Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Just The Essentials: Building a Minimalist Youth Ministry

A few months ago, I was able to attend the National Youth Workers' Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.  I was blessed by my time there but not in the way you might think.  Honestly, I skipped almost all of the "big room" sessions and spent very little time in the exhibit hall.  I didn't play the Christian version of rock band and I didn't sign up for one of those Christian CD clubs.  I spent most of my time in a a space that was tucked away in the bowels of the convention center that was centered on helping youth ministers learn to build more prayer-centered, contemplative ministries in their churches.

I attended seminars on lectio divina, body prayer, the stations of the cross, praying with art, creative reading of scripture, creative worship, etc. and I experienced some of the most intensely intimate and meaningful moments of personal prayer and worship that I have ever experienced.  In learning about these Christian practices, old and new, I began to wonder if most youth ministries simply didn't get it.

Looking around the exhibit hall and listening to most of the speakers, I got the feeling that - for most youth pastors - youth ministry is an exercise in creating a Christian alternative to almost every "secular" reality imaginable - from music to food, from video games to clothing.  Even more, I began to realize that the most common ways of doing youth ministry aren't really all that good at creating obedient disciples of Christ.

What's more, youth ministries (and churches) have a bad habit of trying to do way too many things at once. Combine all these factors and, most of the time, the end result of many (if not most) youth work is a program-laden pseudo ministry of little substance run by thoroughly burned out youth ministers and volunteers.

Over the past few years, I have had the unique opportunity to serve in many different church contexts in a variety of roles and my own youth ministry experience coupled with my feelings above have me toying with the idea of cultivating a "minimalist" outlook in youth ministry. In my experience, churches and ministries are most effective when they are able to do one or two things with real passion, care and effectiveness.

In my own ministry, this is fleshed out by the fact that the primary work of our youth ministry can be summarized as follows: eat, play, read and pray.

The only "program" that exists in our youth ministry is a Sunday night meeting in which we eat, play, read and pray together.  That's it.  Of course, there is preparation that goes into this meeting and, of course, we "mix it up" from time to time.  But, in the end, this is really what the regular youth ministry of our church looks like.  But in our local setting our goals are very, very simple: eat together, play together, and creatively read scripture and pray together.

I have yet to find another way of doing youth ministry that is more effective at helping young people to grow into disciples of Jesus Christ.  In many ways, I think so much of what passes for youth "ministry" in our American culture ends up simply making young people more busy than they would be if we weren't around.  What's more, I think that the way youth ministry is done in our culture places very little faith in God's ability to speak to young people through prayer and through the Scriptures.  In a very real way, youth ministry in our culture is quite "faith-less" because it assumes that personal and communal prayer and scripture reading isn't enough.  If I can get young people to spend a few hours each week engaging creatively in individual and communal reading of scripture and prayer then I feel like I'm doing what God has called me to do.

What about evangelism?  What about service?  What about social justice?  Of course we engage in these vital practices of the church - but only after we've eaten, played, read and prayed together.  Maybe I'm naive, but I really do believe that these activities are truly the church's best hope for creating disciples of Christ who not only know what it means to be a Christian but who are willing to follow Christ with their lives.

What do you think?  What's missing here?  I'd love to hear from you!

13 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree more or have said it better.

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  2. Good stuff Andrew, your instincts are superb. It's an old cliche' in youth ministry, but for all the sins of this hype-oriented niche it still holds true: it's all about the relationships. If you eat, play, read, and pray with teens you will infect their lives with your own character. That was always my experience, at least.

    My only gentle pushback is that I would encourage you to consider adding "serve" to that list for two reasons: 1) I have a superstitious prejudice toward sets of 5 (weird, I know), and 2) because mercy really is the heart of God, so, IMHO it can never be an "add-on" - doubly so in youth culture, which is so compulsively insular and myopic.

    Of course, you could just make "serve" the essential trajectory of each of those four activities. Every one of them could be done as an act of inclusive mercy among people in need...but, you get the idea.

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  3. Jason,

    Thanks for your comments. As I was finishing this post, I added the last couple of sentences about mission, evangelism and service - almost as an afterthought. I do think that service needs to be central but my thinking is that service should be the natural extension of obedient discipleship...make sense?

    Andrew

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  4. Very well said. This is exactly what I am trying to do with the youth program here at the Methodist Church where I work as well. Many people have difficulty accepting this philosophy because they are so used to the hyper-pseudo-youth ministry that has been popular for so long, and in which I grew up.

    I'm told that "kids won't want this" and I respond each time with, "kids desperately need this, whether they know it or not."

    Great stuff. And a great blog. I look forward to joining the conversation.

    LK

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  5. Lukas,

    Do you have a blog of your own? I clicked your name but it was a dead link...

    Andrew

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  6. I did, but I deleted it recently. I may start something again soon though with a different feel to it.

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  7. Andrew...

    Every time I read posts such as this one my heart is overjoyed. Is that an overly effusive statement to get another's approval? No.

    The church context in which I work is this: affluent, upper-middle class, well educated, white, suburbia. These kids are over-extended as it is: too much schoolwork, too many extra-curricular activities, and no 'space'. I would hazard a guess to say that this is because their parents don't understand what it means to have space.

    They are 'good' Christians, love God, and really 'do' much good service to our community. But the expectation is that there will be many things going on with the youth group for kids to be involved in.

    I'm glad that I'm not the only one who is pushing back against this and offering a more 'simplistic' youth ministry paradigm. Not that my students must all become contemplative theologians, just that they know that following Jesus is often not so much in the doing as in the being.

    Keep offering your wisdom. We are listening.

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  8. Graham,

    Do you have a blog of your own?

    Andrew

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  9. Andrew,

    I do, but haven't updated it in a long time. It's a personal/work/everything else blog. http://theunlikelypastor.wordpress.com another really old one is http://aloneinthought.blogspot.com if you want to know more how I think (but hasn't been posted to in years).

    for other thoughts you're free to follow @grahambuck

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  10. I love this thinking. Would you be interested in expanding these thoughts on minimalist youth ministry for an article for my subscribers at Wild Frontier? Check us out at www.wildfrontier.org. This is not a cheap plug but a serious request.

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  11. Breanda,

    Shoot me an e-mail @ tatum.andrew@gmail.com with some details about what you're thinking and with some more info about the site.

    Thanks! Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Andrew

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  12. Really enjoyed this article, and it came at a great time. We were in the midst of a proposal for a fancy new youth space (very Starbucks) in the basement of a house our church bought.
    The youth leaders got together to pray about it and felt very uncomfortable with this awesome space we had created.
    After the prayer we had a heartfelt discussion, and decided to move into the basement as-is. That means cement floor, bare sheetrock, no furniture, no decorations. We're going to meet there as a youth group to pray that the space will evolve into the perfect gathering place for our students and their friends. I am crazy-excited to see what comes of that.
    Anyway, a well timed post, thanks for sharing.

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