A Beautiful Mess by Mark Oestreicher

Youth Ministry in the United States isn’t an abject failure, or so reasons Mark Oestreicher in his new book from Simply Youth Ministry. In A Beautiful Mess, Marko lays out what he sees as many of the successes and positive aspects of youth ministry. I grabbed the book not long ago, and sat down the other night to read it. What follows are my own random thoughts on this tiny book.

First things first, A Beautiful Mess really is tiny. I finished it in about an hour and a half. That’s not to say it isn’t a good read. It is. In fact, I found it extremely encouraging. You’ll notice that I talk extensively on this blog about how we need to think of new ways to do youth ministry. I haven’t changed my mind on that (aside: neither has Marko). The data are just too clear: the youth ministry status quo isn’t working. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good things about the youth ministry status quo, and no one has been talking about them–until now.

The most helpful bit of the book, from my perspective, is actually the third chapter (of four, total). In this chapter, Marko shares some positive trends in youth ministry that he has observed from in-the-trenches youth workers. This was encouraging to me for two reasons. First, I haven’t observed these trends when I’ve interacted with local youth workers. That tends to leave me feeling isolated. Not fun. Second, each of the trends he mentions are, I think, extremely positive and exactly the kind of things we need to be experimenting with in youth ministry right now. They are some of the things we’re currently trying and experimenting with in the youth ministry at my church (things like more theological reflection, integrating students into the larger body rather than isolating them, and working with and involving parents).

So, this little book was encouraging and helped me to feel slightly less isolated in the youth ministry world. It’s also challenged me to continue mucking about in this beautiful mess we call youth ministry.

Worth the read.

Youth Ministry Musts

Marko shared his thoughts on the “three components of great youth ministry” some time ago, and I was recently reminded of it. I haven’t yet read Marko’s new book, A Beautiful Mess, but I agree completely with the idea that youth ministry only really requires those three things:

1.You like teenagers
2.You are a growing follower of Jesus
3.You are willing to live honestly in the presence of those teenagers you like

I’ll be quick to add that, yes, I do think the youth ministry sky is falling. More importantly, I think we need more theological reflection. In fact, I think the above three things are actually deeply theological and we ought to understand and own that. I think “living honestly” is just common speak for living incarnationally. There is a great deal we need to rethink about youth ministry. We do need to challenge students to own their faith, to live it out, and all of that.

But at the end of the day what we need to “do youth ministry” is people who like teenagers, love Jesus, and want to live out that love for Jesus amongst those teenagers. That’s it. No fancy lights, no huge budgets, no bouncy castles, or buildings, or youth rooms, or sound systems, or church buses, or week-long summer trips. Sure, we can make use of all those things (well, maybe not the bouncy castle) in appropriate settings, but they aren’t needed for youth ministry.

Our church is currently in the midst of a number of transitions. We are understanding more and more the need for not only a greater number of volunteers but for volunteers who aren’t just doing it because no one else will but rather because they have been called to that ministry. I’m not suggesting that professional youth workers are superfluous. Quite the opposite. Professional youth workers are of huge importance to local youth ministries because we can help to train those volunteers who aren’t going to go to college or seminary to study ministry. We can help disciple students at greater depth, and we can offer our own stories and lives lived out in community. And, we can devote time to doing all those things.

Transition is tough. It’s especially tough in a youth ministry that has a long history. But we need to take a deep breath and realize that there is a big difference between youth ministry necessities and youth ministry perks, or simple by-products of a particular philosophy of ministry. I look forward to seeing what the future holds at my church, and for youth ministry in the US. But I’m certain of one thing: less is probably more, and living the Christian life alongside teenagers will always be the core of youth ministry.

…and we’re back

It has been quite a while since my most recent update. Life has been busy.

For starters, there has been learning how to be a parent. It’s been a bit of a ride, and I love my son immensely. But spending time playing with him does cut into blogging time. Being up in the wee hours impedes my ability to put together cogent posts. It’s all good, but it means that blogging has been beyond slow. You can expect a return to more regular blogging in the coming weeks (I hope). Fair warning, I have an unhealthily busy July, so don’t expect anything then.

In terms of ministry the past several months of been beyond busy. We took students on an intergenerational mission trip the Tuscaloosa Alabama. It went phenomenally well, and other students are already clamouring for a repeat of the trip next year. We went on a retreat with several high school students that went well and was a great time of connecting with God and simply resting. We also hired two summer interns that have just recently begun working with us. That’s to say nothing of the regular lessons, meetings and events (e.g., our senior banquet) that have come and gone. It has been a busy several months, and the next several look to be even more so.

Summer is a time when, typically, youth ministry speeds up. But in many ways I wonder what would happen if we did the opposite. What if, instead of more events, more program, more trips and more doing, we simply opened the church doors and said “come, join us.” Or, perhaps event better, what if we met in coffee shops and parks and just spent time being together. I honestly believe we’d do better ministry, even if our students (and, dare I say, parents) might complain at first about a lack of things to do. In our increasingly consumer-oriented and attention-deficit culture it’s far too easy for us to think that our job is to keep kids’ attention. But our job is far more important–it’s to direct teens’ attention away from ourselves and our programs–perhaps even away from their friends–and to Jesus.

Cross Generational Youth Ministry

I’m a little late to the game on this one, but Brian, over at Rethinking Youth Ministry, put up a list of ten ideas for doing cross-generational youth ministry last week. They’re all excellent, and I really don’t have anything to add. In addition to encouraging you to read them, however, I thought it might be interesting to hear how one youth ministry is currently working on implementing some of those ideas.

Talk about it – I’m extremely thankful to be involved in a church where the entire staff is completely on board with the idea of intergenerational ministry. That’s not to say we all have exactly the same idea of what that means, or the same vision for what it looks like on the other end–we’re still fleshing those things out–but we do agree that intergenerational ministry is needed and without it our youth ministry will be little more than a holding tank. Over the past year, the Nurture Ministry (the broad designation under which falls children’s ministry, youth ministry, young adults and young families–as an side, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot already by the age segregation inherent in this system) has been discussing intergenerational ministry with just about anyone who will listen.

Everyone in Worship – The trend here had certainly been towards a youth kind of worship experience on Sunday mornings as a replacement for attending all-church worship. I’m happy to say we are changing that direction. It’s obvious to me that helping adults welcome students into an all-church worship service, encouraging students to attend an all-church worship service, and designing a worship service that truly is “all-church,” will be some of the major challenges facing youth pastors and larger church staffs who want to do strong intergenerational ministry. We are–slowly–beginning to see students attend our mid-morning Sunday worship. But we have a long way to go before we can really call that service “intergenerational.” We’ve gotten to this place by constantly encouraging students to come to the 9:30 service, by helping parents understand the importance of this (sharing some of Fuller’s Sticky Faith Research), and by asking our confirmands to attend this service as part of their confirmation activities and expectations.

Joint Mission Trips – We’re actually trying a joint mission trip this year. Over spring break we’ll be taking a group of students and adults on a trip to Tuscaloosa, AL. Deciding what a successful trip looks like is somewhat difficult. I would have liked more students to come on this trip. But I think the important thing is that we realize this is not like changing your midweek program where you plan it, talk about it, and then change it. The kind of systemic change we’re talking about will take years as students who are used to being segregated at church–like they are everywhere else–learn that they won’t be left alone any more. Students will have to process through that, and adults will have to learn that things look different when teens join them as co-participants. It’s a whole, big, messy situation. But it’s needed, and we expect to do other mission trips jointly in the future.

All in all, I think we’ve made some good–if small–strides over the past year. I sometimes have to remind myself that this is a process that will take years. I’ve noticed that we often think long term means three years in youth ministry. In fairness, that’s enough for a middle school ministry to completely change and for a high school ministry to almost completely change. But in the case of intergenerational ministry, I think we need to accept that it is a very long road that we need to walk slowly and strategically. It also helps if you’re willing to fail and still keep trying.

Consumerism and Youth Ministry

So, Marko has a great little post up about youth ministry, being attractional and consumerism. You should head over there and give it a read. It really is excellent and I think he hits the nail on the head. I’d like to interact with a couple of his thoughts at more length than a tweet would allow, so…

He mentions that bashing on attractional youth ministry has become sort of the youth ministry cliche. I’d actually like to see him flesh that out a little more. I’ve actually encountered more people who have started defending attractional youth ministry as opposed to those who are arguing against that philosophy. I’ve also noticed that those who don’t defend it tend to say something like, “Absolutely, we need to have a youth ministry that isn’t focused on attracting students with gimmicks.” After which they promptly return to their youth ministries which attract students with gimmicks. Given, all of this is anecdotal, and I’m not disagreeing with what Marko writes. If he manages to stumble upon my humble blog, I’d just be interested to here a bit more of his reasoning.

His “top 10 signs your youth ministry might be built on consumeristic assumptions,” are vintage Marko. I’m not convinced they are really they top ten signs, but they certainly are signs. The problem with a top ten list is it’s way to easy for people to nitpick over things. I don’t really wanna do that. However, I was surprised not to see anything about the way we understand the gospel. So something like: “you view and explain the gospel as a transaction.” What would be fun is to see some people (maybe Brian, from Rethinking Youth Ministry?) take a stab at creating a top 10 signs your youth ministry isn’t built on consumeristic assumptions list. I’m not so much interested in reassuring people, as much as I think if bashing on attractional youth ministry has become cliche, than it’s high time we started talking about the solution(s) to the problem(s).

New Slant33

If you don’t follow Slant 33, you really should. The most recent slant focuses on practical things we can do to make sure that our youth ministries don’t end up as isolation chambers for teens.

All three opinions are helpful, though I found both D. Scott Miller’s and Jeremy Zach‘s the most helpful.

Making sure our ministries don’t end up as isolation chambers is a difficult road. Sometimes students want to be isolated. Sometimes adults want students to be isolated. Sometimes it’s just plain easier for us to continue that particular stereotype of youth ministry. But in the long run it is far healthier for the individuals in our ministries and the churches we are a part of if students are seen as full members of the Body.

I’m very excited to see so many other youth workers willing to confront the difficulties of helping to change the way we do youth ministry and thereby allow students to be fully part of the Church. I’ve gotten a great deal of first hand experience over the last year, and it isn’t easy. In fact, this may be among the most difficult and slow tasks I’ve ever felt compelled to undertake in youth ministry. But I’m also convinced it’s one of the most important.

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.