youth ministry is risky business

Teenagers and risk naturally go together. So youth ministry without risk is, in a sense, a denial of our essence (or at least a denial of the essence of teenagers).

You know that teenagers love risk. But maybe you’ve unknowingly bought into the common notion that teenagers’ risk-taking propensity is a deficiency, an immaturity. But spend a minute reflecting on one of my favorite framing questions for how we approach any aspect of teenage development: Are teenagers a problem to be solved, or a wonder to behold?

Heightened risk-taking is clearly connected to adolescent brain development. Daniel Siegel, a brilliant doctor who specializes in understanding brain function, writes in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, “Instead of viewing the adolescent stage of brain development as merely a process of maturation, of leaving behind outmoded or non-useful ways of thinking and transitioning to adult maturity, it is actually more accurate and more useful to see it as a vital and necessary part of our individual and collective selves. Adolescence is not a stage to simply get over, it is a stage of live to cultivate as well.”

Without being intentionally provocative, I’ll go this far: A life without risk isn’t only not worth living, it’s unbiblical. And the same applies for youth ministry.

Seriously, it’s hard to think of a great Bible story that doesn’t have overt or implied risk. Moses confronting Pharaoh, little David running at Goliath, Peter jumping out of the boat, the early church defying Rome (where I was this past weekend). I could fill this space with biblical examples. Maybe it’s even fair to say that creation itself was a risk on God’s part, with God’s foreknowledge of how fickle and self-serving we would be.

Of course, there’s stupid risk and worthy risk. Stupid risk, in youth ministry, looks like playing a game where you expect teens to get hurt, or not counting to make sure you have everyone before leaving a stop on a trip (which once resulted in me leaving a 7th grade girl at McDonald’s, just before closing time, in one of the roughest neighborhoods of Chicago). Stupid risk boils down to arrogance: we assume we’re above it, or impervious to catastrophe. We might spiritualize stupid risk, and think the ends justify the means, or that “God will take care of it;” but, really, it’s just supercilious pride.

As Siegel writes in Brainstorm, “The question is whether we can support the exploration of new things while we also minimize the chance of permanent harm.”

Good risk… ah, that’s the stuff of transformation and revolution. When we step out in faith and risk that God will show up, we’re like the kid who offered his 5 loaves and 2 fishies. This kind of humble, faith-fueled risk is the primary difference between an exclusive, ingrown youth group that doubles as a country club, and a missional community of teenage Christ-followers heaven-bent on joining up with the active work of God in the world.

Is there risk involved in offering a place of meaningful belonging to those kids, without the condition that they become like us? Absolutely. Is there risk involved in taking students on a cross-cultural mission trip? You betcha. Is there risk involved in creating a safe place for teenagers to express real doubts (even when they express them in less-than-polished terms)? Yup. Is there risk involved in not trying to “fix” every teenager, and trusting the Holy Spirit to be the Holy Spirit? Most definitely.

But humble, faith-fueled risk is youth ministry wisdom. The wise youth worker avoids stupid risk, but runs, with a heart full of hope, at good risk.

Where do you need to be more like a teenager and take a risk today? Where does your ministry need an infusion of risk?

5 thoughts on “youth ministry is risky business”

  1. This post resonates, as over the years I’ve questioned again and again whether the emotional drain of taking the risks you described is worth it. (It is.) It feels like Psalm 107, The Message: “Out at sea you saw God in action, saw his breathtaking ways with the ocean: With a word he called up the wind— an ocean storm, towering waves! You shot high in the sky, then the bottom dropped out; your hearts were stuck in your throats. You were spun like a top, you reeled like a drunk, you didn’t know which end was up. Then you called out to God in your desperate condition; he got you out in the nick of time.”

  2. Marko, I went to a seminar with Siegal last year on this book. Really helps us understand much better what’s going on with the teenage brain. Well worth the read.

  3. Risk is scary. Our Family Pastor gave me permission to do some “risky” things this semester as we experiment with programming. The biggest risk for me is the risk of failure. Carey Nieuwhof said in his book “Leading Change without losing it” something along the lines of “The greatest enemy of your future success is your current success.” eek. So for me, taking a GOOD risk involves some very SCARY risks–reputation, rapport with students/parents, etc. EEK. But no, you won’t see me risking my job with food fights in the sanctuary–VERY BAD RISK.

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