Give Up the Gimmicks, Youth Pastors
It's amazing what youth will eat. I love sushi, but it's quite different than eating a live goldfish. I sat near the back of the crowd and watched with a curious sea-sickness---gazing at the teenage wonder while keeping one eye on the nearest trash can! A loud unified chant shook the entire room: "Mar-cus, Mar-cus." And down it went, to the praise of cheering youth. He was the envy of every guy and the disgust of every girl. The champion collected his prizes and walked off the stage with a hero-notch on his belt.
"So what can we do next week," I thought to myself. "There's no way I can top eating a live goldfish." I was helping out with the youth program at the time, and we had been gradually escalating the "shock factor" to attract more youth. And, for all intents and purposes, it seemed to work. Every week, we saw new youth, who occasionally seemed to embody a little of the "shock factor" themselves.
Over time, though, we began to run out of ideas and started getting desperate. The youth seemed bored, and we had to think of something fast. We didn't have much money in our youth budget, so we decided to be good stewards and spend the rest of it on bringing a "Christian" rock band to the church (though nobody had ever heard of the group). The band arrived, set up, and did a sound check from a stage in the church gym---and topped the show with choreographed dancing. I was pumped! "The youth are going to love this," I thought out loud.
To my great horror and disbelief, only eight youth came. They stood lined up in a row with folded arms, listening to the thumping noise echoing around the vacant gym. I couldn't take it anymore. I was burned out of youth ministry, and I had just begun. There had to be something deeper, richer, and more satisfying than this. There had to be something that nourished the youth more than a wiggling goldfish and a high-priced band.
We Can Do Better
The absolutely amazing truth is that God has already supplied us with the means to nourish his people, and we find ourselves thinking we can do better. These include the historic "means of grace"---especially the Word of God, prayer, and the sacraments. Other ordinances of Christ, such as gospel-motivated service and grace-centered community---may also appropriately be included in this category (cf. Acts 2:42-47).
All too often, youth programs have turned to entertainment-driven models of ministry in order to bring in youth. Success has become the name of the church-growth game. The devastating effects, however, are not only seen in the number of youth leaving the church after high school, but also in a spiritually and theologically shallow worldview among many American teenagers. The irony is that these same teens actually want to grow and learn hard truths. They want to know how to think about suffering, how to pray, and why Jesus had to die.
If there's anything a youth pastor knows---even after only a few months in ministry---it's that fatigue and feelings of burnout come with the task. The constant pressure from parents, youth, church leadership, the senior pastor, and even his own family can wear a minister out very quickly.
Added to this stress is the continual expectations to meet certain numerical standards. The most frequent question that I get is, "How many?" It sometimes becomes a plague and burden---tempting you with pride (wow, I attracted a ton of youth tonight!) or despair (nobody came . . . and nobody will come next week either). It's no wonder that the average youth minister stays in one location less than 18 months!
But as ministers in Christ's church, our task is to be faithful to the Lord in the ministry means that he has given us and look to him to provide the increase. We are to plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ---while God gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7). It is easy to become numbers-driven because it makes a minister "look good" (if a lot of youth come, of course). But God's not after looks; he's after hearts.
When you realize that our task is to simply be faithful, you will have an overwhelming sense of freedom and joy. But this begs the question: What does it look like to be faithful to God in youth ministry? I maintain that the "how to" of being faithful in youth ministry---indeed, in all ministry---is demonstrated through the means of God's transformative grace.
Youth need the means of grace that God has provided his church---the local, intergenerational, community of sinner-saints---to supply both the content and the method of ministry. This is the biblical model given by Christ and witnessed in the early church, and remains, I believe, the most faithful and Christ-centered approach to youth ministry today.
Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Apart from the Spirit taking the finished work of Christ and applying it to our lives, we can do nothing that would please or honor God. Here, Jesus calls us to a singular calling and focus---"abide in me." As youth workers, our task is to guide youth to the true Vine, where they will find grace, salvation, and the Lordship of Christ. The means of grace are instruments and gifts that God has given his church for the increase of faith, hope, love, and joy in him. Youth ministry should always direct youth toward God, not man. It should always concern itself with bearing fruit as an effect of abiding in the Vine.
With all my heart, I plead with you to not be tempted with "success," professionalism, or the fading fads of our entertainment-driven culture. Rather, pursue Jesus as the all-satisfying Treasure that he is and feed his young sheep with the means God has provided.