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).

Trusting Students

Since I’ve been thinking recently about attractional youth ministry I’ve come to another conclusion about it. I think that we often feel most comfortable doing attractional youth ministry because we don’t trust our students. I’ll flesh this out more below. Trust is, after all, a big topic in ministry. We are trying to help those to whom we minister trust God. We ourselves are trying to continually trust God more, and trust God with our students. These are all important things. I just wonder if we forget to trust our students.

The idea behind attractional youth ministry is often that if we didn’t bribe students with pizza, games and entertainment, they wouldn’t darken the doors of our churches. Sometimes we try to make church look more like an amusement park than a place where we might encounter God.* Ultimately, I think we don’t trust students to really be interested in God. In a way, I guess I could argue, that we don’t trust the gospel–and the Holy Spirit–to work change in our students without the attractional flair. This might be the case, but I’d like to focus in on how attractional youth ministry fails to trust students.

When we work off of an attractional model of ministry we assume, from the very beginning, that students aren’t that interested in God, the Bible, faith, religion or spirituality. Instead we assume they are interested in fun, social gatherings, entertainment, food and flash. Now, it’s certainly true that students are interested in the latter. In my experience, however, students are also highly interested in the former. Truth be told, they can find the other things at a variety of venues. But faith and spirituality, and certainly an authentic community of faith, are often only available to students at a church.

When we fail to trust students to be interested in their own spirituality we end up feeding them a steady diet of fun and entertainment. They’ll gladly accept this from us, but in the long run it does them little good, and it leaves them feeling like church doesn’t fulfill what they need. Because they understand, on some level, that they really do need something beyond themselves. Something powerful, radical, worth living and–at the risk of sounding trite–worth dying for. When we fail to trust students we end up creating a cycle that, if statistics are any guide, leads to them not having a vibrant faith to sustain them through life.

My point in saying all of this isn’t to bash on youth pastors or youth ministry. At least a sizable chunk of us doing ministry for and with students have acknowledged that the youth ministry status quo is unsustainable. So, yes, I’d like to convince those who haven’t been convinced yet that attractional youth ministry isn’t the way forward. But I’d also like to encourage those who are trying to figure out a different kind of youth ministry. As I try to trust my students, it’s sometimes very difficult. It’s tempting, at times, to imagine that they don’t really care about Jesus, the Bible, or spirituality. But I have to remind myself: they really do. I have to take a step back and tell myself that–as much as I have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in people’s lives–I also have to trust my students to genuinely want the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.

Figuring out a new kind of youth ministry is worthwhile because students need a new kind of youth ministry, one that challenges them. One that expects more out of them. One that feeds them. Students need this, and I have to trust that–yes–they want it.

*I’m not trying to imply that the folks at Saddleback haven’t helped a variety of students. But we certainly have strong philosophical differences.

Fall Retreat: From the Other Side

A couple weeks ago I posted some thoughts on our upcoming middle school retreat. Our Fall Retreat has come and gone, and I’m happy to say that it was a wonderful time. It wasn’t perfect, and there are things I would change if I could go back, but it truly went well.

After I had processed through some of the thoughts in my previous post I made a decision to further loosen the free time on Saturday afternoon. Essentially, we gave students the entire afternoon “off” from programming. We brought a bunch of board games, one student brought string and beads, and we just spent time together. Some of us spent time playing on swings, or walking around the beautiful paths that wound through the camp. Some of us played chess, while others made bracelets, and others walked a prayer path. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I was a little concerned that students would be bored.

What I find so interesting, however, is that this time is one of the most talked about aspects of the retreat. Leaders loved the freedom to be with students, and all the students I’ve talked with so far enjoyed the opportunity to simply enjoy themselves, relax and experience God in the moment. Lest I misrepresent things, please don’t believe that the entire afternoon was some kind of spiritual experience for every student. It wasn’t, at least not in the sense we normally think of when we think of spiritual experiences. But it was a time to rest, a time of sabbath.

Once again, it wasn’t a perfect retreat. There are several aspects of the retreat I think could have been tweaked to improve it further (and by improve, I mean help students connect with God and one another at deeper levels). But the best decision I could have made was to set aside formal programming and simply allow all of us to be with one another. After I have some more time to process I’m sure I’ll have more substantive thoughts on what could have been improved. But for the moment, I am extremely pleased to have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of the retreat just chilling with some of the most amazing middle school students on the planet.

What is Attractional Youth Ministry?

Although most youth ministry professionals will already have a prior knowledge of the term attractional youth ministry, I’ve received several requests from those of you who read my blog who aren’t youth ministry professionals. I commonly use the term attractional youth ministry to describe a type of youth ministry that I do not want to engage in. This post is for those who may not have any idea what I’m talking about when I say attractional youth ministry. For this reason, I’m going to try to define this type of ministry and flesh it out a little bit. There is always a danger in this. It is extremely easy, because I don’t agree with many of the ideas behind attractional youth ministry, to simply create a strawman. I will do my best to resist that temptation.

Simply put, attractional youth ministry is youth ministry as you probably know it. It is youth ministry as it was conceived in the 80s and 90s. It’s the youth ministry that I grew up in. The thinking goes something like this: students find church boring. Church shouldn’t be boring. Students need Jesus. Students like fun. We should attract students to our ministries with fun and then give them Jesus. In other words, youth ministry becomes about getting students in the door through entertainment and fun, and then slipping them a little Jesus and hoping that something takes. Their entertainment and comfort become our first priorities.

The general thought process might be too abstract though, so let me try to flesh out how this could look in practice (and for the visual learner, check out this post at Rethinking Youth Ministry) A local church plans a youth ministry event for a Friday evening. They have a Christian band come in to give a concert. They setup the church gym for basketball, rent a popcorn machine, provide nearly unlimited soda, and setup two Xbox systems running a multiplayer game of Halo on two large projectors. Students come in and hear loud music, see Halo being played, and are encouraged to have fun. After a couple hours all the students are corralled into the auditorium where the lead singer from the band gives a gospel presentation. The presentation is emotional, talking about the lead singer’s own life story. The gospel itself is presented something like this, “being a Christian doesn’t mean you can’t have fun anymore. Look at all the fun we’ve had tonight! It isn’t even that hard! It doesn’t mean you’ll be all weird, or a crazy fanatic. Being a Christian means that you believe that Jesus is the son of God and because of his death you don’t have to spend eternity in hell!” Some students cry. Some “get saved.” Then we return to playing games.

If you’re curious, I once planned that exact event. The students in my ministry loved it. I would never do that again. It is fairly typical youth ministry, at least as conceived in many churches. Now, if you’ve been involved in the church you might be wondering what the issue is. It’s true, you might quibble over the scare tactic of hell in the gospel presentation, but otherwise you might not see anything wrong with that type of youth ministry. That’s OK. But let me explain why I refuse to do youth ministry like this anymore.

Attractional youth ministry, as I’ve described it, is intensely concerned with getting students in the door. The problem is that we often get them in the door with gimmicks and entertainment. As I’ve matured in my own philosophy of youth ministry I’ve found something that should have been obvious to me: I don’t need Halo and unlimited sodas to bribe students into coming to church. I have something far better to offer them: Jesus. The story of God is riveting, worthwhile, helpful, and life changing. Our religion is able to stand on its own. It doesn’t need a spoonful of sugar.

In my experience, students can often find far more entertaining engagements outside the church. But they can’t find the meaning, community, love and acceptance that the church offers. The Christian story has something to offer to the world, and we don’t need to trick individuals into coming to church with entertainment in order to get that message out. We need to be open about the fact that we have a message that can change the world. Then we need to live out the way of life that Jesus offers. But here, perhaps, is where things get difficult. Because it’s far easier to say a prayer, have some fun, and be assured that our entertainment and comfort is the top priority.

Perhaps the issue that most convinces me that attractional youth ministry really isn’t the way forward is the dire statistics in terms of youth ministry. Books like Almost Christian make it pretty clear that we’ve raised generations of Christians who are more concerned with feeling good about themselves than with following Jesus. It is overbearing to lay all the blame for this at the feet of youth ministry as we did it in the 80s and 90s. But at least some of the blame has to be laid squarely at our feet.

That’s why we need a different kind of youth ministry. A kind of youth ministry that takes theology seriously, that takes the Bible seriously, and that takes students seriously. Our students need more than entertainment, even if they argue that the only reason they come to church is because it’s “fun.” Their lives are more than fun, and somewhere deep inside themselves they want a religion that does more than give them a place to hang out a couple hours each week.

Of course, these are only my thoughts. I certainly can’t capture every aspect of attractional youth ministry. I’d love to hear how others would describe it, perhaps in more sparkling terms than I have been able to.

Youth Ministry Interns

For some time now I’ve been meaning to share my observations on having two summer interns with our youth ministry. There is a long history of a summer internship program at my current ministry, and I inherited this program when I arrived. In the past, I supervised various workers, but not in a ministry or internship context. I’d say this summer went well–though, of course, next summer will be better. It helped that I had two of the most amazing people as youth ministry interns.

Most of what I’m about to say can be found elsewhere, but these are things that I found helpful or that I observed over the course of the summer.

1. Interns take more time, not less – I think it is easy to fall into the thinking that interns provide more manpower, and thus free up hours for the youth pastor. This simply isn’t true. I found that I spent more time supervising interns than if I had simply done the tasks myself. I don’t begrudge this opportunity, far from it! There are a host of reasons why a church might want an internship program, but saving time really shouldn’t be one of them.

2. Interns force you to better articulate your philosophy of ministry – As an analytical person, I have always naturally had an inclination toward thinking through why we do what we do. I also have a natural ability to articulate this. Interns ask questions, lots of them, and thereby force you to better articulate your philosophy of ministry. It makes perfect sense, since they are participating in the internship in order to learn. I spent a great deal of time in some phenomenal conversations with my interns last summer just talking about ministry, why we do things the way we do at our ministry, where we’re going, etc.

3. Interns challenge you – As many of you know, I’m not particularly into attractional youth ministry. I’ve experienced it, and I think the data clearly show that there are a host of cons that outweigh any pros. The interns and I talked about this at length over the summer, and read through Contemplative Youth Ministry. By the end of the summer, they were challenging me on this: “Calvin, if what you win them with is what you win them to, why do it this way?” “Is there a difference between entertainment and a social activity?” “If attractional youth ministry has so many obvious flaws, why do so many ministries still use it as a paradigm?” All of this questioning and seeking on their part, forced me to further refine my views and to grow alongside them.

4. Internships provide connections – Working with my two interns from last summer felt a little like establishing the kinds of connections for which colleges used to be important (and, to some extent, still are). These two individuals are going to go out an be incredible youth pastors one day. Not only will I have had a chance to speak into their development as ministers, but I fully expect that one day I will call them up asking for advice. We’ve established a connection that will continue throughout life and be a benefit to both of us.

Voices

Paul Martin has been working through an excellent series of posts on the individuals he sees as the voices in the coming (currently happening?) revolution in youth ministry. This week he mentions theological voices.

I find the inclusion of an entire post devoted to those who are thinking about youth ministry from a theological perspective to be extremely refreshing. Perhaps more refreshing still is that most of these individuals have theological background. They could write a paper for an academic journal. Ten years ago, when I was in college, I remember being disappointed that there were not more voices from theological and biblical studies that were speaking into youth ministry. In hindsight there were voices, I just wasn’t aware of them yet (Kenda Creasy Dean, for instance). But there has certainly been an increase in recent years.

I still find it disappointing that we don’t have biblical studies people speaking into youth ministry. I realize that some will say that biblical studies is an extremely specialized field, whereas practical theology necessarily recommends itself to these kinds of interactions. However, without biblical studies speaking into youth ministry our curriculum will continue to be less than it might otherwise be. We will continue to be comfortable with whatever gets us by in terms of our knowledge of the Bible, instead of challenging ourselves to go the distance. In the 90s no one would have believed that youth ministry would experience a theological renewal, and itself be pushing other ministries of the church to think theologically and have greater depth, but that is exactly what is happening. Maybe youth ministry can be the place where we start engaging Scripture in much more depth than we typically do. In another fifteen years, maybe youth ministry will be leading the charge and encouraging pastoral staff to use the tools they learned in seminary. Maybe youth ministry can be a place where Christians are challenged to acknowledge Scripture for what it is, really wrestle with the difficulties this presents, own it as our story, and allow it to form our lives.