great questions about youth ministry
Tuesday March 28th 2006, 4:54 pm
Filed under: youth ministry, thinking..., youth work

tall skinny kiwi (aka andrew jones) linked to a great post by aussie (i think) blogger hamo, called ‘discipleship dilemma in youth ministry’. really, you need to read the post if you’re a youth worker (it’s a bit too long for me to paste the whole thing here).

but i will paste in hamo’s reflective questions, and give some initial responses from my own little perspective:

* Are teens really responding to the gospel? If so what gospel would that be?

of course, this depends on the gospel being preached.
yes, teens have, and continue to, respond to the gospel. but as hamo accurately does, that “yes” is SERIOUS cause for us to ask his second question — which is, i think, substantially more important than the first question.
teens do and don’t respond to various forms of the gospel; sometimes that’s good news, and sometimes it’s bad news.

first, the bad news: WAY too many youth groups (this is unfortunately true in many, not all, larger ministries) preach a gospel of fun, a gospel of ease. this is, i believe, i primary factor in the rise of what christian smith has named ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’, the dominant religious world-view of american teenagers. it’s a seductive trap: being in a church of any size and resource provides the momentum of starting-point-size, combined with facilities, and often combined with financial means. then, the catylist — the secret ingredient — is the stated or unstated measuring stick of success, namely, numerical growth. with the right resources, it’s really not that difficult to experience numerical growth. that is almost always followed by internal and external ‘affirmations’. we’re told ‘good job’ and we feel good about ourselves. and before we know it, we’ve jumped in bed with the mistress of programmable youth ministry.
don’t misunderstand me: i’m NOT saying that large churches are all trapped in this affair. there are great exceptions. and there are plenty of smaller church youth ministries pining away under the same assumptions.

more bad news: many teenagers hear a gospel of legalism from our churches also, cloaked in (biblical) language of right and victorious living.

neither of these ‘gospel’ messages is sustaining once the buzz of youth group is gone.

the good news (is that a pun?): teenagers ARE responsive (often in ways adults are not) to the revolutionary gospel of jesus and the kingdom of god. clueless as to what that means? read kenda dean’s . i’m also currently reading scot mcknight’s , in hopes of better thinking about how i talk about the gospel with teenagers.

* Do we set ourselves up for this kind of situation by having youth services that can only ‘keep them’ until they are in their early 20’s at best before they feel ‘too old for the youth service,’ but also feel ‘way too young for the adult service?’ They are left in a consumer’s vacuum.

absolutely. this is a huge new problem we’re propogating with the wave of youth-oriented church services across the u.s.a. it’s not a simple question or answer, as there’s something to be said for creating worship experiences that reflect and connect with the norms and values and tastes of a generation — or, more accurately, of a people group (which often crosses generations). i don’t pretend to know the way through this quagmire. but i agree with hamo that we’re in the midst of creating a ’solution’ that could ultimately prove more problematic than the original problem. this is ESPECIALLY true if the reason for creating something new is, as hamo says, ‘to keep them’.

* Do we set the bar high enough for them? Do we ask enough of them? Someone has said ‘Christianity in the west won’t die because we ask too much of people, but rather because we ask too little’. On a similar note Tony Campolo once said ‘Youth is made for heroism not for pleasure’, yet much of youth ministry seems to focus on bringing young people fun rather than calling them to a life of self denial and counter-cultural living.

at first blush, the clear response to hamo’s question here is ‘no’ — we don’t set the bar high enough. and certainly, as i commented above, a youth ministry centering soley around fun is missing the mark. but we all know that, right? or at least most of us do.
but here’s the rub: i’m finding (and have had some interesting discussions about this, particularly with my veteran-friends of young teen ministry) that often, when we talk about ‘raising the bar’, what we’re really talking about is justifying our existence as career youth workers. strong, i know — and certainly not universally true. but i, for one, have crossed the line on this more than once; and most of my friends who’ve been around the block a few times in youth ministry, and are given space to be reflective and honest, would agree. i agree we need a different bar, but i’m not sure that the language of ‘raising the bar’ gets us where we want or need to go. maybe a metaphor of momentarily clearing a point in time and space (the bar) isn’t the best metaphor for discipleship.

* Are we as their leaders too much a part of the problem to be able to offer solutions with integrity? Have we bought the whole Jesus as ‘accessory’ mindset - (Jesus as an addition to my otherwise happy middle class life) so that now we are not able to challenge young people to a life of authentic discipleship?

but that doesn’t mean we’re a lost cause, and that it would be better to wipe the slate clean and start with a whole new batch of youth workers. i think the way forward is in reframing our role in the lives of teenagers: we’re leaders and mentors, yes; but we’re fellow travelers, broken and imperfect as they are. so, we address the real issues of life (the ones hamo mentions are ‘integrity’, ‘jesus as accessory’, ‘authentic discipleship’) WITH students, not FOR students.

* Are youth pastors concerned that if they went harder on the discipleship angle that it could mean their jobs? I have seen otherwise mild mannered parents go like pit bulls after youth pastors who don’t do the expected meat and 3 veg youth group / Sunday night church gig. Do you dare to break with protocol and risk incurring the wrath of the tithing parents? Lets face it this is a real issue. Working with a handful of truly devoted followers won’t pay any bills, but I seem to remember someone speaking about the way being narrow and few finding it… Maybe we need to say ‘Screw the paycheck. We are going to have a crack at this from a different angle’.

hamo sounds a little like yaconelli here! (which, if you know me at all, is a huge compliment.) i don’t disagree (which, of course, is a wimpy way of saying ‘i agree’). but i hope the solution doesn’t have to be either/or. i still want to offer a youth ministry for ALL teenagers, not only those who are willing to dive into a group of 12 disciples. focusing only on the example of jesus’ public ministry, or only on the example of jesus’ mentoring role with the 12: both would offer rather incomplete versions of the story of jesus and any example we’d hope to glean from his ministry life.

Just for the record, I have seen so called ‘fun based’ youth ministry models produce disciples and I have also seen apparently ‘discipleship based’ models lose young people. So I am not convinced the model is the problem.

wow — what a great closing paragraph from hamo. bottom line: if the ’solution’ or way forward were clear, we’d be in much less of a mess right now!

22 Comments so far
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Hey Mark - thanks for the thoughts!

It is a conundrum and one I think we as long termers / veterans need to lead the way in addressing.

The ’sounds like Yaconelli’ thing is a huge compliment. He was one of my heroes and a significant shaper of my ministry ethos.

Let me know when you find the answer :) …

Comment by hamo 03.28.06 @ 6:26 pm

thanks, hamo — and thanks for the though-provoking post.

Comment by marko 03.28.06 @ 6:36 pm

Marko- Sometimes I’m amazed by the breadth of your posts. You go from Wall Mart humor to convicting me of how I run a youth ministry. But, you do a great job of encouraging from a point that starts from your own humility. Thanks

Comment by Lars Rood 03.28.06 @ 11:25 pm

wow — thanks, lars!

Comment by marko 03.29.06 @ 12:17 am

Wow. Sometimes I just wish that life could be simple. Youth ministry definately isn’t.

Part of me responds that teens need those fun (but not without depth!) teen years with Jesus as part of the falling in love–the wooing. If we are genuine with them and love them and show them Jesus while at the same time showing them a good time, we can hook them. That’s what happened with me. I experienced Him at 15–got a brief glimpse really–and haven’t been able to let go of Him since, come hell or high water, so to speak. The other part of me totally agrees that something’s gotta happen to that bar, because teenagers are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. The depth of relationship that they can have is no less than an adult; it’s just different.

How ’bout you veterans figure this thing out and then let us 20-somethings know. Sometimes it makes me think my mind is going to explode, and I’d much rather learn from y’all than screw it up myself. :)

Comment by Katie 03.29.06 @ 2:15 am

The reality is this. God in his book says that narrow is the way that leads to eternal life and few that find it. We can preach the biblical gospel with all the love and passion and yet people will walk away. People walked away from Jesus. The rich young ruler is one example.
Even if we present the true, biblical gospel in a cultural relevant way people, young and old, will walk away.
And Jesus wept when they walked away, but he didn’t stop them.

Comment by hans 03.29.06 @ 8:10 am

hans - what you say is completely true, but extremely dangerous. anything beyond a passiong acknowledgement of that reality will quickly lead us down the dark-alley of arrogance and phariseeism. we NEVER have an “excuse” for not loving. we NEVER have an “excuse” for turning our noses up as they walk away. and our FIRST question, in these situations, should be to ask ourselves, “what did i say, or how did i act, that turned that person away from the message of jesus?”

Comment by marko 03.29.06 @ 12:00 pm

I was privileged to be in your class at Saddleback last week and heard you speak on this; have already taken it home!! I am 56 years old and have been in ym for 35 years. It really is harder to be a Christian kid these days! As in the 60’s, the country has taken a quantum shift in thinking and so has the church. Thanks for the wake-up call!!!

Comment by Nugget Skates 03.29.06 @ 3:32 pm

I agree Marko. We need to hold in one hand the idea that Jesus is so attractive that none would turn away if they had a chance to see who he really is & in the other hand we need to remember that some will simply turn away or not follow Jesus until later in life. BALANCE.

Comment by shulvy 03.29.06 @ 3:35 pm

I think we use the superficial to attract the teens, but our intention always must be:
1) Draw them into the life, mission and work of the faith community.
2) Help them develop a personal relationship with Jesus.
3) Empower them to transform their world as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The minsistry must always be to youth, by youth, for youth and with youth.

Everything we plan must be about reaching those three goals. If we are doing something that doesn’t reach those three goals, we should stop doing it. I don’t care how many teens are showing up. We are not a park district. We are not a youth entertainment entity. We are not a babysitting service. We are about “making disciples of Jesus Christ”. The fruit of good youth ministry is future faith-filled families, new pastors and missionaries.

Comment by Mark Herwaldt 03.29.06 @ 5:51 pm

hey mark — interesting last line in your comment there. i don’t know if i can fully agree with you there. i think the fruit of good youth ministry is in future passionate disciples of jesus, whether they’re in families or not, whether they’re pastors or missionaries or musicians or mechanics or marketing gurus or whatever.

Comment by marko 03.29.06 @ 6:52 pm

I wonder how much of the drop off is because the faith that we buy into at 16-20 is inadequate for the challenges that we face when we are 25-30? Marko will know what I mean when I say that we all long for fidelity, transcendence, and ideology but those quests must be fulfilled differently depending on our current age. We can’t deposit a faith that is timeless into kids but rather must help them know how to rediscover Jesus at each turn of their life.

Comment by Blair 03.29.06 @ 10:04 pm

that’s a great insight, blair

Comment by marko 03.30.06 @ 1:18 am

Maybe we are on the wrong search when trying to find the perfect balance for these things–labeling one method right and the other wrong. Perhaps one situation calls for a fun style while another calls for a book study. The true measure is whether this is what God is calling the leader to do for the purposes of His Kingdom (which haven’t changed since Adam and Eve). That leader is the only one capable of making those choices and will be held accountable to God for his/her leadership. “How do I live out my call connecting my students to Christ?” is the question we always need to be asking ourselves. And nothing we do in this moment will guarentee their choosing to walk with Jesus when they are 25, 50, or 100 years old.

Comment by chris 03.30.06 @ 2:19 am

Hey Marko-
I hear YM folks talking about how “Youth Today think” or “Young people today are doing” and I think that we miss the reality that they are as diverse as the rest of the culture. Some need the meat and 3 because that is how their family has been breathing in the Holy Spirit for generations, and some need more creative ways because they are uncomfortable with that same schedule. I think the issue is that people who are called to yout ministry need to listen very carefully to the young people we are minnistering to, and respond accordingly. We spend a lot of time articulating “Point B” in our vision, but not enough time allowing our community and the individuals we are serving to define “Point A” Without a clear understanding of both , our ministry paths are not going to be clear.

Comment by JesPeachy 03.30.06 @ 10:10 am

Along the same lines as Blair’s comment: It does seem that once people leave their parents’ house there does come a ‘crisis’ of sorts; discovering their own faith, a faith separate from Mom and Dad’s, that whole thing. I wonder if a big part of youth ministry should be preparing them for that transition: helping them learn to think new thoughts, to think critically about faith and culture and theology, to ask big questions of themselves and others, to open up their minds and hearts to people who are different, to find God outside the sugar-coated world of Christian culture so many are immersed in.

They may not see the point of it right away, and parents may wonder what in the sam-hill you’re trying to pull with their kids, but it seems that in the end this kind of thing would bear some good fruit, especially as the youth head off to college and living on their own and working at Starbucks and interacting with people whose values are very different from theirs. In some ways it’s kind of like kicking out the false supports that are propping up their faith.

Comment by BenSternke 03.30.06 @ 3:32 pm

After reading your comment to my comment I realized that I didn’t make myself as clear as I could/should. I didn’t mean to sound cold and callous. I actually meant to be encouraging. We should not get discouraged after we have served with in truth, with love and creativity and relevance, and then still have some students respond. We hurt and weep for them and pray that some day they will see the light and respond to the love of God. Yes, I agree, we should always evaluate our ministry, but we should become frustrated, resort to gimmicks, water down the gospel or give up. There is also still the reality that we as finite humans will never understand the ways of God and his Holy Spirit. He will touch hearts when, where, how, who in his time and his way. Isn’t it great is not a formula and can’t be put in a box. We are so dependent on him to change his world. So we keep pressing on, looking unto JESUS, the author and perfector of our faith.
Gottes Segen, Hans (Am I the two percent from Germany)

Comment by hans 03.31.06 @ 5:08 am

hitting youth ministry with the spice weasel. BAM! let’s knock it up a knotch…

there is some lively discussion going on out there at the moment that is feeding some of my own thoughts about things to do with youth ministry.
i think my deconstructionism began when i questioned whether or not a social programme was in fact all that u

Trackback by Stu's a-Musings 03.31.06 @ 5:30 am

hitting youth ministry with the spice weasel. BAM! let’s knock it up a knotch…

there is some lively discussion going on out there at the moment that is feeding some of my own thoughts about things to do with youth ministry.
i think my deconstructionism began when i questioned whether or not a social programme was in fact all that u

Trackback by Stu's a-Musings 03.31.06 @ 5:44 am

Hamo and I were both in the same youth group in Australia when we were teens. And look at us now - - - backslidden as can be - - must be a poor argument for youth ministry.

glad you liked his piece - hes a good man.

Comment by andrew jones 04.01.06 @ 10:05 am

In a global world, youth and young professionals (secular) are asking the question, “How do I best live life on planet earth?” They are abandoning the church at age 18 because the Body of Christ is providing limited the wisdom and little empowerment for their professional lives that is qualitatively better than what the world has to offer. Youth and young professional ministries are meeting the perceived needs for fellowship but not the unperceived need for the Biblical perspective that my work is HOLY and the Biblical competencies that will transform their work world. See professionals.pdf for a 10 page white paper. Youth ministries in the 21st century will prepare young people to compete and transform their work world locally and globally as we move from the ordained to the ordinary providing leadership in the church.

Comment by william wilkie 04.01.06 @ 4:17 pm

i’ve just offered some thoughts here…. [sorry if it looks like i’m jumping on your blogwagon, but it’s where i’m wrestling right now.]

Comment by stu mcgregor 04.02.06 @ 10:42 pm

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