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Is Youth Group a Hospital?

07 Oct Spiritual Formation | Comments Off on Is Youth Group a Hospital?
Is Youth Group a Hospital?

I’ve been to the emergency room exactly four times in my life:

  • Once as a little kid when I needed stitches in my forehead after sleep-waking into the corner of a piece of furniture
  • Once as a teenager when I got kicked in the head.
  • Once as a youth ministry volunteer when I broken my ankle jumping off of a garage roof dressed in a turkey costume
  • Once as a college student when I cut off the tip of my middle finger.

These experiences have led me to a pretty sound conclusion:

Nobody enjoys going to the emergency room.


The emergency room is a scary, desperate place we go to when things get really bad. It’s where we go when we’ve run out of options and we need to be fixed. It’s where we go when we have a problem that we can’t ignore anymore. At that point, we don’t have the strength to fight, barter, or negotiate. We simply come and receive whatever medicine or procedure that is prescribed because we know we need it.

An Emergency Room for Grace

Steve Almquist, the senior pastor of Living Word Community Church where I served as a youth pastor for several years, has a favorite analogy for the church. He loves referring to it as an “Emergency Room for Grace.”

People come in bleeding out, broken and weary from whatever wounds they’re bearing, wounds caused by their own sins or the sins of others. They come in desperate for healing and there they find a Savior that offers grace in abundance. It’s a beautiful and captivating thought.

But I think we can take the analogy a few steps further. After all, a hospital isn’t just an emergency room, and in the long run, no one stays in the emergency room indefinitely. You eventually (sometimes after far too long of a wait) are either admitted to the hospital or discharged for follow-up. A good doctor or nurse knows that we need to keep people moving for them to experience healing.

A Spiritual Hospital

I was re-reading Dallas Willard’s classic Renovation of the Heart the other week and came across an appropriate quotation that expands on this analogy:

“The local group of disciples, in the usual case, will certainly have people at all stages of the journey. They can be compared to hospitals, with people at various stages of recovery and progress toward health. Some will be undergoing radical surgery or other strong treatment. Some will be in ICU. Others will be taking their first wobbly steps after a lengthy time bed-ridden. And others will be showing the flush of health and steady strength as they get ready to resume their ordinary life.

Parallels to these stages should be found in every church, and explicitly recognized and treated as such. And in addition, there would be those who are stepping out strongly in strength of life that far exceeds just not being ‘sick’ (sick-ridden), and there would be old warriors with many battle scars and many victories, with the steady gleam of ‘a better country’ (Hebrews 11:16) in their eye.” – Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, pg. 234.


Youth Group as ER, Rehab, and Wellness Center

All of this has left me with a question, “Is a youth ministry a hospital?” Does Willard’s analogy hold up in a largely age-segregated ministry context or are we something else? I started thinking about the various students and leaders involved in our community. They certainly fall across the spiritual health spectrum. Some are thriving and full of vigor, others seem like they are on spiritual life-support.

It also made me think about the various relationships, environment, and treatments we offered students. Do we offer an emergency room of grace? Do we also offer a rehabilitation center where students can strengthen and train spiritual muscles? Do we have a wellness center that promotes growth for the healthy? Do students in my ministry get the chance to interact with the “old warriors” as Dallas described them?

These are some deeply strategic questions veiled in analogy, but they get to some important principles that we would do well not to forget:

  1. We don’t treat every patient with the same medicine.
  2. We develop clear steps for patients to take on the road to recovery.
  3. We need a team of care-providers that are equipped to help patients heal. Some care-providers are specialists and others are general practitioner.

As you think about the student ministry that you lead or work with, how would you answer these questions? How do you see these principles being lived out in your midst and are there ways for you to be more intentional with them?

Many teens experience church for the first time as an emergency room of grace, but we don’t leave them there. We introduce them to the great physician and then walk with them as they heal and grow into new life.

Aaron Brown
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Aaron Brown is an Assistant Professor of Student Ministry at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. He attended Biola University and Talbot School of Theology. Before coming to LBC, he was the Sr. High Director at Living Word Community Church in Red Lion, PA. Aaron serves as the Project's editor and web guy.