For generations, youth workers have fulfilled the call to love students into the knowledge of Jesus and make disciples. As I think about the declining number of teens involved in youth ministry and church in my own community, I wonder if it’s time to evaluate how we are fulfilling our call.
My friend and youth pastor Mike Orr asked me this question within the last 24 hours: “What is our student ministry called to?” I thought I was pretty quick and smart when he agreed with my response: “I think we are called to create authentic, Jesus-centered community–a safe place where students can question their faith and struggle with life, while discovering that they were perfectly created by God and are completely loved.” We spent all of five minutes declaring what our youth ministry is called to. We would spend the next hour on this question: How do we get there?
As trained and as experienced as we might be, our team is still using the standard 1980’s model of youth ministry: games, food, music, lesson, and prayer. We’re willing to admit that this model still works in many ways and are unconvinced that it is the model that has us evaluating our youth ministry calling. Teenagers still love slamming each other in the face with a dodge ball. Our students love worship through music. The meal we share each week is family time that we all enjoy. So, why aren’t more kids flooding our church and why aren’t more students staying involved in this thing we are called to and love?
Here’s my BIG FAT opinion:
We don’t need a new mission. We don’t need a new model. We need new ministry goals and an unrelenting commitment to how we reach those goals. I’m not talking about goals that are driven by attendance or goals that can be set and with no intention of ever measuring them. I’m talking about goals that foster spiritual curiosity, a hunger to learn, a hunger to teach, and a growing passion to serve and love others.
In the book Big Picture by Dennis Littky and Samantha Grabelle, the authors list what they refer to as the real goals of education:
Over the course of three decades watching kids walk into my schools, I have decided that I want them to…
- be lifelong learners,
- be passionate,
- be ready to take risks,
- be able to problem-solve and think critically,
- be able to look at things differently,
- be able to work independently and with others,
- be creative,
- care and want to give back to their community,
- have integrity and self-respect,
- have moral courage,
- be able to use the world around them well,
- speak well, write well, read well, and work well with numbers,
- and truly enjoy their life and their work.
To me, these are the real goals of education.
Notice that the goals are about the students. Contrast this with ministry mission statements that are typically about the people fulfilling the mission. Here are a few goals from their list that I think we can be passionate about in youth ministry and would serve our teens in becoming lifelong followers of Christ and world influencers…
Be lifelong learners, be ready to take risks, be able to problem-solve and think critically, be able to look at things differently, and be creative.
To engage these goals for our students, we have to go beyond our own knowledge and abandon lecture style teaching. We have to be willing to create space for questions and discussion. We have to create space for learning not just memorizing, where we become the listener while our students get to talk.
“Unfortunately, to most people, teaching is the giving of knowledge. What are you going to tell the students? What is your expertise? But teaching is really about bringing out what’s already inside people.” – Big Picture by Littky and Grabelle
So here’s my challenge: Let’s refocus our goals and make youth ministry a place where students can be creative, truly discover Jesus, and explore faith. Let’s weigh and commit to the importance and development of our students spirituality and creativity by encouraging both convergent thinking (the process of finding a single best solution to a question or problem) and divergent thinking (the process of exploring many unique solutions in a free-flowing and spontaneous way) in youth ministry.