One of the shows my wife likes to watch is The Bachelor (or Bachelorette, depending on the season). You've probably seen at least parts of the show which is part dating show and part social experiments which puts a lucky single person with 25 "contestants" of the opposite sex who jockey for time with the single, all the while pulling out all the stops to rise above the rest of the pack. Aside from the fact that the bachelor or bachelorette is put in an environment with what most would be considered to be desirable suitors (smart, sexy, funny....etc.), is that the shows endless budget puts the contestants in some of the most romantic settings imaginable-swimming near an active volcano, helicopter rides, and a private concert from Chicago just to name a few. And after all of the gorgeous contestants, the exotic locations, the limousines, the champagne, and 5-star accommodations, 15 of the show's 18 final relationships crashed and burned.
While there are a number of factors at play, I think one main reason for this is because this "reality" TV show is not based in reality. Who dates 25 women at the same time? Who gets a private concert from Chicago on a first date? Who goes on group dates with 7 women at the same time? In the real world this scenario would go over as my former pastor said "like a flock of bird dogs." This would be enough to find the average guy broke and lonely with a big red hand print on the side of his face! So why do we do this with our youth programs?
No, I'm not talking about fixing up couples in our youth groups. I'm talking about creating an alternate reality for our students. While only 17% of Bachelor couples stay together, our numbers are not much better for students who hang on to their faith after high school-only about 35% according to one Barna study. Sure, when a student enters college, there is more time, less discipline, and mom and dad aren't breathing down the kid's neck watching his every move. But there are also new ideas, different worldviews, and concepts that challenge what the student was taught at home, at school, and at church. I think sometimes we, like the Bachelor TV show, play into this by creating a false reality with our youth programs. We do the best trips, attend the best camps, have the best outside speakers and worship leaders, and go to the farthest places for missions so our kids can be discipled and strengthened in their faith. Then when they leave the youth group and there are no more expensive camps with famous speakers and going on a $2000 mission trip has been replaced with trying to live on a student loan or a Pell Grant, the student doesn't know how to live out his faith in the real world. His social network of Christian students has been disbanded and he is on his own in reality, not the reality TV show he once knew. No more limousines, hot tubs, and steak and lobster. This is the real world and he will have to learn to use his faith to function in it or he will abandon his faith.
So what can we do to keep from "Bachelor-izing" our youth groups?
1. Make sure we don't do events just for the sake of doing events. Much talk has been made in recent years about moving away from program-based ministry. Programs are essential in youth ministry, but we must examine our programs and evaluate why we are doing them.
2. Remember that spiritual impact is not directly proportional to cost. "You get what you pay for" may be an appropriate credo when shopping at Wal-Mart, but is not a good blanket statement for ministry. Going to the biggest camp or hiring the most expensive speakers and going on the coolest retreats or missions trips doesn't mean our kids will automatically be mature disciples.
3. Teach our kids to engage the world around them. Too many youth workers, I feel, work really hard at sheltering their students from the harsh realities of things like network television, R-rated movies, rock music and other taboo subjects. While I don't advocate using too much of the world as fodder for teaching, we are not doing students any favors to refuse to acknowledge that certain things exist outside the walls of the church (and try to isolate them from it rather than teaching how to deal with it).
4. Move towards individual discipleship as much as corporate discipleship. Hopefully your kids are all on a journey together, but they are also all on their individual journeys as well. Much of our youth ministry programs focus on relationships, fellowship, and the collective experience. But we should not do that to the detriment of individual, personal discipleship. Teaching students to follow God on their own is an invaluable tool as they leave the nest of the youth group and enter a college or young adult ministry.