On Youth Groups, Religious Schools and the Making of Spiritual Orphans

In 1994, Mark DeVries book Family-Based Youth Ministry was first published.  One of the hallmarks of a good book is that it contains insights and perspectives that have meaning and significance over time.  That is certainly the case with this book … much of what is said rings as true today as it did 21 years ago.

I remember first reading the book (in about 1996) and being struck by DeVries’ description of schools and youth groups as “orphaning structures”:

Apart from the family, the church may be the only lifelong nurturing structure left. Only the church and the family can provide Christian nurture from birth to old age and even death. All other communities (except, on very rare occasions, neighborhoods) are essential orphaning structures (for example, parachurch groups, schools, scouts and youth groups). Orphaning structures provide support and connection for people only so long as they fit into the age group of that particular organization. Many orphaning structures provide teenagers with a high degree of support and involvement. But, in the end, without the support of a lifelong nurturing structure, a young adult’s life becomes fragmented and rootless. Each time a person leaves an orphaning structure, he or she may feel confused and lost, looking for a new matrix of reality, a new place to belong.

DeVries’ focus is upon the orphaning effect of many youth groups – where youth ministry does not engage children and young people deeply in the life of the wider church, they become effectively “orphaned” in faith when they graduate from or outgrow youth programs.

This week I am particularly interested in how his comments also apply to religious schools. Twice this week I have come across parents and grandparents who have communicated the view that by sending their offspring to religious schools they have catered for their spiritual needs.  One parent expressed the view that the involvement of their teenagers in school worship and in Christian learning at school was equivalent to participation in congregational worship and congregational faith formation activities.  For a number of reasons, I beg to differ …

  • Schools do not serve children and youth spiritually beyond their involvement in the school.  Schools are not designed to generate spiritual connections with children and youth that extend beyond their enrolment at the school.  If children and youth do not have a connection to a faith community beyond the school, it is probable that they will not continue in the practice of public worship after graduation.
  • Schools are peer-based.  They are not cross-generational communities.  Schools do not help children and young people to develop relationships with adults of faith that go beyond the “professional” setting of the classroom.
  • Many religious schools in my own country (Australia) are increasingly secular in their demographic (with respect to both teachers and students).  The dynamic of Christian education in these schools and their practice of “worship” (some would argue that term is not even appropriate) is quite different from that in congregations.  Faith is more caught than taught!  What is communicated to our kids in religious schools, consciously and sub-consciously, often falls short of what can be called an authentic Christian experience.  (Please note: In saying this, I am not discounting the presence and commitment of many wonderful Christian teachers in religious schools … I praise God for them … but often they are swimming against a strong tide).

In short, religious schools, like isolated youth group experiences, cannot substitute for what God intends to be built into the lives of children and young people through HOME+CONGREGATION.  They can make for a great supplement, but are typically a poor substitute! I am reminded of Jesus’ words in John 10:12 – “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.”  Expecting religious schools to form faith in our kids – instead of the rich ecosystem of home+congregation – is equivalent to relying on the “hired hand” to care for and nurture the sheep.

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