More on fun…

Early today I mentioned the importance of fun in youth ministry. I mentioned that we don’t need to focus on programming every moment. We don’t need to entertain students, we just need to be together. This evening I came across this article. It is well worth reading, but one quote in particular stood out:

That led to an obsession with their children’s safety in every aspect of their lives. Instead of letting them go outside to play, parents filled their kid’s spare time with organized activities, did their homework for them, resolved their conflicts at school with both friends and teachers, and handed out trophies for just showing up.

This gets very close to what I was talking about earlier. We have a tendency to think we have to hyper-schedule our youth events. I’ve actually had it suggested to me in the past that if we don’t have every moment of an event scheduled, students will just get into trouble. But that is the opposite of what we need to do (see my comments on our Fall Retreat for middle school students). Instead, as I mentioned earlier, we need to model Sabbath and simplicity to and with our students. There really is a way to live that is different than the surrounding culture and more like Jesus.

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.

Youth Ministry and Family Ministry

So, Adam Mclane is at it again. He can’t help being provocative. What may surprise you is that I agree with the main thrust of his argument. Allow me to explain.

Adam is absolutely right that if we want to do youth ministry well we need to have a realistic integration strategy at all levels. It’s not only the youth ministries job to be part of the larger whole, it’s also the larger whole’s job to have a space within itself for youth. If we simply try to pull youth ministry into the larger church and make it nice and tidy we haven’t done youth ministry any favors, and we certainly haven’t done the church any favors.

Ministry–to any group of people–is messy. It isn’t about being tidy. It isn’t about making things clear or acceptable. Quite the opposite. It’s about helping others. It’s about, as Adam puts it, helping all the wrong kinds of people. This is what Jesus did and this is what his Body ought to do.

Let me hasten to add that I would actually nuance things quite differently from Adam. I think he sees that the larger church is often not doing the work of helping the wrong kinds of people. At the same time, he sees youth ministries genuinely trying to do that (or, at least, sees that as the historical purpose of youth ministry). His solution is that maybe youth ministry needs left alone to do its thing. He’s wrong there. The solution is to alter our churches–which includes radically altering our youth ministries–if we’re to reach people. As I’ve pointed out time and again, our youth ministries haven’t been doing a great job of reaching people, at least on the whole. We’ve certainly gotten the wrong type of people into the church building, but they are quick to leave it as soon as they graduate high school.

This is why on the one hand youth ministry cannot continue as it has for the past thirty or more years. We have to change. At the same time, becoming a sanitized part of the family ministry isn’t the right answer either. Adam is right, if we’re just doing family retreats, and everything is about family, then how are we going to minister to youth without traditional families (obviously, children with only one parent come to mind, but what about first generation immigrant children, whose idea of family is much larger than our own idea of nuclear family)? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with doing a family retreat, but we have to full process our strategies.

No, the answer–I think–is to fully integrate the entire church. We will always need a youth ministry that reaches students where they are at. But our youth ministry also needs to disciple students, and part of that means introducing them to the larger church. This introduction can’t be the out hanger in our ministries either. Arguably, introducing someone to Jesus involves introducing them to his people here on earth, and that includes more than just adolescents playing games and hearing an inspirational devotion. Our students need a fully integrated youth ministry that helps them know they are part of a huge family that cares and loves them, and our churches need to be fully integrated so that students can help them to realize that ministry isn’t tidy and it isn’t easy.

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.

Immerse Journal

If you are a youth worker and you don’t have a subscription to Immerse Journal, you need to get one as soon as possible. Immerse is a truly top notch periodical for youth ministry. It’s not even that expensive. Surviving on a youth pastors salary can be tough, I know. If you can’t afford their–extremely fair–rates, then see about having your church foot the bill for a subscription or two, and pass it around to all of your adult volunteers.

One of the things I appreciate most about Immerse is that it takes youth ministry seriously. It also takes theology seriously. I’m constantly encouraged and challenged as I read Immerse because the writers know that youth ministry is far from simple. I read a variety of youth ministry resources and sometimes I’m still amazed at the oversimplicity of those resources. At other times I’m frustrated by a same-old, same-old approach. That isn’t the case with Immerse. It consistently challenges me to think deeply about my ministry and my students.

The current issue (Nov-Dec) is full of helpful articles from the likes of Kara Powell, Mark Yaconelli, Andy Root, Michael Novelli and Tony Jones. You’d be hard pressed to find a lineup that would make me more excited (well, you could add Kenda Creasy Dean). I can’t even begin to say enough things about the excellent articles in Immerse.

Finally, one of the most helpful things about Immerse Journal is that it doesn’t end with the print publication. You can visit ImmerseJournal.com to read electronic articles interacting with (and sometimes disagreeing with parts of)the articles in the print publication. This interaction makes reading Immerse feel a great deal like entering into a dialog with the greater youth ministry community.

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.