My last post on 10 Things Youth Ministry Needs Less generated a lot more discussion than I expected. The comments left on that post were quite insightful, so make sure to go back and read the comments if you haven’t yet.
But the point of my last post wasn’t to simply be a critic, but to make space for things that I think are really important. For example, if your youth ministry currently puts on a midweek worship service, how much time and energy would you free up for yourself and the other leaders in your ministry if you canceled it? I would expect quite a lot. So, if we’re going to be doing less of certain things, what kinds of things do we need more?
1. Adults—Our students don’t need adults to teach them, they need adults who know them. And the only way they can be truly known is by making sure there are plenty of adults around who care about them and listen to them. Unless your adult to student ratio is 10:1, you could use more.
2. Intimacy—I think we need to quit using the word relationships (“It’s all about the relationships”) and instead start talking about intimacy. We don’t need to do more activities to build relationships, we need to build more intimacy within our relationships. Intimacy tells what kinds of relationships we are trying to develop. If we are going to truly know the young people in our congregations, we are going to have to talk about things that matter, not just what happened at school this week. Having a 20-minute breakout group after a sermon isn’t enough time for our students to develop intimacy with other adults or students. You need extended blocks of time over the long-term to truly develop intimacy.
3. Prayer—Prayer is a naturally intimate pattern of speech, so to develop intimacy with our students, we need to be praying with and for them on a regular basis. Again, time will be a necessary ingredient for prayers to develop beyond shallowness. (For more thoughts on prayer and intimacy, see Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson)
4. Scripture—Scripture teaches us how to pray, how to relate to one another and how to relate to God. Research shows that our students are typically very biblically illiterate, so we need to do our best to weave scripture in with whatever we are doing. I would caution against adding and adding Bible studies, because that could have issues of its own.
5. Passion—Are we calling students to something worth giving their life for? Teenagers are naturally passionate people (i.e., your middle school girls and Justin Bieber) if they find something they think is worth their time. Somehow we must recover the passion in our faith. (See Practicing Passion by Kenda Dean for more.)
6. Life Coaching—It seems to me that we assume that every student needs to do well in all their classes and then go to college and do well in all their college classes and then go get a job. What about the kid who is struggling in English, math and science but is a brilliant artist? Or what about the student who always struggles in school but who came into his own when you were building houses on a mission trip? Should we harp on them to get their grades up (and to concentrate less on the things they are actually good at) so they can go to college, or should we encourage them to develop and express their natural gifts and abilities? I think we need to pay attention to the uniqueness of each student in our church and help them grow and mature individually, not encourage them to conform to our assumptions about the path everyone needs to take. (I’m not sure if “life coaching” is the best label for what I’m thinking about, but it’s all that came to mind. Suggest something better in the comments.)
7. Integration—Youth ministry needs to think of itself less as a separate program of the church and more as a network of relationships helping teenagers grow in faith. As such, youth ministry needs to be better integrated with other areas of the church. When you encourage a girl to join the adult choir (or praise team) at the church, and then you go and tell one of the ladies to make sure to take her under her wing, that is youth ministry. When you send a guy who is good with his hands with the men’s group to go build houses for a week instead of taking him with you to camp, that is youth ministry. When you cancel your normal youth group activities for a week to allow your students to lead VBS, that is youth ministry. The goal is to see people growing in Christ, not to see them come to your events and programs. We need to seek out ways to integrate students in ways that fit their unique gifts.
8. Practical Theology—Since I said in the last post that we could probably do with less youth ministers, what role do we have in the meantime? I think one of the most important roles for a youth minister to play is that of the ministry’s practical theologian. Practical theologians make sure that the way we do things is congruent with theological convictions we hold. I have written about this before.
9. Originality—If all of the above things are happening—adults who intimately know students, prayer, integration, practical theology—then your youth ministry should look unique and be a fluid organism. Simply look around you and figure out what to do given who is there. Don’t try to conform who is there to what you do. Not every students needs a game/icebreaker, two upbeat songs, a serious song, a 15- to 20-minute sermon and breakout groups to grow.
10. Parents—You already knew this, though, right?