Imagine this scenario: You’re taking your family on a trip to Disney World. None of you have ever done a big park before, so you decide to spend the money to hire a professional guide, someone who is experienced at how theme parks work. The only problem? The guide you hired works at Universal and doesn’t know Disney World. So they get most of it…they just don’t get ALL of it. They know the mechanics of how to usher you around; they just don’t know the people, traditions, habits, tips, best places, and so on.
Recently, I’ve coached a few youth ministries through an assessment process where an interesting dynamic arose. The youth ministry had paid program staff people on its team that didn’t belong to or attend the church where they worked. In one case, the youth director attended somewhere else on Sunday mornings.
(BTW: I’m not talking about hourly administrative staff. Attending somewhere else can work in their case. They’re often weekday only and have no program or face-to-face responsibilities. It’s great if they do attend the church, though!)
Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve run across this. Something just crystalized for me today. If program staff doesn’t attend the church they work for, doesn’t move among the people as family, it’s not going to work. At least not optimally or even adequately. It’s a precedent that doesn’t work in the best interest of the youth and youth ministry.
Here’s why: Even Scripture tells us of the importance of the whole Body gathering together in one place where people celebrate the things they have in common and tolerate the things they don’t. So Sunday morning is prime relationship building time, the time to see others and be seen by others. If parents don’t interact with key youth leaders on Sunday mornings, why would those parents want to send, sometimes force, their kids to be a part of the program where the leaders are unknown?
Students don’t need the youth program just so they have fun stuff to do. That’s an old-school purpose not needed anymore. Sure, kids (and adults) want to have fun. But parents send their kids to youth group so there can be yet one more place where faith friendships are built, where conversations happen in a safe climate. Kids come to youth group for the relationships, and they’re not going to do that if they don’t know the people there.
In most of our churches, there’s a buy-in, otherwise known as membership, that we eventually ask our students to make into the life of their church. It’s hard to ask that commitment of youth (and their families) if the people who are paid by the church to serve the student ministry haven’t bought into the membership principle themselves.
So as I write this, I’m convinced yet again. I just don’t think it works. It’s like a Universal Orlando worker trying to guide people around Disney. Close, but not close enough.