recently in one of my coaching groups, we were talking about our propensity to try to control. i see this in so many of our youth ministry approaches: an attempt to control the outcomes.
one of the participants asked me for a definition of control, and i responded with this: minimizing variables and maximizing efficiencies for predictable outcomes.
yup: i’m so prone to doing that in my life. and it’s pervasive in american church culture.
today in the mail the latest copy of youthwork magazine arrived from the UK. and i’d forgotten that i’d written my last “epilogue” column (which they call Mark: My Words. ha! get it?) on this same subject. here’s what i wrote:
A month ago I was struggling–obsessing, really–with my income. Being self-employed can have that impact. In my three and a half years of self-employment, I’ve yet to have a significant financial problem; but that doesn’t keep me from freaking out from time to time. I look at my little tracking spreadsheet, and my mind starts to wander down completely useless and unhelpful pathways.
I’m not going to have enough money.
How will I pay my daughter’s university fees?
What if this is the beginning of the end?
We’re going to be living in the gutter soon!
But here I am, a month later, realizing that God provided, yet again. It wasn’t one of those dramatic stories I’ve often heard of an anonymous envelope of cash in the post. Instead, it was through the most regular and mundane of provisions: some projects I’d been working on came together.
And I was reminded of a connection that I’ve learned many times. I’ve been speaking and writing a bit on the subject of biblical hope lately. And one of the points I always make is that hope isn’t something we can make. I can’t bear down and try harder and suddenly have more hope.
Instead, hope (not optimism!) is a gift from God. Hope comes to me, usually in the midst of suffering, dissatisfaction with the way things are, and an honest cry out to God.
When I talk to teenagers about the fruit of the Spirit, I try to make a similar point. we don’t choose to be fruity. Fruit is a result of a life connected to the Spirit. It’s a gift, really. And our all the effort in the world, even with the correct leverage, won’t suddenly result in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Effort might give me hemorrhoids, but not much else.
There’s so much I try to control. Finances, hope, and spiritual fruit are only three of a very, very long list. And I think I’m learning that my open hands toward God–a position of release and request–is the stance that ultimately gives me what I truly long for.
This is true in every aspect of youth work also. So many of our youth work efforts are about control. We try to control the behavior of teenagers. We position ourselves in an attempt to control church leader’s opinions of us and our work. We control programs like lab scientists, as if the perfect mix of this and that will necessarily result in engagement, attendance, compliance and spiritual growth.
But, ultimately, we all know that it’s God who brings about transformation in the lives of teenagers, not our crafty talks or hipster songs or The Best Game Ever.
So then: what role do I play? I mean: I’m supposed to do something, right? Whether in my own interior life or my family’s well being or the spiritual formation of the teenagers in my ministry: I’m not just supposed to sit and wait, believing that God will do something, right?
That’s the tension there for me. Part of me believes that a little more sitting and waiting on God is exactly what’s called for, and just might be the antidote to my ongoing forays into control and manipulation.
But I also believe that God invites me to play an active role. I get to participate!
I need to be reminded that my active participation with God looks like me being the kid with the weird lunch at the miraculous feeding of the 5000.
Could Jesus have fed the crowd without the kid’s participation? Sure.
Was the kid necessary for the will of God to happen that day? Not really.
Would the miracle have happened were it not for the kid’s involvement? We don’t know.
But we can be confident about this: that kid would never have been the same. You know he told that story to his grandkids.
My personal finances. The hope in my heart. The fruit of the Spirit in my life. The spiritual growth of the teenagers in my charge. They all beckon with the same invitation: Step up, open up your hands, release control, and give your “lunch.”