A Small Reform

If youth ministry needs to change as much as I have been discussing, size needs to be mentioned.  To put it simply, we should consider how youth ministry might be smaller.  More personal and face-to-face.  More relationally close.

ym3Thinking about the need for smallness in youth ministry is a theme suggested by Mark Oestreicher in his book Youth Ministry 3.0.  It is further corroborated by youth ministries across the country that have turned to “small groups” to help address needs in the youth ministry.

While small groups that are a part of a larger “big-box” style youth ministry are often the model we have defaulted ourselves to, I’m wondering if that goes far enough.  In some (if not many) cases these small groups are not as central to ministry to adolescents as they could be, instead serving as appendages to a ministry still focused upon the youth pastor et al.  Ministry to teens that is small needs to go beyond the simple “program” of small groups and begin to consider a full-scale revision and rethinking of such efforts that lets go of the need for the big group approach.  Perhaps there don’t need to be any more regular youth group meetings; just small ministry efforts and whole-church gatherings.

Just writing that feels risky.  That’s how I know I’m suggesting change.

All ministers and churches are tempted by matters of size.  Gauging our human level of success by numbers is a far tooyouth-bible-study common occurrence, despite our stated principles.  While growth is a natural development in Christian ministry centered on the good news of Jesus Christ, such change need not happen in an “accumulating towards the center” fashion.  Instead it could mean a proliferation of smaller ministry moments and opportunities within the local congregation that are connected to the unique developmental and pscho-social realities of adolescence.  Like churches that grow to a certain size before planting or opening a separate campus, so too youth ministries, as they engage new individuals, can simply open new doors for engagement on the part of teens and adults alike.

51KkCpkHDIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Where is the youth pastor in all of this?  Well, that’s a good question.  But, considering my comments the other day, perhaps a bit of an anachronistic one.  If we are to consider the option I’ve mentioned today, it implies a new direction for such ministry.  No longer should “small groups” be fit into an existing and traditional youth ministry model.  Instead, the desire to work in focused and face-to-face ways with young people needs to take the lead.  The rest of the things that we’ve come to know and expect?  Well, perhaps we should consider putting them away or adjusting them in favor of trying something new.  It certainly won’t give us the optics of the large group…but it might just develop disciples in a way we can often miss.

Just some thoughts, friends.  I welcome your comments.

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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.”

Matthew 15

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked,Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?'”

Matthew 15:1-2a

The reality of Jesus’ time is that, objectively speaking, the Pharisees weren’t such bad guys.  There were devoted to following the Scripture.  They were teachers.  They were true believers.  Funny, isn’t it, how they get the brunt of Jesus’ approbation?  Their closeness to the Truth yet inability to accept it was their undoing, and perhaps the very reason the Lord gave them such a hard time.jesus-authority

The Pharisees were religious authorities.  They were dedicated.  They were a part of the system.  They had their ideas and traditions.  And when the God they worshiped appeared to them in the flesh?  Well, they weren’t too happy about that.  Jesus didn’t fit their model.

Picking on Pharisees is the often the Christian equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.  I mean, seriously: if Jesus gives them a hard time, surely we should too, right?  And they are pretty grumpy and picayune about having things their way. They come off as rigid and stultified compared to the miraculous and life-giving presence of Jesus.

pass5+copy2There’s one problem, though.  Those same Pharisees that Jesus encounters, so beholden to their traditions and systems?  I and those like me (ministers, theologians, long-time Christians, etc.) have the potential to be a lot closer to them than we are to Jesus.  We are a part of the system.  We know how everything works.  Disruptions are not welcome, thank you very much.

I wonder sometimes: if Christ showed up and started messing with my world as he did with those long-lost Pharisees, would I respond the same way as they did?

Matthew 13

“A farmer went out to sow his seed.”

-Jesus (Matthew 13:3)

seed-sower-jeremy-samsIn one of the most famous of his parables, Jesus tells us about a person who sows.  Seed that is distributed ends up in a lot of different places.  The results are diverse.

Simple and oft-cited, this parable provides its readers/hearers with a lot of different imagery with which to wrestle.  On top of that, Jesus even takes the time to explain the story to his disciples.  But I’m not concerned with these details this morning.  Instead, I just want to focus on one picture: the sower.

Jesus doesn’t really spend much time here identifying the sower as such.  The text basically associates the image with those who share the message of the Kingdom of God.  So that’s Jesus.  That’s the disciples.  That’s Christians all throughout time.  That’s me too.

I’m not an expert in farming, but it appears that what the sower is doing here is not some scientific process of planting, but rather an almost casual dispersing of seed all along the ground that has been prepared.  There is method to it, but it is not overly defined by method.  It is sowing.

As the farmer proceeds, seed falls everywhere.  I don’t know what the personality of such a person is like, but I rather picture it as joyful.  Almost whimsical, if you’ll allow it.  There’s serious work to do, yes.  It will take a lot of time to sow this seed, yes.  But: the day is full and the wind is at their back.  And they can’t wait to see what this seed will turn into.  The worries of irrigation, weeding, harvesting?  That’s all for another day.

I think I’d enjoy being a sower.

I realize that my mental picture of this first-century agricultural worker probably won’t pass exegetical or cultural-historical tests, but all the same I like to imagine the sower smiling and singing asTheSower their task unfolds.  It is a good work, and they have a real part to play in it.

I suppose I see the sower in this light because it is how I want to picture the Christ follower as called to share the Kingdom of God.  Not worrying incessantly about the science of seeds but simply focusing on fulfilling a purpose: sharing the very good news that is Jesus Christ.

There is a time for strategies and planning, of course.  But there also needs to be a time for the joy of sowing.  A reminder too, that at the end of the day we don’t make seeds germinate and turn them into crops.  Only God gives Creation that ability.  We are just along for the ride.  And what a ride it is.

Who Runs the World?

indexIn just one week, my recent post on the Jennifer Lawrence photo situation has become my most popular  of 2014 and the second most-viewed of all time.  It seemed to strike a nerve.  Lawrence is a star, of course, and the issue has been percolating for a while.  So it makes sense that such reflections might catch fire.

Even so, I think there’s more to it.

Jennifer Lawrence is not merely an actress but a symbol of a rising new kind of female empowerment.  Both widely accessible and confident in identity, this new feminism finds its foundation not at the periphery of pop culture but rather at its center.  Lawrence, then, is just one in a vanguard of voices like Beyonce’s and Taylor Swift’s whose careers and trajectories make them heroes to many women.taylor-swift-money-makers-990

I realize, of course, that these women are pop stars.  That they do not carry deep philosophical or political weight on their shoulder.  That they have no graduate degrees and have authored no lengthy tomes.  But therein, perhaps, lies their widespread appeal and accessibility.

They are a highly visible part of a new generation who have been able to build upon the advances of their mothers before them, stepping forward in confidence even while they advance the cause further.

As I think about the lives of such women, I understand their main influence to be in modeling what an empowered person might look like.  To be sure, there are very few young women out there who will rise to become a top musical act or win an Academy Award.  But the fact that those with such lofty achievements can inspire others onward is vital.  While it is legitimately to be debated whether everything these women do should be imitated, they at the very least provide confident and self-assured options for women to consider.  Wilting submission to older societal conventions and unfortunate silence on important issues need not apply.

b87b8a1ee88366ecc1ceea9487a4fd77I think about the power of such modeling when I consider the young women of the Church.  For while broader society has its Beyonces, Lawrences, and Swifts to look up to, the Church has not done a very good job providing a wide range of options for its women.

To be sure, there have been some notable figures throughout the history of Christianity and–thankfully–we now live in an age when many denominations support and affirm women in ministry.  I laud both of these facts.  But masked behind history and present understanding is the hard truth that there aren’t nearly as many heroes available for Christian women to admire as there ought to be.

Women have not often been allowed–by society or Church–the same kinds of leadership roles as men.  Church historians of the past have focused upon men, sometimes exclusively.  And in today’s world of churches, even denominations (like my own, the Assemblies of God) that support women in ministry have relatively few serving in pastoral roles.  It is one thing to say we support the ordination of women; it is another thing to have their ordination be realized in service to the local church.

The effect of such realities continues the tacit limitations placed upon women within Christianity.  Think about it: if a teenage boy feels called to ministry, he will probably come to understand some of that call through the lens of all the male ministers he knows.  Maybe he’ll feel led to live into his purpose in youth ministry, missions, or church planting.  There are lots of men in those imagesfields for him to imitate.  For the 15-year old girl, however, the picture looks much different.  If she discerns a call to ministry and looks around for models of what that might look like at the pastoral level, all she might see is a room full of men.  Even though all of those men might philosophically agree that women can be ministers, the tacit message we send is somewhat different.

Ministry roles for women in many churches–even those that support the ordination of women–can take the form of ministry spouse, women’s group leader, Sunday School teacher, stay-at-home mother, and the like.  For young girls called to serve, those might be some of the only options deemed worthy of consideration.  Now please: don’t get me wrong.  None of these things is bad.  I affirm anyone called by God to live in these roles.  My point is not to criticize them.

Rather, I’m simply saying that they should not be the only roles open to women.  That when God leah-at-the-pulpitcalls a young woman to full-time ministry she should be able to reflect upon all her options as she discerns which direction that call to ministry might take.  I’m convinced there are probably many women out there that could and should be serving in lead roles in our churches who have not embraced that potential simply because it never even seemed  like an option. This is not just unfortunate; it is tragic.

I’m not going to spend time here debating the idea of women in ministry; as a matter of fact, I grow tired of debating it at all.  As a Pentecostal, Acts 2:17 tells me that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh; I’ll just leave it at that.  As a seminary graduate and academician, I have studied with and know women who are serving our churches faithfully.  As a professor I teach ministry classes to many gifted, mature, and empowered women.  And, to be honest, I tend to be more impressed with the quality of my female students’ work and personal maturity than I do their male counterparts.

I’m excited for their potential, and I don’t for a second want them to feel limited in their options. (Which, sadly, they do.)  In light of this, questions persist.  Which of their fellow students will actively and vocally support them008_exploring_woman in their call?  Which churches will hire them in visible roles?  Which organizations will e-mail me looking for a candidate, and not specify that they only want a male?

There are great women serving in our churches today, but there are few if any Jennifer Lawrences, Beyonces, or Taylor Swifts out there in terms of ubiquity and influence.  I’m convinced that the generation of women ministers represented by the students in my classes can be such leaders.  We need to help them do so; not just for their sakes, but for the sakes of our daughters and their daughters after them.

There is still a lot of work to do, of course.  But it is work worth doing.  Work that is achievable.  After millennia of male dominance by means of tradition, brute strength, and biology in basically all parts of culture, I will welcome a coming age of women.

Not that 49.6% of the world’s population needs my permission or blessing.