I was thinking about a friend the other day who is feeling a lot of pressure to make sure the kids in his student ministry are having a lot of fun. The thinking seems to be, “If they have a lot of fun, they’ll keep coming and bring their friends.” There is some truth in that. If we gear a youth ministry that is genuinely fun (we’re not always as good at this as we think we are), and aim it at a segment of people who’s over-riding ethos seems to be having fun at all costs, we will get kids to show up – maybe a LOT of kids. But our job in youth ministry is not merely to get kids to show up; it’s to show God. Only God can bring about the transformation in our fun-loving students’ lives that brings them to real Life.
What looks like a successful youth ministry (one with a lot of kids showing up) though, may in fact be almost completely ineffective at bringing about that type of transformation. The leader of that type of youth ministry can quickly begin to feel more like a cruise director for church teens than a maker of young disciples. Just out of curiosity, I looked up some job descriptions for ‘cruise director’. It’s more than a little disturbing how accurately these descriptions match a lot of common practices in youth ministry. Go ahead and do a search for cruise director job description, substitute youth minister and church and teens for words like director and ship and passengers… The bottom line seems to be, “Make sure people have such a good time that they’ll want to come back and bring friends.”
This is fine for a cruise, but is it enough for a youth ministry?
Admittedly, I may swing the pendulum a little too far the other way on this issue, but it’s certainly not enough for me. If you have set up some kind of weekly transaction that trades 50 minutes of dodgeball and shaving cream shenanigans for 10 minutes of feigned attention to a brief message touching on an important issue or Bible passage, then you need to stop. It’s not worth it. My friend is hurting because he can see that it’s not a transforming ministry, but an entertaining one – He feels stuck in something less that the life and leadership he’s been called into.
So what is it that gets us stuck in this Youth Ministry Cruise Directorship? (Thanks for asking – I have a few ideas.)
- Parents’ Expectations – Sometimes youth ministers feel like parents want us to fix their kids, or at least keep them so busy with church stuff that they don’t have time to get in trouble. Wanting to keep the parents happy, or maybe to prove ourselves to them, we fill a calendar.
- Church Leaders’ Expectations / Job Insecurity – Churches like to be able to point to a large, active youth group as a sign of their health. This can result in a lot of unintended pressure on the youth minister to get kids to show up… or else. Often the youth pastor is a younger or newer staff member and feels like he or she needs to get a lot of kids to come to justify the expense of employment.
- Peers’ Apparent Success – If we see the church down the road with 80 kids who really seem to love their youth group, it’s tough to feel good about the 8 that show up consistently at ours. We think that if we just had more fun, maybe others would come.
- Ego – Let’s be honest (hopefully that’s already happening!)… Having a big group of teens that think you’re the coolest adult they’ve ever known feels pretty good. So we keep mixing up the greatest games and filling our barrel of tricks & treats, and they keep showing up on our doorsteps ready to post all the fun on Facebook just as soon as they come down from their sugar high enough to function.
- Tradition – Sometimes, the fun and games model is the only one we know. So we just rinse, repeat, and clean up the meaningless mess week after week.
But (I realize I say this a lot) it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe you’re tired of being seasick on the youth ministry cruise ship, too. So, I’m dropping anchor on a few lifeboats. You don’t have to stay in that ship. Grab a travel buddy and jump in the dinghy that’ll help you the most.
- Partner With Parents – Instead of keeping kids busy, what if there was a way to equip families to integrate a Biblical mentality into their daily lives together? What if we could help kids learn discernment and how to make good decisions even when they’re not being shuttled from one of our sort-of-well thought out activities to the next?
- Co-Leadership & Real Security – First, realize that if God has called you into youth ministry, that’s all the job security you need. Go make disciples there. Second, understand that youth ministry is something that is better done by a church than by an individual. They may need you to lead, but the church doesn’t need you to do it all for them (even if that’s what they seem to want). What if you could engage other church leaders in youth ministry & get them connected with the students.
- Ministry Cooperation – This may be as simple as swallowing your pride and coming to grips with the fact that your ministry is not the one that is best for every student. What if you could work together with other area youth pastors to cast the net a little wider and serve the youth of your community together?
- Assassination of Ego – Just kill it. Let God fill you and stop expecting your students to validate your existence. He is enough.
- Imagination – Having been made in the image of the Creator, are you really going to just pull all your ideas from some book that was on the cutting edge of youth ministry 17 years ago? What if you didn’t just lead from tradition, but from imagination? What new ways could you come up with to engage students in an adventurous life spent in the passionate pursuit of Jesus?
What are some other ways you’ve seen youth ministries get stuck or unstuck? Is it time for you to put away the cruise director’s cap?