Questioning the Youth Church

Youth-1In the third installment in my “Coming Youth Ministry Reformation” series, I’d like briefly touch on the topic of integration. Specifically, how youth ministries and churches alike should not operate as separate entities but as the Body of Christ.

For too long many of our youth groups have functioned somewhat autonomously, drawing resources and staff from the larger congregations of which they are officially a part while having little other connection to the local church.  In this model, budget, curriculum, pastoral leadership, activities, and even vision can tend to be very distinct from the rest of the church.  While there are sometimes moments of “coming together” for youth group and adult congregation over the course of the year, many of these can be superficial and few are lasting.

Youth ministry experts have long referred to this model of ministry as the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” and raised questions about its practice: disconnecting youth from the life of the entire Church, modeling an unbiblical picture of the body of Christ, and eschewing multigenerational opportunities in favor of more peer-based activities.  While the separate one-eared-mickey-mouse1“youth group” setup we’ve developed has risen out of a desire to do some important age-specific ministry, the effects have been that we are potentially limiting opportunities for discipleship and ministry.

The gap between “big church” and “youth group” can be so wide in so many ways that students can have little desire to be a part of the former, whether they are 15 or 25.  Inadvertently, then, we may be sowing the seeds for faith frustration and immaturity in adolescents, all while thinking we’re doing a good job because we have what appears to be a successful youth ministry.

I’m not really saying anything new here.  The problems and danger I’ve mentioned have been known and discussed for some time.  Sadly, I don’t feel that many of our churches have done enough about it.  (I know I didn’t when I was a youth pastor.)  If anything, some have embraced a flawed model even more–at least in terminology.  I have to admit that every time I see the phrase “youth church” to describe a local church’s ministry to adolescents, I have to cringe.  I mean no disrespect to those who have such a name and am not trying to attack any fellow ministry laborers, but I do want tomulti-generational ask a few questions.  Is this representative of how you understand things, with a separate church for teens and adults?  Does this make any sense, biblically or theologically?  Even if you would say that “it is just a name,” doesn’t the phrase itself set the stage for unhelpful and potentially damaging ways of thinking about the Church?

Some, so frustrated with the modern youth ministry enterprise, have decided to forgo all age-segregated ministries in favor of what they call a family-based model.  While I do not endorse their approach because I think there is some importance to life stage ministry, I understand what they are reacting against.  The traditional youth ministry model has created a lot of “one-eared Mickey Mouses.”  The outward success of such ministries has made youth-church-copy-500x200a lot of youth pastors feel satisfied with their work.  But the cost of such developments—to the body of Christ and to the students under our care–may be far more than we realize.

It will be hard for many churches in this persistent model to being to think differently, but they must.  The church belongs together.  “Youth church,” in name and actuality, should fade in favor of a more integrated and body-like pattern.


Things I’m Going To See

I_Want_to_BelieveIn a previous (and potentially ongoing) series of posts, I spent time discussing what I called “Things I’d Like To See.”  This was (and is) a set of entries consisting of my own hopes and dreams.  Sometimes they are more weighty in nature and reflection.  Sometimes, well, they’re not.  With regard to the latter, I tended to offer things like this: A new Star Trek series.  A reverse microwave.  This kind are semi-serious and mostly for fun.  You get the picture.

Imagine my delight, then, when one of my flights of fancy is now coming true.  This January, after nearly 13 years off of the air, The X-Files is returning to television.  Granted, this is more of a six-episode “event,” but I nevertheless look forward to checking in with my friends Mulder and Scully to see what they’re up to.

A trailer (I’ve updated to a different one on 10/1) for the series has been released, and it seems some of the old crew are back together:

Exciting.  I know.  As I reflected on my hopes for a revived series last October, I said the following:

A chance to rekindle some of the old magic would be interesting to see with a show like The X-Files.  Yes, it might end up seeming dated or out of step, but I’d definitely like the-powers-that-be to give it some thought.  And even though we’re deep in the age of the full reboot, it would be nice to have some familiar faces inhabiting or at least kicking off a story that would take us somewhere new.

I don’t know what the plans are for The X-Files beyond the January episodes, but I do hope they augur something exciting.  I’m ready for a return to the world of conspiracies with our intrepid agents.  I daresay the tenor of the times may be as well.

And hey, since this “thing I’d like to see” came true, who knows what’s next?  Before too long we might all have reverse microwaves in our kitchens.

Matthew 17

“Get up…don’t be afraid.”

-Jesus, Matthew 17:7

This brief moment takes me back to an old college professor who impressed upon us the reality of the Third Commandment–a lesson that has stayed with me all these years.  He told us, in short, that this guideline was in more danger of being swearingbroken in the monastery than the saloon.

“Do not take the name of the Lord in vain” is one of those things we think we know the meaning of, but in reality goes rather deeper than we supposed.  Using the Lord’s name in a forbidden way is not just about cursing God’s name (though that can certainly be a part of it) but is about what it means to respect and reverence the Lord and realize, as best we can, Who God really is (and is not).

We who are the religious leaders are in most danger of this kind of irreverence, as we use the name of God so much that it has become commonplace.  Think about it: we pastors and professors are always saying “God this” and “God that.”  We do this so much that God becomes just one actor or object amongst many.  Mostly unintentionally, we have defined God away.  In so controlling God’s name we have reduced the Divine to our particular material.  The name of God becomes like any other name transfiguration-abstract-e1360464424741or word, and in the process is domesticated.

Thinking that we have control over some aspect of God is a very human thing to do.  It makes us feel safe and steady.  The world makes sense when God, like everything else, is conformed to our understanding.

Peter, James, and John may very well have felt they had some things about the ways of God figured out here in Matthew 17. Until God spoke to them from Heaven and they fell to their faces.  God unsettled them.  Terrified them.

May we think twice before understanding God in commonplace ways–with or without the requisite voice from Heaven.

No More Youth Pastors (Part II)

(Continued from yesterday‘s post.)

6070198_origWhat, then, to do?  That’s a good question.  What will it mean for congregations to think outside the box of the past forty years and consider what makes most sense in their context?  We need to have the courage to make big changes–even ones that might be uncomfortable.  This might mean a less hierarchical structure amongst pastoral staff.  It could involve a complete rejection of the term youth pastor in favor of “family pastor” or “discipleship pastor”: roles that should not be mere name changes, but shifts in thinking and acting.

It is hard to see beyond what we are currently doing. It can even feel wrong to consider not hiring a youth pastor.  I know.  But shouldn’t we countenance different things for the sake of the Church?

Such new approaches could involve churches considering how not just one “professional,” but a team of co-laborers (pastors and laypersons alike) might interact and work with adolescents in the midst of their service to the whole congregation.  Youth ministry would then be of the church, not hired out to one person, as it were, by the church.  Think about it: what if the youth, together with everyone else in the congregation, had the same pastor(s)?  In this scenario, diverse ministers and servants in the church could work with young people, but in a way more integrated with each other, families, and the larger church.f6743e6ce445c443ec25bffe579994df

All of this means that more, not less, people ought to be taking courses and getting training in youth ministry.  Those studying for all kinds of ministry should be able to reflect on what adolescence is about so that they might serve together with the rest of the church. No longer, in other words, ought there just to be one “expert” in the church that does all the ministry with a single group.  While a “point person” or coordinator still makes sense…maybe no more than that is needed.

Build_YouthMinistriesSo, those are my few thoughts today.  Many thanks to the youth pastors out there who even now are faithfully serving in our churches.  This post is not meant to reject the work in which you are engaged, but rather as a challenge for our churches to consider as we minister to those within and without our walls. May the result of changing times not be less ministry to young people, but a deeper awareness of the way ministry, discipleship, and evangelism is a part of the life and work of the whole church.

Today and yesterday’s brief thoughts represent only the beginning of a conversation.  Please feel free to continue the dialogue as you respond and comment.

No More Youth Pastors? (Part I)

eBook___The_youth_pastor_471383682 Last week I announced I was going to spend some time this Fall talking about youth ministry.  More specifically, how I think it needs to change.  Today represents a further effort in that direction.

So: let’s think about youth pastors.  In most Protestant churches of a certain size, there is a person on staff whose job it is to provide spiritual guidance and direction to adolescents.  The title can vary, from “youth pastor,” “youth minister,” “minister to youth, or even “nextgen pastor” and so on.  They have become so common that most congregations accept their role as a given in any hiring strategy.

Youth pastors, of course, have not always existed.  While the church has always ministered to its people–younger ones included–the innovation of having a full-time minister for youth is only around thirty to forty years old.  A relatively short time when one considers the two thousand years of Christian history.

The need for youth ministry in our current state rose out of perceived changes and needs in American youth culture.  The Church had to adapt to changes over time, and in this case it did.  But now, a number of decades into this, I would suggest that our experience with youth pastors and the needs we see displayed calls for a new way of thinking about things.  As my title suggests, perhaps it is time to bid farewell to youth pastors.539272_286878791417822_1609029950_n

Before you stop reading, please hear me on this.  I myself was a youth pastor for six years.  Since August 2011 I’ve been the Associate Professor of Youth Ministries at my school.  I attend my own church’s youth ministry meetings and serve in a kind of advisory role to youth pastors in our region.  Please understand, in other words, that I’m not speaking out of ignorance or any kind of desire to watch the world burn.

When I think about “getting rid” of youth pastors, I’m not saying that we delete the role and subsequently ignore the adolescents in our midst.  Far from it.  Instead, I believe that churches should rethink the title and responsibilities of youth pastors and their place in our congregations.  For too long, hiring someone in this role–while a sign that the church cares about young people–has nevertheless carried with it some problems and limitations.

youth-ministry-cartoonFirst, it has meant that working with teenagers has been “outsourced” to the professional, so to speak.  The rest of the church need not worry about teens if their resident expert is doing so.  Second, the title of “youth pastor” has not been taken as seriously as it should.  Instead it is often perceived as a training ground for “real” ministry.  Third, having a youth pastor has not only made the congregation more apathetic about its own work with teens, but it may be having the effect of absolving parents and families of their spiritual responsibilities.  After all, why do they need to worry about things when Pastor Josh and his college-aged volunteers are doing it all?

Lastly, the existence of the youth pastor can send the silent message to students that he or she is their pastor–not the lead pastor of the entire congregation.  In addition to cutting off ministers and youth alike from deeper interaction, this can contribute to an unintentional division within the body of Christ and a continued silo-ization of ministries that is troubling.

To Be Continued…

Review: “Living the Christian Year”

81l3Hxdln7LThere’s an old joke that all Church historians want to become Catholic sooner or later.  And believe me, the lure of tradition and our shared Christian past (and present) can be very attractive indeed.

While–despite Pope Francis’ current visit–I don’t think I’ll be bending the knee to Rome any time soon, I nevertheless benefited recently from reading Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross.  Within, the author details both the layout of the traditional Church calendar–a season stretching from Advent to Christmas, Lent through Easter, and the many weeks of “Ordinary Time”–as well as how contemporary believers can devotionally approach this cycle.  Practiced by more liturgically-minded churches including but not limited to Roman Catholicism, the calendar is commended by Gross as a way of inhabiting “the still-unfolding story of God and have it inhabit and change us” (16).

I like that this is quite intentionally a handbook for spiritual devotion.  For each season of the year, Gross walks through its heart and talks about it as a tradition in Church/culture.  He also reminds readers that the Church calendar remains linked to story of calendar yearChrist and calls us the inhabit that story in spiritual/practical fashion.  These discussions are followed by weekly devotional guides to assist believers in working through the important biblical and theological themes inherent in the Church year.

I was first prompted to read this book by my pastor, who is interested in thinking about the connections between the seasons of the Church calendar and the ways in which they can be connected to contemporary practice.  Ours is a denominational family that doesn’t tend to give such traditions much import.  As a result we may be missing some helpful tools with which to engage our faith.

Personally, I was blessed to have read and reflected upon this focused discussion of the Christian year.  While as an historian I’d been aware of some of the shape of it, my personal church background has not really favored thinking about the seasons of faith in this way.  As such this book is a Godsend.  By being descriptive, analytical, and devotional all at once, it has helped inform me and clarified the place these seasons can have in the lives of believers and, consequently, my faith as well.

pentecostYou can tell I’m a big fan of this book.  Though as an historian I may have wished it to go deeper in its discussion of tradition, as a pastor and person of faith I was enthused by its approach.  I plan on engaging with its devotional guide beginning with this Advent season, and look forward to seeing how such themes might connect with my local church.  Living the Christian Year is recommended to pastors and parishioners who desire to (re)connect with the traditions of the Christian past and present, who are open to considering a new devotional journey, and who most importantly desire to “inhabit the story of God.”

Proving Nothing

1b661880a767b3bb5665db7ae46ba94fIn high school I was a member of the debate team.  For the overwhelming majority of my four years, we engaged in what was called “policy debate.”  In this style, participants would argue about a particular resolution related to the government.  Here’s one we actually used in high school: “Resolved: That the United States government should substantially change its foreign policy toward the People’s Republic of China.”

In policy debate, teams split into two sides.  One-the affirmative–argues in favor of the resolution and provides a plan of implementation.  The other–the negative–critiques the efforts of the affirmative in an attempt to derail/disprove their case.

Debate is a helpful exercise, and I believe the experience was good for me.  One of the most important lessons it taught, however, is a sobering one.  You see, each year our teams–affirmative and negative alike–were charged with proving our case using evidence.  And evidence we had: magazine and newspaper clippings, sources from the then-young Internet, and published books of evidence to which we could refer.  Lots of facts and lots of evidence, all of which could help us “prove” whatever we wanted.arguing

It is a bit disconcerting to think that there are enough pieces of evidence out there that you could “prove” two opposite cases, but there we were.  And so we argued as an academic exercise and used data like weapons to bludgeon our opponents.  They in turn would use their evidence against us, and on and on it went.

What I learned in those days was, basically, that people can marshal enough “evidence” to their side so that they can prove whatever they want.

Please understand me on this point.  I do believe in the existence of objective truth and that there are such things as right/wrong in our world.  But I’m also keenly aware that facts/evidence/arguments can be made or arranged in multiple directions and be utilized in such a manner that they help “prove” or support myriad positions.

repostThe same problem that we faced on the debate floor twenty years ago is faced by many Americans today.  “Evidence” is plentiful and we use it with aplomb.  Go on Facebook/Twitter.  Read some partisan political blogs.  Talk about a controversial issue with an opinionated family member.  Odds are you’ll see a lot of “evidence” used in an effort to prove a case.  And then, if you look to the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see other people knocking down that “evidence” in favor of their eminently reasonable or “fact-based” claims.  And around and around we go.

For many, reposting links that agree with our already decided political positions is the name of the game.  It feel good to be right.  Right?  If I’m a liberal/progressive, conservative Christians are out to destroy the country with their religious fascism.  If I’m a conservative/traditionalist, then President Obama is the Devil (perhaps quite literally) and every negative aspect of our nation’s state of being can be attributed to the liberal agenda.  Since I already know these things, the evidence I repost on Facebook mostly just buttresses my case and/or attacks the other side.

The problem with this type of social forum (and political debate) is that we end up in a closed circle.  Many repostingsangry-computer-guy and arguments of this type are not undertaken to bring clarity and sort through careful nuance, but to make ourselves feel better about what we already think.  We’re not really in this business so that we can change our minds about a topic.  If I believe conservative economic policy is the work of a cabal of the rich intent on keeping the little man down, of course I’ll post and argue about that.  But if I read evidence to the contrary I might not post that.  It makes me looks weak, and messes up my narrative.  The same goes for those on the other side.  And then when outsiders get involved, what passes for conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and the many comment forums of our time can often devolve into unhelpful name-calling contests.

As we approach the election of 2016, I’m saddened to think that we may have reached a point where we only want to a) talk with ourselves and b) stick our fingers in the eyes of the perceived opposition.  That we only want to hear our triumphal opinions.  That we’re convinced that the other side is so wrong that we’re not willing to work through things.  This is not a search for truth.  It is lazy, and it is pride.  As the authors of a textbook I’ve used write: rRJbQSJ“Pride does not listen.  It knows.”

We have a lot of people in our country who just “know.”  In so doing, they’ve put themselves in a place where they are unable to change, incapable of really listening, and–in truth–unhelpful as we move forward as a nation.  Is this then, how democracy dies?  Not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but in the silence or shouting of people and groups that simply refuse to engage in conversation with humility, openness, and thoughtfulness?  After all, if we can find facts to agree with anything we want, why do we need to listen to anyone who thinks differently?

May we find a way out of this mess, friends.