I’ve just realized that 15 years ago I started my first youth ministry gig. I was 19, and had somehow stumbled onto a 10 hour a week jr high Sunday school/youth group job, mainly because I was pretty passionate that our church needed to be doing more for youth and young adults. (There is some sort of thing about not giving feedback on things because then they will put you in charge of it… but I was young then and didn’t know any better.) J So there I was, working with a dozen 6th-8th graders, not knowing a whole lot about Jr Highers, but spending my weekends during college reading as much as possible (thank goodness for Wayne Rice’s Jr High Youth Ministry and everything put out by Mark O) and just creating a youth ministry program through the trial and error method. There were surely some awesome times—crazy messy games, inventing programs out of the blue, all night lock-ins that I look back on with a wonder how I had the energy to manage. And some challenging times too—wanting to quit, figuring out how to handle parents who saw me as the know-it-all teenager that I had been growing up in that congregation, etc. But for two years, I was able to learn what it meant to just ‘hang’ with students and awaken a calling that has lasted me almost half my life.
And now it’s the beginning of year 16 and as I have been putting together calendars and plans for the upcoming school year, wondering why it’s the first week of September and I’m not done yet, and asking myself the question ‘Shouldn’t this be easier by now?’ I’m finding that I am struggling with the difficulty of kicking off a new school year. Maybe it’s the fact that our congregation has students from 6 different school districts, maybe it’s the number of kids involved in club sports that tends to monopolize their time, maybe its because traditional ‘Sunday-night-youth-group’ just doesn’t work in this congregation, maybe it’s the pressure that some people still judge the viability of programs by the number of kids who show up. Either way it has become harder and harder to nail down programs, finalize dates, and send out my calendars. (That’s right, some of us youth workers do plan months in advance.) :)
And I know that I am not the only one. So what this mean for our churches and our ministries? It is definitely a sign of the times—a sign that culture is changing and has changed, that we as the institutional church aren’t a priority for most folks anymore, and as such, we too must change. We have to be willing to reach out a little bit more, to not just assume that the kids will just show up if we put a date on a calendar, to understand that once-a-month attendance might just be as good today as once-a-week once was. We must be willing to do youth ministry differently, to be willing to go out to where the kids are, to plan programs that really do matter vs. things that just entertain, and we must remember that ministry is more about relationships than programs.
In this new and emerging culture, where students are more and more over-programmed, and those programs are less and less wiling to compromise when it comes to attendance and participation, it is easy for us as the church to be the ones to bend. And yes, we must compromise in some ways—maybe we won’t have the weekly youth group anymore, and maybe we will see our students a little less often inside the church and must start doing a lot of our work outside of the church, but regardless, I don’t think our mission and our role in the lives of students needs to compromise. We still work to help students understand who they are and whose they are, and we still work to help students find the ways that they matter and make a difference in the world, and we still work to help youth understand that they are cared for and are appreciated by caring adults in a community of faith. And, when life gets a bit rough around the edges, it is this faith community that is there to give perspective, support, and a little bit of guidance.
Programs are replaceable, programs aren’t something that we give priority to, programs aren’t the reasons that many of us do ministry. (Otherwise we’d all be event planners.) It is the relationships that we build with our students and the relationships we nurture between our students and other adults that will foster a strong foundation in our youth that will undergird their understanding of what faith means to them and to all of the other programs and activities and ‘stuff’ that they do every other day of their life. So here’s to a new year youth ministry and not being so worried about the programs, the numbers, the ‘results’ of my ministry but instead focusing on what really matters—building relationships with students and helping them to discover a little bit more about who they are, who God is, and why their faith matters.