearts of so many youth not desire “the pizza” but rather getting involved in the Bible to your youth group. I have been so blessed to attend covenant life church all my life. Thanks for reminding me what a blessing this truly is! To those who are havig “trouble” with their youth group i would encourage praying for it, that God would instill a passion and pursuit for God amongst the youth.

  • I’m excited that TIME actually published an article o nthe growing trend of youth groups becoming more gospel-centered. I am 18, and the youth group I went to as a high school student was rather large (reaching into the 400’s). Even with its size, the group stayed gospel-centered, mainly through the purposeful guidance of our parents. Parents are the key to making youth groups a success. I am grateful that my youth group encouraged my parents to attend the meetings with me and discuss the the topics of the meetings. This encouraged me to open up and share everything with my parents. I share even more wiht my parents, now that I am in college. There are a lot of issues that I am struggling with in going to a secular university in a very liberal state, but God is good becuase He’s given me personal advisers (my parents) who know more about life and how to live the Christian life more than I do.

    Parents are a primary source of grace, and I am grateful that the youth ministry I attended really emphasized that fact.

  • I’ve enjoyed reading many of these posts. I am a Student Minister and it has been very interesting to hear what some of you think. I have a few comments. First of all, I applaud those who are excelling in family ministry. I try to lean that way but sometimes it is hard to convince our students that their family is even important. Also, for some who have left youth groups because it had gotten shallow- I encourage you to stick it out and help deepen things. Don’t run away from the problem. Instead help be a solution to the problem. God is doing a work in the lives of young people. Let’s not forget the the great revivals in our history have begun because our teens have gotten fired up.

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  • The show is so hilarious! Thanks to the producers for this wonderful show, I’m 37 and laugh so hard with this cartoon, some episodes are great, like mr. stubborn abducted by an ufo and denying all, mr. grumpy, mr. tickle, all the characters. Long life to this show! I can only see it online, so I hope someday we can see it here in Mexico.

rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →