Cognitive Bias: A Critique of Critiques of Youth Ministry

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Youth ministry is a strange ministry in the Church. And most who care to have an opinion about youth ministry’s methods or importance (or Biblical deviance) have a strong one. It seems like every few months an article makes the popular rounds critiquing or praising youth ministry in general, or critiquing a perceived “common” approach to youth ministry.

At best, most of these articles say very little. At worst, they show severe bias, logical fallacies, and fundamental theological mistakes. We just can’t seem to talk very constructively about youth ministry.

Here’s a few common cognitive biases, fallacies, and errors I’ve come across way too often in critiques of youth ministry of any shape and size. Think of this as vocabulary we can use to keep each other honest. This list could be a lot longer, but I’ve narrowed it down to the ones that piss me off the most.

Cognitive Biases and Logical Fallacies

The first initial problem with talking about youth ministry is the small amount of hard data and statistics we have. Which is the breeding ground for the first error:

Correlation is not Causality

New York and Chicago have reported that as ice cream sales increase, so do the number of murders. Are higher ice cream sales causing more murders? Maybe…

But most likely not. Just because one thing increases and decreases proportionally to another thing, doesn’t prove that one is causing the other to change.

This is a pretty common and tempting mistake. “People who drink red wine live longer.” Maybe… Or maybe people who can afford to drink red wine can afford better health care. “Habited religious orders are exploding with new postulants.” This might be a true statement, but it would not necessarily follow that to increase the number of new postulants in your religious order you should bring back the habit. Would it be worth testing? Yes. Is the increase proof that the habit is attracting new postulants? No.

In youth ministry critiques it sounds like “Parishes with Lifeteen are exploding.” or “Adoration causes parishes to explode.” or “All of the teens who were in a large youth ministry group left the faith in college.” More is needed, and in fact its pretty hard, to prove something is causing something else, and not just a correlation or coincidence. Which leads us to the way people tend to draw these types of conclusions in the first place…

The Plural of Anecdote is not Data

As well meaning as this article and this article is, there is a strong cognitive bias at work here as the main argument: availability bias. When we tell stories of our experience of a youth ministry “My youth ministry was all about hugs and I never learned the faith” and then turn this into a general statement “Youth ministry is about hugs and doesn’t teach people the faith.” we are in danger of building our arguments on sand.

“But, but” you might say “I know two or three other people who have had the same experience.” Ok. That may be true. But there is a strong cognitive bias at work that makes you remember the two or three stories that support your belief, and forget the rest that don’t. The availability bias is our brain’s tendency to remember things that are vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged. This bias tempts us into overestimating a situation as being representative of the way things are in general. The author of this article knows this to some extent by saying “and I’m certain readers can point to hundreds of examples of excellent youth ministry programs”, but then goes on to outline what he believes to be the “strategy for youth ministry” based on multiple personal experiences and anecdotes.

This is helped (or hurt) by the fact that the more a certain view is discussed or anecdotes of this nature are shared in public discourse, the more believable the narrative becomes. (Hence the saying “repeat something long enough and it will become true.)

Bill says, in his experience, youth ministry is just about hugs. Fred and Ted say they feel the same way, and write a blog post about it. Nancy speaks up and says in her experience, this isn’t the case. But who wants to listen to Nancy? We’re all in agreement, so Nancy must be an outlier. GET IT TOGETHER NANCY.

Historical Precedence

Ok, brace yourself. I get real testy with this one. And I know I’ll get a lot of hate mail.

I believe it is beneficial to talk about the way the early Church did ministry or Jesus did ministry. I believe in tradition and I’m not proposing we cut ties with the past. But can we all just drop the whole “I scoured the early Church Fathers and the Bible and couldn’t find any trace of youth ministry.” bit?

This type of argument is rehashed a million different ways. “Jesus didn’t need praise and worship, or guitars, or a youth group, so we shouldn’t either!”

“The early Church promised death and persecution and they had no problem attracting youth with the Gospel without a youth ministry and an instagram account. Heck they didn’t even have the internet!”

Yeah. Brilliant point. Let me ask you a small question. Do you like religious orders? What about seminaries? What about toilet paper? Jesus didn’t use toilet paper! Neither should you!

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Okay, I’m going a little overboard, but the problem with an argument like this I hope should be self-evident. Sure, its a great thing to talk about. But to write an entire critique of youth ministry based on whether or not the early Church had youth ministry seems to be a stretch. Also, its a gross oversimplification of what was occuring in the early Church. To say that first century Christian communities attracted teens in Rome to the faith, and did so without youth ministry, therefore we should critically evaluate youth ministry, is reductive and an oversimplification.

You may as well say something like “If only we had Latin Mass in every parish, that would fix so many of the problems in our Church.” Or “If only we used more praise and worship, more people would come to Mass.” Both could be true, or partially true, but the reality is a lot more complicated. Which leads to…

Not Accounting for the Holy Spirit

So I’m throwing in this one more as an aside that’s really straining gnats, but I believe it is worth mentioning. When we talk about the “effectiveness” of a particular ministry or approach to ministry, we often point to the results or fruits. And Jesus told us we will know a tree by its fruit. But it is easy to forget this amazing quote from Evangelii Nuntiandi:

Techniques of evangelization are good, but even the most advanced ones could not replace the gentle action of the Spirit. The most perfect preparation of the evangelizer has no effect without the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the most convincing dialectic has no power over the heart of man. Without Him the most highly developed schemas resting on a sociological or psychological basis are quickly seen to be quite valueless.” EN 75

Ministry isn’t a in/out function. If you do all the “right” things, you aren’t owed remarkable results. A ministry that produces vocations might be a great ministry. But it might be a horrible ministry that God is still calling priests and religious from. The Holy Spirit can’t be boiled down to an equation. Our conversations about youth ministry need to reflect the inability for us to really know for certain how the Holy Spirit might be moving because of, or in spite of, our ministry.

The Bias Bias

I’ve committed a bunch of biases and fallacies just in writing this article. But I hope we can use this short list to keep our conversations about youth ministry productive, and stray away from the lazy streams of “this caused more vocations” and “in my experience” and “well in the early church” unless it is really necessary.

Feel free to merely comment “The plural of anecdote is not data.” or “Correlation is not causality.” on your local youth ministry critiquing article, and let’s get back to work.

abarrera12


abarrera12




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