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Friday, March 16, 2012

So What is Youth Ministry, Exactly?

I will try to restrain myself. I feel a rant coming on.

This has been quite a week, in big ways and small. (Personally, I'm just fine, but in terms of issues of youth ministry in the media...) I've been emailing back and forth with a few friends about Invisible Children (IC) and all the uproar over the Kony 2012 video. I tend to block out hype, but this one is more personal.

A former student got my attention about IC when they started, some time around 2005. We watched the movie in youth group right away, and we were shaken to the core. That day we committed to supporting the work, and collected funds for the cause weekly for years, also periodically taking time to catch up on ways to pray for the organization and the greater horror of Joseph Kony. So I paid attention as I saw and heard running commentary all week about IC and the viral documentary.

Facebook posts from students and youth pastors I know buzzed all week with comments. I don't personally like to get manipulative and overly dramatic to get the attention of young adults, but I was glad to hear the video went viral, if only to profile the horror that has gone on the last 20 years through Joseph Kony in order to spur people to action.

So what is incredibly painful now is to read the yuck that came out tonight about the Kony 2012 director. I'm saddened that just as much press, if not more, will be devoted to this tragic turn of events for Jason Russell than to the ongoing horrors of Uganda and the Congo. The high highs of IC getting so much press and visibility in the media as young Christians making a difference now plummets over night into the low lows of trash and drama. Sigh.

Closer to home, today I was made aware of a story in the local paper that came out yesterday as the lead story on the front page (really?!) about a local youth group that had some sort of male bonding weekend that included face paint and greased pigs and the slaughter of said pigs. I read it, and all in all, it did not paint the church in a good light - but I also understand that the media can skew things. Fortunately, the church came out with a rather humble statement that does a good job acknowledging how it could have been handled better. But I would say that some damage has been done.

Two major stories in my neighborhood, one big and one small, that tell the world (those who are not going to church, or might have some significant cynicism about it) some pretty wacky things about two things I have devoted my adult life to: Jesus and teenagers. I know, I know, I need to remain calm. There are some huge international stories emerging in Afghanistan, but once the fervor dies down on the stories I mention at the beginning, the issues will remain the same: society does NOT know what to do with teenagers and young adults, and heavens, the church overall seems generally lost as well.

Even though I have stepped back from running a youth group (since 2009) and from teaching students weekly (as of December 2011), I still consider myself very involved with youth ministry, as I have been since I was a senior in college in (gulp) 1982. From writing articles to training youth pastors to meeting weekly with youthworkers in the Free Methodist Church in Southern CA to perhaps most important of all, lunch with an actual high school student this past Wednesday :)... I'm still thinking all the time about how to love students well, encourage them to lead, and how to get as many people doing that as possible.

Pop culture wants to portray teenagers as shallow, selfish, sex-crazed party animals (see the Project X trailer if you don't believe me -- or don't, because it's hideous), but the church seems to want to counter this "sex, drugs, rock 'n roll" culture with greased pigs and gross games that get kids to vomit. IT MAKES ME WANT TO THROW MY HANDS UP IN THE AIR AND HOLLER. Good grief, Is that the best we can do??! We expect so little of students, when they have so much to offer.

I want to fight for one simple thing: quality ministry over the long term. The implications for that goal are huge, I know, because that requires dollars and manpower and education and so on. But my heavens, I have built my life on this and I can say with no reservation that it is worth the investment. The apostle Paul, in writing to the churches of Asia Minor in his letter to the Galatians, says it well:

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, (Galatians 4:19)
Paul has labored long and hard for the believers there, and reacts deeply as they fall prey to heretical teachings. He needs to give them guidance again.

Yet that simple verse describes the bottom line: His job is never finished. Each of us who invest in young people (and on into adulthood, if we really get it) will go through labor again and again--and let's not forget how painful labor is! Eugene Peterson says it best in The Message Scripture paraphrase: "Do you know how I feel right now, and will feel until Christ's life becomes visible in your lives? Like a mother in the pain of childbirth. Oh, I keep wishing that I was with you."

This week I received a simple note in the mail from Mission Impact, a ministry I deeply believe in, who does exactly this (labors long and hard) in Guatemala. I have brought students down there 4 different times simply to learn from their faithful year-round missionaries, and I have a dear friend who remains there to do the same with her husband. Out of my times down there I decided years ago to support a young girl at one of their schools so she could continue attending. In the villages of Guatemala, girls are only educated up through the 3rd grade. This boggles my mind and breaks my heart. So one little thing I can do is help a girl get an education that I take for granted here.

Here's the photo I received this week:

I should celebrate that I got to support Sandra until graduation... But in 6th grade?? She's only getting started!! This was the grade that my youth ministry started with here in the US. Oh my goodness. 

O Church, may we not waste the opportunities we have here to truly pour into our young people, that they would be salt and light for years and years to come. May we not dawdle frivolously with silly games (I confess my guilt at doing this many times) and emotional hype and drama that ultimately only manipulates. Instead, may we persist in consistent, faithful, deep and meaningful relationships and solid, thorough teaching that model maturity and authenticity. I don't think that is too much to ask.


  1. Oh, kelly- such a good rant : ) I didn't know you sponsored Sandra!?! I taught her last year-- and never knew YOU were her sponsor. Thank YOU.

  2. Thank you for being her teacher.... honestly, could you tell me which of these girls is her? I'm sad to say I don't even know. I've gotten a new student -- a 3rd grader named Claudia. Hope you are well.