A controversial new documentary movie contends age-graded Sunday School and youth ministry are doing more harm than good.
In Divided, young filmmaker Philip Leclerc sets out to discover why so many people of his generation are leaving the church. The answer, he says, is the "hipster Christianity" approach to youth ministry, centering on fun and games with Bible study tacked on, and the notion that youth pastors are more qualified to train children than their parents.
Leclerc acknowledges grouping kids and age and developmental stages makes sense on the surface. In the Bible, however, parents are given the responsibility for religious instruction of their children.
The modern idea of age-graded Sunday School, youth ministry and children's church came from somewhere else. When it started in the 1800s, Sunday School was intended for poor children without Christian parents. In most American churches today, Leclerc insists, Christian fathers relinquish their leadership to programs based on secular educational theories instead of the teaching of Scripture.
"The issue is we start with we have to get man to respond to God," Voddie Baucham, a Southern Baptist pastor, author and conference speaker, says in the film. "That's our goal. Therefore whatever makes man respond is appropriate. That's the wrong starting point. …
"When it comes to being innovative and trying to reach the culture and doing things that are not found it the Scripture, trying to worship God in ways that God has not told us to worship him, then our innovation becomes dangerous."
Baucham advocates the "family-integrated" church, a model popular with families who home School. Instead of church programs that pull families apart with parents and kids arriving at church together then going their separate ways, the family-integrated church does not offer a separate Sunday School or children's church. Families sit together in worship and fathers are exhorted and equipped to lead their families in daily worship and to train their children in the way of the Lord.
Baucham asserts there is a clear pattern in both the Old and New Testaments of young people being in corporate worship with their parents, and parents—especially fathers—have the responsibility of instructing their own children. Age-segregated programming used in most churches, he insists, goes against Scripture and does not work.
Divided doesn't claim the family-integrated model is for everyone, but it questions if statistics showing that 85 percent of students in a typical youth group fall away within three years of graduation might fulfill prophecy by early Sunday School opponents 200 years ago that the movement eventually would destroy the family.
"Parents are the only ones who have the proper tools," Baucham says in the movie. "For example, children need nurture, but they also need correction. That kind of biblical correction falls within the purview and responsibility of the parent. The church does not wield the rod in the child's life. Only the parent does. And the Bible says that that is a primary tool in the correction and shaping of children."
The film, produced in association with The National Center for Family-Integrated Churches, comes on the heels of a book by the center's director, Scott Brown, which describes modern youth ministry as a "50-year-old failed experiment" that is "destroying the younger generation, fragmenting the family and dividing the church."
Endorsements for A Weed in the Church include Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
"As I have watched what has happened in most of our churches, I have become convinced that Scott Brown is far more right than wrong on this matter," Patterson wrote.
"I, for one, am extraordinarily grateful that he has gone to the trouble to write this book and articulate the position. May God grant that many will listen to it before our families are totally lost and with them the churches also. Our families simply must have some time when they worship and study together."