I may be on the fringe here (and like all things, I reserve the right to be wrong and have my mind changed) but I think one of the most immoral decisions we can make in youth ministry is to prioritize OURSELVES – the staff, the leaders, the adults – over the students.
Now keep in mind again, I can change my mind, but let me explain.
A big part of this comes out of my personal philosophy of ministry. This was born out of my education, early professional experience and mentors as well as my personal experience as a student.
When I was young, I went on a Missions trip to Argentina. There was very much of the “white savior” complex in the trip, I think my view of global outreach and empowering and supporting indigenous leadership has matured over time, but I digress. Before we left for the trip, I was talking with some of the other leaders about what we were going to do while we were there. We were talking all about the food we would eat, the things we would see, and the memories we would create. We were friends and we were looking forward to going to Argentina together.
The youth pastor heard that and leaned right into us. He, in a loving way, reminded us that it was NOT ABOUT US, it was about the students. It was about leading them and the experiences we would help them create. That conversation had a pivotal moment in my ministry philosophy.
Being the leaders that value our experience above the students is wrong.
I will even go further, with the backdrop of Heaven and Hell, both real places. Not prioritizing students over ourselves is immoral.
Let me give you a few examples…
If your goal at camp or a retreat is the adults getting to hang out and create memories with each other, you could be on a moral edge. Imagine explaining that to parents, that one of the goals is for the adults to connect together and build their friendships. What parent would pay hundreds of dollars for that to happen? I wouldn’t. Does friendship and connection happen in pre-camp meetings, between co-leaders, during rec times, in the overall on-goings of camp? Of course, that will happen, but it’s not a goal. We plan to meet our goals.
If you don’t like change because you like it the way you like it, you may be on the moral edge. The goal is to grow. Grow and disciple, discipleship big time, and serve, and leadership, and all the Fuller Youth Institute stuff, but to grow, numerically grow. If you look around and say, “Man, it feels like we aren’t growing. It feels like we haven’t in a year or more” and then you say, “Oh well” then you are there. If culture changes, our ministry approach has to change as well. If it doesn’t change, then it’s either because we don’t know how to, or we don’t want to. If you don’t know how to, look to and learn from guys like Frank Gil, and Justin Knowles who are more public people with podcasts. But really, you can call any large church and talk to their youth staff to find out what they are doing. If you think “It doesn’t make sense that they have had 50 students and now they have 500” know that it does make sense. They set goals and prioritized certain things to reach students. You didn’t, own it. If you fall into the “I don’t want to” category, ask yourself why. Do you think that retail youth ministry is shallow? Well, make sure it’s not. Do you think that youth will show up cause when you were a youth you showed up, and you decide to just give it more time, but you have no real strategy to show how you’re going to get there? If that is you, really invite feedback, allow yourself to be challenged.
Lastly… if you think you need to be on stage teaching, hosting, leading games, etc. and it needs to be only you, you may be on the moral edge. I did a survey once where we asked students what their favorite part of youth was. We gave them the following options: Hanging out with friends, Games, Teaching, Groups, and Worship. Teaching got 2.4% of the survey. Then we asked what their second favorite part was, same options, teaching got 14%. The lowest of both questions was teaching. The highest was groups for the first one, and hanging with their friends in the second one. But when we think about how we spend our time, we how much more time do we put into teaching, our on-stage time, and being the star? Or, we don’t put enough time into that and our teaching sucks. I know that sounds hard to hear, but it’s true. Think about hosting or leading games for a moment. Are they only good when you do it? Does it need your professional skill? I must have missed that class in school, clearly you got an A in it. If we are not looking to our leaders to be on stage, the youth to be on stage, people who are not US to be on stage we are missing something, and we don’t even know it.
If you are offended by all, or part of this, know that it’s not personal and also is my goal.
I love youth workers! But we need to challenge each other strongly.
Feel free to email me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Justin Herman