Recently someone said to me that Youth Work sounds like a really tiring job. It is. But I probed a bit to see why he thought so. His response was predictable but surprises me every time I hear it, "it would just be so frustrating to watch them make mistakes while you're telling them not to."
Is that what we do? Just try to tell kids not to do things?
This post is part of a series called the "Good News in Youth Ministry", which means unfortunately there must be bad news. I sincerely tried to not begin from a place of negativity, though, as I thought more about that its my personal choice rather than a good strategy (sometimes those don't line up).
To inspire change we have to see there's a problem.
We don't look for food unless we are hungry, we go to counseling when the marriage is rocky, we go to AA when someone we care about is hurt by our habits, and so on…
So, what's the problem in Youth Ministry?
The teenage body & brain is experiencing a class 5 hurricane of changes moving through their system. Some would say it's not that bad, it's more like a tropical storm, or even just a light shower. I think most people tend to look at the teenage brain as the carnage left in a small town after the hurricane hits - it is such a big mess, we don't even know where to start, in fact it is probably going to be better if we just find whats most important and move away from the mess altogether pretending its not happening like this.
The teenager's mind is changing, their bodies are changing, relationships are changing, their desire for God and view of God is changing, and the way they process hard evidence about the world in front of them is changing, too. All of this is happening while they are being targeted as the major market for most of the world's products, trends, and expectations.
Yet, this isn't the bad news.
Nor is the bad news that teenagers are making mistakes.
Or that adolescents are incredibly narcissistic.
The bad news is not that we have no idea how the technological revolution is going to affect this generation in 50 years.
The bad news isn't even that teenagers are showing less engagement with the church than ever.
The bad news is that we are continually trying to control the affects of the hurricane (growing teenager) with systems, programs, and structures that are being destroyed by the shifting winds (time and culture change).
We can't expect the programs that have captured the attention of one generation to continue to work for the next
Imagine putting 100 teenagers into a room to teach them to dance. We automatically assume they are all at the same place of understanding and curiosity, so we give them one path to move along to learn, then measuring them according to their progress.
Sounds nuts right?
The school systems try it and struggle, sports programs try this and teens lose interest, churches live off this and are surprised when teens disengage from the one-size-fits-all message. I've been in the local-church-youth-ministry-universe for 11 years, and in that universe the future is not often spoken of with great hope. Come to think of it, the present is rarely brought up with excitement. Most often, the past is where the joy is. We don't know how to keep this thing running and getting kids through the doors, we don't know what it's going to look like in 5 years, but 2 years ago it was bursting at the seams so maybe if we keep trying we can get back to those days.
Teenagers are a mess and most Youth Ministries are just trying to clean them up.
The Good News is that is doesn't have to be this way.
Teenagers are at the most exciting stage of life and simply need people willing to walk alongside them through it.
I've been in the local-church-youth-ministry-universe for 11 years and in that universe there are some Pastors and Volunteers that are boldly pushing the boundaries of what the systems will allow; they are stepping out of the box and attempting to bring change. The past was fun, the present feels like we're riding a bronco in a rodeo, but the future is so very bright! Schools are shifting in their teaching techniques, sports programs are becoming more inclusive, and there are a ton of para-church organizations seeking to engage youth in the way of Jesus in all kinds of unique & "I've never seen that before" ways.
Imagine putting 100 teenagers into a room, and immediately thinking, what is the best thing we can do to help them grow as individuals.
The teenager's mind is changing, their bodies are changing, relationships are changing, their desire for God and view of God is changing, and the way they process hard evidence about the world in front of them…is changing! While all of this is going on, we have the opportunity to step into their lives and help make sense of it all, but more than that, we have the opportunity to show them they are valued and loved and accepted. Yet, this isn't even the best news.
The good news is that we can observe changes in teenagers faster than we can in adults.
The good news is that we they are already encouraged in their schools to help others (to think philanthropically) more than ever.
The good news is that teenagers are leading the way in the tech revolution and have access to everything!
The good news is that teenagers are showing less engagement in dying churches.
The good news is that when systems and structures don't work, we have to learn to adapt; when it comes to ministering to teens, the good news is that the best thing we can do is to help them discover their God-given purpose in this world. Each teen is completely unique. Each teen has unique gifts and passions. Each teen has a unique and difficult story so far. Therefore ministry with teenagers SHOULD be done with in all kinds of unique forms.
When the hurricane-force winds are hitting it is not a good idea to try to put boards on the windows and call to change the insurance plan, you do that before the storm hits. Hopefully you do that with the realistic expectation that no matter how much work you put into the stabilizing the home it could still get blown to pieces.
The best thing to do when the rain is coming down is to stick together, so that after the storm passes and there is a lot of bad news to pull out of the story, the good news is always the same: it doesn't have to be this way, things are changing, and we can do something about it together.
Youth Workers are like FireFighters, when everyone else is running out of their lives, you are running in. And you are doing this not because you want to see 40 kids accept Jesus this year in your program, but because you want every single teenager you come across to know a deeper truth about this world - that there is a God who made them and loves them and has a unique purpose for them.
There aren't numbers that can measure the effectiveness of that message being absorbed in their lives, but there are always new ways to help teenagers move in that direction. It is never going to be easy, but as long as we stick together the future is going to be very exciting and we are going to see a generation of people walking in the Way of Jesus, changing the world, because somebody came alongside them and said, "ya know, it doesn't have to be this way."
Is youth work hard? Yup.
There is no greater task a human can have than passing hope on to the next generation.
So, let's figure out a new way to do this, let's cut open some new doors.