presence in youth ministry (part 2)

in part 1 of this series, i wrote about the North American church’s obsession with copying, and teased out the idea of being driven.

whipDriven-ness in youth ministry

My suggestion, in Youth Ministry 3.0, was that youth ministry was “proclamation-driven” from roughly post-World War 2 (when the modern era of youth culture and youth ministry stepped onto the scene) until the late 60s and early 70s. Youth workers, responding to a call from God to contextualize the gospel for teenagers in their world, were missionaries by impulse. They were passionate – driven – by the idea that the spoken word, when wrapped in youth-friendly language and topics, would bring change.

I’m not questioning the (potential) power of preaching. Nor am I, for a second, questioning the motives of those early youth workers. It was the culturally appropriate youth ministry approach for its time (whether it was biblically and theologically informed or not).

As the church woke up to the need for effective youth ministry, approaches pioneered by these proclamation-driven first wave youth evangelists were co-opted and modified. A massive shift took place, though few saw it at the time. The shift, in a nutshell, was a move from “we’ll bring the gospel to you” to “come to us and get the gospel.” That might not seem overly significant; but it ushered in a host of other tweaks and truncations. One of the primary shifts was in “the driver”. Proclamation was no longer the main focus; and youth ministry in the church became program driven.

There are lots of good and not-so-good reasons for this, and we don’t have time or space to go into detail here. But I’m convinced most youth ministry, in most churches in North America, continue down this path to this day. It’s not that programs are bad, per se. But a focus on programs – programs as the driver – is lopsided at best, and completely unbiblical at worst.

Again, I’m not questioning the motivation of youth workers. I’m questioning the assumption – the driver. The seduction of this approach was that it worked… for a while. It worked for a few decades.

But times have changed, and youth culture has changed, and teenagers have changed (in some ways). The “if you build it, they will come”, Field of Dreams approach just isn’t attractional enough anymore.

An Alternative: Presence

When I was writing Youth Ministry 3.0, I was creating a grid with a half-dozen variables to show the comparative shifts from 1.0 to 2.0, and to suggest 3.0. I knew, early on, that one of the variables I wanted to address was this issue of the driver. And I had the wording for “proclamation-driven” and “program-driven” fairly early on.

But months into the process of fleshing out my thinking, I still couldn’t discern what the driver should be for this new epoch. I considered “mission” for a while; but landed on that as one of the key values (a different variable on my grid). I considered “community” or “communion” for a while; but also ended up adding that as a key value. Whatever words or concepts or vibes I had floating around in my pea-brain were not translating into verbiage.

So I asked for help. I put the question out on my blog, to the community of youth workers. I think that particular blog post got about 60 comments (pretty good for my blog), and the dialogue – not discussion – was rich and varied. Most of the comments suggested an alternative driver; not of them resonated with me. But a few people questioned the very paradigm.

And that’s when it struck me:

If a driver was ever culturally appropriate…

If a driver was ever biblical…

At the very least…

Being “driven” no longer fits.

And, to show my hand a bit more, I have become more and more convinced that being driven was always a mere cultural adaptation – copying – and not a worthwhile biblical contruct.

So: if we’re not driven by something, then what? And that’s when “present” struck me. You might even say that it was in the very act of being present to this question that the notion of presence revealed its weightiness.

Presence is the opposite of driven-ness (and not the other side of the coin). I’m becoming convinced that I cannot be simultaneously driven and present. I can be one or the other; but not both, not at the same time.

Some might say: Wait a minute there, Mr. Semantics! Jesus was driven! In fact, Jesus did his fair share of “driving!” Well, let’s look at that for a moment:
• Jesus drove out evil spirits (Matthew 8:16, Mark 1:34 and 6:13, among others)
• Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12, John 2:15)
Seems like the only examples we have of Jesus and “driving” is when he was driving something bad out, not when he was himself being driven by anything other than love.

So why not say we should be driven by love? Maybe I’m just playing with words here (I don’t think I am, but I’m open to being wrong). But I believe that the primary action of love is to be present, not to drive or push. Instead of saying we should be driven by love, it seems more accurate (and biblical) to say love compels us to be present.

What is Presence?

Let me unpack this a bit with an example from my own life. My 15 year-old son, Max, is one of the true joys of my life. He’s an amazing young man, just now stepping into manhood. He’s sensitive and empathic and gentle, full of creativity and humor. But Max regularly drives us nuts in his apparent inability to focus beyond the moment. He forgets what we asked him to do (but is genuinely sad and sorry about it); he loses things – valuable things – all the time. He’s easily distracted.

This behavior is a challenge for Max’s teachers also. I remember a couple years ago, when his teacher — a tenderhearted saint of a woman, and a highly gifted teacher — reconfigured my entire view of Max’s apparent lack of care for whatever goal seems pressing to all but him. She and I were sharing, in passing, about some deadline he’d missed or item he’d misplaced, and she uttered this simple little insight into living: Well, we all have something to learn from Max about being present in every moment.

Bam. That was it. Max, the awesome kid that he is, isn’t driven. And while this may be occasionally frustrating to a naturally driven guy like me, and might sometimes cause speed bumps in Max’s journey (speed bumps are there for a purpose, by the way – to slow us down!), he possesses a Jesus-y skill that I am so very far from attaining.

Presence is all about living in the moment, soaking it in, in all its glory. Presence listens and watches. Presence honors others by focusing on them (rather than a “to do” list or the person over their shoulder that you’d rather talk to). Presence waits for the Spirit, rather than rushing toward one’s own goals. Presence relishes, and snuggles, and pays attention. Presence forfeits, and postpones, and stays.

And that, my friends, is what youth ministry is supposed to be about. At least, that’s what good youth ministry is about.

Let’s look at one more story from the life of Jesus. It’s one you’re very familiar with, and have likely taught on. It’s the story of Martha and Mary.

Luke 10:38-42 says:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

There’s a focused point here: being present to Jesus is better than focusing on the stuff that “needs to get done.” But there’s a broader way-of-living that Jesus is promoting, which he models with his life, as we see it in scripture: being present is a better way to live! Being present is what we were designed for.

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

15 thoughts on “presence in youth ministry (part 2)”

  1. So good! I’m wandering if presence is the enemy of most American-based youth ministry. I feel that I’m allowed freedom in presence or at least, liberty from programming when I’m on the international mission field!

  2. Both my reading and my experience leading a church-based youth ministry where we try to foster a space to be present to one another and to God affirm the truth of what you’re saying here – thanks Mark!
    Do you ever hang out with Mark Yaconelli? It seems like there’s a growing chorus of voices calling for this shift in youth ministry…

  3. I have Presence centered youth ministry (i have every intention to read but not got far yet) and Jesus centered youth ministry ( i actually pretty much read most of this) and from reading this blog and from what i am experiencing in youth min, that certain people such as parents want the youth leader to be driven but also present. Is it not possible to be both? Sometimes to have certain things happen that need to get done but from a context of being present. i heard a speaker say once that if Jesus had actually wanted a drink or some food, Mary was in a position to hear and then respond with action. As youth ministers, being present with Jesus and teens and then helping them to move into whatever Jesus asks them to do is surely a healhier balance. but then whether or not i myself am doing that im not sure. i guess i see youth ministry as building community of youth to have trust with each other which may involve playing games but to mix that with listening to Jesus also

  4. “Can we be both driven and present?” Good question, James. And I don’t know that I have an authoritative answer to it. I know, from experience, that one can’t be simultaneously driven and present. At least I know I can’t. Being truly present (to Jesus, to teenagers, to one’s own emotions, to the joy of a game (yes, “games” are not at odds with presence – I find that young teens particularly are often most present to each other when they’re having fun)) has embedded in it a sense of shelving my agenda, pushing the pause button on my drivenness.

  5. Marko and James

    Would it fear to say that while we can’t simultaneously be present and driven in a particular moment, those two conditions/traits CAN simultaneously exist within us and expressed appropriately.

    All,of us have probably met very driven people….big time movers and shakers…who have the ability to be so present in conversation that you fel like the most important thing in the world to them IN THAT MOMENT. But sneak a peak at them in other contexts and you will see their drive at the forefront.

    I actually think Jesus is a wonderful example of the need for both qualities. He was present and, at least how I see him, was driven by a cause like few others in history.

    Church ministry really does contain two primary functions that work together (hopefully): the function of people and the function of what you might call “stuff”. I think presence is a, if not the, key skill set for the function of people and certainly drive is one skill set for the function of “stuff”

  6. @James
    Being both “driven” and present are possible. It’s called being DRAWN. Being drawn is a much different phenomenon than being driven, however. You are moving toward something willingly, motivated by love, not prodded by fear and expectation… and you’re naturally present, because you are captivated by the One drawing you forward (Spirit of Christ).

  7. @KJ
    I don’t think Jesus was driven so much as he was drawn to what the Father was already doing (John 5:19).

  8. @michael Robertson
    Agreed. And I think it’s semantics at that point.
    I don’t think “drive” has to be motivated by fear, expectation, etc. At some point, one might become so “drawn” that they become driven to continue?

    Anyway….semantics, I think.

  9. I make the distinction between driven and drawn for clarity’s sake… To the extent a believer operates out of grace and identity, as opposed to fear, perception/appearance, desire for acceptance/approval, to that extent the believer is drawn more than driven. I’ve found Thrall, McNicol and Lynch’s “TrueFaced” (NavPress, 2004) helpful in fleshing out this very real spectrum of motivation.

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