Irreducible Complexity in Student Ministry

irreducible complexity
irreducible complexity

There are so many great things we do in student ministry.  But so much of what we do are simply add ons to what is truly the fundamental core values of student ministry.  The challenge is separate out what is the irreducible complexity in student ministry and what are simply the add ons.

Now, don't get me wrong, it is the add ons, the amenities, and the style points that are what makes your ministry uniquely yours.  These are probably what you are known for and affirmed for in your ministry.  But if we are not careful, we lose focus and make the amenities the main things.  What we really want to do is firmly understand the core values of student ministry and from that foundation we can build what every stylized and culturally appropriate ministry we have been dreaming about!

When you take away the fog machine, the funny video, the dinner together, the lesson, the small groups, the goofy game, the artistic paintings, etc, what is left.  What are the core values that must be present in any solid and thriving ministry?  Irreducible Complexity is the bare minimum requirements for something to work.  And in student ministry, there are 3; Inviting Community, Transformational Relationships, and Incarnation Engagement.

Inviting Community:

We all love the word community and we all suck at living it out.  I think this is because at the end of the day, we just want to be with people like us.  But once you move past your one or two good friends, everyone else is different, weird, and not worthy of our time.  Unfortunately, this minimlalistic approach to friendship is not what Jesus has called us into.

Our students are alienated and separated from just about everybody and everything.  Many of them have difficult home lives, and even their small friendship circles are perilous at best.

With clusters becoming more and more stylized and specific, building community is harder and hard.  Just because it is difficult, doesn't mean we should shy away from this task.  We must find some new paradigms and pictures so that we can take our unique and self-absorbed students and gather them in community.

Our students are alienated and separated from just about everybody and everything.  Many of them have difficult home lives, and even their small friendship circles are perilous at best.  And it is this felt reality of alienation and insecurity, that we as the church have the opportunity to speak good news into. We profess a faith in Christ who sets up a huge banquet table and goes out into the streets and invites every and all people to sit around this table.  And when we gather we are not a group of strangers, but are family.

Creating community, establishing safe space, welcoming every and all people despite back ground, socio-economic position, ability, hygiene, race, or sexual orientation is our starting point.

Transformational Relationships:

It is our relationships that define us, crush us, and heal us.  When we are in relationships with others that are healthy and full of love and grace, our entire person begins to heal.  We recognize our worth and begin to realize that we can actually be contributors to the group.

These relationships start with you and your adult staff.  I know we want this transformational relationship to start with Jesus, but that is just not the case.   Students are not developmentally able to separate their faith from the faith community.  How their Christian parents behave and relate to them, or how we as youth workers and  youth staff relate to them has a direct correlation to how they view God.

Jesus is invisible, an abstract, a complex being who is mysterious is all ways.  A 15 year old is just beginning to understand and wrestle through abstract ideas and complex issues.  Throw in raging hormones and Jesus doesn't really have a chance.  Our student ministries become the bridge from the concrete issues and flannel graph version of faith towards a living and breathing relationship with our creator.  The health of these relationships starts with us.  But we are only the shadow of the truly transformational relationship.

Whatever healing and wholeness comes out of healthy relationships, it is our connection to Jesus Christ, attachment to the true vine where we will be healed and transformed.  It is the Holy Spirit who causes fruit to grow, and unless we work like crazy to actually connect students to Jesus, it is all for nothing.

We spend so much time worrying about the fruit of the tree. And because of that we spend most of our time and energy with band-aids and short term fixes.  The fruit should not be our concern.  The health of our roots is where we must invest.  Students need tools to develop a devotional life, they need quiet, they need conversation, they need space to question and wrestle.  They need someone to hold their hand, to equip them, and encourage them to get after developing friendship with God.  We barely work on our root system, how can we expect our students to do it without our help and some real tools and opportunity to try it out.

Bible information and sin management are important aspects, but must not be the main thing.  The main thing is making sure our students have opportunities to experience transformational relationships.  These often start with you and your adult staff, but ultimately transition to their own thriving relationship with Jesus.

Incarnational Engagement:

At the end of the day the Christian life has less and less to do with us, and more and more to do with Jesus.  We have been invited to be partners in ministry with Him.  We have been given gifts and abilities to be used in the expansion of His kingdom here on earth as it is in Heaven.  Our faith is not simply about our own personal wholeness or transformation, but to be salt and light, to be ambassadors of reconciliation, and oozers of grace.

In our student ministries we must make space in our curriculum and events calendar for students to try on the clothing of Christ and to be his hands and feet.  To partner with or initiate on your own compassion and justice ministries.  We must create opportunities for them to experience the larger world, to see where God is already on the move, to partner with those who are caring for the least of these and standing up for the poor and oppressed.  As our students develop hearts for this engagement, we must give them tools and empower them to do get after it.  Instead of crushing their idealism, we must celebrate them developing a heart after the things of God.

But caring for others far away from us is not the only part of this idea.  For us to truly be incarnational we must create space, teaching, correcting and opportunities for students to becoming the living embodiment of Jesus.  This starts with our own personal holiness.  Colossians talks about putting to death our flesh and then clothing ourselves in Christ.  We can not ignore sin, selfishness, pride, lust, sloth, anger, greed, envy, and gluttony.  We need to give them tools and grace to confess it and repent from it.  True fruit happens as we prune.  We can't just have love, mercy and grace without some heavy lifting as well.

Our incarnational engagement can not end with personal righteousness, but must be lived out in the world, and in their world.  Unless they are becoming more and more like Christ at home with their families, at their school and in their job, then we are simply creating self-righteous hypocrites.  Integrating their faith and their real life is the ultimate goal of Christian discipleship.  We can not draw a line between sacred and secular.  We must give them tool and space and plenty of grace for them to live into this reality.  It is not about being "good Christians" but about truly living into our new identity as the actual body of Jesus Christ.

Sorry that was so long!

Michael Hyatt would be disappointed with the length of this post.  But thankfully my mom and Ryan will read the entire thing :)  After doing ministry for over 15 years and trying every and all things for the sake of students and their walks with Jesus, I have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day, there are three things that are non-negotiables in student ministry.  There are plenty of other things to do that are good, unique, cutting edge, and effective, but these three must not be compromised.

QUESTION: What are your core values in student ministry?  Do you agree or disagree with mine?  Good luck!