Beginning in Youth Ministry:
Remaining in Adulthood and Maintaining Boundaries
By Daniel Griswold
(This is the original copy prior to publication in The Advocate Newspaper of the United Methodist Church in South Carolina)
You are at a retreat with an audience of young people, ages 12-17. Their expressions have no emotion whatsoever, and it is clear that the group is assessing whether they’re going to trust you or not. You haven’t been a pre-teen or teen for a long time, and you’re a bit terrified. Earlier, you had thought about some of the most memorable moments in your growth in faith, and for some reason nothing much came. You’ve searched the scriptures and no word searches for “Youth Ministry” bore fruit. It is clear that the parents of the church wants you to connect as soon as possible, so you’re going to do what generations of youth ministers have done before you – something stupid is about to happen.
Will you climb some impossibly steep cliff to wow them? Will you eat a mixture of Tabasco sauce, dog food and Hershey’s syrup to prove your undying love for their souls? Will you take a paintball for the team? Will you give them permission to jump out of the car in traffic or allow them to investigate a corner where someone swears they saw an alligator? Will you laugh at crude jokes, or sneer at one group to gain favor with another group?
I’ll tell you, all of these things are stupid things, and I’m not sure what it is about youth ministry and our innate desire to fit in that short-wires the ability of some folks to remain acting like adults. As youth workers, it is clear we need to be mindful of a theology of wisdom.
“Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.” (Proverbs 9:9)
While I believe that there is a place for a bit of controlled chaos and creating memorable experiences that bond the group, it is also important that the leader of a group be exactly that, a “Leader”. The leader or leaders are responsible for not only safety, but also the deep growth of a group. A youth ministry mentor of mine, Dean Borgman, often says, “You can’t lead others where you haven’t gone yourself.” So we have to ask a few questions that have deep implications for us as adults ministering to the young.
(1) What is our purpose as ministers to young people? I believe it is to nurture lifelong disciples of Christ. We partner with the Holy Spirit to grow young saints who will impact the world and better it by engendering the Gospel. Then,
(2) If young people reflected my actions, who will they become? In the Youth Ministry textbook, “Starting Right,” there is a call to discern your “Theological Rocks” which build a foundation for your young people as they try out the Christian life. Is your ministry Jesus focused? And is nearly dying falling off a cliff to impress and entertain, one of them? Probably not. Jesus didn’t do that – He was very intentional.
Maybe you’re not that young stereotypical crazy youth minister, but perhaps you’ve compromised on something that you knew wasn’t right. You may also be running a “self” centered group based on your own personality rather than the awe of God. It might be time to take a few moments to align yourself with God’s spirit. Ask yourself, if I really believe that Jesus is with me, right now, and that he is among us when we gather with our youth, then how should we act and what ways will we live out this high calling as Christians? Is there a new covenant we need to make between our young people and ourselves?
Personally, I’ve discovered a love for good games of Ulitimate Frisbee and dodge ball (which incidentally blew out my shoulder for 8 months last year), but we do it after prayer, a meal, and a devotion probing the scriptures. I’ve found that most kids get deep discipleship over time, that I’m not just their youth leader and fellow journeyman on earth, but I’m also their prayer warrior, their conversational theologian, their listening counselor, and I take seriously the call to be their protector. That means implementing a Safe Sanctuaries policy and adhering to it, that means keeping them off the roof of the car, and that means we’re modeling the fullness of life they can have in the future. Let’s take the long road and build a foundation of stone.