Friday, February 06, 2009

Reflections On Leaving Youth Ministry Part 3

For many reasons, including some of the statistics I have already mentioned, many youth ministers can become consumed with a defense-oriented approach. They believe that "secular culture" is fundamentally opposed to faith... especially as it pertains to teenagers. Further, they know that on many "secular" college campuses (and even high schools), faith is overtly challenged in the name of "secular science". Because of these assumptions, many youth ministers adopt a multi-pronged strategy to counter these influences.

1) Alternative Christian Activity--The minister attempts to turn the students' attention to "christian alternatives" of all of the things that can be so attractive in "secular culture". Teens like we throw "safe" social gatherings like all night "lock-ins" and "fifth quarters" after the local high school's football game. Some go so far as to throw alternative banquets for Christian students to attend in lieu of their prom or homecoming dances. Additionally, the youth minister knows that simple idle time can be filled with the pervasive influence of this alluring secular culture... so we attempt to counter with a flood of our own safe, "Christian" activity. Keep them busy in our sanctioned and sanitized activity, and they'll "keep the faith", or so goes the conventional wisdom of youth ministry.

2) Alternative Christian Media--The minister attempts to turn the students' attention to positive music, movies, etc. produced by Christian artists and Christian companies. Special attention is payed to the details...emulating particular musical styles, and even in some cases going to great pains to emulate a particular band or artist. The idea is to isolate our students from the negative influence of all of that "worldly" entertainment, and intentionally surrounding them with the positive influence of media that knocks-off the worldly stuff in terms of style, while retaining control of content.

3) Alternative Answers to "Secular Science"--The assumption has generally been that since "the world" will be asking really tough questions of faith, we had better develop concrete arguments to refute the questions and claims of science. In many cases, much energy is put into the development, propagation, and indoctrination of these "answers", with the added implication that no ground can be surrendered or faith is no longer viable.

As common as it is, there are many problems with such an approach. First of all, the assumptions that support it are faulty. If Christianity is actually based on the Way of Jesus (as told in Scripture) then we would do well to note Jesus' engagement with his culture. As counter-intuitive as it seems to us, God seems to have sent his "only-begotton Son" because he loved the "world". Jesus' primary engagement seems to have been to those who the religious looked down on. To Him, they seemed to be very much the point. His engagement with the religious people seems to have been primarily to challenge them to become more than they had settled for and to engage with God's mission. In short, isolating students from the world around them in the name of Christianity is as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus as it is ineffective.

Students do not need a standardized set of answers and counter-arguments to the questions of secular science. Frankly, a) the scientific community remains unconvinced and unimpressed, b) it serves to maintain both a dualistic worldview and a false perception that there is an either/or choice that must be made between faith and science or, on the other side of the same coin, that all things pertaining to faith must be explained in scientific terms...c) a casual study of history will show how the church's assumption that new scientific revelations were threats to faith has frequently led to our looking silly at best, and being brutally un-christlike at worst...d) when we promote the idea that this is an all or nothing choice, frequently our students actually get this message, and choose to abandon faith when the fallible extra-biblical systems and constructs we handed them begin to prove inadequate...and e) Frankly we are pouring our energy into answering questions that fewer and fewer people are even asking...and debating strawmen that no one is arguing anymore (particularly at the quantum level, science can be very friendly to faith again, as it turns out).

In truth, I suspect that on the intellectual level, the pressing questions that must be engaged are coming from the social sciences and philosophy, and that what students actually need is to learn how to use the narrative of scripture as an interpretive lens...that we must teach them to interpret and engage the world around them in light of Jesus. Even so, there is a much larger problem. All of this presumes that faith is primarily intellectual and taylored exclusively to the individual. It seems to me that faith is inherently relational and missional. In scripture, faith is spoken of primarily in relational terms...both in relationship to God and in community. Most of the New Testament letters are addressed to communities of believers, and most of the "you" pronouns are plural. We must figure out ways to help students cultivate community, rather than sending them out "against the world". However, this is not to suggest a bunker mentality. They are to cultivate community that actively seeks to partner with God in what he is doing in the world. We tend to talk about "faith" as if "having faith" is a matter of mentally agreeing with a list of concepts. What a bizarre definition! Faith has to do with confidence. Faith leads to proactive engagement. I think that character and mission may be the most powerful apologetics of faith, for good or ill. If we neglect these for the sake of intellectual coercion and defending the "rightness" of our arguments, we may find that we have lost everything we were trying to protect and ensure. If we settle for creating a bunker-mentality subculture rather than cultivating a life-giving journey of proactive engagement, we may find that many of our students leave us precisely because they are seeking Jesus, and can't reconcile his mission to the world in scripture with ours.


Jake Kaufman said...


as a youth minister who is constantly battling the seclusionist, removal-from-culture mindset...thanks for a response that is well thought out, forward thinking, critical...all without being negative. more people need to hear how our current systems are the reason we are producing mediocre followers at best, and removed followers at worst.

jake kaufman

Kenny Payne said...


Thanks for your thoughts about youth ministry - even though I am not "officially" in youth ministry - I have three kids so I will be engaged in that ministry for at least the next decade! I wanted to thank you for being so good to Leanna - for showing her the character of Jesus. I know that you doubt somewhat the effectiveness of the personality of the youth minsiter as a predicator of success, yet the attention that you gave Leanna - both as a child in Luverne and as a teen in Panama City - has impacted her in healthy ways. She has been able to watch you and Dana as you dated, married, had children and engaged in ministry. While I agree that parents are crucial to faith development in children (although there are glaring and hopeful exceptions) it is also important for kids to be able to see in someone else what their parents are trying to show and tell them. Thanks for being that for my daughter.