"Divided," a newly released documentary that criticizes modern youth ministry as unbiblical, has sparked wide debate among Christians.
While some have praised the film for tackling what many see as a crisis – youths leaving the church – others say Christians would be better off ignoring it.
"This is a movie that heavily promotes a very obvious agenda," said Tim Challies, pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario. "It’s a destructive message wrapped in a poorly-made documentary."
Produced by the National Center for Family Integrated Churches, the film follows Philip Leclerc who visits churches and youth events throughout the country to find out why young people are walking away from faith and whether age-segregated worship is what the Scripture prescribes.
As a Christian who was pulled out of youth group by his father and who saw his friends leave the faith, Leclerc questions the approach many churches take today in reaching youths.
"Are youth pastors more qualified to train children than parents?" he asks. "Is it possible that the church has promised truth but delivered foolishness instead?"
The filmmaker and the pastors interviewed argue that there is no biblical support for youth ministry and age-segregated worship. The segregation seen in churches is largely a practice adopted from pagan principles and parents end up being usurped by youth pastors when it comes to discipling their children. Moreover, there is more emphasis on entertainment and less on actually teaching the Bible in youth programs, the film also presents.
"We segregated youth into their own cultures," says Scott Brown, director of NCFIC, in the film. "We don't believe that the church has the freedom to go invent itself. It needs to go to God."
Scripture, he says, including Ephesians and Colossians support age-integrated worship.
"One of the tragic effects of separating youth into their own subculture is that it creates diverse generational cultures within a church ... it actually destroys one of the most wonderful principles of the Gospel – and that is that God brings all people together," he adds.
In his critical review of the film, Challies rejected claims that the Bible clearly teaches that Christians must not age segregate.
"Despite the claims of FIC (family integrated church) leaders, it is clear that the Bible does not explicitly forbid all kinds of division by age," he wrote.
"As Christians we have freedom to act with wisdom in areas where Scripture is silent. FIC would take this freedom from us."
David Colburn, a former associate pastor who currently writes Bible study for small groups, also disagrees with the message of the film.
He told The Christian Post that the answer is not either but both.
Young people, he said, should regularly gather and fellowship with their families but also spend time interacting with peers in a youth ministry context.
In the latter case, it is not that the father's role of discipleship is being supplanted by the youth pastor, but rather reinforced, Colburn argued.
"Our 16-year-old son has been around ministry all of his life, but as the Bible clearly teaches, he needs to hear what I have tried to teach him from other men and from peers – especially more spiritually – mature peers," he noted.
Colburn further contended that stuffing young people into a service with those from other generations without a separate youth ministry would do more to drive them away from church.
While there may be no explicit command against age-segregated youth ministry in the Bible, Brown of NCFIC maintains that explicit negative commands are not necessary to show that something is contrary to the Word of God.
"[W]e argue against it because it does not properly fulfill the principles and commands of Scripture which apply to youth discipleship, and it goes against the primary examples of gatherings involving the whole people of God," he says.
"We do not believe that age segregation as a primary practice is an option on the table along with other viable models of discipling the next generation," he adds. "[W]hen the church advocates unbiblical methods, it too has ignored the truth of Scripture. Whenever we ignore the Scriptures, we exalt man’s traditions."