An Observation

I’ve been reading a lot of books. Specifically, I’ve been reading a lot of youth ministry books. As I’ve been reading books on student leadership, relational youth ministry, how to disciple students, and a host of other topics, I noticed something: we always want to agree.

Let me elaborate. In pretty much any other area where I do extensive reading (biblical studies, linguistics, Hebrew language, phonology and morphology, ancient near eastern studies, second temple, even adolescent psychology) when someone disagrees with something, they aren’t afraid to say so. More importantly, in those fields you’re expected to interact with the latest research. That means you can’t simply not address how your view on topic X differs from Professor Y’s view on topic X if Professor Y has recently published a monograph on said topic. Youth ministry books are different. I’ll allow that books on youth ministry aren’t meant to be scholarly monographs. Even so, it is frustrating when an author doesn’t interact with other youth ministry authors.

By and large, the youth ministry world is fairly small. If someone has managed to publish anything larger than an article in Youthworker, Group or Immerse that person probably knows and is known by a plurality of the other voices in youth ministry. So, we want to be kind. We want to embody love. I get that. But sometimes it would just be really helpful if an author would say, “I suggest doing such and such. You might note that this is different than what B suggests in her recent book. B is a great person, but I think she’s wrong here. Let me explain why…”

Maybe publishers don’t want to deal with that. Maybe authors just want to be nice. But every year I read a number of youth ministry books. Some of which have wildly differing ideas on ministry, or even a single aspect of ministry. That’s good! We need different perspectives. But sometimes I feel like either A) these authors aren’t reading one another or B) I’m completely misinterpreting what every one of them is saying. I know A can’t be true, and I’d like to believe that B isn’t any more likely. Therefore, there must be another reason. Regardless of what that reason is, I’d like to say: it’s OK to disagree. It’s OK to say you disagree. One of the things that makes scholarship so helpful is the back and forth that goes on between scholars. We need more of that–in published form–between youth workers who respect one another, but have legitimate disagreements over aspects of youth ministry philosophy and praxis.

I’m not saying this never happens in youth ministry. After all, Mark Oestreicher sometimes mentions minor disagreements with Kurt Johnston. But on the whole, we try to stay away from this and just applaud one another. On the one hand, that’s a good thing. We are all on the same team. On the other hand, I think doing so limits our interactions on important topics because youth ministry authors aren’t interacting with one another in sustained ways via books and articles. Perhaps that is happening on a personal level, but that doesn’t benefit the wider youth ministry world.

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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.

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.

Free Stuff from the Youth Cartel

So, Marko and Adam have been busy over at the Youth Cartel, launching two new email lists in the space of a week. One of the weekly emails focuses on a Youtube video and discussion. The other seems more interesting (to me). Either way you should check them both out. Marko describes them here and here. You can subscribe here.