As a youth pastor, I don’t get to spend alot of time watching TV mostly because I get home to my apartment really late on most nights. One of my favorite shows, however, happens to come on in the midnight hours at 12:35am every weeknight: Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. It’s a perfect end to my workday after hours of studying, meetings, school lunches, planning, and writing. Though many of us are still mourning the loss of Conan O’Brian from the late night lineup (and booing Jay Leno, of course), Jimmy is breath of fresh air to an otherwise cookie-cutter program lineup. His years on Saturday Night Live and phenomenal impression comedy put him on the map as the potential host for the third-generation of Late Night. But even as I pass out on my couch watching Jimmy Fallon every weekday night, I cannot help but think about some creative youth ministry parallels (*my nerdy, ministerial mind never takes a break…), especially in the area of middle school ministry.
Middle School ministry is fairly new to me as a pastor. I’ve been a part of a youth ministry that had a middle school gathering and even read a few books on the subject, but nothing is more daunting than actually launching and growing a middle-school ministry from scratch. I’ve always leaned toward the high school and young adults as my primary strength in ministry. New opportunities, however, have recently presented themselves that have gotten me excited as a new middle school pastor. The adventure of beginning a new phase and expanding my professional boundaries is quite compelling. In fact, we just launched our 7th and 8th grade ministry this month at Trinity Worship Center. All pastors learn ministry from someone. Currently, I’m being mentored in middle school ministry by none other than Jimmy Fallon. Here’s why:
1) Personality: Be Yourself!
What I love most about Jimmy Fallon is his personality appeal on the show. He’s just an average Joe like all of us. He laughs at the same things we do. He’s impressed by the same things we are. He’s real and isn’t afraid to be himself. Many times he’ll crack up at his own jokes or completely ruin a skit just because it’s so side-splittingly funny. If you look at some of the old SNL skits, you can see Jimmy cracking up in the background when Will Ferrell is riffing in classic form. When a joke falls flat in his opening monologue, he’ll often give an audience member the cue card as a confession of comedic failure. Many critics ridicule Fallon because they say “he’s just a normal guy who happened to get lucky with a talk show that he doesn’t deserve.” But that’s exactly why I think he’s the perfect guy for the part.
In middle school ministry, I’m learning that being yourself is EVERYTHING. It’s really easy to get caught up in being cool or trendy and miss out on what students are really looking for: a regular guy (or girl) who can be their real selves. One doesn’t have to be a “ministry hipster,” phenomenal communicator, or deep, engaging speaker in middle school ministry. Students need someone who will spend time with them, love life with them, embrace them when no one else will, and laugh at the same things they laugh at (farts, burps, and YouTube viral videos). A good middle school leader operates in honesty and admits it when something goes wrong (to which we hand the cue card off and move on). Being yourself means learning and settling into the flow of your personality and using it as your greatest ministry strength. Perhaps we are all just “normal” people that are gracefully given a ministry that we really don’t deserve.
2) Robert is Bothered: The Reality of Relevance
The very nature of talk shows demands relevance. The interviews are always about upcoming movie releases, album drop dates, or season premiere television shows. Nobody does it better than Jimmy Fallon. Even his comedy sketches in the second part of the show represent the cutting edge relevancy of his show. At the time that “The Hills” was at its pinnacle, Fallon did a series of parodies called “7th Floor West,” where he mocked the dramatic MTV show. From time to time, he’ll do a “fist-pump” during a Roots song a la “Jersey Shore.” One of my favorite running sketches now is “Robert is Bothered,” where Fallon imitates Twilight star Robert Pattinson as he climbs a tree to reflect on various things that bother him (i.e. The World Cup, iPad, and Halloween candy just to name a few). Go check out the “Robert is Bothered” videos here! The fact that all of these segments play on the current culture simply adds to the hilarity of the show.
To be fair, relevancy is overemphasized in the church no doubt. There are countless books on the shelves of Barnes & Noble highlighting the need for relevancy in today’s culture. There’s actually a slew of books that have tried to counter the thought, so much that it’s becoming “relevant” to criticize progression and relevancy. Interesting…Though the principle may be overemphasized, it doesn’t change the reality of it. Relevancy is a part of today’s ministry world, especially in middle school youth ministry. I’m a young, 21-year old pastor and I’m finding with each growing year that even I have to strive to be creative in relevancy. I first realized this when I made a Forrest Gump reference in a sermon that fell flat on its face. Forrest Gump!!! Are you kidding me?!?! Everyone has seen Forrest Gump! Well apparently not. I forget that Forrest Gump was released in 1994 when I was 6 and all of my middle school students were born in 1996-1998. They weren’t even thought of when Forrest Gump was released. Whoa! Wake up call…I’m getting old! It used to be that I measured my decades based on the millennial change. But now, the 90s aren’t 10 years ago, but 20! With that said, we have to reorient our thoughts on what exactly is a “classic.” Sure, our students should see Forrest Gump at some point in their lives. But we also have to remember that Twilight and Justin Bieber are at the forefront of “classic” culture now, not Independence Day and Tupac. It starts with putting ourselves in their “cool” shoes and realizing that ours should find their worthy place in our glass memory boxes, no matter how hard that is to hear.
3) Lick It For Ten: The Thrill of Competition and Interaction
If you watch Late Night enough times in a week, you will almost always see some ridiculous form of competitive game played. Everything from playing golf throughout the studio to ice-covered cornhole to a good old-fashioned game of air hockey. Segments like Lick-It-For-Ten and other games make Jimmy Fallon’s show unique. Again, this quirky style of behavior is what separates those who love and hate the show. Nevertheless, it seems that the thrill of competition keeps with the offbeat nature of the new Late Night series.
I’m willing to bet that no matter how gifted of a communicator a middle school leader may be, he or she can’t just drone through a 25-minute sermon without interaction fom the students. If you don’t believe me, try it…you’ll get humbled really quickly. Due to the rambunctious, crazy nature of middle school students, a competitive icebreaker game or interactive element is a perfect addition for a sermon. When talking about Gideon as a mighty warrior, don’t just describe the historical significance of being weak and from the smallest tribe in Israel. Get the smallest kid to challenge your biggest youth leader (who happened to be the NC Arm-Wrestling Champion in 1979) in a 2-out-of-3 arm wrestling match, and let the kid win! Though it doesn’t have a lot to do with the background exegetical process that your hermeneutics professor taught you about, it still illustrates a point of being a small, weak warrior and overcoming great odds. This is not to mention that it builds self-esteem and essentially provides a commercial break to your sermon, adding almost 10 minutes to their short attention spans. In middle school ministry, Interaction is EVERYTHING! I played air hockey with a student after service last week for a few minutes and it immediately created a bonding point. He asked if next time we could play for eyebrows (loser shaves their eyebrows). Though I declined, he later sent me a picture message where he shaved his left eyebrow off. I hope he was kidding…
4) Thank-You Notes: The Art of Appreciation
Every late-night show has its classic segment. For Jay Leno it’s the Headline list. David Letterman hosts the Top 10 on a weekly basis. For Jimmy Fallon, the “Thank-You Note” segment on Friday nights has become quintessential for his installment of Late Night. He writes out thank-you notes on the show as an appreciation to all of things that provided him with comedy bits and illustrations throughout the week (all with sentimental music from The Roots). For the latest “Thank You Notes” segment, click here.
Affirmation and appreciation is key in all areas of middle school ministry. Celebrating a student’s achievements and spiritual growth is essential. Keep in mind that you may be the only person in their life that is encouraging and uplifting. So take every opportunity to show your middle schoolers how much you appreciate them for who they are. Take this principle a step further: show your leaders that you appreciate them! You can’t do this ministry thing alone. Understand that you can trust your leaders to carry the torch when you can’t. They have ideas, thoughts, and reflections that need to be heard just as much as yours. They spend their valuable time holding your arms up so you can effectively do your job. Your leaders will make or break your success in middle school ministry, so make sure they feel appreciated! Write personalized, thank-you notes to them every once in a while. Take your leaders out to eat occasionally, go to a movie together, and most importantly, pray for them! Appreciation is a classic art that must be rediscovered and should become a regular thing.
I hope you’ll never be able to watch Late Night With Jimmy Fallon the same. I encourage all of you who go to bed at a decent hour to fight the fatigue and watch an episode or two (or you can DVR it!). You may learn a few things from someone unexpected, who is probably unaware of his own influence in the world of middle school ministry. So be yourself, challenge your creativity with relevance, throw in a bit of competition and interaction, and learn the lost art of appreciation.
Most of all, remember…”iPads BOTHER ME!”
Bradley K. Chandler is a graduate of Southeastern University and is the Student Ministries Pastor at Trinity Worship Center in Burlington, NC. Be sure to subscribe to his blog here – good stuff for sure.