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Dear Evangelical Church Leaders: It’s Time to Get Rid of Your Youth Pastors and Youth Departments

youth ministry

Evangelical church leaders — from garden variety Evangelicals to Southern Baptists, and from Charismatics to Independent Fundamentalist Baptists — are scrambling to contain the sexual abuse wildfire before it consumes their churches and ministries. If it weren’t for the fact that countless children, teenagers, and adults have been psychologically and physically harmed, I would stand on the sidelines and wildly cheer as Evangelicalism is reduced to a pile of ashes. But there are victims to consider here, so I won’t stand — with a garden hose hooked to a gasoline delivery truck in hand — and watch the fire burn. My view of Evangelicalism is well known — especially the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist wing. I “pray” for Evangelicalism’s swift and painful death, and I would be happy to hold a pillow over its face as it draws its last breath. Alas, the current sexual abuse scandal is unlikely to make Evangelicals run from their churches. The deep emotional ties people have with their churches, pastors, beliefs, and practices make it unlikely that there will be a soon-coming mass exodus. If eighty-two percent of voting Evangelicals can vote for a vile man such as Donald Trump and still think they are “Christian,” it is highly unlikely that these followers of Jesus will abandon their churches over sex abuse scandals. I am not suggesting that Evangelicals don’t care about sexual abuse victims — many of them do — but most of them don’t care enough to abandon their churches. One need only look at the Roman Catholic Church to see that it takes more than clerics diddling children for Christians to desert their churches.

With that in mind, what can Evangelicals do to lessen the risk of their children/teenagers being sexually assaulted, raped, or otherwise taken advantage of by so-called men of God? One thing Evangelical churches can do is fire their youth pastors and dismantle their youth departments. When it comes to men raping, sexually molesting, or grooming teenagers for future sexual contact, one church position comes up over and over — youth pastor/youth leader. I have posted scores of news stories about youth pastors who have used their positions of authority and power to take sexual advantage of impressionable teenagers. (Please see the Black Collar Crimes Series.)

Decades ago, it was common for families to worship together on Sundays. Today, children and teenagers are often split from their families, attending church services/programs structured and designed for their age group. It is not uncommon for children/teenagers to not worship at all with their families. Some parents love this because it means they don’t have to fight with their children over their poor behavior during church. Let the youth pastor or junior church leaders deal with their hellions. “Adult” church is viewed by children/teenagers as boring. Who wants to listen to preaching and sing old-fashioned hymns, right? Churches, ever fearful of losing the next generation, develop programs that appeal to children/teenagers. Rock/hip-hop music, “relevant” sermonettes for Christianettes, games, and clowning around make for awesome church services, right?

Youth pastors focus on the felt needs of young congregants, often talking about the importance of keeping oneself sexually pure until marriage. Youth departments are populated with sexually aware 13-18-year-old youths. Often, their youth pastors/youth leaders are not much older than they are. And therein lies the problem. Churches isolate teenagers from their parents and put them under the charge of young men who are often still in their twenties or early thirties. Raging hormones are the norm, and it is not uncommon for teen girls (and boys) to become infatuated with their handsome, youthful pastors. This infatuation makes them easy targets for youth pastors who want to groom them and use them for personal sexual gratification.

Teens will often tell their youth pastors secrets, including their struggles with remaining sexually pure. Remember, Evangelicals believe that premarital sex is sinful, and all forms of sexual activity before marriage, including masturbation, are forbidden by God. No matter how sexually “stirred up” teens might be, they are told by their youth pastors that God forbids them from seeking physical release through masturbation. Youths are told, thou shalt hold on until Jesus provides you with the right mate. Imagine “holding on” until you are in your mid-twenties or later without ever masturbating or having sex. Of course, as it was with teens in my generation, so it is today — the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Most Evangelical teens will masturbate and engage in some form of sexual activity before they marry. This SHOULD be viewed as normal, healthy behavior, but in Evangelical churches teens will be repeatedly preached at about “giving in” to their fleshly desires. Deep down, church leaders know that it is unlikely that their teenagers will save themselves for marriage. After all, they didn’t.

Based on what I shared above, it is not hard to see that Evangelical churches are making it way too easy for predatory youth pastors/youth leaders to take sexual advantage of the churches’ teenagers. Youth pastors engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with their charges is so common, that the only way to keep teenagers safe is for churches to fire their youth pastors and shutter their youth departments, returning teenagers to the safety of sitting with their parents on Sundays. In 2005, Polly and I, along with our three younger children, attended Pettisville Missionary Church in Pettisville, Ohio. Our two oldest sons also attended this church. One Sunday, after we had been attending for a month or so, the church’s youth pastor came up to me and asked if our youngest children would be interested in attending services geared to their age groups. While I was sure my children wanted to attend these services, I told the youth pastor that I believed families should worship together on the Lord’s Day. What I didn’t tell him was that I had no intention of letting my children out of my sight. Call me a cynic, if you wish, but the only way I knew to protect my children from sexual predators while at church was to make sure they sat with Polly and me during services. Overly protective? Maybe. But, by 2005 I was at the “better safe than sorry” place in my life. I knew of too many stories about children and teenagers being sexually molested while under the care of nursery workers, junior church leaders, youth pastors, and pastors. If that meant my children were the only youths sitting in the “adult” church service, so be it. I wasn’t aware of anything going on at Pettisville Missionary, but I was not willing to put my children in the care of people I didn’t know.

I had known some youth pastors (and senior pastors) who were way too friendly with their church’s teenagers. Innocent familiarity? Perhaps, but I knew that sometimes such familiarity led to inappropriate sexual conduct; that more than a few youth pastors lost their jobs over coming on to church teenagers or taking sexual advantage of them. Our children (and grandchildren) were/are the most precious thing in our lives, and I, for one, was unwilling to put them in harm’s way; even if that meant we were “different” from everyone else. Better to be different than have to explain to an adult son or daughter why I didn’t protect them. Yes, I know that it is impossible to protect our children from everything and everyone that might harm them, but surely we can agree that we ought not to make it easy for sexual predators to have access to them. There was a time when I thought the cure to the “youth pastor problem” was to have youth leaders who were older adults. Now, however, after reading hundreds of news stories about older church leaders/pastors preying on children and taking sexual advantage of teenagers, I think that’s a bad idea too. For me, anyway, Evangelical churches are dangerous places, both psychologically and physically. If you, the reader, must continue attending the local Evangelical cult, please keep your children by your side. It is irresponsible to trust people just because they are pastors. As the recent spate of sex abuse scandals shows, many Evangelical churches are unable or unwilling to care for and protect children and teenagers. It is clear, at least to me, that it is time for youth pastors to get real jobs and for teens to return to their places in the family pew.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    My husband has been fingerprinted for background check 6 times in his life prior to working with children in the secular world, either as an educator or as a volunteer coach. 6 times. How many times do church staff or volunteers get fingerprinted?

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      Good point OC. When ABC News did its big expose on sexual abuse of children in IFB churches back in 2011, one of the victims started a national reporting center and database for parents and their abused children in church. It is my understanding that this center crashed and burned sometime since 2011. I am not sure if anyone out there on the American landscape is doing much of anything to end child abuse in churches these days.

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    Excellent blog article Bruce. I plan to share it with my readers over at the “Flee from Christian Fundamentalism” blog at:

    Supposedly—supposedly, a high committee of Roman Catholic leaders—at the direct order of Pope Francis—is meeting this week in Rome to devise a new system with real biting canine teeth to deal with priests and other leaders who are pedophiles. Of course, talk is cheap. Everyone needs to channel such talk into action to protect our Christian and nonChristian parents and children from these clerical predators. Many thanks to you Bruce and your readers for keeping the public spotlight on these predators and the poor children they harm.

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    John Arthur

    Excellent article, Bruce!

    Sexual predation seems to be common throughout all denominations. I hope that Evangelical churches lose all their members but I doubt whether this will happen fast enough. Very often, Baptist churches are in denial of the problem but the Baptist predators need to continue to be unmasked and stopped.

    Many thanks for this article, Bruce!

  4. Pingback:Time to Quit Talking—and Take Action Against Pedophile Predators in Our American Churches | Flee from Christian Fundamentalism

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    Churches should be subject to the same background checks and mandated reporter laws as public schools are. Full stop.

    I don’t know what training secular young teachers are subject to regarding adolescents who develop crushes on them and how to manage their own feelings in the matter. I worry that the training is only “just don’t do that!”

    If there is good training in the matter it should be extended into the religious world and any group who wants to see tomorrow should require it, or bundle it into mandated reporter training.

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    There is another great big problem in Evangelicalism: lack of sex education.

    I tend to think that many parents take the easy way out by drilling down on abstinence before marriage. Voila, no need to talk about condoms, STDs, etc. Personal autonomy and consensual sex aren’t part of their ideology either, so I can see how it would be super easy for victims to feel powerless. Prime candidates for abuse. It’s a messed up system.

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    I can see how problems would erupt, especially if the youth pastor is just a few years out of school himself.

    I actually think the church I went to had it right. The church had a paid youth director that would arrange activities for the youth in the church. No “pastoring” was delegated to this person, and she was at the married with children stage of life.

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      Troy, I wonder how extra ‘scrueling’ might improve a situation not caused by lack of schooling but personal damage skewing an individual’s sensuality in such a way that they harm innocence for pleasure? As for your church, did they not point out your evil child heart in need of Jesus? Did they not disrespect the innocence of youth with their ‘faith’? The system itself is sick as I see it. I’m glad though that you feel it was not like the other churches, that they got something right. That sounds exceptional to me.

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        Brian, I went to an exceptionally liberal church. Jesus, was considered more a model of someone to respect than something you need, as “getting saved” and being “born again” was not something that was part of the curriculum. I suppose if they were guilty of anything it was being luke warm, the entirety was the ritual of the liturgy and beyond that merely a social club. (On the other hand, they were quite demanding of a teenager’s time, as confirmation, service, and sunday school could eat up an entire Sunday.)

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          I used to dread the length of Sundays too, the Sunday School and then sitting through sometimes a half-dozen hymns; thenmy father’s preaching for what seemed hours… Ah, to loosen the stupid tie and slam the car door behind it all was relief, relief. And usually a chicken dinner for Sunday lunch!
          Troy, clearly the devil had taken over your church! Lukewarm practices and not a one of you ‘properly’ saved for heaven. 😉

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            What interesting is the church actually split into two! A new pastor came in that wanted a more modern service and wanted to fill the pews. While I admire his ambition, he didn’t respect the existing community he served. So a bunch of people in the existing congregation went to the neighboring city, started a new church and voila instant Lutheran mitosis.

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    If people could manage to adopt basic respect for children (and it is not impossible for Christians: witness Mr. Rogers and see a good biographical example at )
    then there would be no reason to stop childhood ‘ministry’. It seems to me that Christianity cannot even use Mr. Rogers’ wonderful example and has to attack him because of their own Christainity dis-ease, accusing him of not producing soldiers for Christ but weakening kids.
    Christianity is a virus. Some remarkable bipeds are immune, it seems.

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    I think the problem lies in the church’s concept that sex is dirty and sinful. The continual repression of normal sexual desire leads to psychological problems and perversion.

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    Hoo boy. The NewSpring church across the street from my neighborhood in North Charleston SC has got quite the scandal on their hands with a youth volunteer molesting young boys (3-4 yr olds). Disgusting. Bruce, this would make a “good” addition to your black collar crime series. The Charleston Post & Courier has some excellent reports about.

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    Bruce, I completelh share your view on this, I am christian… already abused psicogically by a pastor during 5 years, now I am more recovered from that but here is the thing, I absolutelly believe “youth pastors” should disaper, specially if they are single… it’s crazy!! they become like “The Perfect Man” while most of them have already a huge sexual past not perfect at all… I dont like evangelical churches anymore, I’m going to an small anglical church now and I feel much safer, and there’s no youth leader!! Thank you for sharing light on this, life is difficult and we should be aware of that, and we HAVE TO THINK because of that, an group that stops you from being critical it’s not good for you

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      Brian Vanderlip

      Thank-you for your comment, Marlene. I too left the evangelical faith to attempt to believe within a more welcoming environment, the Anglican Church of Canada. And though I do agree that so-called ‘youth pastors’ need to be closely watched, I don’t think they all have a lot of experience that they use to abuse, so to speak. They are most often young men enamored with Christian belief who want to climb the ladder toward being an ordained minister. What happens to them though, is that they are suddenly confronted with all these young people full of life and longing and as an authority figure, they quite naturally start to stray from the their holy orders.
      I must tell you that I feel terribly bad for both the youth pastor (who really knows not what he does as he has no real life experience) and the young person who commands his amorous attentions. The ‘faith’ is designed like this, to harm and many people fall victim to its design. I believe that the individual in authority is responsible, don’t get me wrong but I feel badly for all victims of abuse. Do you remember the mess caused for Doug Wilson when Natalie Greenfield had the courage to go public with her abuse? Here is my point; We cannot ADAPT a sick foundation to become healthy again. Evangelical Christianity is essentially life-out-of-balance. The Bible is a tool used to keep it as such.
      I trust that you can find the support to continue questioning, Marlene. This blog is one that I find very supportive in that regard. My best wishes to you…. Brian
      (By the way, in my Anglican church, while I was there, one of the priests was abusing a teenage boy and was eventually tossed out of the ministry…. As I said, the design is in the foundation and leads to abuse.)

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    Jeff Sawade

    Bruce Gerencser – I so identify with where you come from and where you are now. Thanks for your public declaration.

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Bruce Gerencser