Growing up in church can be a blessing or a curse. Personally, I did not grow up in church so much as I grew up bouncing from church to church—thanks to my family’s unquenchable wanderlust. Regardless, I like so many others with a Christian parent was immersed into that wacky subculture of church for the junior high to high school ages: youth group.
Whether it was Dive In, Impact, Axis, Revamp, Underground, Quench, Elevate, Ignite, or - and I’m not making this up - T.H.U.G (True Heroes Under God), we were all there from approximately 6 to 8 every Wednesday night.
Youth group culture was the sort characterized by free pizza, crazy games, hip music, a youth pastor trying to act younger than he really was, and that one really, really, really awkward sex talk. Youth group cool kids were the would-be super Christians, and the ones who are also pretty good at all the bizarre games that had inexplicably frequent tendencies of eating something disgusting. So after they caught gobs of cat food slingshot into their mouths from across the church’s gym, they would be the first to volunteer to lead prayer in small groups and share how many verses they memorized that week.
“I’ve just, like, really been digging into the Word this week,” I no doubt obnoxiously declared at some point. I did not, for the record, at any point eat cat food. I was not a youth group cool kid. I was just really full of myself.
After leaving the youth group days behind me, I attended a Christian university which, in case no one has told you, can be a bit like a youth group on steroids at times. But I digress. In the years that have passed since graduating from high school and then college, I have noticed a trend within Christian circles. There seems to be a little something affecting young Christians I like to call youth group culture syndrome, or YGCS if you like nifty initialisms and promise not to start thinking about transport proteins in E. coli. Don’t make this weird.
YGCS is like youth group separation anxiety. Or, to put it differently, it is what happens when Christian kids do not know how to grow up. If you suffer from any of the following symptoms, you just might have YGCS:
- Frequently feeling the need to have small groups with kitschy names
- Checking to see if anyone else is raising their hand during worship before raising your own
- Seeking your pastor’s approval above his discipleship
- Craving free pizza around 6:15 PM every Wednesday
- Reading Scripture to fill a quota rather than pursue an intimate knowledge of the Lord
- Quoting Scripture to demonstrate how much Scripture you can quote, rather than out of gratitude for the newfound vocabulary to explain to others that which Christ makes possible
- Expectations of only fun times, with no preparation for spiritual hurdles
- A faint, but unmistakable aftertaste of cat food
Now, tongue in cheek approach notwithstanding, I would be remiss if I did not give respect where it is due. Youth groups absolutely have their place because young adolescents usually need that sort of structure and guidance to support them in the early days of their faith. The fun environment offered by most youth groups does much to create an atmosphere conducive to fostering early spiritual activity and an environment that is safe and welcoming to those not yet necessarily part of the body of Christ. I would also like to give a special thank you to youth pastors. I tried to serve in that ministry once and it is a miracle those little monsters precious youths treasured by God were not murdered. All jokes aside, I know the work youth pastors do is important and challenging. I am grateful that you do it.
Let's be honest, though. Recovering from YGCS is like trying to get over a spiritual hangover. We had our fun, but if all we expect is more fun, we are in for a rude awakening. The so-called grown-up world and the maturing Christian life are not like youth group, and you will be expected to not be a youth. You will suddenly go from fun games that pun on Scripture to the seriousness of Big Church. The transition can be rather abrupt, but it is necessary.
There is more to the Christian life than fun games, catchy songs, and dynamic youth pastors. And therein lies the rub. Too many of us have not learned to discern the difference between exciting and thriving. The vitality of a Christian’s life and the church he or she attends is not dependent on passionately delivered sermons and repetitive songs that bring everyone to tears.
Rather, it is dependent on the simple but earnest pursuit of Christ. As young men and women, we must be proactive and take responsibility for our spiritual lives. Of course, we should continually seek out spiritual guidance and mentorship from someone older. But learning from and relying on are two very different actions. So let us each take more joy in the intentional pursuit of Christ than we do in the fun activities that once facilitated the pursuit.
And don’t worry. There’s still always free pizza somewhere.