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.

What’s it all about?

For those who have followed this blog for years or who know me personally, it comes as no surprise that I’m always thinking. Whether I’m pondering the wonders of the latest Brandon Sanderson novel or reflecting on some aspect of theology or parsing Hebrew verbs or considering some aspect of youth ministry I’m constantly thinking. It’s the last one in that list that I’ve been processing over the past couple of months. In my role as a youth pastor I have occasion to discuss youth ministry with folks from all sorts of different backgrounds and perspectives: parents, other staff, youth leaders, teens, other youth pastors and ministry leaders and a host of others. I also read a great deal about youth ministry. I find it helps me to constantly be sharpening myself through reading and processing other folks’ thoughts on youth ministry (or ministry and theology generally). Recently my thinking on youth ministry has focused on the widely differing perspectives various people have on why we have youth ministries in churches. What are we trying to accomplish? What is the point of youth ministry? In short, what’s it all about?

One explanation I often hear–or at least hear implied–is that we have youth ministries because we want students to be safe. For conservatives, this means attracting students to ministries so that they hear the gospel and become Christians (which is variously defined, but normally involves saying a prayer). For mainliners the goal isn’t so much for students to say a prayer but for them to become involved in the denomination. In both cases, part of the goal is that students would be at youth group rather than at other, more worldly entertainments. Success is measured by how many students came and whether or not they had a good time. On another level, success may include not just how many students came, but how many of those students are now leading moral lives (variously defined, but normally meaning no drugs, sex, or alcohol)

A second explanation I often hear flows out of this first one. Folks see the drawbacks of an attractional approach. They are nervous about making success about numbers and fun. These people rightly feel like students want more than some cool games and a chance to hang out. So, they think youth ministry must be about helping students acquire a deeper knowledge of the Bible and theology. The method becomes intense Bible study, or having students read Piper, Wright, or Tillich depending on one’s theological persuasion. A youth ministry is successful when students can reproduce information. When they can pass the test. In short: orthodoxy (however a particular church or group defines it) becomes the goal. Yet too often this way of looking at youth ministry runs the risk of elevating the Bible and theology to the place of gods. We teach our students the Bible as an end, rather than as a means to encountering Christ.

These are the two largest camps. Though there is a third that argues that because of the dismal track record of youth ministry in producing lifelong faith we should abandon the whole enterprise because, by nature, youth ministry subverts the role of parents and the wider church in discipleship. While this group has some helpful critiques to offer, I think they are trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In truth, I think each of the approaches above misses some important facets of youth ministry. So, where do we go? If youth ministry isn’t about packing teens in the building, and it isn’t about teaching them theology or the creeds, but we don’t want to get rid of youth ministry, then what is left? A book–books!–could be written answering that question, and there are no shortage of just such books. I find a great deal of what has been written recently very helpful though.

Youth ministry is not chiefly about getting students to attend our programs, believe our doctrine, repeat our creeds, or love our pet theologians. There may be appropriate times in youth ministry to have a program, to engage with the creeds, to challenge students to greater knowledge of the God we claim to serve, but none of those are the point. The point of youth ministry is the point of all ministry: to join as a community in what God is doing in the world. That is, youth ministry has a necessarily missional shape (as does all ministry). But it also has a communal, or relational shape. But we must always keep in mind that relationships are not a means to an end, but rather an end in and of themselves. We encounter God as we encounter other image-bearers. When I sit down with a teen (or with anyone!) it is not for the purpose of teaching them correct doctrine, or keeping them entertained so I can slip in a Gospel presentation or trick them into being a part of my denomination. When I sit down with another person it is to be with that person as Jesus is with me. And in that relationship the Holy Spirit is at work and makes things happen.

Certainly, I want students to know Jesus as revealed in Scripture more. I think the ancient creeds are a wonderful way of encountering God. I think Christian practices shape us in some amazing ways. Learning to reflect theologically is essential to the Christian life. But none of those things is the Christian life. Simply put, the Christian life is following Jesus within the community he has setup.

In short, youth ministry is not about what we can cause students to become or what we can teach them or how we can shape their behavior. Youth ministry is about encountering the Holy Spirit in the midst of our relationships with one another and–together–working out our faith in Jesus.

When Kids Hurt by Chap Clark and Steve Rabey

When Kids Hurt is excellent. If you’ve read Chap’s book Hurt or Hurt 2.0 you won’t necessarily find anything new. All the research is still the same, and even where it is updated it is largely the same: the shared experience of adolescence is hurt, pain, abandonment. I loved Hurt when I read it, and I like When Kids Hurt even more. The reason I like this book more than the original (if you will) is that the tone of this book is different. When many folks read Hurt they came away feeling discouraged. They had had their eyes opened to the pain of adolescents but they didn’t know the way forward. The criticism has been heard loud and clear by Chap and Steve, and so When Kids Hurt not only has a very different tone throughout the entire book which I think will help folks greatly, it also includes a great chapter on what adults can do to help adolescents. Spoiler warning: it involves authentic relationships. In fact, this final chapter really makes the book as far as I am concerned. I’d highly recommend this to anyone doing youth ministry.

I’ve been in youth ministry for more than a decade now, and my experiences line up exactly with what Chap describes in his book. Adolescents share a deep experience of systemic abandonment. They hurt. Sometimes they find ways to hide their hurt from their parents, from their friends, even from themselves. Some think that if they can just purchase the next song, the next video game, the next outfit, the next pair of shoes, the next car, the next phone, the next hit, everything will be OK. Others acknowledge their pain, loss, and suffering but only to a select group. As adults it’s sometimes too easy to think that our kids are “good kids” (by which we mean they get good grades, don’t do drugs(at least that we know about), don’t get into trouble, and are generally rule-abiding young citizens). It may be true that our kids are good kids, but that doesn’t insulate them from a society that abandons them to a ferocious, broken world.

As much as this post serves as an endorsement of Clark and Rabey’s book, it serves as more of an endorsement to be there for students. As Jesus stands with and for each of us in our own suffering, let us stand with and for young people in the midst of their pain and abandonment. Pick up a copy of When Kids Hurt, read it, and don’t be discouraged but act on it, providing an authentic presence in the midst of the lives of the adolescents around you.

Bonhoeffer, Youth Work and Absence

It has been far too long since I’ve given voice to my thoughts on this blog. There are probably many reasons for that, but at least one reason is that I’ve been busy. In any case, I can’t promise that regular updates are suddenly going to resume, but I do hope to slowly pick up the blogging again. This will take a variety of forms, most notably interacting with books and articles about youth ministry. I’ll also blog about other interests of mine. Don’t expect anything profound.

I recently picked up and began working my way through Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker by Andrew Root. It’s an excellent read so far, as all of Root’s books tend to be. Today I want to make just one or two observations about the first chapter or two of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker. Scot McKnight is blogging his way through the book, and his own summary and thoughts are worth the time it would take you to read them.

Observation #1: the idea that Bonhoeffer is a sort of forefather to those of us who want to take a theological turn in youth ministry is intriguing. I have mentioned before how, in college, I hated my systematic theology courses because they seemed to be focused on an abstract system that had no room for experience. When theology didn’t match up with life, your life was wrong, not the theology. I began reading Bonhoeffer in college and in Bonhoeffer I found two things that have irrevocably shaped my own journey of faith. The first thing I found was a willingness to talk about and stand firm on grace, but accompanied by an acknowledgment that grace is costly. Of course, Bonhoeffer is well known for this and it’s probably the thing most American Christians know most about him. The Cost of Discipleship is his most well known work, though the actual title is merely Discipleship. I imagine it would be perplexing or at least frustrating to him if folks thought the cost could somehow be separated from discipleship, as if they were two separate things. Grace is, by its very nature, costly. But, the second thing I learned from Bonhoeffer is that theology is not static or removed from the world (in fairness, my reading of Barth also helped me with this idea). Rather, theology interacts with life on the ground. The priority is not to attain knowledge and understand facts, but to live the Christian life. Theology serves the church, not the other way round.

Observation #2: Bonhoeffer being a potential forefather of the theological turn in youth ministry does not make that turn any easier to make. There are plenty who still see youth ministry as a pill to be prescribed to the wayward youth of America. Most mean well by this, but it doesn’t take adolescents seriously and it doesn’t take Jesus seriously. We reduce the gospel to behavior and miss the whole point of grace. But I digress. The theological turn is no more easy for the modern youth worker than Bonhoeffer’s own convictions were for him.


Ministry is hard work. I know far too many youth workers who are consumed by calendars, meetings and programs. Truth be told, I often look at my own ministry and wonder what went wrong. When did pastoring youth start to mean planning a calendar so dreadfully full of events that there is no time left to simply be together? When did being a professional youth worker start to mean that all of our time is devoted to maintaining programs (Sunday morning, Wednesday night, fun nights, lock-ins, fundraisers, bible studies (if we’re lucky), fall retreat(s), spring retreat(s), winter retreat, mission trips, week-long summer conferences, etc) instead of devoted to seeking where God is working in the lives of our students? When did our students stop seeking the living God and start seeking a program that gives them an emotional high–or maybe we never showed them a God worth seeking in the first place?

In the midst of our broken world, it can only be expected that our youth ministries will be broken as well. But I wonder if sometimes our ministries are more broken than they need to be? Youth ministry books will often talk about helping students find a passionate faith, or helping students slow down and contemplate God, or being pro-student as Jesus is pro-us. These books are wonderful, and they talk about dealing with staff members who don’t understand why the youth ministry is suddenly interested in theology; they talk about how to help parents who just want a youth ministry that is fun see that their children need more than good morals; but these books never talk about what to do to help students realize that a jam-packed calendar and a well-maintained program aren’t the central pieces of youth ministry.

Maybe students intuitively realize this. But I think this intuition is on the same level as staff people and parents: sometimes it needs some help coming out. Ministry is tough. But sometimes we just need to turn around, seize the bull by the horns, and see what happens.

Dovie’andi se tovya sagain.

Chubby Bunny

I have an article currently posted over at ImmerseJournal.com wherein I interact with Alain Olivo’s Chubby Bunny with Pinto Beans article in the current issue of Immerse.

In addition to encouraging anyone who doesn’t already read Immerse to read it, why don’t you head on over and take a look at my response article? I’d love to interact further with people on the issues Alain’s article raises.

More anon.


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.