Here’s a simple truth. A humorless youth ministry is a dead youth ministry. Once you lose your ability to laugh at yourself and your ministry you’ve crossed a line that could signal your demise. Earlier this summer I shared an old story here on this site about my farewell lock-in that started with a student breaking his arm and ended with the sunrise arrest of three youth at gunpoint in the church parking lot (check the archives for that one). I mentioned that I had the chance to tell that story to Group Magazine years ago and share the laughter with youth leaders everywhere. But there’s more to the story.
Shortly after the article came out Rick Lawrence, the editor of Group Magazine got an angry phone call from the senior pastor of my previous church. He was livid that the magazine had published my story. Even though no last names had been used and the church was never specifically identified. In fact, the state wasn’t even given as the writing credit said I was a youth minister in the Midwest! The truth is, the story is riotously funny just like many of the disaster stories those of us in youth ministry tell. A youth ministry where everything goes smoothly is a ministry without any youth in it! The problem the pastor had was that he never, ever let on that anything in his church was ever less than perfect. He’s the type who would throw away 400 copies of the completed church worship folder/bulletin if he spotted a single, inconsequential typo at the last minute and keep the staff late on Saturday to redo the whole thing.
Any ministry without a sense of humor is a scary thing. A pastor I deeply respect once told me that we need to take God very seriously and ourselves not so much. The only way I know to do that is to take time to regularly laugh at our own humanity and that of those we serve. However, when it comes to humor there is a line that we in ministry should never cross. And it’s not a thin line. It’s a very clear solid line.
Our college kids have been home for the past couple of weeks. Last week one of those funny video shows was on TV showing a clip of an overweight middle school kid on an amusement ride. The force of the ride had pushed him down in his seat and the seatbelts were wedged under his chin holding him in place and making his face look even rounder than normal. He was terrified and screaming for the ride to stop. My son and I laughed hysterically while my wife and daughter were appalled that we found such suffering funny. They’re right. It’s terribly unkind to laugh at people in pain. It’s even worse to laugh at people in pain that you’ve intentionally caused.
When I started at the last church I served, the youth group had a long history of going on summer retreat. They had this wonderful camp in Michigan they visited every year along with a tried and true schedule they’d put together. The church had never had a full-time youth minister and they were eager to have me along on their annual event. As the planning unfolded they talked about “initiation”. I was intrigued. They explained that as part of the program the upperclassmen would blindfold the freshman and, in various ways I won’t go into, humiliate them. One of my first official acts as the new youth minister was to cancel initiation. The youth, and some of the adult leaders, were furious with me. This was a time-honored tradition and I had no business taking it from them.
In your ministry there will be embarrassing situations. Youth will be mean and insensitive to one another. There will always be cliques. You will make mistakes and the best-laid plans will turn into unbelievable fiascos. These mishaps and misunderstandings will be rich storehouses of laughter and memories for your ministry. But good youth ministry never, ever sanctions humiliation and embarrassment as a planned element of the program.
Tim Kurth has served in youth ministry for over twenty-two years and is Camp Project Leader for Group Workcamps Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of short-term mission opportunities for church youth groups.