youth ministry’s achilles heel
Tuesday September 26th 2006, 9:26 am
Filed under: youth ministry, youth work

on this little convention promo lunch tour, i have an opportunity to share some kind of a ‘thought’ or ‘devotional’ or something. tic long, our pres of events, had done a handful of these already, and i’d heard he’d talked about fear of culture, and i thought that was something i’ve been noticing also, so this is mostly what i said, yesterday (and again today):

first, i asked people to talk at their tables about what the achilles heel is in their ministry — or, what our collective achilles heel is in the youth ministry world. what’s holding us back?

there was some interesting discussion. one helpful thought that dave rahn (youth min prof at huntington) brought up was that, at it’s root, the problem of kids leaving the church after youth group boils down to a theology problem, based on our theology of church. he suggested each church has a self-image based on their theology of church, and that works itself out in all kinds of practical ways. if you take some of those assumptions down the road a few iterations and years, you end up with teenagers who aren’t connected with their churches beyond youth group. i’d love to see a book on this, frankly: how a variety of ecclesiologies result in certain approaches to youth ministry.

anyhow, after some discussion, i suggested (not a ‘right answer’, just my observation) that based on all the input we receive from youth workers, and all the youth ministries i observe, i think our collective achilles heel for decades was arrogance. and this is still present; but i think it’s moved into a second-place spot, behind fear. fear has become a motivator for way too much of what happens in youth ministry these days. all kinds of fear: fear of parents, fear of church boards, fear of our little kingdoms being threatened, fear of our salaries being threatened. but more than all of these, i’ve seen a fear of culture become a motivating force. often, this is a roundabout fear: parents and church leaders possess a fear of culture, and youth workers instinctively know that if they play into these fears, they will get resources and job security and whatever else we desire.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship [and daughtership]. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (romans 8:15)

fear is a cul-de-sac. it might bring short term results; it might get donors to open their wallets, secure our jobs, and get people in our churches to see ‘value’ in the youth ministry. but it starves our souls, and sets our teenagers up for a lifetime of wrong-headed interaction with culture and the world.

then i asked how we could see our ministries embrace hope instead of fear. i pointed out this verse:

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God

this verse is — word-for-word — psalm 42:5, psalm 42:11, and psalm 43:5. now i know there are literary/poetic reasons this verse repeats three times in 2 chapters. but it also seems to indicate that it’s something we should really notice!

what would it look like for our ministries to be characterized as ministries of hope?

13 Comments so far
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I think these are some good observations.

I think for our ministries to be characterized as ministries of hope would require us to take risks, to err on grace more then it is prudent to, and to serve in a way that let people know your priorities are focused on your striving to fit them to your understanding of Christ’s priorities, not feeding into a culture panic.

Comment by Kevin I 09.26.06 @ 10:22 am

hope through the power of the redemptive agenda of the Kingdom of God!

Comment by mdaele 09.26.06 @ 12:07 pm

Answering the question of why youth leave the church after graduation is a good one. It is a question I face as a youth pastor and, at 27, a cause for concern as I look at some of my friends. I see the fear of the church to engage the culture as part of the answer as well as weak theology as some of it too. However, as I look at my friends who have left the church, they had a strong theological background and were never afraid to engage culture. The common thread I see among them is that they stopped being a part of a Christian community. They attended church for a while after graduation but never got involved, never entered into that community. They didn’t seek out fellow Christians to hold them up in prayer and accountability. With nothing, and no one, to hold them close to Christ they simply drifted away. They found other communities and became invovled and through them gained a new identity and new purpose.
How do we fix it? Some thoughts: get youth interacting intergenerationally, stress importance of community, keep in contact with graduated youth…

Comment by Nathan 09.26.06 @ 12:08 pm

this hots right where I am at. Any chance of having a symposium on this subject?

Comment by Jeff Mattesich 09.26.06 @ 12:57 pm

not that i’m aware of, jeff

Comment by marko 09.26.06 @ 1:04 pm

I so agree that we are being controlled by fear…I know I am. My church has been around for 20 years and at its’ inception, it was kinda the revolutionary church on the block. Now, our church culture is dominated by legalism. You know, good Christians will get all of the rules right. This issue is one of extreme discomfort for me. I teach my students about living the Jesus Creed (great book, btw) on Wednesdays and then on Sundays we here about all of the rules of how to be a Christian. It has gotten so bad that my myspace page has absolutely nothing on it because I’m tired of getting blasted by parents for setting a “bad example”. One parent got mad b/c my page said I enjoyed the David Crowder Band and Van Halen (particularly JUMP). Of course, she didn’t complain to me, just those in charge of me. I try to live a genuine life in front of my students, but I seem to always get blasted for it. I wish the church would learn what it really means to be free in Christ. I feel called to help free people from the chains of legalism, but there are some HUGE probelms…(1) they already think they are free, so there’s no telling them that they aren’t and (2) some people don’t want to be free…they like all of the rules…the rules make them feel safe and somehow they gain assurance of an entry to heaven by following them. For them, no rules to follow = no assurance of getting to heaven. I guess it doesn’t matter that the Bible says it’s not about works.

In Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed, he says that sometimes answering the call of Christ will cause us to be persecuted in the public square. I pray that Christ will give all of us in youth ministry the grace to put aside our fears and step into that square. Right now, I’m just looking at the square from the crowd…would anyone else like to take a step towards it with me?

Comment by 09.26.06 @ 1:38 pm

the big problem seems to be about how hard it is to be a ministry of hope, when the the particular church is built on fear. So, our church leadership uses fear motivation on our lives, which makes a youth ministry of hope increasingly threatened.

As the Mike Yaconelli quote that’s up on the back of my office door says,

“When you strip away the power from those who have power over you, you risk threatening the power structure. When you refuse to measure, you anger the meeasurers. When you knock the props out of the institution [fear], the institution will eliminate you as quickly as it can. The gospel has always been counter-cultural. It was counter-cultural 2,000 years ago. It was counter-cultural 500 years ago. And 100 years ago and 50 years ago and today. Genuine youth ministry always causes trouble.”

I’d love to see a late-night option on this - just to get a chance to hear some wisdom, and discuss. Please!! (Especially Anaheim, because that’s the one I am


Comment by James 09.26.06 @ 2:43 pm

Marko- The problem of fear pervades the Church in all areas but with youth ministry you are right it is pervasive. I have been fighting a losing battle for a long time with my church trying to get them to see the importance of students being involved in the whole church and not just involved in youth ministry. Strangely enough I lost the battle (and the war today) I’m going to need to meet you for lunch soon and I know you’re in your busy season but after today I have lots of free time.

Comment by Lars Rood 09.26.06 @ 9:22 pm

I am hoping to hear this in an expanded version as your talk in anaheim

Comment by Friar_Tuck 09.27.06 @ 1:57 am

Good thoughts. Fear is a paralyzing factor in our nation, something I remember becoming aware of in my own life as I watched Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. Might not have been entirely his point, but I realized how afraid I was of something that was unlikely to happen.

Comment by David Mackey 09.27.06 @ 7:54 pm

[…] 1. Stephen Shields has a good post about distinguishing “emergent” and “emerging.” 2. David Crowder with a problem, beside that fancy emergence at the bottom of his face, I’ve never had. 3. Bob Robinson has finished his excellent series on Greg Boyd’s book. Thanks to Bob for leading us through it. Our prayers are with Bob. 4. Very nice article in Christian Century about Jacob’s Well in Kansas City. (HT: Adam Cleaveland.) 5. Marko’s got a nice, thoughtful post on the Achilles’ heel of youth ministry. Drop him a line, asking him if he’s afraid of the upper case letters! 6. John Frye’s got some reports up about his ministry in the Ukraine. 7. Andrew Perriman has revisited the sense of “wrath” in the NT (here Rom 3:21-26) and he contends that it has to be understood historically (against Jerusalem, against Rome/Greece/enemies) and narrativally, rather than simply an ontic reaction to sin against humans as a whole. His site is not all that easy to use, but it is definitely worth looking at. 8. Erika Carney Haub’s story – must read. 9. Margaret Spellings, American czar of education, has a new, good idea: making college easier for families. 10. Do you think the Trinity is to be mirrored in husband-wife relations? Check out Susan Arnold’s post. […]

Pingback by Jesus Creed » Weekly Meanderings 09.30.06 @ 11:26 am

[…] there’s an article in the new york times today about youth ministry. i suppose i could post a long bit here about what frustrates me about it, but i don’t have the time or energy. but it does tie in with the ‘culture of fear’ i posted about a week or two ago, that i said was youth ministry’s achilles’ heel these days. No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed:


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ysmarko 10.06.06 @ 10:22 am

[…] Today I found two posts (here and here) that touch on this topic both from youth workers more experienced than I.  Believe me, the book that Marko says needs to be written has run through my head a few times.  Unfortunately, I have neither the experience, education, nor the time to pursue that at this time.  But I will continue to reflect on our churches theology and ecclesiology and determine if there are things we can do to help make lifelong followers of Jesus of the youth that we serve.  […]

Pingback by The Plight of Youth Ministry « 11.08.06 @ 11:46 pm

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