Life Is Not Just Moments

Today I’ll close out mHertwecky 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. worship

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 IPE-mentoring-headerrelationships 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 pathendlessly–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.


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.

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.

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…

The Coming Youth Ministry Reformation

youth-wordleIn my role as Associate Professor of Youth Ministries here at Northwest University, I am afforded more time to reflect on the way we pastor adolescents than I ever had during my years as a youth pastor. As I think about what we’re doing as a Church, I’ve come to the realization that there is change on the horizon.  Or at least there probably should be.

I’m not saying anything new, of course.  Thoughts of this type are writ all over the associated literature: an argument for the rejection of program-based models, a completely new version of youth ministry more in tune with the shape of youth culture, the desire for a more theological approach to youth ministry, a push to eliminate all age-based ministries in the local church in favor of family-based ministry, etc.

And yet, in what I perceive from many churches (and, indeed, my work as a youthyouth-ministry pastor in the mid-2000s), attention to the need for change is not as thorough-going as it could be. In essence, the momentum of a system of traditional “youth group”–in its current iteration only about 30-40 years old–has kept us going back to the same well time and again.

Dominating our collective fields of vision is the model of the traditional youth pastor, a youth group with a mostly separate existence from the larger congregation, and a program-driven existence, all of which can take their cue from the largest youth ministries around. These influences can affect us so much that we don’t think to go outside that box.  For many it is simply all we know.  The “system” is right in front of us and we buy into when we first enter ministry.  By the time we are experienced enough to start to question it, we have been doing it so long we either don’t see the need for change or are so caught up that it is difficult to get out.

quotebeachWe’ve invested an awful lot in getting youth ministry where it is today.  And I’m glad the Church has understood the vital need that is out there.  I simply worry that in so doing we have baptized one model or way of doing things as a final destination rather than a temporary stop on the ever-progressing journey of adolescent ministry.  Both the role of the youth pastor and the shape of youth ministry are going to change.  They should change.  The question is, are churches and church leaders ready for it to do so, no matter the cost or disruption this may involve to our systems, our budgets, and ourselves?

This Fall I’ll hope to explore some of the changes I think we should consider.  I hope that you’ll offer some feedback along the way.  For right now I’ll just ask this: what needs to change in the way we do youth ministry?

Mockingjay Song

**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Mockingjay, Part I.**

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Mockingjay, Part I premieres tomorrow in theaters around the country.  As it does, I aim to continue a set of posts that I’ve written with the release of each of the films.  (Only one entry this year, however.)

The popularity and themes of the Hunger Games series have made it a particularly useful conversation piece.  Over the past two years I’ve taken the opportunity to use the films/books to write about theology, adolescent culture, and youth ministry.

As the story of Katniss and her struggles begins to wind to a close with this film, many of the motifs of the first two installments continue: the co-option of her agency by a dysfunctional adult world, a world structure built mostly upon violence, the use of artifice and/or deception as a means to survival, etc.  As I’ve argued before, Katniss’ story mirrors the perceived journey of many adolescents.  While our students are not forced to fight to the death against their will in a vicious set of games, their lives can feel that way sometimes.MockingjayCover

There are no games in Mockingjay, however.  Now things have become real.  At the end of Catching Fire Katniss is whisked away from the playing arena and enters into a larger struggle.  Her adolescence, we might say, is over.  The adult world now beckons.  Heady stuff for a young person looking forward to putting the nonsense of youth behind her.

And yet, the more time she spends in District 13, the more she realizes that the broken system that led to the Hunger Games and the societal mechanism’s that co-opted her youth persist.  As the symbolic leader of the rebellion against the Capitol she is forced to become “The Mockingjay.”  She has little choice in the matter.  Her young adulthood, therefore, is just as trapped in this broken place as was her adolescence.

Being forced to play a role in a world that seems to know only one way forward is not unique to Katniss Everdeen, however.  It is a reality felt by many young people as they strain at the B0t35sTIUAMBW3G.jpg largetension between their dreams and hopes and the strictures placed upon them by outside forces.  It can be a difficult place to live.

And yet: as much as the Hunger Games saga is about the ways in which young people are forced to fight for a broken system, it is also about how that system can be changed or subverted.

Katniss Everdeen is never just a passive participant in the brokenness around her.  Rather, she is always thinking about how her actions in the midst of it might work to change things for the better.  These efforts at subversion and resistance to the prevailing status quo are tested in Mockingjay, and I look forward to seeing how the two films based upon the book will address these issues.