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When I was a little boy, one of my favorite television heroes was Tarzan: King of the Jungle. My youthful imagination was stirred by the sight of this powerful man raised by animals in the thickest jungle. He slept in the mother of all tree houses, hundreds of feet above the jungle floor, and was always clad in his signature leopard-skin tankini. My favorite part of every show was when Tarzan—one part Superman, one part Samson, and one part Curious George on steroids—would grab a tree vine and swing from treetop to treetop as the whole jungle came alive with the sound of his trademark yell, which he did sometimes to communicate with the animals, and sometimes because the leopard-skin deal would get caught up in the vine.
It was an awesome image: Tarzan weaving his way from vine to vine, going bungee before bungee was cool. How amazing—and how convenient—that there was always a vine right where he needed it, one that was the right length and secure at the top yet somehow loose enough to release from the tree with the slightest tug.
Frankly, even as a young boy I used to wonder about that.
As I'd walk through the woods behind our house and look up at the treetops, I was certain it would take more than a quick pull to launch those vines. I wondered what might happen if Tarzan were swinging through the woods behind my house. First of all, I suspected he might get scuffed up a bit if he wore the leopard-skin outfit back there. There were some serious stickers. And he might get poison ivy on areas of his body that would make vine swinging more difficult—or at least less comfortable. But even more important, what about the vines? What if they weren't long enough, or what if they were too long? Plus, most of the vines behind my house were wrapped pretty securely around the trees—how would that affect my hero?
I imagined how sad it would be to see Tarzan swing down on a vine that was too long, only to crash to the jungle floor with a thud. Or what if he miscalculated and chose a vine that was too short? One can only imagine the blur of flailing flesh and leopard skin as Tarzan realizes Vine A won't allow him to swing to Tree B. Or how gruesome would it be if Tarzan were to swing all the way to the edge of the jungle and simply run out of trees? Imagine: Tarzan swings through the jungle ... first to one tree ... then another ... then another ... then another ... until all of a sudden, he comes to a clearing. No trees. No vines. Just a small group of animals gawking at a "king" whose crown is seriously broken. Not a pretty thought.
And yet, it's precisely that thought that animates this book you're now holding.
WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED "YOUTH MINISTRY"—AND WHY DO WE DO IT?
When many of us think of youth ministry, we can almost imagine in our mind's eye a generation of teenagers "swinging" from Sunday night to Sunday night, youth meeting to youth meeting, coffee house to small group, Young Life club to Campaigner Camp, retreat to festival, summer camp to mission trip. We imagine great excitement in the air, an ever-growing number of students coming to youth group, and youth programs getting larger and gaining momentum. In this grand vision, it would be easy to suppose that our job as club leaders, Sunday school teachers, and youth workers is simply to supply and supervise these treetop moments, to see that vines are loosed and ready, cut and cleared in neat lengths that maximize the ride. But, in fact, the greater task for those of us in youth ministry is to prepare our students for life in the clearing, for those times when the treetops give way and leave them feeling uncertain about what to grab onto. They must also be ready for those other times when the jungle of life gets too dense, when the excitement diminishes and the difficulty of finding the trail increases, when the Christian life becomes more about walking step to step than swinging from treetop to treetop.
This book is born of the concern that our current view of youth ministry leads us as leaders—paid and volunteer alike—to see ourselves as program planners, people who work with determination and creativity to create Disney-like jungle experiences that maximize the thrills and emphasize the treetops of the spiritual life. The problem with this contemporary approach to youth ministry is that it often breeds students who are ripe for a classic case of "crash and burn"—a plunging blur of leopard skin, colorful Bible cover, and Christian T-shirt.
If you're reading this book, it's probably because, like me, you love seeing teenagers grow up in their faith and mature into disciples who will follow Jesus faithfully throughout their lives. You've put up with bad food, loud music, loud human beings, late nights, awkward conversations, ungrateful parents, and countless other inconveniences precisely because you know, as I do, that growing teenagers into disciples is not just a possibility, but a unique and holy privilege. And, like me, I'll bet you've also discovered that it's a great adventure and a wild, fun ride. Because every now and then—in the midst of the bad food, loud music, loud human beings, late nights, awkward conversations, ungrateful parents, and countless other inconveniences—you get to see God.
But that's why I know you're concerned, as I am, because you're aware that when these students leave our youth groups, they won't always have the luxury of swinging from one treetop experience to the next. What will happen to them then? What will happen when they find themselves out there in the jungle of everyday life with all of its risks and dangers? Will their faith survive, or will it crash and burn in a blur of doubt, disillusion, and distraction?
I fear that in failing to ask such questions, we may be compromising God's mandate for the church and his call for those of us who serve him as youth workers. And, most of all, I'm concerned that in our discomfort with these kinds of questions, we may be planting in our youth programs the seeds of Tarzan Christianity.
IS THERE LIFE AFTER TREETOPS?
To be sure, it is God who begins the "good work" in the teenagers we work with, and it is God who will see it through to "completion" (Philippians 1:6). But we youth workers must recognize that our task is not simply to get teenage Tarzans to jump into the jungle; we need to help them land, stand, and keep walking with Christ on a daily basis. The mission of effective youth ministry is not getting young people to "swing from the trees"; it's helping them cling to the Vine (John 15:5).
Any number of factors can short-circuit this important work. But ultimately, the key to preventing a nasty fall is maintaining a consistent balance in the way we do youth ministry—to recognize that we're not trying to build swingers, but clingers. Our mission is to build in students a faith that will last, a commitment that endures in the highest treetop moments and in the heart of the darkest jungle.
So let's begin with some diagnosis. What is it about so much of contemporary youth ministry that breeds Tarzan Christianity? What confusions about our own identity as youth workers keep us from understanding our role in this grace adventure? Where do we fall short in building long-term faith? What follows are some of the most common errors of imbalance.
Imbalance 1: too much Arrival, not enough survival
The Christian life is a marathon. It's never been about speed; it's always been about distance. It's not about how fast our young people grow; it's about how far our young people grow.
Let's be clear: Arrival is a very good thing. There's no greater satisfaction than being there when a young person you've been praying for, talking with, and walking with finally comes to that point where she wants to surrender her life to Christ. Who doesn't get excited about a birth announcement? Jesus said that even the angels rejoice when only one sinner repents (Luke 15:10). But nowhere in Scripture are we called to make converts; only God can make converts. Our mandate as youth workers is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19; 2 Timothy 2:2).
After all these years, I still haven't gotten over the wonder of seeing kids step forward (or say a prayer, or raise a hand, or make a decision, or quietly commit) to follow Christ. But at its core, our commission to make disciples means more than just leading kids to accept Christ as Savior. Pressing onward in the faith is more important than coming forward in a meeting. Arrival is good; survival is better.
Research from the Barna Group of Ventura, California, shows that most young people who show strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years tend to pull back from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years. Sadly, many of them never return. Indeed, the Barna Group concludes that as many as 6 out of every 10 twentysomethings who were involved in a church during their teen years will fail to maintain their active spirituality during their years of emerging adulthood. "The research shows that, compared to older adults, twentysomethings have significantly lower levels of church attendance, time spent alone studying and reading the Bible, volunteering to help churches, donations to churches, Sunday school and small group involvement, and use of Christian media (including television, radio and magazines)."
Perhaps the most troubling of these findings is that 61 percent of twentysomethings who'd been churched during their teen years are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying). Only 20 percent of these young adults maintain a level of spiritual activity in their twenties that is consistent with their involvement in high school. If this sounds a little grim, consider the results of the 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which prompted top political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell to comment, "Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago)." These results correspond to Rainer Research studies that show about 70 percent of U.S. youth drop out of church between the ages of 18 and 22.
Others suggest the picture isn't quite so dire. Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark contends, "Young people have always been less likely to attend [church] than are older people.... A bit later in life when they have married, and especially after children arrive, they become more regular [church] attendees. This happens in every generation." Indeed, Stark's conclusions are similar to those of another sociologist, Bradley Wright. In his book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites ... and Other Lies You've Been Told, Wright remarks that the grave warning about young people leaving the church is nothing more than "one of the myths" of contemporary Christianity. But all of us who love teenagers and care about nurturing in them a long-term commitment would agree that if we want to encourage in our students a faith that does not fail or fade, we need to focus on strategies that encourage survival, not just arrival.
That's not to say outreach is unimportant. Obviously, the church is called to give witness to Jesus (Acts 1:8). Those who pit "discipleship" against "evangelism" seem to have forgotten that evangelism is the first stage in the process of discipleship. No one has ever been discipled who was not first evangelized. Walk around the youth ministry neighborhood for a little while, and you'll probably meet folks who might be described as "discipleship snobs"—youth workers who talk about evangelism and outreach as if they were lower life-forms of youth ministry: "I don't have time to mess around with kids who aren't interested in doing something radical for Jesus! I didn't get into ministry so I could do fun and games." Fair enough. Most of us didn't. I understand that some kids are drawn to the deep. But about five minutes of immersion in adolescent culture demonstrates that many other teenagers are drawn to the shallow. And some of those kids fear the deep.
The value of fun and games, laser tag, lock-ins, crazy relays, stupid pet tricks, and Quidditch matches is that they provide us a context in which we can build relationships with teenagers. And like copper for electricity, relationships are the conductors through which we bring Light to kids living in darkness. We mustn't forget that discipleship happens in relationship, and relationships won't happen if we don't meet kids on their terms.
Standing on the beach one day, Jesus looked squarely into Peter's eyes and said, "Don't be afraid; from now on you will fish for people" (Luke 5:10). We can't be absolutely sure what Peter thought about that word picture. But we can be relatively sure that, as a fisherman, Peter knew it takes two things to catch fish: (1) patience, and (2) a net. Whether we like it or not, fishing for teenagers will always involve both. Fish don't report to the boat. It takes a lure. It takes bait. It takes a net.
Now, granted, some kids are self-aware enough to acknowledge the deep longings of their soul, thoughtful enough to consider their need for God, and honest enough to see beyond the blinders that our culture has placed on them. For these kids, a simple invitation to learn habits of prayer and communion may be all the bait it takes. To be sure, there is something powerfully attractive and deeply moving about the invitation to know God.
The problem is that ever since the garden (Genesis 3:8-9), human beings—particularly adolescent human beings—have demonstrated a profound ability to ignore those longings and hide from the very God whose invitation promises a place where hungers are fed, thirsts are quenched, and souls are satisfied (Isaiah 55:1-6; see also Romans 1:18-23). There's a word for people in fishing boats who don't use nets or bait; they're called passengers. To do discipleship without evangelism is to do farming without sowing seeds. A wise farmer understands the importance of adding a little manure to the seed. A wise fisherman understands the importance of adding bait to the hook. (Deadliest Catch 3:16). And sometimes, for some teenagers, what smells like lightweight spiritual manure to those of us who want to go deeper is actually bait for those who are swimming in a very shallow culture.
Arrival is important. Nothing happens without arrival.
On the other hand, no fisherman in his right mind continues to catch fish without giving some thought to how he'll preserve them and keep them fresh. Otherwise, all he has to show for his labor at the end of the day is a big boat filled with smelly, dead fish. Big catch? Big deal.
The problem is that catching fish is more exhilarating than scaling them, cleaning them, and preserving them. Evangelism generates greater excitement and bigger numbers than discipleship and nurture do.
There is always more excitement in arrival than there is in survival. When guests first arrive at your home for a visit, there are hugs and kisses and animated conversations. Who wouldn't want to focus their efforts on that end of the equation? But after a few days of sharing the bathroom and cleaning up someone else's mess, we begin the mundane work of life in shared community. That's not quite as exhilarating.
So much of our youth ministry effort is focused on helping young people to "become Christians" that we've lost sight of our central God-given mandate to build them into disciples, "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Surveys of church young people indicate that we're doing a better job of getting them to show up than helping them to grow up.
Commenting on Christian Smith's massive National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR), Kenda Creasy Dean puts it like this:
We have successfully convinced teenagers that religious participation is for moral formation and for making nice people, which may explain why American adolescents harbor no ill will toward religion. Many of them say they will bring their own children to church in the future (a dubious prediction statistically). Yet these young people possess no real commitment to or excitement about religious faith. Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life.
Excerpted from Building a Youth Ministry That Builds Disciples by Duffy Robbins Copyright © 2011 by Duffy Robbins . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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