Friday, January 11, 2008

Youth Ministry Rant

I'm so...(well I can't really use the word here that I'm thinking so fill in the blank yourself). Let's just say I'm not a happy camper.

I spend a bit of time conversing with other folks on various blogs. By and large I get along pretty well, even with the folks with whom I disagree. But every once in a while...

The discussion that has gotten me cranked was started by a post referring to "unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity" by David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons, founder of the Fermi Project. The book looks at the attitudes of 16-29 year olds toward the church, especially those who are outside the church. I don't think any youth minister would be surprised by the results. This led to a discussion on the comments thread about youth ministry, mostly the question of what are we doing wrong?

I believe we have been doing some things wrong. I also believe that a lot of us are working VERY hard to correct that. As always with youth ministry the fruits of our work may not be seen for a while.

But two responses astounded me. The first amounted to "Well youth ministry is probably a good idea but really it doesn't matter one way or the other. The kids either get it or they don't. We just need to leave it in God's hands". I don't know if this one makes me more angry or sad or frustrated. I do not deny the central role of the Divine in the process of growing in faith. I'm just here to try and water God's garden and provide some of the earthly things each plant needs to thrive. In real terms that's relationship, teaching and listening.

That brings me to the second poster. He sees teaching as a very limited tool, all the current models of youth ministry as completely failed and youth ministry simply as a tool of the institution to perpetuate itself. Sunday school, youth group, failures. Not worth discussing. The first poster mentioned her concern with "forcing Jesus down(the youth's) throat". I'm sure no one will be surprised that the second person has nothing positive to offer, just a dismissive attitude toward everything we try to do. Quite simply if we don't have something brand new to offer then it's just SSDD and therefore automatically bound to fail.

Needless to say my doctor would not approve of my blood pressure right now.

Don't get me wrong. I don't live in a fairy tale world. I'm well aware of the shortcomings of youth ministry. The spectre of ministries that rely on "magic box" programs, unimaginative teaching, lack of building relationships with the youth, lack of resources and/or dedication from the congregations make what we do almost impossible in some places. But more and more we are recognizing that and making changes. Sadly the most visible elements in the church too often make the rest of us look bad. Spending massive amounts of time and energy arguing the fine points of worship style or fine points of theology while the world is hungry and naked and in prison makes us all look like hypocrites.

But having to fight both the cynicism and defeatism embodied by these two folks just makes it so much harder.

Maybe I'm kidding myself. Maybe I'm just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The only problem is that when we do it right I see a difference being made in the lives of young people. Not as many youth as I'd like at any given moment but then I'm not supposed to be playing the numbers game.

And the numbers are betraying us. People forget that statistics only measure the past. They can be used as an indicator for the future but the accuracy of that indication relies, nay REQUIRES, that all conditions remain the same as before. If what we're doing now is right we won't know for at least a decade. It the curse of youth ministry. That the harvest almost always comes after they're gone. We plant the seed and we often get to see it bloom. But the full harvest, the fully developed person of faith, is truly a rare thing for us to see. And that's probably as it should be since when they leave our care they're still in the final stages of growth.

The recurring challenge was don't tell me about how kids show up or continue to go to church. Prove to me that they are growing in their faith, that they "get" it. I just want to scream "You're the idiots who don't get it!!! What you want isn't measurable. By your carping and defeatism you make this even harder than it is."

I have managed to refrain from actually calling anyone an idiot.

This really comes at a tough time (or maybe a good one). I'm struggling with the ideas in Loren Mead's book "The Once and Future Church". I'm struggling to find the wheat among the chaff. What is good and useful for my youth from that which is just "we've always done it that way". I think I'm making progress too.

I read what these people say and I wonder why should I worry about it? If they're right then I'm spinning my wheels. If they're wrong they represent a real voice in the church (which I've heard in other forms before) and if the church doesn't care any more than that then what do I owe it?

Yeah, yeah, I already know the answer to that one. I owe the institutional church a return on what they've invested in me, I owe the spiritual church a return on my gifts, and I just owe God. Period. Oh yeah and I owe my kids for the love and trust they put in me.

So I guess I can't pout and have a pity party or throw a tantrum.

As I said on the thread - youth ministry is harder than it looks.

(Editorial Note: After I posted this the first poster mentioned above and I had the chance to exchange some e-mails. I understand where her point of view grows from and know that she was not attacking me or youth ministry per se. Rather the frustrations we all feel about how hard it is to make a difference in the lives of young people had just taken her someplace I'm not ready to go. I hope that we've made our peace personally now. And I'll keep fighting the good fight knowing that while she hopes I'm right she reserves the right to wonder if I'm wrong)



Jake said...

We've got a rowdy bunch over there, and more than a few resident cynics. I suspect some would argue over the menu for lunch if given the opportunity. Don't take it too seriously.

I've made presentations of Loren's "The Once and Future Church" in a couple of different settings with very positive results. We had a fairly good discussion about some of his ideas awhile ago. If you're interested, you can find that sdiscussion here.

DaYouthGuy said...

Thanks Jake. I enjoy the "rowdy crowd" over there quite a bit. I've learned a lot. It's just hard to hear people taking shots at something that is so central and important to you. And further frustrated by the limitations of the comment thread writing! I can't type as fast as my mind is screaming, lol!

Curiously I may be getting some positive out of it all as it's further refined some of my thoughts. And thanks for that link! More good stuff.


FROG58 said...

Jay. As you know, anything we are intimately associated with (and deeply interested in) become very sensitive to us. So, I must first offer that maybe you are a little extra sensitive to the subject of youth ministry. (Not that that is wrong).

As someone who was a youth leader for more than seven years, I feel your pain. I also am the mother of an 11-year-old who will soon be a part of the youth of our church. Currently there is very, very little offered at our parish for teens. Our younger children's programs and acolyte program are da bomb. I know you are also aware that a lot of any programs success is a credit to the enthusiasm and dedication of it's leaders.

For whatever reason, (this is totally my opinion and observation) there tends to be a real "hands off" kind of mentally around youth (teen) ministry. I don't really know why. There are probably as many reasons as there are color variations in the rainbow.

But, when you have dedication and commitment (which is A LOT) from people like yourself, who truly do care, you do wind up planting a great garden. As you so eloquently pointed out, we rarely get to see the fruits of that labor. But, I'm here to tell you that it is possible to reach youth and to connect with them and to mean something to them. Years after my kids would grow up and leave, I would occasionally here from them. Or they would even come by my office; just to visit. To this day (and this is more than 15 years after I gave up working with the teens) I will come across some of my kids (who are adults with children of their own) and they will fondly recall our time together and how much it meant to them.

Does that mean that they are "more religious"? Does that mean they are "more connected" to the church? Not necessarily. But, it does mean that somebody showed them attention and gave them hope. Maybe when they are faced with divorce or some other difficult life event the seed we planted to long ago will bloom and help provide them with a modicum of hope.

Trying to measure the "success" of youth ministry by counting how much more they attend church is NOT what I consider success. How many folks do we know who attend church regularly but are not very, um.... er..... Christ-like? No, my friend, our successes can't be measured by visible means. It more like the Holy Ghost. We can't visible see Him/Her, but we believe, through our faith, that there is a Holy Ghost. We also must have the faith that what we did in youth ministry was equip some young folks for life on this planet. To let them know that they are never alone, that they can rely on Someone/Something other than themselves and that the words, "Church" and "religion" are not dirty words!

I don't know exactly what the folks you had disagreements with were trying to convey, but please know that anybody with even a minute passion or compassion for the youth appreciate good youth leaders. Defining good youth leaders is like trying to define good teachers or good politicians. We all have different ideas/concepts of what that is. But, I believe when "leaders" are able to bring youth of different ilk together and are able to relay to them a sense of something outside themselves that they can reach for later in life, (as a support) then we have been successful.

So, chin up. I know you to be an awesome, hard working, enormously caring adult who wants to help teens "get it". THAT is what it's all about, IMHO.