Peter Pan is one of my favorite characters. The desire to never grow old, fight pirates, and fly probably influenced my decision to become a youth pastor more than I care to admit. Peter Pan has a dark side, however, that we must come to terms with in youth ministry. Think about how our attitudes as youth pastors often betray a Peter Pan mentality. We think we will get to be young forever by working with teens. We will be a magical leader who will give lost boys, (and girls) love and purpose. That purpose is to have fun and fight the pirates of worldliness, boredom, and bad cable tv. Parents are at best unnecessary and at worst, a roadblock to having fun, I mean to true ministry. As for the love triangle with Wendy and Tink, I’ll have to save that for another post. If we don’t come face to face with our dark side, we will become increasingly immature, negligent, arrogant, and dangerous. All kids are meant to grow up and that includes us. Youth need parents to be involved in their lives. Youth pastors and other adults can have great influence in the lives of teens, but not as smug, impressive, show-offs. We need to leave behind Peter Pan and find a better model to emulate.
As we grow a little older in youth ministry, we start to come to terms with our own mortality. I don’t mean death, but rather the grim fact that we no longer can keep up with youth culture. We lose energy for all nighters, late night cry fests, and 16- hour road trips. We lose that youthful appearance. It turns out a steady diet of pizza and capture the flag does not keep us fit. But we desperately want to stay young and relevant so we become secret vampires. We sleep during the day so we can stay up longer at night. We feed off the lifeblood of teenagers: their enthusiasm, popularity, and social drama. We so desperately want some of them to become like us, I mean to become student leaders, that we drain them dry. Our subliminal message is, “Jesus gave his life for you, so give you life for our program.” When we are not fed by God we are tempted to feed off of others, and that is not healthy. If you want to stay in youth ministry for the long haul, embrace the age you are, take care of your soul and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
I would like to propose that Gandalf represents a better metaphor for youth work. Gandalf neither tries to be more or less than he is. He is aware of his power and of his limitations. He inspires and empowers the hobbits. Yet he also rebukes them when warranted. He spends time with them, guiding and protecting. He stands in the gap for them when necessary. Yet he often leaves them to do his own work. He is not quite friend or parent or even captain of the fellowship. He is exactly what they need at the time when they need it the most. By the grace God, so may we.
We are not wizards and ultimately every metaphor breaks down when we take it too far. Yet through the characters of great stories we can see sides of ourselves that are hidden and dangerous and we can be inspired to release the better angels of our nature. Our model should be Jesus Christ. But rather than just mining the gospel for leadership strategies, let’s put ourselves in his youth group. May we be fed and led before we feed and lead. May we die to ourselves before we help youth discover who they are. May the idols of youth, appearance, popularity, and performance be shattered in our lives.
Finally, I leave with you Elrond’s admonition to Aragorn, in Return of the King
“Put aside the Ranger, become who you were born to be.”
This epic post was written by Phil Beaty, a dear friend of mine who has been doing student ministry for over 20 years. He has walked through these three seasons of ministry and am thankful for him being a Gandalf in my life. Unfortunately he doesn't blog so I can't give him intraweb props, but thankfully he is in my real life circle of friends and will give you props all day, every day! I love you homie!
 For more on this dark side, see Once Upon a Time season 3