In a few months, I will be leaving my current youth ministry position and taking a new position that focuses on Christian Education and Outreach. Part of the transition for me will be shifting from the running of a weekly youth ministry to focusing more of my time on area-wide youth ministry for the Disciples of Christ churches in my part of Missouri and Illinois. For the first time in almost 20 years, I won't be leading a weekly program and as I contemplate that shift, I've started looking back over my tenure as a youth pastor (sort of like my life flashing before my eyes!) and considering where I've taken a stand over the years. What for me have emerged as the non-negotiables when it comes to walking side-by-side with teens in ministry?
One of the first ones that comes to mind involves the entire issue of the use of violence and competition in youth ministry. "What?" you ask. "Who would advocate violence in youth ministry?" Well, perhaps I would have 20 years ago, and perhaps I did. Just as many of us in teen ministry today use such activities as laser tag, paintball, and whole nights focused on playing video games like Halo to attract kids to our churches. Just as many of us create programs, games, and activities focused on producing winners and losers, encouraging groups in the ministry to take sides against one another (the middle schoolers AGAINST the high schoolers, the girls AGAINST the boys, one school AGAINST another). And it's only natural, only "human" to fall into this habit. Violence and competition are the way of the world. They seem to be part of our DNA. Even in simulated violence (shooting squirt guns at each other, playing "Grand Theft Auto," watching a movie and cheering when the bad guy is killed) we feel a rush of adrenaline. Our brains can't always distinguish a real act of violence from a simulated one. And what's the harm? After all, no one is really get hurt. It's just pretend.
But over the years, my heart starting telling me that there had to be a different way. That what we are called to do in youth ministry is offer our young ones a vision of a different world. The culture offers a world of violence and competition -- of winners and losers -- but Jesus offers us a "kindom" where peace rules, and where all are beloved of God. Violence and competition may be just part of our "human" nature. But Christ doesn't just call us to human nature. Christ calls us to embrace our "God nature."
So in the end, do I think that those who schedule laser tag nights and outings to the paintball range are doing irreparable harm to our youth? No. I would just ask them to consider what precious little time we have with our teens. What few years we have to offer them a vision of a different way to be in the world. A vision of a world that doesn't look like what they see out there right now. What few opportunities we have to allow youth to try that vision on for size -- and to live it out in Christian community that finds it hard to believe that Jesus would have raised a weapon, real or not, against another. A community that sees Jesus lifting the loser up out of the dirt at the end of the battle and inviting himself to her home for lunch. A Jesus who would remind us that we've got this violence and competition thing down pretty good. Do we really need to keep running simulations with toy guns to get better at it? How about practicing peace, community, and love a little more. Here I stand...--Brian