Does Youth Ministry Form Bad Traditions?

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(This Summer (2017), I’ll be working on my 5th year in youth ministry. When I first became a student minister, I joined on-line peer groups in which I hoped to build camaraderie and supportive networks. To some degree that did happen. I also began to see certain “formulas” surface as to what youth ministry was supposed to look like. My journey in youth ministry has been marked more by failures than success, but through those failures I learned I didn’t have to do things like everyone else had did. This freeing realization allowed some truly authentic ministry to take place. As I reflect back over this post from April 2015, I am reminded of the fact that youth ministry is messy. For those that are volunteers, parents, leaders, pastors, etc…who are involved I offer but one simple bit of advice; raise your eyebrow when you come across an individual or group who believe they have it “figured out.”)

I want to bring attention to a trend I’ve noticed. I don’t particularly know how long this trend has been in effect. It relates to the church, and given the fact that I wasn’t the most frequent Sunday School attendee growing up I have little past knowledge to pull from. So I am going to assume here, and most of the time we know where that leads us, that this trend is at least 15-20 years old.

But before I unveil this trend, or dare I say tradition, perhaps a little more background is needed. At least a better picture needs to be painted before we can take a look and dissect the issue.

I want you to think of your Sunday morning worship time in church. I would argue that on the whole, most churches still hold 11am as the beginning of their call to worship. This has been a tradition (at least here in the North America) that has been around from the 18th and 19th centuries. Family life focused around a more agricultural community that demanded a constant hand in upkeep and chores. A close to midday service allowed people time for chores as well as adequate time to travel to and from their local church.

KABOOM. A tradition is formed.

Of course the time of service is not the only institutional thinking we’ve picked up over the years. See if this sounds familiar. You enter church and immediately are handed a bulletin filled with upcoming events. You grab a seat as prelude music is being played. Someone from the church might make some form of greeting and announcements. The choir begins to sing somewhere between 2-3 songs. Usually an invitation is given to greet your neighbor or take part in the ‘sharing of the peace’. Not long after an offertory prayer is said and the plates are passed. A sermon is given that usually last around half an hour. An invitation is given, more songs are sung, and a benediction finally closes the hour.

Where did this practice of worship come from? Many of us have attended at one time or another a church where these institutional forms of worship happen. Without totally getting sidetracked from my original purpose (tracing the start of this form of worship is another blog post entirely), I believe it is fair to say that most of these traditions have become part of our Protestant Christian heritage. The effects of the Reformation left Protestant believers with two cornerstone sacraments, baptism and communion, but that seems to be the extent of rituals brought with us from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church. Over time we have established new ideas and beliefs that have separated us even further into different denominations that hold their own particular understanding of doctrine.

I know that was a bit of a tangent there, but what I wanted to get across is that we have established a lot of our own traditions over the years…dare I say some biblical and some cultural (ex. the start time of churches). What has been done 200, 100 or even 50 years ago has an effect on how we do things now. Think of the impact that Sunday School has had on the church, with the beginning of that movement being just at start of the 19th century!

So where am I going with all this?

Youth ministry.

I frequently read a lot of different youth ministry blogs and websites. And before it looks like I’m about to throw many fellow youth pastors under the bus, let me first say that many of these individuals are highly committed to their ministry to students. Passion is not in short supply, however what we tend to focus on sometimes are activities over substance. The scary aspect of this type of thinking can lead to traditions that in all likelihood we do not wish to establish. Let me give you a few examples.

On a weekly basis, one of the youth pastor message boards that I frequent, someone will request a funny video to show to their youth that week. These videos are sometimes funny and by all means harmless (if you haven’t seen the video of the guy dunking on his wife in a Target…you should).

Another request is for group game ideas. Whether it is “minute to win it’ inspired games or one that went viral a few weeks ago, the live action Hungry Hungry Hippos game. The pressure for every youth ministry to have their own Gaga Ball pit is becoming a must have to get kids to come to youth events.

These are just two examples, but what I want to start and try and convey is that youth ministers have now started to form their own traditions. Let’s take the same steps we did earlier with the typical church service and now do it with a Youth Service. Students arrive and have a free time to socialize. They play some form of the above mentioned games. They are fed a snack or food. If the church has a youth band, you can fill them in here for a few songs. A funny video is also shown during this time. They are then taught a lesson that in most cases needs to be short as to not lose their attention. Have some form of discussion after said lesson. A few more songs are played. The meeting is then finished off with either free time or another sort of game. This information is what I’ve gathered from other youth ministry websites as well as other youth pastors.

Here is where I worry. We talk a lot in the church about becoming too comfortable. In fact we are warned about the dangers of making church to much about ourselves. More modern churches have been accused of this from the standpoint of not truly needing better facilities. Cushioned seats in their sanctuary to providing the ‘Star Bucks experience’ with free coffee that one can sip on as they listen to a worship team powered by amps, instruments, and lights usually reserved for outdoor concerts. Most of these churches take the stance of “any means necessary” in order to get people in the doors.

This effect has seemed to have trickled down into youth ministry.

 

We need the new Xbox.

We need the biggest flat screen TV.

We need an awesome student led band.

We need door prizes to hand out.

We need the most charismatic youth leaders.

We need the most new innovative games.

We need bigger and better facilities.

 Me. Me. Me. I. I. I. Now. Now. Now.

 Where is our focus? We are laying a foundation with young adults who we are hoping that one day will continue sharing the message of the Gospels for the glory of God’s kingdom. What we are now, not only showing them but teaching them, is that the church is simply a place for you to come be entertained and catered to. This is not a tradition that we need to start or pass on. We must be careful and intentional with our actions toward youth. The foundations of their faith are being laid and what we don’t want to see is youth thinking entertainment is synonymous with church. We come to church to give of ourselves, with our focus on God and his interaction in our lives. Now please understand, I am not saying that fun activities cannot happen at church. Games can be fun and bring a group of students together; I’m simply saying they should not be the target of why we meet and what we teach.

Traditions can be beautiful and sacred acts. At other times they can turn into “sacred idols” if we are not careful. The point I wished to make here is that traditions sometimes happen unintentionally, such as coming home from work and watching Netflix for three hours instead of doing homework (I am speaking from personal experience here). Other times they are intentional, like the act of baptism and communion. We must ask ourselves what are our priorities to our youth and what should they be learning from us. The answer should be clearer than extreme dodge ball.

Reflections on Baltimore

 [Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

(In May of 2015 the United States was witness to altercation after altercation of police brutality that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of individuals. I had been watching events unfold via social media outlets all that year (sadly almost 2 years later NOTHING has changed). Protest turned to full on riots and cities burned. Watching all this unfold I posed a simple question; where was the church?)

My wife and I don’t have cable. We “cut the cord” a few years ago and stream most of everything we watch on our television. For the most part we don’t miss it too much, especially on our finances every month. However we still get local channels thanks to a digital antenna. This is where we get our local news mostly for weather. However turning on the news is not what it used to be even 10 years ago. With 24 hour news stations we as a nation and culture are bombarded with images and stories constantly taking place around the world.

 The last few days I had a hard time not following the riots in Baltimore.

 It’s everywhere. All consuming. From local coverage to the CNNs, FOX News, and MSNBCs. Updates are coming in by the minute of what is taking place as the urban city of Baltimore is on fire in more ways than one. All anyone needs to do is tune into one of the news affiliates mentioned or do a quick search on their computer to see how all of this came about.

  I strongly encourage you to do this. Research what is going on. Pull from different sources to try and get a better picture of why in 2015 we are still struggling like this as a people…as a nation.

  I feel like I’m watching the same thing unfold that I just saw a few months ago in Ferguson Missouri. Confrontation between law officials and inner city African-Americans over the death of two young African-American men. I wish this was just a modern problem, something that has just starting happening in the last few years…but it’s not.

The Detroit riots in 1968.

The Miami riots in 1980.

The L.A. riots in 1992.

The Oakland riots in 2009.

 Now Ferguson. Now Baltimore.

 I don’t know really where to start in trying to understand this. So much violence and emotion. Social media has exploded in the last few days of people taking decisive stands on who they believe are innocent and guilty.

 That is something that I’m not going to do here. I have no desire to label those involved in these horrific events to be simply categorized as either “right or wrong”. This is so much bigger than that. And it’s not just the people in Baltimore, Ferguson, L.A., and Detroit that have to answer for this.

 ALL OF US SHOULD.

 A man is dead, police officers as well as others continue to be injured, business owners are losing everything, and the city continues to burn.

 I have many questions, none with easy answers. However one I feel I must ask to others, but particularly to myself; where is the Church?

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The picture here (courtesy of latimes.com) is a scene from Ferguson and a group of clergy that marched throughout the city. These pastors, ministers, priest, etc… all came under a banner of peace. Asking those around them to protest in different fashions. A violent action doesn’t need a violent response (and let me be clear that not all the protest in Baltimore have been violent in nature). Messages can be heard without making destructive noises. The Church and its people should be a reminder that this is possible.

 The Church at one time took up the charge of being the beacon of light in dark moments. We need only look back several decades to see that the church was used as a meeting place for civil unrest. Martin Luther King Jr. would meet along with his fellow Civil Rights activist in churches all throughout the South during the 1960s. The Church was a meeting place for those without a voice to voice the injustice being done upon them. That is why in 1963 a bomb was let off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama where four children, let me repeat that…children, died because some thought that a certain group/race of people did not deserve their voice to be heard. Destroy the churches and you destroy the movement. Fortunately that was not allowed to happen.

 In times like these we need to be reminded that the Church still needs to serve that cause. When acts of discrimination are being allowed to happen the Church should be there with arms and doors open. A sanctuary where reconciliation is allowed to occur. The last thing the Church should be seen doing is remaining quiet on issues like the ones we are witnessing now. For all the violence spawned by frustration, the Church can point others to a different alternative. Where unity and compassion hit harder than any bricks on police shields ever could.

  This is our calling and duty to be an example. The Church should be a symbol of hope, not an antiquated figure that has lost its value in the modern world. I see men and women locked in arms singing praises in the face of such pain and suffering while not allowing despair and intolerance to be what is remembered when the smoke finally settles.

  The eyes of the nation and the world rest on the Church during this time. I pray that we believe that from chaos, order can be restored. That in moments of weakness God’s strength is made more apparent. That even when death and ruin is all we can see, that life and restoration is what we can offer.

Amen.

What's the big deal with community?

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(Sometimes you look back on what you wrote and say, "Man, that right there...really dates what I was trying to say." I allude to the Rob Bell and John Piper references in a tongue and cheek manner, not so much as to the concept of physical "time" being dated, but to where I was at theologically. What books was I reading in January 2015? Why did I use these individuals as examples? I'll leave it to the mystery of faith and move on. My push back of what I was seeing at the time was in response to shirts I had seen declaring one's love for their particular church and city. As my blog will elaborate on, this is not entirely a bad thing. The purpose was to move toward a bigger picture.)

Let me first say, that before you disagree with me, try and see the bigger picture I’m trying to paint here. We live in a world now filled with sound bites and hash tags and sometimes what we need to convey needs better unpacking than 6 second Vines allow.

 This week marks my second year being a student pastor, but my journey in faith started to really take shape back in 2009. Since that time I’ve become saturated with what many now would consider the emerging church.

 All that really means is that I’m part of a Christian “bubble” so to speak.

 You say the name John Piper, I think Passion.

 You say Rob Bell, and I think Love Wins.

 You say relevant, and I think RELEVANT (emphasis on the capitalization) Magazine.

 The last several years I’ve been indoctrinated into a world that I knew little about before. Whereas I used to look forward to musical concerts, I find myself now looking up Christian Conferences with keynote speakers. I’m now driving hours away to visit other churches to see how they do Sunday morning worship, or what some even call, Sunday morning Experiences.

I can now speak fluent “christianese”, a language that uses terms like “season” and “frozen chosen”.

Where am I going with this…?

 I’m just trying to get across the point that I’m part of this thing. I’m part of this Christian culture.

 Being part of it allows me to see certain things…trends if you will. And like all trends, some are awesome and some are…well think 90’s pop music.

 Lately I’ve been noticing a certain trend that’s been gaining momentum for the last few years. It’s always been important and acknowledged, but the intensity as of late has definitely went up a few notches.

 Community.

 Now I know what you’re thinking, what could I possibly have against community? At first glance; nothing. We see community in the early church in the book of Acts where new believers are meeting and sharing their goods amongst one another. They meet within each other’s homes and break bread daily. They simply do life together. They know what is happening with those around them and not in some snoopy neighbor type way. They are in touch with the general needs and struggles of the people living around them.

 We Christians have been trying to emulate this lifestyle for the better part of 2000 years.

 And as of late, we have made a point to let others know this is our goal. Church ministries have been setup to engage their local communities. Terms like “plugged in”, “community groups”, and “heart for the city” have entered into church vocabulary.

 And let me be quite clear; this is a good thing. I for one am the product of how valuable a good community small group is to an individual (for those that don’t know what a small group is, this might be helpful) and why they are so important to new believers. Or for any believer for that matter.

 I’m not going to say books like For the City and Center Church have the wrong idea. Being intentional about the people and area you are part of and care for is desirable.

 What I worry about is polarization.

 We as humans, at least the western culture, tend to work on scales or see-saws. We take a topic and most commonly fall on one side of the discussion. Rarely do we play the role of the fulcrum, being an instrument of balance. Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? Republican or Democrat? All or Nothing.

 And this is what frightens me about what the modern church is doing with community…as unintentional as it might be.

 Love YOUR church. Love YOUR city.

 Is it impossible to imagine that focusing so much on what is right in front of us is not always the best thing?

Let me help with this idea. My wife and I live in what many feel is the middle of nowhere, a few of our friends have referred to it this way or more than one occasion. We live in a small suburb city just south of Raleigh NC. The location works well because we are roughly 25 minutes away from Raleigh, while at the same time being 25 minutes away from the rural church God has placed me at. I find my time split on how often I travel to both locations during the week.

Now some would argue that I need to pack my bags and move to the city where my church is located. That I need to put down roots and invest my time around the people of my congregation. And they’re not entirely wrong for thinking this. I am sure that much good would come of it.

 However I am prone to wonder if this would hinder my relations with those that do not live within that community? Case in point, we have acquaintances and some other close friends who live in towns and cities that are outside of the community where our church is located. Should we need to sacrifice those friendships based on the simple reasoning of proximity? Does the body of Christ stop at the city border?