Nerd moment, I just love the hymn of promise. I know every word and also know that it is hymn #707 in the UM Hymnal. It is my go to for days when I have no idea what happens next.
This week a friend and respected colleague Charles Harrison posted a thought provoking (and I suspect overstated for the sake of starting conversation, which it did!) piece on the end of yotuh ministry. You can read that here, if you haven’t already.
I am going to be very very honest in this post, and hope I don’t overstep. If you are easily offended, you may not want to continue.
In this piece the progression from the “expert” youth worker to event planners in conference offices is touched on briefly, but I want to park here for a minute. I don’t think the people in the conference office SHOULD be youth workers. They should be people with a passion for people, gifts for support and supply, and energy and experience to provide programming and resources that the local church youth workers can’t do by themselves. Having worked both sides of this fence, I can tell you that as much as I love the opportunities my conference job provides, I would choose my local church job in a heart beat, if I were forced to choose. I had a good friend once who worked the Conference Youth Coordinator job in a conference known for chewing up and spitting our their CYCs (sound like any churches you know?). He expressed to the bishop one time that he was sad and unfulfilled, and missed local church youth work. The bishop’s response was “that is why I want you in this job, because you have a passion for local church youth ministry”. A kind response, to be sure, but misguided. Conference youth ministry is not a “promotion” over local churches. it is a different kind of calling, and one that needs a different skill set.
Back to the local church, which is the more important part of this conversation, I think the end of youth ministry as it is popularly understood has come and gone. The problem, however, is that no one but the youth workers know that. Numbers and activities don’t make a ministry, and we who work in these jobs are aware of that, but someone forgot to tell our congregations. It would seem that they still want a full calendar, a clean youth room, bright, sunny faces on Sunday morning that they can pat on the head, pray or write a check for, and send them on their merry way. And for the love of all that is holy, do not mess up the kitchen while you are doing that.
So, my question becomes not is this the end of youth ministry, but who the heck keeps trying to bring it back? have you seen the trailer for Frankenweenie? It is a Disney movie releasing this year about a boy who lost his dog. he gets the brilliant idea to bring it back, and the does…hilarity ensues. I submit to you that youth ministry is kind of like that dog. Adults who have lost the “fun” in their relationship with God, or lost their fire, do not want that for the next generation. And so they put their expectations and memories into resurrecting an experience that was great for them (so great that 20 years later they forgot their joy?) which they then want for the next generation. Just like the boy who could not let go of his dog after he was gone, people have trouble letting go of their memories of their teen years in church. The lesson that I hope the boy learns, and that we all learn, is that sometimes endings are necessary.
So, as my favorite hymn says, in our end is our beginning. By giving up on those expectations of our past, we are free to see what is next for age level ministries. We can’t ignore that they are necessary in many ways. However, they become destructive when they are used to keep people out, rather than enhanced by letting people in. Charles posed the question “what happened to the well trained christian educator who understood the developmental needs of toddlers through high school seniors?” I can tell you…it got more complicated.
Development from 6-12 grade is complicated. Add in college students (and the fact that we are not “formed” as adults until at least 25), and you can forget having time for children, and you will always be playing catch up because the approach is not holistic enough to meet the needs of people today. We need age level ministries that are connected by an intentionality that helps (not spoon feeds, but HELPS) people discover their place in God’s story, and then challenges them to live that out in the world.
Who is responsible for that? EVERYONE. It takes a church to raise a Christian. Youth pastors should not expect that the “drop off kid” whose parents rarely darken the door of your church will actually hold on to the things that light them up about God, during high school. A youth or child’s family is still the driving force behind identity formation. If we are not reaching families, we probably aren’t helping the kids do anything but stay out of trouble. Not that that is bad, but is that what you want to use as your measuring stick?
Reaching families is not about parent meetings, either. PLEASE stop giving parents more to do. Find out how the church can help them. How can you resource them to do their very best? How can the church serve them? How do we bring Christ to them, so that they know His love and peace and hope?
The answer to THAT is different in every context. Families look different in different contexts. you have two working parents with no time for their teens, or one working parent and one stay at home parent who has no time for themselves because their whole life is taking their kids everywhere. You have homes where one of both parents are laid off and they are working 2 or 3 odd jobs to keep a roof over their head. You have grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends caring for kids because their biological parents arent around..for many diferent reasons. You have children raising one another because there is no one else to do it. No matter what the situation, these are still families.
My suggestions (I had to get to it eventually):
1. Change your definition of family to reflect your community’s definition of family.
2. Look at your community and identify its actual demographics. The REAL ones, not your opinions. Our conference gives this to our local churches for free, see if yours does too.
3. Once you understand the demographics, discuss through the needs. What is needed to make this particular community’s lives better? How can we resource these families? How do we meet their needs, because in doing so we exemplify God’s love for them also.
4. Ask God what He is calling you to do in your community, for his people. Find your identity as a ministry and as a church. Not every church is supposed to look exactly the same. God loves variety. If He didn’t, would he have made a world with mountains, valleys, beaches, desserts, different trees, climates, etc…? I don’t think so. So why do we try to do what the church “over there” is already doing? Do something else.
In the death of youth ministry can (and should) come the resurrection of families. They look a lot different than they used to, that is for sure. But they are no less important and they need to be loved and protected.
In our end is our beginning;
in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing;
in our life, eternity.
in our death, a resurrection;
at the last, a victory,
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.