As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on “innocent naïveté,” I wanted to share this video. If you need more evidence of what young people are capable of, check out 12-year-old Adora Svitak’s 2010 TED talk:
I just read a Fast Company article about how Proctor & Gamble and GE are looking to 18-22 year olds to design new products for Baby Boomers. These college students are less burdened with corporate politics and other realities that can often stifle innovation. Instead, they demonstrate an enthusiasm and creative energy that outweighs their limited experience. They’re perfectly suited for what Matt Doyle from P&G calls “naïve innovation.”
After going to several youth ministry conferences the past couple years, though, I’m a little disheartened to see and hear the same speakers time after time–many of whom have been presenting at these events for years. I’m not saying the speakers aren’t encouraging or challenging or sharing prophetic words. But I also wonder, where are the younger, “naïve” voices to challenge us to think differently? To imagine? To hope? To inspire?
And it’s not just professional youth ministry conferences. I’ve been part of churches where suggestions to get youth involved in leadership roles or on councils or committees go unheard. Or where youth do hold visible leadership positions, their role is often limited to youth ministry rather than impacting the broader community.
Some of my best work has come out of a combination of ambition, naïveté, hard work, empathy, and a dose of stupid optimism. But with the support, mentorship, and gentle guidance of more experienced folks around me, I’ve been part of some pretty amazing projects.
So, church, what are we afraid of?
First, a challenge: Open the nearest youth ministry, Sunday school, or Bible Study curriculum you can. What’s the session objective? Does it have something to do with the biblical narrative? How Christ is at work? God’s people? Truths about the Kingdom of God?
Or is it about life application and tying the Bible story up into a neat little package for learners to digest and parrot back if someone asks what they learned at church?
My guess is there’s much more of the latter than the former. It’s easy to boil Bible stories down into one-sentence statements that are easy to remember (and, in turn, to use as a tool to measure learning). I don’t think youth workers or Christian educators or curriculum developers don’t mean well, either. We may do it for the sake of good doctrine, or to equip volunteer leaders, or to be developmentally-appropriate, or for a number of other reasons. But I’m concerned that our interpretations are making the Bible stories about us–and in doing so, we strip the Bible of its power.
Contrast a typical lesson “big idea” statement with one of Jesus’ parables or miracles. For the sake of example, let’s look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I’ve participated in Bible studies on this text where the objective was basically, “Be the Good Samaritan.” There was even a service project to apply the story to my life today in an active, tangible way.
But I think there’s more to this text than “be the Good Samaritan.” Jesus is saying something about the most unlikely outcast showing mercy. About cultural norms and religious rules. About sacrifice. About grace.
This parable is beautiful to me precisely because it’s not that simple. Jesus’ story here is enduring, and each time I encounter it–whether alone or in community–the Spirit can speak to me in different ways that reveal more about God. This inversion means the text reads me and changes me in the process.
So I’m concerned. When we boil the complexity of a Bible narrative down to single point that teaches a life lesson, I think we dilute the Bible’s power and undermine (or at least underestimate) the work of the Spirit. We discourage the reader from thinking theologically. We limit the opportunity for wonder, struggle, discovery, and awe.
Instead, what would it look like to offer a foundation, but then trust kids, youth, and adults in our churches to engage Scripture–and see how God shows up and transforms us?
Full disclosure: I work in Christian curriculum publishing. That means I’ve been just as guilty of creating “the-point-of-this-story-is” statements as anyone else. However, I’m hopeful that we can move beyond using the Bible to teach life lessons and morality, and toward resources that equip Christians to wrestle with Scripture and meet God in the process.
“99% of youth ministry is just showing up.”
I was at a youth ministry conference recently and saw someone tweet this quote from a speaker, and I thought, “Really? Really?”
I’ve heard this phrase before, and I know it’s a hyperbolic statement often thrown around to encourage youth workers. But we should really stop.
First, many youth workers have been talking about the problem of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Kenda Creasy Dean unpacks this concept in her book Almost Christian, but in a nutshell, youth believe that the purpose of religion is to help us be good, moral people and that God is our therapist-in-the-sky who is generally uninvolved in our lives except when we need help. This theology is in stark contrast to the Christian beliefs we proclaim in the Apostles’ Creed.
Perpetuating this “99% rule” doesn’t do anything to fight kids’ indifference toward the Christian faith–which is a conviction against the adults who teach this theology explicitly or implicitly. Rather, this sweeping claim undervalues youth and doesn’t equip or challenge leaders (or youth) for a life of discipleship.
Instead, what would it look like if we cultivated places where adults and youth wrestle with Scripture and theology? Places where relationships grow and God breaks through? That would take more effort than “just showing up.”
Jesus doesn’t “just show up.” He heals, breaks bread, teaches, listens, washes feet. He changes lives. The disciples don’t “just show up.” They are called to follow their rabbi, to eat together, and to grow in faith. And then they are sent out to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
I believe our language matters. Now if we expanded upon this phrase and said “showing up” means being fully present with youth, place-sharing and God-bearing, that could be a very different story. But I’m not sure we take time to asterisk and clarify the cliche.
So no, I don’t think 99% of youth ministry is just showing up. I don’t have a pithy alternative, but that’s just the point. Faith and discipleship are messy, and we do a disservice to our youth, our leaders, our ministries, ourselves, and the Christian church when we sloganize our faith.