Wednesday, October 24, 2007

    Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry?

    I've never been a fan of the "purpose-driven" craze, partly because I think they are just stating the obvious and partly because, owing to my particular location within what some call "progressive Christianity," I do not share their focus on evangelism as a means towards salvation of the lost. In fact, we simply do not talk about salvation and the afterlife much in my Christian circles.

    I recently preached on Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus, which appears on the surface to be a story about the afterlife. But I remarked (and this is no observation unique to myself) that it really is not a story about the afterlife. It is a story about life in the here-and-now. It's a story about the opportunities we have before us to live in the Kingdom/Kindom/Realm/Empire of God each existential moment of life. I think Christianity has a great deal to say to us about the present life. But if pressed as a pastor to say anything about "the next life," I really would have very little to share, other than I trust that as God cares for us now, God will care for us eternally. What shape that eternity will take -- I haven't a clue. Nor do I think worrying about it should preoccupy our time. I do not believe that the primary focus of Christianity should be a concern about the afterlife. The primary focus of Christianity should be our relationship with God through Christ right now, and the possibility of that relationship to heal and transform the world.

    With all that in mind, I started wondering just what we might say the purpose of youth ministry might be. For some who read this blog, it may very well be the salvation of souls from eternal damnation. But for those of us who do not ascribe to that brand of the Christian faith, what other possibilities motivate us? Here are a few I'd suggest (of course, this list is not exhaustive and your list will be different depending on your own understanding of the faith, the sort of church in which you serve, and the particular group of youth you lead) :

    To Introduce Youth to the Christian Faith:
    Not too long ago I wrote about Mike Yaconelli's assertion that youth are too young to be disciples. Becoming a disciple of Christ is more than taking an oath (because, as Marcus Borg often says, this would be "salvation by syllables"). Becoming a disciple takes a journey. It takes a willingness to sacrifice, walk through some fire, and struggle. Many youth have yet to give themselves over to this sort of commitment to faith. But one goal of youth ministry can be to introduce them to what it means to follow Christ--to introduce them to Christ's radical, boundary-breaking way of peace and justice. To help them be, in a sense, interns for Christ. In this way, we are perhaps preparing teens to become the disciple they will be later in life.

    To Help Youth Build Community:
    The Christian faith is built upon community. It is built upon compassionate relationships that recognize all as beloved of God. One goal of youth ministry should be to help youth learn what it means to live in radically open and loving community. Youth ministry should offer opportunties for youth to experiment with what this sort of community might look like. It should provide youth a glimpse of what it means to be loved unconditionally. It should help youth struggle with loving others even when it is difficult.

    To Help Youth Uncover Their Spiritual Gifts:
    Teens are bombarded with messages that tell them that their self-worth will ultimately be tied to the size of their paycheck and their ability to consume within our capitalist economy. Youth ministry can help youth see that they have God-given gifts that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. These gifts could include, among others, mission, prayer, teaching, healing, and hospitality.

    To Be Spiritual Companions to Youth:
    Let's face it. Being a teenager is tough. Not many of us would relive those days even if we could. Teens struggle with issues of self-worth, confusion about identity, and worries about fitting in. Youth ministry programs can offer youth the mentorship of faithful adults who will love them just as they are, walk with them on their spiritual journey, and help them navigate the challenges of adolescence.

    To Awaken Youth to God's Presence:
    Many teens have lived so long with the idea that God lives "up there" or "out there" that they find it difficult to figure out where God is in their lives. Youth ministry can help attune youth to the God-saturated world we live in by introducing them to a variety of Christian spiritual practices that can help to awaken our sensitivity to God's presence.


    Dan said...

    Good stuff, Brian!

    Brian said...

    Thanks, Dan. I'd consider this a "working document" at this point. Even as I wrote it I thought "You really should be discerning this with a group of youth ministers" because I'm certain I missed things that should be on that list.

    jeremy zach said...

    Brian I think we are smoking the type of methodology when it comes to doing youth ministry.

    Here are my focuses within my student ministries mid-week program:

    I want to establish a welcoming, safe, comfortable, and experiential environment that can honestly deal with students becoming a follower of Christ.
    Here are the values:
    ~ growing and connecting in our knowledge of the Scriptures
    ~ growing and connecting in our relationship with each other
    ~ growing and connecting in our relationship with God through music, art, prayer, meditation, His Word, and experience
    ~ serving one another, God, and the local and global communities.

    Thanks for the post.

    Brian said...

    Thanks for posting Jeremy. Your list is excellent. I realize I should have included scripture more specically in my list (though it is implied) and I particularly like the way you state this: "growing and connecting in our relationship with God through music, art, prayer, meditation, His Word, and experience."

    Erin said...

    These lists are great, and I'd like to add another two bits:
    *Connecting youth and adults in a meaningful, safe way.
    So often one sees the attitude of "those kids" and "the old people," when really they have a lot to offer each other.
    *Allowing safe space particularly for self exploration. I serve an ONA UCC church, where half of my kids come from same sex parent househols. THey have BIG questions, and I'm pleased that we can offer a place for them to talk about it.

    Brian said...

    Great additions, Erin. I think about the stories of Jesus helping marginalized individuals come to see their full humanity and dignity as children of God. This should certainly be a big part of what we are all about. Glad you are sharing your gifts at an ONA church, particularly with our partners in the UCC!

    jeremy zach said...

    Erin Yes!!! Those values of assimulation are in my overarching student ministry mission statement. Those values were just for my mid-week.

    This is a great blog, Brian. I love the content. I feel like I have found some YM who think like me.

    keep fighting for the Kingdom.

    Anonymous said...

    I have to wonder what we are benefiting by segregating the family when they enter the church building.

    It would seem to me that books like Purpose Driven Youth Ministry, and others should be read by parents so they can properly raise their own children, and yes, that pretty much eliminates the need for the "youth program" at the local church, except to provide a fun place for kids to hang out with their own age group, something that shouldn't take the place of "normal" interaction with adults.

    David K said...

    Brian, I appreciate your thoughts re: community and students needing to know what it really means to love and be loved... a real place to practice the "one anothers" and discover and excercise spiritual gifts is essential in the life of a young person who is being "made" into a disciple. I am probably challenging something that's an established position closed to debate that doesn't fit on this thread (so feel free to delete it or move it to another place), but I wonder if it's appropriate to respectfully submit a disagreement at this juncture... it may be that I'm misunderstanding you, but "I do not share their focus on evangelism as a means toward salvation of the lost" (first paragraph) and to "introduce youth to the Christian faith" seem contradictory. I'm not an altar-call at every service kind of guy, and feel that most evangelistically driven youth ministry is neglectful of a great deal of the stuff of Christianity. And indeed, the mysteries of the afterlife are significant (and, well, mysterious) and so it seems counterintuitive to spend significant time talking about the details of an afterlife when the Bible itself neglects to mention many details. But what's the point of talking about a "faith" that has no substantial object? Why bring up the story of the rich man and Lazarus and the call to live in the here and now without the motivation that IS clearly in the text as an essential component of the text... Namely, live in what you call "each existential moment of life" precisely with the motivation of the reality of an afterlife (as not the ONLY but certain one of the motivations). Or are we to assume that Jesus didn't mean to imply that an afterlife actually exists and that the whole thing was just a helpful "what if there was an afterlife, boy wouldn't you be sorry" sort of thing. There are several motivations for living in the "here-and-now" but how is ignoring the "then-and-there" a "progressive"? Afterall, doesn't that phrase imply a future hope of good things to come?

    Jack Schmitt said...

    You stated, "I do not share their focus on evangelism as a means towards salvation of the lost. In fact, we simply do not talk about salvation and the afterlife much in my Christian circles."

    Let me see. Jesus' stated mission was to "seek and to save those who are lost." And we're supposed to IMITATE Jesus. So how can you stand in your pulpit, Sunday after Sunday, and preach, with little or no regard for the salvation of your listeners? If the mission of the "progressive movement" ignores that of our Savior's, then I sure want nothing to do with it...