not too long ago, a blog commenter emailed me and wrote that he noticed i regularly hint at or outright rant about the state of youth ministry: particularly, our wrong-minded obsession with field-of-dreams attractional ministry (“if you build it, they will come.”). he politely asked if youth specialties senses any culpability in this, and, if so, if that has ever been said. i responded that i think i’ve regularly said on this blog that ys shares part of the responsibility for this, and i’ve said it in seminars at the national youth workers convention also.
but i’ve been stewing on this for a couple months. and I think it deserves to be said more clearly.
while youth specialties certainly isn’t solely responsible, i think it’s very fair to say we should bear the brunt of the blame. yes, youth specialties is primarily responsible for promoting – for decades – a model of youth ministry, built on a set of assumptions (mostly unstated), that elevated programming as the best path to successful youth ministry. and for this – i will speak for us, organizationally – we are sorry.
we may have said that other things – like relationships and service and the Bible and Jesus – are more important than programming. but i think we modeled something different. we did this naively and unknowingly, and – this may be the biggest admission – we did this without realizing the implications of the values were promoting. or, maybe we didn’t want to think about the implications.
some might say i have no reason to make this admission, or accept culpability, since i wasn’t around ys in those days. but that would be a cop out on my part. and, if i’m honest, i would have done the same thing if i’d been in leadership of ys in those days. saying i’m not responsible is like white people saying we never owned slaves – it doesn’t change what was or is, it only gives us the impression we’re off the hook.
the entire world of youth ministry (and church ministry in general) has changed, of course, in the past 30+ years. in some ways, i think we’ve grown up (in a good way). and in some ways, i think the church is in a deeper pile o’ mess than we’ve been in throughout the past 100 years. 30+ years ago we were merely blissfully wrong about some things. now, i think much of the church, and much of the youth ministry world, lives in active denial. i’ll take blissfully unaware over active denial any day.
youth specialties is trying to change. and i think we have – dramatically – in the past dozen years. but it would be a wimpy, spineless move to realize change (at least in our message) and, simultaneously, revise history to pretend that we’ve always been about the things we’re about these days (things like valuing small and slow and quiet, caring deeply about the soul-condition of youth workers because we believe good youth ministry flows out of our soul-condition, embracing humility and passion as more important than power or size).
i’m hopeful, however. it’s oddly paradoxical, i realize, for me to say i’m hopeful a few paragraphs after i say i think the church is in active denial. i guess i’m hopeful because i see such great stirrings of change, such wonderful experimentation, and such massive shifts in values. i’m thinking that maybe the ‘active denial’ is – maybe? – an essential piece of the change process, just as it is in the cycle of grieving.
this admission said, i’m heading forward, and i know so many youth workers who are in the same place, facing the same way, with the same hopeful posture. and our numbers are growing by the day (ha! Is that the numbers monster re-surfacing again?). i can’t wait to see what youth ministry looks like in 30+ more years. i wonder what we’ll be apologizing for then.