I wrote this as a sermon. Turns out I never used it. So here it is with some minor modifications.
Why Youth Ministry?
I must admit that I struggled more with that question than I ever expected to. For me personally there can be no such question as to the why of youth ministry. It was about 15 years ago that I heard my own personal call to work with young people and I've never looked back. It's where I fit, it's where I belong, it is where I have found great joy and inspiration over the years that I worked with my home congregation and with our diocesan programs and beyond. Yet as I sat staring at the blank computer monitor with that maddening little cursor blinking at me as if challenging me to fill those pages I thought "Well that's fine for you Jay but what about the larger question? Why youth ministry? Why youth ministry at our congregations and youth ministry in the Episcopal diocese of WNY?"
So I owe all of you here a debt of gratitude for pushing me to think deeper about these questions.
These are the answers that came to me as I thought: Why do youth ministry?
Because the faith of Jesus Christ as expressed in our Anglican tradition is not ours to keep. We are called upon to share it, to give it away, freely and to all peoples. And how can we say that it is for all the world but not for our own flesh and blood? In the gospels of Matthew Jesus asks the question if a child asks their parent for bread will they be given a stone ? If our children look to us for wisdom and knowledge and all the things they need to live and thrive in the world will we choose to keep this faith from them? What kind of parents would that make us?
And knowing the kind of world that is waiting for our children how can we not give them all the tools they need? In a world where Greed is good and sex is casual, and drugs are recreational the can only be one answer to the question of Why Youth Ministry. That answer is that if we do not minister to our children we will have failed.
Think on this as well, not only will we have failed our children but we will have failed our church. We come here, I hope, because we have found comfort here, strength here, courage here, solace here. This expression of Christian life and worship is something that works, that gives strength to the members. Surely this too is an inheritance we are expected to pass along. Surely we WANT this place to go on . And surely we want our flesh and blood to be part of that. What does it say about the life lived here if we invite the stranger in but are comfortable that our families are not here? Our inheritance is a great river that stretches from the past into the future. We do not create the river we merely stand in one part. A church without youth ministry is one that has decided to dam that river, and keep the waters for itself. Such a river will eventually drown everything in its path until the ground absorbs it and it is gone.
As I thought I came across yet another reason why youth ministry. Because God has seen fit to call and use young people over and over and over again. If it's good enough for God how can we say no? Look at the young people God has called. David, so young that when his elders gave him armor to go and fight Goliath it was so huge on him that he couldn't move in it. Mary, the mother of Jesus, a very young woman asked to do an amazing and impossible thing. Jeremiah who is quite up front with God. I am just a boy. Paul reminded Timothy that his youth was not a hindrance in God's work. Jesus sets up a child's faith as one of the models we should look to for ourselves. Surely it is our calling to bring the little ones to him.
In the end the answer to the question is that we MUST do youth ministry. There is no alternative. Our faith requires it and our God has modeled if for us. Let us never forget that our children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and all the children of this community are our younger brothers and sisters in Christ. They need what we have, or are in the process of obtaining. There is more than enough to go around. This is a gift that multiplies the more it is divided.
So the next question becomes how best can we do this. Let me begin by telling you that I believe the most important answer to this question isn't about what program, or Sunday school curriculum you should be using. There are lots of good ones and many great ones. Program alone is generally not a successful formula. How do we bring the teachings of the first century in the middle east to the 21st Century in middle America? As I talk with youth ministers from around our denomination and in other denominations I think I see a pattern. A pattern of how to bring that message of faith to our younger brothers and sisters, how to make it something of importance and relevance in their lives.
I feel compelled to add a warning here. What I am about to say is not a magic formula, it is not a magic bullet or magic box. It does not come with a guarantee. Most importantly it's not a quick fix.
The pattern is simply this: Our ministry must be about relationship. Because if you look at the stories in the Gospels and the other books of the NT you'll see they are stories of relationship. You see some things have not changed since the first century. Love is about relationship. Relationship is real. In youth ministry especially we sometimes lose sight of that. We get caught up in trying to be cool, or flashy, we get caught in tradition and program instead of focusing on the real. Real is life, all of life. Not just Sunday school or youth group time but every time, all the time. Don't think you can condense the phrase "real is life" down to "real life" because that phrase means something very different "out there" in the world. Out there real life is about individuality, personal gain and survival of the fittest. It's a jersey poppin, just win baby cuz winning isn't everything it's the only thing. A life where Greed is good, sex is casual and drugs are recreational. That "real life" truly isn't real, because the only relationship there is one of domination and conquest. That's not the real we come to know in a community of faith.
But the question today is how do we teach that real? How do we give our younger brothers and sisters a different kind of real, a different way of approaching what is waiting for them out there? I have come to believe in one teaching method above all others. And when I look at those places that have shown the greatest positives in their ministry to one another you find this method over and over and over again. The great thing about it is that it can be used with any program, at any age, in any size congregation. And it can be employed, in fact is most effectively employed, by everyone. Not just the clergy or the designated teachers or ministers, but by everyone in every pew.
It is quite simply, story. Your story, and my story and the stories of the 3 year olds and the stories of the 83 year olds. There is no greater glue for a community than to share your stories, there is no greater teaching tool than to give one another the examples of our own lives. Personal stories aren't some abstract teaching concept, they are real examples of things that went right, things that went wrong, things that were changed. Stories make us real to one another because we can no longer look across the aisle and see just some kid or some old person. Now they are young William who has been struggling with algebra, or Mrs. Wilberforce who actually rafted down the Amazon river. Stories are sources of great wisdom and sometimes great reassurance. For many young people there is no greater comfort than knowing that other folks have been down those same paths before them, and it's normal to think and feel these things.
Stories will not, and in some cases should not, simply come pouring out. Our story is one of the most personal things we possess. It can be very uncomfortable for us to place that precious part of ourselves out there for others to see. Perhaps you already do this, either as an intentional process or just simply out of the normal development of your community. If so I encourage you to continue and to grow. Find new ways to share those stories and to tie them to the teachings of scripture. If it is not a part of your lives I recommend it strongly to you. We live in age of increasing alone-ness. We spend more time with ipods shutting out the sound of those around us and computer screens or TV screens standing between us and the face of our fellows. Story brings us together.
Out of story rises understanding, out of understanding rises trust, out of trust rises love. And that we are reminded is the greatest thing of all.
I would point out one other thing that I have seen in this pattern. That the sharing of story is not something only for the leaders of the ministry. Especially in youth ministry our young people need to hear the stories of other youth and adults and senior citizens. They need to hear the stories of our successes and our failures. They need to hear the stories of what happened and then what happened next. They need to hear all our stories.
Why do youth ministry? To pass along our inheritance, and to follow in the footsteps of God. How to do youth ministry? Share your story. Share how God has worked in your life, share the understanding that you have found. And along the way listen to their stories. Help them to grow their stories by inspiring them, challenging them, empowering them. That can be the only answer.