Youth ministry is complicated. Yet some of the most basic mistakes are the ones even the most veteran youth workers make. However, with just a little bit of intentionality and forethought, you can avoid these simple mistakes so that your ministry isn’t being held back by these rookie errors.
- The parent trap
Teenagers can have complicated and sometimes tenuous relationships with their parents. A cheap and easy way into the hearts of some youth is through the gap you might find between them and their parents. Don’t do it.
Teens are remarkably gifted at seeing the hypocrisy in their parent’s lifestyles yet lack the wisdom to know that very few lives could stand up to the scrutiny of a teenager with insider information. Youth workers are often called to counsel young people exactly at these moments of psychic trauma (we have a great video training on mentoring and counseling teens 101).
This is where it gets tricky folks. Don’t walk into the minefield of taking sides. You might be fully convinced that this young person is right, but it rarely helps to acknowledge this. Here’s why.
First, you should never forget that you are talking to the most biased person on the planet when it comes to their parents. They may use big words they learned in AP English class and state their case quite calmly but you should never forget that they are talking about the person who makes them do their homework and begrudgingly pick up their laundry. Except in cases where abuse of some type is alleged, always hold to a healthy level of doubt before you do anything.
Second, despite the hours of listening, group games, and spiritual talks you pour your heart into, this young person is being shaped more significantly (for better or worse) by the parent they may hate in the moment you shared.
In most cases, it is so much better to align forces with parents. Become the ally they need and work to equip, and humbly remind, parents of their responsibility for the spiritual development of their child.
2. Naive partnerships
As budgets tighten, churches are sometimes drawn to partnerships to support a youth ministry for the youth they may have (or hope to have). Working collaboratively isn’t a bad thing. Under the right conditions partnering can accomplish exactly what you hope for but I’ve seen it go side ways far too many times.
One type of partnership I’ve seen backfire for the local church is with parachurch organizations that had their own goals and incompatible theology. In such scenarios, the local church might pay a 1/2-time salary and get the promised reward of an influx of youth in their program. Problems arise when church members realize that the youth never seem to get much further than the program and the parachurch structure with its own camps, values, etc. When the leader inevitably leaves, most of the youth evaporate as well.
The other type of partnership is between local churches in close proximity. While it may be churches within a single denomination, it is often an ecumenical endeavor. These types of partnerships have real promise and make a lot of sense on paper. However, that promise can be undermined by idealism and the absence of real discernment by the leadership of the partnering churches.
Asking good questions before diving into a partnership of any sort is essential.
- How will the leadership be shared?
- What about the financial support?
- How will theological differences be honored?
- How will the collective process new youth as they consider membership?
- Where will the group meet and will that rotate?
- If the partnering churches are imbalanced in size, health, resources, how should the partnership account for that?
3. Age war engaged
The temptation of working with any particular age group is to elevate the concerns and viewpoints of that group over the others. To a degree this is fully appropriate as advocacy for the special needs and desires of a group is important to its participation in the whole. But the more adamantly one holds to the priorities of one age group, the less likely they will value doing ministry together across generations.
Healthy youth ministry recognizes the need to balance the interests of younger people with those of older generations. In this, youth workers have an important bridging role to play.
In an earlier post I started by discussing the problem of the one-earred Mickey Mouse. This programmatic shortcoming can also be a generational one when the ethereal connections between younger and older members fail as conduits of anything more than the semblance of relationship. The youth worker, and perhaps a handful of others, become the only real connection points robbing all of an intergenerational opportunity too rare in our lives.
In a church environmental anxious about resources and its future, the potential for advocacy to turn into warfare is even more problematic. The young are pitched as the future we should be investing in while older people are the past. When it works, this strategy leads to an investment in youth at the cost of an exacerbation of the divisions between young and old.
Getting to the real fruit
In the beginning, we acknowledged that youth ministry is a complicated thing. As I ruminated on each of these rookie mistakes, it was hard to not see the common thread running through them. While all churches are capable of making mistakes, those churches who are overly anxious, or obsessed with a quick return on their investment, did so repeatedly.
In her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean writes, “The essential mark of maturity in Christians—as in peach trees—is generativity. Mature faith bears fruit. Mature Christians are branches on which God’s love is multiplied and offered for the nourishment of others.”
The first step to good youth ministry then is grounding it in a healthy church culture where such maturity exists. Churches that are focused on the long-term development of disciples, not the short-term attraction of program consumers, are less likely to fall into these traps and more able to develop thoughtful ministry allowing youth to encounter Jesus.
And that it what it should really be all about. Church leaders can obsess about numbers, parents might desire that their children learn morals, youth might want to have fun, but good youth ministry holds that all in creative tension with God’s desire to call young people to change the world.
Youth ministry then, is not a program that can be added to church to make it vital. Instead, a healthy church culture is a prerequisite to ministry that is faithfully focused on the discipleship of young people.