youth ministry 3.0, part 17

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 seventeenth bit, from chapter 6:

Help students experience God

Maybe you’ve seen this diagram before:

modern world.jpg

In the second half of the last century, as our systematic, scientific, rational modern mindset calcified into theology that was assumed to be complete and timeless, this little diagram was used by many to explain the relationship of facts and feelings to faith. The explanation goes: facts – objective truth – are the engine of the faith train. Facts are trustworthy, and will propel us down the track, in the right direction. Of course, faith is the coal car, and that provides fuel to the engine. Feelings are the caboose. A caboose isn’t really necessary. It can be helpful; but it’s not essential. Feelings cannot be trusted, and should not inform faith or facts.

This mental map was not unique to the church. This typified the modern mindset, dominant in the western world from the time of the Enlightenment, propelled by the Reformation and the rise of science, and continued into the 20th century (until things like quantum physics, mistrust of authority, and other factors slowly began to pull at this worldview’s king-of-the-hill status).

You can hate postmodernism all you want, call it every sort of nasty name you like, but the reality is completely indisputable: we live in a postmodern culture. Scripture calls us to be in the world. If we have any hope of engaging real teenagers in their real world, we simply must understand, and minister in the context of, a postmodern mindset.

Here’s how the little train of modernism has had its cars reshuffled:

postmodern world.jpg

Faith is still the fuel. But in a postmodern world, most teenagers (not all) come to a place of faith through their experience of the Divine: in others, in themselves, in nature, in spiritual community, in Scripture, in popular media, in pain, with the poor and mistreated, and all of the other myriad places God can be actively found. This experience (which always has an intimate relationship with feelings) becomes a pathway to faith. Facts are still there: it might be fair to say the caboose is more important in this scenario. But facts support faith and validate experience.

With this reality in mind, Youth Ministry 3.0 needs to be intentionally proactive about providing teenagers opportunities to experience God, not merely hear facts about God. What does this look like? In a word: worship.

But let me remind you of a little scriptural gadfly about worship:


Yes, worship includes the experience of raising our voices together in songs to God. And, yes, worship involves prayer. But a broader – scriptural – view of worship is about serving the poor, righting injustice, caring for those in need. When teenagers – already followers of Jesus or not yet – experience this kind of worship-in-action, they have an enormous opportunity to have a tangible experience of God in their lives. This leads, often, to faith (or more faith). More importantly, this leads to a sustainable faith.

Funny, the first train told us that feelings do not lead us to a sustainable faith, since they can’t be trusted. Maybe that was true 50 years ago. I’m not sure. I’m sure of this, though: for today’s teenagers, experience is what they trust. And, if we’re really honest, this is how we all live.

These experiences of the Divine become sustaining markers in the journey of an adolescent, more than a robust factual knowledge base can ever be. When she’s sitting in third-period science class, and hearing arguments that might undermine her factual knowledge (as strong as that may be), it will be her experience of God – last week in her spiritual community, last month in the soup kitchen, and last summer on the mission trip – that sustains her faith in the face of seemingly objective facts to the contrary.

14 thoughts on “youth ministry 3.0, part 17”

  1. I always thought the train was B.S. You cannot choose what you believe… the initiative of belief comes from intuition in nearly every person I have ever met…

    Even really intelligent people have an inner voice that directs their intellect…

    Experience is what teaches our belief intuition how to be more accurate… and ultimately it seems like experience is what dictates the “facts” of our life…

    Or as Anais Nin says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

    To me this means there is no shortage of facts, but they are invisible to us until our experiences reveal them to be true. Until that point, our own preconceived notions of the world hide them from us.

  2. Adolescents demand to be more than observers in almost every conceivable facet of life today. They don’t just want to watch TV, they want to vote on the outcome. They don’t just want to see videos online, they want to create them. They don’t just want to be listed in directories, they want to shape their own profiles. In short, they demand the things they do to be experiences. Is it really any surprise that they begin to doubt when the church can’t provide an experience of the living God?

  3. One minor change to the previous comments last sentence:

    Is it really any surprise that they begin to doubt when the church doesn’t provide an experience of the living God?

  4. Under “youth ministry 2.0” I think I have to mostly agree that feelings can’t be trusted. But it is not that feelings (experience) can’t actually be trusted, but that the programmatic crap we fed our kids produced short term feelings that weren’t based on anything real. We brought them to conferences and camps, sang songs, gave them some facts and then twisted their emotions with a heart wrenching story. Sunday Nights and Wednesday nights were a little better, but same idea.

    Young people (and adults) don’t need to have knowledge of God or feelings about God, they need to encounter God. They need to experience God in a tangible way that creates feelings, knowledge, and faith. Their faith isn’t rooted in the way they feel about it or the facts they have memorized, it is rooted in their own eye witness account.

  5. Hey Marko,

    When I read this I thought of my friend AZ. A lead a skate & bike park ministry in NJ about 20 minutes outside of Atlantic City. It’s a rough area for kids here because most parents are working all kinds of shifts and the kids can do what the want.

    PATMOS park was designed to pull in the rough kids to love on them and ultimately see them come to Christ. So I would do things like let kids do community service by helping build the park. AZ was one of those kids. He is about 19 and ripper on a bike. So we connected. He had to do 200 hours of community service. On his last night at the park we found him in one of the other kids cars. He lied said he was looking for some gloves. So we kind of let it go. Then later that night we found him in a totally new car, and older person from the church. He said he was tring to put the gloves back.

    At the of the night it was my brother in law (who just came back from a 6 year Costa Mesa surfing binge who was exactly like this kid) Casey a kid who got saved from the park who’s car it was and me.

    Casey told AZ to confess or he was going to call the cops. AZ just denied it. The crazy thing was that he had to go to court the next day and if anything went wrong they were going to send him to jail.

    After a few times of just strait telling him we knew he was tring to steal something and to just fess up Casey took me out side. He was super mad and said I’m going to call the cops.

    God was pushing me to tell Casey to handle this differently. He pushed me to tell Casey to go back inside the park trailer were he was and clean out the cash register and give AZ the money and the signed papers for his community service so he didn’t have to go to jail.

    Casey cleaned the drawer out, coins and all, pushed it into AZ’s chest and said: It would be “justice” for me to call the cops on you, it would be “mercy” for me to let you go but this is grace. The same grace Jesus showed us. AZ was stunned didn’t know what to do. All he could say was no…no.. I can’t take this. Then Casey forced it on him. AZ then called me outside and broke down. He confessed, told me he was tired of living like this and that he wanted to go to church with me. He didn’t know what was different about us but keep saying I want the “vibe” you guys here have.

    This experience is very much like the second train. I understand there must then become a knowledge of God’s standards, but I’m convinced that this generation I’m around must see it’s proof first.

    PS. He later when to Thirst with Casey. A ministry for college age kids.

    Heres a link with an interview and video on PATMOS

  6. hey boss,
    hadn’t read your blog in a long while; caught this today and found it fascinating. i am definitely a living example of the second “train”. when i experienced a dramatic conversion, *that* is what re-sparked my faith, which followed, generously… but that was nearly fourteen years ago, and i’m only recently discovering the “facts” for myself! :-)
    very interesting/cool thoughts. thanx!

  7. ohmigoodness– i just noticed the bit about the “print book”. i’m sorry for commenting, as i am not a youth worker (unless mothering four little boys ages 3, 5, 6 and 8 counts as a “youth worker” ;-) i read all the other stuff and got excited and posted. so sorry for barging in where i don’t belong!

    i love what you have to say about “a scriptural view of worship”– amen, my brutha (and very important to my own Christian tradition for centuries)!

  8. Why is it so easy to ‘create’ worshipful experiences for our students, yet so difficult for us to personally experience the Divine? If youth ministry 3.0 is to succeed, we must personally be experiencing the divine — not just on our own time, not just with our youth, but all of the above as the greater church body.

  9. that second train is what finally what made me feel normal in my faith. i thought that my experiences were invalid although those were my most signifigant moments of growth and faith. i was basically told they were because it was fact that drove faith not my experiences. at 33 years old i was a postmodern kid growing up in a very modern world.

  10. Today I went into a Sprint store to check out a phone I was considering buying. In the small talk with Jason (not his real name), the young guy who was helping me, it came up that I was a youth pastor. Before long, the conversation turned sharply away from phones when he began asking me about my job. I told him that I loved it because in no other career does anyone get to see God transform lives as often as in ministry. But Jason was skeptical. He asked in my experience as a pastor if I thought people really could change. His personal experience told him otherwise as he was never able to bring himself away from the things in his life he knew was wrong.

    When he asked this, Jason wasn’t looking for an exposition on the New Man in Romans. He was seeking to know if he could experience for himself what I claimed was real in the lives of me and my students. I provided with him stories of students in my ministry who have been radically transformed by Christ’s work in their hearts and out of that grew a tangible excitement and hope that maybe he could experience this Jesus, too. He asked if we could meet later for coffee because he had “a million questions” he wanted to ask me but didn’t feel safe doing so in the store.

    Jason clearly hoped to have an experience like mine or like those of my students. But it was also clear that more than just an experience, he wanted something that was real, viable, and true. He had seen short-lived decisions and emotional highs, but he had never witnessed a true experiential change. His disillusionment with what was hyped up and neatly packaged was evident.

    So from my experience with Jason today, here’s what I was reminded of: I do think people are looking for experiences, and I agree that experience is often the main propulsion to an individual’s faith decision. However, while the culture may allow us to place facts as the caboose, I don’t think that is adequate placement. And maybe the word “facts” is part of the problem. The very word implies textbook responses and cold systematic answers. Instead, maybe we should scrap “facts” and replace it with “truth”–the very thing my new friend Jason was seeking.

    If we settle on truth as the new “facts,” however, we cannot relegate it to the caboose. Resigning truth to the back of the train very well may leave us with a derailment down the road. This is because experiences not based deeply in truth have a tendency to veer off course. Instead, maybe truth needs to become the tracks on which the whole train moves. In this way our experiences and the faith that fuels them rest on a well maintained foundation that can prevent us from derailing down the tracks ahead. Truth is the one thing that separates the train we have to offer from all the other faith trains out there. And even if truth is not the big, flashy attraction to get passengers on board that it once was, it better still be an integral part of what our railroad has to offer.

  11. I am having a little bit of trouble here with your proposition. An appropriate response to the gospel is faith or trust in Jesus Christ and true ‘facts’ about who he is and what he has done on the cross. If we allow feelings to lead the train, because of our sinfulness, our feelings can lead us all over the place. It is not feeling that Scriptures call us to but faith in an objective reality outside of ourselves. If all we listen to is feelings or inner voices or experiences we are going to get a wide range of ideas that may or may not fit the Biblical truth revealed to us by God Himself.

    While feelings are important and need to be addressed in this post-modern culture, we cannot curtail to the feelings of people, much less teenagers. We need to keep before them truth, objective and outside of ourselves. As they experience truth in Scripture accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, then will their emotions or feelings come in joyous waves!

    My judgment is that turning this thing around may lead many people down slipery tracks to destruction.

  12. A few people have mentioned creating worship experiences that have short term feelings. I think we have to be careful to provide EXPERIENCES instead of manipulating emotions. It’s improtant for us to provide opportunities for students to experience God without trying to manipulate the experience or attempt to make them experience what we want them to experience. I think the key is helping students to process their experiences afterwards rather than trying to control the experience for them.

  13. Hi Mark,

    I believe that experiencing God and connecting to God is probably the most important aspect of spiritual formation and for the past few months, I have been desperately trying to figure out HOW to ‘Help Students Experience God’. Prayer has been my biggest stratey thus far and though it has been far from unfruitful, I am really looking forward to:
    (a) insights on how others have done it
    (b) executable strategies and ideas
    (c) some guidelines on what to do
    And i hope that your book will contain some of the above. Looking forward to Youth Ministry 3.0!

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