November 17, 2016

Tozer, youth ministry, and a plug nickle

by Jesse Johnson

Image result for 70s game show hostsRecently I was reading an Al Mohler book on preaching (He is Not Silent), and came across a series of A. W. Tozer’s laments about the decline of theology in the typical evangelical pulpit. Tozer rings prophetic as he diagnosed this negative trend consistently and for decades.

Tozer (d. 1963) points back to the dumbing down of youth ministry as the moment that the cancer of non-doctrinal preaching entered evangelicalism. When youth pastors began to fancy themselves as professional entertainers, they prepared the students to disassociate theology from church:  

We have the breezy, self confident Christians with little affinity for Christ and his cross. We have the joy-bell boys that can bounce out there and look as much like a game show host as possible. Yet they are doing it for Jesus’ sake?! The hypocrites! They’re not doing it for Jesus’ sake at all; they are doing it in their own carnal flesh and are using the church as a theater because they haven’t yet reached the place where the theater would take them. (Tozer on Worship and Entertainment).

He then watches that cancer work its through the body as those youth pastors became pastors, and those students either left the faith or became comfortable with a faith that didn’t challenge:

It is now [1960’s] common practice in most evangelical churches to offer the people, especially the young people, a maximum of entertainment and a minimum of serious instruction. It is scarcely possible in most places to get anyone to attend meeting where the only attraction is God. One can only conclude that God’s professed children are bored with Him, for they must be wooed to meeting with a stick of striped candy in the form of religious movies, games and refreshments.

This has influenced the whole pattern of church life, and even brought into being a new type of church architecture designed to house the golden calf.

So we have the strange anomaly of orthodoxy in creed and heterodoxy in practice. The striped-candy technique has been so fully integrated into our present religious thinking that hit is simply taken for granted. Its victims never dream that it is not a part of the teachings of Christ and His apostles.

Any objection to the carryings-on of our present golden calf Christianity is met with the triumphant reply, “But we are winning them!” And winning them to what? To true discipleship? To cross-carrying? To self-denial? To separation from the world? To crucifixion of the flesh? To holy living? To nobility of character? To a despising of the worlds’ treasures? To hard self-discipline? To love for God? To total committal to Christ? Of course, the answer to all these questions is “no.” (Man, the Dwelling Place of God).

As young people grew up, reared in a church that was even physically structured to entertain, it produced congregations that didn’t have a hunger for theology. The result is a dumbing down of evangelicalism:

We have simplified until Christianity amounts to this: God is love; Jesus died for you; believe, accept, be jolly, have fun and tell others. And away we go—that is the Christianity of our day. I would not give a plug nickel for the whole business of it. Once in a while God has a poor bleeding sheep that manages to live on that kind of thing, and we wonder how. (Rut, Rot…Revival).

So for pastors and youth workers, it is worth reminding ourselves that if people are drawn to church with frivolity, then—assuming they stay—that appetite will follow them as they grow. Youth groups should be fun—even Tozer would grant that!—but if the games edge out doctrinal instruction, that vacuum won’t magically be filled when (if) the students become members.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • 4Commencefiring4

    When I was growing up (boy, I’m just reflecting on how long ago that was–it’s depressing)–and I went to church, the atmosphere there was quite different than what I see today.

    While it was a mainline denomination, there was something else there that seems to be missing today (at least for me): a sense of quiet reverence. “Be still and know that I am God.”

    People came to church dressed like they knew that’s where they were going, not looking like it was a Sunday ball game at the park. They came in, sat in a pew, and waited quietly for the service to begin, perhaps finding the hymns we would be singing (for those born after about 1990, “hymns” are classical religious compositions that have been around for ages and which your grandparents sang in church. They tend to be heavy on theology and light on words like “just” and “gonna.”)

    They didn’t bring their coffees and snacks into the service. In fact, they arrived in the parking lot sans any food because they’d eaten breakfast that morning at home–which is what, in my naivete, I believed we did in America. There was no eating in church; it just wasn’t done, and no one had to say so. Obviously, this was ages before hand-held devices, so no one’s face was lit up with them in church and we weren’t taking calls while the sermon was going on. We used printed materials, whether hymnals (just look it up, kids–it’s the book in the pew rack that’s never taken out), or the Bible.

    As the service progressed and we sang #223, a pipe organ played the intro and we all participated–including choirs dressed in something called “choir robes.” Electric guitars? Uh, no. Drums? Pul–leeze. If there was a soloist during the offertory, she didn’t have a big finish that brought the house down, no one applauded when it was over (we neither ate, nor drank, nor applauded in church), and there was a focus on the holy nature of God–not on how spectacular the singer was. We knew about “performances” before adoring audiences (the Beatles on Ed Sullivan having set the everlasting standard there), but church was supposed to be different. And it was.

    And you know what? Children’s choirs learned–and performed–those same serious hymns by Bach and Handel (two guys you might want to look up also, kids), not hop-skip-jump tunes that today we assume are the only things kids’ choirs can sing.

    In short, Tozer is onto something. Yes, I know his observations are more regarding the content of preaching today as opposed to back in the day, but in an attempt to be “relevant” and “attractive” to the unchurched, other things have also gotten watered down coincident with that and attention spans are being shortened. As Duke Ellington put it, things just ain’t what they used to be. And it’s a cryin’ shame.

    • robertetozier

      As a teen my son wore a tie to church Sunday morning. Someone asked him if something special was going on. “Um, yeah,” he said, thinking of the worship service.

      • Matthew

        Some may not be able to afford to spend money on clothes that will only be used only on Sundays.

    • The book “The Juvinilization of American Christianity” is a must read on this topic. If you haven’t read it, you should. You’d love it.

    • 072591

      I am sure that for some, it was reverence. However, human nature being what it is, I suspect that for more people, what is called reverence is simply ritual.

      And rituals have a big impact on helping to compartmentalize life. How many of the people dressed special for their Sunday ritual left and went back to their normal, irreverent life after the ritual was done?

      More than the people linging fof “the good old days” would care to admit.

      • Karl Heitman

        //”what is called reverence is simply ritual.”//

        That’s a fair point. I think the reason why worship style is a never-ending debate in evangelicalism is because the line between reverent and ritual is fine and somewhat subjective. There’s something to be said, however, about the way we act, sing, think, and dress in corporate worship because those external fruits are a manifestation of what’s in the heart, which is really what matters.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        You’re dead on, and I admit that I was one of them at the time (teenager; need I say more?) I would later find Christ in college (or He found me, if you will), but I’ve longed for a worship service ever since where I didn’t feel as though I needed to buy a ticket at the door to see the show.

        I appreciate all the hard work “worship leaders” (formerly called “ministers of music”) are expected to do these days, but I’m regretfully coming to the conclusion that there’s just no such thing anymore as a church where there’s solid expository teaching coupled with the great hymns of the faith, played on a pipe organ that rattles my fillings loose and brings me to tears.

        I’d start my own such church, but I can’t afford the organ and I’d be a lousy preacher. Other than that….

        • Lynn B.

          There are multiple reasons for the change in culture and dress within the church. Two more…

          Our society overall is less formal today than in bygone years. When women dressed in hats and gloves for church, they were also dressing in skirts and hats to visit the doctor or bank or to go out for dinner. Times have changed.

          Some made a conscious effort to put off some of the formality in church in an effort to put aside legalism and maybe we have gone too far. Balanced is always the hardest place to find.

  • Matthew

    And this is why I refuse to compromise in my youth ministry. I will not have those coming up in the church think it’s all about them and their entertainment.

    Oh, and guess what, the kids LOVE hearing the Word of God. They crave what God has written, and they don’t need the sugary fluff that most “youth groups” (read: social gatherings) use to bring them in.

  • Jason

    When I’ve attended study groups in the past that spend most of their time on man-centered doctrines (health and wealth, etc…) I was desperate for the next “game night”.

    However, I would be disappointed if the study groups I’m in now decided to do the same. We’re social in the best way possible. We share our burdens, speak truth to one another, and grow up together. This is the fellowship that the world can never offer.

    I’m not surprised so many congregations are moving over to more socializing and less Christian fellowship, though. People with itching ears like socializing just fine, and at least this way you don’t have that embarrassing moment where some guy with a smidgen of discernment starts asking questions.

    • The fellowship vs. socializing distinction is a good one I hadn’t thought of before. Thanks Jason.

      • Jason

        This got me thinking a bit more. The difference is that we can socialize with just about anyone, but we can only fellowship with those who hold to a shared ideal.

        It seems related to the compromises we see in the ecumenical movement. People would rather just avoid situations where we all have to be of one mind. What does that say about the state of such congregations?

        “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Philippians 2:1-2

        • Jane Hildebrand

          Makes me also think of the verse, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)

  • Gary Fore

    Youth groups should be fun—even Tozer would grant that!

    How do you actually even defend this statement? Of course I am not speaking of morbid and drab, but why do we think that gathering for study of the Word, even as youth, “should be fun”. That is not the purpose for the gathering – unless it really is and we refuse to admit it, even supposedly good youth ministries.

    Where is the scripture to defend “fun”?



    • Because kids are fun. Childhood is fun. Relax, breathe, smile, and hang out. Just maybe don’t structure church around it.

      • Gary Fore

        My question remains. The purpose of the gathering is not fun, supposedly, but to impart life giving Word/discipleship.

        So, forget all the generalizations you just made- why do we even use the word “fun” in this setting. How do we theologically defend it? Somehow, I don’t think Tozer would, though you say he would?

        Not talking about stoddy, stiff and cold, but the “fun” mentality. This is a problem that we seem unwilling to admit cannot be supported in the Word.

        • Lynn B.

          Gary: I wonder to you believe that fun has any place in the Christian’s life or do you only take issue with the concept in relationship to the function of the local church?

          • Gary Fore


            It is amazing that you, nor Jesse read my words clearly. I make it clear in both posts that I did not mean stiff, cold, drab, morbid, etc. I simply asked Jesse to defend his statement with scripture that “Youth groups should be fun – even Tozer would grant that!”

            Of course there is joy in young people, energy, etc…, but the whole concept of gathering youth “for fun” and then trying to sanctify it with scripture so that it is justified, is the order of the last 75 years. And even in reformed circles, all too often, the gatherings are really about “fun”, more than anything else. Sort of like the division in ideas between happy and joy. Happy is no where promised in the Word of God, but joy is. Rejoicing and the associated benefits is promised and promoted in the Word of God, in like manner, I see the pattern of rejoicing, etc in the church, family and individual christian life, but I see no where where “fun” as defined by youth ministry is affirmed in the Word.

            All I asked Jesse, essentially was to stop and think about his words – are they defensible biblically. I questioned it honorably and honestly.

            We have a big family with lots of chaos, laughing, troubles and all the stuff of life, so I know all about youth. I am asking about continuing to use the word “fun” in youth ministry – is it biblically justified, really, or is it a corruption from the culture that we keep hanging onto? Is it edifying our youth to continue holding onto this concept?

            A legit question.


          • Lynn B.

            Gary: How did I misread? God’s Word gives us all we need for life and godliness and then quite a lot of liberty. At no time in history has the common man had the luxury of time and money for fun as we have in the West today so I would not expect it to be addressed directly in the Word.

            This is where I am coming from… In the providence of God 60-plus years ago, I was born into a difficult family life and I believe with all my heart not only did my church youth group ground me spiritually in the Word but it literally kept me alive when suicide or gross sin would otherwise have been where I turned. Our regular activities were choir including trips to the inner-city rescue mission to sing, Bible studies and prayer, an assortment of ministry opportunities, as well as the usual Sunday School and Worship. We also had regular singspirations that were informal and fun but also significantly spiritually based. But sometimes we had plain ole’ knock-down drag-out fun like a Roaring Twenties Ice Cream Social complete with costumes and corny games.

            I’m not in favor of having WWE exhibitions to allure people into the church, but I do strongly support healthy fun for the church family of all ages but especially for the youth. There is no formula but I have also been part of a church that prided itself in not having a youth group and everything centered around the family. We can debate if that is best for cohesive family units but I can tell you it was devastating for teens from broken homes or with unbelieving parents. There was little to no fellowship for those kids who arguably needed it as much or more than most.

        • Brent

          Where does the Word support that the gathering should not be fun? We should clarify what we mean by fun or nobody will benefit from this.

    • Well, you may have a point. Jordan Standridge found me this quote from Tozer today:

      “And because it’s up the hill toward the shining peak yonder we stop and say, “Lord, could I do it conveniently or would it upset the pattern of my life?” Shame on us! We’re not worthy to be called by His name! And then there are those still weaker who never grew up spiritually at all. They say, “Is it fun?” We want to know : is it fun to follow the Lord?’ And there are some of these weak sisters — and you know there are ‘weak sisters’ of the male sex too — there are ‘old maids’ that are masculine, that is, the doctor said,‘it’s a boy’but he had his finger crossed really. They’re not men, they’re just half-way in between and there’s an awful lot that say, “Oh, it’s fun to serve Jesus!” I haven’t found it so, brother! I haven’t found it so. I’ve found it a fight and a battle and a labor and a struggle; joy, yes, joy and tears of joy but I haven’t found it fun! If you’re looking for fun, in God’s name, why aren’t you bold enough and courageous enough and honest enough to leave the church and religion and quit hanging around! If you’re looking for fun, go to the world! They’ll give you fun … until they bury you with a slab over you! But if you want to serve Christ, you don’t come to Christ looking for fun! Jesus Christ, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross! But the joy was before Him. We want the fun … is it fun?”

      • Gary Fore


        Good quote. Tozer did say it better than I did. I do not mean that Christianity has no joy and no times of refreshment and in some sense “fun”. But we all know what is typically meant by “fun” even when it is stated at church in youth gatherings. Our pastor recently began a study on discipleship and urged younger families and younger folks to come back on Sun nite for this time of instruction – prior to this, only the middle age and seniors came faithfully. However, for bait, he added a fun meal after each service on Sunday nites – now they all come again. I suspect when the fun meals stop, we will be back to those few who were really interested all along. So much for “fun”.

        I sound stodgy, I know, but I think it is unwise to use the word “fun” much in our modern Christian church life. It is something the world offers that the true Christian life never offers as a fruit or gift.

        That is why I raised the question. Joy in Christ with quiet peace abiding in my soul that He is directing and leading his people and still saving souls is far better. Living this in front of others, including our youth, is the best discipleship.


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  • Ray Adams

    Enjoyed you bringing Tozer to us to remind of the true focus of worship. Amazing that someone who died 53 years ago describes a malady present now. But that’s the way with truth – timeless. This is an excellent reminder that we must worship in spirit and in truth. Thank you.

  • Frank

    Jesse, if possible I would be glad if you could try to answer7comment the questions of Ben and Alf in your last article “punitive-singleness”. Please excuse for posting thisrequest off topic. Thank you very much

    • On my way. Forgot about that thread. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Tozer was so prophetic about many things in American (so-called) Christendom. If he were here today, he would be soundly denounced and would hardly have a place to preach. His books, like The Pursuit of God and God’s Pursuit of Man, enjoy a sizable readership. However, this has not translated to any meaningful reform in the ‘so-called’ church. I sat under a pastor for 10 years who spent the majority of his life and ministry under the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.

    Anyone who knows anything about the founder AB Simpson, knows that this was a saintly man who wrote over 100 books Not at all a deep theologian like a Calvin or Luther; nevertheless he wrote movingly about “The Larger Christian Life,” and the believer living the Luke 9:23-26 crucified life. AW Tozer came from this rich tradition and preached as such. My former pastor was very glib in quoting Tozer often in his sermons. But in terms of the “application” of what Tozer taught, it was a different manner.

    In the 10 years I sat under his ministry, I saw the church drift ever swifter into “seeker-friendly” programming for youth, young couples, and established christians. The music quickly went from contemporary-reverent, to all out rock and roll. In short, for many readers of Tozer, such as my former pastor, his words are bu an ideal; a nice shiny object that sits on the mantelpiece of our spirituality to admire and worship. But the actual “orthopraxy” of the orthodoxy (a favorite saying of this pastor) was literally non-existent.

  • One word about this article and reminder: FABULOUS!!

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