Youth Ministry + Jesus – Fun = Biblical?

Josh Cousineau published a post on the Gospel Coalition website this morning entitled “The Only Foundation for Youth Ministry” that’s getting some traction.  That’s a good thing.  I thought it was a pretty strong article.  BUT, reading the comments on these type of posts can be frustrating.  I even linked it up on my Facebook and had a good back-and-forth with one of my biggest youth ministry mentors over whether or not it was actually a good article or not.

So if you haven’t read it, use the link above and read it first, then continue reading…

Be Consistent in Critiques
I usually can’t stand these types of articles because I believe they take cheap shots against Youth Ministry that they don’t take against other areas of church-ministry.  What pitfall within the field of YM is not found elsewhere in the church: an over-reliance on “relevance”, replacing biblical teaching/preaching with good moralistic advice, or an unhealthy desire to draw a large crowd through fun/events/flashiness?  Isn’t that something that every church wrestles through?  If your pastor/church doesn’t wrestle with those things, then maybe they aren’t passionate about seeing God’s Word transform real people’s lives?  (yes, I really mean that… but that’s a subject for another post)

Maybe it’s just because I am a youth pastor, but it seems that whenever Youth Ministry is brought up on sites like The Gospel Coalition or Desiring God or other similar sites (both of which I read very regularly and highly respect, which is probably why it’s so frustrating to me) it seems there’s very little recognition that maybe… just maybe… Youth Ministry isn’t all about fun.  Youth Ministry is just as diverse as church-ministry, yet it often gets a very unfair stereotype.  If there’s a pizza party, Maybe there’s a reason for it that is good and healthy and redemptive?  It seems to me that Youth Ministry gets graded with a different scorecard than other ministries in the church, and I’m tired of it.  Honestly, I wrestle over whether or not I should even read the posts about Youth Ministry on those sites anymore because I find them so cartoonish and unfair.

Who Intentionally Builds on Fun?!
So here’s the thing – Again, I liked the article mentioned above, and I agree that this critique of fun-centered youth ministry greatly distorts biblical ministry.  At the same time, my youth leaders and I hosted an event for the teens in my church last week that we called “The Night of Awesomeness, part deux.”  It was fun (awesome, even… though obviously in the non-theological sense).  Teenagers came whom we haven’t seen in quite a while, and a number of students brought friends for the first time.  One of the friends sought me out at the end to shake my hand to thank me for letting him come.  Is that a terrible, unbiblical thing?  Do you really think he expect to come to youth group next week and have it be the same as something we’re obviously tongue-in-cheek calling “The Night of Awesomeness?”  I could imagine someone reading this article and thinking about the “Night of Awesomeness” and thinking, “Wow, I wish Pastor Mike would read this article, his ministry is all about the fun and needs more Jesus!”

Yes, there are youth ministries who seem to build what they do on a foundation of fun – but I absolutely guarantee you they don’t see it that way.  I bet they would have well thought out biblical and theological reasons for doing things that way.  I have never met another youth worker who isn’t passionate about seeing teenagers develop into spiritually mature young men and women.

We’re Always Contextualizing
Tim Keller insightfully writes, “to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”

We’re always contextualizing (presenting our message in a way that is both understandable and meaningful to our audience).  If we aren’t contextualizing, then we’re reading straight from the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic original languages of the Bible… if you’re using the King James Version, you’re still contextualizing.  We are always contextualizing.

We Don’t Live in Foundations, We Live in Homes Build on Solid Foundations
The gold in Cousineau’s article is this – We need constant reminders that our foundation is Jesus Christ.  The problem with foundations is that they crack when they’re weak and unmaintained.  If your ministry isn’t firmly built on the Gospel and if your commitment to the Gospel begins to be underemphasized as you contextualize, then that foundation is in danger of being replaced by something else.  THAT’S why I posted it on Facebook for my other Youth Ministry friends to read – as a reminder to maintain our foundations.

Jesus Christ is your foundation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build walls and a roof, paint the walls, buy some furniture (perhaps even some couches and a pool table!).  We don’t live in foundations, we live in homes build on solid foundations.  The foundation shapes what the home looks like and imposes limits and boundaries on what kind of house can be safely built on it.  But foundations also allow great freedom for the home-owners to paint and decorate and entertain.

Fellow Youth Ministers – be encouraged!  We are doing an important work, let us not grow weary or discouraged.  Keep your hand on the plow, investing in students for the sake of the Gospel.  Be faithful to the foundation of Jesus Christ, being careful to neither over-contextualize nor under-contextualize.

Concerned Church Members – pray for youth youth pastor and the team of youth workers in your church.  Bless them, encourage them, invest in them.  Buy your youth pastor breakfast and ask questions in order to understand (not in order to rebut and convince them that they’re unbiblical and shallow).  Finally, remember that you’re called to youth ministry too, even if you’re not a parent – learn the names of a few students in your church and begin praying faithfully for them.

Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again) & Ministry to Parents

Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again) by Wayne Rice is one of the best Youth Ministry books I’ve read in years.  Rice has been credited as the “co-founder” of American Youth Ministry (along with Mike Yaconelli), so he certainly has the experience, wisdom, and credibility to provide such a critique of modern-day Youth Ministry.  Not only was did the book provide many behind-the-scenes looks at the history of Youth Specialties, but it raised many good and hard questions that every youth worker should be asking.  Despite being a fairly slow reader, even I read it in only three days – I just couldn’t put it down and kept picking it up whenever I had an extra 15 minutes.

It seems like one of the most “trendy” topics today in youth ministry is ministry to parents, and yet, it doesn’t really seem like anyone knows how to actually do it effectively.  I’ve read a fair number of books lately on churches (youth ministries in particular) and parents partnering together, and I think this book makes one of the best and most persuasive cases for how important it is for youth ministries to be partnering with parents.

Just yesterday on the Youth Ministry 360 Blog, Andy Blanks asks a great question (which has prompted this book review).  Here’s his question:

As youth workers, should the burden fall on us to train and equip our students’ parents to lead them in discipleship?

I think Rice’s book addresses this from a number of perspectives.  Ultimately, I’m convinced that the church ought to be equipping parents to disciple their children/teens.  Unfortunately, too often discipleship is often a litany of unstructured Bible-Studies which focus simply on the adults and rarely make the jump to help parents be equipped to teach and discuss such important truths with their children.  Therefore, many youth workers feel that if they don’t equip parents to disciple their teens, who will?

Here are a number of my favorite quotations from Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again):

“I have all the respect in the world for youth workers in the church, but I’ve become more and more convinced over the years that God never gave to youth workers the responsibility for making disciples of other people’s kids.” (p.24)

“It’s not youth ministry’s fault that we’re losing so many kids. …While youth ministry may serve as a convenient scape-goat, it is not the culprit here.” (p.11)

“That our youth are not getting the message is not necessarily because they haven’t heard it or aren’t being taught it.  But perhaps we’re sending other messages to teenagers that are just coming across a lot louder and clearer than the message we want them to hear.  The wholesale conversion of our teenager to a religion like MTD may be nothing more than the unintended result of a systematic weakness in how we pass faith on to the next generation.” (p. 67)

“The mistake we made in the past wasn’t so much the kind of programs we ran but in our reliance on them to keep kids coming to our youth groups.  Programs may keep kids coming, but they won’t keep them connected.  Truth is, they may even be counter-productive.” (p.101)

“I believe that the primary role of the youth pastor today should be focused more on equipping adults rather than teenagers.  If we truly want better long-term results and a youth ministry that won’t collapse when we leave, we must learn to work with adults – especially parents.” (p.124)

“I know that senior pastors usually have their plates full, but the vision and mission for youth ministry in a local church must come from the top.” (p.149)

“The church and the family are two of the most powerful and important institutions on the earth, both of them ordained by God to preserve and pass on the faith to each generation.  If we can get them working together in harmony, kids are not only going to be more likely to adopt the faith of their parents but hang onto it long after they leave home.” (p.170)

“Many churches, in their efforts to be relevant and responsive to the needs of young adults have marginalized and abandoned their old folks. … What bothers me is that the young people of the church are missing out on the incredible vitality and wisdom and spiritual strength of people like my aunt Mabel and other members of her generation who are no longer considered an important part of the church.” (p.181-2)

I know that’s a lot, but it provides a great snapshot to tell you why the whole book is worth the $12 and the time you’ll invest in reading it.  Rice’s reflections on the past four decades of youth ministry and the questions he asks about its future are significant for both youth workers, parents, and all church-leaders to consider.  Seriously, just read the book, you’ll be glad you did.

5 Ways to Gain Your Church’s Respect as a Youth Pastor

I wrote a post the other day entitled “I’m not ‘Just’ a Youth Pastor” that’s really gotten my brain cranking about the difference between youth pastors who are respected as pastors and those who are viewed as a wannabe-pastor.  There are a few things I do at my church because I view myself as a real pastor, and I want my congregation to see me that way too.

  1. Be confident in your calling as a pastor.  You wouldn’t be where you are without God’s calling. He has saved you, adopted you, and chosen you to lead and shepherd his Church – let that blow your mind on a regular basis!  Refuse to view yourself as others view you, be confident because of God’s calling on you and let that be the defining core of who you are.
  2. When you get the chance to preach on Sunday mornings (or if you have a “big church” service), teach on something other than the importance of youth ministry.  Be a part of the preaching rotation, fit into the preaching series set by the Senior Pastor.  I realize this may not be an option for everyone, but ask if you could have the opportunity.  If you’re frustrated that your Senior Pastor’s (or whoever usually preaches) sermons aren’t applicable or understandable to teenagers, then preach in such a way that  applies to both adults and teenagers.  If you spend all your time before the congregation talking about teenagers and youth ministry, they will obviously think that’s all you know how to talk about… show them that’s not true.  (For those of you in big churches, this is probably more difficult and complicated.  I’d love to hear from you how you’d put this into practice!  Please leave a comment below.)
  3. Spend time with parents, church leaders, and other adults on Sunday mornings.  If your church is like mine, there’s some “fellowship time” on Sunday mornings in between services.  Don’t always spend that time with the teenagers, you probably (hopefully!) see them other times throughout the week.  Spend time casually talking with parents, leaders in the church, congregation members who you know are fighting some kind of sickness or other hardship.  Building relationships with people in your church who are not teenagers should be a no brainer – if you really view yourself as one of the pastors in the church, then you need to know the people in your church (not just the teenagers).
  4. Be equipped through education and ordination.  I know there’s a huge group of people within the youth ministry world who look down on seminary (as if they’re the first ones to call is “cemetery”), but I am so personally thankful for the grounding that seminary has given me.  My ministry is stronger because of it… and so is my faith!  Ordination isn’t a must, obviously, but if you really consider yourself a “real pastor,” I don’t see why it wouldn’t be something you would prayerfully consider.  The credentials you gain through education and ordination really do help elevate how people perceive you and your ministry.  Credentials shouldn’t be your motivating cause behind these pursuits, but they’re great benefits!
  5. Don’t be a clown.  This one should be obvious, but this is something I honestly struggle with.  Although I’m something of a theology nerd, I often find myself using humor or sarcasm in order to deflect people from really getting to know me on a personal level.  The result is that I occasionally leave conversations thinking, “I shouldn’t have made that joke or poked fun of myself like that.  I didn’t communicate to them that I’m taking them seriously or that I’m taking myself seriously.”  I don’t want to take myself too seriously, but if I don’t know the appropriate time to be serious then parents and other adults (and students too!) won’t feel that we are approachable over serious issues they want to discuss.  No one wants to go to a clown to talk about hard life-issues with.

Obviously, I’m not perfect at doing all these.  I’ve come up with this list over the last two days as I’ve reflected on what I attempt to do at my church.  I would really love to hear from others how they live and work in order to elevate “Youth Pastor” to mean “Real Pastor.”  Let’s hear your wisdom…

I’m Not “Just” a Youth Pastor

About a year ago my job description changed, along with my title.  Since then I’ve heard a few people tell me that I’m not “just a Youth Pastor” anymore, now I’m an Associate Pastor.  While I’m confident their intentions are good and they’re trying to affirm me – those comments are actually insulting and belittling.  Sure, now I’m the “Pastor of Youth & Families”… but let’s face it, I’m the Youth Pastor.  If you ask me what my job is, that’s what I’ll say unless I’m being formal.

Whenever you add the word “just” before something else, you’re belittling whatever comes next.  “I’m just a kid,” “I was just kidding,” “I’m just a volunteer,” etc.  This is also why I hate the line “…just the sheep of his hand” in the popular worship song, “Come Let us Worship and Bow Down.”  Using the word “just” will automatically devalue whatever follows.

So when you say I’m not “Just a Youth Pastor anymore,” what I hear you saying is this – “Youth Pastors aren’t real pastors who are called by God, qualified, and worthy of respect.  But you’re not like that, now you’re a real pastor!  Congratulations, you’ve made it!”

Through changing my job title/description, I wasn’t trying to avoid being the Youth Pastor (especially since that was never my actual job title), I was trying to elevate what it means to be a Youth Pastor to the level of respect it is due.  Please, do not ask Youth Pastors when they’re going to become “real pastors” – unless you’re trying to tell them they aren’t real pastors already.

I’m proud of being a Youth Pastor, and know other Youth Pastors are too.  Sometimes people wonder why there’s so much turnover among Youth Pastors and wonder what can be done to change that disappointing trend – maybe removing the word (or thought!) of “Just a Youth Pastor” from our church language would be a good starting point.

Don’t Be Original (be faithful)

As a pastor, it’s so tempting to feel the need to say something new and brilliantly insightful.  As a youth pastor, it’s easy to feel the need to be edgy and “current.”  I want to teach people something new, I want people to be moved by what they hear, I want God’s Word to resonate.  And yet, I want to be faithful more than I want to be original.

Since my Senior Pastor is on Sabbatical, I’ve been given the opportunity to preach more frequently (which I love, although it always makes for a chaotic week).  While working on the sermon tonight (with the Youth Group lessons in the back of my mind) I’ve been wrestling with the pull towards needing to be original… but I don’t really want to be original.  I want to be faithful – faithful to God who inspired Scripture, faithful to who I am (rather than trying to be someone who I’m not), and faithful to my church.

While in college I remember one of my youth ministry professors saying, “There’s no such thing as an original sermon.”  If I ever do preach an original sermon, it’ll probably be heretical and unbiblical, so I personally try to avoid saying something that’s never been said before.  If I can’t find some “exegetical insight” referenced anywhere credible, then I should really think long and hard before sharing it with others (unless I really think I’m smarter than all the Bible scholars who somehow haven’t noticed what my brilliant mind has seen).

It’s all been said before, and probably better and more creatively than I will say it.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saying again… because if people are like me then they need to be reminded of what they already know!  Besides, hopefully there are some people in my youth group and in church who are either seekers or new believers who still need to hear it for the first time.

Don’t grow bored with God’s Word – if you ever feel the pull towards being original when it comes to teaching Scripture, maybe it’s time to take a second and ask yourself how much you really understand what you’re considering old, boring, and stale (even if you wouldn’t put it that way).

Of course, this isn’t license to be boring or lazy and give God the “credit” for your bad teaching.  But hopefully this is a helpful reminder to someone other than me.

Am I alone in feeling this pulling to be original?  I highly doubt it, but I’d love to hear from others out there who might find this post… how to do experience this pull and combat it?

Why I Try to Resist Ministry Bandwagons

I’m not the stereotypical trendy youth pastor (honestly, I don’t know many who fit the stereotype).  I don’t live on the cutting edge of innovation.  But I do have an iPhone, a Macbook, I blog, and I just recently got black-rimmed glasses.  I generally tend to adopt things that are new once they aren’t really “new” anymore and have proven their worth, otherwise I fear that I’d be wasting my time in order to be a pioneer of something that’s gone and over before you know it.

My point in telling you this is simply to say that I don’t fear change and adopting something once I’m confident that it’s actually helpful and productive for more than a fleeting moment.  For example, I still haven’t gotten on Twitter since I don’t see many teenagers tweeting.  It might take a few months or it might take me a few years to be convinced of something’s worth.  It doesn’t take too long to be in ministry to realize that there are a number of “Ministry Bandwagons” that you could hop on: Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry, Postmodern Youth Ministry, Contemplative Youth Ministry, Emergent Youth Ministry, Family-Based Youth Ministry, Traditional Youth Ministry, etc. etc. etc.

A lot of these different ministry paradigms have something to offer (some more than others), but you can’t possibly do them all.  So which is it?  How many times have we known someone who’s gone to a conference, come back, and then worked to completely overhaul his/her entire ministry?

A few years back I attended a seminar where Alistair Begg was asked about how he addresses cultural “hotspots.”  I loved his response.  He basically said, “There’s always some circus going through town, but it’ll go away soon enough and then another one will come.  I simply preach the Gospel, so when the circus has left town the Gospel is still present.”  I loved that response, and I agree with him.  That doesn’t mean that we ignore that there’s a circus, but it means that our ministry remained centered upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

His example was that he never preached directly against the DaVinci Code while it was everywhere.  He simply kept on preaching the Gospel and when Scripture addressed something to do with the DaVinci Code then he’d point it out so people were aware of it, and then he’d move on.  And then the DaVinci Code moved on.  He didn’t have a church-wide initiative to have all the Small Groups study all the faults and heresies in the DaVinci Code, he kept them focused on studying Scripture.

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s lectures on preaching he taught that preachers must not try to make the Gospel relevant, but instead, they must work to testify to its relevance.  The Word of God makes itself relevant to our world when it is rightly understood and proclaimed.  This has made all the difference for me in my ministry.

None of us who are in ministry want to live on the bandwagon, hopping from one thing to the next to the next.  We want to be culturally relevant, but we must strive to do so because the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation… even today in the midst of whatever cultural hotspots may flare up.

There are lots of great youth ministry books and resources available, and we should learn as much as we can from them.  But please, don’t hop on ministry bandwagons.  Don’t try to be someone else and copy someone else’s ministry.  Be the pastor or youth pastor that God has called you to be.   

In order to keep myself from being misunderstood, let me give a few examples of what I DON’T mean:

  • DON’T ignore application.  The Gospel changes lives.  It isn’t simply an idea or concept to be learned.  It is the power of God for salvation.  God changes lives.
  • DON’T ignore culture.  Media has enormous power over people today and it’s constantly speaking into their lives.  If we are not teaching people to discern the truth from lies then we’re simply neglecting our spiritual responsibility.  We must be in the business of helping people see the power of the Gospel to redeem culture.
  • DON’T ignore the needs of your people in particular.  Don’t ignore people’s heart-cries.  If someone’s mourning, comfort them.  If someone’s sick, give them hope.

College Transitions are Tough for Youth Pastors too…

I recently celebrated my sixth year as a youth pastor, all at the same church.  What that also means is this year’s graduating class were just entering Junior High when I started – that makes them the first class I’ve “cycled” through.  Obviously, graduation is tough every year and I feel a sense of loss whenever students graduate, go off to college… but this year is especially hard because these students have been my Guinea Pigs for six years.  They’ve seen my best and my worst (including my first youth group ever when I decided to try teaching them a song in Hebrew.  I haven’t tried that one again!).  They’ve made me want to quit and made me vow that I would never ever ever leave because I couldn’t imagine leading a different youth group.  But now I’m looking at the roster this year, and their names aren’t on it.

In some ways, I feel a hint of what parents probably feel upon graduation (just a hint of it!): “Did I do enough to get them ready for college?” “Did I teach them everything they need to know?” “Do they really know how much I love them?”  I’m not a very emotional guy and I don’t get teary very easily, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this is an emotional transition for me.  It’s tough to imagine youth group without them, and that’s not anything against former graduating classes or against the students who I still have in youth group this year.  It’s just weird… I’ve never had youth group without these students and I’m going to miss them.

In many ways, when I look at these young men and women I see my strengths and weaknesses in them.  The old saying “More is caught than taught” is all too true.

Students, if you take the time to read this, I hope you always remember the impact you have made in our youth ministry.  I’m sincerely sorry for the times I’ve let you down, but I hope you remember Crosswalk: Walking towards the Cross is the only way to truly navigate through life without getting “run over.”  Sure, you’ll get run over and face trials of many kinds, maybe even persecution (if you never face persecution then that should be a warning flag for you), but walking towards the cross of Christ is truly the only way to eternal life.  Remember “I’m Third” (Jesus, Others, You).  Remember the Church is your spiritual home, whether it’s EBC or another Bible-teaching Christ-centered church, this is where you belong.

Parents, you can trust Christ with your kids even despite the statistics we’ve all heard about college killing students’ faith.  God really is in control, even over atheistic anti-Christian professors.  Pray for your kids daily and make sure they know you are praying for them (but don’t tell them that you’re praying for them in a preachy, nagging way).  Love them, even when they get worse grades than they’re capable of or make terrible personal decisions… love them unconditionally with Christ’s redeeming love and give them grace.  Finally, know that just because your kids aren’t in youth group anymore that doesn’t mean I’ve written them off my prayer list and that I don’t want to help them and help you anymore.

Here are P.Mike’s Final Tips for College:

  1. Find a Christian Group on campus ASAP.  Don’t put it off, because if you wait too long and then visit you’ll probably feel like you’re an outsider and won’t go back.  Make seeking out relationships with other Christians one of your top priorities in your first week on campus.  Find out if there’s a Navigators or Campus Crusade group, or if one of the local churches has a strong college ministry for you to plug into.  Along with this, FIND A CHURCH and GO on Sunday mornings.  Everyone else is going to want to sleep in on Sundays, I get it, but wake up and go worship the Lord and get to know some of the older folk in the church who can invest themselves in you during your college years, you won’t regret it!
  2. Practice the Spiritual Disciplines!  If you aren’t reading your Bible and spending quality time in prayer then your faith will grow weak… that’s just how it works.  Martin Luther was once asked how he had enough time in his busy schedule to devote to prayer and he replied, “I’m too busy NOT to pray!”  You might want to think about keeping a journal (guys, it’s not a diary, don’t worry), it’s a great discipline that really helped me while in college.
  3. Seek out connections between what you’re studying and your faith.  Don’t disconnect what you’re learning in class and what you read in Scripture.  Ask hard questions.  Seek tough questions.  Don’t be afraid of paradoxes.  If something is true, it’s true because God made it that way.  What you learn could point to Christ, or demonstrate what happens without Christ, or could be a “mirror” reflecting Christ in a metaphorical way.
  4. Love God with your mind.  Don’t be lazy.  I’m a natural procrastinator, I think you all know that by now, so this one’s tough for me.  Don’t put off your studies, because if you do then they’ll pile up and it will be VERY difficult to catch up.  God gave you your brain so you could use it and discover wonderful things about his good Creation.
  5. Spend extra time in prayer when studying for exams.  I know this sounds weird because you’ll feel like you should cram, but this is also a good check-and-balance to make sure you give yourself enough time to study.  Don’t put off studying until the night before.  When your brain gets tired, take fifteen minutes to read some Scripture and take a walk outside meditating on God’s Word.
  6. Choose your friends carefully.  I know, I know, this is what everyone says.  Just remember your Vital Signs: Healthy Friendships build you up, Unhealthy ones tear you down.  Build up and be built up.
  7. Remember Christians don’t fall from grace, they fall into it.  You’re going to make some mistakes.  That’s not permission, it’s just a reality.  Remember that the Christian is a tension of: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1) and “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. …Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21, 24-25).  Seek faithfulness to Christ as much as you seek your next breath of air, but if you fall miserably on your face, do not believe the devils lies that you aren’t worth God’s grace and that you’ve always just been a big phony.  Fall into grace, not from it. 
  8. Don’t become a stranger.  Come visit us back home.  Let me know how I can be praying for you.  Send me a message telling me when you’re coming home, I’d love to buy you lunch or coffee and hear all about college.  I’m very proud of you and would LOVE the opportunity to reconnect with you.