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Practicing Pragmatism: Self-Experiment In Your Youth Ministry Context

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10 – NIV)

The Great News:  Youth pastors are one of the church’s best practitioners.  Youth pastors love to experiment in order to develop better methods and practices for their youth ministry.

The Bad News:  Youth pastors are bombarded with information, models, theories, books, resources, magazines, and blogs, which only leave youth pastors more confused and directionless when it comes to how to do youth ministry.  This can be labeled as paralysis by analysis.

How can youth ministry theory and practice not only reconcile but produce actionable youth pastors that test theories in their current context?

I am highly suggesting youth pastors adopt AND practice the philosophical idea of Pragmatism in their youth ministry.

Pragmatism 101:

Pragmatists say that life is a process of discovering the truths of how our actions work for us.  Pragmatism causes us to ask, “Does it work?”

History has shown us that some of the best ideas have failed in practicality.  Theodore Roosevelt, 26th U.S. President and one of the most notable Presidential pragmatists, said:

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

In addition Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer said:

The strongest streak in the American character is a fierce pragmatism that mistrust blind ideology of every stripe and insists on finding what really works.

The term, pragmatism, is derived from the same Greek word pragma, meaning action, from which our words ‘practice’ and ‘practical’ come from.  Some of the notable pragmatist philosophers have said:  “whatever works, is likely true.”  The philosophical idea of pragmatism is beautiful because it equally fuses together both:  ideas and reality.  We know pragmatism works because it is testable.  Pragmatism does not deal with correlations, rather it only deals with causality.

The Big Daddy Question?

How does a youth pastor who comes across a ton of youth ministry ideas via conferences, blogs, seminary, magazines, and books still have the time to put them into action and be honest about the results?

I will admit that I am more interested in what works than philosophizing and pontificating on what may be a good idea in youth ministry.  It has taken me nearly a decade to finally admit this is true.  When I started in youth ministry, I was all about practice.  I realized that only practice was surface level and 2-D.  Then I went to seminary and I was all about theory.   I realized only theory is irrelevant. Then I got out of seminary and realized that 80% of the great and well-articulated theories don’t work in present day youth ministry.  I realized I needed to find ways to reconcile theory and practice.

The Huge Value Of Self-Experimentation

Self experimentation in youth ministry has a high probability of failure, and parents tend to get mad because things are always changing. But you get to find out what works with your particular students in your particular church. In my youth ministry experience, I was never micro-managed or under a set model/tradition for how to do youth ministry, so I got to self experiment a lot.  I was very thankful that I was able to work outside of the system and pull from different models, methods, and theories.  I was very persistent to take any idea I was wrestling with and test it.  This is why I started my youth ministry blog, because I had to synthesize and record the youth ministry ideas I was testing.

Charles Darwin said:

I love fools’ experiments.  I’m always making them.

Sample:  Self-Experiment — Dare 2 Share Gospel Journey Maui

For example, a few years back I was wrestling with the Dare 2 Share‘s Deep and Wide strategy.  I blogged a lot about my discontentment and disagreement with their approach.  In fact, I contacted the dudes (Greg Stier and Jason Lamb) at Dare 2 Share to pick their brains to make sure I was understanding them correctly.  Jason Lamb suggested I check out the Gospel Journey Maui series.  I thought to myself, if I am critiquing Dare 2 Share’s mission, I better try their goods. So I bought it and tried it.  Guess what?  It worked.  My students loved it and they learned a lot and, more importantly, their youth pastor learned a lot.  I wrote Jason Lamb an email apologizing for my anger issue and said I was sorry for not testing their stuff before critically blogging about it.  This is why I love pragmatism – because it allows everything to be tested which enables everyone to come to a conclusion about whether things work or not, regardless of how you think or feel.

My Conclusions

–  You cannot argue with what works in a particular church for a particular group of students.

–  Don’t use skepticism as an excuse for inaction.

–  It is not about what youth ministry idea/model/philosophy/strategy is right or wrong, but what works.

–  The guys and gals who are doing stuff in youth ministry that is making an impact need more respect.  Don’t hate on those who are doing great stuff that is working for the Kingdom of God.

– Youth pastor pragmatists keep theorists honest.

–  The greatest youth ministry resource and idea involves you and your youth ministry lab.  Experiment freely!!  The future of youth ministry needs you to play.

–  Publish your lab write ups via a youth ministry blog.  Please start a youth ministry blog….. so you can process, contemplate, dialogue, and report your results with what is working and not working in your youth ministry.

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Jeremy Zach easily gets dissatisfied with status quo. He reeks with passion and boredom is not in his vocabulary. He becomes wide awake when connecting with student pastors, thinking and writing about student ministry, experimenting with online technology, and working out. He is married to Mikaela and has two calico cats, Stella and Laguna. He lives in Alpharetta, Georgia and is a XP3 Orange Specialist for Orange—a division of the REthink Group. Zach holds a Communication degree from the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.