Saturday, February 18, 2006

the 2nd commandment of youth ministry

thou shalt be event oriented

It was either a testament to God's sense of humor or simply a test of fortitude that I got a phone call yesterday from a youth pastor in my town inviting me to participate in an event being held at his church. Before I go any further, let me say up front that it is of course very kind for him to invite me and my kids to this event. That is a foregone conclusion. However, it was hard for me to not laugh during the call as I was thinking deeply about this commandment when he called. Mind you, I was not laughing at him as much as I was laughing at the relevance of the call. Let me jump into why I think this is a commandment that is rarely ever broken in youth ministry.

The following are a list of reasons why most youth ministries tend to be event oriented.

Bait and switch. Most youth ministry philosophies start with the assumption that to get kids involved you must disguise the hook with a worm...or pizza. In other words, the only way to get kids to sit and listen or participate in a youth ministry is to promise them lots of fun and games. In other words what they need is propped up with "fun stuff." This is why so many youth pastors have had goldfish swim through their large intestine and they disproportionately have shaved heads. This is not to say that Bible Studies and youth group meetings should not be enjoyable. They should be. They should be full of enjoyment. There should just be an undeniable tenor in all gatherings that we are here because we believe the Bible, as God's word which has something to say to all of us. The enjoyment should be the spontaneous overflow of a gathering of people who have been transformed by the gospel of grace. Fun that is used as bait never glorifies God. And it is intolerably deceptive.

Imitation as flattery. Youth ministries tend to get their philosophies from parachurch organizations. And most parachurch organizations are energized by numbers; numbers of participants and numbers making professions of faith. It is great to have lots of students participating and it is great to see kids transformed by the gospel of grace. However, youth ministries in a church context should have different goals. Church-based youth ministry ought to deal with the whole spectrum of the Christian life. It is not just a matter of making sure they get saved. It should deal with every thing after that and how does their being saved relate to everything else. In other words youth ministry should not be just about justification but also sanctification. We ought to be concerned about developing a comprehensive Biblical Worldview that touches on every moment of everyday for the rest of their lives. This is decidedly not the mission of the majority of parachurch ministries. This is not to bash such ministries. They are a-theological and so they cannot do what a church based youth ministry ought to be doing. I just do not think it can be denied that youth pastors feel as if they are competing with parachurch organizations which are generally doctrinally handcuffed so they imitate them. And inevitably they slide into a-theological waters.

Judging a book. If lots of events are taking place then it will appear as if a ministry is going well. A full schedule of things for youth to do looks good to parents and church leaders and of course, to youth also. However, I would argue that lots of events can take place at the YMCA and no one grow in their faith. Lots of events can take place at school and no one see the "glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" in any of it. But events always get good press as long as they are good clean fun. They keep kids out of trouble and give them something to do. And there is some truth to those assertions. I am just weird enough to think that youth ministry should be centered on the study of the Bible. It should be discipleship by grace through faith. Youth ministries which are defined by their events will struggle in transforming kids. I want a youth ministry that is famous for being cross-centered,and God-exalting.

How do I break this commandment?

Here are a few ideas...proceed at your own risk!

Cut the fat. Cut back on large-scale events. Do it slowly though. Be bold and explain why you are proceeding like you are. Do not assume the logic of what you are doing will readily make sense to others who are used to a certain paradigm. But never do this without doing the following...

Get real. Get serious about your teaching. The gospel does not need to be made offensive. You will offend people on a regular basis if you are faithful in your communication of the reality of what God did through Christ on the cross. This will grow kids that will care very little if you do not go on a ski trip next year. What about the ones that do not want to come back? Well, like I said the gospel has been offending people for 2 millennia, we should get used to people not liking our message.

Economize. If you cut out a lot of the big stuff what is left will not only be easily to do as far as costs are concerned but will be more meaningful. Scarcity will drive up demand.
Pull up a chair. I simply told the youth why we do the things we do. I told them that I had no desire to have lots of events. I told them I wanted our youth ministry to be defined primarily by the Wed. Night Bible Study. I want kids to think about Westminster Youth Ministries (WYM) and think of how we have labored over the book of Romans for over a year and have just now hit 1/2 way. They were more than receptive and were glad to be a part of a unique experience. Kids are like that.

Again, I do not dislike events. At the moment I am planning a purely recreational trip to St. Louis for my High Schoolers. We will do some daily devotionals but we will not have a classic youth retreat. The point is to spend time together in a big city with lots of free exciting activities. I am not trying to buy their attention though. This is simply an opportunity to spend time together in a different space. This is the natural result of believers who want to spend time together. Go figure.

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