The good news is that we have more opportunities now than ever to help teenagers belong to a community, learn to follow Jesus, and live a life of serving others, the question is,
how do we create new ways to get them past the obstacles that are keeping them away?
If you have been involved in Youth Ministry for 2 years, then you have met best friends Shawn and Corey (I'm a big Boy Meets World fan); two guys, from different backgrounds, both seem to be wildly connecting to the ministry you're running. Corey was basically born in the church - if there was a gurney available for his mom and a nurse on site, then surely he would have been. He has grown up being in the church building 2-3 times a week for any given program and the Sunday AM Service.
In Seventh Grade he invited his best friend Shawn to come out to the Jr.High Program because they were having Throw-Up night, ya know, the kind of night when the leaders have made it their goal to make as many kids throw-up as possible.
Shawn loves it! From that point he fully jumps in; he signs up for the retreat, raises his hand on the Saturday night, gets involved in the band playing guitar, and is a major contributor helping with the program for the next two years. You put some extra effort into a relationship with Shawn, helping him understand his faith, you find that you really connect with him and are excited about the potential he shows to be a strong leader in the ministry.
Corey loses interest along the way, to the point where Shawn finds a way to get out to the Big Event but Corey stays home to do homework…on a Friday night…in grade 8 (You KNOW somethin' ain't right when that's the excuse). Though it would seem that everything is lined up for him to succeed in this ministry - to Belong to this community, to deepen his faith and understanding of Following Jesus, and to grow in his desire to Serve - Corey disconnects entirely by his third year in high school and the stories you hear about him are saddening to say the least.
Shawn, on the other hand, not only gets more involved as a leader in this ministry, but is starting to extend his passion to live in the Way of Jesus outside of the church building. Shawn is getting involved as an assistant coach on his little brother's hockey team, he collects cans for the food bank on Hallowe'en instead of candy for himself, and he meets with a few friends each week to talk about life and what their learning about Jesus.
By the looks of it, something was happening that nobody would have expected when these two were 12 years old. Corey moved farther and farther away from seeing Jesus, while Shawn lived a life inspired by the Way. Corey lost interest in trying to bust through the obstacles that were in his way, but Shawn moved along as if the obstacles weren't even there.
So what is it? Why do these stories exist? Why do we keep doing Youth Ministry knowing these stories will happen and hope for the best? Why are we okay with only one of these guys 'making it'?
50% success rate is not good news.
In Mark 2:1-12 there is a story about some friends busting through obstacles, making a way for their friend to see Jesus and experience life-change.
- There are four friends (Pre-Obstacle - Community) that go to see Johnny one day to bring him to Jesus. Johnny, you see, is paralyzed and can't exactly get there by himself. (Obstacle 1 - Lifestyle).
- The friends get to his house, clean him up, put him on a mat and carry him through the dusty streets one morning because Jesus is teaching at the house of Peter and they believe that if they can just get Johnny there he will have a chance to be healed and can be on their intramural basketball team for the tournament next weekend (slight paraphrase). But when they get to the house where Jesus is teaching, there is a great crowd pouring out of the house and into the streets. (Obstacle 2 - People)
- One of them gets a great idea, "What about the roof?!" Clearly he was watching Mission:Impossible the night before because they decide to take Johnny up the side of the house to the flat roof and cut a new way for him to get through. To do this, they have to dig away at the baked on bricks and tiles and dirt. No easy task that's for sure. (Obstacle 3 - Structures)
- They tie their belts together and wrap Johnny up to awkwardly lower him down right at the feet of Jesus, with all the people staring and murmuring in disbelief and disgust. But Jesus surveys the situation, and declares that Johnny's sins are forgiven. That's really great and all, don't get me wrong, only that doesn't exactly show life-change, like everyone expects. (Obstacle 4 - Inward Faith)
- So, Jesus, knowing that I would write this blog 2000 years later, tells Johnny to also get up and walk out for all to see. Which he does. He picks up his mat, shakes out the tingling feeling in his legs, and walks through the parted crowd he meets his friends out front. They hug, and then go to lunch together amazed at the life-change they see.
The good news is that we have more opportunities now than ever to help teenagers belong to a community, learn to follow Jesus, and live a life of serving others, the question is, how do we create new ways to get them past the obstacles that are keeping away?
Let's talk about these obstacles and think up some ways that we can help create some new ways for the teenagers to see Jesus.
Pre-Obstacle - Community
The truth is, there are a ton of teens that have no idea someone like you and your ministry and Jesus even exists or cares about them. The Good News is that by helping to create a deep sense of belonging in those teens we are connected with, they can be encouraged to push through the obstacles and go to their friends, whatever the cost. When authentic love is experienced, authentic love will shared with others.
Obstacle 1 - Lifestyle
The most important thing for adolescents when it comes to relationships is acceptance. Though they may not demonstrate this consistently in the halls of the high school. When asked about their views on other people and how they want to connect with others the number one answer - according to the Elastic Morality study done a few years ago - is acceptance.
The church should be the place that demonstrates what acceptance looks like while the rest of the world is desperately trying to figure it out on Twitter, Facebook, and CNN. There are no pre-requisites for stepping into a community with Jesus, the only requirement is that you have to be willing to eat with others.
Yet, too often a teenager chooses to go to a party and drink on a Friday instead of going to the Youth Group Event and they are all but ostracized by those who know. The gay 14 year-old shows up with his friend but goes home crying because he feels more condemned in this community than anywhere else. The girl that comes to the gathering hungry because her fridge is empty can't get excited about the retreat because she's got to help cover rent this month. We have created a place for a very specific type of person that makes it really easy to throw a party together and really difficult to invite others to attend.
This also includes the over-scheduled lives of teens in North America today. Most teens are in extra-curricular programs and are now getting jobs younger and younger in order to pay for their cell phone bills. To expect these same teens to give up their one free night, or to free-up a night in order to go to the Big Event is simply unrealistic. Blame whomever you want for this crappy situation, but it's the way it is and it's not changing anytime soon. it is not up to you to make Jesus more convenient, but it is up to you to look at your programming and ministry goals and be willing to blow it up or spread it out. It's unfair to expect the same group of students to attend 3 programs a week.
The Good News is that this world is ripe to tear down these walls and spread the message of acceptance and love as Jesus did. When the group is looking too one-dimentional, we can do something different to create space for the diversity that the Kingdom of God is all about. We can spread out the schedule and demonstrate that the church can lead the way in living out a lifestyle that includes rest.
Obstacle 2 - People
The people standing in your way will cause you to scream, and sometimes make you want to quit altogether. The people that don't seem to understand what you're talking about are the people that Jesus was fed up with as well. The religious don't get it. They don't know why you aren't telling kids (above) that they are sinners and need to change. They don't know why you're not using the beautiful church building for your programs, they don't know why teenagers are leaving the church and they don't know why the church is 'losing authority' in this country. The religious don't get it.
At some point, if you're in a situation where people seem to be keeping teenagers from Jesus, you will need to leave that situation, allow them to be whatever they want to be and go somewhere else that embraces the good news.
The Good News is that these people represent a very small group, but they're loud. Most people just need to be inspired, they don't have the time you do to study the culture and understand the needs of teenagers today. They don't have the same passion you do and they need a conversation to help them understand why it's necessary to rip a hole in the roof.
Obstacle 3 - Structures
I could spend too much time ranting about this, and that, believe it or not is not the purpose of this book. So, instead, I'll just ask you a question; how would you do Youth Ministry if you had no money, no building, no organization to associate yourself with? Where would you start and how would you help teenagers see Jesus?
The Good News is that it is possible to do all this that we are doing without the structures we have in place, it's just a whole lot messier.
Obstacle 4 - Inward Faith
Give me 100 Youth Pastors and I'll show you 100 Youth Pastors who have seen a teenager's faith come alive when she started changing her patterns and serving others. We have spent so much energy encouraging teenagers to work on their faith alone in their rooms that they don't know how to develop their faith in the context of community, as it was designed to be developed.
When Youth Workers tell me about some teens that 'got saved', I find myself standing there, kind of like those in the room with Jesus and Johnny in Mark 2, thinking to myself, "cool…now what?".
If all that we're doing is getting kids off the naughty list and onto the nice list so they have a mansion waiting in heaven, then that's great. And yes, you should be excited that kids were asleep through your message until you told them to stand up and they did! But if we've given our lives to Youth Ministry because we know that Jesus was interested in opening our eyes to the Kingdom of God here & now, and seeing young people fall in love with the personJesus and the Way of Jesus so much that they dedicate their lives for the sake of others…then we won't be satisfied with a 'decision'.
Try not to get hung up by the number of teens that showed up to your mid-week program or signed up for your retreat, but find your 'win' in how many teens have a caring adult walking with them through life. If it's anywhere near a 1:5 ratio, take your spouse out for a drink and celebrate! Then get to work, training those adults on how to counsel teens.
The Good News is that every single person is good at this kind of Youth Ministry, the kind that walks alongside teens through every element of their lives helping them make choices based on the way of Jesus. Every adult can find a teenager that is just like they were and walk with them through the journey of faith. Only the 'best youth pastors' can work the crowd to get the one-time decisions.
So, what can you do?
It starts with being willing to try something different, for the sake of good news!
-Think of the names three teens you know that are not currently following Jesus (write them down).
-What obstacles do you believe are keeping these individuals from seeing Jesus and experiencing life-change?
-What can you do today to help avoid or destroy these obstacles to and help change the lives of teenagers today?