Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Movie Review: Divided

Divided: A Review
A friend posted this documentary about youth groups and family integrated churches on Facebook. Having a strong interest in how we raise the next generation, I decided to give it a watch. I was left with mixed feelings about the movie and its message, but it raises some important questions--and that's why I decided to review it here.

The movie (which you can view online below) follows around a young film maker as he interviews youth, youth ministers, and leaders in the family integrated church movement. He purports to be on a quest to find out why so many youth are leaving the church, though you quickly get the sense that this is not an honest search for truth, but rather for soundbites to support his preconceived ideas. He starts by showing youth with a "poor Biblical foundation" (though his litmus test is questionable). Next, he interviews youth pastors about their difficulties, the primary one being lack of parental involvement. Finally, he moves on to representatives of the integrated family movement, who claim that youth ministry (to be precise, age-segregated programs) are un-Biblical and dangerous, originating in humanistic evolutionary thinking. The "Biblical" model is to go back to where fathers take up their role as the primary trainers of their children instead of passing the buck off to some other guy who becomes an idol in their children's eyes. In a nutshell, that's what the film claims.

So, let's start off with the good. I agree that parents have the primary responsibility in training their children. I agree that youth ministries and age segregated programs are not perfect. I agree that we need to support the role of the parents in teaching their children, rather than replace that role. And I agree that we need to question the way that we do youth ministry. That being said, I found the film to be heavily biased and its core message to be Biblically and practically on shaky ground.

My first issue was how they conducted the litmus test for Biblical foundations among youth. Two examples are provided: the lack of belief in a young earth and the acceptance of Christian rock concerts. This choice of examples betrays a hyper-conservative fundamentalist mindset, one which I do not agree with. The Bible not nearly as black and white as the fundamentalists would have you believe (see "Difficult Passages in the Bible"), and there is nothing wrong with worship being culturally diverse. Based on this, and my own personal experience, I have to wonder if the crisis is not exaggerated.

Which brings me to my second point. The film seeks a Biblical model for church structure, but the fact is that no such model exists. It is true that the Bible places the singular responsibility for training up children on the parents, but it gives no instruction as to how to do that, no curriculum or lesson plan to follow. It doesn't tell us what the children (or anyone for that matter) are supposed to do during Sabbath gatherings. It doesn't outline the basic theological subjects that we need to make sure they know. And it doesn't say anything about involving others in their education, good or bad. It's wide open. Seeking a "Biblical" model for is noble, but we must acknowledge the limits of Scripture, lest we inadvertently take a cultural model and label it as the only true way just because the Bible mentions it. Rather, we should seek Biblical principles and learn how to apply those principles in the context and culture in which we live today.

So, what are we to do? First, let's acknowledge that age-segregated programs have their limits (as several of the youth pastors in the film did). We can't rely on youth programs alone to save our children. That being said, we can use these programs to support the efforts at home and to provide a family for those that have none.

We live in an information age. Before the invention of the printing press, formal education was not high on the priority list. There weren't a lot of books and there wasn't much literacy. But, in recent years, knowledge and scholarship has exploded. The film criticizes the education system we have today, but we must remember that today's society with all of its medical and technological wonders is built on the students that came through that education system. That's because it's effective in what it does--compartmentalizing knowledge so as to make learning efficient. If the church can use that to help train our children in the knowledge of Scripture, I'm all for that. Even as a homeschool student, I was involved in co-op groups because sometimes one parent was better at teaching a certain subject than others. But, the parents must be involved. They must know what their children are learning, be available for questions, and most importantly exemplify the Christian walk for their children.

There's a responsibility on the youth pastors too. Youth pastors must structure their programs to bring in the parents, to support what the parent's role rather than trying to replace it. Too often, I think we look to pastors as the "spiritual" people that we go to listen to once a week to fulfill our Christian duty. Or, in the Messianic movement, we look to the Torah teachers as sources of knowledge, for the sake of knowledge. We need to learn to look at ministers as servants in the community, supporting us in our walk, rather than simply feeding us information or existing just to exist. I heard someone say once that 95% of ministries exist to promote themselves. That's not what we need, and that's not what I want to be. What we need are shepherds who are sensitive to the needs of their flock, who get to know their congregants and listen to their hearts. Then, and only then, can he share his heart with them. Then, he can build a church that doesn't just fill pews and attend programs, but becomes a family supporting one another in this journey.

Finally, one need I do see youth programs fulfilling is the need for fellowship. Recently, I had the opportunity to lead a young adult discussion at Sukkot. I asked the question, "What do you need to help you in walking in this faith?" The answer? Encouragement and community--to know that they are not alone in this walk. That's why you already hear teenagers counting down the days to Camp Yeshua, almost a year away. That's why you hear them talking about camp like it's the greatest thing ever. Our youth crave the fellowship of their peers. The friendships they form now are the community that will support them as adults. We need to support that community.

If there is a crisis of faith in our young adult community, I don't think it's because we picked the wrong structure for learning. Children learn through all sorts of methods and environments. The problem is that we as a community have been training them in the wrong things, teaching a shallow feel-good gospel instead of the depths of historic Christianity. But, that's another story.

I decided to review this movie because I do think we should question how we run youth ministry, and this movie gives a launching point for that discussion. Consider this the beginning of the conversation, not the end.

What are your thoughts?

p.s. Also check out this review from one of the folks that was actually interviewed in the film.

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