presence in youth ministry (part 1)

I see the Kingdom of God in less black-and-white frames these days. To say it’s a full gray-scale doesn’t even do it justice. The Kingdom of God deserves a color palette so broad, deep and rich that we don’t have names for all the nuance and variation.

I try to resist, also, the urge I still possess to reduce dialogue to discussion. The latter has its Latin roots in “to smash apart,” and “to scatter or disperse,” and shares some etymology with percussion. The former implies two-way (or three-way, or more) conversation, give and take, listening.

All that said, I’m still intrigued by opposites. Lately, I’m re-discovering how some apparent opposites are actually two sides of the same coin. It’s pretty difficult to separate the two sides of a coin. I suppose, with great machining skill, one could slice a coin down the middle. But it would cease being a coin. Suffering and hope are that way, I’m learning. And I learned over the last few years how letting go of security and gaining wisdom fall into this truth-pattern.

But sometimes things that appear to be opposites are… well… really and truly opposites. And a move to the opposite is what’s called for in the world of youth ministry these days: a move from being driven to being present.

copierThe North American Church: Makin’ Copies

We Americans love to think of our ourselves as wildly independent. One doesn’t have to travel the world much to discover this uniqueness. To take it a step further – we actually like this about ourselves. It’s part of our country’s founding principle – we will be independent from you, and no one can tell us who to be.

In the U.S. church, we want so desperately to be independent mavericks, a Christianized version of the Marlboro Man, riding through the landscape of culture, needing no one, emulating no one. But if we look carefully at the American church in the last 40 years or so, we’re really not all that original. Most of the time we are acquiescers, copiers. We copy culture, and convince ourselves we birthed it.

Really, what’s independent, maverick-y and unique (or even interesting, for that matter) about building a multi-million dollar youth center these days, complete with a theater sexily garbed in the latest techno-fad? Take a slow walk through the American south and you’ll find these puppies all over the place. Nothin’ original ‘about that, pardner.

We love to copy each other. And – in our rarest moments of honesty – we might be able to admit that we love, love, love being copied. Being copied is, after all, about the highest form of flattery a church or professional Christian can experience, right? But while we might all be copying each other these days (or whatever the church-du-jour is serving up), we’re ultimately copying the values of the culture around us. And those values, for the past four decades or so, have rested on variations of being driven.

Decades of Driven

Remember the 80s movie Wall Street, starring a young Michael Douglas and a younger Charlie Sheen? That film didn’t only depict the excess (or risk) of materialism and greed. It was a great/horrible snapshot of being driven. One of the most classic lines of the film occurs when Charlie Sheen’s character, a wannabe financial playa named Bud Fox, asks Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko if he would be willing to have lunch. Gekko responds, “Lunch is for wimps.” In other words: I am more successful in life than you because I am 110% completely consumed – driven – by this singular passion (in this case, making deals).

That, my youth worker friends, has been the spirit of the age for the last handful of decades. Sure, we put a nice spiritual glaze on it when we copied it into the church. After all, we value being driven for the glory of God! Just look at our superstars: they are mostly (with a handful of wonderful exceptions) hyper-driven, type-A, overachievers who leave us all gasping and self-flagellating, wondering how they accomplish so darn much. We respect their driven-ness. We covet their driven-ness. Sometimes, we even worship their driven-ness.

O, that youth ministry had sashayed past this. But we didn’t. I didn’t.

(in part 2 of this series, i’ll unpack the idea of presence; and in part 3, i’ll write about a few of the enemies of presence.)

8 thoughts on “presence in youth ministry (part 1)”

  1. Thanks for the honesty! I hope I don’t copy to be like the next-to-me guy whose driven, but I copy because I’ve seen better ministry through the disciples I choose to be mentored by.

  2. Echoing some of the same internal wrestling I’ve had. So hard to know that what you are doing for your students is its “best” and “enough” and to rid yourself of the comparison urge.

  3. Hmmmm. Good thoughts all, But there is another perspective/pressure to this copy shop mentality. I, Like you, Marko, have been around the block enough times to get past that junior high “Everyone is looking at me!” phase, to a place where presence and relationships do matter and looking like everyone else doesn’t. But I frequently find myself on the hook of our Associate Pastor who is younger, hipper, and cooler than me, who came from one of those “so cool it needs to be copied” churches… and my role has been erroding because my style looks more like relationship with parents and kids, and lots less like we need 50 kids at every event… In fact, what I am doing is often not even referred to as “ministry.”

  4. This is probably the best post I have read from you on your blog. You’re right Marko, the youth ministry world is unfortunately in a place close to identity crisis, with everybody looking to everyone else (especially those from larger, flashier ministries) for the answers and direction. Trouble is, everyone starts looking the same. You brought up a good point too, in that we love to be copied; that resonated deep into my heart, I’m ashamed. Like you Marko, I have enjoyed these last few years of taking a break away from the job of ministry while still managing to keep involved in the work of ministry from a volunteer’s perspective; for me that has been the best prescription to the sickness I got caught up in. Thanks for the words brother. P.S. I was right down the street from your house a couple of days ago and was going to see if you wanted to grab some lunch, then I remembered you were just getting back from your family trip, so maybe next time.

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