'Divided' film spurs youth ministry discussion

Baptist Press
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Posted: Sep 26, 2011 5:52 PM
'Divided' film spurs youth ministry discussion
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- "Divided," a film about a young man's search for why so many in his generation are abandoning Christianity, is generating discussion about the merits of age-segregated youth ministry versus family integrated churches.

The 54-minute film, available for viewing online at dividedthemovie.com, follows Philip Leclerc as he interviews youth and youth ministry experts and concludes that modern youth ministry is founded on the ideas of men rather than the Word of God.

Youth ministry expert Walt Mueller, however, characterized the film as one "conceived and made with a bias and agenda that existed long before the first clip was ever shot," and he said Divided is "not so much a documentary as it is a promotional piece for the National Center for Family Integrated Churches."

Allen Jackson, professor of youth and collegiate ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, also expressed concern, stating, "I do not agree with the conclusions, the logic or even the biblical rationale that led to the conclusions."

Richard Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said ending all church ministries to children and teenagers is not the solution.

Divided has caused such a stir in the blogosphere that the organizers of a major youth ministry gathering -- the D6 Conference -- disinvited the NCFIC from being an exhibitor during its Sept. 21-23 sessions in Dallas.

Divided posits that age-segregated youth ministry can be blamed for the exodus of young adults from churches; the solution, according to the film, is a church experience where all ages study and worship together.

"The whole point of Divided is that the Bible can be trusted for the way we disciple youth," the film's website says. "The age segregated world that now dominates modern church life is only one of the many effects of rejecting the Lord and the authority of His Word. It is one problem that stands among many others. However, we believe this is a critical issue because the gospel is not being preached to youth in the way that God has prescribed. We have sidestepped His methods and preferred our own.

"While the only explicit kind of worship, discipleship, celebration and instruction in the Bible is either in the family or is age integrated in the church, we have chosen the opposite," the website says.

"A Weed in the Church" by Scott T. Brown, director of the National Center for Family Integrated Churches, is presented as a companion book to Divided and is quoted extensively on the film's website. The book suggests that while Scripture defines and encourages youth discipleship, the premises of modern youth ministry are at odds with biblical teaching and must be reformed.

"Can you imagine a more unstable subgroup in which to put youth than with a group of peers? In contrast, can you imagine a more stable or life-giving subgroup than a well-functioning church?" Brown writes.

"Think of the impact of a God-centered home in which a husband and wife are functioning biblically. The relationships there depict the Gospel: husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the Church; wives submitting to their husbands as the church submits to Christ; and children, who have a genuine love for Christ, displaying honor and obedience to their parents. A God-centered home is a powerful force for evangelism," Brown writes.

"God has delivered to us a pattern for reaching youth who have no parents," Brown also writes. "It is to preach the Gospel to them when we go about the community, fold them into individual families, connect them with diverse relationships in the body of Christ, and gather them into the corporate meetings of the church."

Jackson, of New Orleans Seminary, told Baptist Press his first inclination was to ignore the film.

"I was aware that a movie had been made that was an extension of a movement that seemed on the surface to be very anti-youth ministry," Jackson said in a statement. "In fact, the movie Divided and Scott Brown's companion book A Weed in the Church seem to suggest youth ministry has outlived its usefulness.

"It would be fair to assume that I am responding to a movement that would seemingly render the training of youth ministers as irrelevant as a job security kind of thing, but I hope it doesn't come across that way. I feel like the premise of the movie, though overstated, is valid. Discipleship belongs in the family. But that is not new," Jackson said.

Every credible voice in youth ministry for the past 15 years has pointed to the need to involve parents in the ministry to students, Jackson said, noting books such as "Family Based Youth Ministry," "Soul Searching" and "Rethink."

Divided has some good points, Jackson reiterated.

"It raises important issues and causes great questions to be asked. Pastors, youth ministers and church leaders need to address the urgent need to disciple the parents who need to disciple the students," he said. "The crisis raised is one of mature adults (fathers, mothers, church leaders) who will be the authentic models that the emerging generation craves."

Jackson believes the way forward is to focus on "challenging and equipping families to raise up disciples and to challenge youth ministries to create environments where biblical teaching is central and Christlike friendships are nurtured."

Ross, of Southwestern Seminary, offered the following suggestions:

-- Every church should call a student minister who is committed to seeing parents take their biblical role as primary spiritual leaders of their children (and when possible, as spiritual leaders to children whose parents are lost) and who will build his ministry plan around this central principle.

-- Every church should call a student minister who is committed to seeing students folded into the life of the congregation, functioning as full laity and living in rich relationships with all the generations of the church.

-- No church should permit practices contrary to Scripture to creep into the student ministry of the church -- no matter how noble the motivation, such as increasing attendance or attracting unbelievers.

-- Existing student ministers who do not understand the biblical role of parents, who think teenagers need to experience student ministry cut off from the rest of the congregation or who think the end justifies the means in terms of unbiblical practices need to work with their pastors on a clear plan for continuing education or need to seek other employment.

-- At times, the best way to accomplish the mission of the church is for teenagers to function with their parents. Other times, the best way is for groups of teenagers to function under godly, biblical church leaders.

-- Churches not in a position to have a youth minister should enlist adults as a youth team who will agree to partner with parents to design and implement a healthy youth ministry.

Mueller, founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, acknowledged that when he agreed to be interviewed for Divided he didn't grasp the intention of Leclerc and his brother Chris, co-owners of a Wisconsin film company.

The film addresses issues that need to be addressed in some youth ministries, Mueller said, such as a lack of depth, a reliance on fun and games and an eagerness to supplant the biblical design for parental nurturing of children.

"In fact, these criticisms that are leveled from 'outside' the youth ministry world by NCFIC are many of the very same criticisms that loads of us have been working diligently, prayerfully and biblically to address from within for decades," Mueller, author of eight books pertaining to youth culture, wrote at learningmylines.blogspot.com in July. "It troubles me that none of that was ever included with any depth or honesty."

The problem of stunted spiritual growth among emerging generations is multifaceted, Mueller said, and a lack of father involvement is one of the leading factors. Many youth ministers are seeking to address that, he said. In Mueller's opinion, Divided is "too simple in its analysis, diagnosis and prescription."

"After viewing the film, I'm wondering what we do with Sunday School or any other efforts to age segregate in order to teach in ways that are cognitively appropriate," Mueller wrote. "Seriously, should we jettison separate and simultaneous efforts to teach the parents the deep truths of the Scriptures (meat) while nurturing 5-year-olds in another room with the milk of a children's catechism?

"After all, shouldn't we as parents be going deeper and deeper and deeper so that we can effectively nurture our own children?" Mueller added. "On a positive note, I believe the film asks good questions about age segregation in worship. It just shouldn't happen. I've been trumpeting that for years and so have so many others in the youth ministry community. But again, there are times when we can separate from each other to be nurtured in age appropriate ways."

Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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