youth ministry 3.0, part 14

youth ministry 3.0 is the working title of a book i’ve mostly written, which is expected to release this fall. it’s an attempt to name where and how we’re missing the mark in youth ministry, and what needs to change in order to more truly live into our calling as youth workers.

we’ve decided to open up the book a bit and solicit youth worker contributions as sidebar comments, and i’m going to use my blog for this purpose. until late april, i’ll be posting a series of snapshots from the rough draft of the manuscript. i invite lots of comments — questions, disagreements, ideas, very short stories or examples, reflections — which will be considered as additions to the book.

by posting a comment, you are giving permission for your comment, with your screen name, to be added to the print book.

so, here’s the fourteenth bit, from chapter 6:


Before a foreign missionary (or any cross-cultural missionary) hits the ground in a new culture, she spends months or years studying that culture: language, customs, beliefs, practices, food, clothes, music and other cultural art , political systems and other systems of power, needs, relational dynamics and family systems, and much more. When she lands, she continues to be a student of culture, learning substantially more when she’s living in the actual cross-cultural context. Without this learning, and the logical contextualization of both message and methods that should come from it, she will fail at her mission (at best), or inflict great damage (at worst). Without this learning and the intentional contextualization that flows from it, she will be a colonizer.

In a sense, we’ve endorsed colonialization in youth ministry for decades. But this damaging and fruitless approach has never been as much of a misstep than it is today, with youth culture embodying a deeper otherness than it ever has in previous decades.

Most youth workers do not have the luxury of studying youth and youth culture (again: language, customs, beliefs, practices, food, clothes, music and other cultural art, political systems and other systems of power, needs, relational dynamics and family systems, and much more) prior to engaging with real teenagers . Most of us need on-the-job training, in the trenches learning, life long education. I had wonderful undergraduate and graduate training in educational ministries and curriculum development, cross-cultural education, adolescent development and psychology, theology, and a host of other related topics. And it provided me a good basis for getting going in youth ministry. But I would have to say that, today, 90% of what I know and practice in youth ministry has come from learning that happened outside of my formal preparation.

And, really, a good cultural anthropologist doesn’t just read books about a people group or culture. To borrow the wonderful words of Eugene Peterson’s spin on xxxxx [ref], referring to the incarnation, they “move into the neighborhood…” [get full quote]. This is key: a moving into the neighborhood mindset and practice. We must live incarnationally, positioning ourselves humbly and openly on the sometimes cold, dark and scary stairwell to the underground of youth culture.

But it’s not just about being a student of youth culture in general. Youth workers committed to a Youth Ministry 3.0 ideal don’t move into a conceptual neighborhood. They move into a real neighborhood, with actual living, breathing, moody, irrational, finicky, guarded, hurt teenagers! I’m not saying you have to physical relocate your residence. I’m saying that a commitment to contextualization moves us, incarnationally, into the lives of a group of real students – not hypothetical ones.

Youth Ministry 3.0 in your context should look different than Youth Ministry 3.0 in the church down the street, and certainly look different than either the church across the country, or the denominational norms, or the big ol’ Youth Ministry 2.0 mega-group everyone thinks you should clone.

Contextualized youth ministry doesn’t come from a book or a conference (two of the things my company offers!). It comes from discernment. And discernment always involves inquiry, always involves reading and thinking, always involves careful listening, always involves wrestling with questions that might not be answerable, and always involves the Holy Spirit.

In addition, discernment for contextualization is always better accomplished by a group than by an individual. Youth Ministry 2.0 was all about top down leadership. Youth Ministry 3.0 is a shared journey, utilizing a shared discernment process, involving both adults and teenagers .

You know your students, you know your community: dream and discern with them to create a localized ministry that brings the present gospel to the real kids you see every week.

2 thoughts on “youth ministry 3.0, part 14”

  1. “dream and discern with them…”
    This can only happen when youth ministers and the churches they are a part of change an underlying assumption and that assumption is this: that they have something to “teach” youth. Youth Ministry 3.0 assumes that youth are heading to a destination and that youth ministers are going to the same place. Youth ministries that operate like they have a product or service to impart ought to transition into thinking that they are journeying alongside of youth.

  2. Sometimes I find myself in the dangerous place of comparing my church’s youth ministry to the youth ministries of my friends who serve at much larger churches. Their youth groups are bigger than my entire church. I find myself equating big church, big youth group with big success and notoriety. This is generally the view of youth ministry 2.0.

    These words here are affirming to me as I minister in an entirely different context than any of my friends at the “big churches.” I cannot compare my church to theirs, because they are entirely different. Instead of comparing, I just need to stop and look at my church and celebrate the fact that our group of youth, even if there are less than twenty of them, are making solid connections with adults in our church and together are fervently taking hold of their faith and finding out where they fit in God’s story. Now that is a cause for celebration, and an end to comparison!

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