Home Youth Leaders Youth Leaders Blogs My Thoughts on the Documentary ‘Divided’

My Thoughts on the Documentary ‘Divided’

“every generation, in the history of the church, has had its defining issue. in our generation, the issue that’s facing the church is whether parents will be able to raise up a new generation for the future”

really? that’s our defining issue? you can’t think of any others?

that’s a direct quote from the documentary film ‘divided the movie.’ weeks ago, an online friend sent me a link to the film and asked if i knew i was in it, and what i thought of it. i’ll admit – i was kind of excited… until i watched it.

i’ve been sitting on this for weeks now, because i general try to avoid ripping on things in christendom (unless it’s snarky fun, like my old ‘jesus junk of the month’ awards). i know, or believe, that the creators of this film had good intentions. i believe — i choose to believe — that they were genuinely and rightly concerned about some stuff they saw in youth ministry and the church, and were motivated to use their trade to do something. and so much of what i think they were trying to say aligns with things i’ve been trying to say. all that to say, i really, really, really wanted to like this film. but i hated it.

i still wasn’t going to blog about it, though.

but i keep being asked about it (partially because i am in it, for about 5 seconds). i think people must assume i have something to do with it, or at least that the filmmakers had cleared it with me, or at least that the filmmakers had informed me. none of those assumptions would be true, i’m very sad (and slightly angry) to report.

the original guy who had contacted me knows the filmmakers. i do not. when i told him i was thinking about posting about it after all, he told me that he thought the makers would not be offended if i offered an honest critique, rather than just sarcasm or flippancy. that was a good gut-check, as my normal approach would have be a tendency to sarcasm or flippancy, at least some of the time. but resorting to sarcasm on this one is really just using a tool the filmmakers used that really frustrated me: tearing down straw men. more on that in second.

here’s the film’s website, where, at least at this point, you can watch the entire movie online. you can decide for yourself, and not agree with my slant. if you watch the bonus material clips, you’ll see more truth about this “film” revealed, which is that it’s less of a film, and more of an extended promo piece for the national center for family integrated churches.

so. the basic premise of the film is that parents should be responsible for the spiritual nurture and upbringing of their children and teenagers. good. i’m with them there. and we have plenty of research now (in addition to theology) that backs up the impact of parents taking the leading role. good. they also contend that isolating teenagers from the rest of the church is harmful to them. good. i’m with ‘em on that one too. and, they say that intergenerational relationships are key. yup. go get ‘em! let’s preach together!


the problems from there on out are so numerous i hardly know where to start (and certainly don’t know where to end). but let’s start with that straw man thing. if you’re not familiar with the phrase, the idea is that it’s easy to tear down an idea or set of ideas if you construct a fake version of the idea in the first place. that approach is employed throughout the film. some examples:

– the oddly earnest young adult narrator (whom we can only assume is present in the film to give it a sense of ‘i’m one of them’, but who instead comes across as a puppet of some adult with a bigger agenda) interviews teenagers at a state fair like event (is it a christian festival? i think it was), asking about their various beliefs. from the three or four we’re shown, we are to conclude that all teenagers are going to hell in a handbasket. conclusion aside, the methodology of showing us a few selected camera-in-your-face interviews with teenagers, given pop-quiz questions about their faith in front of their peers, is hardly research. you got on a plane to film that?

– same thing is true for the filmmaker’s visit to the simply youth ministry conference. i’ve never been to this event (sure hope to someday!), but i know it’s a good event. i thought the filmmakers portrayed youth workers as idiots. and there’s not much more infuriating to me that that kind of set up.

– there’s a giant rabbit trail fairly early on about how many teenagers no longer believe in a literal 6 day creation. this is offered as the ‘shocking proof’ that we’re in deep doo-doo, and is corroborated only by ‘experts’ who would be promoting this point of view themselves.

– in fact, throughout the entire film, the ‘experts’ (who are all from an extremely right wing edge of the church; there’s not even a moderate interviewed (well, other than the clip of me!)) are there to offer soundbite, emotionally packed, fear-tinged, support of the film’s points, points which are–in theory–being suggested by a 19 year old in a snappy vest with a big travel budget. that math is not working, on any level.

when you construct straw men, then tear them down, it’s all very easy to be mean-spirited (which this film is), cocky (which this film is), and protective of your biases (which this film is). in fact, i think i can safely say that the whole thing is extremely manipulative (a lie?). for the narrator to say that he wonders about some things, and he’s setting off on a quest to find answers, becomes an obvious falsehood. there was no honest inquiry here. there was no genuine journalism. what there seems to have been is a well-funded donor with a pre-determined set of agenda items.

i was deeply bothered by this one underlying thrust that eventually got said in clear words more than once, even put on the screen in text:
‘there’s not a shred of evidence from genesis to revelation that age-segregated programmatic youth ministry ever existed.’

so? what a completely absurd claim! but it kills me, because there could have been some good stuff in there — i agree we have too much age segregation! i agree our youth ministries have been too program focused! but saying this approach to youth ministry is wrong because it’s not found in the bible?

ok, first of all, ask a jew how children and teenagers are trained in spiritual matters. you are not, i promise, going to hear a story about nuclear families (the way they’re defined in america, btw — not the way families were understood by a single original reader of the bible) doing all the work. kids were sent to training with a rabbi. at least through age 12 or so, when they were bar-mitzvah’d. and that was about the age at which they were expected to begin functioning as apprentice adults in that culture. and when the family was involved (certainly, they were, as all of culture revolved around the extended family relationship at that time), it wasn’t just dad (which increasingly, becomes the cry of this film, near the end. moms seem to fall by the wayside as the film progresses, leaving kids without dads SOL), it was a freakin’ clan! grandparents and aunts and uncles and that weird cousin benny. why do you think jesus’ parents weren’t worried about him for 2 whole days when he wasn’t with them on the trek home from jerusalem? was that a failure on joseph’s part?

secondly, let me list a small, non-exhaustive list of things most likely found in the churches and theologies of the filmmakers (many of which are in my church and theology also) for which ‘there’s not a shred of evidence from genesis to revelation’:
– baptismal pools
– church buildings
– hired clergy
– church budgets
– the word ‘trinity’ (though i certainly believe the concept is there)
– church busses
– sound systems
– children’s ministry
– men’s ministry
– women’s ministry
– senior adult ministry
– christian radio

i’m going to stop there, before i actually get snarky (that wasn’t, believe me). to say that youth ministry has to go away because our approach to youth ministry isn’t found in the bible is what, ultimately, pushed me to post on this.

if you read my post from last week, thanking youth workers for their work, on behalf of a dad, you’ll see some of my (righteous) anger surfacing.

let me try to land the plane here. yes, there are problems with the approach we’ve developed for youth ministry in the past four or five decades. i hope The Youth Cartel can do something about some of those. but the issues are much more complicated that simply pulling kids out of youth ministry, or shutting down your church youth ministry. i think youth ministry needs to change (that’s why The Youth Cartel is all about ‘instigating a revolution in youth ministry’); but i think youth ministry needs to stick around. yes, for those countless teenagers who do not have parents who will take the lead (i almost broke my ‘t’ key when i just typed ‘do not’, i was typing so hard!). but not just for them. i need youth ministry to stick around for MY CHILDREN! and, darn it, the guys who were in my last small group were from awesome homes, all with 2 original parents, all of whom were highly engaged in the faith development of their teenage boys. and i PROMISE YOU (YES, I’M YELLING) THAT EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THOSE PARENTS WOULD SAY THEY (AND THEIR SONS) NEEDED ME.


i want us all to talk about this stuff, because i think it’s massively important. i applaud the filmmakers for taking a risk. frankly, i’d enjoy some healthy and feisty dialogue. we should do a panel on this at some youth ministry event! “Divided over Divided the Movie” i pray a blessing, not a curse, on their heads. and i hope that somehow, as god has done over and over and over again through my flawed messages, that god will use your film to draw parents into relationship with their teenager sons and daughters. if that’s the result, i will will praise god with you. if it’s not, maybe we can still praise god together.

after i wrote this post, i discovered that my friend walt mueller, of the center for parent/youth understanding, wrote a fantastic post on divided a week ago. honestly, it’s a much better post than the one you’ve just read, and i encourage you to read it.

(btw, the filmmakers make an attempt to address some of my arguments in the FAQ section of their site, but not adequately, in my opinion.)