The church shouldn't kidnap people

There's only one group I know that thinks it's OK to kidnap people: The church.

While most of the world scorns kidnapping, churches use it as a promotional tool.

Just last week I read a blog post from Taylor Bird about helping 5th graders become 6th graders. The post is filled with practical suggestions for transitioning kids from children's ministry into middle school ministry.

Taylor's ideas are good... Until you get to the one where he suggests sending middle school leaders “armed with water guns and bandanas” to kidnap the 5th graders from the kids area and take them to the middle school service. According to Taylor, this is a “fun, memorable way to get the incoming 6th graders excited for middle school”.

But is it really?

My rookie year in youth ministry, I, too, wanted to hold a church kidnapping. I remember brainstorming an event with my student leaders where we planned to kidnap the incoming freshmen, take them around town and make them do crazy things like fry like bacon before finally returning to the church for a BBQ.

A few days before the event, I got an e-mail from the parent of an incoming freshman. She'd heard rumors of what we'd planned and was horrified. She referenced the story that was then dominating the news about a group of high school seniors hazing their junior classmates by covering them with mud, paint, feces and garbage and asked, “Do you really want our church to be known as the one that hazes kids? Do NOT kidnap my son.”

At the time, I honestly thought this parent was overreacting in the same way I'm guessing some of you think I'm overreacting to Taylor's suggestion to “kidnap” the 5th graders.

I mean, clearly this parent was being unreasonable. Didn't she want her son to have any fun? Couldn't she distinguish between harmlessly making someone flop like a fish and throwing feces at someone?

Nevertheless, her strong reaction made me rethink the wisdom of what we'd planned. Rather than kidnapping incoming freshmen, we ended up hosting a fun-filled event at our church.

Several years later, I took a youth pastor job at another church that had a long tradition of church kidnappings. I started my job at the end of August, only a few weeks before the fall programming year kicked off. At that point, I felt helpless to stop the kidnapping. So I let it continue, figuring, “How much harm could it really do?”

My second year at this church, we revamped the kidnapping so that upperclassmen simply picked up the incoming freshmen unannounced (though their parents knew we were coming). By that point, the whole thing seemed rather innocuous to me.

But then, a few months later, I conducted an assessment of my youth ministry for a graduate class I was taking. I focused my assessment on transitioning 8th graders into our high school ministry. As part of this, I conducted a focus group for my high school students. Among other things, I asked them to tell me what they remembered about their first night in our high school ministry.

Truthfully, I didn't expect the freshmen kidnapping to come up. But it did, again and again.

The words students repeatedly used to describe this seemingly harmless activity were “scary”, “awkward”, and “intimidating”.

Far from being welcoming, this event was horrifying to the students who were kidnapped. It stripped those who were kidnapped of control and made them feel as though they were at the mercy of someone else, someone whom they didn't know (or trust) at all. It created an extremely unhealthy power dynamic, giving upperclassmen the ability to terrorize vulnerable freshmen. That dynamic then continued because the kids who were kidnapped felt as though they'd earned the “right” to kidnap the younger kids, to make them endure the same hell they'd experienced themselves.

As I listened to these students speak, I remembered the e-mail I'd received from that seemingly overprotective mom all those years ago, the one who had the audacity to suggest the church shouldn't condone hazing in any form.

With startling clarity, I realized this parent was right.

Sure, kidnapping kids may be memorable, but not in a good way.

And unlike what Taylor suggests, it isn't fun – at least not for those being kidnapped; Not for the very people we say we're trying to welcome.

As it turns out, if we truly want students to feel loved, cared for, and safe, then quite simply, the church shouldn't kidnap them. 

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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The Real Jesus

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The Jesus Gap

What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

Based on National Research

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