Not long ago I was at an annual three-day forum for youth ministry professors—I’ve been an interloper at this gathering for 15 years. One night, all 125 of us loaded onto school buses for a cross-town trip to a Bible college campus, where the “entertainment” for the evening was a panel discussion on “incarnational ministry.” The plan was simple—five youth ministry profs discussing the do’s and don’ts of immersing yourself in the culture and everyday realities of teenagers, as a portal for bringing the presence of Jesus into their intimate spaces.
The creative and orbital center of the evening was a manufactured “letter” from “Your Best Student” to “Professor X” that detailed the fictional student’s frustrating experiences as a freshly graduated youth pastor who’d taken the heroic “road less traveled” to reach kids in an inner-city setting. As part of his “incarnational” strategy, he’d changed his appearance and behavior to fit into his new setting. In this made-up narrative, the tough street kids this freshly minted youth pastor was trying to impact initially responded to his efforts and started showing up at youth group. But they staunchly refused to connect with the larger church body. And this was creating problems, because his church leaders defined “success” only one way—students integrating into the whole church. The youth pastor worried that his numerical success would never be fully recognized by his leaders.
After this rather involved set-up, each of the five panelists evaluated the youth pastor’s strategy, followed by an opportunity for those of us sitting in the audience to toss out our own insights. In typical academic style, all of this was carefully and formally structured—if you wanted to add to the conversation, you had to line up behind one of two microphone stands placed in the middle of our seating area.
Most of the carefully constructed banter around the fictional youth pastor’s incarnational approach was pointed and critical—his simplistic approach (changing his appearance and behavior to “fit in”) was hammered as a shallow and even inauthentic strategy for attractional youth ministry. There was a great deal of poetic waxing about the theological nuances that flow into “incarnational,” and the room’s collective grade for the fictional youth pastor was, I think, approaching a “D.”
And that’s when an older man in a cap and disheveled clothing stepped up to the mic. I turned around in my seat and squinted, trying to figure out who this prof could be—I’d never seen him before. But as soon as he opened his mouth, it dawned on me that this was one of the bus drivers who’d driven us to the lecture hall. He’d been sitting in the back, listening to the entire discussion. After 90 minutes of this dismissive-sounding analysis, he was boiling mad—he couldn’t stop himself from tossing a verbal grenade at this highly educated, professional group of ministry experts.
“Well,” he stammered, his voice trembling, “I think this guy you’re talking about is doing something great! Look, he’s willing to throw himself into ministry and try to make a difference, but all you people in your ivory towers can do is look down your academic noses at him.” And with one last glower of disgust, the bus driver abruptly turned and climbed the steps, returning to his back-row seat in the auditorium.
This is the sort of moment that’s listed in the Wikipedia definition of “you could hear a pin drop.” The room didn’t know how to react or respond. Finally, someone on the panel politely thanked him for his input, and attempted a muted and mild defense for the panel’s judgment. I sat there thinking about two things:
1.The bus driver clearly didn’t understand or appreciate some of the valid and important nuances of this discussion about incarnational youth ministry.
2.The bus driver’s rant shot right to the core of what’s wrong with our approach to ministry today.
Here’s what I mean… As a youth ministry community, we’ve never been more trained, resourced, and educated—and there’s never been a more theologically sound and culturally savvy “strata” of youth workers than we have today. But perhaps because of all these “assets,” we’re operating out of a deficit—the deficit of our own strength. I mean, we may have unwittingly over-thought what we’re doing, like a former home-run hitter who’s struggling to hit singles because he’s trying too hard.
Eugene Peterson’s beautiful and spare re-working of John 1:14 in The Message is this: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” At the core of effective youth ministry is this same truth, embedded in the bus driver’s rant—we are the in-the-flesh extension of Jesus, moving into our kids’ “neighborhood,” with every intention of staying there. ◊