Category Archives: youth work

great questions about youth ministry

tall skinny kiwi (aka andrew jones) linked to a great post by aussie (i think) blogger hamo, called ‘discipleship dilemma in youth ministry’. really, you need to read the post if you’re a youth worker (it’s a bit too long for me to paste the whole thing here).

but i will paste in hamo’s reflective questions, and give some initial responses from my own little perspective:

* Are teens really responding to the gospel? If so what gospel would that be?

of course, this depends on the gospel being preached.
yes, teens have, and continue to, respond to the gospel. but as hamo accurately does, that “yes” is SERIOUS cause for us to ask his second question — which is, i think, substantially more important than the first question.
teens do and don’t respond to various forms of the gospel; sometimes that’s good news, and sometimes it’s bad news.

first, the bad news: WAY too many youth groups (this is unfortunately true in many, not all, larger ministries) preach a gospel of fun, a gospel of ease. this is, i believe, i primary factor in the rise of what christian smith has named ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’, the dominant religious world-view of american teenagers. it’s a seductive trap: being in a church of any size and resource provides the momentum of starting-point-size, combined with facilities, and often combined with financial means. then, the catylist — the secret ingredient — is the stated or unstated measuring stick of success, namely, numerical growth. with the right resources, it’s really not that difficult to experience numerical growth. that is almost always followed by internal and external ‘affirmations’. we’re told ‘good job’ and we feel good about ourselves. and before we know it, we’ve jumped in bed with the mistress of programmable youth ministry.
don’t misunderstand me: i’m NOT saying that large churches are all trapped in this affair. there are great exceptions. and there are plenty of smaller church youth ministries pining away under the same assumptions.

more bad news: many teenagers hear a gospel of legalism from our churches also, cloaked in (biblical) language of right and victorious living.

neither of these ‘gospel’ messages is sustaining once the buzz of youth group is gone.

the good news (is that a pun?): teenagers ARE responsive (often in ways adults are not) to the revolutionary gospel of jesus and the kingdom of god. clueless as to what that means? read kenda dean’s practicing passion: youth and the quest for a passionate church. i’m also currently reading scot mcknight’s embracing grace, in hopes of better thinking about how i talk about the gospel with teenagers.

* Do we set ourselves up for this kind of situation by having youth services that can only ‘keep them’ until they are in their early 20’s at best before they feel ‘too old for the youth service,’ but also feel ‘way too young for the adult service?’ They are left in a consumer’s vacuum.

absolutely. this is a huge new problem we’re propogating with the wave of youth-oriented church services across the u.s.a. it’s not a simple question or answer, as there’s something to be said for creating worship experiences that reflect and connect with the norms and values and tastes of a generation — or, more accurately, of a people group (which often crosses generations). i don’t pretend to know the way through this quagmire. but i agree with hamo that we’re in the midst of creating a ‘solution’ that could ultimately prove more problematic than the original problem. this is ESPECIALLY true if the reason for creating something new is, as hamo says, ‘to keep them’.

* Do we set the bar high enough for them? Do we ask enough of them? Someone has said ‘Christianity in the west won’t die because we ask too much of people, but rather because we ask too little’. On a similar note Tony Campolo once said ‘Youth is made for heroism not for pleasure’, yet much of youth ministry seems to focus on bringing young people fun rather than calling them to a life of self denial and counter-cultural living.

at first blush, the clear response to hamo’s question here is ‘no’ — we don’t set the bar high enough. and certainly, as i commented above, a youth ministry centering soley around fun is missing the mark. but we all know that, right? or at least most of us do.
but here’s the rub: i’m finding (and have had some interesting discussions about this, particularly with my veteran-friends of young teen ministry) that often, when we talk about ‘raising the bar’, what we’re really talking about is justifying our existence as career youth workers. strong, i know — and certainly not universally true. but i, for one, have crossed the line on this more than once; and most of my friends who’ve been around the block a few times in youth ministry, and are given space to be reflective and honest, would agree. i agree we need a different bar, but i’m not sure that the language of ‘raising the bar’ gets us where we want or need to go. maybe a metaphor of momentarily clearing a point in time and space (the bar) isn’t the best metaphor for discipleship.

* Are we as their leaders too much a part of the problem to be able to offer solutions with integrity? Have we bought the whole Jesus as ‘accessory’ mindset – (Jesus as an addition to my otherwise happy middle class life) so that now we are not able to challenge young people to a life of authentic discipleship?

but that doesn’t mean we’re a lost cause, and that it would be better to wipe the slate clean and start with a whole new batch of youth workers. i think the way forward is in reframing our role in the lives of teenagers: we’re leaders and mentors, yes; but we’re fellow travelers, broken and imperfect as they are. so, we address the real issues of life (the ones hamo mentions are ‘integrity’, ‘jesus as accessory’, ‘authentic discipleship’) WITH students, not FOR students.

* Are youth pastors concerned that if they went harder on the discipleship angle that it could mean their jobs? I have seen otherwise mild mannered parents go like pit bulls after youth pastors who don’t do the expected meat and 3 veg youth group / Sunday night church gig. Do you dare to break with protocol and risk incurring the wrath of the tithing parents? Lets face it this is a real issue. Working with a handful of truly devoted followers won’t pay any bills, but I seem to remember someone speaking about the way being narrow and few finding it… Maybe we need to say ‘Screw the paycheck. We are going to have a crack at this from a different angle’.

hamo sounds a little like yaconelli here! (which, if you know me at all, is a huge compliment.) i don’t disagree (which, of course, is a wimpy way of saying ‘i agree’). but i hope the solution doesn’t have to be either/or. i still want to offer a youth ministry for ALL teenagers, not only those who are willing to dive into a group of 12 disciples. focusing only on the example of jesus’ public ministry, or only on the example of jesus’ mentoring role with the 12: both would offer rather incomplete versions of the story of jesus and any example we’d hope to glean from his ministry life.

Just for the record, I have seen so called ‘fun based’ youth ministry models produce disciples and I have also seen apparently ‘discipleship based’ models lose young people. So I am not convinced the model is the problem.

wow — what a great closing paragraph from hamo. bottom line: if the ‘solution’ or way forward were clear, we’d be in much less of a mess right now!