Apparently you’re not supposed to put tabs in your Bible to mark the location of books. The first senior pastor I worked with told me that myth, arguing that being an effective youth worker means knowing the books from memory. I countered with a seemingly better-sounding myth that “the only names really worth knowing” (beyond the name of Jesus, of course) are the names of teenagers in our church. Both claims needed some myth-busting.
While serving in youth ministry, you’ve probably had a variety of powerful myths imposed on you. But have you considered the myths you may have inadvertently imposed on young people?
In ministry, the bulk of our influence is hidden in the way we talk, walk, and think about the Christian life. No one follows Jesus perfectly, which means we all unconsciously drift at least a bit toward either legalism or liberalism. Thankfully, spiritual disciplines can help us claim a third option: Lordship.
Dallas Willard, author of The Spirit of the Disciplines, wisely frames this into two major categories: disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinence. Basically, the process involves knowing when to say “yes” or “no” to further your journey with Jesus.
The point of a spiritual discipline isn’t increased self-control or self-reliance, but a more rooted, fruitful attachment to Jesus.Click to tweet
Myth #1: Be a “good Christian.” The first person to add the word “good” before “Christian” did a really bad thing. That term makes us think Christianity has performance-based levels, as if Jesus tolerates most of us while smiling on only a select few who specialize in excessive trying. We stir up this false discipline when we lay down guilt trips for what we think students should do to prove they’re “really in.”
For example, some churches convey that good Christians stand up and sing during worship. What if we take this approach: “We’re about to sing to Jesus to tell him what we think about him. If you want to simply sit and soak this in, that’s okay—because he’ll speak to you there, too. If at any point you want to join in and love Jesus out loud with us, great! Don’t worry whether you know all the words or can hit every note. Jesus is interested in the whole you, not just the best you.”
Myth #2: Be a referee. Sometimes we encourage teenagers to pounce on other people like referees waiting to throw a flag. This “us vs. them” mentality happens when we turn faith into a political fight rather than something we stand for. Pretty soon, kids are crying foul at hot topics with us instead of saying yes to Jesus through us.
To bust this myth, remember that Jesus never ducks a hot topic, but also never lets any hot topic dominate his ministry. Even hell, arguably the hottest topic of all, comprises only a small portion of his teaching. Think how much more time and energy Jesus spends proclaiming abundant life and good news through the kingdom of heaven. Stop trying to get teenagers to carry your favorite picket signs, and remind them how Jesus helps them carry their cross.
Myth #3: Attend every ministry event. Without an anchor, obviously we drift. When teenagers aren’t around church regularly, they (like adults) tend to miss out on the encouragement and challenge a Christian community provides. So youth workers find ways to lure them to the next thing with bigger/crazier/messier/louder activities that subtly hint, “You don’t want to miss out.”
Think about the long-term impact of that approach: When are we teaching discernment and Sabbath? What happens when teenagers graduate and have no connection to the capital-C Church because “youth group” was their whole world? Who will be the next loud voice in their lives demanding they show up to everything?
This is a crazy idea, but what if we told teenagers to pray about whether they should participate in the events on our calendar? And also for the event itself, the purpose behind it, and any other people they know who should be there? Core students will probably still show up to many of the same things—but out of purpose and joy instead of craving the next high.
Myth #4: Be like us. Remember when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, conquered the nations in their path, settled into their new home, and…started serving other gods? God’s chosen people deserted him out of comfort. They needed God to get into the Promised Land, but once they were there they wanted to settle down. People of all ages do this. We realize we’re sinners in need of Jesus as Savior but then quickly look around at others to figure out what Christianity looks like. As a friend once said, “I didn’t realize how many different types of Christianity there were at church. If I want to watch R-rated movies and not take flack for it, I can’t be in the small group I started with. But I can switch to another one that watches those types of films recreationally.”
The best way to communicate the truth that demolishes this myth is to keep growing and discussing the faith journey. Instead of excusing our imperfections or temptations under the banner of “everyone struggles,” it would be amazing if we adult youth workers said, “I’m working on my next step of growth and trust in Jesus, and here’s what I sense he’s asking me to surrender or claim these days.”
What does this discussion stir up for you? We’d love to hear how you’re navigating these tensions or any others you face. Maybe the key to myth-busting in ministry is letting Jesus bring some truths to lies we’ve bought into, including the legalism or liberalism of what it means to be a “good” youth worker.
What do you think?