Segregation at youth group? [video]

When I heard this story about the church in Mexico where we’ve been serving all week, everyone sat and shook their heads about how sad it is that believers would have such division solely because of economic status, but what about division that’s caused by maturity levels instead? Is that just as bad? When we do youth ministry and separate the jr. and sr. high, are we segregating the body of Christ in any way? Does that divide the body of Christ in an unhealthy way?

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Posted on July 26, 2010

  • As a father of a pre-teen and a youth pastor for almost 18 years I love having my daughter around peers while she is "away" from her parents. For me it is not about the economic status or maturity level of students, but rather about the environment which she is in.
    We had an all student ministry beach day about a year ago and an incoming 6th grade girl was dropped off by her father. After parking the car and opening the door the car was surrounded by many students who were excited to "welcome" this new student. In the crowd was a couple shirtless, facial hair sporting high school guys greeting her as well. Her father decided that an "all" event would not be the "best event for her to start with" and took her home. As a student pastor for many years I was able to instantly able to think of many reasons why he should have left her; relationships, opportunity to build trust, the community that would take place, leader connections for future investments, etc. HOWEVER, as a father, I couldn't think of one. A safe environment that involves building relationships with peers who are in a simular developmental stage physically, mentally and socially is very important.
    I am not opposed to some ministry events and programs being combined if they are VERY intentional about the why and how to ensure that students needs are being met and it's not just a "kill two birds with one event" approach.
    Jesus had 12 that were close, and 3 that seemed to be closer. I don't think we have seperate age group ministries for the sake of seperation, but to meet students (and adults) where they are. We can't give solid food when they are only ready for milk… and visa versa.
    Student ministry is difficult. I find it more sustainable, relevant, and healthy when we are able to speak to students about the stage of life they are in and encourage them to make healthy choices in the middle of their everyday life.
    Just some thoughts & I really enjoy your website Tim!
    Living for Jesus & Loving it!

    • I totally get what you're saying, Todd, and appreciate your input. Here's the question that came into my mind while I was reading your comment: Is providing a safe and relevant place that meets students in their stage of life really what a youth ministry should be striving for? It's not necessarily a bad thing, but is unity among the body of Christ even more important than that? Is modeling for teens what "church" is all about a better approach than telling them they're part of the body and then separating them from it? We tell kids (or should tell them) that church is a place to serve and use their gifts, but then we enable them to separate and consume from the church instead by being in a place that's all about them and their stage of life.

      I realize this doesn't apply only to youth ministry — it applies to all stage-of-life ministry, like singles ministry, young marrieds, older married, young at heart, etc. Does spiritual transformation take place best when we're all separated in groups with other people in our stage of life, or when the young marrieds are side-by-side with the older married, ya know?

      I don't have many answers — just questions. Sorry! :)

  • Will

    Great Video ! This is a question that rings true for any student ministry. The first question that I usually get about an event is, Who's going? A lack of spiritual maturity feeds into the mindset of " I cant go because my friends are not there". God calls us to do things that are specific to self, or church or community, no matter who is there. However, in my 7 years of youth ministry I have found that when you have a acitivity planned with a select few kids who do not eat lunch together at school, or hang out at each others houses, it is the greatest time of fellowship because you are able to see new friendships form when they see , hey so and so is really cool, or funny or whatever. I guess I just feel like activites minus the cliques gives you the opportunity for divison to become unity regardless of age, race, social or economic status.

  • Keegan

    Hey Tim, good question!
    Although I've occasionally kept up with your blog up to this point, I didn't see fit to comment until now.
    My personal opinion on this matter may be one differing from yours. I believe that even in your opening, you said half the answer. I don't necessarily believe in separating the youth group by age, but by maturity, it can be beneficial. This is because different spiritual concepts require different levels of maturity to understand to their fullest extent.
    Depending on how it is done, I think of this separation as less of segregation, and more of customization. Certain messages you may be able to give junior highers may be something senior highers won't be interested in. In reverse, a certain message for senior highers may be something that junior highers can't relate to, or may not understand due to their maturity.
    If you think about it, this is the reason we have a youth group in the first place. We understand that the methods used to witness to young adults may be different than those used to witness to adults. This separation is by no means meant to be spiteful, nor do I think that because of this customization young adults feel differently towards adults than they normally would (although that may be up for debate.)
    However, as in your example, some means of separation can be more harmful the helpful. Like you said about senior highers not coming to an event because of the presence of junior highers. This isn't right, and needs to be addressed. But this in itself is not enough to justify getting rid of the separate youth groups, nor will it solve the problem on its own.
    However, in the case of what your witnessing, the differences that separate the group are by no means a good reason to separate the group. A person in a lower financial caste can just as easily discover, understand, and accept christian growth as one of a higher financial caste.
    Anyhow, those are my thoughts on the subject. Please share your thoughts, and I hope that this helps guide your thoughts for ministry this upcoming year!

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Keegan! I appreciate you helping me think through this. I just have questions right now, no answers or conclusions, so this helps.

      I think you're right about jr highers needing lessons that are more concrete than what high schoolers can think through, but I think the overall approach sounds like "we need to separate people because the church is supposed to do something for me" (i.e. teach me/challenge me where I'm at). If so, then it sounds like the purpose of church is for Christians to "get something out of it," but I think we'd both agree that the bigger purpose of church for believers is to "give something," not to get something. If that's the case, then jr highers and sr highers need to be serving not only each other, but the rest of the church, and likewise the rest of the church should be serving the teens, ya know? But when I get attitudes like, "I only wanna go if it's going to be fun and relevant for me," I feel like I'm enabling that to continue by giving in to it and trying to give students things that appear to be fun and relevant. I can address it publicly, but just talking about it won't be heard by the people who really need to hear it because they won't be there in the first place.

      How we "do" youth ministry communicates and teaches teenagers a lot about what church is supposed to be, and right now YM feels like we're trying to provide a service for teens and families than it is a place that pushes people to think outside themselves, their stage of life, and their maturity level. Hmm….

      • Keegan

        Alright, I see where your coming from on this. Christian 'consumerism' so to speak can lead to all sorts of problems and discontent in a Christian body. Good point…
        But then I wonder why we have youth group in the first place. I apologize for being so blatant, but would that make having teens go to an adult sunday school class vs. confirmation be a better idea? It would certainly stretch their boundaries, but it be wholly beneficial to either adults or teens?
        At one point in this last year, I decided that I wanted to give an adult Sunday school class a try. I was currently going to the senior high sunday morning meetings, but felt that I wanted to dig deeper into the word than what they were currently doing. So, me, my younger brother, and a friend of our decided together, at the encouragement of our parents, to give a newly opening adult sunday school class a shot. The class was good, and I did feel challenged both spiritually and mentally to comprehend some of the more difficult to understand saying of Jesus (the subject of the class.)
        On the third week of the class, however, while waiting in the classroom for other students to show, and adult leader came in (not part of the class) and very politely and tactfully asked us to return to our respective Sunday school classes. Although this was confusing at first, I did some investigation into the matter and found that our teacher (a good friend of mine) had made an off comment about the challenges of teaching to different age groups while maintaining the deep manner of the class. One of the adults (possibly) misinterpreted the comment and took it to mean that our presence at the class made it harder to teach.
        Whether this was the true intent or not, we began to see the class' attendance steadily dropping. This was probably just because, honestly, that's what happens with multi-week classes, but the fact that me, my brother, and my friend were the only regular attenders gave us pause. After talking directly to the teacher on the matter, we decided that, even though we were enjoying the class and growing in it, it would be better for the adults to withdraw.
        So, we all returned to our respective Sunday school classes. I had nothing against my youth group, but I had a longing for discussions and lessons that challenged me more deeply than that of my current class.
        So the idea behind all this? Personally, I believe I may have given more support to your point of view than my own. But keep in mind that, although wanting more complicated spiritual lessons may seem consumerist, the hunger for 'spiritual steak' so to speak is one that is God given. I don't believe that it is a bad idea in the least to try to aim a ministry at a specific group and teach it accordingly.
        In your situation? Maybe separating by age group isn't a good idea after all. But maybe you want to start a group for starting christians, and one for christians looking to deeply mature their faith?
        Just a thought.

        • I'm sorry that you were asked to leave the adult class! Sounds like this "box mentality" of ministry is prevalent here (i.e. you belong in this box of ministry, I belong in another, and they are not to overlap).

          We had our sr high ministry evaluation meeting a couple weeks ago, which was very helpful. I think you were invited to it on Facebook, but couldn't attend because you were out of town. No worries. Would love to go over some of the feedback with you and see what you think. I like your viewpoints here! I'll send you a message on Facebook.

  • I am having this issue in my youth group as well. Currently we do not have a split group because just a year ago there was only 3 active members in the youth group. Now as we start to approach 15 and the ages are starting to spread out the requests for a split group are happening…sadly from the youth themselves. I can see it in one of the new girls that she doesn't feel welcomed because of the outcry from a couple of senior highers. It is frustrating at times, but I think that we are going to address it relatively soon with some lessons on unity and all of that good stuff. ;) The question has been posed by the church staff that as the group gets better, what should we do? Should we split it, or let it grow. The only reason why I think a seperation should occur is because of the different types of issues the kids are handling. But with 30+ 8th grade pregnancysin our school system this past year I'd say that difference is becoming smaller and smaller.

    • I agree that the differences are narrowing and the issues need to be addressed sooner and sooner.

      I'm curious to know if just talking about it at youth group will provide a long-term solution for high schoolers accepting jr highers, or if it will just make them feel guilty enough to go along with it for a couple months. My feeling is that it will be the latter, especially when we separate the group into jr and sr high and thereby model something other than what we're teaching.

  • It's a good question. I think Keegan hits the nail on the head by pointing out that separation can be helpful in some contexts and harmful in others. A lot of it comes down to the heart of those involved. This past Sunday I reminded our high schoolers that the following week we'd have a joint high school/junior high large group gathering. One student spoke up and said he wouldn't be there for that reason, and I'm glad he did because it gave me an opportunity to address the topic.

    I think that separation is good from a discipleship standpoint. For instance, we separate most of our small groups into guys and girls. I think there's a benefit to separating junior and senior high (side note: our church is one of the only ones in our area of Utah that separates junior and senior high, including the larger churches). However, you've noted some of the cons, which can outweigh any benefits.

    Here's how I'd love for it work: at my last church, I was blessed with a group of students that loved to be together, regardless of age. However, we still wanted to have some separation for reasons discussed in others' comments already. Our youth group gatherings on Sunday nights were three hours long. The first hour was the discipleship time for junior high. At the start of the second hour, the high school students arrived, and we had an hour of food and games together. Then, during the third hour, the high school students had their discipleship time. They would have complained (even the high school students) if everything was totally separate. Again, this wasn't the result of my leadership; it's just the way the culture was when I arrived, and I was thankful for it. I haven't figured out how to successfully foster that culture at my current church… Still learning!

    • Yeah, I think it's exactly like you experienced it in your last church — it has to be a value that's fostered throughout the church's ministry, not just a lesson series once in a while that serve as a slap on the wrist, ya know?

  • Not to put down your teens, but maybe they're a bit immature? If they are choosing not to go to an event because of some junior high kids, the problem is in their mentality. Maybe it just takes explaining to your high schoolers why there are high school and junior high groups.

    I make sure that most of our outside activities are mixed whether it's service projects or fun events. We also have a few that are "high school only" and "junior high only." It also seems to help them integrate into the congregation better, too.

    • Oh my, yes, they are extremely immature. As I mentioned in earlier comments, it's a value system and a perception of "what church is supposed to do/be for me" that goes much deeper than a simple lesson series that addresses the issue. They picked up their attitude about church from the way we do youth ministry, and that attitude will unfortunately carry on into adulthood.

      In my church, we have some seniors who don't want to be with the freshman because "we're thinking about college and they're not even dating yet." I mean, c'mon, where does the segregation end? Some juniors and seniors want to split off from the freshman and sophomores. But I think it's because we've taught them that "youth ministry is for you and where you are in life" instead of "youth ministry is here to help you serve the body of Christ."

      • Jim

        First off, I hope none of your youth read this. To so blatantly and publicly insult a whole group of students is pretty disrespectful. Second, how can a student now not get the perception of "groups". They've been split up by the school system which can easily parallel into the Church setting. I would guess that you, and a bunch of the commentors agreeing to this, were home schooled. If high school students dont like being with middle school students in school, of course they are not going to enjoy it for youth group. You want to make youth group appealing and comfortable for students. If they arent comfortable with the age difference, why would you force it. Sounds like it would be an easy way to start having students leave.
        Personally, I can see having set events with both groups every now and then. But there is no reason to harrass them if they are not comfortable being around each other. In the end its the students choice.

        • Jim

          I meant to say home schooled or went to a K-12 school.

          • Actually, I've been talking about this pretty publicly with my group for a year or so, so this shouldn't be much of an insult nor a surprise to my youth group.

            I also know that jr and sr high are quite capable of working together, serving together, and growing side-by-side. I've seen it many times. Sometimes they need youth leaders who have bigger visions than to let then stay comfortable with where they are. The "us" and "them" mentality with definitely harm the future of the church if left untreated.

      • Karen

        hello, sorry if I seem to be butting in here on something that has nothing to do with me but I once prayed over this issue before (not the segregation issue however but the deep rooted issue of "I don't want to have to 'do' anything but the church is suppose to 'do' everything for me and thought that maybe the wisdom I felt was given in my matter could be applied given the same context.
        You brought this up, that segregation is bad in context; and I agree that this 'segregation' in terms of 'unity in spirit' not for functionality purposes, is bad but I don't see it as the segregation-functionality fault. Meaning that the fact that the ministries was segregated led to the youths playing cliques. I used to feel that the church/leadership was to sort of 'social engineer' some sort of inclusive culture but I felt that the given advice from God was to first teach them to "love themselves."

        Let me explain that "love themselves" is not to ask your youths to put themselves above others but to instead take responsibility for their lives, spiritual wants etc etc, and to be proactive and to seek wisdom by their own initiative. What I mean is to not rely only on the church for 'spiritual food' but to learn to do their own spiritual feeding etc, its like we teach them how to fish and they do it themselves the rest of the week yea?
        It seems to set off a domino when people start worrying about whether they are feeding themselves right (assuming they would care because this method actually exposes them who 'grows' if the food is prepared and garnished right infront of them) and I guess this helps to free them up to pursue God seriously and when they do, as part of the fruit of the Spirit, love will abound in your parish and will heal gulfs because when we are truly in Christ, He's going to start needling those that confess Him to start showing it! So I guess, its good to take some of the responsibility off whoever are the leaders' shoulders and place whatever if rightfully back on the teens' shoulders and perhaps with the Lord's leading, these young kids will surpass the elders and become the Timothies that will lead their generation's youths. I'm not sure if what I said was relevant but think about it, pray over it and best of luck! (not that we need it when its God on our side :D)

  • Seriously? I just had a big response and it just vanished. I will try to type it all again.

    I have been in student ministry now for 13 years. Out of the 13 I have only had 1 year where we were split into 2 groups. One other year we met in the same building at the same time and shared worship and announcements then split for lessons, food and games. What a logistical nightmare that year was since I was doing both lessons that were different to "fit" the two different groups. What I have found is that you can teach doctrine to middle school students like you can to high school students and the shocker is that they get it as well as the high school students do. I know what some might be thinking, "But come on you can't possibly teach the middle school students like you do the high school students – they can't grasp that." I would agree that you can't approach certain life topics with middle school students the way you would with high school students…however with doctrine I would argue you can.

    How many of us have adults who are new believers or infant believers in their congregations? Do we really think they can grasp the Sunday morning sermon that way an older adult can who has been a believer and studier of God's Word for much longer? Besides the cognitive reasoning and the age difference what is the difference in the two scenarios?

    I think another good question to wrestle through as well is are we teaching our students that segregation is ok? Will that filter in with them and the church as a whole? Are we conditioning them to say it's fine to be divided into age specific groups through the rest of the church life in college and adulthood? Is there a correlation between students leaving the church after high school/ college and them just simply not having another (older group) to be segregated off with and instead are expected to mix with the older adults the first week they graduate high school? Are we setting them up for failure later on in church life?

    Tim thanks for the post. It's a good one to wrestle through from both sides of the issue.

    • Two good points here, Chris:

      1. Yes, jr and sr high are at different stages of life, but are their life issues really what we should be addressing as much as we address biblical literacy and theology? Should they know that the Bible is bigger than a "how to" book about life? If so, then it's easier to put jr and sr high together because you're teaching biblical principles that apply to many stages of life, not just the teen years.

      2. I had a youth group that was also combined and it worked great. It was an unspoken expectation of the high school students to reach out and serve the jr highers. It wasn't uncommon to see a high school guy wrestling on the floor with a 7th grader. We'd break up into age and gender specific small groups for discussion, but games, announcements, worship, teaching, etc, was all together as a large group.

      • Tim we also would break up into age specific and gender specific small groups for discussions. I have found that even the parents who are against the idea at first come to really like th idea of having the groups together. For some reason in a rural setting it just works well. I have never been in a larger city so I'm not sure if it would work well or not since in larger cities students are broken down eve more (7-8; 9-10; 11-12) as far as schools go.

        Even though we are combined right now it's not to say that we won't go back. It's just that right now it works really well for us.

  • My Thoughts:

    Love the tension in this question…

  • Stephen

    By separating jr from sr high we aren't making them less of the church. We are just meeting their current needs. I fully agree that youth ministry should focus more on scriptural truth/ theology rather than just a self-help book. The problem is though, that even in your discussion of why not to separate and your approval of your experience of a successful combined ministry you still had to separate to meet certain needs.
    I in fact just got flack for putting my sr high sunday school in with my college age due to a lack of teacher for one weekend and my rebuttable to certain individuals was that it is no different from Sunday service.
    The brain development of stages has to be taken into consideration and greatly affects ministry methods.

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