Don’t Segregate the Youth

I was enjoying brunch at a local café with my wife after church. It was before we had kids, so it was just the two of us. Across the room I spotted one of the students in my youth ministry, sitting with his parents. I couldn’t help but notice something else, though. His parents were also enjoying time together—just the two of them. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a set of parents so thoroughly ignore their child through an entire meal. Seeing the relationship this only child lacked with his parents explained a lot about his behavior. I left the café wondering what sort of parent he might grow up to become if this is how family and parenting was modeled to him. Would he even bother to have a family of his own?

We know younger generations learn as much from what they observe as from what we actually tell them. Many voices insist actions speak louder than words. What, then, are we communicating to our youth about the church when every time we gather, they go to their own room for a separate program? What message do they receive when we give them one Sunday per year to participate in leading the service? For our “Youth Sunday,” the high school group led everything except the sermon. Were we expecting them to look forward to the day when they’d be grown up enough to participate in “big church”? Did we consider that, when that day arrived, they might not understand anything about it and just walk away? Or would they search for a church that most resembled their youth group experience because it would feel less foreign to them?

Constant Challenge

I spent 10 years serving in a church where the youth ministry was segregated from the congregation. The constant challenge before us was to somehow teach and give them a taste of what the church is meant to be, even though they weren’t experiencing it themselves. Most of the youth didn’t worship with the rest of the congregation, nor did they experience aspects of gathered church life beyond “Youth Sunday.”

The next church I served in was vastly different. There I learned how to effectively model and shape a biblical view of the church for the youth. What was so different? To start, students were part of the church. Rather than a token “Youth Sunday,” we regularly had students serving as ushers, greeters, choristers, music volunteers, and Scripture readers. Some of our older teens were teaching Sunday school, and when the church gathered for various functions, teens joined in the mix. This was an intergenerational church family where relationships spanned decades and all ages served side by side. Sure, we had youth Bible study groups and other activities specifically for students, but that never precluded their involvement in the gathered church.

Together as the diverse, multi-generational body of Christ, we worshiped God, sat under the preaching of his Word, prayed, shared communion, and enjoyed fellowship. As a result, students weren’t left wondering about the church’s purpose; they were experiencing it according to Acts 2:42-47. They learned the church exists chiefly to glorify God, not to please them. They experienced what it means for elders to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13).

Other Diversity, Too

Everything was set in an intergenerational context amid other forms of diversity, too. Imagine, for a student, the effect of standing next to an older gentleman with Down syndrome who’s singing his heart out in worship. Imagine a man whose faith carried him through D-Day praying daily for the youth of our church—youth he actually knows and loves. Imagine they knew people in every stage of life who were living out their faith against all kinds of challenges: the widowers and divorcees; the childless and the tired parents; the recovering addict and the recent college grad, still resolute in his faith.

Simply put, we do teens a disservice when we segregate them from the life of the church. When we build youth ministries that don’t fold students into the life of the congregation, the unintended consequence is a future of empty pews. Pew Research reports that 20- to 30-year-olds attend church at half the rate of their parents and one-fourth the rate of their grandparents. These young adults were teens a decade or two ago, and many of them were active in youth ministries. As result, many today ask what we can do to reverse this regrettable trend, wondering how to get formerly churchgoing youth “back” into church. In my view, we must engage students in the life of entire congregations. Then and only then can we model and shape a biblical view of the church as we entrust the faith from one generation to the next.

In other words, maybe young adults aren’t actually leaving the church. Maybe they were never there to begin with.

Editors’ note: Dave Wright will lead a workshop on “Simplifying Youth Ministry” at the next Rooted Conference, October 10 to 12, 2013 in Atlanta.

  • Ronald

    WOW! I was just making this observation to my pastor. I play for 4 churches every Sunday. And I noticed that the youth in the churches that didn’t separate the youth seemed to have more respect for God and the church than the ones that did separate them. I also noticed that the churches that do separate seem to have more additional programs for the youth to engage them, but overall I didn’t see any improved results. So I asked him his opinion as to what could be causing this difference because I viewed the separation as a good thing. But he pointed me to some scriptures that he felt that God had setup the meeting of his people so that the family should worship together. That was yesterday and today your article is giving confirmation. Absolutely Amazing.

  • Pingback: What I Read Online – 09/17/2013 (p.m.) | Emeth Aletheia()

  • Pingback: Where Are the Young People? | For Christ and Culture()

  • John

    Thank you for this post! I wish more churches would realize that when children and teens are herded into Awana, Jr. Church, and Youth Group during church services they are not actually “going to church.” They are going to a religious activity separate from the assembly of God’s people. Our actions are telling them that the assembly of God’s people is not for them and that the assembly is in fact less important than other religious activities and social gatherings.

  • Paul

    What about bilingual churches? One thing I’ve encountered is a split with language and culture within the family itself. You have 1st generation parents who immigrated from another country and their ‘heart language’ is from their native homeland while their 2nd generation children grow up in America going to english-speaking schools, making english-speaking friends, participating in english-speaking culture, learning english-speaking mannerisms, and going to english-speaking churches. What then? The parents don’t understand english so they don’t want to (and even can’t) sit in their kid’s youth service with the hip young youth pastor while the kids don’t understand their parents native language so they can’t sit in the service that preaches in their parent’s native language with their old traditionalist senior pastor. Do you just force them together and have one generation bow to the culture and traditions of the other? Do you force them apart and treat them as 2 separate congregations?

    The model described in the article is ideal, but please don’t forget about us (2nd generation ethnic-Americans). We have a bit of a unique problem on our hands that we haven’t completely figured out yet. Is the 2nd generation youth of America on their own? I’ve seen the problem, in a sense, ‘solve itself’ as the 1st generation dies out and 3rd and 4th generation ethnic-Americans are born. The language and culture issue sort of just fades away if the church manages to get that far. But for the most part, the 2nd generation tends to abandon their ethno-American church roots and just joins the ‘typical’ white-American church. That’s been the solution: allow the 1st generation to die out or just leave/plant a 2nd generation church when they’re old enough. And I’m not quite certain how I feel about those solutions.

    So pray for us 2nd gens. We love and appreciate our cultural roots but we’ve been planted in different soil with different water and different fertilizer and it’s affected the type of fruit we’ve grown. We see articles like this one where we are supposed to be one congregation but we feel helpless to have that sort of model because language and culture and traditions are sensitive nerves in our churches and we don’t exactly know what to do with it without cutting something valuable out.

    • Solomon Tingsam Li


      You’re spot on. You should blog on this yourself!

      What’s more, the 2nd generation singles flee to these “singles” churches only to find themselves in an older version of Youth Group as they never grew up, nor do they have examples of more mature and wiser brothers and sisters to disciple them.

      Often the 2nd generation of a bilingual church become spiritual Latchkey kids.

      Only now are there starting to be more pastors of this generation coming up in their 40’s. But as with your point, it may well be 2 or 3 generations until this changes.

    • Jabez

      I’ve been wrestling with the same issue; would love to hear some thoughts on this.

    • Daniel K. Eng

      Thanks Paul, for articulating this better than I’d be able to. I echo everything that Paul wrote. It’s not that simple with bilingual churches. I appreciate the sentiment, but there’s additional complicating factors with an immigrant congregation and its teenage children.
      I explain some of these factors on my website under “Asian American church models”:

    • JohnM

      In our church we have translation. However, it’s for adult spouses (like me) and one and half or second generation adults. The youth and children are still somewhere else during the adult service. I’m not sure why, or what would be best for youth in our case. But where possible (and I’d think it usually is) translation works.

  • Chris

    Thanks for this. I do think it is important that the ‘Youth’ are made more of. People seem to forget that actually unless we are like children then we shall not enter the KoG. So just to see it regularly and be reminded is a great thing!
    God bless brother!
    A brother form England

  • http://GospelCoalition Hank

    Great post… the Sunday morning worship hour has been called the most segregated hour in America, even if for different reasons than those cited in this post. Nonetheless, we seem to (thoughtlessly) go out of our way to separate families when this may be the only hour of the week when the family actually sits together. Kudos…

  • Greg

    The Confessional Protestant Coalition has been doing a serious of posts working through this exact issue. Check them out. Bunch of young guys working on becoming better writers and students of the Word.

  • Pingback: Intergenerational Youth Ministry & “Is ‘Youth Group’ Even Biblical?” | CrossWalk Student Ministry()

  • Mike

    David, this is a fantastic post, I couldn’t agree with you more! As I was reading I noticed the ad on the sidebar asking “Is ‘Youth Group’ Even Biblical?” I chose to follow the link to see where it goes, and it took me to a survey by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches… I love your approach that values Intergenerational ministry while upholding youth ministry as well.

    I wrote a half-baked blog post in response to the FICM survey, which I’ve linked to below. Personally, I think the FICM is asking a lot of very good questions but I’m afraid they’re asking them so harshly and providing solutions that prevent many youth workers from taking their questions seriously. I think your article is a fantastic corrective to the motive behind the survey: let’s be biblical, intergenerational, and biblical while not “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

  • Solomon Tingsam Li


    I don’t disagree with you. However, it would also be good to note that covenant worship is much harder to do in a multi-lingual setting.

    Many 1st generation churches are dying out because the 2nd generation hasn’t stayed for the same reasons. But the gulf between culture and language is seen as “too hard” to bridge.

    Look at any 1st generation Asian church and you’ll see this unfortunate problem. More so you’ll see many 2nd generation Asians flee to caucasian churches for “multi-ethnic” ministry.

    This is a complicated problem in North America. Many singles also flee to “singles” churches in hopes that the bigger pool will open up possibilities to finding a spouse only to be made part of an older version of Youth Group… with money.

    Everyone sees the problems but a very small minority want to or will do anything about them. And I that’s the real issue.

  • Angela

    I feel the same way for our children.- pre youth age. Our Church has sunday school separated but for the main service all are together. I love that my kids recognize how differently each members pray or sing, I love when they recall something the pastor or another member shared during the service. They are allowed to color or play with a quiet toy during the service but they pick up on and participate far more than we tend to think kids are capable.

  • Shelley W.

    Paul, we also are in the same situation with you with both a Chinese and English congregation. For Sunday morning we have a combined worship, the Chinese singing the Chinese lyrics and the English singing the English lyrics at the same time. Half of the prayers are in Chinese and the other half is in English. When preaching begins you can choose to hear from the Chinese pastor or choose to hear from the English pastor. Most of the time the parents will remain to listen to Chinese pastor because that is their native tongue, and their children will attend the English. The pastors will preach on the same text so families can discuss it together. After service the church always prepares lunch so families young and old Chinese and English may fellowship together. This way is not perfect and does have its flaws, but it is one way we have addressed the issue.

  • Andrew

    Great post! More need to be forcing some of this thought. But this sounds REALLY close to what Matt wrote here last year… or even what he has been posting recently. A worthwhile read.

    • Dave

      Andrew, it does sound really close to what Matt has been saying because he and I have been discussing this stuff together in recent years. Thanks for posting the link to his excellent blog.

  • sojourner

    I’m another survivor of the Chinese youth group, and have spent a lot of time pacing back and forth over this issue. Shelley’s church’s approach seems about as good as any I could think of.

    Another idea I had for the Chinese churches (and immigrant churches in general) is perhaps giving some thought to partnering with a mature English-speaking church. This is still non-ideal since the children are still separated from their parents. But perhaps an intentional plan to involve and disciple children of immigrant church in the partnered American church can help mitigate that? It won’t be an easy task, plus it puts into question much of the independent church-planting models (heh, which could be an argument to operate within a denomination), and pastors and elders on both sides will need to suck in some pride to submit to one another if the cooperation is to be fruitful.

    Yeah, the immigrant churches have an inherent problem, with no magical solution on this side of heaven. I’m just glad to see that there seems to be increasing awareness of the problem, and intentional thought on ways to address it.

  • Pingback: Morning Mashup 9/18 | Theology Matters()

  • Pingback: Don’t Segregate the Youth | The Apollos Project()

  • paul cummings

    I’d also like to point out that the desegregation is much easier to do in a church with modern worship.

  • Ron Cram

    I don’t disagree with the point of this blog but I also think the bigger disservice is what Benson Hines calls the “College Attention Gap.” Most pastors put a huge emphasis on ministry to children and to youth, but when those same kids get to be college age they are quickly forgotten. The churches that do have some kind of college ministry tend to treat it as “youth group for older kids.” This is disastrous. The intellectual challenges college students face is daunting. It is shameful college students do not get more support for the intellectual challenges. Most college students view Christianity as having been defeated and disproven by science. If Christianity is not intellectually viable, why go to church?

    Science and Christianity are completely compatible. Science is only incompatible with a young earth view of origins. The Bible does not demand the young earth viewpoint. The young earth viewpoint is a tremendous barrier to the gospel message. In the first century, the apostle Paul had to deal with legalists who taught that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians. That is a huge barrier to the gospel and Paul opposed it. Now, non-christians often think they have to become Young Earth Creationists before they can become Christians. This is a huge and unbiblical barrier to the gospel. It must be opposed.

    Pastors need to embrace ministry to college students as missions. The state-run university campus is a close and available mission field. To neglect it is damage the future of the church.

  • JOY

    I have been saying this very thing for YEARS. I hated going to church and my family going in all different directions. And it starts with they youngest of the young. I can tell you some real horror stories of confrontations I had with my pastor who thought no child should be in any service EVER.

    I am so thankful that my daughter attends a church where children are embraced. It is a delight to visit their church and see my 5 grandchildren ages 3-12, participating in every aspect of the service and being very well behaved while doing so.

  • Pingback: Don’t Segregate the Youth | kids@trinity()

  • Dan

    This is so true!

    I lost my “job”/position because I had the same views. Although I didn’t cram it down anyone’s throat. I still went with the accepted system, but had brainstormed ways to improve it, hoping one day it would be very integrated.

    Very sad that our churches are not learning from the facts.

  • Pingback: Don’t Segregate the Youth | Pastor John Reading List()

  • Jared Michelson

    Thanks so much for your post Dave Wright. I appreciate your perspective, and have a great deal to learn from you about the integration of different age groups and effective tactics for multi-generational ministry.

    However, I’d like to respectfully push back a little. I’ve spent the last 5 years as a Student Ministry Director in a large youth group (I just left youth ministry (for now) to pursue more education and am no longer paid to do youth ministry so none of this is about “keeping my job” or something). We’ve been hearing cries to reintegrate the generations in the church and attacks on “segregated” youth ministry for a while. I think these sort of statements (like in your blog post) rest on some faulty assumptions. I’m not even slightly against a church that doesn’t have a separate youth service, but I would have to disagree with the idea that churches that have a separate youth service are biblically unfaithful and necessarily ineffective at building up students into a rooted faith that carries on from their teen years into eternity, through the power of the Spirit.

    A couple of assumptions I would question:

    1. A church that has a youth service necessarily does not have inter-generational ministry
    The beautiful picture you spoke of, of older generations standing side by side with younger, of younger generations being rooted and built up in the depth of faith of the older generation, can and does happen in churches with separate youth ministries. Sure, many youth ministries fail to do intergenerational ministry, but I could give you countless examples of how we work hard in our church to connect the generations and to provide opportunities for the youth to grow and learn from the older generations.

    2. A church with a separate youth service is unbiblical.
    I suspect that this view is tied to the first false assumption. What do people mean when they argue that having a youth service is unbiblical? Obviously no passage of scripture has anything positive or negative to say directly about a youth service. Do they mean to assume that somehow having a youth service NECESSARILY abrogates the role of the parents in training their children? It doesn’t have too, our youth ministry worked hard to facilitate and train parents as the primary disciplers of their kids. Do they mean that having a youth service takes away the roles of older generations teaching younger (1 Timothy 2:4)? It doesn’t have too! In our church it surely didn’t. Do they mean that younger generations are considered a part of the Ekklesia and therefore must be in the gathering of the church? Most churches with youth groups, mine included, encouraged students to attend BOTH the main service, and the youth service. Having a separate youth service does not necessarily (or even usually!) mean the whole body doesn’t gather together. If you’re implication is that students don’t always go to the main service if there is a youth service on offer, than you are no longer making a biblical argument but pointing out a practical problem that is worth discussing and solving but doesn’t merit calling a youth service unbiblical. The only other recourse I see (and I’d love to hear something I haven’t encountered) is to a wooden interpretation of the regulative principle. I don’t have to time to get into that debate here, but I do think you can find biblical warrant for discipling youth and thereby for a service for youth (but I’m sure that statement won’t satisfy anyone without more explanation).

    3. Having one church service solves the “youth leaving the church” problem.
    This is the biggest unproven assumption that continually gets thrown around. One, just because the service is combined doesn’t mean that intergenerational discipleship is happening, and often times, it’s not. Putting all of the church together in one room is the beginning of our calling, not the sign that we’re done. When you walk into many of the churches that have just the kind of philosophy of ministry you describe, what do you see? A bunch of teens sitting in a corner goofing off and a bunch of older folks on the other side of the room doing there own thing. Now, I’m not attacking a church with this philosophy of ministry, many of them do wonderful ministry to teens. My point is merely that having one service isn’t the solution. It may be an important component of discipleship, but it’s just the beginning of our task and is not a magic bullet.
    Two, you make the statement that perhaps part of the reason young folks are leaving the church is because they were in youth groups not the main service. This is continually repeated in these kind of discussion. On the face of it, it seems quite unfair and as far as I can tell is entirely unsubstantiated (I say that with all respect and would be happy to be proved wrong). Where is the evidence for these kinds of statements? Where is a study in which churches with a “family” or “integrated” model of youth ministry, are compared to churches with a youth service? Until someone shows some evidence that “integrated” ministry creates more long term disciples than church with youth services, it’s a bit unfair to keep throwing around these unsubstantiated claims.

    There’s a lot more I’d love to say, but I just wanted to raise those questions and maybe give a word of defense for the guys and woman who are pouring themselves out in youth ministries with separate youth services.

    Thanks so much for your ministry Dave! I’m glad to learn from you.
    TGC, thanks for hosting this important conversation. For balance, a great idea for a follow up would be to hear from some youth pastors who are working in youth groups which have a service. Maybe we could hear how they work to integrate the church and to facilitate multi-generational ministry.



    • Andre

      Thank for you post. I agree that a lot of assumptions is made ehere there are so many other factors also playing a role.

    • Dave

      Jared, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I am not sure I see where these assumptions are stated or implied in the article itself. I merely shared two very different situations and the outcomes of them. In the first, my high school Sunday School class was larger than the median church size in America. We could have theoretically done a youth service there and I actually would have loved that at the time. However, it did not jive with the pastors theology. After the second church experience, I am glad we did not do a youth service. It would in that setting have conveyed that adult church is irrelevant. At the same time, what we did on Sunday night there with students would be defined by many as a youth service. A major issue for me in all this is that I believe God wants families to worship together.

      As for evidence that integration leads to long term faith, the “Sticky Faith” stuff from Fuller has empirical data that indicates this to be a significant factor. By integration though I mean intergenerational relationships, not the absence of youth programs. I think we all come at this stuff from a context that shapes us and we have to figure our contexts are not exactly the same in order to read without prejudice as it were.

      • Jared Michelson

        Thanks for the response Dave. Appreciate your input!

  • Eowyn

    This is very true. Most of the churches I’ve been to did not separate the youth on Sunday, but many of them held their youth group during the mid-week church services. There were a lot of issues with the youth in the last church I attended, and I left the youth group when I was 16 because it was too “seeker oriented”. There wasn’t anything to help me, a youth who had grown up and church and needed something more than that.

    I love the way my church handles things now. We have a youth group once a week, and they frequently have special events, like bowling, or dinner at the house of one of the families, etc. On Sundays the 6th-12th grade students stay in service, and the young ones (through 5th) go to Sunday school AFTER the music portion. This allows them to worship musically with their families, and then get some age-appropriate teaching that will prepare them to understand the sermons when they move into 6th grade and “big church”.

  • Pingback: Don’t Segregate the Youth | The musings of Eowyn the Fair()

  • Curt & Sandra Lovelace

    Thank you for the wisdom expressed in this post.

    We’ve worked in pastoral ministry for 30 years to encourage families to worship together. Our book, Children in Church: Nurturing Hearts of Worship, is in the final stages for publication. Our position is built on the biblical foundation we uncovered as we cared for various congregations. We walk parents through the decision-making process and provide an extensive list of personal insights and practical strategies.

    To find out more and stay informed about CIC’s availability, visit the website.

  • Pingback: NUGGETS [9/19/13] | Counseling One Another()

  • Grant Winnes

    I agree with the sentiments that David expresses in this article and have looked for ways to incorporate that in our own church. For example, we do a two-year looping curriculum in Sr. High Sunday School in order to force (yes force!) juniors and seniors to integrate with the adults before going off to college.

    That said, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I am concerned for the idealistic seminarian who has no real-world experience when he reads statements like “Don’t Segregate The Youth”. Far be it from him to go against an edict passed down from the TGC website (which I love, by the way!). Or worse, the well-intentioned layperson in my church who worries that we are going rogue for…having a youth ministry! It makes age-integration (and it’s brother Youth Ministry-bashing) a litmus test for gospel-faithfulness when it is not! In various contexts, wisdom segregates the men from the boys, the women from the girls and the boys and the girls from each other.

    Let’s integrate the youth in all the ways David talks about. But someone also needs to raise the banner that there is wisdom in giving our kids the space to differentiate from adults in a safe, Christ-centered, age-segregated environment before they go off to college… Unless you think that six thousand 18-20 year-olds living in close quarters away from home for the first time is also unbiblical.

    • Dave

      Thanks for your comments. I agree and certainly hope this is not read as a case against youth ministry. The two examples I put forward were both situations with thriving youth groups and the real difference was seen on Sunday mornings.

  • Coby

    I was just listening to Luke 2 on a long drive today, and it struck me that what Jesus said to his parents was very important for this discussion. “Weren’t you aware that I needed to start working at my Father’s trade?” He was making a symbolic statement that at the age of 12 he was eligible and expected to begin working, not as a carpenter, but as a missionary.

    There are several implications in that one moment. We ought to give youth permission to take part in the adult service as equals. We also need to think about the message we give kids. Is it a gospel with training wheels? Or is it something fundamental and real that we have lost sight of? If we made Sunday morning a little more like youth group, a little more fun and participatory and honest, maybe kids would keep coming to church as they get older. I think we lost something when we let the culture tell us who’s old enough for what.

  • Conservadiva

    Churches also experience another fall out when the young folks do come back with their young families. Young fathers in their 30’s are not being sought out as elders, so they do not see themselves as having a place at the table. This seems like a no brainer, but unfortunately it happens. The 30-somethings are kept as perpetual children while the eldership grows grey haired and white. Many older me would like to retire, but the pastor is too busy to train new younger elders. The young families leave and find other churches where they can fully participate and they see elders their own age leading the church. If you want to bring in young families, then you need to include 30-somethings on the elders board. Otherwise, these young parents are kept as perpetual children. Its not healthy. They leave eventually as well. Keep the church vibrant and alive, train new elders and think about including some of the 30 or 40-somethings.

  • Pingback: Recommended Links « Gospel Life Baptist Church()

  • Pingback: Family and the Church | From This Kitchen Table()

  • Pingback: October Link Love | From This Kitchen Table()

  • Pingback: Stuff to look at – August to November part 1 | Rejoice in the Lord!()