Does Youth Ministry Form Bad Traditions?

(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.