Sometimes…

Ministry is hard work. I know far too many youth workers who are consumed by calendars, meetings and programs. Truth be told, I often look at my own ministry and wonder what went wrong. When did pastoring youth start to mean planning a calendar so dreadfully full of events that there is no time left to simply be together? When did being a professional youth worker start to mean that all of our time is devoted to maintaining programs (Sunday morning, Wednesday night, fun nights, lock-ins, fundraisers, bible studies (if we’re lucky), fall retreat(s), spring retreat(s), winter retreat, mission trips, week-long summer conferences, etc) instead of devoted to seeking where God is working in the lives of our students? When did our students stop seeking the living God and start seeking a program that gives them an emotional high–or maybe we never showed them a God worth seeking in the first place?

In the midst of our broken world, it can only be expected that our youth ministries will be broken as well. But I wonder if sometimes our ministries are more broken than they need to be? Youth ministry books will often talk about helping students find a passionate faith, or helping students slow down and contemplate God, or being pro-student as Jesus is pro-us. These books are wonderful, and they talk about dealing with staff members who don’t understand why the youth ministry is suddenly interested in theology; they talk about how to help parents who just want a youth ministry that is fun see that their children need more than good morals; but these books never talk about what to do to help students realize that a jam-packed calendar and a well-maintained program aren’t the central pieces of youth ministry.

Maybe students intuitively realize this. But I think this intuition is on the same level as staff people and parents: sometimes it needs some help coming out. Ministry is tough. But sometimes we just need to turn around, seize the bull by the horns, and see what happens.

Dovie’andi se tovya sagain.

Chubby Bunny

I have an article currently posted over at ImmerseJournal.com wherein I interact with Alain Olivo’s Chubby Bunny with Pinto Beans article in the current issue of Immerse.

In addition to encouraging anyone who doesn’t already read Immerse to read it, why don’t you head on over and take a look at my response article? I’d love to interact further with people on the issues Alain’s article raises.

More anon.

Fun…

Every so often I find myself reflecting on the programs and initiatives that make up a youth ministry. Those who regularly read this blog know that I constantly try to think in new ways about youth ministry, and encourage others to do the same. Even so, the temptation to jump into an entertainment centered style of ministry is difficult to avoid.

But trying to avoid an entertainment centered ministry doesn’t mean that we don’t have fun. In fact, for the students in many of our youth ministries the best thing we could probably do is give them space to have simple fun. We don’t need to go play laser tag, or go to a baseball game, or have a dance party, or rent a bouncy-castle to have fun. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with any of those activities, but they aren’t requirements for having fun. In fact, when we jam our calendars full of events like those, we often play right into a consumeristic society that values entertainment above engagement.

We’ve recently begun a new format for our Wednesday night gathering at our ministry. For the first three Wednesdays of the month we undertake the standard stuff: discussion, small groups, prayer, etc. But now on the fourth Wednesday of the month we just come and chill. We hang out and talk, play games, relax. In short, we spend time being together. I don’t feel any necessity to entertain people during this time. Instead, I talk with students, joke, laugh, relax, play games, listen to music, run around, and otherwise have fun. Last night, because of a couple (unrelated) program snafus, we ended up with a much larger amount of time to hang out. I don’t think anyone minded. In fact, it may have been just what the doctor ordered for some of our overstressed students (and adult volunteers!).

Fun is a necessary part of being human, and it therefore ought to be a necessary part of being the Church. But it is only our modern, consumerist culture which has equated fun with entertainment. Our students need time to be together; time to be with God; time to get to know each other and the adults in our ministries. But this doesn’t mean that every second of that time needs to be programmed to keep students entertained. We need to think differently. We need to be careful that we don’t teach students that life is about feeding whatever entertainment craze is currently in vogue. We need to teach them that Sabbath and simplicity are deeply biblical concepts that have huge application to our own lives.

Here’s the hard part: we have to find ways to do this, even when our students are convinced that what they most need is another thing to entertain them. I’ll let you know when I’ve figured that out.

Correcting some misconceptions

As I’ve talked with more and more people about attractional youth ministry and my own reasons for striving to find a different–better–way of doing ministry with students I’ve realized something. When I say I don’t like attractional youth ministry, or I have misgivings about it, or I’m concerned that it puts the focus on the wrong things what people tend to hear is, “I don’t want fun.”

This is actually furthest from the case. Fun–whatever form that takes–is a vital part of a healthy church, and a healthy youth ministry. Sure, if the only thing we ever do is “fun,” and we never do Bible study, or prayer or service then we’re missing the fullness of things (I should be quick to note that all of those things can and should be “fun,”). The problem isn’t with having fun, the problem is with replacing Jesus and his kingdom with fun.

One of the most successful youth ministries I have ever been a part of spent huge amounts of time being together, hanging out, talking, playing games, walking around town, going to a family’s cabin, playing games, going out to eat, going to movies, and playing games. These kinds of “social” times weren’t merely fun for us, but they allowed us to build trust with one another and enter into shared life–what we might call, community–on a very regular basis. The point of this stuff, however, was not to attract new students to the ministry. The point was for the Body of Christ to live life together.

As I told a student recently, regardless of how they might feel, the last thing their friend wants or needs is more fun. What their friend needs and wants (even if they aren’t at a place to articulate this yet) is something that goes beyond a culture that demands we be concerned with getting ahead. Jesus offers that. We need to stop being embarrassed by the counter-cultural nature of Jesus. At the same time, this isn’t to say that one should never spend time simply hanging out and being together. That is as much a part of enacting Jesus’ mission on earth as studying the Bible, praying or building homes; in our over-stressed and over-worked society, time to simply relax and be together is a vital spiritual practice.

Reading the Bible

So, Marko and the Youth Cartel have partnered with Biblica to produce CBEmini. You can get the scoop here.

I’m intrigued by the concept. I love the idea of removing chapter and verse numbers and allowing students to read the Bible without those helps distracting them and proving very unhelpful. One of the reasons I like Robert Alter’s translation of the David Story is because the verse numbers hang out on the sides and don’t distract nearly as much from just reading the text. The idea of reading in community is also something that I can get excited about with this resource. It’s worth checking out.

At the same time, however, it always makes me nervous when we try to get students reading the Bible and we start with the New Testament. I know, I know, we always want to get to Jesus. But that’s like reading the Lord of the Rings and starting with the Battle of the Pelennor fields. You really have no idea what is going on, but wow it’s exciting. I’d be far more excited about CBEmini if they were starting in the Old Testament. I know it’s supposed to be a short 9-day study, so–of course–we want them to get Jesus, right? I’m not so sure that’s the best idea and I’m almost certain that it isn’t the way to help students engage deeply with Scripture.

I’m not saying CBEmini is a detrimental thing. Far from it. It probably fills a niche. But the gaping hole, as I see it, is still that we aren’t helping student process the full story of Scripture and, in all honesty, we probably don’t know the story all that well ourselves. Still, I’d love to see more resources like this, and perhaps a year-long plan like CBEmini that started students in Genesis. Any publishers interested in doing something like that? I’d be happy to consult on laying it out. Seriously.

Encouragement

This has been one of the most encouraging thoughts on youth ministry I have read recently. The idea that in ministry we sometimes just keep plugging away is an important one to be reminded about. I was recently talking with a number of staff people from my church and we were discussing how ministry is often tough. You often end up feeling like you aren’t really accomplishing much. Our encouragement came from Isaiah 49.4, knowing that even the servant/Deutero-Isaiah/whoever feels that he has labored in vain. Ironically, God’s response appears to be to give a larger mission to the servant. Be that as it may, it’s encouraging to know that people who have ministered to others throughout history have also struggled with the seemingly impossible task before them.

Release

We hear a lot about the need to release others to do ministry. As youth pastors we are told how important it is to allow our volunteers to do ministry. “Delegation is one of the most important skills a pastor can have,” I was once told. Several months ago one of my adult volunteers mentioned that she had really enjoyed teaching the middle school students back during the transition period between the previous youth director and myself. After some more discussion we decided that she’d join me this fall and we’d create a kind of teaching cycle. I still do most of the teaching (though I wouldn’t mind allowing others the opportunity to teach!), but she now handles some of it as well.

Last Wednesday was her first time up to the plate this year. I know she was nervous, but she did a phenomenal job. We’ve been talking about faith. Things have been going well, students seem to be connecting, asking good questions, and hopefully integrating things into their lives. We’ve talked about what faith is, how one can be open with God even when you’re angry, how our faith centered on the incarnate God, and several other things besides. But this particular adult leader has a story, and because of her background she could say to our students, “When tragedy strikes, you can be angry with God. But keep the faith. He has a plan. You may not feel like it in the midst of tragedy, but he does work things out for good.” I could say the same thing, of course, but it would lack to authenticity that she brought to it.

She’s a widow.

She knows what it is like to go through tragedy, to be angry with God, but to keep the faith. She has experienced that pain. But she has also experienced the love of God as he continues to lead her through life. Releasing allows our students to see that the only people who know God aren’t the paid youth professionals, but the regular adults in our churches. By releasing some of the teaching (which I love doing) I’ve allowed my students to hear another voice, a voice that comes at things from a different angle. My students will benefit from this. It’s worth it.

Voices

Paul Martin has been working through an excellent series of posts on the individuals he sees as the voices in the coming (currently happening?) revolution in youth ministry. This week he mentions theological voices.

I find the inclusion of an entire post devoted to those who are thinking about youth ministry from a theological perspective to be extremely refreshing. Perhaps more refreshing still is that most of these individuals have theological background. They could write a paper for an academic journal. Ten years ago, when I was in college, I remember being disappointed that there were not more voices from theological and biblical studies that were speaking into youth ministry. In hindsight there were voices, I just wasn’t aware of them yet (Kenda Creasy Dean, for instance). But there has certainly been an increase in recent years.

I still find it disappointing that we don’t have biblical studies people speaking into youth ministry. I realize that some will say that biblical studies is an extremely specialized field, whereas practical theology necessarily recommends itself to these kinds of interactions. However, without biblical studies speaking into youth ministry our curriculum will continue to be less than it might otherwise be. We will continue to be comfortable with whatever gets us by in terms of our knowledge of the Bible, instead of challenging ourselves to go the distance. In the 90s no one would have believed that youth ministry would experience a theological renewal, and itself be pushing other ministries of the church to think theologically and have greater depth, but that is exactly what is happening. Maybe youth ministry can be the place where we start engaging Scripture in much more depth than we typically do. In another fifteen years, maybe youth ministry will be leading the charge and encouraging pastoral staff to use the tools they learned in seminary. Maybe youth ministry can be a place where Christians are challenged to acknowledge Scripture for what it is, really wrestle with the difficulties this presents, own it as our story, and allow it to form our lives.

MERGE

If you are a youth worker and you take your students on summer trips to conferences or retreats, then you need to consider MERGE. I am somewhat skeptical of many summer trips for youth ministries. I think they can be very manipulative. They also, in my experience, tend to make big promises and fail to deliver. MERGE isn’t like that.

We took a fair number of our high school students to Grand Rapids this past July to attend MERGE. The drive was long, but it was entirely worth it. I could spend hours talking to you about all the wonderful aspects of MERGE. But I’ll stop myself at outlining what a typical day looked like, and then listing a few of the reasons MERGE is, hands down, the best conference for students I have ever attended–as a leader or as a student.

Each of our days began with breakfast. Pretty standard for a conference, right? Except that at MERGE all of the leaders, from various groups, gathered for breakfast together with the event organizers. We talked about how the previous day had gone, how our students had been impacted, what seemed to connect and what didn’t and any concerns we had. Then we spent a few minutes talking about what the current day was going to look like. After breakfast we headed to our story gathering, which consisted of a retelling of a core story from the Bible (Creation, the Fall, Jesus, the Church, etc). After the story gathering we would break into smaller(ish) groups (but youth groups stayed together in the same group) and spend time discussing the stories and what God had revealed to us, about the story, ourselves, the world, etc. I heard some of my students share amazingly profound thoughts during this time. Were some of them trying to share something they thought we’d approve of? Absolutely. But on the whole I believe these times were filled with authentic sharing. As leaders, we were constantly encouraged to enter the stories ourselves and participate in these discussions as participants, not as teachers. This was one of the most refreshing aspects of MERGE because I was freed to grow with my students. The benefit to them and to me simply can’t be overstated.

After this gathering time we’d head to noon prayers, then to lunch and then to an afternoon experience that reinforced or otherwise intersected with the story. One day we walked around outside, recreating the wilderness wandering of the Israelites. Another day we walked through the “Journey to the Cross,” an experience which included various interactive aspects in the broad tradition of the stations of the cross (though reimagined). During still another experience we all participated in a Messianic Seder. This led into some free time and then dinner.

Following dinner we would gather together once again for a time where we responded to God. We (students and leaders alike) were encouraged to use art to respond to what God was doing in us, or to write a poem, journal our thoughts, spend time at a body prayer station, write a letter to God, or participate in other ways. Some of the students from our group wrote a rap, while others produced some very touching pieces of art, sculpture, poetry, or other personal pieces. After this gathering we had time to be together as church groups or relax before heading to bed.

That gives you an idea of what MERGE was like. Now let me share why MERGE is unlike any other conference I’ve ever been to or heard of for students.

1. MERGE asks leaders to participate. At too many conferences the staff essentially want me and the other adults from our group to chaperone our students and talk with them after the evening meeting, but otherwise leave them in the hands of the event staff. At MERGE we were encouraged to participate in all areas of the experience. Yes, we were there to supervise and care for our students, but in a very pastoral manner. I don’t think any of the leaders from our group, or any of the other groups, left without being changed ourselves.

2. MERGE focuses on the Story. I’ve never been to a conference that has such an intense focus on the story of God. That isn’t to say that other conferences don’t have entertaining or engaging speakers. They do. But they often focus on a theme or topic, as opposed to helping students encounter the Bible in a new and fresh way. MERGE is entirely about helping students to take a fresh look at the story of God and, whats more, MERGE encourages students to realize that the Christian faith is about how our lives merge with the story of God, today.

3. MERGE is fun without being all about entertainment. The organizers of MERGE know that students want to have a good time. But, from my observation, they also understand that the story of God is the most exciting story ever written. They aren’t there to entertain students for a week, but to help those students experience God and his story in fresh ways.

4. MERGE isn’t about the emotion. Too often I’ve seen emotion used to manipulate students into making a decision that lasts for a couple days, or a few weeks, at most. MERGE isn’t about manipulating students. It’s not about calling for a decision in an emotionally charged service. There were elements of MERGE that were very emotional. I saw my students shed tears and even shed a few of my own. But the point wasn’t the emotion, and the emotion wasn’t used to call for false decisions.

5. MERGE calls students to participate in the story. Bearing in mind #4 above, MERGE still calls students to change their lives and the world. The final experience on the final day included a time to brainstorm with your group about ways we could join in the mission of God throughout our communities and the world. This caused us to think, a lot. I know it challenged some of the students in our group to think seriously about their goals in life. The thing is, it wasn’t a one night episode. Some of my students are still, two months later, processing through those questions. They haven’t yet completely made a decision, or they have made smaller decisions that lead on a particular trajectory. This is what I want to see after a retreat.

MERGE is amazing, but it isn’t a cure all. Just like any summer trip, it is highly dependent on what you do week to week before and after. But perhaps that aspect of summer trips is best left for another day.

If you’re still interested, take a look at this highlights video from MERGE 2011. Look close and you’ll see me and several of the students from our group.

On Turning Ships

My senior pastor has an analogy that he constantly brings up to those of us on staff: making changes at a church is like turning a super tanker, it takes time. This couldn’t be more true. It’s also very true for a youth ministry, though youth ministries are–by nature–more agile than entire churches.

Andrew Root has recently written on the idea that youth ministry may help churches to reclaim theological thinking. Much like many of the changes to churches in the ’80s and ’90s can be traced to youth ministry, so too a sort of turn back to the theological. I agree with the idea, in theory, but I’m not convinced that the so-called theological turn in youth ministry is quite prevalent enough at present (N.B. On twitter Andrew Root acknowledged this as an issue). Ironically, when once upon a time senior pastors would have longed for more theologically astute youth pastors, now we have youth pastors who are recognizing a need for theological nuance and their senior pastors are staring at them and arguing for a more basic, unnuanced approach. There is a certain twisted poetic justice to this.

I’m thankful that those in my current ministry support my own quest to continue learning and thinking. I’m also thankful for the parents and others in my church who are willing to give things a try. Moving from an entertainment-based model of youth ministry to a more theologically nuanced ministry is not exactly easy. Turning ships takes time. Turning ministries takes time and is often painful on various levels. Ultimately, turning the ship is still worth it because our students deserve to be taken seriously. It’s one of the things for which they’re longing. It’s worth it because the church needs youth ministries (indeed, churches) that have more depth than a dodgeball game and a thrown together devotion are likely to provide. Ultimately it’s worth it because Jesus has called us to something more than a culturally-bound consumeristic expression of his Kingdom.

But it can be very, very hard.