Why Church Kids Must Go Bad

By Andrew Root Posted on April 20 2010

I’m a book nerd. I never thought I would be such a person. As a matter of fact, most of the people that knew me in high school would never guess that I would become such a book person, or ever even finish reading a book for that matter. But I am. As a book nerd, one of the things I enjoy most is walking through bookstores or rooms filled with books. When I was restless in seminary, bored, or needed a break, I would walk through the used theological bookstore in the town where I lived.

So when I was at all three National Youth Workers Conventions last fall, I would walk the book tables, just looking at them (and of course, I must confess as all other authors should, I was also checking to see how quickly piles of my book were disappearing. I’m not only a book nerd, but also an ambitiously sinful one).

One book on my browsing stroll at the NYWC caught my eye—When Church Kids Go Bad by Les Christie. At first it was the catchiness of the title, the reality TV connection that caught my attention (Ok, I’m not only a book nerd, but also a reality TV junkie—now that my friends from high school would believe. I guess I’m part nerd and part junkie). FOX ran a number of shows about when things go bad, like animals, showing crazy clips of animals mauling people. As I read the acknowledgments of the book it was no surprise that the talented Jen Howver had thought of the title. Jen and I spent the better part of a few days outside London talking about almost nothing but bad reality TV (Jen may not be as much of a TV junkie now that she has her girls, but at the time we were two hard core, strung out junkies).

Is this what youth ministry is about?

Les Christie's responseBut there was something about the title that intrigued me deeply theologically. Now, hear me clearly as I delve into this, I have no bones to pick with the contents of the book (I think it offers helpful, practical actions), and I think the title is marvelous for doing what titles are supposed to do—draw people to the book. But the title got me thinking: is that what we are really after in youth ministry, making and keeping kids (especially the ones we already have, like church kids) good? Helping them avoid all that is bad? Is that what Christianity is about—being good? Behaving? Being moral? Avoiding all that is bad? Is Christianity about behaving or avoiding what is wrong within us and within the world?

Now, I know most parents would respond “yes.” I understand that; we all fear for our children and hope that they will be good kids. I also understand that participation in religious activity (as sociologists tell us) mitigates risky behavior, meaning that kids who participate in religious communities tend to score higher on the good measures than other kids. I too want my kids to be safe and good, but is the job of the church’s youth ministry to keep kids from going bad?

For the happy and shiny only

And if it is, do we not risk making youth ministry (and the church, broadly) only for those who find it possible, or even easy, to be good—only for those who have not known or faced the deep disappointment, suffering, and yearning in themselves and in the world? Is youth ministry then only for happy, shiny kids? For the kids that have everything going well for them, kids with resources, kids that have by sheer luck avoided the tragedy and nearness of suffering that is so close to us all? Is youth ministry, and the church in general, only for those that have denied the bad that exists in themselves and in the world?

I think that this (often implicit) position of “good-ism” runs through the veins of most youth ministry. If we are honest we operate as though that it is our job, as youth workers, to help kids be good and avoid the bad, or that if they follow Jesus they will be good and avoid the bad.

We have to ask ourselves if this being “good” and avoiding the bad perspective has filled our youth ministries with kids that have had the resources to avoid the shadow sides of existence. Are our mission trips and Bible studies attended by those that can be positive? And have these positive, advantageous, good kids become the very model of significant adolescent faith?

If by making them the model, have we communicated that Christianity is ultimately about goodness, about positivity, and has little to do with the reality of the human condition—little to do with suffering, brokenness, and yearning? These good kids have become the role models for others; we have labeled them the good and positive leaders, while the doubting, the yearning, those up against all sorts of impossibility are told (again, maybe more implicitly) to get positive, to get good, to avoid the bad and the heavy if they want to be Christian. Kids that have tasted the shadow side, that have felt its cold darkness touch their broken souls, see little need for youth ministry—see little significance of the youth ministry in the church, for it is too positive, too concerned with goodness, to name, contemplate, and yearn for God to meet them in the shadows of their existence, to meet them up against their brokenness.

I wonder if one reason even good kids know little about the Christian faith (as the National Study on Youth and Religion pointed out), may be because they sense there is little to know, for Christianity from the perspective of the shiny and happy is about being good and avoiding bad. They don’t see Christianity as living into an altogether different reality, where from death comes life, where the God of glory is found in shadows, in brokenness and yearning, rendering brokenness and yearning impotent to determine our destiny. From the perspective of trying to keep kids away from the bad, Christianity is about avoidance.

A theology of the cross

But there is another theological perspective that is worth considering, a theological perspective that confronts the avoidance of the bad that often gets caught in the practice of youth ministry. This theological perspective reminds us that discipleship is not about avoiding the bad in search of goodness (Jesus denies the very label for himself). Rather, discipleship is about following, and following Jesus where Jesus can be found. This theological perspective, which can be traced back to the early Reformation, argues that the fullness of God, that the fullest picture we have of who God is and how God acts, is seen in the cross. It is not goodness that makes one a Christian, but cleaving to the absurd assertion that God has revealed Godself fully for the sake of salvation in the crucified Jesus, in the bad—in the broken. When God, in Jesus, denied the goodness of the Pharisees and chose life with those in the shadows, God in Godself departed from the glory of the temple to mount the cross of Godforsaken hell outside the city gates. God is first and foremost found next to death, being swallowed by death, so that out of death life might split it through forevermore.

To follow this God one must follow God to the cross, into the bad, into the broken, into suffering, doubt, and loss. To follow the God who has been crucified is not to avoid the bad, but to search for God in it. It is not to be positive, but to call a thing what it is. It is not to be good, there is no goodness in the cross, it is hell, it is the death of God, it is complete destruction. We must follow God to the cross because from the place of what is, from the truth of brokenness, yearning and the suffering of our being and our world, God acts, God moves, God takes what is broken and impossible and brings it to life.

The model of adolescent faith is not the kid who can avoid the bad, but the kid who stares down the darkness in herself and in her world by seeking God in just such places. The model of adolescent faith is not shiny, happy kids, but honest kids, that in joy confess a God who works in backwards ways, in ways where the first are last, and the suffering are embraced, where all who taste death are promised God’s very presence. They are not good kids that avoid all that is bad, but faithful kids that go into the world to seek God in the real, in the reality of existence, which is both beautiful and horrible.

Youth ministry as accompaniment in darkness
Then youth ministry is not about keeping kids good, but accompanying them in facing darkness, in facing what is broken inside them and in the world. Youth ministry doesn’t seek to keep kids from going bad, but asks them to dwell in what is impossible, what is broken, what is hurting in them and in the world and seek God in its rawness. Then in a real way, youth ministry is not about concerning ourselves with kids going bad, but asserting that church kids must go bad. They must face what is bad, what is broken, what is raw in them; they must seek a God who is found in the death on the cross, splitting it through with life. It is only here that the very content of the Christian message (the desire to know only Christ and him crucified, as Paul says) matters to young people, for it is no longer a message that helps them be benignly good and positive, but rather it ushers them into a new way of seeing, acting, and being in the world. The content of the Christian message gives them a new way to see their context and reality itself. They are reminded that Christianity is for those with deep doubt—those that palpably yearn—for they seek a crucified God, they seek God in the hiddenness of the cross, in the hiddenness of their own broken humanity. Those who are brave enough to seek for God here are the models of adolescent faith, for their Christianity is not the cultural religion of goodness in the avoidance of the bad, but the thirsty yearning for some hope and possibility next to all the death in the world.

Paul is pushed up against the wall with the community at Corinth. This community in Paul’s first letter has so much potential, so many gifts, but in his second letter has become an overachieving, spiritually oppressive place. They are convinced that they are gifted and good, that they have made growth and advancement in the spiritual realm, their obsession. They refuse to see weakness. Their gospel has been warped to fit their pursuit for the happy and shiny. Too often, youth ministry is done in just such ways, seeking to move kids into spiritual elitism. But Paul will have none of this; he is being looked down on for being less than elite, less than spiritually advanced, for not being much. Paul then takes the turn that he believes all of Christianity rests on, the way of suffering and weakness as the way of God in Christ. In 2 Corinthians Paul reveals his thorn in the flesh, his place of impossibility. He reminds this spiritually elite community that the God of the cross meets us first in our impossibility, an impossibility that Paul knows in his own being. It will be in the darkness of his thorn in the flesh that Paul will do ministry. It will be in searching for God in brokenness that we will find God, not in our arms race for spiritual growth. But too often our youth ministries have looked more like Corinth, than thorny places of shared suffering.

Therefore what we do in youth ministry is not modifying behavior, not seeking positivity and happiness as signs of strong faith. Rather, our job is to dwell with young people in the thorniness of their existence, in their deep questions. We invite them to contemplate a very new way of seeing reality, a reality where from death comes life, a reality where God is found in suffering and our very suffering is a sacrament of God’s love and presence in our lives. Youth ministry is about opening up what is real to young people, asking them to seek God in their deepest questions and yearnings, to seek God in what is not good in them and in the world. We invite them, in the content and context of discipleship, to go bad—to focus on the raw, to focus on their broken humanity as the location of God’s very presence and activity in their lives and the world. 


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From Laura on April 20, 2010

Love this article!  Thanks for putting it into words so well.

Picture of Laura

From Laura on April 20, 2010

Love this article!  Thanks for putting it into words so well.

Laura Toepfer
Managing Director,
Confirm not Conform

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From Tomas Mojzis on April 21, 2010

Hey Andrew,
Although I started reading this article expecting affirmation of why church kids should not care about pursuing God and how it is inevitable that they will walk away from God….I was encouraged to hear the reality that we all should live in, whether we are youth or adults.  I have worked in youth ministry for about 14 years and there was a saying I used a lot.  “My hope is not that you are good church kids, but that you are radical for Jesus.”  I liked when you said that, “for it is no longer a message that helps them be benignly good and positive, but rather it ushers them into a new way of seeing, acting, and being in the world.”  I think goodness is an attribute of God and as such should emulate from a Christian life.  In reality, goodness is such a complex term that we define in very narrow ways to our demise.  I do believe that there is a point when we should confront a behavior that destructive to a person and possibly people around them.  I guess what I’m saying is that goodness as such is not the only, ultimate and final expression of Christ living in us, but it is part of it.  We just might define it different.  If all our kids are “good” and “in line” for God, then we lack those reaching the broken and hurting and we lack those able to stand in adversity and persecution.

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From Chandra on April 21, 2010

This article really touched me. I’m struggling with a teenage son who seems so…distracted by the flaws in himself that he, nor I, seem to be able to bring all the potential that’s there to life. Now I remember that it was never intended that we be able to do that; that’s who Jesus is and that’s what he does.


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From Chris on April 21, 2010

I appreciate this article, because it highlights the Theology of the Cross, which quite frankly, many evangelicals are clueless about , theirs is a “Theology of Glory” - to their own detriment.

The Lord is Drawn to us in our sin. That’s Gospel. There is no question. In many ways many youth ministry books are all about living for a God who will only come to the “good Kids.”

However, I do not think that Les is saying that, and does a nice job in his response. We care called to repentance - “go and sin no more”  The ELCA version of the Theology of the Cross seems to embrace sin (see the reprehensible decisions of the church wide assemblies in recent years). Andy wrote a nice article on Repentance recently , I like that thinking. I think there is LAW/ Gospel response to this, that a greater mind that I should write.

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From Sarah on April 21, 2010

Hey Andrew,

I was very impressed with what you had to say.  Finally, someone who “gets it”!

As has been mentioned your points are valid for adults as well as youth.

I read the response by Les Christie and see that same type of thinking that my husband and I have to endure in our church here as a pastoral couple. Of course God doesn’t leave us where He finds us but the point is that when and how and in what area of the life this happens depends entirely upon Him.  When the woman at the well left to tell everyone Who she had met, how good or changed was she?  It’s so easy to say that “of course we are all bad” but quite another thing to know what it is to operate from the place of ” weakness and suffering, brokenness and impossibility”.

Andrew, your article really resonates with me because I used to be that very person who was the “Corinthian” you mentioned.  Now that I am broken I pray that God will use me in His” impossible” work.  Thanks

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From Jon on April 21, 2010

Good article, but it doesn’t deal with the focus or contents of the book itself.  i have a hard time believing you actually read it if you are giving a critique from this angle.

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From Andy Root on April 21, 2010

Hey everyone, thanks for the comments.  Jon it isn’t a critique at all against Les’s book.  I like Les’s book.  The title (which Jen However thought of) just got me thinking—that’s the point, really nothing to do with the book.  And I agree with Thomas that goodness needs to fleshed out more theologically—I think we tend to see goodness (as good American consumers) as shiny moralism or something. 

Some of the other comments were really helpful and touching.  Thanks for reading this!

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From John Mulholland on April 21, 2010


I must have missed it.  Did you actually read the whole book? 

I thought it was excellent, not from a behavior management standpoint, but from a philosophical perspective.  Many of our students are not Christians, and this book provided me and my team the insight we needed to minister to them. 

I could care less if the kids that come here cuss here.  What I care about is how they treat one another and themselves at home.  If they come here and are perfect angels, but outside of this place are wicked pagans, then all we’ve done is make them good.  No thanks.

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From Laura on April 21, 2010

Amen John. That’s what I’m struggling with right now—how do we help them move toward integrity?

Andy, this is going up on my youth room wall…
Christianity is not about being good vs being bad, but about
“living in an altogether different reality
where from death comes life
where the God of glory is found in shadows
    in brokenness and yaerning
rendering brokenness and yearning impotent to determining our destiny.”
Wow. Thanks.

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From Spencer on April 29, 2010

Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit and is a natural outflow from student ministry that focuses not only on the salvation that Christ offers in the midst of our sinfulness but also on the redemptive nature of his death on the cross and his Holy Spirit which leads us to righteousness and holiness. The Gospel that Andrew offers is one of defeatism. It perceives that our kids are imperfect beings in a fallen world and then acts as though we should leave them there and “minister beside them.” Christianity has the power to redeem and a lack of goodness in the kids we minister to isn’t natural or necessary (see “Why Church Kids MUST Go Bad”).

The kids in my youth group hate their sin and their fallen state and desire to be transformed into increasing levels of holiness as they worship our God. Redemption into a good life is part of what we offer youth that they cannot find elsewhere. That goodness that we offer is invaluable and should not be tossed away so easily as it seems that it has been in this article.

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From Dave on May 04, 2010

Good article, Andrew, and good questions.  I don’t know that I totally agree with it, but I see where you’re coming from.

I read Les’ response as well.  I don’t think his response was off-base.  I just think you are both coming at this from different angles.  I would HOPE that you’re not suggesting that we run whole-heartedly into sin so that we can experience grace all the more (Les referenced Romans in response to this concept).

Having been in youth ministry for 20+ years, I have seen a trend (particularly in the last 5-6 years) to make our student ministries “edgy”—I don’t fully sign-on to this method.  I’m not “old-school” in my approach—Solomon told us that there is nothing new under the sun.

As a student who sat under Les’ teaching in my Youth Ministry courses at San Jose Christian College, I think I know his heart and vision for student ministry.  We need to be concerned about the “garbage” in our students’ lives.  We need to be REAL—that doesn’t mean we elevate sinful things, however. 

I don’t want “shiny” students—BUT—I do want CHANGED students—because when they come to Christ they are a NEW creation, the old has passed away.  Will I see some changes in their lives?  Absolutely.  Will they become more “good” as they walk with Christ?  I certainly hope so.  I don’t know if this means that they become “shiny” in your book, or not…  I guess I really don’t care.

We recognize that we’re all broken and needing God’s help in our lives through Jesus Christ.  I also realize that apart from God’s grace in my life, I could very well be mired in sin.  I need to die to self EVERY DAY—something I want my students to know. 

Last thing—fruit should be evident in our lives.  I once had a potty mouth—I don’t any longer—HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that those words still don’t come VERY quickly in my mind—for which I STILL need to repent and receive the Lord’s forgiveness.  God has cleaned me up some, but I am still a work in progress.

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From Paul Turner on May 11, 2010

I get it. Like titles of shows or movies inspire our sermons; Les’s book got Andy thinking.

I could not agree more with Andy. If I was only pleasing to God when I was happy or had it all together then I would be a sad disappointment.

I think this is why kids, and people in general, are so disillusioned by Christianity and Christ himself, they don’t see us work through our junk and come out the other side.

Faith is a struggle. We, as youth workers, preach high and lofty messages to our kids expecting that they should follow or emulate it on our best days and then plead mercy or the 5th Amendment on our worst.

The statement that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions is so true of youth ministry. Whatever model of discipleship we use or try to herd our student through, we must leave room for suffering, time to go back and find the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the son who who’s lost their way.

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From Rob Morris on June 04, 2010

I know it’s not easy to hear.  But we are, in fact, imperfect beings living in a fallen world.(Genesis 3)  The great news is that we have a savior that loves us anyway.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Hallelujah!!!  And on top of that He is willing to step into our lives and walk with us wherever that may be, good or bad.  He did it then, with sinners, the unclean, the outcast, etc…And he does it now. 

Les and Andy have led us into a great discussion.  A great way of changing our perspective on loving our students.  Jesus said that “in this world you will have trouble”.  We will experience imperfection in ourselves and others.  We will experience darkness and light.  We have to learn how to live in it and how to be Christians in the midst of it.  There are things that my students experience on a daily basis that I don’t and never had too.  Whatever we are dealing with in life whether it be shiny or dark, Jesus is there.  Knowing that is an awesome thing.  If our students know that Jesus and a few adults are there with them in their dark and shiny places.  I think that is very encouraging for them and for us.

The whole good-bad thing is a part of life.  If we are waiting for our students to be good enough to be a part of our ministries then we may have a long wait.  I’m glad that Jesus didn’t wait until I was good enough to save me.  On the other hand, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound, God forbid.”  We need to confront sin in our own lives and encourage students to address the sin in theirs.  Not for the sake of “being good”, but for the sake of righteousness.  Am I in a relationship with Christ because I feel obligated to be good or because in His great love He has made it possible for me to be righteous in spite of my badness. 

What the flagnog? What am I smokin?  It’s midnight and I think my brain just went to sleep, maybe I should too:)  Thanks Les and Andy for keeping the wheels turnin!

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From Heather Ward on June 06, 2010

I must admit I only came across this article searching on google for child development articles for an assignment but wow :)

I guess because I am a kid who looked into darkness growing up; even though we were brought up ‘good church kids’ :) When I went out on my own I went from church to church trying to find somewhere I felt I could fit in; somewhere I didn’t feel judged for being not perfect and in the end I gave up. I still believed but at the time I was just the ‘bad kid’ who didn’t fit in. I think life would have been substantially better for me if I had found a youth ministry who had first been able to accept me as I was before helping me to develop more with God, which was what I was craving. Unfortunately I know of a lot of ‘bad kids’ (now grown :) ), who had similar experiences with youth ministries and ended up giving up.

I am now a mum of two lil girls and have found such a church, thank you Lord, and as a family we have found an accepting, loving community who we can grow and develop with. ‘Bad kids’ don’t as a rule want to stay bad and everyone needs love and acceptance to progress in life and learn to follow God better. Loved the article, and I know many similar people who would love it too :)

Discussion are always good though hehe :)

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From Jill Craig on March 23, 2011

As a youth pastor I like the idea of this article, I love the idea of meeting kids where they are at, and acknowledging that there is brokenness in this world and that we do not need to gloss over it with happy Christianity.  The thing that makes me pause about this article is the idea that church kids must go bad.  To me it says the kids must do drugs and have sex and go against how Christ is calling us to live.  I do not believe that students need to go bad to reap the fullness of the gospel.  I do agree that we need to meet kids where they are at in their sinful state.  We can acknowledge their feelings, talk about the brokenness in the world, even invite them into that brokenness through serving opportunities, but let’s not encourage our students to be bad. Be in the mist of brokenness and accepting the reality of the world we live in is not being bad, it’s being realistic.  I say we need to encourage our church kids to be real, not bad.

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From Sarah on April 08, 2011


Out of curiosity, what do you think Andrew means when he uses the term, “go bad”?
Where does Andrew say or infer that they must experience drugs, sex or go against how Christ is calling us to live?
Where did Andrew encourage our students to be bad?

Perhaps I’m mistaken but it seems that some people are skimming the article and/or when they see certain key words their minds go off running in righteous indignation (and if that’s what Andrew is really meaning then I can see where there could be some cause for it).

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From Andy Root on April 15, 2011


thanks for the comment.  I think if people read carefully (or simply did more than skim) the article they’ll see by no means am I saying that we want kids to do drugs and commit violent crimes (honestly, wouldn’t it be crazy if I was?).  The point is all of us have deep questions and struggles that we must face (this is part of what it means to be human) and these questions and doubts and struggles should be the content of youth ministry.  Going bad means helping kids probe their existential depth in search of a God who suffers with and for them.  And this takes some nerve and the ability to avoid knee-jerk fear… the gospel is that God (that God!) has taken on the bad, that God is found in the bad, forsaken and beat on the cross, so in and thru our own struggle God might be forever found with us.

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