Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Problems of Youth Ministry. Idealism, Reality, and Mixed Visions

I’ve known a ton of youth ministers over the years, and a common headache that many experience is the search committee says one thing, but the church in actual practice wants something else. Its pretty easy to present the case of an optimistic church with a “run to win” focus on youth… but in practice, far too often the desired practice once a youth minister is on board, ends up being “fight not to loose”. I think the answer is brutal honesty upfront as to where one wants go, AND a commitment by the congregation to support steps to get there.

Most folks are well aware of declining young adult attendance, and likewise kids bailing from church post confirmation. As such, it seems like getting gung ho on youth ministry could well be a proactive step to avoid further young adult exodus type experience. The next step, an often overlooked one to folks peril…. is what is youth ministry?

As an idealist, I see youth ministry as:

A Safe Space for Questioning and Growth

An all-in approach to the Gospel, such that youth ministry is overtly Christian, not a Gospel of good behavior or works, nor moral therapeutic deism/theism, or any number of related variants.

Providing opportunities for putting ones faith into action.

An intergenerational and family approach which integrates youth with the entire congregation and ministry with the family.

By the same token, idealism often slams head on into reality, and youth ministry can morph into something else…

Safe space can freaks folks out… there are multitudes of very hard questions, where in canned answers are not going to fly. Hard core discussion on such are often perceived negatively. Ie consider Rob Bell’s Love Wins for example. Its a whole lot easier to morph into “do not ask/discuss those types of questions” than it is to embrace safe space. It doesn’t have to be things like “Does Hell exist” or “What about the inconsistencies in the Gospels”, but could be something like “Did Luther really say “Sin a little to spite the devil“.

A full bore Gospel centric approach sounds fine in theory… but a theology of glory is a much easier sale to parents and congregations than the theology of the cross. Consider how the following plays out in Ask Mr Moralism.

There’s this guy who says he’s a Christian, but he apparently thinks about his body a LOT. He works out HOURS a day, and poses for pictures in his underwear, knowing they will be displayed publicly.

He works at this place where they have dancing girls, getting paid to do sexy dances.

And there’s TONS of drinking there. His salary comes from an employer who’s made millions off alcohol sales!

Like I said, he says he’s a Christian. Should I take a stand to show people I disapprove?

Read the response… kids see this type of stuff for what it is all the time. Moral behaviorism is not the answer.

Faith into action is pretty cool… but we need to exercise care that such doesn’t morph into works without faith. An experienced Boy or Girl scout leader can run circles around most youth ministers when it comes to works alone, but then works alone isn’t really what we are after or is it?

Some have said that the old formula head -> heart -> hands appears to be changing to hands -> heart -> head. The problem with the order changing is that in some cases youth ministry implementation equates to a lower or even non-existent priority for everything but works. If the only difference between a youth ministry and a secular program is a prayer at the start, a couple minutes of scripture and then Jesus gets put aside for the rest of it, one has to ask if its really youth ministry.

Youth ministry when thrown over the wall and nearly separate from the rest of the church can sometimes work exceedingly well, at least in the short term. We’ve all heard or participated in the guru leader youth pastor who takes a youth group from 4-5 kids to hundreds, and amazing things happen. That is, until the youth leader leaves and/or the youth grow up.

Likewise, youth ministry separate from the family can pose no small amount of headaches when the value sets are at odds. If a family looks at a youth ministry to indoctrinate doctrine, and or instill morality rather than the Gospel, they will take issue when discipleship is the focus rather than rote memorization or white knuckle abstinence.

The elephant in the room challenge in youth ministry is often the varying degrees of idealism and pragmatism, combined with where a congregation is, and where they can realistically go. Folks will say on the one hand… we need to get serious about youth ministry, and then on the other, put so many barriers in place that real youth ministry ends up being near impossible…. and then wonder why they have such a high churn rate in youth ministers.

Bottom line… figure out what your vision for youth ministry is, figure out where your congregation is at, and see if the vision is possible. Plan as to how you will get there, and share this with your potential youth minister and what his/her role will be as concerns said vision. Assuming that a new youth minister is not only good to go to work with the youth, but will also primarily drive the congregation towards a vision they are not on board with, will be an exercise in frustration for all concerned.

Slippery Slopes, and Plato’s Cave

RachelHeldEvans wrote this fascinating blog post called They Were Right (And Wrong) About the Slippery Slope. A selected bit follows:

It was easier before, when the path was wide and straight.

But, truth be told, I was faking it. I was pretending that things that didn’t make sense made sense, that things that didn’t feel right felt right. To others, I appeared confident and in control, but faith felt as far away as friend who has grown distant and cold.

Now, every day is a risk.

Now, I have no choice but to cling to faith and hope and love for dear life.

Now, I have to keep a very close eye on Jesus, as he leads me through deep valleys and precarious peaks.

But the view is better, and, for the first time in a long time, I am fully engaged in my faith.

I got thinking on this a bit, and a friends blog came to mind where he writes on the problems on datacentric approaches to education. I like how he tied data driven schools to Platos Allegory of the cave. Even more so, it also seemed to ring very parallel to what Rachel is writing about.



@anderscj nails it with this summary “The shadows are cast on the wall, and prisoner’s in the cave are made to spend their whole lives looking at the shadows and never allowed to turn around and see what is making them. To Plato’s prisoners the shadows are the real things and anyone who is freed and turned around to see what they are producing is thought to have “gone to the surface and come back without their sight” because spending time actually examining what has produced those shadows has made their ability to see the shadows for real objects worse.”

No one likes to consider themselves a prisoner, or to merely be seeing shadows… yet

1. Consider how really massively huge the scriptures are.

2. Consider Paul telling us we see dimly in 1 Cor 13:12.

3. Consider how comfortable and safe a cave environment could be in contrast with the unknown dangers outside of it.

If we flee from growth and/or difficult questioning, I think there is a real danger of becoming Platos shadow observers. A projection show in a cave is safe, comfortable, and easy. We dont really feel like prisoners of our own making… Likewise we will never experience the rejection as have those who have “gone to the surface and come back without their sight.”

Otoh, a prisoner of ones own making sort of shoots a hole in studying to be an approved workman, and makes discipling others near impossible.