A Different Way to Do Teen Ministry Campus Ministry Church, Relationships?

https://i1.wp.com/www.unitydanville.org/skedlogo.gifTheory, Part 1 — Or why I cringe everytime I hear that our kids are building great relationships.

I have this theory. It goes like this. Sometimes we run youth ministry like a babysitting service with devos thrown in. And we sometimes make youth ministry downright narcissistic by running it entirely for the kids. Ponder that one for a while. If the kids spend six of their most formative years having ministry run for them, what are they not doing? Right. They aren’t doing ministry for others. If they are always the ones being served, then they can’t become servants.

And so we get parents involved and the parents pick up the pizza and serve the pizza and carry the kids hither and yon in minivans — showing great servant hearts. But the kids are never taught to be servants. After all, they’re kids. And while kids learn by example, it has to be explained for them, and they have to be taught to follow the example. Otherwise, being immature (only adolescents are allowed in a teen program!), they’ll respond immaturely — by feeling entitled to the services they receive.

When the 16-year old girl brings friends to the youth event, the parents and ministers and volunteers work hard to make it the perfect youth event for the girl and her friends — and don’t require the girl to actually be a servant. She’s a servee. Always.

When the teens go to Central America to paint houses for the locals, the youth ministers measure the success of the venture by what the kids learn and what great relationships they build with each other on the trip. Again, the measure is how well the kids have been served, not how well the Central Americans have been served — and this means a mission that looks like outreach is just inreach on a $2,000 per child per week budget.

Think carefully. When your teens or their ministers present the story of their short-term mission trip to the church, do they speak about what the kids learned and how much the kids benefited from the trip? Or do they speak about what good was done for those left behind in Central America?

If we sent a fulltime missionary to China and he came back talking about what he learned and the great relationships he built with his fellow missionaries, we’d fire him. Or we should. He should be about the mission — and the mission is about the people he went to serve. Missionaries go as servants, not to learn valuable life lessons. And because they go as servants, they build great relationships — not as the goal but as a joyous side effect — and the relationships aren’t only or even mainly with fellow missionaries. They build relationships with the people they minister to and with.

The result is that even when our kids stay home and paint houses for Jesus, we measure the program by what the kids learn and whether they invited friends and what relationships they built and whether the devo that night really touched their hearts — and not whether the mission of God to the people whose houses were being painted was actually accomplished.

So here’s the first principle. Missions that are about the teens produce self-centered teens, because what they learn is that they are the mission. I mean, when the parents and church pour huge resources into making sure the kids have friends, that certainly tells the kids that their own happiness is the heart and soul of the church.

Now, obviously, we all know kids who turned out great despite their teenage experiences or even because of their teenage experiences in church. Sometimes it’s great programs, or great parenting, or the power of the Holy Spirit and prayer overcoming the mistakes we all make. We don’t always fail. But we fail a lot. We fail too much.


11 Responses

  1. we start early teaching our children to have a self-centered approach to Christianity. part of it is our desire for them to have good experiences in youth group, and, so, to associate good (often translated “fun”) with church. part of it is that self-reflection after experiences is a good thing. and i would argue much of it simply comes as a by-product of our american worldview. we, as individuals, are the centers of our own universe. and we start all this at an early age — “Jesus loves me” is favored over “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” we do need to teach that Jesus loves us. but what if we focused more on the “us,” and less on the “me?” i know my daughter will never come home from sunday school with a coloring sheet that says, “God loves himself more than me” — but can we do something to put God back at the center of things?

  2. In experiential learning, it is called the “debrief.” It is the time of most learning and growing. It is the one thing we neglect most. It is also fairly difficult to do, but it can be learned.

    When teens, and everyone else, engage in a mission work, the one question we should ask (and then allow a few hours of answers and discussion) is:

    What did God enable us to do for someone else?

  3. as for short-term missions, call me a pessimist (or a realist), but i have very little expectation (or even hope) that i’ll ever see a high school youth group travel abroad and provide a service for the locals that was worth the cost of the trip. i believe they can provide services. and i believe that some good can come from those trips. but i don’t think the benefits to the “mission country” can ever make the trip worth the cost.

    i do, however, believe short-term missions are still worthwhile. much of my reasoning falls under the benefits the teens themselves gain (i know i may be contradicting myself). seeing missionaries at work is always more beneficial for the teens than is what they offer to the local people. but without short-term missions, i don’t believe we would have long-term missions. that is where the real import of short-term trips lies in my mind. i would never have moved to tanzania if i’d not first been on short-term trips to mobile inner city, or mexico, or england. i think i did next to nothing useful on those trips; but i learned just a bit about what it means to serve others — mostly in spending time with the missionaries themselves.

    i’d argue that the missionary mentoring available to kids on short-term trips is the best possible benefit. better than expecting them to actually serve the local community in a beneficial way, better than expecting them to form relationships with locals, and better than them reflecting on how they should be satisfied with less. i’d also say parent volunteers on trips should be better examples of service themselves. and i’d institute a mandatory 6-week (or more) “course” on missions and/or cross-cultural communication required before teens (or their parents) could go on these trips.

  4. I find myself in general agreement with the intent of this thread, but I question what is really possible.

    Learning must begin with where someone is, right now. And teens are nothing if not self-absorbed. Certainly with an occasional exception.

    It is reasonable to ask what our the goals for teen ministry, and what is possible.

    I look at my own life and recognize how long it took me to really understand agape.

    I suggest the goals for teen ministry to be:

    1. To make fellowship with believers something they value as part of their lives.

    2. To introduce them to the variety of ways they can serve others.

    3. To teach them to be gracious and forgiving.

    Just my two cents

  5. David,
    I agree. The ideal vs what is really possible certainly taxes our thinking. I am one who enjoyed the hot dogs and ice cream at youth rallies (no pizza places in my area of the country). The congregations tried.
    But I was one confused teenager who said and did a lot stupid things. Would doing more work as opposed to eating and competing in memory verses helped? Maybe.
    But I do believe that more emphasis on being gracious and forgiving rather than being right would have gone a long way in shaping my mind and heart, as well putting a bridle on my tongue.

  6. Jay
    I believe your on to something here. And David and John concerns do play into the equation. But one has to question can any program go beyond the expectations of the parents? That is to say who really leads the parents or the youth ministry? There is also the belief that anytime you venture beyond the norm that it is radicalized. It seems to me that a congregation would (as a whole) have to get behind a more formally understood Christian boot camp concept to truly prepare our youth for service.

  7. david, you don’t have pizza places? where do you live? i had no idea there was such a place.

    i agree with you guys that you have to start with where the kids are — but there are different ways to start there. rather than going to winterfest or the like and listening to a few sermons amidst all the shopping and boys trying to get alone with girls, go somewhere that the adults in your group can truly model faith in Christ and an obedient life. on short-term mission trips, organize them in such a way that the students are spending more time with the adults — maybe an adult with each group. on trips to six flags, do something to encourage the same. i think you can still do those fun things that encourage the kids who are not spiritual to come. but you do those things in such a way that the kids are being mentored (quite possibly without knowing it) by the adult chaperones, or the missionaries, etc.

    i would almost go so far as to say let’s drop most of the speakers and speaking opps in order to spend more time together. as it is, kids show up for those devos with a speaker because they have to — then they’re off to enjoy “their” free time — without adults. i believe having a mature Christian life modeled for them is more important than listening to a speaker. for that matter, i believe that for the congregation as a whole….

  8. Jamesbrett, this is JOHN, I’m the one who said we didn’t have pizza places. I grew up in a small town in Arkansas. When I was a teen during the sixties there was no pizza place for 50 miles..closest one was in Memphis.
    That aside, I do agree in dropping most of the speakers. One reason, at the risk of sounding cynical, is that it is often used as a stage for young seekers of stardom.
    However, I am convinced that to let teens, as groups, speak their concerns to one another, and to an adult leader they trust, is the best way to go. Most adults would be quite surprized to learn how many kids would attend a gathering if they were allowed to speak their minds without being judged.

  9. I’ve always been kinda suspicious of those types of youth things.

    Gospel spreading, now that’s something I can get behind.

    In fact trying to get together a program to get some of the younger folks to pass out flyers and talk with others.

  10. Good truth in this post. One of the serious hurdles to overcome: the tendency of many parents to WANT a youth program like you have described here. They want their children to have fun, be entertained, etc. Confront a teen, encourage his growth, etc., and you are as likely to encounter an angry parent as a disgruntled teen. How many of their parents ever show up for a service project? The problem you address is true, but it is certainly not true of just the youth group (although that may be as good a place as any to start trying to make a difference). wb

  11. Warren,

    I entirely agree that the parents are sometimes part of the problem. You can’t do what I suggest unless you have adults who are interested in missions and ministry.

    In my own church, the adults are moving toward having genuinely service-oriented hearts. Some amazing things are happening by the power of God working among his people. The next step for us, I think, is to break down generational barriers and allow the teens to be impressed by the adults.

    But it took us years to get there. You can’t just make an announcement and preach a sermon series. The Spirit’s timing is very much his own.

    The other side of youth ministry is the fact that in many congregations, the teens are actually more into missions and ministry than the adults — which may bode well for the future, but only if the teens don’t leave the church because of it — or revert to the behavior of the adults when they grow up. So you’ve really got to work with both ends of the congregation — giving us one more reason to bring the generations along together.

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