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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
Youth Ministry in Context
A nightmare scenario…
It’s 30 minutes before the youth group session is due to start…
You begin to panic. You promised yourself that you would plan early. You set a day aside to prepare. But, what with one thing and another, the preparation never actually happened…Maybe there was a pastoral crisis. Maybe you had a mental block. Maybe Facebook seemed more interesting at the time. Maybe something else…
You pull a book of Ideas for Youth Groups from the shelf. You breathe a sigh of relief, get the necessary props together and hurriedly say “hello” to the students as they saunter in.
Your heart races as you begin. You use phrases from the book – phrases that just don’t seem to come from you.
The session ends. Yes, you managed to pull it together – but, deep down, you are left feeling deflated because you know that the session lacked the type of inspiration that could transform the lives of the young people...
It’s happened to all of us at some time, hasn’t it? Some of us are better at pulling this scenario off than others. But we all know that it is not the right way to do youth work…
Grabbing an idea off the shelf week after week, and sticking slavishly to it, is a symptom that something is not quite right with our youth work.
It’s not what we really need. What we really need is to allow the ideas of others to inspire us so that we can adapt them to our own context.
The importance of context
Quite simply, one size does not fit all. What works in the suburbs of Chicago doesn’t necessarily work in a small, rural context in India.
There was a time in the church when we thought we could just import a program or method from one context into another and assume we would get the same ‘results’. We didn’t honour the culture of the people we were working with. When we work with young people, we need to honour their culture: the context in which they live.
If we try to do our youth work in their context, we can think of ministry more as a conversation. We can teach and learn at the same time. It becomes less about us ‘giving’ and more about the group ‘learning together’. When we take this approach, we can use the resources and ideas of others – but adapt them so they become meaningful for this particular group of young people.
Learning from the early Church
The early church dealt with the issue of context early on. From whether or not Christ-followers should eat meat sacrificed to idols or whether new converts should be circumcised, the apostles reflected on what had happened in the past and what the invitation was in the scriptures as they sought to follow God. They reflected on their own cultural context and humbly made recommendations as to how to live the way of Jesus.
Even though this is in our history as Jesus-followers too, those of us in youth ministry are often lured by the promise of a great Bible study or the perfect game. We quickly grab a pre-written resource, cross our fingers and pray like mad that our gamble will pay off in the end. But many of us end up tired, burned out, dried up, and in tears as the promise of spiritual or numerical growth remains unfulfilled.
What if we, like the early church, looked at resources more like creative contextualising? What if we reflectively adapted what has worked in other places to our own context? What might this look like?
1. From memorizing a script to improv
Have you ever watched good improv where the actors on stage are able to use what they know about acting and apply it to a new situation? Have you ever participated in an improv game when, all of a sudden, you were given a new identity to act out? Contrast that with memorizing lines in a play.
When we look at resources with the eyes of a script, we are tempted to implement them just as they are written. When we look at resources with the eyes of improv, we use what we know about our group, our church community, our geographical region, our corporate theology, our way of understanding the way of Jesus, and then act out the situation outlined in the resource.
If the young people with whom you work abhor pop music, don’t stick the DVD in that has the pop song in the background. If the young people you know have had difficult lives, using a question crafted for the suburban affluent might not be the best pick.
2. From educating to formation
Many of our current spiritual formation models have been imported from education models. Instead of cultivating a spiritual life, it is more about information transfer. We are seduced by the hope that ‘knowledge is power’ and the belief that knowledge, in and of itself, transforms. But that is not what we see in the lives of so many people around us. Knowledge does not always equal changed behavior.
If we pursued formation/discipleship instead of education, we might cultivate an awareness of the spiritual. We might give young people a language for God. We might better help young people to understand and then live the scriptures. Most of us would say that is exactly what we are hoping to accomplish – call it formation or discipleship or spiritual growth. And yet the lure of information transfer accomplished by a talking head becomes attractive.
3. From entertainment to engagement
Although it flies in the face of much current youth ministry practice, most people in congregations still believe that the best way to engage young people is through entertainment.
Young people often complain when things are “boring”. When church isn’t fun, they quit participating. There is enormous pressure on folks who work with young people to entertain. Yet, entertainment creates passive consumers. Young people will consume everything from teaching to worship experiences to mission. But none of these activities will necessarily bring transformation.
We need to find creative ways to engage young people; not merely entertain them. Jesus offers a way of life, not a way to have fun (though discipleship is, at times, fun). Jesus does not offer a way to spend more time in front of the screen (though, at times, discipleship may mean being in front of a screen). Jesus does not simply offer a therapeutic way of understanding ourselves (though, at times, that may happen). The invitation to this life with God moves beyond fun, relationships, and therapy. It speaks into the very core of our being and calls us to engage with God and God’s world.
4. From ideas to inspiration
There are plenty of ideas out there about how to engage young people. There are plenty of ‘ideas books’, plenty of blogs. The ability to self-publish these days translates to a myriad of ideas found at the touch of a button.
But merely importing someone else’s ideas that work with their personality in their context is an accident waiting to happen. Their questions may not be in your voice. They might not address the crisis that just erupted in the teenage population in your city. They will not help young people in your context understand a specific biblical concept.
In reality, we are not looking for ideas. We are looking for inspiration. We need to move away from looking through books and magazines and blogs and saying, “Oh, I should do that here!” We need to move towards looking at the ideas of others and saying, “It is good to see how that idea worked out in that context. It wouldn’t work like that here but, if I tweaked the idea a bit, it might be something with which our young people could connect.”
5. From practicing scales to vamping
Anyone who has performed musically on stage has most likely spent a lot of time practicing scales. Up and down, the musician becomes versed in rhythm, the sounds of the notes.
We can do ministry like this as well, following a tried-and-tested formula. In doing so, we might miss what could happen if we changed the scale to create a different blend of notes or what might happen if we varied our rhythm. We miss the uniqueness of our situation, the gospel questions that are important in our own context.
If you’ve ever seen or heard a ‘jam band’ (a band who spends much of their time not just performing their songs as heard on a recording but who rather creates new arrangements during the concert), you’ve heard someone ‘vamp’. Vamping requires one to know the song, to be in tune with other people, to have some idea of where the group is hoping to end up. But vamping can also mean that different people lead at different times and not knowing how long the vamp will last.
Youth ministry can be like that. We can know the specifics of what we want to see happen. We can be aware of how we hope our young people will engage with God. We can cultivate a community in which God is pursued. But there is room for experimentation in method. We can use a variety of resources in a variety of ways. Diversity allows us to work specifically in a context. Diversity gives us the opportunity to address the pertinent questions of the day for young people in a specific place and time.
Perhaps the easiest way to be creative in the context of your young people is to first draw a visual picture of their community. Engage the other leaders in this process. Place the picture somewhere where it can be seen regularly. Let it be a reminder of whom you are working with and what their specific needs and joys are.
The picture may address the following questions:
You will probably think of other questions. Perhaps some of these questions are unhelpful. Remember: you must use even this exercise in a creative way for your own context!
After you have created this picture, you should be able to use the resources and ideas of others in a different way. Rather than just pulling one of the shelf and sticking slavishly to it, ask the following questions:
Taking the time
This move from adopting resources whole-heartedly takes time and energy. We have to do the hard work of reflecting on what is needed in our context. We also have to surrender the ability to tell our church governing boards that if we do ‘A’ then ‘Z’ will happen.
It’s a risky move. It becomes even more risky when well-meaning people in the congregation tell you about this amazing resource that we “have to use” because it promises something in particular.
And yet, if we make the change, we offer our young people things that make more sense in their world. We also model what it means to be a follower of the way of Jesus – we are people who interact creatively with the good news in a variety of contexts.
Holly Rankin Zaher is based in South Carolina, US. She has been involved in youth ministry for many years and is passionate about Emerging Church.