Wednesday, May 23, 2007

magic formulas

At the congregation I'm serving we recently had a meeting of teenagers and their parents to discuss our plans for the upcoming summer and for the next school year. Many good ideas were shared, as well as suggestions and concerns.

The most intruiguing part of the conversation came about when we began planning our events and structuring our youth group format for the upcoming year. Someone piped up something like, "At (insert name) Church across town they do (insert activity) and they have hundreds of kids. Why aren't we doing the same thing?" And several others around the table began asking the same sorts of questions. My response was basically another question. I asked, "Why does _________ work at __________?" And then another question, "If we did that here, what would it require of us?" And then another, "What makes us think it's going to work here?"

It seems we were, well intentioned, looking for some magic formula for what was going to attract the teenagers of our city to our church.

And then we went another step. We started asking ourselves about the teenagers who had already been a part of our church, but who didn't show up very regularly. And we started asking, "What is going to make them come more often?"

I was amazed when one of the teenagers stood up and addressed the whole group. She said, "Look, there's no magic formula that's gonna make me show up. The truth is, when I don't show up, it's because my priorities are out of line, and also because my parents priorities are out of line." I immediately looked at her mom. She waved her hand knowingly and said, "Yep, that's my girl."

So how right is this teenager? I think she knows herself better than we know her.

So part of our equation is priorities. So we've got to begin doing a better job with discipleship, teaching about faith and priorities. And at some level parents have to do a better job of setting priorities and helping their children understand healthy priorities.

But also at another level there has to be some sort of attractor. The ministry has to be designed in such a way that it meets the needs of the teenagers in our community and their families so that they want to come, so they have a good enough reason to be motivated to come.

So we find ourselves in a tension between discipleship and programming.

As I was thinking about this I went and looked at all the books on my shelves that are about youth ministry models and programs...all the how-to's if you will. And as I looked at each one I realized that none of them fit the needs of the families in our congregation. None of them dealt with the makeup of the teenagers in my group. None of them were geared with the unique needs of this community in mind.

They're models. Nothing more.

What worked for them, may or may not work for us. It worked in a particular setting, but that setting is not exactly like ours. We can glean ideas, tools, and even good theory from these models, but we'll be doing our congregations and our communities a huge disservice if we try and replicate exactly one of the other models, whether it's the one in the book, or the one across town.

We've got to be in a state of constant discernment and constant adaptation. We've got to stay keenly aware of the makeup of our congregations and communities, paying close attention to needs and desires, dreams and visions. And our models have to have the flexibility to bend and stretch with those shifts. We have a responsibility to address both programming and discipleship if we want to have a platform from which to speak the Good News into the lives of our young people.


Doug Jones said...

Good thoughts and great illustration of how we need to help folks hear that "our church must discover her calling as it relates to ministry with and among teenagers and their families." Helping our congregations do the hard work of discerning that specific call; and then obeying the direction must be a priority of those who are in leadership. This was a wonderful reminder, Dan - thanks.

Joshua Leu said...

I think as youth pastors we have to get away from the notion of succes in that the bigger our youth ministry the more successful it is. My theory, is to offer my understing of the Gospel and if kids are in they are in and if not they are not. For me youth ministry produces to many gospel ignorant kids for the sake of keeping kids comming and for numbers. Teach the Gospel (i know this is a very general term) first and formost, then shape the program aound the teaching of Jesus!

The truth is if you teach what the Galilean Jewish Peasent Jesus taught in the youth culture today, you will probally have a small youth group. I mean really how many kids are intrested in living a life of service? How many adults for that matter?

Brian said...

Joshua said: The truth is if you teach what the Galilean Jewish Peasent Jesus taught in the youth culture today, you will probally have a small youth group."

I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. Same could be said for the Church as a whole!

Great post, Dan. Regarding youth participation, there is only a limit to how much influence we can have. Ultimately, much of it is up to the parents and the youth as a family to place church as priority in their lives. Our task is to be there when they choose to come, welcome them, love them, and help them along their faith journey. If we get too caught up in "how do we attract them to be here" we will inevitably lose focus on the real reason for our ministry.