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What Did I Sign Up For?
By Chris Folmsbee
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Chris Folmsbee
All right reserved.
Chapter OneUNDERSTANDING YOUTH MINISTRY
I didn't grow up with a youth pastor at my church; instead, aside from the sporadic random adult pitching in when desperately needed, the youth ministry was led primarily by two volunteers—a husband-and-wife team, Tom and Karen. Tom was a cabinetmaker, and Karen was a schoolteacher. Together they taught our youth Sunday school class and on occasion led a youth group outing to the park, a sporting event, or a concert.
At times we were absolutely horrible to Tom and Karen. There weren't many of us in the group (maybe 12 on a really crowded night); but whoever attended an activity usually made life for Tom and Karen more difficult than it needed to be. We often were rude, obnoxious, mischievous, and at times just plain punks. I assume our strategy was to get them mad enough that they'd quit being our youth group leaders, and we could stop going to Sunday school and other youth group activities.
When I reflect upon some of the things we did and said to them, I'm embarrassed. In truth, we didn't dislike Tom and Karen—we just hated getting up to go to church and usually took it out on them.
Tom and Karen were very generous people. They didn't have much, but what they did have they shared willingly with us. Occasionally Tom and Karen would sacrifice and buy food for our group or even gifts on our birthdays and at Christmas. I often wondered why they cared so much. I remember thinking, Who in their right mind would ever put up with us—and on top of that, still give us gifts?
I'm not sure if Tom remembers this, but one Sunday morning I was the only one who showed up to Sunday school class. Tom taught the lesson in a very relaxed way for just the two of us, and then we just sat and talked for a while. During our conversation I asked Tom, "Why do you do this? Why do you spend time with us when you could be home, or with your friends, or out to breakfast with your wife, or sleeping in, or whatever else? Why would anyone take what we dish out?"
Tom's response was quiet and pointed. He said, very simply, something to this effect: "I want you to fall so in love with Jesus and live a life so full of his love that it can't help but spill out onto others. I want you, and all the others, to be transformed. I want all of you to experience God in deep and meaningful ways."
Tom understood youth ministry—and at that precise moment, so did I. That's the moment I first felt God's nudge to pursue full-time vocational ministry. Although I haven't seen Tom and Karen since my college graduation (they're pastors now to a wonderful church family and community in North Carolina), they remain an important part of my journey into and through youth ministry.
WHAT IS YOUTH MINISTRY REALLY ALL ABOUT?
Youth ministry is about a lot of things—but of course you know that. I don't have to tell you how many different aspects of life and faith make up what we refer to today as modern-day youth ministry. You are most likely living a cosmic assortment of them in your everyday ministry with teens in your church and community.
Youth ministry is about fun and fellowship. It's about planning trips, teaching classes, celebrating graduations, and attending games, plays, and band concerts, all to live out your love for teens and their families. Youth ministry is about oneon- one discipleship, facilitating small groups, and finding time as often as you can for a space in which your entire group can come together for Scripture, song, and discussion. The list goes on and on and on.
But to me, one aspect stands out ...
YOUTH MINISTRY IS ABOUT TRANSFORMATION
A few years ago a youth worker magazine asked me to participate in a panel conversation with a few of my peers. Each of us was to define transformational youth ministry. Here is what I came up with:
At its core, transformational youth ministry is the on-going, holistic process of guiding students toward becoming like Jesus. It is a process of shepherding students through a journey of the spiritual life that fundamentally begins with a shepherd-student relationship, progresses with and through shared spiritual discovery and growth and ends only when the shepherd-student relationship ceases to remain.
Youth ministry is about more than mere change; youth ministry is about transformation. Change is what we know will happen. Change is inevitable. The teens in your church and community can't help but change. Their bodies change, their minds change, their hobbies and interests change, their relationship webs change, their career plans change. Change just happens.
Transformation, on the other hand, can't happen without you and other adults in your church (yielded to the Holy Spirit) pointing teens toward Jesus' life and ministry as a model for life. Transformation is what we pray for, expect, and hope will happen. That is the very reason we do youth ministry.
TRANSFORMATIONAL YOUTH MINISTRY IS ONGOING
One of the chief characteristics of transformational youth ministry is that it's ongoing— it evolves without interruption. Transformational youth ministry endures through all the changes in teens' lives to remain as a (if not the only) consistent factor in their always-changing lives. This doesn't mean that the teens in your group see what you do as ongoing; you, however, must. Transformational youth ministry evolves without interruption so that your teens have something biblically consistent in their lives. It continues so that relationships can flourish. It never ceases so that practices can be developed and environments cultivated in which adolescents can live out Jesus' teachings and deeds. Transformational youth ministry continues so that the teens in your group have a community where they can be real. Transformational youth ministry is never static, but it continuously evolves as the Holy Spirit leads.
About a month or so ago I bumped into Sarah, a former youth group member. She's married now and has two beautiful children. We were passing each other in a local store, realized we knew each other, and then spent about 20 minutes catching up. During our conversation Sarah asked if I was still involved in youth work.
"I will always be involved in youth work in one way, shape, or form," I replied. "It isn't my job anymore, but I still hang out with kids almost every week."
Sarah said, "One of the reasons I always came to everything that we did in church was because I knew you and the others cared. I couldn't always count on that at home or at school or even at work. I always knew that it was more than just fun and games for you all. I could always tell that you really cared about us. Thanks."
Transformational youth ministry evolves without interruption for many reasons. For people like Sarah, transformational youth ministry still moves in her life—a stabilizing place to get the bearings of a life of faith.
TRANSFORMATIONAL YOUTH MINISTRY IS HOLISTIC
A few years ago I was on a mission trip with about 75 middle schoolers. There were about a dozen of us adult leaders guiding them as we served the homeless people of Nashville. I was driving one of the vans. My van was full of guys. (Been there, haven't you?) You know what that van smelled like after a week of sweaty middle school guys ate in it, slept in it, and did many other things in it.
At one point the smell in the van was too much to tolerate any longer. I called the other van drivers and told them to meet me at a particular store at the next exit. I marched these 12 guys into this store. I took them right to the deodorant aisle and said, "Gentlemen, this is the deodorant aisle. Deodorant is a substance to disguise the way you really smell. Pick one and use it like so."
Transformational youth ministry is concerned with all aspects of teens' lives, not just with faith or salvation. We also do youth ministry to help guide the whole person. We do youth ministry to help teens grow and develop intellectually, socially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Transformational youth ministry sees the whole teen and doesn't compartmentalize, speaking only into preferred "parts." The honest truth is: Your youth ministry has an opportunity that few organizations have—to shape teenagers' entire lives. So we can't focus merely on the spiritual; in addition we must continue to discover how the gospel reaches into every area of life.
Don't get me wrong. Teens must surrender their lives to Jesus and choose to follow him with their whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength and learn how to love others as themselves. However, we must also guide them toward knowing how to do all of that in all of life so that, as they mature beyond their teenage years, they have context for living in the way of Jesus in the midst of real life.
Our youth ministries don't make widgets. We don't spend our days standing in an assembly line spitting out scads of cookie-cutter product. Thank God for that! How uninteresting and ineffective would youth ministry be if we didn't take into consideration the unique characteristics of each one of the teens in our groups? One of the best parts about youth ministry is that we get to serve teens who don't look or behave exactly like one another. (Now, it'd make youth ministry easier if they did look or act the same—assuming appropriately was the benchmark.)
Transformational youth ministry takes into consideration the uniqueness of each of our teens and doesn't view them as one kind of person we've constructed to fit our collective ideal. Instead, we're a patient, faithful people awaiting the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of our teens rather than forcing them to be who we so desperately want them to be—even if who we want them to be is best.
TRANSFORMATIONAL YOUTH MINISTRY IS A PROCESS
A week ago I was invited to a church near Baltimore to do some consulting with their youth ministry. This particular church has a long history of what they call "successful" youth ministry. I was a bit surprised to be invited in the first place. When I arrived I was even more surprised. The walls of the conference room in which we were meeting were filled with sheets of large paper. Listed on each piece of paper was a different aspect of discipleship—terms such as Word, prayer, service, justice, worship, etc. Obviously great words and key aspects to our Christian formation. However, leading into each of these wonderful words was the phrase, "Before our students graduate, they will be people of ..."
After reviewing each word with me and casting their complete vision for their youth ministry discipleship strategy, the church officials asked me, "Well, what do you think we can do better?" I responded with a question of my own: "Well, what if a student of yours doesn't possess all of those traits before she graduates? Does that mean you've failed? Does that mean the student isn't a follower of Jesus? Just what does that mean?" I continued by asking another question, "What if the students don't care until later in life, or what if it takes them much longer to grow into these traits? Are you still doing effective youth ministry?"
To my surprise I heard a resounding "no" from most of the group. One person, however, said what I was hoping someone would say: "Maybe it isn't so much about what we try to make them into as much as it's about their process of discovering God? What if we saw our youth ministry more as a place to get teens on their way rather than a finish line?"
Transformational youth ministry makes room for teens to be in process. We can't make teens do or be anything they don't want to be. In fact, when we push students to live a particular way without context, meaning, and their own passion, we don't create people equipped for the journey of following Jesus for life; rather we likely create individuals who put on false selves so they don't make us feel unsuccessful.
TRANSFORMATIONAL YOUTH MINISTRY IS ABOUT GUIDING
If transformational youth ministry is about the process more than making products, then it makes sense that it's also about guiding. It isn't about telling a teen "what to do"; it's about showing a teen "how to do."
Sometimes I'm afraid of the fact that many youth workers, paid and volunteer, don't understand the importance of seeing themselves as guides. Have you ever been on an organized backpacking trip? Ever walked through museum with an expert leading the way? Have you ever been on a tour of a factory, a ballpark, or a city? Guides lead—and as they do, they point us in helpful and trusted directions. They don't leave people to tour on their own, lost on the journey, scratching their heads and circled around a map they don't understand. No, guides want those on the tour to take it all in without other distractions. They want to make sure that the tourists or travelers or backpackers experience everything in the fullest possible way.
Transformational youth ministry is like this. We want to guide students toward becoming like Jesus.
But does a guide just give you a map and say, "Good luck?" A bad guide maybe. Or does a good guide stay with you, pointing out the knowledge and information essential for enjoying and benefitting from the experience in the fullest possible way?
In addition, youth ministers who desire to guide students into transformational living don't see themselves as people who direct individuals who are already complete. Instead, transformational youth workers see themselves as directors of unfinished individuals on their way toward becoming more complete. Good guides know it's about the journey and about participation, not merely just disseminating information. (And by the way, this obviously means we must travel with youth on their journey and see ourselves as one of the travelers as much as we see ourselves as merely pointing the way.)
TRANSFORMATIONAL YOUTH MINISTRY IS ABOUT JESUS
I'm privileged to interact with hundreds and sometimes thousands of youth workers every year. And it doesn't take me long to realize whether the youth workers I meet are about Jesus ... or about something else.
Unfortunately, many aren't really about leading students toward becoming more like Jesus. Instead they're often merely facilitating recreational activities for adolescents. These youth workers don't really see Jesus as the apex of their ministry efforts. Rather they see events and activities as the main construct of their ministry focus.
Fun and social interaction are good things, but we fall short when they're the end goal of our youth ministries. The church is about conversion, conformity to Christ, and community—not just events and other things that take up time on a calendar, regardless of how fun and engaging they may be.
Do the teens in your youth ministry really know Jesus? Do the teens in your group have the context and meaning for who Jesus is and why following him is imperative to God's mission to restore the world to its intended wholeness? Do your teens have a robust understanding of the gospel, salvation, and justice in the way of Jesus? Or do your teens actually just know about a person named Jesus who we pull out of mothballs to discuss at Christmas and Easter?
I'm not trying to be a downer here. But the reality is that many youth ministries don't seek to know Jesus first—or at all. Many youth ministries are nothing more than a community social organization that provides a place for teens to play video games, eat pizza, and interact with their peers. Again, those are good things, but are they transformational as we have described the meaning of the word so far?
In the end, transformational youth ministry is about guiding teens toward becoming more like Jesus. And of course this means that we need to provide social activities, but we can't stop there. We have to move deeper into the process of helping teens find Jesus and follow him and his teachings.
Transformational youth ministry is about opening up new dimensions of the soul for our teens. It's about a square transforming into a cube; a circle transforming into a cylinder. It's about moving into new dimensions of life and faith and helping teens discover and grow into being more like Jesus. This happens through shared spiritual discovery and growth and consists of a developing relationship anchored by our love for God and others.
Excerpted from What Did I Sign Up For? by Chris Folmsbee Copyright © 2011 by Chris Folmsbee . 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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