Attention Youth Ministers – Don’t give up on the deep end!
I read an article today on “Out of Ur”,the blog for Leadership Magazine. It was called, Evangelical Drop-Outs and it sounded pretty familiar. It seems that USA Today has caught wind of something that we’ve been noticing for a while in youth ministry. I’m pretty sure that most people who read this blog these days (both of you) also read it a couple years ago when I was writing (admittedly with more regularity) as a frustrated yet hopeful youth minister.
The message I felt strongly about in those days – one which I feel even more strongly about today – was that we needed a new approach – a new theology – for youth ministry. My contention has been that our fiefdom approach to specialized ministries like youth, children, singles, etc., often leads to disconnected consumer-driven Christians. Our individualized and completely age-segregated ministry packages communicate something to people. And while I think it is true statement that “its a sin to bore a kid with the gospel”, it is at least equally sinful to communicate to a kid that the gospel exists for their personal entertainment.
Critics have said that what I’m suggesting doesn’t have any real application – that focusing on age-specific ministry is the only way we can attract young people. (Of course there are not that many of us attracting many kids other than the close friends of our members’ children anyway, but we don’t like to talk about that…). But this doesn’t really gel with what we see played out in EVERY youth ministry that is successful in the least bit.
If teens don’t want to spend time with adults why do they seem so distraught when a youth minister/youth worker leaves? Teens respond to adults that care about them – be it paid/professional youth ministers and interns or youth deacons and volunteers. They respond, they connect and they depend on these adults. It doesn’t really seem to matter if the youth minister is the young, cool, athletic guy – I’ve known some really great old farts in ministry. So why is it that we think teens want to be around this youth worker but they don’t want to be around any other adults? It isn’t because they’re adults – its because they don’t seem to want to have anything to do with teenagers! I still say that if the purpose of adolescence is to learn to be an adult, you can’t accomplish that by only being around other adolescents.
Critics have also said that I’m trying to buck the only system that will work; teens need to be teens and that means pizza, movies and ski trips are the vital components for attracting young people to the Body of Christ. Any yet, the teens from Skillman in Dallas have chosen 3 years in a row to spend a week serving and praying with people in New Orleans. Wonder Voyage, the ministry which has led these trips and which is itself led by people I respect and love greatly, is very up front that their focus for these trips is on Pilgrimage rather than “mission trip”. The pilgrimage aspect suggests that those who participate in this event are not swooping in to “save” these poor people. Instead they are seeking a journey that will push them, challenge them and encourage reflection on their continued seeking the face of the Lord – and we see God’s face most clearly when we are serving.
I’m excited that there are youth ministers trying to lead their ministries into deeper waters. B.J McMichael teaches a class at ACU on Adolescent Spiritual Formation , Houston Heflin teaches a grad class on youth ministry that challenges ministers to look carefully at the why’s of their ministry programs in addition to the how’s. And there are a lot more blogs by youth ministers wanting to dialog about a new kind of youth ministry than there were when I started blogging several years ago.
I know – from personal experience – that it is often lonely, difficult and overwhelming to remain committed to this approach to deeper ministry. It is so tempting to just give in and keep the kids happy – which promises to keep the parents happy, which in turn keeps the elders happy…and we all sing Kumbaya.
But it doesn’t work that way. If you don’t lead the way to something deeper and more authentic than pepperoni and black diamond slopes then eventually your teens will begin looking around and asking, “Is this really it?” And all too often, and all too unfortunately, this questioning doesn’t occur sitting in your living room. It happens freshman year in a dorm room, or somewhere else no longer connected to a church.
You’ve got to remain committed, but don’t try to do it alone. Treading water alone and unaided will lead to exhaustion. Let others support you and encourage you – find those people who are also craving a new kind of youth ministry. I pray with everything in me that if you are currently in the deep end or are at least wading further out, that God himself will bring encouragers into your life today.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.