Is Ecclesiology Really Important to Youth Ministry?
By Seth Stewart
“Hey man! Welcome to the Student Ministry! How are you?”
“Awesome. Is this your first time at church in a while, or have you been going somewhere else?”
“Yeah, I grew up in the church! But I’m kinda going to a few different places right now.”
“Like you are looking for a new church?”
“Oh no, nothing like that. We just go to a lot of different churches. My Mom goes to the Greek Orthodox church early Sunday Morning, and I go with her to that sometimes. But my Dad goes to the big-box mega church’s late service – I like the worship there. And I go to a couple different youth groups. I have friends in one, but I heard your youth group had some cool stuff going on so I wanted to check it out.”
“Oh man, that’s crazy. Why do you go to so many places? Are your parents divorced?”
“Oh, no. They just like different churches and want to go to the places that they ‘connect’ with best.”
This conversation is not an exaggeration, and it isn’t something I made up. It was a real conversation I had with a student. And while he was certainly the most extreme example I’ve experienced, he is not alone. Author and Pastor, Matt Chandler, has said that Christians (at least in the South) tend to treat church selection like an “ecclesiological buffet.” They choose which parts of which church they like best, and continue to attend as long as that particular need is met in that particular place. I have many students who view church this way:
“Well, I like this church because this group of friends goes here.”
“That group of friends goes there.”
“I like the worship here.”
“I like the preaching there.”
“I really like the small groups at that church.”
I have many students who tell me that they do not go to the same church as their parents. Their parents will go to one church, and they go to the student ministry of another. I have also noticed a tendency to replace church community with para-church ministries, worship nights, and weekly religious events. Even more fascinating is that many of these students treat their pick-n-mix ecclesiology as if it were a virtue. They say “God led them” there, or that a particular ministry “resonates” and “connects” with a different part of their spiritual experience, making the effort to go to multiple places branding them a “better Christian.”
All of this is anecdotal evidence based on my particular experience as a student pastor in the Bible Belt. So I want to be careful about making definitive pronouncements. I also want to remind myself that youth group isn’t church (even though many of my students treat it that way), so a little bit of bouncing around isn’t the same as chronic church-hopping. Youth ministry is, at best, a supplement to the church gathered on Sunday morning and an appendage to a parent’s discipleship.
Very few of my students are church-hopping for nefarious reasons. Very few parents allow them to do so because they are bad parents. Most people treat church like a buffet because they honestly believe it is in their best spiritual interests. However, I have four issues with the ecclesiological buffet:
- It treats church like a product. If you treat “church” as a product, a service rendered (as buffet-line mac n’ cheese), the natural result is that you will only attend if you feel like your desires are being met. If the worship leader changes, if you aren’t making friends quickly, if the pastor isn’t funny, then you’ll leave.
- It turns students into mystics. This approach reduces “church” to nothing more than the feeling of having a spiritual experience. If I ask students why they came to our youth ministry, or why they left another, it’s fascinating to hear how often the word “felt” comes up. “Feeling connected,” or “feeling the Spirit,” or “enjoying the music/sermon/small groups” becomes the only barometer to judge whether your presence should continue. It turns students into mystics because their decisions are being made on subjective “religious” experiences.
- It terminates on the self. No parent or student would ever say “church is ultimately about me and my preferences.” But this attitude betrays the fact that church-goers see themselves as consumers rather than worshippers. It betrays the fact that the church is seen as another method for self-gratification.
- But perhaps the greatest concern is that this view of church ignores God’s Word. If the evangelical default is to treat church mystically, and as selfish consumers, Scripture describes the church as ruthlessly grounded and entirely selfless.
Ruthlessly grounded and entirely selfless
It’s only things that I buy that I treat like products. I will analyze products endlessly, read dozens of reviews, get what I can out of it only to forget it in a drawer, or upgrade to the newest model. I don’t do that with costly gifts.
The Church was bought with Jesus’ blood.
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)
While that is directed to pastors, it is equally applicable to every youth grouper and parent. We have a responsibility to remember that the church is ruthlessly grounded on Jesus Christ’s entirely selfless act. And that as members of that church we are to treat that gift, and the others who have received it in kind. We are not to chase mystic experiences and subjective impressions. We aren’t supposed to bail when we can’t “get connected.” We are meant to stick our feet in the mud and die meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, because of Christ who did exactly the same for them.