In youth ministry, are we subtly working to build “the greatest show on earth,” even though the sound of it makes us cringe?
The vibrant film musical The Greatest Showman is loosely based on the life story of P.T. Barnum, the self-proclaimed king of circus impresarios. In the world of Barnum, the show is always the thing. The bigger and better the show, the happier the stakeholders. But does “show” really capture our mission?
Are we the ringmasters to a spectacle, or the technical director for something less flashy and obvious?
My church’s adult leadership team recently asked a core group of our students about what is and isn’t working in how we teach, lead small groups, and guide events. It was a vulnerable question: “Are we truly being effective or do the grown-ups just think we are?” Admittedly, we didn’t know what we’d find out.
Several key insights emerged, and we quickly learned that our students want to interact with what we’re doing. When we tell them “pay attention,” “put your phones away,” and “stop talking while we teach” they hear “we’re smarter than you,” “don’t look things up to get alternative perspective” and “if you tell a friend what you think about what you just heard you’ll get in trouble.” Ouch.
But our greatest gain from this act of vulnerability has been more unexpected. All the students we polled have naturally become more invested in what we’re doing. Guarded introverts started planning social gatherings; newer students took on a “This is mine, too” mentality; teenage “veterans” who grew up in church or faith started mentoring younger kids.
Apparently, if we’re willing to become vulnerable, the payoff is big.
Surrender is our path, not showmanship. Ironically, that’s exactly the message of The Greatest Showman. I’ll use the film’s storyline as a template for our path into surrender…
From conformity to contrast:
The son of a blue-collar father, Barnum aspires to become something more and make his mark on the world. Do you remember your own crazy dreams for making an impact? It’s easy, over time, to sacrifice the contrast of the dreams Jesus has planted in us for the conformity that our life experience drives us toward. Surrender means to hold onto the crazy in our crazy dreams.
From contrast to confidence:
As we lean into the contrast of our calling in ministry, we experience a confidence that comes from the thrill of making a difference. We “find our voice” and enjoy exercising it for Jesus. The catch is to make sure the roots go deeper, though. There’s a difference between confidently saying all the right things in the spotlight versus having intimate conversations with Jesus when no one is watching. The latter produces confidence from taking risks within a dependent relationship with Jesus, while the former simply highlights the “con” in confidence.
From confidence to conceit:
Confidence, however, is a tricky thing. It’s tempting to excuse our shortcuts, isn’t it? Maybe you fudge attendance numbers or don’t turn them in so your events sound more successful than they are. Maybe you hide your own struggles so your kids see the appearance of confidence, not its essence. It’s easy to grow numb to conceit if we give into it on a regular basis.
From conceit to confusion:
At a key point in The Greatest Showman, Barnum must come to terms with how his showmanship has created more problems than solutions for the people he cares about. Confusion over his way forward is the fruit of that struggle. I’m learning to embrace the power of confusion by surrendering myself to the pursuit of clarity. That’s exactly why I asked a group of students to check our adult blind spots.
From confusion to conviction:
When we persevere through our confusion into clarity, it’s like clearing a logjam in a river. Suddenly, the flow is released and our momentum picks up. Conviction is the fruit of our confidence voluntarily exposed to authentic scrutiny. We emerge from this with a sense that our feet are standing on granite. We get traction when we run.
When a leader surrenders to vulnerability, setting aside inherent pride, to invite students to have a real voice in their own future, we create fresh space that everyone can inhabit together. It’s why Jesus lowered himself to become a man (even a criminal on a cross) to do life with us—he wants us to own his mission, because he wants to do things with us, not for us.