Forty years ago next summer I will have been in youth ministry for 40 years. Those of you who have been doing youth ministry for four days, four weeks, four months, or four years must think of that as an eternity. You might wonder, “What was it like to minister to kids when they were dressed in animal hides, didn’t have electricity, and were marrying at the age of 14????” Come on now. It wasn’t that long ago. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is just how fast time flies. It’s been a blink, for sure. Your blink will convince you of the same thing. Just wait.
Over the course of these forty years there have been plenty of opportunities and victories. There have also been more than enough challenges and seeming defeats. I hope I’ve done some things right. What I remember and ponder the most, however (for better or for worse), are the mistakes I’ve made. . . words, perceptions, assumptions, conclusions, actions, etc. I also hope that I’ve learned from these usually-self-inflicted difficult providences. I also hope that what lies ahead or even exists now for me is a bit of the wisdom that comes, they say, with age and experience.
Wisdom, I believe, teaches us what to value and not value. What pursuits are worthy and what pursuits are to be avoided. It puts things in perspective. . . teaching me to live by the biblical narrative rather than by the ever-changing and never-reliable cultural narrative when that cultural narrative reflects the spirit of the times rather than the Spirit of God. That said, I realize that early on I wasted a pretty good amount of time and energy. I trust that there’s been a swing away from that as time has passed.
These things are on my mind this morning since I’ve listened again to our latest Youth Culture Matters podcast. On this one, Duffy Robbins (one of the wisest men I know) co-hosts as we interview another wise sage. . . our friend Scott Gibson, who is a professor of preaching at Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Scott wrote a fantastic book, Should We Use Someone Else’s Sermon? Scott’s question is not only appropriate for pastors who are preaching and ministering in today’s cut-and-paste world, but for those of us in youth ministry who stand each week (several times, perhaps) in front of students to lead them into a deep understanding of what it means to come to and grow in faith.
So. . . from Scott’s podcast, my own experience, and the realities of youth ministry life and tendencies in today’s world, let me offer these brief thoughts on what youth ministry is not about. . .
- Youth ministry is not about keeping kids busy.
- Youth ministry to not about attracting kids to things that keep them busy.
- Youth ministry is not about fun. . . although it can and must be enjoyable. Fun can’t be our #1 functional priority.
- Youth ministry is not about keeping kids involved until they graduate from high school.
- Youth ministry is not about filling a room.
- Youth ministry is not about all young eyes on us.
- Youth ministry is not about the ever-growing time-consuming pursuit of cultural relevance and cool.
- Youth ministry is not about curating self, space, or experiences in order to become a kid-magnet.
- Youth ministry is not about creating experiences that offer a few minutes of sneaking-in or throwning-in nuggets of truth with the hope that something might stick.
That’s certainly not exhaustive. But those things are clearly evidence of misplaced priorities that cause us to waste way-too-much valuable time on things that, in the long run, don’t matter. And I’m not sure any of us pursue these things intentionally. However, if you’re like me, an honest audit might reveal that functionally, this is what our ministry says is most important.
So. . . all that said. . . can I offer what I do think youth ministry should be about?
I am increasingly convinced as I read God’s Word, look at the pervasiveness of the compelling cultural narrative, and listen to kids, is that they need youth workers committed first and foremost to the relentless pursuit of their own spiritual depth. We can only lead to depth out of our own depth. Dig your well deep. . . and let God fill it. Know the Word. Study the Word. Teach the Word. Kids want it and need it. Teach and talk out of the passions God builds in you as a result of your own study. Develop and teach your own talks and studies.
Depth yields depth, life, maturity, and wisdom. Give that gift to your kids. In fact, give that gift to yourself.
Want to ponder these things more, listen to the conversation that Duffy and I have with our friend Scott Gibson. . .