Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Youth

For me, youth ministry has always been a "Jonah and the Big Fish" sort of situation. As hard and as far as I try to run, God has always found me, dragged me back, and said, "Do this!"

I like to think that I've had good reasons for resisting. I didn't want to be stuck perpetually in 10th grade, where I feel like I'm being judged on my coolness level more than what I can teach about spirituality. Some youth pastors try too hard to compensate in this area, and I never wanted to be one of them. I fully realized this a couple months ago during a local parade, which featured another church's youth pastor standing atop their float wearing pajama pants with pictures of Sugar Daddy candies all over them (that was actually creepy) and bleating one of their Bible School songs a la Ferris Buehler. I don't want to be That Guy.

But throughout seminary, I found myself playing a big part in organizing youth groups. My age may have had something to do with this, and after I released my death grip on the doorframe and accepted what was asked of me, the kids and I had a great time together. It's the same scenario wherever I go, actually. I don't want to do it, but it is needed and I can do it. And before I know it, I'm enjoying myself because it's really something I'm gifted at.

I've always taken a low-key approach to youth ministry. This is due to budget restrictions, but it's also because my experience has shown that youth don't necessarily need a big flashy production; they just need the right space and encouragement to explore questions about faith. And they really do have those questions.

I found no better (and probably ill-conceived) an example of this than when I was a staff counselor at our Ohio UCC camps one summer. My very first week, someone thought it would be really funny to stick me as one of the counselors for confirmation camp: a cabin full of junior high boys who found new and creative ways each day to let me know how much they didn't want to be there. Anyway, the very first night we were together they had no intention of going to bed when I told them to go to bed, so in an act of part "wanting to be Cool Counselor" and part "trying to do something worthwhile" (and part "wearing them the hell out so I could get some freaking sleep"), I said to them, "Okay...I'm going to let you stay up, but if I do you have to be quiet and you have to talk about God." They ended up not being that quiet, but they DID have a lot of questions that they wanted to share about God, the Bible, faith, and church. I got reamed for it the next day, but that experience sticks with me as an example that youth, when taken seriously and given the opportunity, have plenty to ask and talk about.

Natalie over at Take My Hand gives her perspective, which is actually the perspective of a senior high youth:

I've always been frustrated with my youth group and youth groups in general. Am I completely knocking the youth group model of ministry? No. But, I do believe that it too often and too easily becomes a place to entertain. Youth group morphs into a social club disguised verbally as "fellowship time", exclusive cliques form, and God ceases to be the obvious focus. Once this happens, it's terribly difficult for the people deeply invested in the group to acknowledge.

...

We played games for a good while, sang songs for a very good while and prayed once. This isn't just a description of a one time event at youth group either, it's pretty indicative of what goes on generally. Youth deserve more than that. Youth need more than that. And, I know for a fact that it's not just me who feels this way. And it's not just because I am an 'older' youth. We deserve more and we need more.


I've never been from the "entertain them at all times" school, and I don't think that youth always need or even desire that. That's not to say that church groups can never have fun...I've just said before that if your big draw is the climbing wall instead of Jesus, they'll come to church for the climbing wall, and they might stay for Jesus.

I've found a genuine passion for youth to come for Jesus to begin with. I think a lot of youth genuinely want to come for the same reason.

3 comments:

Steve said...

Youth ministry is one of the hardest ministries, much for the reasons you mention here.

Yet, it is one of the most important ministries.

Those who do it should be honored.

Anonymous said...

I got reamed for it the next day

That's what they do with people who have creative ideas and passion for students.

Ditto what steve said, although those who do it are rarely honored except within their own circles by organizations like Youth Specialties.

Was there something at church that prompted this post, or was the topic just rumbling around in your head?

Jeff said...

"Was there something at church that prompted this post, or was the topic just rumbling around in your head?"

A little of both, really. Three of the four churches that I've been on staff with (including this one) have needed me to help get something started for the senior highs. I went from a small urban church to a rich suburban church, both of whom had plenty of youth but nothing in place to organize them.

So I guess my latest situation and attempt here, now in a small town/rural setting, is what prompted it.