So, Marko thinks we need some painful disruption in youth ministry. As it happens, I agree. The problem is that I don’t particularly like pain. Nevertheless, I thought I’d take a whack at offering some suggestions based on the questions Mark asks. Although it’s probably the height of hubris for me to enter this discussion, someone can always feel free to smack me back down to earth. To that end, here are three broad areas I think need to change and–if they did change–would cause massive disruption to the status quo in youth ministry.
1. Youth Pastors, learn Hebrew and Greek
I realize I am an oddball. I’m a youth minister who has an MA in Biblical Languages. That’s weird. I get that. But, because I know Hebrew and Greek, I know the Bible far better than most of my peers. I know the cultures of the Bible and the ancient near east far better. I’m able to answer questions about the Bible with more acumen. Right now, a standard undergrad youth ministry program requires a bunch of classes in youth ministry (these are important), a few classes in psychology and/or counseling (also important), your core gen ed classes (still important!), and perhaps a couple Bible survey courses. Learning how to do ministry is important, but learning Hebrew and Greek is far more important. In fact, learning any dead language is a huge help in teaching yourself to think critically. If youth ministry programs started requiring Hebrew and Greek, or if churches started expecting their youth pastors to know Hebrew and Greek, I think we’d see a huge disruption in the way things are. The other advantage to this is that, when one has learned Hebrew and Greek it is fairly natural to have a more theologically and philosophically nuanced approach to youth ministry. Very naturally youth ministry ends up being about more than games or some vague idea of influence and becomes a theologically grounded enterprise that is of vital important. Oh yeah, and you actually know what our holy book says, as opposed to having some vague idea of the chronology of what happens without ever having truly studied it.
2. Less accommodation, more Jesus
This could take many forms. Sometimes we accommodate the least common denominator in terms of maturity in our ministries. We play games and spend 90% of our time on recreation because we are convinced that it’s a sin to bore a kid. But in so doing we really don’t offer students anything different from what they could get anywhere else. Accommodation also takes place in our own lives. It becomes very easy to try to live the American dream. We want raises. We want a nicer house. We get involved in the Church’s version of the rat race in which many of our parishners are involved. In so doing we somehow lose the way of life that Jesus has called us to, a way of life that puts others before ourselves. This happens in the lives of youth workers first, and when that happens then it obviously happens in the youth ministry where we’re involved. We need to learn to accommodate our culture less (and here I don’t mean getting rid of secular music, not watching TV, or whatever, I mean learning to set aside the trappings of our culture such as the need to succeed, consumerism, nationalism, placing the US flag higher than the Christian flag–metaphorically, I could care less about literal flags), and instead allow the Holy Spirit to transform us and those in our churches, not only in our youth ministries, into members of the Kingdom of God. Of course, this will make many people nervous and could be a painful process.
3. Less influence, more being
It started when I read Contemplative Youth Ministry (by Mark Yaconelli) and I’ve become even more convinced because of reading Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (by Andrew Root), but I don’t think youth ministry needs to be about influencing students. We need to just toss that out of our vocabulary and our ministry methodology. Instead we should talk and plan to be with students. On the surface this might not look much different. We still go hang out, we still enjoy concerts with one another, etc. But instead of doing it to earn street cred with students, we do it because we want to be with them. Because by being with them we embody Jesus to them and, what’s more, they embody Jesus to us. This makes youth ministry messier. It means we have to be more open and vulnerable. At the same time it may mean that we have to learn how to be closed and set boundaries so that we really are in relationship with students and not merely a commodity that they consume whenever they want. Being with students is far more messy than the alternative, simply seeking to influence them to live better lives, or be more like Jesus, or whatever. But being with students is a far more Jesus-like way of doing things.
I’m very interested to see where this discussion goes on Mark’s blog and around the youth ministry blogosphere. This is a conversation that we need to have, and I think we’ve avoided having it for far too long. Moreover, this is a discussion that our churches need us to have if youth ministry really is the R&D branch of the church.