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Youth Ministry Malpractice: Acting Like Hired Hands, Not Good Shepherds

Medical malpractice is decided by a jury of peers, and in this series of posts I’ve acted as a jury of…one. I’m biased, of course, in my perspective—because I’ve been immersed in the youth ministry world for 30 years. So I have a “seasoned bias.”

My four examples of ministry malpractice (including these previous posts: Why Lectures Are a Waste of Words, Why Fun & Games Aren’t to Blame, and Treating Relevance As If It Outranks Intimacy) aren’t a comprehensive list, but rather glaring examples. My purpose is to stir us to think more deeply about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

So here’s the final installment of my malpractice starter list…

Acting More Like Hired Hands Than Good Shepherds

In John 10, Jesus declares: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep” (vs. 11-13).

Here, Jesus is setting the bar for those of us who are called as ministry leaders. We have a “belonging” relationship with the teenagers and adults we lead, not a “hired-hand” relationship. Hired hands run away when a wolf stalks the sheep, but a good shepherd fights back against every enemy. Obviously, we translate “run away” as a fear response. We’re scared of the threat, so we protect ourselves instead of protecting our sheep. But running away is also a passive response: We stand by as the sheep are assaulted.

So we face threats to our sheep with a good grip on our rod and staff. This means we:

1. Push back against accepted “norms” in the culture and teach our kids to do the same. In a post last week right after the Grammy Awards show, I wrote about a critical-thinking habit I call The Jesus Pushback. It’s simply references Jesus’ protect-the-sheep determination on display in Matthew 5, when he repeatedly uses this pushback rhythm: “You have heard it said…, but I say….”  We learn to assess cultural norms—all of them—using Jesus’ permanent filter that names the world’s truth for what it is and then compares it to the kingdom-of-God values he stands for. It’s called “holy skepticism.” When we’re operating in it, we accept no conventional truths that contradict the truths Jesus reveals. We learn to think like him in every circumstance because we’re discovering how countercultural his thinking is. For example, here are some cultural norms we can name and then compare to kingdom-of-God truths:

  • People who are “good enough” end up in heaven when they die (but Jesus says he’s the only way to eternal life).
  • The best way to please God is to keep all his rules (but in John 6, Jesus tells us to “eat his body and drink his blood” if we want to make him happy).
  • People who say they have conversations with God are more or less insane (but Jesus says the Spirit’s job description is to fuel an ongoing, conversational relationship with us).
  • Jesus came to judge the righteous from the unrighteous (but Jesus actually says, “I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it”).
  • If you’re a churchgoing person, you’re probably a “holier than thou” hypocrite (but Jesus says, “I have come to call not those who think they’re righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent”).

2. Go into the cave on behalf of others. I love the scene in the last Lord of the Rings film (The Return of the King) when the hero-king Aragorn must enter a dark cave where the wraiths of disgraced warriors live. Over the mouth of the cave is an inscription: The way is shut. It was made by those who are dead, and the dead keep it. The way is shut.” Aragorn’s response to his friends, who are frightened by the prospect of entering the cave, is simple: “I am not afraid of death.” He enters the cave of death on behalf of his calling as a rescuer—as a good shepherd.

Jesus knows every dark cave embedded in the lives of the teenagers and adults we serve. Each represents a hard reality or painful struggle in the life of one of his beloved sheep. So many are living in the private terror of their own dark cave, and Jesus needs people—us, actually—who will go into those dark caves on his behalf. Put another way, he needs the right tool for the job. And maybe you’re exactly the right tool for exactly the dark caves Jesus has brought into your life. Our mission for people stuck in their own dark cave is to prove that we’re with them, to remind them of who Jesus is, and to remind them of who they really are. This is “going into the cave” on behalf of others.

3. Refuse to accept cultural norms that are directly contrary to the gospel—for example, treating gun violence as entertainment. The action films and first-person shooter video games that reign over teenagers’ cultural world often get a wink-wink response from those of us trying to build relationships with kids in the real world. We accept many of their cultural crushes simply because rejecting them would be tantamount to rejecting the person. But can we really afford to turn a blind eye to another film trailer or video-game trailer that treats gun violence as entertainment?

America has a gun-violence problem, with almost 34,000 gun-related deaths last year alone. What if we communicate the heartbreaking human cost of gun violence and explore how to respond by paying attention to Jesus’ mission as a shepherd? Sheep will die unless they have a shepherd willing to defend, rescue, and guide them. And when 34,000 sheep are dying every year, maybe it’s time for the collective “Good Shepherd”—because our true identity is found in the body of Christ, we are also the body of the Good Shepherd on earth—to band together to take a stand against gun violence as entertainment. Let kids sign a pledge that they’ll no longer watch gun violence as entertainment in any form and endeavor to influence others to do the same. Start a movement in your community.

A Final Note: If this “Youth Ministry Malpractice” series has piqued your interest and fed your hunger, then don’t miss one of our Youth Ministry Local Training dates this fall, in 50 cities around the United States. The theme for 2017 is “Making All-In Disciples: 3 Practices That Fuel Unstoppable Growth.” We’ll target these three best-practice ministry areas:

  1. Better Than Sermons: How to Teach for Transformation
  2. Better Than Relevance: How to Build Intimacy in Your Group
  3. Better Than Service: How to Grow a Missional Identity in Kids

For more information, visit us at Youth Ministry Local Training and we’ll make sure you get what you need to attend.

 

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Youth Ministry Malpractice: Acting Li...

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