Beginning in Youth Ministry: The Art of Pioneering

As a boy, I took part in a group called “Royal Rangers” which operated much like the Boy Scouts but with different colors and awards. Each year that I participated I was invited to attend the big camping event in Maine.  Hundreds of kids like myself would learn basic survival involving making fires, tying knots, lashing together huts, canoeing, and lots and lots of cooking. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the whole roasted pig we would later enjoy as a meal.  In these events, I would imagine myself as a wilderness pioneer exploring new territory.  Surely I wasn’t the best camper, but I had a huge imagination.  I enjoyed stories about pioneers like Daniel Boone, and the danger tales of the adult campers.  I realized that in leaving the concrete and painted world of civilization for the wilderness, there were challenges that one must overcome.  There were also processes and disciplines that kept oneself alive.

This paradigm of imagination remained with me as I began my studies in youth ministry.  Very early in my internships I realized that I was not in safe territory as I entered the world of young people.  Even as a college student, new culture was already being created and I had to ask what some simple exchanges between youth meant.  I felt uncomfortable in that period of time when I was charged with starting a small group Bible Study for Middle School students, which would then intensify in the first few awkward silences that occur when people of different age groups come together.  So I taught my lessons, I took attendance, I ran events and listened and learned.  It was a growing process involving sacrifice of my pride and giving in to the possibility of personal pain.

The same wilderness principles that I had learned from the rangers were applicable to this “survival” situation.  The goal was to create a meaningful series of relationships and programs that would strengthen young people’s faith.  To accomplish this task, I had to admit that I knew very little about this world, and I would have to observe, be patient, and hear the breathing of this particular community.   A process evolved of brainstorming and proclaiming solutions to problems (lack of excitement, lack of interest, lack of connection, lack of kindness, lack of Biblical appreciation and understanding), practicing the idea of the solution in the life of the youth community (being excited and contagiously so, hanging in the hallways and listening and responding to connect others together, being kind and teaching goodness, loving the Bible and teaching God’s ways through study, service and practice), and lastly reflecting on how the solutions fared and returning to brainstorming for the next big thing.  Many call this praxis, and in the beginnings of your ministry, I call this Pioneering.

You are the adventurers who have decided that young people are worthy of discomfort.  You leave you’re civilization and age group for periods of time to build bridges in youth culture to God and make a way.  Like a missionary (which you really are), you forge forward and patiently build paths that others can follow.  It is this process of Thinking, Acting, Reflecting and Acting again that ensures that you’re pioneering will have an impact.

Like Abraham, a call of God is on your heart and He has said, “Go.”  You respond and begin to act, and the seeds you sow will bring blessing after blessing.  Jesus’ disciples heard the call to “Go” to the world.  So I pray for you, new and veteran pioneers, who seek to be world changers by building paths that others can follow to your God.

(This article was originally published in The Advocate, South Carolina’s Connectional Newspaper for the SC United Methodist Church)

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