It’s helpful to look at things we already think we know well through a new filter. That’s how we jettison ourselves from ruts and cure ourselves of blindness. So, what if we sampled some standard youth ministry “givens” and looked at them through a doctor’s filter? What’s the equivalent of good “medical practice” in youth ministry, and what’s more like “malpractice”? We hold onto some forms of malpractice in youth ministry because we’ve believed false information, or we’ve dragged our feet because change is difficult, or we’ve kowtowed to others’ expectations.
Here’s the second installment of my malpractice starter list. (Read the first installment here.) I’ll post the final two installments in succeeding weeks…
Youth Ministry Malpractice #2—Blaming “Fun & Games” for Biblical Illiteracy
Throughout the last decade, many youth ministry leaders (or what we might call “youth ministry pundits”) have attempted to explain the decline in church attendance among teenagers—and a correlative decline in biblical literacy—by pointing to the “shallow” fun-and-games mentality they insist is rampant. One such pundit sums it up well: “Is your youth ministry Bible-focused or fun-focused? It’s easy to focus more on making the youth group fun than on making it biblical. I’m all for having a good time with students in the right context, but we have a much higher calling. How easy it is to fall into the trap of spending more time planning silliness than studying for Bible lessons.”
This knee-jerk diagnosis of what ails youth ministry seems rational, but it perpetuates a “spiritual myth” that human beings are compartmentalized. I’ll go one step further: If we say “fun” isn’t a worthy focus of youth ministry, we negate a powerful “glue” that has the power to bind kids to the community long enough for their “Jesus-graft” to take , and we risk propagating the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics argued that the physical and the spiritual were separate human compartments, with the spiritual part of us “holy” and the physical part of us “unclean.” It’s not true; in fact, it’s a violation of the Incarnation itself. Fun and biblical depth can coexist, of course, because they aren’t two compartments. They are intertwined expressions of God’s personality. And fun is the most powerful community-building tool in our toolbox.
Transformation is the natural result of grafting in the organic world. Botanists explain that the bond between the grafted branch and the vine transforms the branch into “a miniature version of the parent tree.” This is why, by the way, Jesus can make this ludicrous statement with a straight face: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). If our attachment to Jesus essentially makes us a “miniature version of the parent tree,” the fruit we produce will be like his own, and even greater.
Our grafted bond is intimate but not instantaneous. It takes a long time for it to “take.” Our transformations, whether physical or spiritual, are often so slow-moving that we have a hard time noticing the profound changes happening in the moment. They’re most often like a glacier—an inexorable force that changes our geography but is hard to mark “progress” at any particular time. Transformation is most often a time-lapse thing. But in order for a graft to “take,” it must be bound by a layer of tape that holds it in place until the co-mingling of branch and Vine is solid enough to stand on its own.
And of all the things that “bind the graft” in youth ministry, fun is probably the most powerful. It keeps young people connected to your “grafting” environment long enough for it to take. Fun takes many forms, of course, from silly to serious. How many times have you heard a teenager brand something as “fun” that was actually something we might call “serious”—like a vigorous conversation, an eye-opening understanding of truth, or a new sense of expectation and joy in their relationship with Jesus?
Fun is crucial.
And fun—as weird as it is to say within our churched-language context—is central to the heart of God.