A friend told me a tale of two youth pastors. When the person we will call Jenny was a teen at her church she had two different youth pastors at different times (probably actually less than the average teen). When Jenny describes the youth pastor who drew the most momentary excitement, she describes his personality, sense of humor, and the loads of fun everyone had. When she describes the other youth pastor she doesn’t actually talk about him much at all. When she describes the second man she talks about the Bible skills she learned, the deep truths she learned in the Word, and the God-centered approach of the youth ministry. Jenny doesn’t mention the second youth pastor’s personality or the games he led because the second youth pastor believed he was merely an instrument through which God’s Word can impact the next generations. If Jenny even remembers the little the first youth pastor taught her, it was very clear in his case the message took the back seat to the messenger. For the first youth pastor, he was the attraction, for the second the Word of God was the attraction. Unfortunately, the common approach Christian churches and families take to discipling the next generations today often resembles the first youth pastor rather than the second.
A few weeks ago I released a blog showing the failure of next generations ministry and families in America to adequately teach young people the normalcy of suffering and self-denial. That blog was the first in a series of blogs demonstrating the impact of the prosperity gospel primarily in parenting and youth ministry. This blog is the second in my short series. John Piper famously has outlined six keys to detecting the prosperity gospel:
- The absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering, the absence of a doctrine of suffering.
- The absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial is a tip off that something is amiss.
- The absence of serious exposition of Scripture.
- The absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture.
- Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles.
- A prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God.
Previously, we looked at the first two keys outlined by Piper and today we will look at the last four.
John Piper rightly sees a low view of scripture and ignoring tensions in scripture as signs of a prosperity gospel and I fear these are readily seen in both the home and next generation ministry. One of my favorite books on youth ministry (Giving up Gimmicks by Brian Cosby) recalled a time the author attempted to lead his youth group through a study of scripture only to be told by another pastor a Bible study wouldn’t be relevant to teens. Looking through the bestselling youth ministry curriculums on the site of the world’s biggest youth ministry publisher only four of the top fifty curriculums are built upon a study of scripture rather than a supposedly more relevant topic. Even when youth ministries make some effort to teach from scripture, they are frequently stuck in the same handful of Bible chapters. Intentional or not we have taught both children and youth that much of the Bible is just not relevant to them at their stage in life despite scripture itself telling us the whole Bible is relevant to everybody (2 Tim 3:14-17). We shouldn’t be all that surprised in this as churches invest far less effort into ensuring they bring on a youth leader with a depth of Biblical knowledge than they do for the preaching pastor. Youth ministry today and probably for the past several decades has been far more built towards entertaining young people than it has been built towards educating them in the Word.
Even some of the most theologically dangerous children’s curriculums teach Bible lessons. It’s hard to imagine a kids ministry that doesn’t teach kids creation, the flood, or the battle of Jericho. While modern children’s ministry might include more Bible verses, it most certainly does not get off the prosperity gospel hook. Piper notes that when the prosperity gospel teaches the Bible it just contorts it to fit the preacher’s (or curriculum author’s) beliefs that are contradicted elsewhere in the Bible. When I first entered full time ministry within one month I reviewed a curriculum that tried to teach good deeds make up for bad ones from the story of Zacchaeus and tore down a picture outside of my daughter’s Sunday School classroom that read “shh I’m trying to learn to be good” above a Bible verse that had nothing to do with that heresy. A high view of the Bible in the discipleship of the next generations sees the Bible as the center of our teaching and the authority over our teaching rather than a spring board to whatever we want to teach people.
Instead of the Bible being the main focus of ministry, prosperity gospel makes the visual leader the focus of ministry. John Piper describes this symptom of a prosperity gospel as church leaders living an exorbitant lifestyle. In the sermon from which these points are taken Piper clarifies that it is more than the pastor taking a gigantic paycheck but this symptom is mainly about pastors pastors taking on an image of a glamorous lifestyle. This can be seen in the popular Instagram account Preachers n Sneakers that highlights the pastors who convey a luxurious lifestyle through wearing thousand-dollar sneakers. Ironically some churches that might be the quickest to criticize preaching pastors driving luxury cars would be thrilled to have what young people call “an influencer” lead the youth group. A senior pastor skeptical of charismatic senior pastors told me a few years ago, “you have to be cool to be a youth pastor.” This established church leader isn’t alone in this mentality as the majority of full time youth pastors fit a very particular personality mold and they are willing to pay to keep up an image. When I was in high-school the leader of the largest youth ministry in our city would dress in the most expensive clothes from the store in the mall all the teens saved their money to shop at. This youth pastor didn’t have a gold watch or a vacation home but he dressed up to the highest aspirations of his teens.
This pursuit for coolness and relevance never stops as the cool uncle youth pastor type tries to find every new gimmick and trick to keep the young people fascinated with him. If nothing else this keeps the youth ministry machine going as it attracts young men who long to perpetuate their high school popularity into a career of impressing teenagers. Maybe youth leaders of these mold are not living the dream of the thirty year olds they are but they are living the dreams of the teens they are working with. Youth leaders of this ilk are more court jesters than sheep herders but apparently they are fine with that and so are many Christian parents.
Seeking leaders who have what the Apostle Paul would call the wisdom of this world can certainly build some momentum, but it also teaches our young people some really dangerous doctrine. This teaches teens popularity and success in the eyes of their peers are good, Christ honoring goals to pursue when James said, “friendship with this world is enmity with god.” This also gives young people an appetite for spiritual leaders that prioritize style over substance. Could it be the “preachers n sneakers” pastors are filling up their pews with young adults who were more impressed with how cool their youth pastor was than by the deep and abiding truths from scripture he probably didn’t teach. If we want our teens to be deeper in the faith in ten years we look for someone to help us shepherd them but if we want them pumped when they go to church now we just take them to the best court jester. I think too many Christian families have favored the latter.
Parents don’t get off the hook in this style over substance problem. It’s hard to blame church leaders for the lack of Bible focus in the discipleship of our young people when you consider Biblical literacy in America was far more prevalent in the 18th century before Sunday School or youth pastors were on anyone’s mind. The Protestant Reformation brought the Bible into the home and into the language young people develop. For hundreds of years after the invention of the printing press the Bible with varying degrees of faithfulness the Bible was read verse by verse in homes of the devout and the doubters. If you drive through America’s oldest towns and cities, you will find a startlingly high number are named after Biblical places modern Bible readers would find obscured. Founding fathers and European nobles who denied Christ’s divinity still studied scripture with their households and deep Biblical knowledge is evident in the writings of deists like Jefferson and Franklin. Today many parents believe the way to instill Biblical knowledge in their children and teens is to drop them off in the most exciting children’s ministry or youth group and assume the experts will take care of it. That kind of glamour and glitz is just as much emphasized by the parents that rely upon our soft prosperity gospel as it is with the cool uncle youth pastor. Parents see dropping of as the alternative to diving deep for a reason and that reason is very much theological.
In each of the keys to identifying a prosperity gospel we have seen glaring errors in the way we approach discipleship of the next generation and Piper’s last key that in some way is the capstone point we will see the problem most evidently. Fortunately, Piper’s last point gives us a taste of a deeper and more God honoring approach to discipling the next generations. The final article in this series will seek to provide Biblical solutions in contrast to a prosperity gospel and will show us the beauty of God’s great work even through our bad methods.