Thursday, September 06, 2012

    A Growing Youth Ministry is a Dying Youth Ministry

    "A growing church is a dying church.  It has to be.  It cannot be otherwise.  The way to Easter Sunday goes through Good Friday.  The way to the empty tomb goes through Golgotha.  The way to resurrection goes through crucifixion.  When Jesus told you to take up your cross and follow, did you expect it to lead anywhere else?  What Jesus told us about himself is also true of churches: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears no fruit."

    The above quote comes from a challenging essay making its way around the internet this week by J. Barrett Lee, a young pastor in New York. The focus of his essay, entitled "A Growing Church is a Dying Church," argues that churches expecting a pastor to make them grow are only fooling themselves.  Growth doesn't happen unless the people of the church allow God to work through them, and if a church wants to grow it actually has to be ready to die.  As new people come in and change necessarily happens, current members have to be ready to let go of the past, the "we've always done it this way" attitude, and allow the grain of wheat to fall and die so that something new can grow.  As I read this excellent essay, it immediately occurred to me that we need to ebrace the same attitude as we lead youth ministries within the Church.

    Too often I have worked in youth ministries where the same old  "one-size-fits-all" approach and calendar of events were used year after year: Big parking lot party for fall kick-off? Check!  Spirituality retreat in October at local campground? Check. Plan for cool mission trip location for the summer? Check! Bi-monthly lock-ins? Check! Start each meeting with games? Check! Separate groups for the middle schoolers and high schoolers? Check!  

    I've even served in youth ministries where there was a reluctance to invite in outside youth (those with no church home but also no connection to our church) because it was feared that an influx of new members might change the feel of the group or move our focus away from "our kids" to these newcomers.  I've also served in ministries where it was the youth themselves, particularly those who had been in the group for several years, who insisted that certain things had to happen a certain way every year because it was "tradition!" Never mind that those traditions only predated those youth by a year or so. 

    In contrast, imagine a youth ministry where every fall is like starting off with a new group, for indeed that is what happens!  Seniors have perhaps graduated and left, current members have each moved up a grade, adults leaders may have moved in or out of the group, and everyone's lives have moved ahead to new places.  Rather than trying to keep on doing the same old thing, we should be looking to understand the new needs of this current group of youth and how Gods' Spirit might be calling to each of them and your ministry in unique and new ways.  Ultimately, our ministries are about people and our connection with God -- not programs.  We have to be ready to let go of program and traditions that were important last year but which may not speak to the current ministry.  We need to be ready to help our youth participate in death and resurrection in their own lives as they continue to grow and understand who they are as children of God. Perhaps the best way to model this is to be open to death and resurrection within our churches and our youth ministries themselves.

    For more ideas on how to transition with your youth into this new school year (including a thought about actually having a funeral for last year's youth group), go here


    Meade'sMind said...

    The problem is that the church expects for you do "THINGS". If there is no-"thing" happening then your adequacey as a pastor is questioned. At the beginning of the year I'm expected to have my calendar layed out! How can those expectations be balanced with finding each group's levels and interests every year?

    Susan Barton said...

    Brian- Brad and I worked at one church where we were certain that we didn't really need to do anything with the youth in order to pacify the long as we had "pretty" write ups in the newsletter then they perceived we were doing something and they were happy! The obvious problem was that we had difficulty getting the adults involved in the life of the that would be life changing!

    gray said...

    This is very true..I was a former youth ministry head, but now I'm kind of a 'caretaker' because the current leader is away, so me being the 'leader' again reminds me of the past and the failures I really regret. But the current youth group is different from the past-- they have different characters, so a different approach must be made. But the Message is still the same. In every death to self there's a resurrection through Christ. Blessings!

    KaGe said...

    My experience is in rural youth ministry. And in rural youth ministry you always feel like the hired hand. The people of the church view you as someone that they hired to do a job, that job is teaching church to their youth. I was fired from my one hired job because I refused to do a big program with the youth. In their eyes I refused to do the job that they hired me for.

    Well, that was two years ago. Now I'm heading up a small relationship based young men's ministry in our new church. It has been fantastic! In the past three months we've covered things that I hadn't covered in the previous youth group in two years!

    I understand what he's saying about a dying youth ministry. But I think a dying youth ministry has to be one without agenda. We cannot approach youth ministry in the intent to create Christians. I believe that the most effective youth ministry is one where we go meet them on their journey instead of asking them to come and embrace ours.

    Brian Kirk said...

    Amen KaGe. I couldn't have said it better. I appreciate the other commenters as well, for you all raise, in one way or another, the challenge we face when the church expects a certain kind of "program." This expectation, of course, doesn't not allow for the shifting needs of the students. I wonder that, as adults, most of us expect that a quality youth ministry probably must look a lot like the one we experienced when we were teens. That, after all, is the model we know.