Monday, April 18, 2016

Why We Need a 'From There to Here' Youth Ministry

You might say there are two kinds of young people in the United States today. There are young people who are ready and excited to change the world, to turn all the problems of society upside down and create a new society--one with creativity, justice, and love. Not yet jaded by the cynical systems we adults have created and perpetuated, these young people are entrepreneurial and passionate. But there's another kind of young person. There're also young people who are tired of being told they can change the world. There are young people who feel they've lost their passion (or never found it) and are crushed under the expectations of their parents, their teachers, their coaches, ...their pastors. There are young people who are just tired and, before they can imagine meeting the great world-changing expectations the adult world keeps imposing on them, they just desperately want to be told that they're ok just the way they are. 

This second group is greatly at risk, I believe, in youth ministry. Youth Ministry has recently prided itself on (and judged itself according to) its ability to "empower" young people, to "give voice" to them and help them see their potential. If Kenda Dean's point in her book, Practicing Passion, holds any water (and I happen to believe it holds a ton of water), youth ministry has not always been particularly good at tapping in to or igniting the actual passions of young people. But whether or not youth workers have learned anything from Dean's suggestions (and, I'm afraid, mostly they haven't), there's certainly a movement in youth ministry to put kids to work. Whether or not a kid goes on the church mission trip is, for some youth workers, a direct reflection of their spiritual maturity and commitment to Christ. Nevermind whether or not the mission trip has anything to do with what they're actually passionate about (believe it or not, not every young person finds a lot of life in swinging a hammer. Maybe they'd rather change the world by making music or studying physics). As long as we're all about putting kids to work, we'd do much better to give them a platform to discover where their great passions and the world's great needs intersect (to channel Frederick Buechner). 

But youth ministry can't be all about putting kids to work. It can't just be about empowerment. This is clearly true for the second kind of young person I described above. In the frenzy to get things done, youth ministry has tailored itself to the needs of only the first kind of young person. In the frenzy, those kids who are over being "empowered" (we might be tempted to call them burn-outs) are left behind and, if noticed at all, are considered the collateral damage of good ministry. "They didn't get on the mission train? Well, I guess you can't win 'em all." 

What this kind of young person needs and, what the first kind might need even more is a different theology of youth ministry. 

Our theology of youth ministry is dominated by a from here to there trajectory. It's about how young people get from where they are to where God is--from here to the mission trip, from here to the next church service, from here to a new society, from here to changing the world, from here to maturity. But, the fact is, this is not a good theology of youth ministry. I would venture to say it's not a particularly Christian theology of youth ministry at all. 

The truth of God, revealed in Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, is that ministry is always, first and foremost, a from there to here kind of thing. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that when there was literally no way for us to justify ourselves, to bring new creation, to bring ourselves from death to life, to get from here to there... when there was no way for us to get to God, God came to us! God came from there to here... even to the cross.  When we are burnt out, when there's no way we can imagine being "empowered," when we are utterly defeated by expectations we cannot meet, the gospel tells us that God is here already. There's nowhere we have to go. We are allowed to be loved before we even think of trying to love God. 

It's a little more obvious why we need a from there to here theology of youth ministry for those kids who see no way forward and (sometimes wisely) decline our invitations to hop on the mission train. They can finally be told that they are loved just the way they are. They can finally hear the good news that they can't change the world and they don't need to... that's God's job and God's doing it. They can be comforted (and perhaps empowered) by the knowledge that their work can be play. They can take joy in what they do because their life does not depend on what they do. Their life is secured in Christ in whom God interrupts death with life. They can rest assured in the promise of the resurrection and not be crushed under the pressures of empowerment.  

But this from there to here theology of youth ministry might be even more important for the kids who do want to change the world, who have a passion and an idea and are ready to make a difference. This message might be even more important for the kids who are  going on the mission trip. They are unsuspectingly threatened by the risk of their own success. If they do something spectacular, they may be tempted to confuse their accomplishment with their spirituality. They may find themselves unable to experience God outside of their good works. In having made it (let's say they really do make it, just for the sake of speculation) from here to there, in having made it to God, they might assume that everyone else needs to follow the same trajectory. They might find themselves judging (or at least pitying) the ones who didn't make it. And, worse yet, they might think that their identity lies in what they accomplish and what they love rather than in the God who loves them before they have a chance to do or fail to do anything. These kids need the from there to here theology as much as everyone else. These kids need to know the good news that their successes do not define them. 

In general, youth ministry needs to know that its success (and failure) does not define it. Youth ministry is not a from here to there kind of thing. It's always about God's coming to us first. The work we do is more like play. It's a playful and joyful (even when it is profoundly difficult and even painful) participation in the life of God in the world. 

3 comments:

Michael Toy said...

thanks Wes for your wisdom and insight!! great words to contemplate this morning.

Jon said...

Hi Wes, thanks for you thoughts here.

I'm wondering whether a there to here theology of YM presumes someone is already at the 'here' stage...?

Thanks, Jon.

Wesley Ellis said...

Thanks for the question, Jon. "Here" is wherever someone is. It's not a "stage" in the sense that it's better to be "here" than somewhere else, necessarily. It's just "here." So wherever a kid may be--in church, on the street, in prison, in hell--what I assume is that God comes to them (the Romans 8:38-39 principle, not to mention the Apostles Creed) and that ministry is about seeing God's ministry in all the "heres" of our young people's experience and participating in it. Helping young people improve their lives or get to some other place from where they are is a second order motivation.