Last year I visited Beijing, China, speaking at a youth event for a collection of teenagers from expat churches. While there, I had the chance to spend a day visiting The Great Wall of China. And, while standing on The Great Wall, I had a couple thoughts about youth ministry. Weird, huh?
You’re likely familiar with the basic, almost incomprehensible facts about The Great Wall. Constructed in various phases over hundreds of years, the massive thing snakes precariously across mountain ridges and through deep valleys for 3900 miles. Add that to sections of trenches, and natural barriers like impassable ridges and rivers, the whole thing stretches 5500 miles. Everyone has seen photos of this beast; but standing on it (and trudging up and down its steep inclines and declines), tends to force one to contemplate the willpower it took to build.
And, somehow, this got me thinking about youth ministry.
Let’s face it: as a breed, we youth workers (myself very much included) tend to be forward-leaning people. We have a collective almost-rabid longing for what’s new and next. To be fair, this may be partially a reflection of the youth culture we serve within. But I think it also betrays a deeper flaw in our thinking: we want a quick fix.
If that church suddenly gets an influx of teenagers, we assume whatever they’re doing must be good and worthy of being copied. If that other church appears to be doing something edgy, we pay attention, wondering if we should label it heresy or brilliance. And if that opinionated speaker/writer uses hyperbole to tell us we’re not being faithful to our calling unless we do “X” (I hope notice i’m pointing at myself here), we rush to beat ourselves up over our lack of compliance to THE NEXT BIG THING.
We hurry to build the biggest, baddest program; then we rush to embrace a small group approach; then we pendulum to candles and contemplation; then throw it all out in exchange for… I don’t know… dubstep-driven youth ministry? And all the while, we wonder what we’re missing, what shiny puff of newness we should try next.
Yes, I’m writing with hyperbole. Plenty of youth workers (mindlessly) stay the course and never change. But – I’ll admit – I’m much more like the leaf on the wind.
I’ll tell ya, though: it’s difficult not to see the value of determination and a ruthless commitment to one’s mission while standing on The Great Wall. I’ll even go so far as to say: there’s something beautiful about the patience of plodding.
I’m regularly the subject of these verses:
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. (Ecclesiastes 11:4)
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. (Ephesians 4:14)
And, of course, the big confrontation to my youth ministry double-mindedness:
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:5-8)
I know The Great Wall metaphor isn’t perfect. Surely, power was abused and people were treated like chattel to get that thing built. But there’s something stunning about the singularity of vision, the lack of double-mindedness, the ponderous, tedious, lumbering steadiness that resulted in a hand-built wall more than half the distance of my twelve-hour flight to get to it. And it stands there, impervious to winds, hundreds (and, for some sections, thousands) of years later.
It makes me wonder what a youth ministry with that kind of staying power would look like?