Ready, Aim, Focus

One Size Doesn’t Fit

When I survey the state of youth ministry, it seems shallow, confused, and perplexed. There is no doubt that we’re in the midst of a revolution. The Church, contextually, must think through realistic and measurable steps in order to develop and build lasting, impactful, and sustainable youth ministry.

The survival of youth ministry is not found in programs but in sound biblical teaching and proclamation of Scripture.

Setting the Church up for success in youth ministry will be a rigorous learning experience. The uniqueness of each congregation—shaped by location, population, and culture—suggests that one size does not fit all. Over the past 20 years, youth-centered programs have become the standard model of nearly every church’s youth ministry. But from church to church, these programs must be anything but standard.

Every youth leader has their own priorities, skills, ideas, and strategies, and it’s not always clear what “works” and what doesn’t. Cookie-cutter approaches to youth ministry have proven to fail teens and leave them lackluster in their beliefs and unprepared to defend their faith. Teens are attempting to learn faithfulness in a rapidly-changing, post-Christian culture where they are rethinking the institutional Church as a place to help them arbitrate life.

Programs and Paradigms

Just what, exactly, is youth ministry for? What is considered healthy youth ministry? What is successful youth ministry? Is youth ministry relevant? These questions linger in the hearts of many congregations and youth leaders and can’t be answered easily—nor can they be ignored. I surmise that the problem is not necessarily youth ministry in its current programmatic model. Instead, the problem seems to be leaders not modeling a faith that leaves youth yearning to grow as followers of Christ.

Teens desire depth and tangible relationships that push them to be more like Christ. If youth ministry is to outlast this devastating culture, there must be a shift in the focus and aim of youth ministry. This is where sound theological education plays a critical role in the direction and shape of youth ministry and youth leaders. Theological institutions must avoid thinking in terms of replicable programs, but rather they must build strategy around evangelism, discipleship, and Scripture. Teens tend to respond well to strategic opportunities that get them involved and active in their faith. The survival of youth ministry is not found in programs but in sound biblical teaching and proclamation of Scripture. 


Nathaniel Brooks

Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Brooks is currently the Youth & Young Adult Pastor at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Herndon, Virginia, and is a 2014 graduate of the Certificate in Youth & Theology program from the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is a sought-after ministry practitioner with a passion for youth ministry, urban ministry, race, theology, and leadership.

Making Space to Dream

Donald Trump is the president, marijuana is legal, a man can marry a man, a woman can marry a woman, and Harambe is dead. Young people care about all of these things, but most ministries don’t acknowledge any of them. What a shame—because regardless of what you think about any of these issues, there is a lot of potential in the United States right now.  

We want to do faithful ministries, but our programs and buildings just aren’t the right shape.

In the 1970s, skateboarding was almost extinct because of the way skateparks were made. The shape, physics, and angles were all off. People wanted a place to skate, but nobody really knew how to make the parks. After a few years, people realized this and became pretty bored and frustrated with skateboarding. It was off-putting to see something that looked cool but wasn’t functional.

The Church is in a similar place. We want to do faithful ministries, but our programs and buildings just aren’t the right shape. Youth ministry has been done a certain way now for quite a few decades, and my biggest critique is that this way we’ve done youth ministry has not led to good young adult ministry.

Graduating Faith

I have been doing youth ministry since 2007. My opportunities have come in many shapes and sizes. Each community I have served has done youth ministry by focusing on creating a support network around the youth, typically one that focuses on the family unit and emphasizes a sustainable model of ministry. Currently I serve in a mainline church that has a reputation for successful youth ministry. I work in two departments: the youth and the young adult. Despite the success of the youth ministry, the young adult ministry is known better for its absence than its presence. For all the ways that successful youth ministries create a sustainable structure around youth to grow into their faith, those structures often do not equip them for the next phase of life, nor do they encourage young people to pursue their faith without their family, nor do they engage their imaginations to consider what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ into their 20s and 30s.

I believe the future of youth ministry will be ministry that strongly considers the actual future of the youth involved, acknowledging that extended adolescence affords a better understanding of that future than an educational rite-of-passage does. The future of youth ministry is young adult ministry, but our current model for ministry isn’t working beyond high school. I think it’s time to take learn lesson from skateboarding and start over.

Seeing Potential Energy

The Lilly Endowment recently released a statement titled, “New Initiative to Help Congregations Find New Ways to Engage and Support Young Adults.” This initiative will focus on “launching a $19.4 million initiative to help congregations engage young adults and work with them to design innovative ministries that support and enrich their religious lives.” Assuming this initiative does what it has set out to do, the landscape for young adult ministries around the nation is about to change. As it changes, my sense is that the youth and young adult departments in churches will begin to do the dance of figuring out how to work well together in a way that takes a holistic view of young people, from 12-years-old to 30.

The Church would do well to focus their time—and the Lilly Endowment’s money—on discipling young people in a way that capitalizes on the potential in our country today. Our ministries have to learn how to talk about God and the dead gorilla in a way that empowers young people to envision a lifetime of faithful discipleship. Most local churches can’t do that on their own. We lack the space to dream.

Nevertheless, I am sure God is up to something. Youth ministry still matters because people still matter. Jesus cares about people. So it’s time for the Church to dream of new skateparks, even if it requires a bulldozer and some new angles.

 


Josh Rodriguez is a soon-to-be-ordained Rev. in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is currently serving as an Associate Pastor for Young Adults at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville Tennessee. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and of Indiana Wesleyan University. Josh has worked with youth and young adults in local churches for the last 11 years. He is married to Abigail, and they have a son, Jameson, and are expecting another baby in the fall of 2017!

Pizza Parties and Pneumatology

The Production Line

Theological education and vocation as it pertains to youth ministry needs to be re-imagined. Youth ministry at present is analogous to a production line. Ideas, programs, and methodologies are manufactured according to a manual of theological operations used by a few evangelical and mainline theological factories. These products are then distributed to consumers (i.e. youth leaders/pastors/lay people) who hope these products can help their youth ministries look good, feel good, and attract people. Similar to the appeal of new Air Jordan’s during the Christmas season, youth leaders are sometimes enchanted by the hottest trends because they aid them in attracting young people to unattractive ministries.

However, once the new Air Jesus youth ministry product is used and the thrill is over, these manufactured items are placed in the back of the ministry closet until the next hot item is on the market. This consumer driven model places tremendous pressure on theological factories to produce and market the next hot youth ministry product. Sadly, reliance on pre-packaged models of youth ministry only reproduces youth who meet the quality control standards of denominations and church leadership.

This is an exciting time in the state of youth ministry because youth are interested in pizza parties and pneumatology.

Co-Creating

Unfortunately, when theological factories (including publishers) give consumers what is trendy (typically quick fix products), what is produced is neither unique, creative, nor theological. Subsequently, theological education and vocation as it pertains to youth ministry simply reflects market trends or reproduces the past. Unlike, athletic shoe companies who now offer individual consumers the opportunity to design their own products, youth ministry design is often dictated by the leadership in churches. As a consequence, youth may not participate in the construction of something new. Moreover, they are not given access to the resources of the company in ways like Nike gives youth the ability to create their own shoes. What would happen if young people had the opportunity to partner with theologians in order to design new initiatives in youth ministry as well as transform theological education?

Seminaries provide resources that assist in the intellectual and theological development of adults in preparation to ministry to young people. Is it possible that youth and adults can learn side by side in theological factories (i.e. seminaries and divinity schools) as an important strategy to reverse the downward spiral in churches and seminaries experiencing decline? Are the seeds of the resurrection of youth ministry found in the development of emerging education classes? What would happen if youth were given the theological and theoretical tools to develop practices to resurrect dead churches?

Creative Space

The development of new learning spaces in theological schools affords opportunities for teenagers, scholars, and students to dialogue on matters of church history, ethics, systematic theology, and practical theology from different perspectives. As a consequence, theologians learn from youth and youth learn from theologians. This is an exciting time in the state of youth ministry because youth are interested in pizza parties and pneumatology. Seminaries have the opportunity to serve as incubators of creativity and to serve good pizza. As a consequence, it could to spark a reformation in the church and revolutionize the academy.


Kermit Cornell Moss, Sr. is a Ph.D. student in the area of Practical Theology (Christian Education and Formation) at Princeton Theological Seminary and has research interests in the intersection of theology, identity, spirituality, pneumatology, urban youth, and hip-hop/pop culture. In addition, Kermit currently serves as senior pastor of Manhattan Bible Church which is located in the Inwood neighborhood in Northern Manhattan (NYC).

Making the “Accidental” of Worship Intentional with Teenagers

As we prepared for the 2017 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we asked our leaders to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort and disruption into our lives and yours as we consider this calling together.


Let’s assume we knew one another ten years ago and you asked me over coffee, “Eric, what do you want to do with your one, wild, and precious life?” Peering into the unknown future, I would have responded, “I want to teach in a seminary, and I want to be the liturgical theologian for Baptists in the United States.” Had you inquired further or expressed interest, I would have gleefully articulated my five and even ten-year plan for what such a vocation, centered in the academy, might look like.

An Unexpected Rhythm

Tomorrow is Friday, and I will board a bus with forty college students, most of whom are in their late teens or early twenties. We will drive two hours away to a Baptist church camp for a weekend retreat where we will worship, play, and learn how to minister through a summer camp for teenagers that focuses on worship and worship leadership. When I return Sunday evening, I will drop my luggage off at the house, greet my dog, and kiss my wife before dashing out the door to church. There, I will spend the next two hours working with 100 high school students who are preparing for a summer mission experience together. After a few hours of rest Sunday evening, I will begin my Monday with robust coffee and a classroom of college students waiting to be engaged in reading and assignments.

I have slowly stumbled my way into youth and college ministry over the last ten years. I did not get a college degree in piano performance hoping to be a youth minister. Working with college students never crossed my mind in seminary, and not once while pursuing a PhD in Theology did I believe my academic career might revolve around studying the worship practices of teenagers.

So, how is it that now, when I see the faces of teenagers like Milligan, Wesley, Alexa, Walker, and Racquel, I think about that C.S. Lewis quote that says, “Next to the blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses”? Could it be that teenagers have become neighbors to me in the sacramental way that Lewis wrote about? Could teenagers be those immortals with whom I joke, love, snub, and even exploit? The ones in whom Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden?

Selah.

Stumbling into Identity

Like I have stumbled my way into youth ministry, teenagers in the church stumble their way in and out of public Christian worship week after week. Teenagers attend worship for reasons we don’t like to admit: because their parents make them, because their friends are there, or because worship is “the thing to do” on the Lord’s Day. Some teenagers have even stumbled their way into worship leadership. They are interested in leading worship because they enjoy music, excel in public speaking, or are intrigued when an adult notices their gifts and invites them to participate.

They don’t walk into corporate worship thinking, “Because of the things I do and say in worship today, I will grow deeper in my relationship with Christ,” any more than you or I think about the good dental hygiene that occurs when we brush our teeth.

In either case, teenagers aren’t necessarily programmed to think first about the long-term value of corporate worship on their Christian journey. They don’t walk into corporate worship thinking, “Because of the things I do and say in worship today, I will grow deeper in my relationship with Christ,” any more than you or I think about the good dental hygiene that occurs when we brush our teeth. Yet, we know from our own experience what philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith has written, that

being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly – who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.  We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship – through the affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.1

Teenagers aren’t programmed to think about the mechanics – the nuts and bolts of worship – unless an adult encourages it and takes the time to explain an otherwise affective experience to them. When we encourage young people to make their “accidentally showing up to worship” intentional, their actions on the Lord’s Day – praising, confessing, lamenting, giving thanks, and dedicating themselves to a lifetime of following Christ in the world – have a significantly increased chance of becoming purposeful and intentional in the ways and places that matter most: in hallway at school, around the family table, on the sports field, or lying in their bed late at night.

Selah.

Formed by Worship

In The Rhythm of God’s Grace,2 Arthur Paul Boers shares the story of a Jewish boy who insisted on running off into the woods every day, even though the activity was strictly forbidden. His parents were dumbfounded by this, because they knew him to be a very obedient child otherwise. Frustrated, they called on their rabbi for help. The rabbi came and talked to the boy, explained his parents’ fears, and told him why he should not run off into the woods any longer.

The boy listened attentively, but without fail the boy did it again. So, the next day, the rabbi decided to follow him from a distance to see what he was doing. What he found was the boy walking about in the woods reciting Jewish prayers. When he finished, the rabbi questioned him, “Why do this? Why do you go into the woods to pray? Is God not everywhere and always the same?” Without hesitation, the boy responded. “Yes, that is true. God is everywhere and always the same. But, unfortunately, I am not.”

Teenagers are immersed in a culture that values an inside to outside expressivity. Yet, when the church engages them in the right ways as worshipers and worship leaders, worship apprentices teenagers into a way of being that transforms them from the outside to the inside. Teenagers get to “try on” practices in worship, and adults in the faith community encourage them with perspective ensuring those practices fit in all the right ways, providing a wardrobe of habits that teenagers can begin to wear in the right place at the right time. And, their “accidentally showing up” to worship becomes the very act that propels them into a life characterized by their baptismal vocation: returning back to the God from whom they came, living as a disciple of Christ, and witnessing to the work of Christ in the world.

Selah.

Footnotes:

1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 32-33.

2. Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace: Uncovering Morning and Evening Hours of Prayer (Paraclete Press: MA, 2003).

 


Eric L. Mathis, PhD, is a former youth minister and worship leader who teaches music and worship at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. At Samford, he is founding director of anima: the Center for Worship and the Arts, whose mission is to empower teenagers to connect their enthusiasm to all the possibilities inherent in worship and the arts. Mathis has degrees in music and theology, the most recent of which is a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

Healing the Disabled

As we prepared for the 2017 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we asked our leaders to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort and disruption into our lives and yours as we consider this calling together.


The student walked into his classroom on the first day of school. He was tentative and nervous; this sort of thing just did not usually go well for him. In nearly every social setting – no matter how hard he tried – he just couldn’t seem to fit in. He’d inevitably say or do something that was apparently against some unwritten rule that no one told him.

Either subtly or plainly (he didn’t know which was more painful), others would, maybe without even realizing it and maybe with the best of intentions, place him on the outside. So he tended to keep to himself. But that didn’t help, either.Either he was a weirdo for trying to make friends, or a weirdo for not. With that double-bind in mind, his anxiety was palpable as he crossed the threshold and overheard some classmates not trying hard enough to lower their voices.

“Ah, look who’s in our class! He’s such a retard. Look at how he dresses! Look at how he walks! Hilarious.”

“Ugh. I was hoping not to get him in my class again. He makes me uncomfortable.”

“Don’t they have, like, special classes for people like him? Or special schools? It would be so much better if this was just a place for normal people.

Now, the young man was indeed on the autism spectrum. But who, precisely, in this classroom had the disability? What is it that really needs healing?

Disabled Identity

Luke 5:17-26 is the episode of Jesus and the man suffering paralysis. We find this story in the midst of a number of narratives that show Jesus healing not merely physical ailments, but all sorts of brokenness – demon possession, illness, ignorance, hopelessness, isolation. Jesus has come to heal (v. 17; NRSV), and this sickness is wide and deep. Let’s look at how we see multi-dimensional healing in this text.

First, we find that the paralyzed man has faithful friends (v. 20) who take him “to lay him before Jesus” (v. 18), who had been gaining notoriety as a healer, teacher, and wonder-worker. Indeed, they can find no way into the house due to the crowds there to see him (v. 19).

And it is here that we are confronted a first form of sickness that needs healing. Why is it that the most vulnerable have the most difficulty in finding their way to Jesus? Why are there obstacles for this one who is the most in need? What obstructs the pathway to grace that this man needs? What obstructs the pathway to grace that this crowd needs? Yet even these obstructions will not stand, for the faithful bearers of grace go up to the roof such that their friend might encounter and bear it himself; perhaps the grace that the crowd most needs descends from above as, before their eyes, the paralyzed man is laid before Jesus.

Perhaps the sins that are being healed are greater than only those of the man, and extend to those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to receive the grace that Jesus has for them.

Second, when the man is brought by his friends to Jesus to be healed of his paralysis, what does Jesus heal? He says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 20). What’s going on here? Why did Jesus not heal the man’s paralysis? Perhaps because there is a deeper paralysis that needed healing.

In the ancient world, disability was often associated with ritual uncleanliness. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish religious authorities regarded the sick or infirm, or those whose bodies were differently abled, to be suffering from the result of sin, either their own or that of others. So when the paralyzed man’s friends brought him to Jesus, he noticed their faith first; their trust in Jesus was greater than their fear of rubbing up against the perceived sin of their friend.

And while their trust in Jesus was well-placed, they did not get the result they were assumedly looking for, at least not initially. “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” Rather than removing the man’s paralysis, Jesus instead shows the man – and all those around him – that there is no sin causing this man’s paralysis. The man’s sins have been forgiven, and yet he is still paralyzed, which shows that the two are not connected.

And so here we find healing for a second sickness, that which imagines that those whose bodies are different are somehow unclean or distinctively sinful. Perhaps the sins that are being healed are greater than only those of the man, and extend to those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to receive the grace that Jesus has for them.

A Glimpse of the Kingdom

Third, the scribes and Pharisees from all over Israel (v. 17), who have likely come to see what all the hubbub is about concerning the rabbi from Nazareth (cf. 4:14, 37, 44), say to themselves that Jesus is blaspheming, either because he – not a properly-trained clergyman – has announced God’s forgiveness, or because it did not accompany traditional rites. Jesus did not need to hear to know what they were thinking; they still did not get it. He challenges them, asking: Which is easier to say, “your sins are forgiven you” or “stand up and walk”?

Obviously, the answer is the former, for it has no empirical verifiability; the religious authorities could pronounce forgiveness without it actually being the case, but they could never pronounce physical healing because it would not follow. And so, to show that he does in fact represent God and has come to deal with all sorts of brokenness, Jesus then says the harder thing, “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home” (v. 24).

Thus a third sickness is healed; Jesus is revealed as the “Son of Man” (v. 24) who has come to heal the breadth and depth of sin. Far from being ritualistically unclean, far from being one to be avoided, the man with paralysis becomes a medium of grace as he helps to show all who Jesus truly is.

Fourth, after Jesus pronounces healing and commands him to stand up, the formerly-paralyzed man “immediately” (v. 25) stands up, holding the mat that had once held him, and goes to his home. He does so with grateful recognition of God’s glory; indeed, amazement and awe fill the crowds who, reflexively, praise God. What has them so excited? The fact that Jesus did something miraculous? Probably. But perhaps there is also evinced an ineluctable joy, one that bubbles up as the Holy Spirit gives those gathered a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. A fourth sickness is healed as all present – the man, his friends, the Pharisees and scribes, and the crowds – see proclaimed before them reality as it is meant to be, and will be someday for all.

And just as the one who is paralyzed “gets up” to the glory of God, so the crowd sees the One who will rise up, revealing to all the full glory of God, prefiguring the Kingdom of new life for the cosmos.

Just as the man stands up and walks, so the crowd sees that they, too, will be fully healed of all their brokenness. Just as the man goes home to be re-integrated into a society that has wrongfully shunned him, so the crowd sees that the world, too, will become a place of belongingness for everyone. And just as the one who is paralyzed “gets up” to the glory of God, so the crowd sees the One who will rise up, revealing to all the full glory of God, prefiguring the Kingdom of new life for the cosmos.

A Marginalized Body?

The healing that Jesus brings is holistic in nature, and it goes far beyond whatever physical struggles, vulnerabilities, or “disabilities” that some individuals may have. In fact, while, like all of us, they certainly have struggles, the disabled are often the healthiest ones in our midst, and have merely been disabled by others who marginalize them. Which then confronts us with a question: Why are we talking about disability on a blog about youth ministry? To answer that question, I pose another: Where else in the church – and in the world – do we see people placed on the margins because their bodies are different than the majority?


Mike Langford (PhD) is a teacher, thinker, writer, and speaker who wants to help the church bring rich theology, good ministry, and deep spirituality into discipleship living. He’s Associate Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary, and Executive Director of Immerse Youth Discipleship Academy. Mike holds a PhD in systematic theology from Princeton Theological Seminary and is an ordained Presbyterian pastor. He and his wife, Kelly, live in the Seattle area with their four kids.

A Royal Priesthood

Priesthood of ALL Believers?

I get a lot of different responses when I tell people I’m interested in pursuing youth ministry as a vocation. I get responses along the lines of:

Oh man, you must be some sort of saint!
Are you going to do that until you become a
real pastor?
Aren’t middle schoolers the worst?

I often find myself either apologizing for the plight of the pre-teen or offering a psychological defense of their strange, awkward adolescent years. Most of the time I smile and shrug my shoulders. From the outside, working with young people is some sort of insurmountable challenge to conquer, a strange calling, or some sort of penance.

Recognizing we belong to a priesthood of beautiful, oddball, hyper, reflective, shy, and outgoing believers means that we are all doing ministry together. Every single one of us.

Yet shouldn’t church be a space where all feel welcome to be who we are, a place where we can celebrate the oddities, hilarity, and absurdity of life? Especially the odd, hilarious, and absurd in the life of our youth? Church is where we all collectively come to meet God, not something to tide the kids over until they “grow up.”

Recognizing we belong to a priesthood of beautiful, oddball, hyper, reflective, shy, and outgoing believers means that we are all doing ministry together. Every single one of us.

Regardless of whether your title is “director” or “leader,” you are a pastor to young people. And pastoral ministry doesn’t happen you try to impart wisdom on unsuspecting victims, but when you work together with those you pastor. The pastor is not meant to “do stuff” for people. According to William Willimon, pastoral care is “the reestablishment of broken relationships among people and between people and God” (Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 175). We do church and faith together before God.

Bringing Our Burdens

Recently at youth group, we had eight middle school boys and three girls. It was tiny, yet wild. It was one of those evenings where you walk away after wondering, “What just happened?”

We read Matthew 11:28–29, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The plan was to look through magazines and find pictures that reminded us of the burdens in our lives, and some that reminded us of restfulness. Then we would make a collage of each and talk about what we saw.

We started the discussion by talking about burdens, with examples from their lives. The unanimous chorus was, “SCHOOL!” I paused, and wondered aloud, “Oh, that’s interesting. What about school is a burden?” I was trying to dig deeper, to the underlying reality they were naming.

This led to a long tangent focused on every teacher who had ever wronged them, followed by a lament about homework, tests, and ways to seek revenge. “Okay, this is valid and important, but what does this mean for you in relationship to each other?” We never quite got there.

What we did get was a long silence where one boy loudly dropped the F-bomb, followed by uncontrollable laughter. The evening quickly devolved into madness.

Gifts of God, People of God

The activity, though well intentioned, did not succeed in the way I had planned. The “burden collage” we made had, strangely enough, a picture of Jesus, and someone had put multiple pictures of knives on the collage to symbolize “rest.” I stopped and talked with one of the kids who was in the midst of cutting out pictures of alcohol. At the end of the hour, all I saw around me was a mess and a failure.

It was time for pizza and they all raced each other to get seats. My co-leader walked in with the pizza and soda; loud cheers erupted.

We stood around the table, and my co-leader tried to start a camp prayer and forgot the words halfway through. He turned to the group and asked if anyone remembered the words. The same kid who dropped the F-bomb earlier in the evening jumped up and down saying, “I do!”

This perfectly imperfect young man led us in prayer, helping us connect to God by singing a tune based on the Jaws theme song. And as we all sat around the table, they took turns filling the cup of their neighbor, and passing the plate of pizza around. We broke bread (and sauce and cheese) together and continued laughing and celebrating each other.

Making Connections

As I walked out the door that evening, after picking up the little pieces of magazine someone had so carefully cut and placed all around the youth room, I realized this prayer tonight was the reason we do ministry with young people. This night wasn’t a failure at all.

The things I thought weren’t “important” like their struggles at school, the immense pressure they feel to be doing everything, their drama, or their obsession with the newest app—these are important components of their reality. These are their lives.

The things I thought weren’t “important” like their struggles at school, the immense pressure they feel to be doing everything, their drama, or their obsession with the newest app—these are important components of their reality. These are their lives. It is vital to see their reality as real, for all their joys and frustrations. And the prayers we pray together, though sometimes silly, help us to see God in our lives. Our practices together speak to our shared reality in Jesus.

Come as You Are

If we hope to tame our young people so they fit our idea of church, we will miss incredible opportunities to see their leadership potential, and validity at all stages of life. We cannot discount them because they are loud, energetic, easily distracted, require patience, and sometimes curse loudly (and honestly, are people over fifty really all that different?).

We have the opportunity to create spaces for young people to do the leading. They can, and will continue to meet the expectations we set for them. If we believe that all young people are good for is games and pizza, then for them all church will be is games and pizza. We need to engage and honor the value of the life and spirituality of our young people right now.

How do we expect young people to connect to God if the adults are doing all the talking? Praying together, in any and all forms, is a way of entering into relationship with God. When we say we have a priesthood of all believers, it doesn’t mean that at some point we are good enough to become a member and are worthy. It means we belong as we are, blemishes and all. Even the youth who curses in church; the ones who talk loudly during the service or run loose in the hallways. Our salvation is not dependent on our understanding or right action, but on God, who is constantly drawing us closer into the life of the Trinity.

Expectations of Priesthood

When we say we have a priesthood of all believers, it doesn’t mean that at some point we are good enough to become a member and are worthy. It means we belong as we are, blemishes and all.

As youth ministers, we have the amazing privilege of living life with young people in their journey of understanding and knowing the incredible love of Christ. We know that some of the most insightful conversations are with young people. Their perspective is refreshing and honest in ways we don’t find everywhere. Yet for some reason, we still wait for them to be something else—older, more mature, more acceptable—before asking them to be leaders.

Asking young people to pray, to read Scripture, or to take part in the life of the church is vital to participating in Christ’s ministry to the world. Andy Root confirms how “it is in persons sharing in each other through sacrifice, intercession and confession—in other words, through sacraments, prayer, and preaching, given to us by our brothers and sisters, that we encounter the living Christ among us; this is the church community” (Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, 122). This is especially true for our young people.

As youth workers, we are called to challenge the expectations that working with young people is something “only a saint would do” or “isn’t real pastoral ministry.” One of the ways we can do this while also building up the church is by demonstrating how capable young people can be. How can we begin lifting up the young people in our congregations as full-fledged leaders of our church?

 


Julia Boudrye is a dual degree student (M.Div/MA Christian Education and Formation) at Princeton Theological Seminary. She likes to watch The Office, drink coffee and quote The Office.

Intergenerational Ministry: Participating as Partners

Intergenerational Encouragement

When I was a boy, I was invited to participate in the anniversary celebration for our Senior Pastor. I attended a fairly large church, so it was a big deal to me that I had been asked to participate in an event that was for the whole church and not just kids my age. On the Sunday of the celebration another boy and I were dismissed from Sunday school early. We were led to a special dressing room where we were provided with robes, wigs, beards, and staffs to make us look like Moses and Aaron. At the appropriate time, we were to walk out into the sanctuary, make our way onto the stage, and say our lines as we presented our Senior Pastor with a decorative copy of the Ten Commandments.

He was an important senior adult, and he made me feel like an important participant in the ministry. He made me feel like his partner.

In the moments leading up to our performance, I quickly went from excited to terrified. The magnitude of the moment came crashing down on us like a ton of bricks. As we stood in the hall quietly and anxiously fidgeting with our costumes and props, an older, well-known man in the congregation noticed us and came over to encourage us. He asked if we were excited for to play our parts in the service and if we were nervous. We said that we were. He told us that he was nervous every Sunday as he participated in the ministries of the church. He explained that he too had a costume that he wore every Sunday and with a flip of his head he popped his toupee up on end. He prayed with us and thanked us for having the courage to be a part of what the church was doing.

A Real Partnership

All of these years later, that moment is still very precious to me. Mr. Sowers, the man who was constantly surrounded by children, the man who first invited me to come to church through the church bus that he captained, the man who, in my young eyes, was a big deal in the church, made me feel like more than just a child in a silly church program. He was an important senior adult, and he made me feel like an important participant in the ministry. He made me feel like his partner.

Interestingly enough, it was children like me who made Mr. Sowers seem so important. He always wore suit coats to church and he had what appeared to be a bottomless pocket full of Jolly Rancher candies that he passed out whenever he was at the church. I believe the children of the church gave Mr. Sowers a sense of purpose and productivity. Being able to minister to children was in itself a ministry to him.

And the Research Says…

What I experienced with Mr. Sowers seems extraordinary and unusual. It certainly wasn’t the norm when I was a youth and it hasn’t been the norm during my time as a pastor. Most of the stories I hear concerning senior adults and young people involved conflict and misunderstanding. However, through a yearlong experiment involving senior adults and youth at First Baptist Church of St Albans, we discovered that it is possible to foster the development of intergenerational relationships between senior adults and youth like the one described above. We further learned that these relationships are indeed beneficial for all involved parties.

Here are our four key findings:

1) Shared space results in shared stories

The church is one of the last places in society that has regular access to multiple generations. With minimal planning and communication, opportunities for shared space and activity can be created. Through spending time together doing things like eating food, playing games, or simply talking, shared stories are experienced. Those stories represent connections that lead to various levels of mutual understanding and appreciation between the generations. To quote one of our participants, “These activities woke up the church to the value of our youth and created a desire for ALL generations to be involved.”

2) Youth provide energy and encouragement for senior adults

During our project, one senior adult said, “We’re hungry for new ideas and energy. The youth energize us and help us move out of our comfort zone. The youth have helped us to grow in our faith.” I believe the church has a fountain of youth and it is the youth, themselves. Many times, senior adults fear that they won’t be able to “keep up.” Amazingly, once senior adults spend some time with youth and engage them in various ways, they often walk away encouraged and energized. They are energized and encouraged to pursue and serve Christ in ways they previously believed beyond their abilities.

3) Senior adults are incredible advocates for youth in the church

As the patriarchs and matriarchs of many of our churches, senior adults hold a very special place of influence in the local church. They are often perceived to be the biggest givers of the church and hold many of the positions of power on boards and committees. When they begin to experience the energy and enthusiasm of the youth of the church, they begin looking for ways to engage that energy in the life of the church. They begin to see that youth have potential for the present as well as the future. One senior noted, “I find myself cheering for them to succeed and have a strong desire to see them take leadership in the church.” The more senior adults and youth spend time together the more the talents and abilities of youth become apparent and the more senior adults advocate for youth involvement and ownership within the broader church context.

4) Intergenerational ministry is about partnership

If youth are the church of today, does that mean senior adults are the church of yesterday? That is certainly not the case. We, all of us, are part of the body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play and each of us needs the others.

“Youth are not the church of tomorrow. They are the church of today.” I understand and respect the idea this oft-quoted phrase intends to communicate. Youth are often treated as passive bystanders who are supposed to wait their turn. However, I believe this quote unintentionally communicates a less positive message as well. If youth are the church of today, does that mean senior adults are the church of yesterday? That is certainly not the case. We, all of us, are part of the body of Christ. Each of us has a part to play and each of us needs the others. When generations learn to play nice with each other it becomes much easier to work effectively together. As one senior adult noted, “We won’t be here forever. We have to make room for youth to come along beside us… This church needs to be theirs too.” We each have a purpose in the body, so we each need a place.

Intergenerational ministry is an exciting and intimidating proposition. To one extent or another, in each of our churches, we are practicing it—but are we doing it well? What opportunities for intergenerational ministry exist in your church? What benefits might your church experience from greater involvement between generations?

 


Jeremy MyersJeremy Myers is a 15-year veteran of youth ministry. He and his wife Robyn live in Indiana with their children Mikayla and JJ. He loves drinking coffee, playing music, and dreaming about what the church could and should be with fellow church nerds. Jeremy has an MA in Ministerial Leadership from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, a D.Min. in Church Missional Renewal from Palmer Theological Seminary, and is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA.

Doing Too Much

As we prepared for the 2017 Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we asked various practitioners to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort and disruption into our lives and yours as we consider this calling together.


A Day in the Life

Alarm goes off. Scroll. Rush through breakfast. Fight with a parent. Fight with a sibling. Forget something, go back inside. Scroll. Text friends. Crack jokes, text crush. Whine, compare, gossip. Text parent. Go to class. Go to practice. Text more. Flirt. Go to band. Text for a ride. Video games. Post. Tweet. Homework. Scroll. Part-time job. Netflix. Get home from the game. Lie about grades. Shoot, we forgot youth group is tonight. Hulu. Do homework. Stress out about homework. Text more. Post. Scroll. Sleep.

The lives of our students can be a big jumble of going from here to there, doing many things that matter and plenty of things that don’t. We know they’re busy but we also really need them to come to Sunday school or pay attention during tonight’s talk. Sometimes we’re not exactly helping.

Too Much Noise

I declare we talk too much. We’re going, doing, making, being, buying, selling, or showing. We’re always talking, with an endless chatter. We text too much, we go out too much, we post too much, we practice and we perform too much. Whatever it is, we do too much.

Our youth especially do too much. Whether activities are good or bad, all of our business is rudely interrupted by the season of Lent. We began this time before Easter by imposing ashes with a refrain about dust as if to say “You’re going to die, here’s a cross so you don’t forget.” Our limits are all put on display with the knowledge that despite our best efforts, ultimately there is nothing we can do. And we all chatter on.

Facing Finitude

Perhaps we do so many activities and errands because of the fact that we will die. Older European philosophers like Heidegger or Kierkegaard, along with Anglo-American thinkers like Ernst Becker, suggest that human action is driven by the “denial of death.” The ways in which we are distracted, anxious, active, controlling, dominating, fearful, proud—or anything, really—are driven by our inevitable end. To an extent, this isn’t wrong. The Christian faith doesn’t deny this truth that people act out in a variety of ways because of their limited time upon the earth.

Our youth are just as driven by death as we are, whether they’re aware of it or not. We create the culture of numbing, achievement, entertainment, or acquisition they imbibe.

Yet the Bible clearly labels death as a problem. Romans 8:21 says creation is “in bondage to decay,” while in 7:24 Paul cries out to be saved “from this body of death.” Like sin, death is one of the powers that Jesus is openly in conflict with. For in Romans 6:9, Paul claims, “Death no longer has any dominion” over Jesus because of his resurrection. For the New Testament, says Fleming Rutledge, death is “experienced as a condemnation and defeat at the hands of God’s Enemy” (The Crucifixion, 405). Death is a power not only as it claims people at their end, but death is also “an annihilating agency capable of commandeering humans agents to do its work” (The Crucifixion, 203). Co-opted as agents of death, perhaps this brings to mind the more outrageous instances of violence and injustice. It could also be far more mundane.

The Pressure of Performance

Denying death causes busyness and distraction. Our youth are just as driven by death as we are, whether they’re aware of it or not. We create the culture of numbing, achievement, entertainment, or acquisition they imbibe. If they’re anxious, driven, overly distracting or entertained, it is because we were before them. This is why they do too much.

The closest thing we have to an answer for this constant movement is Sabbath. Not a hard stop, but a rest for a short while. Sabbath plays a large role in our faith and story. In the Exodus story, God hears the cries of the oppressed Israelites and liberates them from Egypt. God not only liberates the Israelites, but in particular God saved them from the cruel amount and conditions of work put on them by Pharaoh and his anxiety (Exodus 5:1–14). When the people are freed and gathered at Sinai, the Lord gives the people the essential commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8–11). This new commandment is a gift they didn’t receive in Egypt. God gives them the Sabbath as a way to stop in order to be “an alternative society that stands outside of the predatory anxiety that requires endless production and performance” (Walter Brueggemann, Ice Axes for Frozen Seas, 272). Our youth are entirely aware of this production and performance in their own lives.

Sitting with God

There is nothing we can do about our death, yet there is nothing we need to do for God’s favor either, and we practice this in the Sabbath.

We are invited to stop and rest in the Sabbath, setting this time aside as holy to spend with God. The Sabbath is a time where we do not have to perform, earn, control, or attempt anything and we stop checking our phones, not worry about grades, refrain from checking ourselves in the mirror. We are invited to no longer curate our Instagram posts for attention, vie for love or respect, be attractive, prove our worth, or struggle to protect ourselves from any vulnerability. We are invited not to be made anxious by death, but to spend time with the Creator of our limited lives. We don’t have to work so hard to keep anxiety at bay. We instead have the chance to be still and realize the Lord our God is there in the silence, caring for us no matter what we do or how long we live. There is nothing we can do about our death, yet there is nothing we need to do for God’s favor either, and we practice this in the Sabbath.

It’s hard for anyone to sit still at first, or to be quiet when we’re used to talking or doing. Whether the need to constantly check the phone, check our looks in the mirror, or constantly try to be the most popular person in the room, there’s a sense of searching. Are these searchings not longings for God? In the Sabbath, in silence and reflection, or prayer, we can rest in the presence of the God who is near, and the God who loves us so much as to undergo death in Christ Jesus.

Sounds of Silence

I practice this in ministry by leading my students in worship through Taizé-style music. After teaching a simple melody, we will sing one or two refrains about our longing for God, over and over again. It’s unhelpful to demand an abrupt silence, so it’s a good practice to get quieter and sparser as the song goes on, winding down with a capella refrains, and ending with a prolonged time of quiet. Some kids understandably struggle at first. I’ve found that the kids who need it the most are the ones who respond most positively.

During Lent, because there’s nothing we can do about death, we’re reminded our death is worth pondering, because this season points towards the time when Christ is going to do something about it. Our anxiety about death could actually be a reminder about our longing for our Creator.

Commenting on this anxiety and our search for God, the poet Christian Wiman writes in My Bright Abyss:

It is as if each us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we give to other things. It is not hard to hear this as music, but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music. (92)

The anxiety of death could be overplayed by the music of God’s grace seeking us out, and what our youth yearn for. May we all stop and rest in the presence and love of God, the Maker and Sustainer of our limited lives.

 


ogg

Adam Ogg has his M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He loves investigating how theology interacts with the world and informs our faith. Adam is particularly passionate about finding a good coffee shop to read in.