Before I begin this review I should disclose something that is not a secret. I am a youth minister and for the past 15 years I have earned at least a portion of my income as a youth minster, so I obviously have a bias as I watch this film and write a review.
I wish the film had begun with disclosures as well. It is a well-made film, but it is not a documentary, it is a propaganda piece for the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches. The film, however, begins with the “documentarian” saying, “As a filmmaker, I set out to find answers.” He did not set out to find answers. He set out to promote his viewpoint. This is perfectly fine, and it does not make the thesis of the film less worth discussion. It just should have been made clear.
If you want to form your own opinion, you can watch the film for free until September on vimeo, or on the film’s website.
Before dissecting the thesis of the film, I’ll address some of the issues it brings up. Are there problems with youth ministry as it has been carried out over the past few decades? Yes. Undeniably there have been those who simply view youth ministry as a “keep kids out of trouble” activity. Sometimes youth ministry has erred by making the assumption that busyness is equal to spirituality. Many youth ministries are supported by the personality of the youth pastor rather than the Holy Spirit. There is not nearly enough Bible literacy within youth ministries. Finally, there is no denying that many students leave the church when they get a driver’s license. These are all valid issues and they need to be considered. If possible they need to be solved.
However, not all of the things the film lists as shortcomings of youth ministry are actual problems. Students having fun at a rock concert is not proof that youth ministry is failing, and it is not proof that the students are not spiritual. Nor does a youth ministry in which there are video games on the premises or fun trips and fun activities on the calendar suggest that there is also not spiritual growth.
The thesis of Divided comes at the 30 minute mark. After addressing many of the previously mentioned problems with youth ministry, the most significant being that students often leave the church, comes the following statement.
Is it possible the crisis we are seeing in the church today is a form of God’s judgment on the church… for doing something completely against the command of God [in order] to solve a problem with the youth?
The film suggests that the entire concept of youth ministry is not only absent from the Bible, but that it is unbiblical.
Divided says that the problems found in modern churches are a result of the unbiblical nature of youth ministry. To be clear, the film says that all age-graded teaching of any kind is not only unbiblical, but it has roots in paganism. It is a very unfair criticism of Robert Raikes to suggest that he developed Sunday school out of a pagan philosophy. In fact, it is openly untrue. The suggestion, that because churches have classrooms on either side of a hall that they have bought into a sort of neo-Platonism is patently ridiculous. (And seriously, where else are classrooms supposed to go in relation to a hallway?)
A second criticism I would direct toward the film is that there is really no scripture offered to suggest that age-graded teaching is unbiblical. It is well-established that the primary discipleship role belongs to parents. However there is nothing, either in the Bible or the film to suggest that the church cannot or should not have a role in discipling children. The Bible makes it clear that there is a role of mentorship that should occur within the confines of church fellowship.
Every responsible youth minister I know is aware that the church and the family need to work together. Aware that ideally the church should walk beside the family and supplement the work of the family. This tension between church and family is being addressed in many places. Every youth minister I know is working to resolve it, and it is the reason for significant movements like Lasting Divergence and Orange. When this approach is brought up in the film (36 min) it is immediately dismissed with only one brief comment.
There are a few things that Divided does not address at all that would certainly shore-up the filmmaker’s argument. First, do students in family-integrated churches leave church at a substantially lower rate? The film does not say, it really only criticizes. But if this approach was a definite solution to the problem, it would be helpful to present some data. Secondly, do churches of this sort have any approach to students with uninvolved or non-Christian parents. If the solution is to let the parents disciple students then are they simply giving up on the hoards of students whose parents do not disciple them? And if the solution is to come to church and be mentored by a “father figure” what is the fundamental difference in a deacon/elder and a youth pastor. Finally, is it better to have a few years of influence in the lives of children, especially those with uncommitted or un-Christian parents, and have them leave church when they turn 16, or for these students to have no church influence whatsoever?
In conclusion, I find Divided flawed in a number of ways, most significantly that it does not prove its thesis. However I believe that it is an important film even if it merely gets people considering how to address some substantial problems in the church and youth ministry.
I know this was long, but if you are still reading, feel free to comment. And if you are a youth minister, I'l especially like to hear your comments.