Sometimes…

Ministry is hard work. I know far too many youth workers who are consumed by calendars, meetings and programs. Truth be told, I often look at my own ministry and wonder what went wrong. When did pastoring youth start to mean planning a calendar so dreadfully full of events that there is no time left to simply be together? When did being a professional youth worker start to mean that all of our time is devoted to maintaining programs (Sunday morning, Wednesday night, fun nights, lock-ins, fundraisers, bible studies (if we’re lucky), fall retreat(s), spring retreat(s), winter retreat, mission trips, week-long summer conferences, etc) instead of devoted to seeking where God is working in the lives of our students? When did our students stop seeking the living God and start seeking a program that gives them an emotional high–or maybe we never showed them a God worth seeking in the first place?

In the midst of our broken world, it can only be expected that our youth ministries will be broken as well. But I wonder if sometimes our ministries are more broken than they need to be? Youth ministry books will often talk about helping students find a passionate faith, or helping students slow down and contemplate God, or being pro-student as Jesus is pro-us. These books are wonderful, and they talk about dealing with staff members who don’t understand why the youth ministry is suddenly interested in theology; they talk about how to help parents who just want a youth ministry that is fun see that their children need more than good morals; but these books never talk about what to do to help students realize that a jam-packed calendar and a well-maintained program aren’t the central pieces of youth ministry.

Maybe students intuitively realize this. But I think this intuition is on the same level as staff people and parents: sometimes it needs some help coming out. Ministry is tough. But sometimes we just need to turn around, seize the bull by the horns, and see what happens.

Dovie’andi se tovya sagain.

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).

Youth Ministry and Family Ministry

So, Adam Mclane is at it again. He can’t help being provocative. What may surprise you is that I agree with the main thrust of his argument. Allow me to explain.

Adam is absolutely right that if we want to do youth ministry well we need to have a realistic integration strategy at all levels. It’s not only the youth ministries job to be part of the larger whole, it’s also the larger whole’s job to have a space within itself for youth. If we simply try to pull youth ministry into the larger church and make it nice and tidy we haven’t done youth ministry any favors, and we certainly haven’t done the church any favors.

Ministry–to any group of people–is messy. It isn’t about being tidy. It isn’t about making things clear or acceptable. Quite the opposite. It’s about helping others. It’s about, as Adam puts it, helping all the wrong kinds of people. This is what Jesus did and this is what his Body ought to do.

Let me hasten to add that I would actually nuance things quite differently from Adam. I think he sees that the larger church is often not doing the work of helping the wrong kinds of people. At the same time, he sees youth ministries genuinely trying to do that (or, at least, sees that as the historical purpose of youth ministry). His solution is that maybe youth ministry needs left alone to do its thing. He’s wrong there. The solution is to alter our churches–which includes radically altering our youth ministries–if we’re to reach people. As I’ve pointed out time and again, our youth ministries haven’t been doing a great job of reaching people, at least on the whole. We’ve certainly gotten the wrong type of people into the church building, but they are quick to leave it as soon as they graduate high school.

This is why on the one hand youth ministry cannot continue as it has for the past thirty or more years. We have to change. At the same time, becoming a sanitized part of the family ministry isn’t the right answer either. Adam is right, if we’re just doing family retreats, and everything is about family, then how are we going to minister to youth without traditional families (obviously, children with only one parent come to mind, but what about first generation immigrant children, whose idea of family is much larger than our own idea of nuclear family)? I’m not saying there is anything wrong with doing a family retreat, but we have to full process our strategies.

No, the answer–I think–is to fully integrate the entire church. We will always need a youth ministry that reaches students where they are at. But our youth ministry also needs to disciple students, and part of that means introducing them to the larger church. This introduction can’t be the out hanger in our ministries either. Arguably, introducing someone to Jesus involves introducing them to his people here on earth, and that includes more than just adolescents playing games and hearing an inspirational devotion. Our students need a fully integrated youth ministry that helps them know they are part of a huge family that cares and loves them, and our churches need to be fully integrated so that students can help them to realize that ministry isn’t tidy and it isn’t easy.

Worship and the Christian Tradition – Part 2

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

In this post, I’d like to discuss the liturgy as a rich history which we ought to draw upon in our worship with young people. Perhaps the most obvious reason to draw upon the liturgy in youth ministry is that we are constantly looking for ways to involve students. Liturgy naturally does this. Liturgy is participatory. Liturgy also creates a natural movement within a worship gathering. In subtle ways it reminds us that we don’t worship alone, but rather with a great cloud of witnesses.

Different denominations and traditions, of course, use different liturgies. But many of them are really quite similar, especially in terms of their modern form. Historically liturgy developed for a variety of reasons. But the focus of the liturgy was always on the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially as experienced in the Eucharist. It is easy to see this in even modern liturgies where many services rise and fall before building to a cresendo in the celebration of Holy Communion. One might say that without the Eucharist, there is no liturgy and this would–in some ways–not be far from the truth. This focus on the Holy in the liturgy serves as a natural, though not fool-proof, guard against a focus primarily on me.

One of the criticisms I most often hear against the liturgy is that it is all a bunch of words learned by rote that therefore have no meaning. Leaving aside for the moment the pedagogical fallacy that things learned by rote have no meaning (where would you be without your multiplication tables?), this simply isn’t true. In fact, the words of liturgies often have great meaning because they have been agonized over.

I used to think this same way. But I have since come to realize that sometimes I am not at a place where I can speak to God on my own. The words would be my own, but they would have no more meaning than gibberish. During these times I can rely on the liturgy to carry me. I know that the words I say are being said by thousands all over the world. When I pray during confession I know that the others around me, and my brothers and sisters around the world, are confessing with me and upholding me thereby.

As we teach our students about the liturgy and begin using it in our times of worship with them they will slowly begin to understand these things and many others besides. I would venture to guess that there are several reasons we don’t generally use liturgy in youth ministry. One of them is that we are afraid to bore a kid. Apparently doing that is a sin. We worry that without novelty we’ll lose them. I’ve generally found, however, that when we make decisions based on fear, it’s a bad idea. I would venture to guess that many youth workers didn’t grow up in churches which used a liturgy, and they may therefore have little experience with it. This is the situation in which I once found myself. But I decided to learn about liturgy by visiting churches that used it, by taking a class in seminary dealing with the history of it, and by slowly attempting to use pieces of it in my ministry and personal life. I’ve come to love liturgy and realize the manifold benefits it brings. This isn’t to say that spontaneous expressions of praise are bad or unwarranted; we need those expressions as well.

Finally, I would posit that youth workers tend to avoid liturgical expressions because liturgies are intensely theological. Unfortunately, overtly theological topics or experiences are often avoided by youth ministers. Perhaps this is because of youth ministry’s origins in evangelistic endeavours that were not concerned with theological nuance. Perhaps it is because youth ministry education often focuses more on the professional aspects of becoming a minister rather than on the theological ideas and tasks with which a youth worker must engage. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that many youth workers shy away from theology.

In part 3 I’ll share some of my own experiences with using liturgy and other expressions from the Christian tradition in worship with students.

Worship and the Christian Tradition – Part 1

One of the most popular posts on this blog is one on middle school worship from 2007(!). In that post I share some of my concerns with a discussion that was taking place around the youth ministry blogosphere at the time. As memory serves, many youth ministry blogs were discussing middle school worship in terms of how many songs, what songs, style of songs, etc. My concern was that we were talking about worship only in terms of music and singing. There was very little space devoted to prayer, responsive readings, Scripture reading, confession, candles, incense, or the Eucharist.

I want to revisit this topic because I think it is an important one. Perhaps it is an effect of the segregation (at our own urging!) of youth ministry into its own ghetto, but rarely have I seen a youth ministry that integrates the great traditions of Christian worship into its own expression. As my own theology continues to develop over the years, this worries me more and more.

When we reduce worship to music and singing I fear we give students the impression that worship is about them and the feeling they get out of it. If they come away feeling good, or feeling somehow more connected to God, or whatever then it was worship “in spirit and truth.” I’m not saying that worship shouldn’t elicit an emotional reaction from us, I’m saying that worship is not centrally about our feelings. One of the guards against this me-centric idea of worship is the wonderful tradition of worship that has been handed down to us by those who have gone before.

Part 2 of this series will focus on why I think liturgy is important, and in part 3 I’ll share some of my own experiences with integrating liturgy into a youth ministry.

On Being the Body

Recently, I shared my own concerns about the implicit message we send students when we separate them from the rest of the Church. We certainly mean well, but it ends up subtly teaching them that the Church is made up of individuals exactly like themselves. In a run of the mill youth ministry the only adults students might see and interact with are the youth pastor and other volunteer youth workers.

Having people who specifically pour into students’ lives is a very good thing. But we need more than that. Our church has been discussing how to do family and intergenerational ministry better over the past six months. Some of the first suggestions that came up, of course, were ways to encourage students to join our Sunday morning worship services. I think this may be a very important first step, and I think it is vital that students be involved in the corporate worship of a local church. This isn’t enough, though, and we knew it even as we discussed it.

So, we talked about other ways we might help students and adults to connect. We’ve come up with what we think are some good ideas, everything from youth family potluck dinners to an intergenerational mission trip (and no, my students were not overly pleased to hear that one). These are all important steps for us, and I think we’ll look back and see that they are important and effective ways to help students and adults connect.

The heart of the issue, however, is that students need to do more than simply see adults, or even share a meal with them, or a week of construction work. Ultimately our students need to share life with the adults in our churches. They need to see adults in our churches struggling with faith, doubt and pain. They need to walk alongside one of the elders in our church as his wife loses a battle with cancer. They need to share the joy of a young couple in the church when they have their first baby. They need to pray for the family where a parent has just lost a job. In short, they need to fully participate in the life of the church. At the same time, the adults in our churches need to be sharing the lives of our students. The adults need to share the excitement of a student who has just been accepted to a top tier college. They need to be there to enter into the pain of a student who has just broken off a relationship–no matter whether they think it was a serious relationship or not. They need to struggle with students who don’t know where God is because of some event in life. In short, we all need to enter into the messes that make up each others’ lives.

This is difficult because sometimes students give the impression that they don’t want to get to know adults on such a personal level. Further complicating matters is our tendency to want adults who “work with the youth ministry” to avoid sharing things that are too personal or reveal a great amount of struggle. Certainly real life sometimes intrudes and the teens in a church get to experience something like what I’ve described above. Those times tend to be few and far between though. We like to keep things tidy, probably because we like to pretend that we have nice, tidy lives. I mean, let’s be honest, the kind of sharing I’m talking about rarely happens between adults. I’d argue it tends to be more likely to happen, or more natural, among adults. But we need to remember that teenagers are full members of the Body of Christ, not merely junior members.

The great advantage that teenagers have over adults may be that they, generally speaking, recognize that they don’t have tidy lives. Somehow, as youth workers, we have to help our students connect with adults in meaningful ways and then we have to help the adults in our church realize that its OK to pull back the curtain and show students that as adults we struggle too. This is a tall order, I know. But we need to help our students fully enter into life as the Body of Christ. They need to know the adults in our church–and not only those who are youth workers!–as friends, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, grandparents and surrogate parents. In the same way, it is vital that the adults in our congregations know students as sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and fellow Christians. Students need to know that faith doesn’t end when they graduate high school, but that the struggle to love like Jesus loved continues for the rest of life. When we’ve begun communicating that message, both explicitly and implicitly, maybe we’ll also have opportunity to rejoice in what our students bring to the table in our churches, both as teenagers and as twenty-somethings.

Youth Ministry and Bad Theology

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3.27-28

Let’s be honest, as books like Almost Christian point out: youth ministries haven’t been doing a great job of nurturing the faith of youth. We have, perhaps, done an excellent job of entertaining them, of sometimes keeping them away from drugs and alcohol, and perhaps of helping them connect to one another. But we certainly haven’t nurtured faith–at least as a generalization.

So, it should come as no surprise that Family-Based ministry is somewhat of a buzz word at the moment. In youth ministry circles we’ve come to realize that parents aren’t the enemy, but a vital ally as we try to help students own their faith. We’ve also begun to realize that parents have their own pains and issues that need the love of Jesus. Even so, we still separate our students into their own ghetto with little or no interaction with the greater church.

Let me be quick to add that I think the current call from some corners to abolish youth ministry as we know it is sensationalist and mis-directed. Adolescence is a distinct developmental phase, and we need to address it in the church. Burying our heads in the sand is probably the worst thing we could do. However, we do need to take seriously the idea that we need to assess our current methods of doing ministry.

The more I think about the way we do youth ministry traditionally, with students segregated into their own section of the church for any number of things, the more I have theological issues with that strategy. What may surprise you is that I don’t have theological issues with this method of ministry based on some idea that the parents need to be primarily responsible for the faith development of their children (though parents ought to be primarily responsible). After all, the village has always been involved with rearing the young, at least until the advent of our modern, disjointed society.

No, my theological concern is that by segregating our students into their own ghetto we implicitly teach them that everyone in the Church is just like them…a teenager. With this implicit message is it any wonder that when students are no longer teenagers they also tend to no longer be Christians? We’ve spent the previous seven or so years of their lives teaching them exactly that. I worry that our implicit message may run even deeper, teaching them that everyone in the Church is just like them not only in relation to age, but also in terms of ethnicity, culture (or sub-culture), musical preferences, etc. To be sure, some youth ministries are more diverse in these areas than others which may mitigate some of my concern. But it is easy to see throughout church history that Christians have commonly struggled with the inclusive nature of Jesus’ call to spread the gospel. Peter had to convince the Jerusalem church, after all, to accept God’s movement among the gentiles (cf., Acts 10-11).

If we are going to be serious about sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God with students, we also need to be serious about helping our students understand that the Church is a diverse body of people which contains many who are not like them. We need to help teenagers understand that adults struggle, love, hate, cry, laugh, work at developing Christian practices, find prayer difficult and have difficulty loving their neighbors just like they do.

We need to realize that having students separated into “age appropriate groups” with no interaction among the other members of the Body isn’t just a bad idea, it’s bad theology.