Theory, Part 1 — Or why I cringe everytime I hear that our kids are building great relationships.
I have this theory. It goes like this. Sometimes we run youth ministry like a babysitting service with devos thrown in. And we sometimes make youth ministry downright narcissistic by running it entirely for the kids. Ponder that one for a while. If the kids spend six of their most formative years having ministry run for them, what are they not doing? Right. They aren’t doing ministry for others. If they are always the ones being served, then they can’t become servants.
And so we get parents involved and the parents pick up the pizza and serve the pizza and carry the kids hither and yon in minivans — showing great servant hearts. But the kids are never taught to be servants. After all, they’re kids. And while kids learn by example, it has to be explained for them, and they have to be taught to follow the example. Otherwise, being immature (only adolescents are allowed in a teen program!), they’ll respond immaturely — by feeling entitled to the services they receive.
When the 16-year old girl brings friends to the youth event, the parents and ministers and volunteers work hard to make it the perfect youth event for the girl and her friends — and don’t require the girl to actually be a servant. She’s a servee. Always.
When the teens go to Central America to paint houses for the locals, the youth ministers measure the success of the venture by what the kids learn and what great relationships they build with each other on the trip. Again, the measure is how well the kids have been served, not how well the Central Americans have been served — and this means a mission that looks like outreach is just inreach on a $2,000 per child per week budget.
Think carefully. When your teens or their ministers present the story of their short-term mission trip to the church, do they speak about what the kids learned and how much the kids benefited from the trip? Or do they speak about what good was done for those left behind in Central America?
If we sent a fulltime missionary to China and he came back talking about what he learned and the great relationships he built with his fellow missionaries, we’d fire him. Or we should. He should be about the mission — and the mission is about the people he went to serve. Missionaries go as servants, not to learn valuable life lessons. And because they go as servants, they build great relationships — not as the goal but as a joyous side effect — and the relationships aren’t only or even mainly with fellow missionaries. They build relationships with the people they minister to and with.
The result is that even when our kids stay home and paint houses for Jesus, we measure the program by what the kids learn and whether they invited friends and what relationships they built and whether the devo that night really touched their hearts — and not whether the mission of God to the people whose houses were being painted was actually accomplished.
So here’s the first principle. Missions that are about the teens produce self-centered teens, because what they learn is that they are the mission. I mean, when the parents and church pour huge resources into making sure the kids have friends, that certainly tells the kids that their own happiness is the heart and soul of the church.
Now, obviously, we all know kids who turned out great despite their teenage experiences or even because of their teenage experiences in church. Sometimes it’s great programs, or great parenting, or the power of the Holy Spirit and prayer overcoming the mistakes we all make. We don’t always fail. But we fail a lot. We fail too much.