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Taking the Cross to Youth MinistryA Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry
By Andrew Root
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Andrew Root
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Chronicles of Nadia
The stale smell filled her nostrils as she reentered the church van. Nadia had only stepped out for a few minutes, just enough time to swipe her credit card and fill the van's depleted gas tanks. But as she opened the door to the sight of sleeping adolescents awkwardly contorted across seats and with earphone buds resting gently in their ears, the smell of kid funk was almost too much. She hadn't noticed it while driving, but having escaped long enough to allow fresh air into her lungs, she was now aware of its force.
Nadia held her breath as she buckled her seat belt, a smile now forming, turning her disgusted expression into one of appreciation. In the van were eight high school students (with eight more in the other van) all returning from a spring break youth conference. With just two hundred miles to go and all the kids snug in their hoodies with top-forty beats dancing in their heads, Nadia found herself reflecting on the trip. "Was it worth it?" she asked herself, thinking mostly of the time and effort that she and the other four adult leaders had put in to make the trip happen.
Nadia had been at her present job for a little over a year now. She'd taken the job as the church's youth pastor after several years working for a parachurch ministry. She enjoyed youth ministry and valued her relationships with the church's senior pastor, Jerry, and its associate pastor, Erica (although it had taken awhile for Erica to warm to her after her close friend Chad, the previous youth pastor, left because of burnout). Nadia definitely liked youth ministry when she started the job, but it was more about the kids—the youth piece, more than the ministry stuff. Yet over the last year (as we saw in book 1), this had all changed. To Nadia's surprise, she'd started caring not only about the kids in her group, but also about what it meant to be in ministry—in short, she'd started thinking theologically.
Nadia had been on a journey to discover the purpose of youth ministry. She'd come to the conclusion that youth ministry was participation in God's own action in the lives of young people. She believed one of her primary tasks was a theological one—the task of seeking for the action of God in the barren places in young people's lives. Having had her eyes opened to the theological depth of ministry with young people, Nadia found most of the presentations at the youth conference to be theologically thin. Nadia thought about how the flipping of the theological switch in her head had changed everything, forcing her always to be thinking. She loved it, but sometimes wished she could switch the setting back to naïveté—at least for a little while. When Nadia asked the kids about the upfront content, they too seemed to find it shallow. They mentioned several illustrations or stories that they'd liked or found funny, but when pushed to discuss how what they'd heard had impacted them and forced them into wrestling with God and their faith, they had little to report.
Nevertheless, Nadia believed the trip was worth the effort. Much had happened over these five days. While the conference presentations may not have been superb theologically, the conversations and interactions she had with the 16 high school students were. But "superb" wouldn't be the adjective she would use. "Deep," "significant," or "eye-opening" might be more descriptive.
As the mile marker read 82 miles to home, Nadia thought particularly of the four girls she'd shared her room with—Kari, Jessica, Kelsey, and Mattie. All four were sophomores and highly committed to church and youth group. Nadia considered these four girls (along with two junior guys, Jerrod and Brock) to be the cornerstones of the youth group; they not only participated consistently but also took real ownership within the youth ministry. And the involvement of these four girls extended beyond the ministry to the church as a whole; it was not uncommon to see one of the four working in the nursery or volunteering in the church office to stuff envelopes or send emails. They often called themselves the "church girls"—and they said it with pride. It was clearly part of their self-definition, part of their identity.
All but Jessica went to the same public school. Jessica's parents began homeschooling her when she was in seventh grade, after her older brother, a tenth grader at the time, had gotten involved with drugs. Jessica's mom was an adjunct professor of women's studies at the local community college. She'd cut her course load in half and had taken primary responsibility for Jessica's education ever since.
Jessica was a very smart but quiet person. People at church often referred to Jessica and Kari as "the twins," because they were inseparable and both had matching long brown hair and slender builds. As a way of distinguishing the girls from each other, some in the church lovingly called Kari "the loud one" and playfully referred to Jessica as her "shadow," because the two went everywhere together, yet Kari was always doing the talking. Both girls' parents were very involved in the church; just as their children were anchors of the youth group, these parents were key members of the congregation. It was clear to Nadia that Jessica and Kari's parents not only provided their children with support, but were also engaged in passing on the faith to them.
Kelsey was the athlete of the group. She often hung out with Kari at school, since both were on the cross-country team, but Kelsey also had friends from the softball and volleyball teams she played on. Kelsey began coming to church in ninth grade after Kari invited her to a youth group meeting. Not long after Kelsey started coming to the youth group, her mom began attending church with her. Her dad traveled a great deal and rarely, if ever, came to church. Kelsey explained, "It's just not his thing." But he did make it to her games whenever he was in town, and overall Kelsey felt supported by him.
While Kari and Jessica never really talked much about boys, Kelsey seemed to attract them. In many ways she was uninterested, though she did date a few guys from church. But her overall confidence and broader social interactions at school made her more easygoing with boys, in comparison to Kari's constant chattering and Jessica's shy silence.
If one of the four was boy-crazy, it was Mattie. Mattie was passionate about two things: Jesus and handsome guys. Mattie was the most fashionable of the girls, spending energy thinking about outfits, makeup, and her overall appearance, while the other three spent most of their time in baggy sweats, athletic shorts, and T-shirts. Mattie never knew her father, and her stepfather had just moved out in the last six months. She acted as if she didn't mind her stepfather's leaving, because "he was a zero." He'd lived with Mattie since fifth grade, when he married Mattie's mother and they all moved into a house on the same cul-de-sac where Jessica lived, just a block away from Kari. After the three became friends, Mattie followed Jessica and Kari to a summer church camp where, as she happily tells people, she gave her life to Jesus. She became one of the youth group's most committed and invested students throughout junior high and now into high school.
Rooming with "the fabulous four" was everything Nadia imagined. They were up late talking, clothes were spilled everywhere, and the high-pitched screaming that came mostly from Kari and Mattie would rattle through Nadia's head with painful tremors. It was mostly wonderful and fun, with occasional streaks of annoying, but always exhausting in the best way.
After each session at the conference, Nadia and the fabulous four would meet back at their room, grab Bibles and a few packages of Twizzlers, throw pillows on the floor, and launch into discussing questions provided by the conference staff. All four girls took these conversations with the utmost seriousness, discussing their love for God and their desire to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus. Nadia noticed that they often stuck with the answers they knew, living inside the phrases their parents and others in the church had given them. This wasn't bad; it was just clear that these inherited answers not only provided them with a framework for living, but that these four girls believed them deeply. After each girl prayed for the others, they would end with a hug.
"These really are the perfect Christian kids," Nadia thought to herself one afternoon as the girls threw their pillows back on their beds and erupted into a conversation in which all four were speaking at once as they spilled out the hotel room door. Nadia felt covered by a heavy blanket of silence as the girls' voices disappeared down the hallway.
Yet, this perceived perfection would be shattered one night at dinner, as the kids from the group met to grab something before the next session. Jessica was standing in line with Kelsey, Nadia, and two boys from the group when Jessica accidentally stepped backward and bumped into a young man in the other line, landing right on his foot. Angered, and standing with his friends, the young man shot back, "Ouch! Watch out, you fat cow!"
Nadia responded, "Hey, easy—it was an accident." The young man looked Nadia up and down and turned away. But Jessica was clearly shaken, standing wide-eyed, her arms wrapping themselves around her skinny body. Kelsey patted her elbow and said firmly but softly, "It wasn't about you; he didn't even see you. He's just a jerk." But Kelsey's words seemed to make little difference. Jessica gave Kelsey a half smile and then wrapped her arms more tightly around herself.
When the other girls sat down to eat, they realized that Jessica had disappeared. After waiting a few minutes and checking the bathroom, it was clear she'd left the dining area. Having heard what had happened in the line, Mattie said she'd check the room; the others went to the conference center, assuming she might have gone there.
Yet, twenty minutes into the evening session, Jessica was still nowhere to be found—and Mattie had failed to return. Nadia walked back to the room in search of them. Entering the room she found Jessica and Mattie lying on the same bed, wiping tears from their cheeks. For the next hour Jessica and Mattie poured their hearts out to Nadia, sharing how awful they felt about their bodies, and how stupid they felt for feeling bad about their bodies. Jessica, in particular, spoke frankly about how much she hated her body—and how she hated even more the fact that she hated her body. She wished she didn't care, but she thought about it all the time, wishing she weren't so tall and thin, or that her nose and legs were different. It was clear she felt caught between her feelings of dissatisfaction and shame that she felt dissatisfied. Jessica kept saying, "It's so stupid to care about this superficial stuff. I tell myself it doesn't matter, but then I look in the mirror, and just feel disgusted and then frustrated that I'm disgusted. I know I shouldn't worry about it, but ..." she said, shaking her head.
Mattie explained her own issues around food and body image. "I gain weight quickly," she said, "and look who my friends are! String beans Kari and Jessica, and super-athletic Kelsey. I'm always thinking about what I eat because I'm so scared of being seen as 'the fat one,' the chunky friend." Mattie told Nadia that there were days when she would eat very little. She'd never made herself vomit, nor had she gone a day without eating (she thought that was really wrong), but she'd skipped countless meals for fear of weight gain. She admitted she was obsessed by it: "Sometimes I tell myself I'm not going to think about how I look or the shape of my body, but then I dream about it! Really, I have dreams that I weigh like three hundred pounds! I'm always thinking about it. I pray and ask God to free me from this, but I just feel so weak." Jessica nodded in agreement, "I pray too, but ..." she threw her hands up, "... nothing."
As they continued to talk, Kari and Kelsey returned, holding a page of discussion questions from the night's session. Kari and Kelsey hugged Jessica and Mattie, and Nadia read over the questions they'd brought back. She saw nothing that spoke of a God who would encounter these young people in the areas of life where they felt stuck. If God is really active and present in the barrenness of these girls' lives, how should Nadia think about this? And how should she present it to these girls?
As she continued to drive, Nadia's thoughts turned to Justin and Caden, two of the guys riding home in the other van. Looking in her rearview mirror, she felt certain that they were either arguing with each other or telling some story that their peers thought was weird, but the adults loved. Caden was a senior and Justin, a junior. In many ways they were an odd pair; in fact, they actually refused to call each other "friend" even though they were nearly inseparable at church and school. Caden was a big, studious kid whose love of talking about physics, Family Guy, the Revolutionary War, and comic books made him stand out as much as did his being one of the few African American kids in a mostly white church. While Caden was studious and articulate, Justin was the opposite, barely passing his classes and speaking with a constant mumble that made him hard to understand, but all the more Justin. Justin was 6'2" with long hair and a pimply face. Like Caden, he loved Family Guy and comics, but he was also into Slipknot and tattoos.
Justin's mom was a member of the church when Nadia got the job. She was consistently present at worship, but rarely attended other church activities, since she worked a part-time weekend job along with her full-time weekday job. Justin's father left when Justin was six and his brother was nine. Justin's brother got into a lot of trouble, but he took good care of Justin, always getting him home from school and feeding him dinner before their mother would return from work. When Justin was 12, his older brother was sent to live with their father in another state. He was simply too difficult for his mother to handle, and Justin was now old enough to take care of himself after school. Justin had begged to go live with his father as well, but was told his dad only had room for one.
Justin hadn't been to church in years before the day at the end of his sophomore year when he walked into the high school youth room and plopped himself down confidently on a couch in the back of the room. Since she'd never seen him before, Nadia went over and introduced herself. Justin mumbled something that Nadia remembers decoding as, "I heard you were the new youth chick, so I thought I would check out what's going on." Nadia laughed and welcomed him heartily, and he never missed another activity. He often showed up twenty minutes late, but never missed a meeting.
Caden came from a big, nonreligious family. He was the youngest of eight kids and his parents were older than most, with his father well into his sixties. Caden began coming to church after Nadia met him at school. Nadia had volunteered to be a guest moderator for the junior class debate on the topic of religion in politics. Caden had argued with the flair of a preacher that there was no place for religion in the civic square. After the debate Nadia told him how impressed she was with his skills. He returned her compliment with a swirl of insecurity and intellectual acumen, asking, "But, seriously, Miss, how can you believe in this religious magic like you do?" Nadia smiled, recognizing that his accusation came more from social awkwardness than anything else, and responded, "Why don't you see if you can figure it out? I'll be back tomorrow after school and we can talk in the cafeteria."
Excerpted from Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry by Andrew Root Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Root. 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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