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?