Last week I had the incredible opportunity to be around a table with some of the most incredible youth workers from around the country. As we met over a day an half dreaming about how to care for the youth workers in our denomination, Tim Ciccone, the Director of Student Ministry for our denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, asked us two questions that have been gnawing at me ever since:
- WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATE OF YOUTH MINISTRY IN OUR DENOMINATION?
- WHERE IS YOUTH MINISTRY GOING IN THE FUTURE?
I have been thinking non stop about these questions, and vacillating between hope and hopelessness, bitterness and grace, and renewed passion for my calling to wanting to throw in the towel. But now that it has been a week, here are a couple of thoughts that have distilled its way through the internal emotional and spiritual chaos that is me. These are just my thoughts, but I would really love to know yours. :)
1) WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATE OF YOUTH MINISTRY IN OUR DENOMINATION?
As I have wrestled with this question, I have found myself keep coming back to Chap Clark's book Hurt. Back before this book came out, I remember taking a class at Fuller Seminary from Chap Clark and he was working out some of the initial thoughts about this abandonment culture that he has seen grip youth culture in every facet.
He outlined how the institutions that were designed to care for and develop students like education, youth sports, and even youth ministries, have been co-opted by the adults in charge and the youth who actually participate in these things are simply faceless pawns moved about for the sake of the adults in charge.
And unfortunately, youth ministry has not escaped this tendency. In case you don't think so, think about how you talk about student ministry, how you talk about your students, what defines a good youth group or event. It is almost always around "students," or numbers, or some sort of generality about youth in general.
Around our discussion last week I found this to be the case as well. The problem and solution seemed to all be wrapped up in "discipleship." We simply need to disciple students so they can make disciples. This all sounds great and even attempts to honor Jesus, but what I found lacking from the conversation and from this conversation in general, is that we are always talking about this mythological mass of kids known as students.
As adults we have done exactly what Chap Clark warned us not to do, which is simply see the mass of students and provide a ministry, curriculum, and even expectations that are more centered on us and our dreams and convictions, rather than on the true state of being in which our students live.
So when I think about where student ministry is, I think there is some bad news, and some good news. The bad news is that we are finally on our last gasp of the programatic machine of youth ministry. Every year there is less and less cultural pressure within the church world for students to show up at our ministries. They feel no guilt or shame, and instead of simply being dualistic in their lives, living one way in front of us adults and another when they are among their true tribe, they simply are walking away in droves from the fakey life we are asking them to live within a youth ministry context.
We have been objectifying our students for decades, and it must stop. We often think of objectification in terms of sexual sin, but objectification is anytime we take a complex 3D person made in the image of God, and make them into a 2D person who is simply supposed to fit into our world, our expectations, our program.
We are bottoming out. We can no longer take our hopes and dreams for our ministry and simply place it onto the actual students in our ministry, because students are becoming less and less willing to play ball. The good news is that student ministry is forced to take a hard look at itself, and those of us in charge are compelled to search our souls as to our true motivation for why we do what we do. And it is from this position that makes me incredibly hopeful when I think about the second question:
2) WHERE IS YOUTH MINISTRY GOING IN THE FUTURE?
How great that we can't simply be about "discipleship," or "evangelism" or any other faceless strategy. The future of student ministry is that students no longer need us. If larger and larger numbers they are running away from the church. Like their parents they see little need for it and less and less social pressure to make it part of their life.
While you may be at a large church, if you are honest you can see the writing on the wall, the normal programing and curriculum is having less and less impact. If you are at a smaller church, you have seen their eyes and talked to them and seen that there is less and less reason and pressure for them to attend.
This is awful for top down strategies. But for bottom up, cross cultural missions, this is a gift from God. Instead of striving so hard to make disciples who make disciples, we are forced to see exactly who are students are and what they need, and where the Gospel meets them.
And I think that the more we start our ministries based on their needs, and their worldview, we will realize that it is unfair to put our agenda on them. Even if it is a noble one, it is still our agenda. When we listen and love students agenda free we will see that they are lost, emotionally and spiritually stunted, and in to way ready to turn around and lead their friends to Jesus. They are atrophied and simply in need of care.
The way forward for student ministry is a slower, relationally focused, and Holy Spirit lead ministry. It is a ministry where we are servants to our kids, and we allow them to lead us with where they are at and where they think they need to go.
A QUICK STORY (to give your eyes a break)
When I was younger in student ministry I worked my hardest to stay hip and relevant. There even was an organization, Interlinc to help us stay relevant. They had posters and Christian music to help our students make the switch. If you they liked Maryalin Manson, then they might P.O.D. (Or something like that.)
But as I got older, it became more and more clear that I was just a poser with my own agenda. Even when I tried to stop slinging Christian music to my kids, they could still I was a poser whenever I tried to pretend that their music was my music, that their world was my world.
Then one day I had an incredible breakthrough. Not because I am really spiritual, or such a great leader. I simply was too tired to pretend to like their garbage music any more. And when I did, the strangest thing happened. I was able to actually build real relationship again. You see, instead of trying to connect with them on their level, I simply now could own that we are not connected and the was forced to take on the position of a learner, of a listener. Instead of Interlink telling me who my kids are and what they like, I could now simply ask them, ask them follow up questions, ask them anything.
ASK AND THE DOOR WILL BE OPENED:
Do you want to know what the future of student ministry is? Simply ask your students. Quit seeing them as a blog of "teens" and engage them as real life humans, made in the image of God and desperately lost and in need of a Heavenly Father. Ask them who they are, what they need, how they are doing, and how you can be praying for them. And the more you ask them, the more God will be gracious to you as you discern through the Holy Spirit as to the right way to do ministry to these particular students in a way that introduces them to Jesus Christ.
We all want the quick fix, the best new model or curriculum. I am sorry to say that there is no such thing. In order for you to usher in the future of youth ministry, you will have to do the hard and humbling work of simply loving and serving your students. Not generic students, but the actual, real life ones, that show up in and around your world. And as your heart grows for them personally, may God in his graciousness and faithfulness give your with truth, wisdom, grace, and discernment necessary to help them come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior!
Let's pray for each other, that we would not objectify our students, or lose heart, but grow in hope and grace as we continue to pour out our lives as a drink offering so that maybe some may come to know Him!