"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.