i was one of the three contributors on this week’s slant33.com question: what’s the role of the holy spirit in your youth ministry? click here to see the excellent responses from the other two contributors, albert tate and brooklyn lindsey. but here’s my response:
I’ve had a bit of an awakening to the Holy Spirit in the last couple years. As soon as most people read that first sentence, though, they will assume I mean that I’ve awoken to signs and wonders stuff. That’s not what I mean. (Everything on the table: I’m in the middle; I’m not a sensationalist, but I’ve not had much personal experience or desire for signs and wonders experiences.) The awakening to the Holy Spirit that I’ve experienced has played out on two levels: in my own life and faith practice and in my thinking about youth ministry and church leadership.
My last year at Youth Specialties and the pressure I felt to perform were particularly soul deadening for me. By the time I got laid off, I was close to burnout—both professionally and spiritually. But in the two or three months that followed, I experienced a gorgeous re-awakening of my soul. I felt God’s presence for the first time in a long time. My prayer life rekindled, and I started to hear God speaking, nudging, consoling. I knew this was the Holy Spirit, who had never left, of course. Instead, my spiritual eyes were merely opening to the Spirit’s presence.
This ramped up when I launched the Youth Ministry Coaching Program. When my cohorts were in times of personal sharing, I started sensing the Holy Spirit giving me insight that was beyond me, and I even started receiving what could only be called words of truth to be offered to others. I entered into the exercise of this with open hands—not grasping it or claiming it or arrogantly confident about whatever I might think I should say. But I was amazed, over and over again (as I have continued to be over the last eighteen months) that what I was hearing—from the Holy Spirit—was usually accurate. One of the most powerful of these was a time when I had a strong sense that another person in the sharing circle had a word from God for the person talking. Sure enough, when I called that out, the words spoken had a profoundly holy and truthy beauty to them, and we all knew we were on holy ground.
This has changed both my regular, everyday experience of God as well as my youth ministry practice. When I’m leading my middle-school-guys small group, for example, I’m trying to choose (and it is a choice, by the way) to simultaneously listen to my guys and to the Holy Spirit. One of the surprise benefits to me, in a youth ministry setting, is that I feel unburdened and free. That’s because I’m not carrying the absurd responsibility of being smart or insightful enough to know what to say.
This personal awakening and shift in my practice has also shaped my thinking about youth ministry and church leadership. If you ever hear me talk about Youth Ministry 3.0 stuff these days, I hope you hear the difference from what I wrote about in that book. When I wrote that book, about four years ago now, I was not operating with this mindset or experience, and most of my suggestions only tip a hat to the role of the Holy Spirit. But these days, I’m convinced that great youth workers (and great church leaders) need to recover the art of collaborative discernment. Great youth ministry takes all different forms because it has to be contextual. But the path to a wonderfully contextualized youth ministry is not merely an effort of assessment and study. In fact, it is first and foremost an exercise of listening (and I believe that listening needs to be practiced in community, which is why I am passionate about collaborative discernment).
Yes, we need to do assessments and learn about the community we do ministry in; yes, we need to read and study and observe. But more important than all of that is the intentional act of gathering a small group of spiritually minded people to actively listen to the Holy Spirit. Ask, What teenagers have you placed in our midst? (No, just observing them is not enough.) Listen. Ask, What teenagers are you calling us to in our community? Listen. Ask, What would a culturally and contextually appropriate approach be to reach those teenagers? Listen.
Bottom line #1: Without a sense of the Holy Spirit’s role in your life, you will always be limited in your own spiritual growth and practice and, therefore, in your youth ministry efforts. Bottom line #2: A youth ministry that’s not informed by active and intentional listening to the Holy Spirit will miss out on who God is calling it to be.