Youth Targeted Calvinism | Part One

Dr. Rick Patrick | Senior Pastor
First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL

Southern Baptist youth groups are filled with young people converting away from the traditional doctrines held by their parents in favor of more Calvinistic views on salvation, church, culture and ministry. At first glance, this trend seems harmless. If anything, the students converting in spellbound droves[1] to the doctrinal views of Calvinism[2] take their faith far more seriously than their parents do. What Christian parent is going to oppose a movement that actually encourages their child to read the Bible and study theology?

Though most Southern Baptist parents are not at all familiar with the doctrines of Spurgeon, Edwards and Piper, they are profoundly relieved when they discover their teen is into books about God rather than any number of harmful or worldly temptations. In all my years of listening to Focus on the Family, I never once heard a parent ask Dr. Dobson for advice about their teenager reading too much theology. And yet, there are legitimate reasons for traditional Southern Baptist parents and church youth group leaders to view this trend as a dangerous development.[3]

The problems created by Youth Targeted Calvinism (YTC) can be divided into two groups: (a) general problems with Calvinistic doctrines that many parents may not understand, and (b) problems with the practice of targeting youth, introducing them to doctrines disaffirmed by their congregation and especially by their own parents.

Problems with Calvinism

1. Where is the love?
Calvinism is heavy on power and wrath; it is light on freedom and love. Parents who have labored to instill the message Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, may discover that their teen now rejects this ditty, perhaps viewing it as scornfully simplistic. Teens may even embrace the view of Calvinist Arthur Pink, who wrote: God loves whom He chooses; He does not love everybody.[4] So much for all the little children of the world!

2. An Angry God?
Calvinism is associated with neo-puritanism. We tend to view the puritans as peaceful people who dressed modestly and made friends with the Indians. But Calvinist Puritan Cotton Mathers is certainly the most infamous leader responsible for the Salem Witch Trials, and Calvinist Puritan Jonathan Edwards best articulated the view that God’s disposition is primarily angry.

In his best known work, Edwards wrote: The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked. His wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.[5]

While it is granted that God pours out His wrath upon sin and unrepentant sinners will surely burn in hell, Edwards paints the picture of a monstrously capricious deity for whom the singing of Kumbayah My Lord on a youth group campout seems wildly out of place.

3. Which salvation plan?
Calvinism and Traditionalism both declare the same gospel, namely, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.[6] However, God’s plan of salvation, or the manner in which He works in a person’s life to implant the seed of the gospel and to save their soul, can be clearly differentiated within each theological position.

The Calvinist believes God determined, before the foundation of the world, that particular souls would be saved, while other particular souls would perish. The Traditionalist believes God does not choose particular souls irresistibly. Rather, desiring all men to be saved, He saves those exercising their free will to repent and believe when they could have done otherwise.

This brief description only skims the surface of the differences between Calvinism and Traditionalism. Young people turning to Calvinism may embrace: (a) a stricter view of church discipline than that held by most Southern Baptists, (b) an affinity for Elder Rule church government instead of Congregational Rule, (c) a tendency to reject dispensational premillennialism in favor of other views of the end times, (d) a less stringent view regarding the use of beverage alcohol, (e) a suspicious approach toward evangelism utilizing altar calls and the Sinner’s Prayer, (f) the avoidance of denominationally sponsored events in favor of broadly evangelical conferences, and (g) a tendency to frown upon existing Southern Baptist practices.

Problems With Targeting
Apart from theological concerns, let us turn our attention to the tactic of targeting youth with doctrines their parents may not even know they are learning. We live in a society that seeks, however ineffectively, to protect impressionable youth. In the state where I live, for example, one must be 19 to buy cigarettes and 21 to buy alcohol. Society recognizes that young people are still learning how to think responsibly and make mature decisions. Although theological choices do not present the same moral and ethical issues as illegal drug use, the principle that parents should be involved in decisions affecting their teenagers is impregnable.

In other areas of religious doctrine and practice, most churches exercise extreme care to gain parental consent. If a church youth group is taking a trip, a parent will be required to sign a consent form. When a teenager trusts in Christ as Lord and Savior, most churches will not baptize that young person if their parents do not give their consent to the ordinance. These are important decisions related to their teenager’s personal safety and religious practice. Parents should be involved.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Youth Targeted Calvinism, many parents are not involved at all in the decision to introduce such doctrines to their children. They may only discover the Calvinistic influence of the youth group’s discipleship plan after the fact—when teenagers have already been exposed to Calvinism. By the time parents figure out what is going on with the religious education of their kids, the die has already been cast. A doctrinal view has been introduced that historically has proven, in a great many cases, to be denominationally defining.

I can already hear the protests from Calvinistic youth ministers. “We don’t treat any other doctrine this way! Are we supposed to get parental pre-approval when we discuss our theology of the end times? Should we gain their consent before we promote cessationism over continuationism? What if we hold to a view of mankind that is tripartite instead of bipartite? How can we really be expected to run every single doctrinal topic up the parental approval flagpole?”

Frankly, such concerns may be dismissed as smokescreens. The various doctrines mentioned are not driving the kind of theological wedge we see today between Southern Baptist parents and their youth. Minor views do not rise to the level of Calvinism’s comprehensive theological system. Before students in a traditional Southern Baptist Church are introduced to the writings or the theology of Calvin, Piper, Spurgeon, Edwards, MacArthur, Keller, Sproul or Dever, youth ministers need to sit down with the parents and make sure they know what is being taught.

In many cases, Southern Baptist parents are not being briefed regarding the fact that their children are learning doctrines the parents themselves likely disaffirm.

In this part of the essay, we have explored Youth Targeted Calvinism—defining both the problems parents may have with Calvinism itself and the problems they may have with the practice of targeting youth by introducing them to doctrines without the full knowledge and consent of their parents. In Part Two, we will explore how YTC is being promoted today and consider specific case studies.

[1] “Why Are Young People So Drawn to Calvinism?” Matt Dabbs. mattdabbs.com. June 18, 2012.
[2] “Characteristics of New Calvinism.” E.S. Williams. newcalvinist.com.
[3] “Why New Calvinism is So Dangerous.” Joel Taylor. 5ptsalt.com. January 22, 2012.
[4] The Sovereignty of God. Arthur W. Pink. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1930. Pages 29-30.
[5] Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Jonathan Edwards. Enfield, Connecticut. July 8, 1741.
[6] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. English Standard Version.