Monday, July 18, 2011

Why Youth Ministry Is So Much More Than Entertaining Bored Teenagers

Photo Credit: Richard Jones
Back when I was in high school I didn't particularly enjoy going to church. Sure, I went to church nearly every Sunday morning but I slept (literally) through most sermons and didn't participate that much in my church's youth group activities unless it involved athletics or trips to the Midwest's premier amusement park, Cedar Point.

Even though I didn't find church all that compelling, my interest did pick up when I got involved in my best friend's youth group at another church. The kids that were involved were fun to be with, there were some cute girls that attended, we ate lots of pizza, played fun games and the adults that led the group were kind to us.

But there was nearly no spiritual content other than a closing 30-second prayer that we said each week.  If the objective of the group was to provide high school kids with a weekly outlet for wholesome, clean fun then it was a rousing success. If the point of the group was to introduce teens to the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus then it was an abject failure. I was entertained but my life was not changed.

In a recent issue of Leadership Journal, Drew Dyck writes about why youth ministry needs to be more than just entertainment:
"In his book UnChristian, [David] Kinnaman reports that 65 percent of all American young people report making a commitment to Jesus Christ at some point in their lives. Yet based on his surveys, Kinnaman concludes that only about 3 percent of these young adults have a biblical worldview.

Whether or not we accept Kinnaman's definition of what constitutes a biblical worldview, few would argue that anywhere near 65 percent of young adults in the U.S. could be described as active followers of Jesus. We may have done a good job of getting young people to sign a pledge or mutter a prayer, but a poor job of forming them into devoted disciples.

Perhaps we've settled for entertaining rather than developing followers of Jesus.

Of course there's nothing wrong with pizza and video games. The real problem is when they displace spiritual formation and teaching the Bible. And ultimately that's the greatest danger of being overly reliant on an entertainment model. It's not just that we can't compete with the world's amusements. It's not only that we get locked into a cycle of serving up ever-increasing measures of fun. Rather it's that we're distracted from doing the real work of youth ministry—fostering robust faith.

Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, liked to say, "It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel." A generation later, that philosophy morphed into an entertainment based gospel that has actually produced entertainment numbness and an avoidance of the gospel's harder teachings. Somehow we thought we could sweeten the gospel message for young people to make it easier for them to swallow, but it turns out that they're choking on our concoction.

In the end, pizza and video games don't transform lives. Young people are transformed by truth clearly presented. They're drawn to a cause to live and die for. In other words, they want the unvarnished gospel. When we present that gospel, with all its hard demands and radical implications, we'll be speaking the language they long to, and need to, hear."
Unfortunately, the trap that all too many youth ministries fall into is trying to compete with the world's entertainment options. If we're honest with ourselves, the movies, music and entertainment options that the secular world offers is simply more attractive than what the Church offers. If we attempt to compete on that level, we will lose. Having spent time as a youth pastor working with junior and senior high students, I sympathize with the tension of offering solid biblical content but making it interesting enough to have the maximum number of youth involved.

What we must realize, though, is that what we offer that the world has no response for is the gospel. The gospel of Christ is life-changing and everlasting. It doesn't run out, it isn't boring and it's something that we can experience every day. Youth ministry is not about keeping kids from sex and drink and drugs. It is about giving kids the gospel. The gospel brings forgiveness, healing and life. No movie, no corny game and certainly no piece of pizza offers what the gospel does.

As the great British writer, C.S. Lewis, once said:
"It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
If we find that our youth are not living lives enraptured by the gospel perhaps it is because we are offering them a cheap imitation.

To read Dyck's complete article please click here.

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