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Emotionalism in Youth Ministry

Guest Post by Jay McPherson

Great article (Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship by Jon Wasson in Immerse Journal) and great thoughts.

What I have also found linked with radicalism is emotionalism; that somehow the level of emotion that one experiences in their worship, prayer, testimonies, etc, is an accurate gauge of our discipleship and growth as believers.

I speak as one who was quite susceptible to this as a teenager in the youth ministry.  Discipleship was about who generated the greatest emotional response to a sermon, music set, at a retreat, an alter call, and so on.  One particular night I remember my youth pastor challenging us during a time of corporate confession around a fire to “not hold back and be real before Jesus.”  As students began to share, I was well aware of my sin and didn’t want to ‘hide my sin from Jesus.’ So, as a 17 year old teenager I shamefully admitted to everyone my battle with lust in front of a group that consisted partially of 12 year old girls. While I believed I was being obedient at the time, I look back at the whole experience and cringe, even though what I shared was definitely the most ‘radical.’

Fast forward several years and I find myself as a youth minister.  My first year at my church, we attended ‘Acquire the Fire’ because “that is what our youth group did every year before you became our youth pastor.” With the help of smoke machines, loud bands, and youth speakers who can tell gripping stories, ATF has mastered the skill of evoking an emotional response from teenagers. And just like all highs, it is and was just a matter of time until the crash. My church no longer attends ATF.  Every once in awhile a parent or student will come up to me and ask why we don’t go anymore or why other churches go and we don’t.  While my response obviously varies depending on who is doing the asking, my most common response is, “Because discipleship is a marathon… It is a daily decision and a daily directing of our paths toward Christ and in general, I believe ATF suggests something different.”

Up until just a year or so ago, I experienced quite a bit of guilt and shame when I would compare our student ministry with that of the one I was a part of during my teenage years.  I remember the emotion filled testimonies… I remember worshiping with my peers… I remember some great retreats that we went on together.  Honestly, I don’t see that as much with the youth ministry at my current church.  However, what I have begun to see is something that has less highs and lows and something that appears to be more true and lasting.  I have concluded that emotion/emotional response is not something to be avoided, however, it must not be abused in order to evoke an emotional response, which is manipulation.