Thursday, September 17, 2009

    Are We Playing It Safe in Youth Ministry?

    My old ritual, as youth group would wrap-up on Sunday evenings and the young'ns were heading home, was to say to them "Be Safe." Isn't that a strange way to say goodbye? Of course, all I meant was "Have a good week and come back in one piece" but is that really the best advice we have to give to our youth? They live in a wold of school violence, AIDS, drugs, computer predators, terrorism. Is being safe all it's cracked up to be? What about when it comes to our faith? Is teaching our youth to "play it safe" our best option? Probably not, but are we willing to lead youth ministries that encourage real risk?

    One of my favorite passages in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe finds the young protagonists chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. The Beavers are trying to describe Aslan, the Lion (a metaphorical stand-in for Christ in the story). Lucy, taken aback by the notion of meeting a lion, asks, "But is he safe?" Mr. Beaver replies. "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't. But he's good."

    Do our youth ministries too often offer a Jesus who is "safe?" A Jesus who asks little of us beyond giving intellectual assent to a list of religious beliefs? A Jesus who says, "Just agree that I'm your Lord and Savior and then I'll leave you alone to your video game nights and your road trips and your skateboard parks?" We know that for the early church, following Jesus was not just about committing to a list of do's and dont's or pledging allegiance to religious dogma. For them following Jesus meant walking through life the way he walked, living and loving as he lived and loved. Theologian Paul Tillich describes this as making the spirit of Christ a reality by "participating in his very being." In other words, following Christ is not primarily about abstract belief but about a way of being in the world.

    And if we dared to do this in our youth ministry, we'd better be prepared for trouble. Because following Jesus with our youth -- really following Jesus -- will be anything but safe. Because here is what it would look like:

    • Radically reinvisioning the world in which we live -- even though it's a world in which we are pretty comfortable (Do our youth rooms really need a mini-fridge and an Xbox or should our priorities be elsewhere?).

    • Letting go of all our old distinctions of rich/poor, male/female, gay/straight, young/old, powerful/powerless, respected/shamed, cool/uncool, popular/unpopular (Who is not in your youth group because they don't think they'd be welcome in the church? What are you doing to extend to them the hand of Christian hospitality?)

    • Opposing violence and working for peace (Is it time for a protest march?)

    • Speaking out against intolerance and injustice and calling on the Church to do the same. (How do your youth see the intersection of their faith and their attitudes about healthcare, poverty, AIDS, abortion, the death penalty, racism, etc.?)

    • Leaving the comfort of our youth rooms to go out and literally feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the lonely, heal the sick. (Can we do this every Sunday and not just on the yearly mission trip?)

    • Deciding that sharing our faith means more than convincing other people of our religious point of view or showing publicly that we are more pious than the next person. It's about how we live and love in this world. ("Preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words.")

    Of course, none of this stuff is safe. Some of it may even be dangerous. Some of your teens will jump at the chance to be world-changers. Some will leave and find a youth group that is more entertaining and less challenging. And know that when you start messing with the present order of things, those who benefit from that order will always see what you are doing as a threat. Perhaps this is why churches work so hard to keep youth pacified with video games and big screen TVs and trips to Six Flags and their own rooms far, far away from everyone else. We figure if we keep them distracted enough, they might not notice that this Jesus guy really is a radical, dangerous troublemaker calling us to overturn the tables of the world and work for something completely different.

    So, how do you know if your group is following the radical Jesus or just playing it safe? Ask yourself: Is our ministry meeting any resistance from those, youth and adults alike, who are happy with the cultural status quo? Have we confused the gospel with our culture’s recipe for respectability, comfortableness, safety? Does the Jesus we follow demand anything of our youth other than being members in the "nice people" club? Is the Jesus we share with our youth more like a kitty cat or Aslan the Lion?

    I know many of you out there are leading "dangerous" youth ministries. We'd like to hear from you and know what you're doing. You may just inspire the rest of us to stop playing it safe.



    Anonymous said...

    Good, challenging word. In this post-modern world, I think it better serves us and our youth to present Christ and who He is, how he is the Truth and the Way, not just a truth and a way.

    Paul Turner said...

    It is more dangerous inside the church than it is outside. It is like being trapped in a garage with the car running and breathing spiritual carbon monoxide, until you pass out and then die spiritually. The toxic fumes of religion are no match for following Christ in the open air of a hurting world.

    Nancy said...

    I'm living that "safe" youth group (note - I can't even call it ministry) and it's killing me! Oh, to be dangerous...that's what I want. How can I get my church to become dangerous?

    Cobus said...

    So much of youth ministry have been tuned to "protect" teens from the "evil world". The church turns missional, but strangely enough youth ministry seems to be the last to change. In youth ministry we still do the contra-world type ministry where we simply duplicate what happens in the local culture and so it in a "safe Christian environment". Dangerous Youth Ministry might be not have youth group, but to send our teens back to where they come from... that is where they should be living, not true?

    Marv Nelson said...

    Brian, I am super stoked you wrote this. I'm doing a 12 week series on Jesus from Oct-Jan. I wrote a blog right before I read yours ( We do play it safe too much, forgetting to get to the authentic Jesus. I've been challenged by men such as Mark Driscoll and Timothy Keller to make Jesus known! I'll have all my content up on my Emergingyp blog, so I would love for you to check it out.

    *Nancy- To make a Church dangerous, we as Youth pastors must first be dangerous. When Jesus is being made known and people see the fruit in our ministry they will either: fire us, or follow us.

    Jay Miklovic said...

    Brian- This is a great site, thank you for the work you do.

    We started 2 years ago doing what we call eVANgelism, where we pile into vans loaded with press pots of coffee and hot cocoa and head to downtown Toledo Ohio on winter evenings (typically thursday) and give everyone we can find coffee and cocoa, sometimes praying with people, sometimes sharing the Gospel, sometimes just having conversations.

    This evolved into a summer ministry where we take our bikes downtown split up and just meet people on their lunch breaks, or general pedestrians and talk about life, pray, and share the gospel. The response has been tremendous for the most part. The one piece of advice everyone gives us is this "Be careful".

    I understand the concern, I really do, but that advice is an indictment on where we are as a church in america... too much caution, too much fear.

    Anyone who reads this who is a youth minister... start doing missional work on a regular basis with your youth, weekly or bi-monthly, or whenever you can, your work will become such a joy. If you feel your job is to keep kids coming to church and active and keeping your numbers up and such you will be so drained and burnout. You cannot keep up with their changing desires. Getting them in service will give them new desires altogether and you won't have to constantly beg for attendance, or purchase the latest and greatest.

    Sorry for the long comment. Great work here, I will certainly follow the RSS from here out.

    Brian said...

    Thanks all for engaging in this conversation. I believe it is an important one. I think a key to engaging our youth in the faith is to show them it means something, that it has an impact on the world and that it's not just one more activity on their social calendar.

    Paul's image of the choking on car fumes is harsh, but I think valid. We keep our youth bottled up inside the building too much and they will think that's all faith is --showing up, hanging out, and going home again. So being dangerous, as Cobus suggest, might mean tossing out our current models, and taking youth ministry to the streets, as Jay is already doing. I also wholeheartedly agree with Marv that the youth look to us to see what we are passionate about and how we respond to that passion.

    Jay Miklovic said...

    in regards to 'taking it to the streets', just find a few kids who are willing to be pushed, seriously only two or three, get them out there doing something that even you are uncomfortable with, and the effects of the experiences of the 'few' will effect your whole group and gradually change the culture.

    Too often we read of groups doing what we see as edgy or bold ministry and we see our own ministry as lacking and think we are sooo far from what others are doing, when the reality is that we are a mere step away from 'dangerous' youth ministry. Our street ministry started with Two leaders, one youth (the daughter of a leader), my wife and a friend of ours nervously going downtown with coffee and serving 2 cups, while driving by a ton of people we were afraid to engage.

    But that started it... and eventually boldness increased, and an addiction to service was created and grew.

    The bike riding thing in the summer went 3 weeks before we even talked to one person! But once it started it became a desire and go easier.

    Take heart, we really are only one step from boldness and danger, and it is not instant.

    Anonymous said...

    Kudos to Jay, your comments need to be heard by far more people working with youth.

    After reading your post Brian I couldn't help but think of Lenore Skenazy in New York who wrote a book called "Free Range Kids." As a reporter she found that the HYPE about danger was always WAY out of proportion to the reality.

    She was voted worst mom for letting her 9 year old ride by himself on the New York Subway system. Churches could probably do months of lessons on just statistics alone showing how the things we think are dangerous in reality are not the things we should be worried about.

    (Oh yeah Brian, I hope its o.k. that I borrowed your C.S. Lewis quote. Good stuff.)

    Keep up the great work.

    Brian said...

    Hey Jason(Livefish),
    Thanks for commenting. I have to agree that even though we live in a culture where parents are highly permissive, they often can be overly concerned about perceived "danger" when it comes to their kids. I've had numerous teens in my career who were not allowed to go on mission trips to inner city areas because the parent deemed it "too dangerous."