Felt Needs and Rule Books

I finally read through Tash McGill’s article in the current (July/August 2012) issue of Immerse. A quick digression: if you’re a youth worker and you don’t subscribe to Immerse, change that. As most of my readers might notice, I’m into changing the way we think about youth ministry, but I’m not sure changing in the way Tash suggests is best.

I have the same basic concern that Jason Chenoweth mentions: it seems like Tash is suggesting we base youth ministry on the felt needs of students. Now, maybe that isn’t her intention at all, but the article makes it sound like changing the rules means responding to whatever the felt needs of the moment are in regards to our students. We certainly need to be aware of the felt needs of our students, but we also need to challenge them to look beyond those felt needs to something deeper. After all, I’m pretty sure the massive programs and light shows that Tash mentions negatively came about because of our attempts to minister to the felt needs of students.

Jason may go a little far in his criticism, however. He suggests that we can’t actually do youth ministry that isn’t program-based, and that’s just wrong. In smaller youth ministries, a non-program based model is entirely attainable. In larger youth ministries it would be much more difficult, but by stripping out the doing, and instead simply being together (which is part of Tash’s point) we can radically change the type of programming we’re producing and move from a youth ministry of doing and producing to a youth ministry of being and caring. The later is, I think, the more biblical model.

Both Tash’s article and Jason’s response are worth reading. I can’t say that I entirely agree with either of them, but this is the kind of honest dialog we’re sorely in need of in youth ministry circles. We do need to think about changing the rule book, I’m just not convinced that Tash’s suggestions–as I’m understanding them from her article–are changes in the right direction.


3 thoughts on “Felt Needs and Rule Books

  1. Hi Calvin. Thanks for your thoughtful response. One of the challenges in writing a piece like that, is deciding what to leave in, what to leave out. For example, some of the research around adolescent development and their learning functions, turned my path towards situational learning ie: processing and teaching values through present context. This is what has essentially been interpreted as “responding to felt need”. I see how that’s possible from the article.

    However, it’s felt need that creates perceived reality, and with young people who are yearning and eliminating voices of influence based on authenticity – it’s really important to have a good level of engagement with felt need. It creates the opportunity to ask “What does what I’m feeling, or experiencing right now, cause me to think or behave in regards to my self, others, family, faith, community?”.. these are crucial questions to ask in youth ministry.

    I’ll admit, I am obsessed with helping young people “grow up”, in other words, develop strong critical thinking, consequential thinking and EQ so that they can apply their integrated faith to life in every day situations.

    Keen to talk more though!

  2. Tash, thanks so much for your response. This is the kind of dialog I really enjoy.

    I don’t mean to argue that we ought to entirely ignore the felt needs of students. But it also seems to me that part of our response toward felt needs ought to be that sometimes what we think we need isn’t actually what we need. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about those needs, but as a youth minister I want to constantly redirect my students toward Jesus. If I point to anything else, then I’m pointing at the wrong thing.

    I’d actually argue that engagement with felt needs is actually less important than engagement with the person. That is, an authentic relationship doesn’t require a kind of engagement with felt need as much as it requires time spent together, honest dialog, etc. But, I do agree that asking the questions you suggest is crucial for youth ministry–indeed, for any person of faith.

    Perhaps, in the end, we simply have different definitions of “felt need?”

    1. You know, I think you might be right – and the difficulty of course, is that “felt needs” wasn’t my phrase, but the interpretation that someone else used. When I read your comment above – my initial response was, ‘hey, we’re on exactly the same page’.

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