“The sweat fell from her forehead as Nadia heaved the last box from the cart into her new office. Sitting down to catch her breath, she wiped her brow and sighed deeply. [As] she looked up at the empty walls, she felt both anticipation and fear. “Can I really do this?” she audibly asked herself”
I must admit that reading theology-as-narrative is a bit different than the normal reader-response dance with a text, but in this format it works. In this first part, I am going to be looking at chapters one through three, since they serve as sort of an introduction to Andy’s thinking on youth ministry.
In Andy’s narrative, we are guided by the narrator, Nadia, a new twenty-something (like me) youth pastor who has been called to a typical suburban mainline Church (i.e. a little conservative, lack of theological heritage/identity). She, like the rest of us, has to deal with the expectations of fellow staff, weird relationships with pastoral colleagues, and the expectations of the centers of power within a congregation. As I was reading, I found myself sympathetic with her situation, mainly because I have shared many of her frustrations over the last few years. While I love the church I am at, it is no different than many places, where youth ministry can be both a place for fertile experimentation, and a place for people to attempt to express their antagonism and power within the church.
While she has, in this narrative, some strain in her relationship with colleagues (due to various reasons), I want to focus instead on the groups that Andy identifies within the life of the congregation, which I suspect are present for many of us: One camp who are nostalgic about their own youth ministry experience and desire a church that “is fun and appealing to our kids,” the other is focused on evangelism and outreach, a place where kids from the community will want to come (sort of like YoungLife).
I suspect that both camps, while Andy doesn’t say this explicitly, have something deeper, and far more flawed, as a motivation: nostalgia and envy.
For the first camp, they desire to see the youth group “big, like it was in my day.” This is driven by wanting to see the Church full, like it was in the 50’s. Here’s the problem, despite the size of the Church in the fifties, the fruits of that ministry have been borne, and what do they show? A lot of the same, mainly: muddy theological identity, church as primarily a social institution, and moralistic therapeutic deism. Yes, the Church was full, but it was filled with many people who are no longer in Church, or are in Church “because it’s the right thing to do.” Nostalgia is a nasty thing for the church, and particularly in youth ministry, because it lacks any awareness that youth ministry is one of the most critical places to evaluate where, and search for, God’s activity in the current cultural setting of adolescents.
I suspect that this is also the camp that sees the purpose of youth ministry to see their kids, their grandkids, and the kids of the church, to be “good.” By this, we mean no drugs, no sex, no curse words, and modestly dressed at all times. This too is driven by a nostalgia for the morality of a bygone era. Not only does this gloss over the moral failings of any generation, but it also conveys the impression that the Church is there for “good kids,” despite the narrative of God’s activity in Scripture with people who are nearly always the kids that don’t make it into the group.
I myself, as someone who curses with his adolescents, am most frustrated by this camp. Mainly because my experience as part of a messed up youth group with a messed up youth pastor (whom would admit this, and I love dearly and is my current spiritual director) who swore, with people who came from broken homes, used drugs, smoked liked chimneys, and yet kept hearing about God’s grace and activities in their lives was critical to my faith.
Whereas that camp is driven by nostalgia, the other camp, the one I have dealt with most in my current setting, is driven by envy. And before I write anything else, just let me acknowledge, that I understand the envy and in no way think of them any less for it. They look down the street at the Willow Creek-types and the Young Life types, and see their outreach and evangelism to the community, which leads to more numbers, as indicating success, relevance, and significance.
Unfortunately, this type of envy is modeled so often within our beloved churches that our adolescents learn it well and also react to it just as strongly. This is because envy is the prime driver behind consumerism and advertising, which this current generation is saturated with and skeptical of more than any other. Whenever we try to use a new model, start a new worship, or try a new style, it is usually driven by some base level of envy. Instead of looking for God’s presence and activity within our own midst, and in the midst of whatever ministry setting, we go search for it in the places that we envy and want to be like most.
This envy is incredibly destructive, because it fails to acknowledge the capacity of God to already be at work in the midst of our struggles, our dwindling numbers, and the impending deaths of many of our churches. It is also the prime driver behind families that church shop and adolescents that look for the ministries with the most shiny things.
Here’s the problem, and which Andy points out, is that Nadia is far more moved and interested by the young people themselves then the infrastructure and programs, which begs the question, “what’s the purpose of youth ministry?”
And here’s the kicker, I don’t think that youth workers are alone in searching for an answer for this question (an answer which we will address soon and is just as relevant to the Church-writ-big), because I think that in Churches, and in my current church, there is a small remnant that constitues a third group, that is on the search for God’s activity in our midst that we have been ignoring and dismissing for far too long.