This is the third part, of a multi-part writing series, walking through Andy Root’s new books on youth ministry.
“In the last four decades youth ministry has become something. It has become a common operation for many congregations (most local churches have or wish to have youth ministries), it has become a profession (with degrees, certificates, and manuals), it has become a market (with events, products, and outings), and it has become a field of academic study.”
If you don’t have Andy’s new books yet, head over to Amazon and pick them up, now.
It’s been interesting reading these books on the way out of a youth ministry setting. One of the things Taking Theology to Youth Ministry has served to do as serve as a bit of critical reflection over my last three years at my first youth ministry job. In particular, chapter two of Andy’s book asks the question, “what’s it all about?”
As Andy makes clear, often our intentions and purpose are assumed to be the same, which tends to, secretly, have selfish motives beneath the surface. At one time or another, in the last three years, I can attest to the feeling that Andy writes about: “my motivation might be to see the kids I work with showing outward indications that their faith is growing, because that will prove my ministry is a success.”
But, and it’s a big butt, growing faith, keeping kids good, whatever, they all often go unexamined in our lives. This isthe challenge then for us, as youth workers, is to eengage in real theology for youth ministry, theology that threatens our very self and our motives “in light of God’s judgment and grace.”
What I want to focus on here is that too often our theological endeavor in youth ministry is far too shallow, operating not on God’s terms of judgment and grace, but in service to our own needs and motivations, of which, as Andy points out, three major ones seem to exist: keeping kids good, involving kids in service, and passing on the tradition.
Keeping kids good continues to be a major, under the surface motive for many of our ministries. We are told that we “have the best kids” in the community, or that “they are such outstanding teens” by which we mean they succeed in school, athletics, and extracurriculars, by living an upstanding, moral, civic life, that is supported by the conservative (I mean conservative in the “conserving” sense) values of their church. In fact, what this says to kids, is that God’s presence is only found where there is no lying, cheating, stealing, drinking, smoking, or having sex.
This, pardon my french, is complete satanic bullshit.
How can we expect teenagers to confront their crap if they can’t come to engage with and see a real God, who acts in their lives, regardless of their behavior and disposition to that God.
As a Lutheran, we tend to talk about this in terms of law and gospel, which for me, is to say, that our kids don’t need anymore law from a world that is constantly telling them how they fall short. This is the message that our young girls and boys hear from advertising, TV, movies, porn, and most importantly, their peers. These kids need a big friggin’ dose of gospel, that says, while you were yet falling short, God called you a beloved child, as you are, because of Jesus.
And, from my deep relationships with non-Lutherans, to engage in discipleship and theology is not to acknowledge how we always fall short, but to look for God’s activity in real life, precisely in the places that we think most revolt us and God (like the cross and teenagers).
But instead of gospel, often we offer them two other options: service and tradition.
For most, the reaction to this constant bombardment of inadequacy for teenagers is to show them that “they don’t have it that bad.” We want “them to serve instead of being served.”
Friends, I hate to tell you this, but that’s what National Honor Society is for.
I can’t tell you how many times the teenagers are asked to serve on their own, without any intergenerational partnership, because “it would be good for them.” And, as Andy writes, “Jesus himself was not motivated by service in general, but only be following his father.”
The problem with service as the core of youth ministry is that it doesn’t ground the experience of God for teenagers in their actual humanity. It again tells our kids that they are inadequate, that God cannot be found amongst them, for whatever reason, and that they must go somewhere else to experience God. Instead of God being present wherever two or more are gathered, we must serve to experience God.
While neither keeping kids good or service are inherently bad, they fall short of grounding theology in the midst of our teenagers, proclaiming law, instead of Gospel.
Unfortunately, many traditions, including my own, have turned to confirmation for a solution, trying to pass on the element of our faith tradition to our seventh, eight, and ninth grade kids, even though most of them have neither the relationship or the basic experience of God to grasp these complex traditions.
What I have found, is that most, though not all, of my teens weren’t able to grasp concepts like grace, a theology of the Cross, or discipleship until one of two things happened: they had a major encounter with God, ala Paul, or, they had some major suffering and began to bear some sort of Cross in their life. The problem is, that for most, there is no articulation of relationship with God in their family life, or for that matter, in their pre-confirmation education in Church. It’s all either fun, games, crafts, or fluffy bible stories.
I suspect that encountering God at the foot of the cross, and wrestling with that experience, is necessary before being able to grasp onto any particular sort of articulation of that experience. Not the other way around.
So if it’s not keeping kids good, giving them service hours, or confirming them into a particular tradition, then what is youth ministry for? The answer, as Andy titles chapter three, is most certainly, participation, reflection, and wrestling in God’s action.