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My take on the movie Divided

Picture of Greg Stier
Greg Stier

How did I feel about Divided? Mixed, split and, well, divided! This surprisingly well filmed documentary follows the journey of one young man on a “quest” to discover what’s gone wrong with youth ministry and how to fix it.

It quickly identifies one of the major reasons for youth ministry’s failure, Christian parents (specifically dads) abandoning their roles as the primary spiritual mentors of their children. I couldn’t help but internally applaud the emphasis on dad’s taking responsibility for the spiritual development of their own children in the church.

Too many parents outsource the spiritual development of their teenagers to youth leaders instead of tackling the job personally. But Deuteronomy 6:4-9 was written to dads and moms not youth leaders and sponsors. The power of God’s command through Moses to the people of Israel still reverberates for parents today:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

How can we as parents delegate, relegate or abdicate the spiritual development of our kids to someone else? Divided makes it crystal clear that, when it comes to the spiritual development of children, it is the primary responsibility of fathers to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4.) Youth leaders were never meant to replace a parent’s spiritual leadership but, in many cases, that is exactly what has happened.

So on the one hand I totally agree with the premise that dads and moms should be the primary spiritual influencers in the lives of their own children. But on the other hand, and it is a hand with a bad case of elephantiasis, many of the experts in this “unbiased” documentary made some pretty lame arguments about why youth ministry is anti-Biblical.

One of the lines of reasoning in Divided is that, because youth ministry is never even alluded to in the Bible, it must be wrong. But I believe this premise is badly flawed. I am convinced that, contrary to what this movie proposes, youth ministry is alluded to in all the gospels and commanded in at least one epistle.

Contrary to what their website claims the first youth group was comprised of the early disciples, who were, with the exception of Peter, teenagers! Need some Biblical backup for that? Check out Matthew 17:24-27,

“After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’ ‘Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?’ he asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?’ ‘From others,’ Peter answered. ‘Then the children are exempt,’ Jesus said to him. ‘But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’”

Does it strike you as significant that all the disciples are there in Capernaum but only Peter and Jesus pay the temple tax? Weren’t they all responsible to do pay that tax? Sure, but only if they were old enough to fork over the two drachma price tag.

According to Exodus 30:14, “All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the LORD.” The tabernacle tax which morphed into the temple tax was only applicable to those twenty years old or older and only Peter and Jesus paid.

If I’m reading these passages correctly then Jesus was a youth leader with only one adult sponsor who was old enough to pay the temple tax (Peter) and a youth group of eleven other teenagers! This tells us that the very first model of New Testament ministry was that of a group of teenagers, a youth leader and an adult sponsor. To argue with modern youth ministry is to argue with the model that Jesus himself used to kickoff the church!

Jesus, the youth leader, in Matthew 4:18-22 does something bold in the recruitment of his youth group. He actually takes them away from their parents (GASP!)

“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”

Jesus went straight to the sons of Zebedee and recruited them from working with their dad into his youth group. Of course Jesus wasn’t usurping Zebedee’s authority (although as the Son of God he had every right to) but was building on the firm foundation that Zebedee had most likely laid in the lives of his boys. I’m sure that Zebedee enthusiastically turned his boys over to Jesus’ leadership in their lives.

Although there was no pizza and dodge ball in this particular “youth group” we know of, there was fish, chips and mission trips. Jesus, as a thirty year old youth leader, poured into the lives of these teenagers in a big, big way and prepared Peter to take over the group after he left.

To argue with the model of youth ministry is to argue with the method of Jesus. And that is a dangerous thing. While Jesus exemplified youth ministry, Paul expressly commanded it.

“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.” Titus 2:3-8

In this passage Paul commands Titus to unleash the older women in the church to invest in the younger women in the church. Many of these younger women were teenagers. In the ancient Jewish culture it was after a girl menstruated for the first time that the household rejoiced because she had biologically passed into adulthood. Soon after this pivotal milestone in her life she could marry.

So when Paul tells Titus to unleash the older women to “urge the younger women to love their husbands and children….” It was a very specific form of youth ministry. The “older women” in this passage could be in their twenties!

When it comes to the boys-to-young men in the early church (which was around the same age as the girls) Paul commands Titus himself to spend focused time investing in them. Paul writes to Titus in chapter one and verse five of his book, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.”

Crete was nicknamed by ancient writers as “the island with a hundred cities.” Paul had kicked off a church planting initiative at some point but was unable to complete the grunt work. The Apostle Paul tells Titus to finish what was started through a two pronged approach: 1. Appoint leadership for every church (Titus 1:5-16) and 2. Launch an older to younger spiritual mentoring system in each of the churches (Titus 2:1-8.)

The expression of how this older to younger discipleship system was to happen is never spelled out in the book of Titus. It could happen one on one. It could happen in a small group setting. It could even happen on a Wednesday night in a youth room (GASP!)

Titus, the older men and women in each church were adults (other than the moms and dads of these younger men and women) who were called to spiritually invest in the next generation. They were leaders of youth (aka “youth leaders”) and to say otherwise falls short Biblically. They were there to enhance, not replace, the spiritual investment that the moms and dads of these young men and women had made in them.
If the experts in this film had lived in the early church I’m sure that some intervention would have ensued between them and the apostle Paul. How dare he propose someone, other than the moms and dads of these teenagers to take a lead role in their spiritual development? But rock apostle breaks scissor theorist in this game.

An astoundingly lame argument

I was working out while watching this movie and had to actually stop doing pushups when I heard the grand finale argument made by some of the theorists in this documentary against modern youth ministry. It was the preposterous polemic that the model of modern youth ministry was an accommodation to Darwinian evolution.

What the holy heck?

Here’s how they built weak premise upon weak premise to reach this ridiculous conclusion:

Premise #1: Evolutionary ideology drove the separation of children from their parents in the American public school system.

My wife has been teaching at a public school for almost 20 years and she’s never once been schooled in the secret manual of age-segregated evolutionary takeover tactics. This hoopla hypothesis smacks of conspiracy theory and kookiness.

By the way, even if some of the founders of what we now call the public school system believed that evolution dictates age and stage separation of children, it doesn’t automatically make separating and teaching children in this way a bad idea. As my grandpa used to say, “Even a blind pig can find an acorn.” How to best teach children to learn is debatable at best.

Premise #2: Sunday schools and youth groups are built on the same principles as the American school system.

The American Sunday School system was first begun by Samuel Slater in his textile mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in the 1790s. But Samuel Slater didn’t “invent” Sunday school as we know it today. Many believe the creator of the Sunday school idea wasn’t American at all. He was British. In 1781 Robert Raikes, editor of the Gloucester Journal, was sick of seeing children on the streets of England descend into crime so he launched the Sunday school movement in England Within four years a quarter of a million children were attending Sunday schools throughout England.

In short, the Sunday school movement pre-dates the American public school system.

Ridiculous Conclusion: All age-segregated Sunday schools and youth ministries are against Scripture because they accommodate evolutionary ideology.

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809.The Sunday school movement in American began almost twenty years before Darwin was born.

On another note, it’s insulting to think of the great men and women of God over the last few centuries who have led millions of young people to Jesus through the Sunday school movement (including D.L. Moody, R.A. Torrey, Henrietta Mears and many, many more) and through the modern youth ministry movement (including Billy Graham who was the first full time evangelist for Youth for Christ) were wasting their efforts. To say that the tools they were using were a sham is a shame. It actually makes me mad.

As soon as some of the preachers and theorists in Divided started pontificating about evolution and the evils of Sunday school and youth ministry, this film entered the realm of the ridiculous. It began to feel like a fundamentalist version of a Michael Moore documentary. Although I am very conservative theologically myself, I was embarrassed to have conservative theology associated with these claims. Unfortunately conservative theology often carries the baggage of added rules (aka “legalism”) and it seemed like many of those interviewed in this movie had way more than carry on.

Smell the legalism

I was raised in a Christian school that used the same line of legalistic reasoning used in this film with all sorts of other debatable issues. They would argue that drinking alcohol was a sin because the wine that Jesus drank was unfermented. Never mind that Jesus’ first miracle was making six vats of wine out of water at a party where many of the wedding goers were probably already tipsy. Never mind the command to avoid getting drunk (Ephesians 5:18) is hard to break when all you drink is unfermented wine. Never mind the God-inspired Biblical reality if it doesn’t fit manmade legalism.

But it didn’t stop with alcohol in my Christian school, the legalistic arguments against all forms of rock-n-roll were rampant too. According to many of my teachers all rock-n-roll was of the Devil, even Christian rock-n-roll. Why? Because the music itself was evil! According to them the actual beat of this music was a different beat than the beat of your heart. It was unnatural and, therefore, sinful. And I guess it could give you a heart attack.


Not much has changed in 30 years. Legalism still produces lame and, as it turns out, unbiblical arguments. I know the smell of legalism. I was raised in it and this documentary, especially the second half, reeked of it.

Maybe that’s why I loved Derwin Gray’s response to the interviewers. Although he promotes an approach to youth ministry that brings young people into the Sunday morning service he also leaves room for other models in other contexts.

“Don’t you dare hit my little brother!”

Growing up my big brother would push me around from time to time. But as soon as anybody else from the neighborhood started pushing me around he would step in and defend me. It was fine for him to give me a punch to the gut every now and again but nobody else better dare to hit me.

That’s how I feel about youth ministry. I’ve been saying for years (along with a whole slew of others, many of whom are way smarter than me) that something is broken in youth ministry. Years ago I even entertained writing a book called The Failure of Youth Ministry. But I decided against it. Why? Because I love my little brother nicknamed youth ministry. Although there is serious change that needs to take place in the model of youth ministry (including the need to engage parents to take the lead), I refuse to let the bully of legalism slap my little brother around. For all of his faults my little brother has made a big difference in the lives of millions of teenagers all across America.

I write these words as a guy who was raised in a very urban, violent and broken home, with no dad and an unsaved mom. I was not raised in a perfect picture family environment where dad had daily devotions and trained me up in the way I should go. My biological father fled the scene of the crime when he found out my mom was pregnant. If it was up to my mom and dad to spiritually mentor me I am convinced that I would be in jail or dead by now.

But thank God for the unbiblical model of youth ministry that rescued me from the streets and discipled me in both Sunday school and youth group. I thank God for Kenny, Timo, Bill, Mark and the many other youth leaders and adult sponsors who took Titus 2 seriously enough to pour into me through the youth ministry at Colorado Bible Church so many years ago. God used them, not my mom or dad, to rescue me from a broken life.

As the old Chinese proverb says, “If your friend has a fly on his forehead don’t remove it with an axe.” This movie used an axe instead of a flyswatter and for that reason will do more harm than good in bringing about real and lasting transformation in the next generation.

Yes, youth ministry needs fixing. But, no, we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we do, the only ones crying will be this generation that will remain unreached.

Final thoughts for youth leaders who are reading this:

1) Remember that what you are doing does matter. Since Divided came out I’ve heard from youth leaders who seemed discouraged by the implications and allegations of this documentary. They shouldn’t be and neither should you. As someone once said, “Take the wheat and leave the chaff.” The kernel of wheat that should be taken from this movie is that we need to engage believing parents to be the primary spiritual change agents in the lives of their children. Dads and moms have to take Deuteronomy 6:4-9 personally and seriously if youth ministry is going to be all it can and should be. The movie had this very important point right. Parents need to be a primary part of our youth ministry strategy. If we are going to reach this next generation we need all hands on deck, especially the ones that have been holding them since the day that they were born.

2) Be a team player with your whole church. Youth ministry shouldn’t be the red-headed step child we keep locked in the basement…or in the youth room. Find ways of integrating your teenagers on Sunday morning from time to time or even weekly. Discover ways for the Titus 2 brand of older-to-younger mentoring ministry to happen more effectively both on the inside and the outside of the weekly youth group meeting. Choose not to be a “free agent” as a youth leader but a team player with the rest of your church staff and entire congregation to maximize kingdom impact in the lives of these young people. Work with the pastor of your church and the parents of your teenagers to strategize ways of engaging more adults to pour into the lives of your teenagers.

3) Give your teens a cause to live for. Effective youth ministry means more than just running a great program, it means serving a greater purpose. This purpose will unite young and old, parents and children and blue collar and white collar in one heart and one mind. What is this cause? It is THE Cause of Christ himself to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10.) If we truly don’t want to be “divided” then let’s not quibble about drivel. Instead let’s learn from Acts 4:31-33 about the unifying power of this great cause of Christ,

“After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all….”

At the end of the day I don’t want to be divided with anyone. My prayer is that we all become undivided in our common commitment to Christ and his cause. There’s too much at stake not to be.

Unlikely Fighter

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The story of how a fatherless street kid overcame violence, chaos, and confusion to become a radical Christ follower.

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