We all know that a cockroach is hard to kill… After the atomic-bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, the military reported that the only living things to survive the blast zone were these disgusting little pests.
These critters just won’t die. And in youth ministry, we have our own infestation of cockroaches—beliefs and practices that are in need of extermination but somehow survive every atomic blast. For example:
- the out-of-whack work/life balance that undermines family life and personal spiritual growth,
- a focus on stand-alone Scripture memorization as a discipleship strategy, and
- “bribing” kids with rewards to participate or learn.
You get the idea—but I left my top cockroach off this list, “Performance-Based Ministry”. Let’s explore what makes it so cockroach-y, and what we can do to kill it…
There’s been very little variation in the conventional model of “Big Church” for more than a century—the service starts with music, transitions to prayer (and announcements), then an offering, then a 30-minute “message,” followed by more music and a closing prayer.
The troubling impact this rutted structure is having on the decline in church attendance extends to most youth ministries, which simply mimic the same cockroach-y patterns and standards of Big Church.
Gen Z teenagers want to be part of a conversation; not passive consumers of a monologue. Researchers, marketers, and social scientists say today’s teenagers:
- are entrepreneurial by nature
- insist on hands-on participation in their learning (internships)
- want to be both the artist and the subject of the art
- want to be participants, not observers, in social activism
- are “micro-interactors”—trained to quickly create and deliver their responses
- will pay attention to marketing if they help produce it
- want “authentic” experiences, not scripted ones…
Jesus, of course, already understands this performance vs. participation dynamic—that’s why He so intentionally uses participatory strategies to engage and transform the people He reaches.
I’ve studied what Jesus did whenever He was trying to engage people to help them grow and mature—His “teaching moments.” Then I put rough percentages next to each strategy. Here’s my breakdown:
15% Telling truths or principles to an “audience”
20% Telling a story or a parable or a metaphor
35% Using an experience as a teaching moment
15% Casual conversations with people
15% Debates or formal defenses of himself
This means that Jesus prioritized participatory discovery in 85 percent of His “teaching” or “growth” encounters. Whether He was telling a story that caused people to wrestle and ask questions, or plunging them into an experience that transformed them, or deepening their faith through vigorous conversation, Jesus was all about participation, not presentation.
Killing the Cockroach
When we commit to learning how to pattern what we do after Jesus’ participatory strategies, we’ll…
Use a “Prompt” to kick off discovery. Just as Jesus did, choose a catalyst to launch kids into a participatory pursuit. A Prompt can be almost anything—a story or a photo or object or film clip or a discovery question tied to something Jesus said or did or tied to a truth you want them to pursue.
Create “Targets” for teenagers to pursue. Whatever the truth you’re trying to focus on, find a way to get them exploring that truth before you explore it for them. Jesus’ goal, and ours, is to require that people discover truth before we tell them truth. Do this by…
- Asking clarifying questions about the Prompt
- Asking challenging “Why?” questions that get at the heart
- Ask “Bridge” questions that help kids dig deep into Jesus or Scripture or truth.
- Interact with whatever teenagers discover
All of this, by the way, is invigorating for leaders who are hungry to see transformation in their kids—it requires a dependence on the Spirit of Jesus, and follows the way He engaged others to help them grow. Most people, for most of their life, do not experience another person paying ridiculous attention to the threads of their story. We can learn to persevere and be more creative in our pursuit of teenagers if we will embrace the “Jesus way” of pursuit and exercise more courage in how we relate to them…