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10 Things I’ve Learned in 5 Years of Youth Ministry

Five years ago today I officially began my job as the Youth Director at Hope Lutheran Church, my first job after graduating from John Brown University in May 2006. I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what I learned over the past five years about myself, ministry, and my context. I reserve the right to add to this list.

  1. Theology still matters. While still an undergraduate I had a hunch that if I took youth ministry seriously as an act of practical theology I would be able to live with myself and still be “successful.” Others will have to judge me on my success, but after five years of trying to do theologically-grounded youth ministry I have no regrets. Youth ministry shapes the theological imaginations of our young people, whether we like it or not, so we might as well take that particular task seriously and embrace our roles as theologians.
  2. Being a good listener is better than being culture-savvy. Some people tend to think that in order to relate to teens you need to watch the TV shows the kids are watching, read their books, go to their movies, visit their websites, and on and on. I’ve found that simply listening to the youth in my midst makes me a teen expert.
  3. Listen to the wise sages. As I read books, blogs and magazines and watch interviews and listen to lectures, there are some voices that can only be described as having “weight.” The weightiest voices in my life have been those who seem to be filled with the most wisdom. There are often loud experts touting their methods (with acronyms) but before long their voices are drowned out by the next. Someone who speaks with wisdom stands the test of time. Three of my favorite wise sages to read and reflect on for ministry: Eugene Peterson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Parker Palmer.
  4. In faith formation, the local and particular trumps large, one-size-fits-all events. Since coming to Hope, we have never gone to a youth event with more than 300 people. On a rare occasion we will go on a retreat with a couple hundred other youth from the area, and even then I sometimes wonder about the effectiveness. More regularly, we have our own retreats planned and executed in-house. I can make sure the material fits into a comprehensive plan, I can make sure that my kids are interacting (instead of staring at a stage), and I can tailor each specific event to my kids. I haven’t seen any ill-effects from not attending huge stadium-style events and so I’ll probably continue to do without them.
  5. Good teaching comes from depth, not gimmicks. I have been told by different youth over the years that I am a “good teacher.” I seldom use curriculum and more times than not my “lesson” gets thrown out the window as the discussion develops around the topic or passage at hand. One unforeseen question can move things off track for the rest of the session. In order to mold a lesson on-the-fly, there has to be a deep well to draw from. I need to know scripture well, to be grounded theologically, ethically, and pastoral-ly in order to bob and weave through where God is leading us as we are studying the scriptures.
  6. I have to teach cyclically. I am just now beginning to really catch on that as new people join the youth ministry, usually as they get older, that I need to go back and re-lay some foundational teaching that I have covered in the past. My mind naturally keeps wanting to build on what I’ve done before, but as seniors graduate and new kids come in, I have to start over again.
  7. I have to read. This is a personal observation that helps me gauge my level of creativity, initiative, and depth. When I am not reading something, my whole ministry seems to suffer. There is something that is prodded within my mind and soul when I read that permeates everything I do. If I do not take time out to enter into learning and personal growth through reading I am almost certainly in a ministry “lull” within a few months.
  8. The dynamics of the youth ministry are constantly changing. As certain fads wear out, technology moves forward, and the actual students in the youth ministry change, the dynamics are always in flux. Certain things that worked with one group may not work with another. Just about every summer I have to rethink what the next year will look like given the teens that are in my midst.
  9. Denominations are dying. I have never been a part of a church that was a member in a large denomination until I came to Hope. I have learned much about denominations, especially the ELCA since I have been here, but it is obvious that denominations are dying. The world has changed, and future generations will not be nurtured in faith through massive bureaucracies.
  10. I’m a thinker, not a doer. I like to analyze, hypothesize, and dream, but I’m not so good at implementation. I need to work on this.

Here’s to many more years of learning.

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In 2005 Matt was on his internship as a youth ministry major at John Brown University when he read Soul Searching. That book, combined with some serious theological grappling that had been going on the previous 2 years, convicted him to do anything I could to buck the status quo of youth ministry. Matt believes our teens are too important to us to keep letting them down. So, he graduated from JBU in 2006 and have been in full-time ministry at Hope Lutheran Church. In 2008 he started working (slowly) on a M.A. in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary.