Disruption

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.

Being Open with Students

This is how it hurts when I pretend I don’t feel any pain. -RED, Breath Into Me

Not too long ago I posted about the need for students to see adults living out the faith. I said that this need requires that adults be open and honest with students. This is vitally important for all of the adults in our churches, but it is especially important for youth workers to be open with students. If you are a paid youth minister, than it is even more important for you.

It can be very easy, even for those of us who have devoted our lives to ministering to and with students, to be open with them. As a somewhat recent seminary graduate, I can say with confidence that some seminaries are still teaching that a pastor needs to maintain a certain distances from her congregation and even hide her doubts and pains (this even after Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer). There are lots of fine, logical reasons to maintain this distance. But at the end of the day it simply is not what Jesus did. Jesus fully participated with humanity. God became human. There is a sense in which the incarnation calls us, as co-heirs with Christ, to enter into the same radical identification with those we serve. Please note that this does not mean that youth pastors need to be immature individuals who are merely trying to relive their youth group days. The truth is the exact opposite. Youth pastors need to be well adjusted adults who love students, are willing to be open with them, and who echo Jesus’ call to a different way of life.

The problem with being open and honest with people is that it can be messy. It becomes very easy to keep our doubt and pain to ourselves for fear of destroying a student’s faith. But the fact of the matter is that if we refuse to be open and share when we have doubts, how can we expect students to do the same with us? More to the point how can we expect students to grow themselves? As the Fuller Youth Institute has recently pointed out, “young people better navigate their faith journey when adults share the challenges of their own spiritual paths—complete with past and present ups, downs, and turning points.” In other words, students navigate their our journeys better when we navigate our spiritual journey with them

Being vulnerable isn’t a way to gain influence over students anymore than my vulnerability with my wife is a way to gain influence over her. I am vulnerable with my wife because I love her, she loves me and we are on a journey together. If we refuse to be vulnerable with students we have no right to ask them to be vulnerable with us. What is worse, we make ourselves into hypocrites because we refuse to follow the example Jesus has set for us. The point isn’t to gain influence. The point is to follow the example which our Savior set for us. God became vulnerable to human beings. God-in-human-flesh became vulnerable to the pain that human beings experience. The Immortal One became vulnerable to death.

As I’ve been reflecting on the importance of being open with students over the past several weeks it has occurred to me that, perhaps, one of the reasons we make excuses for avoiding vulnerability (and some of our excuses are even legitimate!) is that we don’t want to get hurt. Let’s face it, teenagers are not exactly the most sensitive of demographics. As we open ourselves to them the likelihood of us being hurt is probably significantly higher than the (initial) likelihood of them responding to that vulnerability in a way we might hope. As youth workers we are generally happy to argue with those in our church who wrongly accuse the youth of everything from breaking a ceiling tile to stealing a misplaced tea kettle. We are happy to suffer in this way. But we aren’t quite as keen on being hurt by those to whom we minister. Yet I think it’s fairly clear that Jesus calls us to exactly that. Andrew Root puts it nicely, “Suffering with and at the hand of those to whom we minister is the call of the incarnation and crucifixion,” (Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, 95, emphasis mine).

If we insist on pretending that we have it all together we have missed the point. We must become open and vulnerable to students and thereby run the risk of being hurt by them. To do otherwise is to refuse the joys of human relationship, implicitly contributing to the tendency of seeing teens as halfway finished products. Whats more, to refuse the possibility of true relationship is to deny ourselves the opportunity to meet Jesus in our students.

On Relational Youth Ministry

This quote was just too long for Twitter, so it’s going here. As Andrew Root is discussing relational youth ministry he writes:

Evangelical youth ministry risks making relationships only about personal influence, worship about individualistic emotion, and mission about volunteeristic services that helps adolescents feel good but does not confront the systems affecting those needing help. The incarnation is not about influence but accompaniment. It is not about getting us right but bearing what is wrong with us, so that we might find that we are only right in the embrace of a God who loves so much to be with us.
Andrew Root, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, p. 79.

This is an excellent assessment of the challenges facing even “effective” youth ministries in our current milieu. I am greatly concerned that modern youth ministry is often more focused on helping students to feel good than it is with helping them be the Body of Christ with one another (and their adult peers), including all the pain and difficulty that entails.

As an aside, if Andrew keeps this up, Kenda may have competition for the honor of being my favorite youth ministry thinker.