One of my most favorite mission trips I have ever taken was to the hills of central Guatemala. For 5 years I made my annual pilgrimage to jump into all the great things that God was doing among these Mayan converts. These people loved Jesus and were cutting edge in the ways that they missionally cared for their kinsmen who lived even further up the hills.
Cross-cultural missions is both exhilarating and humbling. To do this well we must be quiet and listen, ask questions and listen even more. And through genuine relationship knit together in genuine love, sometimes you are given an opportunity to share a little bit about your own life and the ways Jesus has impacted you.
In a similar way, ministry to Generation Z is truly a cross-cultural experience. This grouping of students is unlike any cohort of students that have ever walked through the doors of a church. It doesn't matter how young you are, how hip you are, how savvy you are about social media, you are not a native to their culture and therefore you must proceed accordingly.
What are we doing?
I remember having the distinct pleasure of going to Guatemala for a number of years for missions trips and for family vacations. I love Guatemala and I love the people I have met there. I am fascinated by the Mayan culture of the people living in the hill country and how beautiful it is and how totally "other" it is from the culture I live in.
But there is one thing about my time in Guatemala that has always given me pause. That is that the church in which we shared ministry seems closer to 1950's Baptist church than it did to some organic Jesus ministry coming out of the Mayan culture where people lived.
Now, don't get me wrong, I believe with all my heart that my friends in the hill country of Guatemala deeply love Jesus. But their church culture is so different from the culture of the little town in which it is placed. In the church, everyone wears dress pants, button shirts, and a sports coat. They have a 1950's Baptist church liturgy and hymns to accompany each part of the service.
For these missionaries, they brought with them, not just the gospel, but their culture as well. And for the few people who could make the leap into this new culture, they were able to come to know Jesus and over the years have taken on this new culture as well. Now there are the villagers who have Mayan roots, and the "Christians" and rarely these two people will meet. And for one of the villagers to come to faith, they must also conform to the culture, which isn't necessarily just a Christian culture, but a 1950's USA Baptist culture.
What does this have to do with youth ministry?
Great question. Our students are living in a fully post-Christian culture. There is almost nothing about their world that connects to adult church. And, unfortunately, we are simply trying to place an adult Christianized church worldview and experiences onto this totally different culture.
We do the ministry that matters to us, that feeds us, that has changed us for the kids we minister to. Because it is what matters to us, we think it matters to our students. I would like to push back a little and argue that it doesn't. For a tiny fraction of the students we work with, those are willing to play ball and join the culture of the church. Like the Mayan villagers willing to wear suits for church and sing "How Great Thou Art" in Spanish.
And like missionaries of old, there are some goodies that the missionaries dole out that make it attractive to try on this new culture. But in the long run, it won't stick for the masses.
I would like to argue that we are no longer simply helping a younger generation acclimate to the adult church world. This is what just about every youth ministry does, even yours. But rather, we are truly cross-cultural missionaries, who have been called by Jesus to leave the 99 and search for the one and to help them come to know and love Jesus and to do that in a way that makes sense to them.
A quick confession: I do agree that part of the discipleship process is helping them land in big church. But this is a process that has to be articulated and taught. It means opening our eyes and ears to where are kids are really at and meeting them there, not just being glad that some kids play ball and put on their church hat when they walk through our doors.
This is where we need youth workers to step in and help translate both the Gospel and the culture of big church to a grouping of students have zero touch points in both. (We can't forget the acclimation to big church, because that is where adult Christ followers land, so we must include that process as well.)
So, how do we do cross-cultural ministry in a post-Christian world?
1) Listen: Genuinely engage students where they are. Don't make them conform to you, rather, ask open-ended questions, be fascinated with them and embrace who they are and have empathy for where they are. It is only from this posture will you have the chance to see where God is at work, and where the Gospel may actually matter to them.
2) Be invitational into the family of God through Jesus: Doing ministry in a post-Christian context is so fun because you don't maintain the status quo. You get to invite kids into the family of God. There is a lot of explanation about what this means and can provide all sorts of fodder for conversation and for teaching. Helping them know that their isolation, anxiety, loneliness are all symptoms of lostness. They are invited into the family of God through Jesus and that comes with incredible rights and responsibilities. And until they make their faith their own, we are so glad for them to be our guests of honor!
3) Be invitational into the family of God on earth, known as big church: This is the hard part. Either we try to force them to simply conform and beat up our kids with behavior modification, or we throw the church under the bus to gain points with our students. Both options are totally unacceptable. We must be ambassadors for the traditional church and help kids find a landing there. This is where adult spiritual formation and discipleship has happened for thousands of years and where they will need to land for the next two thousand years.
4) Use your position to advocate for these newly adopted kids to have more space to be seen and loved in big church. You have a vital role for the church you are connected to. In nuteural, churches will maintain the status quo and will be rewarded by adults for that status quo. But we need the voice and perspective of younger chirstians if the church has any chance to continue to grow and be effective into the future. Use your leverage well so that kids feel seen and the isues that matter to them are being addressed by the larger church as well.
Cross Cultural Ministry is so Complex: People go to graduate school, and get doctrates in missiollogy in an attempt to understand how to do ministry well in a cross cultural context. Student minsitry is the most complext cross cultural ministry the church does and we need you to run hard after it!
Good Luck out there!