My Journey Toward a Different Kind of Youth Ministry – Part II

You can find part I here.

So, I’m a sophomore in college, studying Bible with a minor in Youth Ministry, and I find myself confronted with a question: Why bother doing youth ministry? I’d been pursuing a calling, but I hadn’t stopped to answer some very fundamental questions about youth ministry. I don’t think I’m unique in this, actually. Many youth ministry programs at colleges naturally raise these kinds of questions–and well they should!

As I was wrestling with this I was also studying the Bible in more depth than I ever had before. I had a phenomenal Old Testament professor who was helping me to grasp things and wrestle with questions I was only beginning to grasp. During this time I started to become dissatisfied with what I saw as a complete lack of depth when it came to Scripture and theology in youth ministry. In fairness, I was a sophomore, so some of my not-so-humble arguments with other classmates will have to be glossed over. However, I really did begin questioning why we do youth ministry in the way we do it. I started wondering if having someone stand up and yak at students for however long was the best way of teaching. I even began questioning whether hiding the “churchy” aspects of youth group was a good idea.

Enter Tony Jones and Postmodern Youth Ministry. My copy (which I still have), was a Christmas gift from my parents. I’m pretty sure I read it in about two days, and then started reading it again. My copy is covered in various colors of highlighter. I have notes all over the place. In fact, sometimes I will reread Postmodern Youth Ministry and be amazed at how much it changed my way of thinking. I’ve even read portions to Mandy and she’ll ask, “Is that your note, or something the author said?” That’s how integral the ideas that Tony elucidates have become to my thinking. It would take entirely too long to create a list of the most important things I learned from this book. But, I will try to briefly explain some of the highlights.

The non-foundationalist approach to theology that Tony espouses actually helped me navigate some difficult questions about the Old Testament. I was beginning to delve deeply into some often neglected sections of our Holy Book, as I mentioned, and some of my very deeply held theological assumptions where being challenged–about God, about myself, about the nature of Revelation, about eschatology. It was an awesome time, but also a challenging one. The idea that we construct knowledge together was also helpful to me. Perhaps most helpful was the idea that being spiritual is actually what people are after. As most of the emerging church guys were pointing out in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we might have gone too far in trying to remove the spiritual from our churches. After all, Christianity really is about God, Jesus and spiritual things.

So, at this point everything was up in the air in terms of ministry. I was trying a lot of new things, and many of them were being received well. But I was definitely beginning to discover that there were some things about typical youth ministry that I wasn’t really comfortable with. I made plenty of mistakes during this time, but a desire to do youth ministry differently was beginning to take form.

The Bible and Youth Ministry

Somehow (YouthWorker.com’s twitter feed?) I stumbled across this article the other day. Now, it comes as no surprise to me that more than half of graduating students wish they had had more Bible in their youth ministry years. My own experience has been that students desire greater depth, even when it doesn’t seem like they do.

However, I’d like to push back a little on Barry’s proposed solutions. Essentially his solution to this dilemma is to start teaching the Bible more, and specifically helping our students to understand and apply it to their lives. That’s an excellent goal, and something we surely need to be more concerned with in youth ministry. However, I think the actual problem is deeper.

Let’s take a step back. Students want more Bible. Awesome. But we need to first ask why they aren’t currently getting enough. Then we can worry about how to correct the lack. I’d suggest that we don’t help our students engage Scripture thoroughly enough for two reasons.

First, in many youth ministries, the idea of teaching the Bible in any depth is reserved for the truly committed students. The rest, we assume, don’t actually want to learn about God. We’re just happy they come for the entertainment. So, we need to adjust our philosophy. If our philosophy of youth ministry is to attract a ton of students with games, video, lights, lasers, pizza, t-shirts, electronic dance floors and cupcakes we probably aren’t going to have the time or energy to help guide them toward a serious engagement with Scripture (or, ya know, God). I’ve blogged elsewhere about attractional youth ministry, so I won’t further belabor the point here.

The second reason I’d suggest students in youth ministries don’t engage Scripture as deeply as they might like is that we–as youth workers–don’t engage it as deeply as we should (I’d actually propose a third reason, which is that sometimes students only realize they wanted more Scripture in retrospect, thus they don’t take advantage of the opportunities they do have, but that’s more an issue of statistics and the limits of self-reporting). We don’t know Scripture that well ourselves, and so the idea that we might actually delve deeply into it can be disconcerting. I know I’ve probably beaten this horse to death already, but youth pastors ought to have a strong education in Bible. If we don’t know the Story, there is no way we can help our students to know God’s story.

I realize that the idea of formally studying Bible is all good for those who are just now entering the field, but somewhat harder for those of us who already have our degrees and are doing youth ministry. To those of you who are deciding what to study in college, let me plead with you: study Bible. At least minor in it. Even better, major in biblical studies or theology and minor in youth ministry. Then go to seminary. For those of us who are already past that stage, let me plead with you: study the Bible. Buy good commentaries and consult them regularly as you prepare lessons. Read through the Bible, and then do so again. Read scholars, not only other pastors. Push yourselves, don’t simply remain comfortable. Learn to use tools like Logos or Accordance. Devote substantial amounts of time to studying. Take a class on the Bible at a seminary, especially if your church provides you with money for continuing education. Do anything realistically possible to give yourself a better grasp of Scripture.

I know all of this takes time. I know we are already short on time. But maybe that gets back to my first point, we need to change the philosophy that governs our ministries. If we don’t have time to devote ourselves to prayer and studying Scripture, maybe we’re missing the point of ministry. If we want to help students delve deeply into Scripture than we need to delve deeply into Scripture for ourselves. We can’t teach what we don’t know.

Once we’ve confronted our own philosophy of ministry and our own study of Scripture, then it will be time to actually teach students the Bible. The statistics don’t lie, students want to learn the Bible. They want to confront the difficult questions. As the ones who serve as spiritual mentors and guides to students, we ought to be prepared to help them do exactly that.

My Journey Toward a Different Kind of Youth Ministry – Part I

Over the next several weeks I thought it would be helpful to outline my own journey away from what I normally call attractional youth ministry and toward a different kind of ministry. This is for myself, as much as you dear reader, since I often find it helpful to reflect on my journey. If you don’t know, Mandy and I are expecting a child very soon, so it seems like a proper time to reflect.

I first experienced what we might term a call to youth ministry when I was 14 and highly involved in the youth ministry at the church where my father was senior pastor. This youth ministry was fairly typical for the mid-1990s. In fact, one of our weekly events was specifically designed to be as “non-churchy” as possible. This was the event to which we were supposed to invite all of our non-church-attending friends. We played a lot of games, had a lot of entertainment, ate copious amounts of junk food and then had a devotional. This is the environment that I knew as “youth ministry.”

So, sometime around when I was 14 or 15 I read Purpose Driven Youth Ministry by Doug Fields. I fell head-over-heels in love with the PDYM method of doing ministry. Looking back it’s really somewhat laughable. I’m certain Doug would have been horrified had he met me back then. I thought it was the be-all-end-all paradigm for doing ministry to students. The idea that we had to target our programs toward different “interest levels” made perfect sense to me at the time.

I continued in this phase until I got to college where I received more exposure to different youth ministry ideas. I also began to realize that PDYM had some good ideas, but probably wasn’t going to work in every situation. Even during this time though, I was convinced that we needed to have awesome, huge youth ministry events where students would come for the entertainment and then hear the gospel. Partly this was based on my theology, and partly on my own experience of youth ministry as a teen.

At the time, I was just beginning to realize that “living the Christian life,” might have relevance for this life rather than only the next. I was trying to reconcile an upbringing that tended to emphasis the eternal aspects of the faith with my emerging reading of Scripture which seemed to say a great deal about life on planet Earth and surprisingly little about Heaven. It wasn’t easy for me, and this affected the way I did ministry. I tended to focus on any opportunity to “share the gospel.” There are positives to this, but as I look back I think I missed the point at times. On the whole I created some really fun events, but I’m pretty sure that I managed to convert students to fun and entertainment rather than to Jesus.

There was one thing that I learned from PDYM and planning youth events during my first year or two in college: when we do an event there ought to be a purpose behind that event! Doug expresses it this way in PDYM: Target audience + purpose = event. I’d rather we make things less program-centric now, and I’m not convinced that having a target audience is entirely helpful, but the idea that what we do ought to have a reason behind it has stuck with me. The question I began to find myself facing was: What’s the reason for youth ministry?

Help, I’m a youth worker!

Since I’ve started blogging more regularly again, I’ve had a few requests from those who find themselves doing youth ministry in the church but who have little or no training. They’ve asked a variety of questions, but often a question they have is how to get a better handle on youth ministry without heading off to get a degree in the subject.

Ideally, if someone is a full-time youth worker, they’d have some type of formal education in Bible, practical theology, counseling, and programming. But our world isn’t an ideal place. There are also a large number of people who simply love students and volunteer in the youth ministry at their local church. For people in that situation there are a number of options. Some great conferences and training opportunities are around, and I’d highly recommend many of them.

For today, however, I’ll simply list five must-read books for anyone who wants to do youth ministry. This is probably the height of hubris since plenty of other bloggers have far more experience than I do. Nevertheless, what’s the point of blogging if not putting your own two cents out there?

Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli – This book really should end up on nearly anyone’s list. Mark proposes a way of doing youth ministry that values downtime instead of activity, prayer instead of entertainment, Scripture instead of our pet peeves; in short Jesus and his way of life over our own culture and the empire of this world. I constantly revisit this book, not because I agree with everything in it, but because it always helps me to reevaluate how I am doing ministry. It encourages me that, if I’m going to help my students encounter God, I need to be encountering him myself.

Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean – If you know me, it’s really no surprise this book is on here. It might be a surprise that I didn’t list it first. Kenda’s book brings together a variety of statistics and seeks to answer the question “Why?” in an accessible manner. It does all of this and more. It is a challenge not only to youth workers, but to parents, senior pastors, church boards, and–really–Christians. Our students are almost, but not quite, Christian because we are almost Christian. Perhaps the best aspect of this book is that, although Kenda recognizes the enormity of the problem, she manages to hold out hope that change is possible.

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root – This is perhaps the most theologically nuanced youth ministry book I’ve ever read. Trying to summarize even a part of what’s discussed is probably impossible. This book has challenged me, encouraged me, and caused me to revisit (!) how I think about relationships in ministry. In truth, this book would probably be beneficial for senior pastors and other ministry workers to read. Simply put, this is a must read.

Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns – Hardly a youth ministry book, this makes my list because it is a huge help in answering some tough questions about the Old Testament. Pete helps explain why the Bible has theological diversity, why we get different accounts of the same event, and how we can reconcile all of that with a high view of Scripture. If you already have some experience in biblical studies or theology, I’d encourage you to pass this by in favor of Kenton Sparks’ God’s Word in Human Words. But for the uninitiated, Enns’ short book really is a huge help.

The Bible – No, I’m not cheating, and I’m not trying to be cliche either. Too few of us have actually read the Bible. I don’t mean cover to cover in one of those Bible-in-a-year reading plans. I mean actually read through the stories, digested them, thought about them, and learned from them. Do we understand how the prophets fit in with the deuteronomistic history? Do we get the cycle of sin-judgement-repentence throughout the book of Judges? Do we recognize that David is introduced twice in two mutually exclusive accounts in 1 Samuel? Have we wrestled with this book that we want to teach to students? If we haven’t, we need to. Wrestling with Scripture will help us be better youth ministers than any other book. I’m going to cheat and, in conjunction with this, encourage you to read Shaped by the Story by Michael Novelli. Michael’s book helps us learn how to help students understand and enter God’s story. But it’s certainly no replacement for actually wrestling with that story ourselves.

Honorable Mention: Middle School Ministry by Mark Oestreicher and Scott Rubin – If you’re working with middle school students specifically, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s pretty much one of a kind, and is jam packed with helpful information for those of us who minister to and with middle school students.

One final note, there are so many other books that would be helpful for those working with students. This is really just a place to start. I also need to mention that it’s always possible I might change my mind. I might read a book next week that I think just has to go on this list. That’s the beauty of the Internet, I can always come back and update my list. In the meantime, happy reading.

Trusting Students

Since I’ve been thinking recently about attractional youth ministry I’ve come to another conclusion about it. I think that we often feel most comfortable doing attractional youth ministry because we don’t trust our students. I’ll flesh this out more below. Trust is, after all, a big topic in ministry. We are trying to help those to whom we minister trust God. We ourselves are trying to continually trust God more, and trust God with our students. These are all important things. I just wonder if we forget to trust our students.

The idea behind attractional youth ministry is often that if we didn’t bribe students with pizza, games and entertainment, they wouldn’t darken the doors of our churches. Sometimes we try to make church look more like an amusement park than a place where we might encounter God.* Ultimately, I think we don’t trust students to really be interested in God. In a way, I guess I could argue, that we don’t trust the gospel–and the Holy Spirit–to work change in our students without the attractional flair. This might be the case, but I’d like to focus in on how attractional youth ministry fails to trust students.

When we work off of an attractional model of ministry we assume, from the very beginning, that students aren’t that interested in God, the Bible, faith, religion or spirituality. Instead we assume they are interested in fun, social gatherings, entertainment, food and flash. Now, it’s certainly true that students are interested in the latter. In my experience, however, students are also highly interested in the former. Truth be told, they can find the other things at a variety of venues. But faith and spirituality, and certainly an authentic community of faith, are often only available to students at a church.

When we fail to trust students to be interested in their own spirituality we end up feeding them a steady diet of fun and entertainment. They’ll gladly accept this from us, but in the long run it does them little good, and it leaves them feeling like church doesn’t fulfill what they need. Because they understand, on some level, that they really do need something beyond themselves. Something powerful, radical, worth living and–at the risk of sounding trite–worth dying for. When we fail to trust students we end up creating a cycle that, if statistics are any guide, leads to them not having a vibrant faith to sustain them through life.

My point in saying all of this isn’t to bash on youth pastors or youth ministry. At least a sizable chunk of us doing ministry for and with students have acknowledged that the youth ministry status quo is unsustainable. So, yes, I’d like to convince those who haven’t been convinced yet that attractional youth ministry isn’t the way forward. But I’d also like to encourage those who are trying to figure out a different kind of youth ministry. As I try to trust my students, it’s sometimes very difficult. It’s tempting, at times, to imagine that they don’t really care about Jesus, the Bible, or spirituality. But I have to remind myself: they really do. I have to take a step back and tell myself that–as much as I have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives–I also have to trust my students to genuinely want the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.

Figuring out a new kind of youth ministry is worthwhile because students need a new kind of youth ministry, one that challenges them. One that expects more out of them. One that feeds them. Students need this, and I have to trust that–yes–they want it.

*I’m not trying to imply that the folks at Saddleback haven’t helped a variety of students. But we certainly have strong philosophical differences.

Fall Retreat: From the Other Side

A couple weeks ago I posted some thoughts on our upcoming middle school retreat. Our Fall Retreat has come and gone, and I’m happy to say that it was a wonderful time. It wasn’t perfect, and there are things I would change if I could go back, but it truly went well.

After I had processed through some of the thoughts in my previous post I made a decision to further loosen the free time on Saturday afternoon. Essentially, we gave students the entire afternoon “off” from programming. We brought a bunch of board games, one student brought string and beads, and we just spent time together. Some of us spent time playing on swings, or walking around the beautiful paths that wound through the camp. Some of us played chess, while others made bracelets, and others walked a prayer path. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I was a little concerned that students would be bored.

What I find so interesting, however, is that this time is one of the most talked about aspects of the retreat. Leaders loved the freedom to be with students, and all the students I’ve talked with so far enjoyed the opportunity to simply enjoy themselves, relax and experience God in the moment. Lest I misrepresent things, please don’t believe that the entire afternoon was some kind of spiritual experience for every student. It wasn’t, at least not in the sense we normally think of when we think of spiritual experiences. But it was a time to rest, a time of sabbath.

Once again, it wasn’t a perfect retreat. There are several aspects of the retreat I think could have been tweaked to improve it further (and by improve, I mean help students connect with God and one another at deeper levels). But the best decision I could have made was to set aside formal programming and simply allow all of us to be with one another. After I have some more time to process I’m sure I’ll have more substantive thoughts on what could have been improved. But for the moment, I am extremely pleased to have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of the retreat just chilling with some of the most amazing middle school students on the planet.

Being Shaped

One thing that has always fascinated–or, more honestly, frustrated–me about youth ministry is picking a curriculum. In fact, I’m normally so frustrated by the process that I simply design my own. This isn’t overly efficient, however, especially when I am not the one solely responsible for teaching. Teaching is a hugely important part of ministry, and what and how we teach is a vital aspect of how we do ministry.

In youth ministry, I want my students to be shaped by the Bible. I want them to discover this amazing story of which they are a part. I want them to own that story, and I want them to get to know the God who is revealed in that story. The problem with this is that sometimes the story is messy. Sometimes we don’t understand the God who is revealed in it. Perhaps worst of all, for a society that thrives on instant gratification, it is often difficult to see how we are being shaped by this story until we look back from a vantage point miles down the road.

So, it is no surprise that most curricula–and, indeed, many youth pastors–throw out the story in favor of topics. We know students want something relevant so we teach about sex and dating. Maybe we feel that our students need to learn more about service, so we teach on service. We determine what our students need and then we fish around our holy book and find what we think best meets that need. This is the worst possible way for our students to be shaped by the story of God. In doing this, we forget that if we teach the story as a story, we’ll get to all those parts eventually anyway. What’s more, all those parts will make infinitely more sense and fit into a larger whole.

I had a professor in seminary who argued constantly and persuasively against topical teaching and preaching. His argument was very simple: if you preach topically, no matter what you do, you will always spend most of the time on your own soapboxes. Instead, he encouraged students to teach or preach through whole books of the Bible. That’s a step in the right direction, though I think we need to go a step further still. I’d like to suggest that as youth workers we need to leave aside our precious topics, turn from our idol of relevancy, and teach the story.

If we want the story to shape us and our students, then they need to know what that story is. Not what disparate parts of that story say on an assorted range of topics, but the story itself. The best way to do this is to start in Genesis and continue until we get to Revelation. I’m not proposing that the canonical order is the best order to teach in, but it would–more or less–communicate the story. It would certainly communicate it better than we generally do. Sadly, even some curricula that are supposed to do exactly this jump from one big ticket Bible story to the next, leaving the story feeling disconnected at best and impossible to follow at worst. Even if we don’t go through every single book in the Bible, we ought to move through the Pentateuch, former prophets, some of the writings, the gospels, Acts, some of the epistles and Revelation; and we ought to move through them without skipping huge chunks just because we find them odd or irrelevant (I will except here the census data in various books, as well as the legal codes–those are all important, but it’s a fight I know I won’t win).

This is all good in theory, but it presents two difficulties in practice. The first is how we manage it programmatically. The Bible is a rather large book, after all. How do we realistically create a space in our youth ministries to teach it as a story, from beginning to end? I have always found it helpful to devote one of my main teaching programs to going through the Bible. Normally this is our Sunday morning program, but it could work just as well at a midweek small group or a Sunday evening large group gathering. The point isn’t the venue as much as that we actually work our way through the story. At the same time, I also understand that sometimes our students really do need a topic addressed with some immediacy. Most youth ministries have at least two teaching times a week, whether one is large group and the other small group, or one is “Sunday school” and the other “youth group.” The point is that in my experience, I’ve found it helpful to devote one of these times to helping students learn the story, while allowing the other time to be more topical, or to touch on sections I might not touch on in the other (such as the Psalms, or the wisdom literature).

The second problem is that, sadly, many of us aren’t familiar enough with the story to actually facilitate others. I’ve met youth pastors who wouldn’t even begin to know who Joab or Jael were, let alone Ahitophel or Athaliah. This creates an issue: if we aren’t familiar with the story ourselves, we can hardly tell it to others. We might even think that some of those stories in the Hebrew Bible aren’t actually that important. After all, we’re Christians, and we follow Jesus. Let’s get to those parables, because those are stories, but they really touch on some great topics! The problem is that Jesus shows up toward the end of the story. He’s the plot twist, as it were, the big moment. Without him, the story unravels. But we still have to get there first. Those stories in the Hebrew Bible teach us a great many things about God, about human beings, and about how the one relates to the other. In short, they teach us who God is and who we are as humans and as his people. We need those stories, now as much as ever.

As youth workers we need to do the hard work of learning the story ourselves so that we can tell it to others. It won’t be easy. But most of us have already realized that being a Christian isn’t supposed to be easy, and being a youth worker even less so. If we want our students to be shaped by the story of God, we need to start sharing the story with them, from beginning to end. We need to avoid splitting it into easy bits or proof texts, but allow them to experience it whole and uncensored. That might require us to do some hard work ourselves, but it’s worth it. After all, this story is our story and without it we miss part of what it means to be us.

What is Attractional Youth Ministry?

Although most youth ministry professionals will already have a prior knowledge of the term attractional youth ministry, I’ve received several requests from those of you who read my blog who aren’t youth ministry professionals. I commonly use the term attractional youth ministry to describe a type of youth ministry that I do not want to engage in. This post is for those who may not have any idea what I’m talking about when I say attractional youth ministry. For this reason, I’m going to try to define this type of ministry and flesh it out a little bit. There is always a danger in this. It is extremely easy, because I don’t agree with many of the ideas behind attractional youth ministry, to simply create a strawman. I will do my best to resist that temptation.

Simply put, attractional youth ministry is youth ministry as you probably know it. It is youth ministry as it was conceived in the 80s and 90s. It’s the youth ministry that I grew up in. The thinking goes something like this: students find church boring. Church shouldn’t be boring. Students need Jesus. Students like fun. We should attract students to our ministries with fun and then give them Jesus. In other words, youth ministry becomes about getting students in the door through entertainment and fun, and then slipping them a little Jesus and hoping that something takes. Their entertainment and comfort become our first priorities.

The general thought process might be too abstract though, so let me try to flesh out how this could look in practice (and for the visual learner, check out this post at Rethinking Youth Ministry) A local church plans a youth ministry event for a Friday evening. They have a Christian band come in to give a concert. They setup the church gym for basketball, rent a popcorn machine, provide nearly unlimited soda, and setup two Xbox systems running a multiplayer game of Halo on two large projectors. Students come in and hear loud music, see Halo being played, and are encouraged to have fun. After a couple hours all the students are corralled into the auditorium where the lead singer from the band gives a gospel presentation. The presentation is emotional, talking about the lead singer’s own life story. The gospel itself is presented something like this, “being a Christian doesn’t mean you can’t have fun anymore. Look at all the fun we’ve had tonight! It isn’t even that hard! It doesn’t mean you’ll be all weird, or a crazy fanatic. Being a Christian means that you believe that Jesus is the son of God and because of his death you don’t have to spend eternity in hell!” Some students cry. Some “get saved.” Then we return to playing games.

If you’re curious, I once planned that exact event. The students in my ministry loved it. I would never do that again. It is fairly typical youth ministry, at least as conceived in many churches. Now, if you’ve been involved in the church you might be wondering what the issue is. It’s true, you might quibble over the scare tactic of hell in the gospel presentation, but otherwise you might not see anything wrong with that type of youth ministry. That’s OK. But let me explain why I refuse to do youth ministry like this anymore.

Attractional youth ministry, as I’ve described it, is intensely concerned with getting students in the door. The problem is that we often get them in the door with gimmicks and entertainment. As I’ve matured in my own philosophy of youth ministry I’ve found something that should have been obvious to me: I don’t need Halo and unlimited sodas to bribe students into coming to church. I have something far better to offer them: Jesus. The story of God is riveting, worthwhile, helpful, and life changing. Our religion is able to stand on its own. It doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar.

In my experience, students can often find far more entertaining engagements outside the church. But they can’t find the meaning, community, love and acceptance that the church offers. The Christian story has something to offer to the world, and we don’t need to trick individuals into coming to church with entertainment in order to get that message out. We need to be open about the fact that we have a message that can change the world. Then we need to live out the way of life that Jesus offers. But here, perhaps, is where things get difficult. Because it’s far easier to say a prayer, have some fun, and be assured that our entertainment and comfort is the top priority.

Perhaps the issue that most convinces me that attractional youth ministry really isn’t the way forward is the dire statistics in terms of youth ministry. Books like Almost Christian make it pretty clear that we’ve raised generations of Christians who are more concerned with feeling good about themselves than with following Jesus. It is overbearing to lay all the blame for this at the feet of youth ministry as we did it in the 80s and 90s. But at least some of the blame has to be laid squarely at our feet.

That’s why we need a different kind of youth ministry. A kind of youth ministry that takes theology seriously, that takes the Bible seriously, and that takes students seriously. Our students need more than entertainment, even if they argue that the only reason they come to church is because it’s “fun.” Their lives are more than fun, and somewhere deep inside themselves they want a religion that does more than give them a place to hang out a couple hours each week.

Of course, these are only my thoughts. I certainly can’t capture every aspect of attractional youth ministry. I’d love to hear how others would describe it, perhaps in more sparkling terms than I have been able to.

Youth Ministry Retreats

This weekend we head out on our fall retreat with the guys and girls in our middle school ministry. I’ve been looking forward to the retreat for several weeks now. It’ll be a great chance to connect with students, build relationships and share life. Over the past several weeks I’ve been reflecting on retreats and why we do them and I’ve had to confront a thought that I have found myself confronting often over the past several months: why do we always have to keep students busy?

Jeff Dunn recently shared his experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani. It’s very interesting to me that he found the silence to be too loud. At the risk of sounding too much like Mark Yaconelli, do we fear offering students the opportunity to experience silence? Jeff talks about spending time simply reading the Gospel of John or sitting in the shade of a tree. It sounds to me like what he is describing is sabbath, arguably one of the central purposes of a retreat. But in my experience youth ministry retreats, whether of the week-long summer variety or the weekend school year variety, are often just as busy as the rest of our overstimulated lives.

I wonder what it would look like if instead of a busy retreat weekend we created space for students to relax, be themselves, unwind and perhaps experience God in the rest of sabbath and in one another. Instead of a schedule that merely allows for a couple hours free time on Saturday afternoon, what if our retreats instead focused on a rhythm of morning, noon and evening prayer and allowed our students to spend the rest of the time resting, playing, and encountering God in ways that connected the best with them. What if the proportion of downtime and programmed time were flipped, with a few hours of the weekend devoted to program and the majority devoted to free time, rest, silence, reading, running, sitting in the shade of a tree, praying, talking and otherwise connecting with God and one another. What if we started the morning with prayer and then offered students the opportunity to find a place to be alone, read a passage of Scripture and reflect on it? My guess is that they would actually engage more fully with that Scripture than they would in a more tightly programmed context.

My suspicion is that if we were to really think about it, we don’t fully trust our students to connect with God on their own. If we can program things we can both ensure they’re having fun and being entertained, and also assuage our own conscience by ensuring that there are times devoted to more spiritual pursuits. But if our efforts at helping them connect to God simply create more busyness, maybe we’ve missed the entire point of a retreat. I don’t know the students in anyone else’s ministry, but my students need rest more than anything else. They are constantly going, constantly doing, constantly being measured and constantly busy. No wonder our students have trouble connecting to God; they don’t have the time to sit and hear his voice.

Personally, I think that if we made holy leisure a part of our retreats, we might find that students have an easier time connecting with God. Lest I be accused of being lazy, I’m not proposing this as an excuse for us as leaders to avoid planning. In some ways I imagine this might take more planning and thought. This isn’t just about going on a retreat and ignoring all of the important aspects of preparation that go into a retreat. But maybe a little less stress on our part in terms of moving from one thing to the next might help us be more present with our students.

Even in the midst of all this reflection, our middle school retreat looks very similar to most others I’ve seen. We’ve loosened the schedule in some ways, and tried to provide a large amount of free time on Saturday afternoon, but not to the degree I’ve proposed here. I still think it will be an excellent retreat, and maybe middle school students need more structure than high school students (though I fear that sounds too much like an excuse to my ears), but maybe we’ll find that the most important parts of the retreat are when we are simply being with students.

In the future I hope to integrate larger amounts of silence, rest and free time into our retreats, even if only as experiments. Returning to the core of what a retreat is about is precisely what our students need. I suppose I have to be willing to put my money where my mouth is.

Fractal Theory and Youth Ministry

Paul brings up an interesting topic. To be completely honest, I felt a little bit like I was in an episode of Numb3rs–but that isn’t a bad thing–as I was reading his post. You should click on the link above and read Paul’s post too.

Paul makes an fascinating observation that the way we begin our individual programs is often analogous to how we begin and end our program years. This makes me wonder, a little, because we’ve made a small change to our midweek middle school program: we no longer start with a game. Of course, we didn’t do a big kickoff this year either. Maybe there is something to his observation. But what I’d like to spend some time interacting with is the final question Paul poses: what does it mean if we break the pattern and do something different simply to change things up?

I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of change for the sake of change. Sometimes it’s needed, and I acknowledge that, but at the end of the day I think the changes we make really need to be more purposeful than that. For instance, we noticed in our midweek program that the game, far from allowing our middle school students to get the jitters out, actually tended to get them more wound up. It didn’t set the right tone for our time together, which we wanted to be more about being together and talking. The change came out of a process of asking what we could do to set the tone better.

We chose not to do a large kickoff for different reasons. Our ministry has, in the past, been quite attractional. We are currently transitioning to what will hopefully be a more contemplative and open ministry. This takes time. The choice not to do a big kickoff was partly due to this and partly to a related issue that we wanted to help students begin to sense a rhythm to our week. In this regard, I suppose, a kickoff would have set the wrong tone for our year. Maybe the similarities really are there. But either way neither of the changes was made for the sake of change.

Having read Paul’s blog for awhile, I doubt that he’s really proposing that we make a bunch of changes just to make changes. I sometimes wonder if we don’t need more major changes in the realm of youth ministry. But I want all of those changes to be made for a reason. It is an interesting observation Paul has made, however, and I’ll probably end up inadvertently analyzing each of our programs over the next week or so and seeing how they fall into or don’t fall into this pattern.