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Megachurch leader Francis Chan asks if our churches are just zoos

Are our churches just keeping children and young people in ‘cages’ until they’re 18 and can be released into ministry? This was the question posed by Francis Chan, church leader and author from the Chinese Missions Convention in Canada. And it got us thinking…

Francis Chan recalled a conversation he had with a fellow pastor about the 2005 film Madagascar, the animation that tells the tale of various zoo animals escaping to make a new life for themselves on an island off the coast of Africa.

The analogy of animals escaping a zoo was used to describe the state of the Church. Francis Chan saw people being kept in ministry ‘cages’ according to their age and life stage. There’s the children’s ministry cage, the youth work cage, the married couples cage. From their cages, people only survive by weekly ‘feeding’ from their church.

He said: “I know how it can be in a Chinese culture. We can take our kids and go ‘you know what? Just study for now, get good grades, we’ll do missions later. We’ll do ministry later.’ We have to start thinking… how do we release [young believers]? … Or do we just want to keep them in their cage?”

Are we guilty of intentionally or unintentionally doing the same in our youth and children’s ministry? Or are we working against a church culture that does so? One that sees the young people as waiting on the side lines to be adults before they can be trusted with things like mission and evangelism.

Francis Chan was reminded of the moment where the Lion named Alex was freed from the zoo to discover his animal instincts in Madagascar. The adventure of it helps him work out his identity.

He advocates the gifts of young people and encourages churches to see their potential: “I just wonder if we have not missed out on the power of their prayer because we wanted to keep them in a cage ‘til they were 18 rather than raising and releasing the next generation of Kingdom builders. I want to see them transform their campuses and I believe they can do it.”

Francis Chan clearly feels something is missing from the churches he is acquainted with. He left the California megachurch he founded in 2010 for reasons similar to the problem he is lamenting here. He found it was partly to do with the frustration of seeing members simply sitting and listening to his sermons each week, but apathetic to use the gifts God provided them with.

I wonder what Francis Chan’s musings looks like in practice here in the UK. Here at Premier Yoth and Children’s Work, we see ministry as being by young people, for young people, with young people. We regularly hear stories of ministries that do exactly that.

But we also know how hard it can be to actually achieve this. As youth and children’s workers we can often do so against a wider church culture that misses the potential of its youngest members. We also know it takes a lot more time and effort to actually achieve this. When such commodities are precious, it can fall by the wayside in the wake of just keeping the day-to-day ministry running. And if we aren’t short on time, our young people can be. Radical everyday discipleship is tempered and sometimes hampered by the busy schedules of our young people, their parents and their schools.

If you feel your ministry has inadvertently turned into a bit of a zoo, why not get inspired by the latest issue of YCW mag? Take some time to pray for guidance on the gifts of your young people individually and how they can get involved in running their church.

If you feel your ministry has young lions freely running their church, then why not let us know about it by email (ycw@premier.org.uk), twitter or facebook?

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