It’s important, of course, to pay attention to the “best practices” of youth ministry. It’s equally important to discover and uproot the ministry habits that masquerade as effective but are more like malpractice. Here’s the third installment of my malpractice starter list—I’ll post the final installment next week…
Malpractice #3—Treating Relevance As If It Outranks Intimacy
Another buzzword in youth ministry that sounds slam-dunk crucial to our effectiveness is relevance. Of course, we want to engage teenagers in the context of real life, not merely rhetorical truths. Of course, we want to communicate and engage with a savvy sense of young people’s cultural reality. But we’ve ghetto-ized relevance by translating it into “apply it to life” practices and strategies.
In other words, we’ve focused on tone, language, and cultural reference points and called that “relevant.” But real relevance goes much deeper than that. It’s created by a deep sense of belonging, nurtured and cultivated by an environment that’s intentionally intimate. By intentionally intimate, I don’t mean serious; I mean close, authentic, and caring relationships are treated as normal outcomes in the community, because the way you come together naturally produces that kind of relational environment.
In the name of protecting and undergirding our relevance, we’ve often shied away from creating intimate environments for relationship-building. It’s easy to understand why: We don’t want to scare off anyone. So we’re oversensitive to anything that might seem pushy or foreign or uncomfortable. We back away from hard questions and determined pursuits because we’re afraid “hard” will drive away the kids who are looking for an undemanding community. Metaphorically, we want an environment that feels like the wide end of a funnel—gathering a broad diversity of kids because the environment seems native to their everyday relational ecosystems. But when we prioritize kids’ surface needs, we’re sacrificing our opportunity to meet their deeper needs.
Relational intimacy is a much stronger magnet for ministry than cultural relevance. When teenagers experience joy, satisfaction, and deeper growth in their relationships (both with each other and with Jesus), they’ll sacrifice to keep coming back for more. Nothing’s more intoxicating than a community of people who see and enjoy each other for who they really are and who challenge each other to grow because they feel safe enough to do so. It’s transformational.
We plant the seeds for this kind of environment when we:
- Ask kids to form pairs or trios to pursue “why” and “how” questions rather than “what” questions. For example, “Why did Jesus respond with such apparent rudeness to the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15?” instead of, “What did Jesus say to the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15?” Or, using the same encounter, asking, “How did Jesus love this Canaanite woman?” rather than “What was the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman?” When teenagers pursue challenging questions together, they make deeper connections with one another and actually grow from sharing their insights. That creates relational intimacy.
- Emphasize our role as a wise responder in a conversational environment, rather than a “sage on the stage” in a one-way communication environment. When kids pursue great questions together, whether in small groups or all together, you maximize your influence as a teacher/leader by offering insights in response to what they’ve discovered on their own. Teenagers feel like owners in the growth process and see you as a powerful source of truth when you share in the flow of conversation, not outside it.
- Act like Sherlock Holmes in our pursuit of others and our pursuit of Jesus. Holmes solved crimes by paying ridiculous attention to people, noticing details others missed. Likewise, when we slow down and pay ridiculous attention to Jesus’ heart—and to the hearts of those in our community—we find details that unlock depth and understanding. People throw out clues all the time about what’s down in their core, hidden by masks and safety strategies. If we pay attention and are willing to ask questions that hit close to that core, we communicate to the whole group that this is our relational norm. (For more on that ministry approach, check out Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry or The Jesus-Centered Life.)
Of course, Group’s Simply Youth Ministry team takes all this to heart. We try to walk our talk as we create ministry resources that fuel relational intimacy. Our program resources are built on a foundation of active and interactive learning. Our devotions (Jesus-Centered Life: 40 Devotions for Teenagers), Bible studies, small-group curriculums (LIVE), and large-group “messages” (YM Select) offer a mix of what Jesus did when he engaged people. That translates to a relational approach to growth fueled by questions that invite honesty and insight, simple experiences that engage the heart and mind, storytelling that compels focus and attention, and a relaxed, flexible approach that prioritizes vigorous conversations.