I’m not a youth minister. I never have been. I do have four sons who’ve been part of youth ministries under several different ministers. But many readers have been or are youth ministers. Therefore, I write this knowing that in this crowd, I’m not an expert on this subject. And so, I’ll spread the posts over a few days, so I can modify my ideas (and not embarrass myself too much) as the discussion progresses.
These posts are built on the theology in the “Cruciform God” series, these posts in particular —
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and it kind of came together for me all at once during the sermon last Sunday. Or maybe during the song service. I’m not sure. But it just kind of clicked.
But the question goes back several years. It all started when a youth minister from a nearby town told our campus minister that 21 of his students would be coming to the University of Alabama and attending our church and our campus ministry. And not a one showed up. They all made it to UA just fine. They just didn’t make it to church.
Now, these were kids who’d grown up in church, been active in a premier youth ministry, and were expected to be part of a church during college. And not a one made it to our church or campus ministry.
What went wrong? Why did all these kids leave the church before they even set foot on campus? Maybe forever? Why didn’t the six years of youth ministry — done well — not prepare them to be active members of a congregation after they left?
It’s an important question. But what really got me to thinking was the kids who did come. Most of them were from small churches with no youth ministry. Indeed, our campus minister (not our current campus minister) told me he’d far rather work with kids from small churches with no youth minister than from a large program with one or two youth ministers! He said the kids from churches with no youth ministry were more committed, more willing to volunteer, and less … spoiled.
Ponder that one for a while! Some of these kids came from youth ministry programs with salary and budgets of over $100,000 per year — all to make their children less committed. Plainly, something is seriously wrong with how we’ve been doing youth ministry.
And so I’ve been reading, praying, studying, and talking about this for the last few years, and I’ve largely gotten the “La, la, la … I can’t hear your!” response.
In the mean time, I’ve heard lots of great ideas about how to do youth ministry —
* It’s all about relationships!
* We need the parents involved!
* We need young adult volunteers!
* We need more involvement in service projects!
All good. None greatly different from what we’ve been doing for years.
Years ago I read this from Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (required reading), about a group of leaders in a youth ministry discussing how to prepare the kids for confirmation in a Methodist church. The group concluded,
Then someone, an ordinary Christian, said, “What we really want out of Confirmation is about a dozen youth who, in their adult lives, come to resemble John Black.” She had named one of the “saints” of our congregation, an ordinary person who had lived his life in an extraordinarily Christian way. (p. 104)
And so they established a mentorship program. A good idea. The authors had earlier explained —
Learning to be moral is much like learning to speak a language. You do not teach someone a language … by first teaching them the rules of grammar. The way most of us learn to speak a language is by listening to others speak and then imitating them. Most of the time we act as if morality is a matter of rules to be learned. We seem to think that after we have learned all the right rules (Think for yourself. First be sure you’re right, then go ahead. Let your conscience be your guide. Abortion is wrong. Love your neighbor), we can act morally.
No. You learn to speak by being initiated into a community of language, by observing your elders, by imitating them. The rules of grammar come later, if at all, as a way of enabling you to nourish and sustain the art of speaking well. Ethics, as an academic discipline, is simply the task of assembling reminders that enable us to remember how to speak and to live the language of the gospel. Ethics can never take the place of the community any more than rules of grammar can replace the act of speaking the language. Ethics is always a secondary enterprise and is parasitic to the way people live in a community.
So the church can do nothing more “ethical” than expose us to significant examples of Christian living. In fact, our ethical reflection, at its best, is nothing more than reflection on significant examples. (p. 97)
So learning to be “moral” or “like John Black” or just to go to church rather than getting drunk every weekend in college is about being included in the community of saints and learning a way to think and to be that’s different from how the world thinks and is. Powerful stuff.
But I think formal mentorship programs aren’t the way to go. They aren’t bad or wrong or anything. They can be very effective. They just aren’t really the same thing as being a part of a moral community, are they?
Now, at this point a question comes up that’s just begging to be asked: why isn’t the youth ministry program itself a moral community? Why didn’t the kids pick up good Christian values in their six years with ministers and volunteers? Why indeed?
My congregation has two very fine, young youth ministers, but I’ve been working with youth ministers since before my oldest was born, and he’s older than they are. And before my church hired our first youth minister, I was part of a team of young adults who led a youth ministry program. And we were really bad at it. For that matter, I grew up with a couple of part-time, summer youth ministers, way back when woolly mammoths roamed the earth.
I’ve been studying youth ministers and youth ministry for a long time, and many of our youth ministers have been good friends, and we’ve discussed theories and approaches many times searching for that something that was obviously missing but none of us could put a finger on. That thing.
My point is that nothing here is to be taken as a criticism of our present youth ministers or any for our former youth ministers in particular. This is about youth ministry in general and how it’s, in general, done.