In a month, 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? Read part one of this series here: Violence in Youth Ministry. Part two follows:
Remember the slogan which was made famous during Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign: "It's the economy, Stupid!"? I've often thought that every youth pastor should have a sign over her (or his) desk that reads "It's about Jesus, stupid!" This may seem obvious, but I know too well how tempting it can be in youth ministry to make church seem to be about anything BUT Jesus. I imagine most of us have been there, joking with the youth that if they'll sit through Bible study this week, we promise to do something "fun" next week. Perhaps we are careful about our scheduling, making sure that weeks heavy on theology are balanced out by equal number of weeks (and then some) that are filled with game nights and trips to the movies. Of course, all of this is, at it's core, about keeping our numbers up, up, up. And let's face it: the more you talk about Jesus -- the more you focus on faith instead of "fun,"-- the greater the risk you run of losing teens who aren't there for the faith formation -- they just heard that you had a great XBox set-up!
But what is youth ministry without Jesus at it's core? It's our identity as followers of the way of Christ that gives us our distinctiveness and forms our reason for being. So I say: Don't soft pedal the Jesus stuff. Make sure that every participant, every parent, every visitor who comes in contact with your youth program knows that, whatever else you may be, at your center you are in the business of proclaiming and following the Way of Jesus. Might this cause you to lose some youth who aren't there for all the "religious" stuff? Possibly, but you could also argue that when we water-down our identity, when we lose our distinctiveness, we cease to be what we are called to be by God. Furthermore, I'd argue that if we are willing to lead radically Christ-centered ministries, we will attract young people searching for a deeper and more meaningful and impactful faith.
I've had the good fortune in the past several months to work with a really fine new senior pastor at my church in the suburbs of St. Louis. I marvel at how he sits in committee meetings at church, listening to people discuss the need to increase stewardship or fix the boiler or update the nursery. And each time, as the conversation seems to draw to a close, he steps in and utters the magic word: Jesus. He talks about how we are Christ-followers with good news to share about God's love and grace. And that fixing the boiler or raising more money or updating the nursery only all matters if it helps us in our mission to spread that good news we have through Jesus Christ. And even as his proclamations are sometimes meant with blank stares, again and again, he reminds us, in the diplomatic way of a good pastor: "It's about Jesus, Stupid!" We youth ministers should be willing, and are called, to do no less.--Brian