On the Importance of Challenge

I remember sitting at a conference once when a prominent youth ministry professor went off on our propensity in youth ministry to want to “challenge” students. His argument was essentially that students are stressed enough. The last thing they need is us adding another expectation to their plate. It’s a good caution, but I ultimately disagreed with this youth ministry luminary.

On the other hand, I have encountered a number of youth workers over the past several years who seem to want to go to the other extreme. For them, we must constantly challenge students. Unfortunately, that challenge typically takes one form: learn more theology…or perhaps better, learn my theology.

I’d like to maintain challenge as an important element of ministry–indeed, an important element in our lives. However, I think that we need to be careful that, as we challenge folks to greater faith, we don’t make the mistake of challenging them to be more like us. The Christian life is about becoming more like Jesus. It is not about becoming more like me, or the other Calvin, or a favored pastor, teacher, or theologian.

When we are not challenged in life, we tend to sit still. We reach a certain equilibrium and we stop moving, growing, changing (I am overstating here, since we still change, just normally not toward anything helpful). We need for folks to challenge us, to encourage us to change and grow. In my own life I have often been most thankful for those people who challenge me to think differently, or to consider something from a different angle, or to make some change. Iron sharpens iron.

At the same time, when we talk about challenge in youth ministry we must be especially careful because, as adults who care for students, we wield a great deal of influence in their lives. When we challenge a student to do something, we can often end up adding a great deal of stress to that student’s life as they try to add our expectation on top of the many they are already juggling. Challenge is important, but it is also powerful, and so we have to think about it in those sorts of terms. Very rarely in my life does something declare “You must do X!” and receive a positive response. I don’t need more expectations! On the other hand, those closest to me often encourage me to process something in a new way, or to try something I haven’t, or to devote more energy to a particular area of my life.

Too often I think that in the church we can become hesitant to challenge folks. We are nervous that if we talk about something like our enslavement to a consumerist culture, that people will become upset and leave. We worry that we must not expect too much of our people, or else they may leave their seats. Yet it is part of our job as a community to challenge one another. Certainly as followers of Jesus it is proper for us to–within relationships–process with one another our own enslavement to a culture that demeans life, seeks to make people less than they are, elevates violence and the rights of one nation against others, and a whole host of other vices. When we fail to challenge one another, we often sit thinking that we are in the right and can comfortably rest in our own righteousness.

There are students in my ministry who need to be challenge in a variety of ways. Some need to take more seriously their faith. Some need to worry less about acquiring knowledge and more about reflecting on and contemplating what they have already acquired. Some need to pray more, others need to read Scripture more. Some need to be more humble. Most of them need to be more loving and accepting of people who are not like them. They need challenged. They need to know that Jesus calls them to be more like him in the fullest sense possible.

So challenge is vital. But challenge must occur within relationships and as adults speaking into the lives of students we must always be careful that we are allowing the Holy Spirit to challenge and transform students into Jesus’ image, as opposed to into our own.


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