Toward a Responsive Youth Group

When it comes to a youth group in the church, what we all want is a responsive group. I mean a youth group that discusses and responds enthusiastically. Most youth leaders that I have talked with have this complaint more than any other; the young people do not discuss. They are generally respectful and reverent, but they just do not talk up during the lesson.

And really, when you come right down to it, discussion is one of the most important parts of a young people’s society. This does not mean that the presentation of the material to be studied is not important, or indeed, any less important. The basis of a successful discussion depends on the material that is being studied. Therefore the necessity of Bible-based lessons cannot be overestimated in any group, a youth group no exception.

Revival from a bygone day -We have been doing something in our youth group which has greatly improved the participation of the young people. What we have tried is not new. In fact it is really a revival of what once was a thriving part of young men’s societies in the Christian Reformed Church. We have been holding debates in our youth group. These debates have not been simply between two persons, the one taking a negative and the other a positive position regarding a given subject. Rather, the debates have involved the entire society which was divided into two groups, the one group with the negative and the other group with the positive side of the debate. We have found that this kind of discussion has done wonders to otherwise quiet and reserved young people.

This idea, as I said, is not new. In fact the idea for it came from a book that is over fifty years old. It is the book, Subjects and Outlines by the late Professor Louis Berkhof, copyrighted in 1918 by Eerdmans-Sevensma Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. The book suggests a great many topics for discussion by young people, many of which have been put into the form of debates by the author. In the debate chapters the topic is presented in the form of a statement. Then a positive position is presented in the form of three statements which substantiate the thesis statement. A negative position is presented which suggests three statements which would contradict the thesis statement.

Group participation but Scripture central – In our youth group, we began by using some of the suggestions that Professor Berkhof gave in his book. But we soon launched out on our own. The young people themselves suggested many relevant topics for some very exciting debates. The obvious advantage to this kind of thing is that the young people are placed in a position of having to defend a thesis or, as the case may be, to contradict it. The idea of competition becomes quite active in the group, and even those who are normally content just to listen find themselves actively engaged in the discussion.

The desire for group participation and discussion, however laudable, must not take precedence over the centrality of Scripture as the basis for discussion. And so even in this kind of debate idea, the Scriptures must be central. In our youth group the Bible was indeed placed in its p0sition of authority in this way. After the discussion was over, the salient passages of Scripture were discussed in detail in order to see what the Bible said about our topic. And ill every case, the Bible was the final authority. Even though one side or the other felt that it had won, each side submitted to Scripture’s authority regarding the issue that was debated. The youth leader is given the opportunity of presenting the passage of Scripture to the group, and through mutual discussion the group discovers not only which position is true, but also why it is true.

Examples – A couple of examples describing our procedure might be of interest to those who would like to try this method. The first concerns an issue that is relevant today even as it was in the time when Prof. Berkhof suggested it, “Resolved: that Capital punishment should be abolished. Affirmative: 1. Capital punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment which is expressly prohibited by Scripture as well as the constitution of the United States. 2. Capital punishment makes the conversion of the criminal impossible, while life in prison gives him the opportunity to hear the gospel. 3. A miscarriage of justice is always a possibility whereby one is put to death who as a matter of fact is later found to have been innocent. Negative: 1. The Word of God explicitly demands that the murderer shall pay for his crime with his life (Gen. 9:6). This demand is based on the fact that man is created in the image of God. 2. The death penalty is, moreover, based on the absolute justice of taking life for life. This principle cannot be set aside by sentimental reasons. 3. Capital punishment is the most effective deterrent to crime and therefore the most effective punishment. If abolished, it will lead to an increase in capital crimes.”

In the discussion that we held on the basis of this topic, the group Brst read from Genesis 9 and from Romans 13. Then they divided into two groups, and each group met separately for about fifteen minutes in order to discuss and add to the reasons for their position. The entire youth group reassembled and discussed the resolution. Each side presented its position and attacked the other position. At the end of the discussion, the two passages of Scripture were read and thoroughly discussed. Our conclusion was that Scripture does require the death penalty for capital crimes; and because Scripture requires it, we must abide by its precepts.

A second example is one that we also adopted from the book of Prof. Berkhof. “Resolved: that a Christian may and must take an active part in war. Affirmative: 1. Through the influence of sin war is, under certain circumstances, a necessity. The sword was entrusted to the government and must be wielded by it in defense of justice. War is not forbidden, but in several instances commanded in the Bible. 2. The Christian is a citizen of the state, enjoying the privileges of citizenship, and therefore also obliged to shoulder its duties. When the call to bear arms comes, he is duty-bound to obey the government. If he did not, he would be a traitor to his country. 3. If a Christian refuses to take part in a war that is waged in the interest of justice, he not only helps the enemies of the country, but, in fact, upholds injustice while he should minister to righteousness. Negative: 1. The Bible commands love and forbids hatred, and especially murder. Now war is simply wholesale murder in which Christians are commanded to slay their own brethren. 2. The Church of Jesus Christ is the great agency of God to promote peace on earth. She must reflect in her own life and in all her activities the peace that she enjoys in virtue of the saving word of the Prince of Peace. 3. A Christian is bound to obey the government only as long as its demands do not go contrary to the Word of God. If these do conflict with the precepts of the Bible, he must refuse obedience, must obey God rather than man.”

Again we used the Scriptures to learn God’s teaching on the topic in question. Discussing I Samuel 15 and Romans 13, we concluded that the Christian may and must take an active part in war.

Old but not outdated – The suggestions which we found in Professor Berkhof’s old book were used in our youth group with much benefit. That which is old is not necessarily outdated, indeed, we found much gold in these articles. So I would like to commend this method to any of the youth groups in our churches who have found that the Bible discussion is only a “one-way street:” the leader simply talks to the young people. Perhaps this is something that can be of use to others.

Henry B. Vanden Heuvel is pastor of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa.