I’ve now lived in the world of ministry for some time. I’ve held credentials with a major American denomination since 2005. For the few years before that I served in a local church in an unofficial capacity. During my adolescence I was active in my own church’s youth ministry. Though I was not thinking about ministry from a leadership point of view in those earliest days, I was still deeply connected to the work of the church.
All of this to say that I have a relatively long history with the task of ministry, especially as it relates to youth. In my now 20+ years in the faith, I’ve seen a lot of things and there’s been a lot of change. Some of this is simply cultural (Michael W. Smith no more, my friends). But then there are also changes which have been much more substantive in nature.
In the past year or so I’ve discerned one of these shifts, at least out here in the Pacific Northwest. At both the youth ministry and children’s ministry levels, I have heard leaders share with our pastors that ministry is not about “behavior modification” but about a relationship with the living God. Phrased just so, it is a statement that will definitely preach.
More than that, however, it speaks to a level of reflection and development within the field of ministry practice that I’m just not sure was there in a generation past. To be sure, few if any were going around in 1995 saying that youth ministry was only about behavior modification. All the same, I’m not sure how critically any of us were thinking about such issues in the first place. And besides, one doesn’t have to say something out loud for it to be operationally true.
I think modern youth ministry and children’s ministry have both had to wrestle with the fact that a not insignificant part of their existence has to do with the church’s fear for the next generation. Keeping kids safe and moral has been a hidden and sometimes overt goal with which we must grapple and ultimately reject as the main goal of our ministries.
The recent discussions I’ve heard rejecting behavior modification as a goal are therefore interesting. They are not happening only at the academic level or in books of practical theology (see, for instance, the work of Andy Root and others), but from pastors to pastors. It is here, of course, that the real difference can be made.
The relevance and importance of this issue for ministry to rising generations within the Church has been something that I have reflected on as well from an academic platform. It is a topic in which I believe and, I hope, an issue upon which our churches will continue to reflect.
Notable in all this has been the chance to observe the difference that can be made by those who write, reflect upon, and teach about youth ministry. So often what we do–while ostensibly in the service of the church–seems a little disconnected from the everyday life of ministry. To see and hear reflections at the level of pastoral encouragement on some of the same topics I’ve been writing or teaching is exciting. Not because I made them up (I didn’t) or because I’m that important (I’m not), but because it might just mean that we who do what I now do may be part of making a difference.
As encouraging as it is, this is also a reminder that people who do what I do need to be careful and thoughtful about what we say. Our words actually matter, and as such I need to make sure that I am being faithful to the Scripture, the Church, and those to whom I am called to serve. Theological reflection needs to be married to practicality, all of which is to be done in service of the kingdom of God. May I and others like me continue to remember this as we engage with and teach those who are serving our teenagers day in and day out.