Today I’ll close out my recent series on the need for reform in youth ministry with a corollary to my last entry. Beyond the need for smallness is the reality of authenticity, immediacy, and consistency. For this reason, the emphasis on “coolness,” high production values, and accompanying affective moments that can characterize some youth programs and events ought to be reevaluated.
Today in one of my courses we’ll be Skyping with David Hertweck, author of a new book called Good Kids, Big Events, and Matching T-Shirts: Changing the Conversation on Health in Youth Ministry. I’m a big fan of his work here and commend the book to you. As the title suggests, Hertweck is also looking for a new way forward in ministry to adolescents. Speaking on “big events,” he says the following:
“When we tell ourselves that success and health in youth ministry means delivering high-energy emotional moments, we run the risk of manipulating kids’ emotions to get them to feel something…the problem is, the moment passes, and if it wasn’t an authentic work of the Spirit, there won’t be any lasting fruit.”
Though Hertweck may approach the topic a bit differently than me, his attention to what we youth pastors and leaders hope to do with our biggest efforts comes through. Surely, after all, there must be something more to this than what we can accomplish with a well-crafted moment or worship set or lights show or experience or whatever.
Focusing on “big events,” key moments, and sometimes calculated coolness is not limited only to the biggest days on the calendar or the largest youth ministries. Trying to tie everything up into such realities can and does become a cultural shift in ministry efforts (big and small) that are modeled on this pattern. Such undertakings can make leaders and others proud of what they’ve done, create a great optic for participants, and fire our emotions and energy level.
Despite these momentary wins and their outward appearance, I’m not sure such a strategy will actually help in the long-term. As David Hertweck notes, “You can’t sustain a moment, but you can sustain a conversation.” Youth ministry needs to be about God’s work amidst youth and their being now and over the course of many days to come, not about cool production values or sets of spiritual moments. Dialogue, close-knit community, and ministries spending more and more time investing in mentoring relationships will therefore be a part of my suggested future. It will mean stripping away a lot of the big box approach in favor of smaller and more incremental work with students.
When big things come–and they will, and that’s not bad–these episodes need to be shepherded by those working with students over the course of the many small moments and non-moments that make up their faith and life. Hertweck reflects on the notion of Spirit-dependency being key to they non-events driven youth ministry, and I have affinity with his idea. I appreciate even moreso his holistic philosophy: “Our students need to live in the Spirit in every single arena of life.” If whole-life discipleship is what we are trying to accomplish, many big events–even if they are high-quality and strung together endlessly–are not what is needed for our students. Integrated discipleship demands more.
We youth pastors should strive to be good stewards of the many tasks we are called to undertake, including the occasional events, retreats, camps, and moments where good things can and do happen. Even so, we cannot let our center of gravity remain in these brief oases or rest stops on the way instead of in deep presence and fellowship on the long road ahead. We need to stop getting excited about the “exciting” things many have come to get excited about and instead turn to the “boring” work of everyday discipleship, because that’s where life is lived and deep faith is formed.