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An Heroic Ministry
Verse of the day
YWI - working with...
YWI is pleased to work in association with
Fuller Youth Institute, US
Sophia Network, UK
It was a long minibus trip home late on a Sunday afternoon after a youth group event. Carl, one of our teenagers, had taken the seat up front, perhaps so he could have some say in the radio station we listened to. But it also meant that we had to talk for some of the two hours it took to battle down the motorway. I was tired after the weekend, probably a little cranky now I think about it, dreaming of undisturbed sleep and silence.
And then it came. That crunch question.
‘What do you do wrong?’ Carl asked, referring back to the inspiring youth talks I felt I'd given on the subject of personal failure during the preceding two days. The question caught me off guard. I was used to telling young people to be honest, to open up about their lives in order to find God. This was what youth ministry was about. But being honest about my own failures, that was different.
As a youth worker I'm very good at pointing out problems in others: in a youth group talk or one to one. I can challenge and offer advice and counsel, and help young people face up to an issue in their life. But in all of that, I can also remain incredibly closed about myself, about who I am and what's happening in my journey of faith, good and bad. I suspect I'm not alone in that.
Carl's question caught me on the hop. The directness of it was uncomfortable and I began wishing that a service station would appear so we could stop for a rest and I could head for the safety of the cafe.
Should I really tell him the truth about my life: the moments when I fail others or God? Or could I brush him off with a story from my own youth, which seems far enough away to feel safe, or talk about some more recent less personal transgression, like the time I got caught speeding. Then again, should I tell him about the real issues and struggles I face? My dark places. What would you do?
I think this is a question most of us have had to face, by choice or not, at some time in our work with young people. One of the reasons we love youth ministry is teenagers' wonderful openness and honesty. They tell it like it is, without pretension or social etiquette. If they don't like the sermon, they make sure you and everyone else in the service know it. If your youth group game is rubbish, you can be sure they'll tell you. The downside is that they also get to ask you straight questions, with or without the awareness that you may find them embarrassing.
This is much more than a question about how much of an extrovert or introvert you are. I mean I wish I could just dismiss it as that, but I can't. As an introvert of sorts, I don't talk much about myself to anyone. I'm not one of those people who meet a stranger on a train and, five minutes later, I'm telling them my life story. Five years and I might tell you something, but fortunately for me train journeys don't last that long.
Let's not kid ourselves. The fact is that the question of our honesty about ourselves to young people goes even deeper than that, to the very heart of what it means to be a youth worker, to the very core of what it means to be a follower of Christ. It goes to the root of the way youth work has developed over the past four decades and of the nature of Christian ministry. Prepare to meet your nemesis.
The Cult of Personality
Perhaps the greatest curse of youth work since the idea of youth groups developed in the 40's and 50's has been the cult of personality. A youth worker whose zany energetic presence fills the entire youth work and the young people with their own energy. Sometimes this is by design, sometimes it just happens. I say 'curse' because although many churches pray for exactly this kind of youth worker, they perhaps don't realise the potential pitfalls it can sometimes bring. Youth work like this tends to be programme-led, with lots of events and activities, and it can be hard to tell if a young person's faith is based on the charisma of the youth worker or on something deeper. Like the seed that grows up quickly and then withers because there is no root, long term fruit from some apparently successful youth ministry hasn't amounted to much.
The problem is that it's very tempting for the youth worker whose personality drives the youth work to give the impression that their personal lives are as buoyant and upbeat as their ministry. With all that admiration and energy, you find yourself presenting a slightly adjusted view of your life and faith, maybe with a little more victory in your prayer life than is necessarily the truth. Because you want to communicate success to young people you end up skewing reality. In fact we're all guilty of this in some way: who wouldn't admit that at some time a talk you've given has given the impression you're a little more together in your spiritual or personal life?
By the way, a good test of whether you've fallen into this trap is whether you'd feel comfortable with those who know you best - friends, husbands, wives, children - listening to the talks you give to young people on character and lifestyle topics. If you can imagine a look of surprise, irony or sarcasm, you know you've overstepped the line! We don't necessarily set out to do this, it just happens as much by what we don't say and by what we do. If you give a talk on prayer without mentioning some of your own struggles - and trust me, if you're human you'll have them - then young people may be left with the perception that you don't have any. Has that ever happened in your youth ministry?
The Fear of Rejection
As youth workers, we want young people to like us. Even aside from all that psycho-analytical mumbo jumbo about how we're really trying to make up for being unpopular in our teens, we all want to be liked by the teenagers we work with. It's a basic human need and nothing to be ashamed of. But it's also a potential block to being honest about ourselves. Just like any relationship, being open and vulnerable carries with it the possibility of rejection. So why on earth would I tell you something about myself that would wipe that admiration off your face in an instant? If I do, will you still like me? Admire me? Want to come on summer camp? I wonder if I hold back from being honest about myself with teenagers for just that reason.
‘Come on’, you may be saying, ‘Do you mean that we should be telling teenagers our Christian faith is some terrible journey of failure and emptiness? Apart from being wrong, that kind of pitch would make anyone run a mile.’ And of course I'm not about to suggest you become a youth work version of Marvin the Paranoid Android. There's a balance to this. I'm not talking about dwelling on the lows and ignoring the highs. In fact it would be wholly scriptural to concentrate far more on the highs, on the glorious truths of the gospel and what they means for young people. Paul reminds on several occasions us to dwell on the good, the positive and the pure. But the New Testament also challenges us to be open and honest and to live our lives in accountability to each other.
I also recognise that there are limits to what would be right to tell a young person about yourself. A blow-by-blow account of that argument with your wife last night might be best kept to yourself, for example, especially if you plan on staying married. Some things either concern others, and are therefore private, or relate to something else that should remain confidential. Sharing your deepest hopes and fears with a teenager of the opposite sex could be an abuse of your position and create a bond that is dangerous and inappropriate. There are lots of situations where openness is not what's needed.
But even with those quite sensible restrictions, I suspect that we are not open enough with the young people we work with. Talking with Jamie, a youth worker who was struggling to read the Bible regularly himself, I asked him if he ever mentioned that to the young people in his youth group. ‘I can't,’ he said, ‘I'd never be able to do a session on why they should read the Bible again.’ I wondered to myself if this was the case. Or if shared, as part of a wider challenge to get stuck into Scripture, he wouldn't have brought himself closer to a group of teenagers who felt the same. Perhaps they could have worked together to overcome the problem, sharing tips and supporting each other when they didn't manage to get as far as they'd hoped. When I told Jamie what I was thinking, he nodded in agreement but fell short of taking up the idea. It's hard to change.
The truth is that we risk seeing young people disappear from the church if we don't become more honest with them. In our fear of losing teenagers by presenting them a gospel that isn't positive and glossy, we present them a gospel that doesn't exist at all. Young people who believe that they will never have doubts or hassles as Christians are going to have a pretty big wallop of disappointment waiting for them around the corner. No wonder some of them drift away from faith as they grow older. Their experience of Christianity doesn't match with what they were told it would be like. After a while, who can blame them for thinking they've been sold something that isn't true?
Jamie, myself, in fact all of us, owe it to teenagers to share with them the glorious messy reality of faith, its highs and lows... hopefully more highs, but definitely some times when it will feel hard. We need to talk about it openly and upfront, discuss these moments with them, pray with them and make sure young people won't feel embarrassed or like failures if they need to come and talk about their struggles. Why are we afraid to say this? We all know it's true of the Christian experience yet, like salesmen desperate to prove our product is the best, we hold back from communicating this to young people.
The Challenge of Openness
One of the great changes in youth ministry in recent years has been the emergence of relational and incarnational ministry. Not that it's new of course, it's just old-style 'pastoral visitation in Nikes'*. The emphasis in youth work is increasingly away from programmes and up-front stuff and on the relationships we forge with young people. In this context, our openness and honesty with young people becomes critical. After all, what relationship can survive without a generous measure of both?
If we are to build real relationships with young people, we have to become more real about our lives: our spiritual highs and lows, our triumphs and temptations, our successes and failings. Ourselves, as we truly are. Henri Nouwen, a respected theologian and writer, put it much better when he described Christian ministry as ‘the attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but don’t know how.’ As youth workers I believe many of us need to hear those words and put them into action in our lives.
The Crisis of Accountability
There is a further challenge for youth workers, in extending this openness and honesty to each other. Many of the things that stop us from being honest with young people, stop us from being honest with others in our youth team or church. But modelling this with each other is crucial if it's to make an impact with young people. For all the same reasons we often hold back from telling other adults about our struggles. Youth ministry has plenty of sad examples of those who've fallen morally because they've battled a sin on their own, unwilling to share their weakness with others.
Of course, it's hard for a youth worker to find the right person to open up to, especially if your church leader is also your employer. I mean, how do you go to your minister and say ‘I need to talk, I've got a problem with lust!’ It would take a brave (and perhaps foolish person) to do that: after all, they're your boss! Whatever sympathies and help they may offer, most youth workers would worry that their time at the church would be limited after that kind of disclosure. The dynamic of church leader as employer and church youth worker doesn't lend itself to honest accountability. In fact it can actually force the issues underground.
On a recent visit to the US I came across exactly the kind of support I'd love to see happen here more in the UK. A group of veteran youth leaders ('veteran' being, I think, a nice way of putting ‘older’) has come together to form a network of support for youth ministers. They offer youth workers an older mentor - someone who's been in ministry for a few years - and the space and time to talk about themselves, their hopes and fears and the true state of their spiritual lives. Away from management committees and church leadership there's the chance to be more open and honest. Doubts and struggles can be talked about before they grow into something worse and, of course, successes and moments of joy should be included too. There's a need for this kind of work among youth leaders if we're to strengthen and build people who will really have something worth sharing with young people.
The Cost of Discipleship
Extrovert or introvert, openness about the good the bad and ugly of your life and faith isn't an option, it's a prerequisite for effective ministry. I say this to challenge myself, as someone who needs to hear this more than most. I know only too well from being a parent how quickly those in your care pick up your habits, good or bad. And I want those teenagers I disciple as a Christian youth worker to live lives of openness and honesty too. I want them to have many more highs than lows, but when those lows come, I want them to be able to talk to me about them and know they're not on their own. I have to be more open. That's the challenge I face: what about you?
*Kenda Creasy Dean describes it in this wonderful way in The Godbearing Life.
Chris Curtis is the Director of the Luton Churches Education Trust, UK