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Missional Youth Ministrymoving from gathering teenagers to scattering disciples
By Brian Kirk Jacob Thorne
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Brian Kirk and Jacob Thorne
All right reserved.
Chapter Onerethinking youth ministry
Where did we ever get the idea that successful youth ministry was about numbers? If that's really the case, then we might be two of the worst youth pastors in the world. Some of the youth ministry programs we've served actually got smaller during our tenures. Oh, we had a good number of teenagers in attendance when we took road trips to amusement parks or carpooled to the bowling alley. But if you counted heads on the Sunday nights devoted to a discussion of Christ's radical call on our lives, you wouldn't find much of a crowd.
Even when we leaders are comfortable with a small, meaningful experience, we all worry that someone is counting heads every time our youth groups gather. We know there's a line of thinking that says growth is very much the point of youth ministry. And there are people who will remind us that we can offer deeply moving worship nights, the best Bible studies, and the most amazing mission trips; but it doesn't make any difference if the church across the street is attracting more teenagers.
Original Blog Date: December 21 It's ridiculous how many times in recent memory I've been with folks connected to youth ministry and someone has said, "You need to check out what so-and-so is doing. He's got over 100 youth in his program," or "She is doing some great stuff in youth ministry. You should see the tons of kids that are participating." ... Stop equating success in ministry with how many people you can attract. Stop confusing consumer culture with the mission of the church. Scripture depicts Jesus as focusing most of his time and teaching on just twelve people! I think there's a lesson in there somewhere. —Brian
It's Not about Numbers
Back in the '50s and '60s, the church I serve in urban St. Louis welcomed hundreds of children and teens to Sunday school every week. Now they have an average attendance of 15 young people and children on a Sunday morning—the result of urban flight and changing cultural values.
Sometimes (only sometimes) it seems life was easier when we were kids. Families ate dinner together every night, kids could roam their neighborhoods without fear of strangers, and Sundays were church days. When I was a kid in Jefferson City, Missouri, they still had the blue laws that meant almost every commercial business was closed on Sundays. You could still buy groceries (not beer!), but there were no shopping malls, bookstores, bowling alleys, or movie theaters enticing us away from home, family, and church. As children we hated this kind of stuff. But as adults, we tend to look back on those times with definite nostalgia for something lost.
Now it's a whole new world. Teenagers miss morning worship—sometimes for weeks on end—because of sporting events and practices. They miss church and youth group because of school play rehearsals, weekend jobs, and Scouting activities. There is so much to do that a course called "Enticing Teens to Come to Youth Group" should be taught in seminary. Such a class could prepare youth ministers for the phrase we dread hearing on Sunday mornings: "What are we doing at youth group this week?" This question always comes from the mouth of a young person who was raised and baptized in the waters of a consumerist culture that provides endless options for how to spend our time and resources. If we come up with a less-than-enticing answer, we can almost guarantee we won't see that kid at youth group that week.
Youth leaders are often reluctant to say anything about these inevitable scheduling conflicts. We resist even making the suggestion—to youth or their parents—that church and worship and youth group can't make the kind of impact they might when a teenager is there only every other week or whenever there isn't something else going on during that time. Because church is voluntary, we don't believe it's our place to demand a higher level of participation and fidelity to the church body. And, unless you serve in a megachurch, maybe you're just a little afraid that if you push too hard, the teenagers will stop coming altogether. So you ease off for fear of sending the youth group into a downward spiral.
We've both felt this fear a few times—the I-don't-want-to-get-fired fear. Somehow we become convinced that no matter what other good we might accomplish, our success in youth ministry has everything to do with how many teenagers walk in the door on Sunday or Wednesday nights. Yet it's this sort of fear that stifles ministry and keeps us from introducing teens to a truly radical faith that has the power to transform lives.
Original Blog Date: August 8
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on the Markan passages related to the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water—an interesting challenge for someone who reads much of the Bible as metaphor. My sermon primarily focused on the walking on water story and the Markan theme of fear. In the passage the disciples see Jesus coming across the water, but they don't recognize him. They think they are seeing a ghost and freak out! Of course, in Mark's Gospel, the disciples are always having trouble understanding who Jesus is—they just don't get him. At the end of the Gospel, their fear wins out over their trust and they run off to hide.
My time in youth ministry has taught me that many of us who minister to young people are constantly operating under this sort of "fear factor." We're often paralyzed in our effort to offer an authentic faith experience to our youth because we fear that if we do, (1) it'll bore the teens and our group won't grow and, consequently, (2) the kids will stop coming and the group will shrink, (3) the church won't think we're successful in terms of numbers and activity, (4) everyone will find out that we don't exactly have this youth ministry thing down to a science, and (5) we will fail. —Brian
So we play it safe. We stick to our comfort zones and to the comfort zones of our youth—movie nights, pizza parties, Christian concerts, and trips to amusement parks—when what teens really need is quiet, rest, time alone with God, authentic relationship, and a chance to see the reality that exists just beyond the veil of our consumer culture.
The challenge for those of us in youth ministry is to get beyond our fears and anxieties and trust that God is already working in the lives of these young people. Our task, perhaps, is simply to provide quiet spaces where they can hear God's call on their hearts.
It's Not about Entertainment
For both of us, there have been defining moments that changed our perspective on youth ministry. For me (Brian), it was a weekend youth retreat.
It was one of those beautiful end-of-summer Missouri weeks when the weather was perfect. My small youth group of mostly girls and a few gangly boys loaded into three cars and journeyed to Camp Walter Scott for a weekend getaway. We'd picked this time of year on purpose. It was a chance for the teens to enjoy the last moments of summer without the distraction of homework and school activities that were just a few weeks away. We came for the swimming, the hiking, the canoeing, and the campfires. Most of all we came to steal a few moments of rest and silence and fellowship with friends.
The weekend was over too soon, and as we gathered together for our final early morning worship, several of the youth stepped forward to lead the service.
Original Blog Date: August 30
The setting was an outdoor chapel that looked out over the campground's lake. Communion elements were grapes and a loaf of bread. Two girls in our group shared the words of institution from Scripture and then invited the others forward. With big smiles on their faces, they received each person and offered them the symbolic elements of Christ's life and ministry. I took my place in line, received the elements, and sat down. Then I noticed that some of the youth had returned to the line for a second helping! Imagine that: wanting to receive a double portion of Communion. One of the other adults looked at me as if to say, "Is this okay?" to which I replied, "Hey, we need all the Communion we can get!" As more people got back in line, the ritual of Communion took on a festive atmosphere as we were indeed sharing in a real meal together. The typical staid atmosphere of the Communion service turned festive with the youth talking and laughing with one another. —Brian
I remember wondering at that moment, Why can't worship, why can't church, why can't youth ministry be like this all the time? Here, in the simple beauty of nature and the sharing of a few morsels of bread and grapes, we felt enveloped in the amazing abundance of the kingdom of God. Was it possible that in this moment our teenagers were experiencing joy, true community, and perhaps a glimpse of God's vision of the world where all have enough, all are fed, and all know they are cared for and loved? Was it possible that this kingdom moment came without the setting of a state-of-the-art youth building, video game systems, Christian rock music, projected imagery, wild games, and a crowd of fellow teenagers? Could youth ministry really happen without all of the trappings that our culture tells us are so important if we want to attract teens to the church?
That weekend was a reminder that sometimes the simplest experiences in youth ministry leave the most lasting impressions. It was also a reminder that they happen only when we stop worrying so much about how others may judge our ministry, get out of the way, and leave space for God to be present.
One of the most amazing results of letting go of our fears and trusting God is that we discover youth ministry isn't all about us. We discover that it isn't about how charismatic we are, or how many teenagers we attract to the ministry, or how competent we are at developing great programming. As we let go of our anxiety about numbers and stop focusing on what our ministries look like from the outside, we're free to allow the Spirit room to move inside our ministries. We're free to remember that the Spirit—not our programs—will draw young people closer to the heart of God.
We're also free to stop churning out activities for the sake of having a full calendar. In so doing we make space to ask a more important question: Why have a youth ministry program at all? With all the energy we expend trying to attract youth to our churches with flashy and entertainment-centered programming, perhaps we've forgotten to ask why we want all of these teenagers there in the first place. More importantly, perhaps we've failed to offer our young people a strong, compelling reason to be at church beyond the lock-ins and weekend retreats. What do we say if they ask us, "Why come to worship? Why be a Christian? What difference does it make?"
So What Is It About?
The pressure to create big programs that pull in big numbers isn't necessarily about greed or competition. At many churches there is deep concern for the eternal salvation of teenagers. There is a real desire for teens to be saved. When that's the primary concern of a ministry, the numbers do matter—the more souls saved, the better. But following the way of Christ means more than focusing solely on the life to come. We have only to look to the Bible to know this is true. The bulk of the Gospel texts go into great detail about the way Jesus lived, the way he loved, the way he reached out to others and served those in need. These stories inspired the members of the early church to call themselves Followers of the Way long before the term Christian was in use.
It is this way of being in the world, this way of living and loving, this missional kind of faith that we're called to guide teenagers toward. This ministry perspective can be life changing, but it also can be challenging. It's not always popular and, for some young people, it might seem less attractive than the entertainment-fueled and consumption-centered culture of their everyday lives.
If youth ministry isn't about making teens into Christians (that's the work of the Holy Spirit, after all) and it's not about the numbers, then what is the purpose of youth ministry? We've wrestled with that question many times. We're convinced it's time to lay a new foundation for youth ministry that goes beyond the promises of eternal life and the focus on numbers, and toward a lived faith that's centered in the way of Christ.
Excerpted from Missional Youth Ministry by Brian Kirk Jacob Thorne Copyright © 2011 by Brian Kirk and Jacob Thorne . 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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