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Saturday, March 04, 2006

How Not To Do Youth Ministry

Scot McKnight, has an interesting post on why he's not an emerging youth pastor:
[My] real confusion came with what I thought I was supposed to be doing. Of course, I had no courses in either ministry or youth ministry (which is not quite the same, I’m told), but I was loaded for bear with courses on Bible and Theology and Greek. So, I taught my students — hardy and patient as they were — Bible. And what better part of the Bible to begin with than Romans. With constant reference to the Greek text.

So it was to Romans we went — for two solid years. Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t do a verse-by-verse format. No, not verse-by-verse. No, instead, I did a word by word analysis of Romans, beginning with “Paul.” You got it: Romans word by word. And the best way to make Romans clear was to teach them how to diagram sentences. My wife, the wonderful helpmate that she was, tried her best to get me to see that this was not a junior OR senior high approach to Bible study. But, I slogged away, and if my memory serves me right, we got to about chapter five.

The thing about it was this: we loved the kids, and they loved us back, and that seemed to carry the most weight in our Bible studies.
Scot's post is quite humorous, and it brought back a lot of memories for me. You see, at one point I too wanted to be a youth pastor. But my experiences were a little different than his. I was on the receiving end.

For me, it all started in Jr High - I hated youth group. We had about 30 kids, all "churchers" who could give all the right answers on Sundays even though they looked just like the world the rest of the week. As for me, my life had come unglued with my parents' divorce and I desperately searching for my own Damascus road - I wanted to find something relevent, something real. And youth group just seemed like a sham - fun and games, a social club (which I wanted no part of because it just seemed too fake).

The one place where I kept getting glimpses of something more was this Jesus guy. I had always "believed," but now I was actually starting to dip my toe into the waters of Scripture, and what I saw there was something radical, revolutionary, something way bigger than me, and I desparately wanted to be a part of it. Unfortunately, I didn't see many in the church who felt the same way.

In the midst of this, we got a new youth pastor - I'll call him Wayne (as in 'John Wayne'). You see, Wayne came with an attitude: "We are canning everything social. We are starting a Bible study. If you don't want to study the Bible, don't come because I'll kick your butt out..." (and he did!).

If he was trying to get our attention, he succeeded. I was hooked in a matter of weeks. Like Scot McKnight, Wayne taught solely from the Bible. I remember spending weeks in John 3:16, going word by word, getting grilled on "What does this mean?"

Wayne didn't do much with Greek, but he made up for it with the tenderness of a drill sargeant: "What, you didn't bring your Bible to Bible study? What are you thinking? Would you go to a baseball game without your glove? Would you show up at a football practice without your helmet? Hello!?!? What are you THINKING?" (as you might guess, this only happened a couple of times - people suddenly started remembering their Bibles, or they stopped coming).

Ok, so Wayne was a little gruff and lacked sensitivity (especially to women). But he did have a love for the Bible. And that passion for God's Word made a lasting impression on me. So did the results of his word-centric approach.

Within a matter of weeks, attendence dwindled to 2 or 3 of us hardy souls who where willing to endure potential embarrassment for the sake of learning how to study the Scriptures. As you might guess, parents in the church were in an uproar because their kids refused to attend. But they couldn't fire Wayne, because a) they hadn't hired him in the first place, and b) no one else wanted to lead the youth group (for all their spiritual disinterest, the kids in our group were serious pros at burning through volunteer youth leaders as if they were substitute teachers).

So even though just about everyone in the church was seriously dissatisfied (except for the 2 or 3 of use who actually wanted to learn how to study the Bible), Wayne stayed on.

And then something truly remarkable started happening, something no one expected.

Kids started showing up. They didn't go to our church (many of them didn't go to any church). A lot of them weren't Christians. But they were fascinated to hear this Wayne guy unpack God's Word in a way that challenged everything their lives were about.

So they came. And they brought their friends. And those friends brought their friends. And within about a year and a half, we had over 100 kids showing up every week for an hour and a half Bible study.

This post is getting long, so I'll cut to the chase. Wayne is the reason why I went to Wheaton College - to get a degree in Biblical Studies so I could go be a youth pastor somewhere. Yes, I got accepted at Stanford, MIT, Case Western, and Westpoint. But Wayne challenged us to do more with our lives - to give up everything for Jesus, to devote ourselves to lives of ministry, to attack Hell with squirt guns if that's what it took. And so that's the plow I set my hand to.

Now, lest this seems to be an overly rosy picture, I need to say that nothing has turned out the way I expected. I gradutated from Wheaton with a double major in Biblical Studies and Computer Science ("just in case"), and I went back home to take over Wayne's youth ministry - he was moving on to an associate position in another church; I was going to be his hand picked successor, one of the first fruits of his ministry.

It was all so obvious that this was God's plan - but God, completely to our surprise, slammed that door in our face. I've been doing "just in case" computer work ever since. I tried for several years to find ministry positions elsewhere. I served as a part time youth pastor in a Southern Baptist church for a year - I took a similar word-centric approach, and saw the group grow from 8 kids to about 50 in 10 months. And then the position went south because of politics in the church (and my own immature response to them).

In every case, my failures in church and ministry were never a result of "too much Word" - that was the one thing that always had a positive effect. No, in every case, my failures were a result of "too much Me" - too much of my own sin, arrogance, pride.

And so we bounced from church to church, and every time we ran into road blocks and heartaches, and we finally just gave up on ministry altogether - you see, it turned out I was really good in computers and people in that industry actually wanted to hear what I had to say. If God didn't want us to serve him, well, fine then.

Looking back, all of this was God's grace to us. People like Wayne, people like me, we probably need to be humbled and broken. And I think God did that. I pretty much gave up on him and ministry; but he never gave up on us. Which is probably why I am here today - finishing up seminary and preparing for a church plant this coming fall.

In all of these experiences, one thing remains clear and certain in my mind - God's word has a power and authority and potency that really does work. In all my ministry experience, I have never seen God's word fail to have an effect. So even to this day, I continue to have a very word-centric philosophy of ministry. That will be a feature of our church planting effort. And I am very confident that God will use his word to build another church in Missoula, one that reaches unbelievers, one that reaches people who are hungry for something more.

The one thing I didn't learn from Wayne was something Scot seemed to learn far earlier than either of us - how to love people, how to have compassion and empathy. That was something God has had to teach me the hard way. I think he's finally getting through, as I find myself more and more drawn to the broken, downcast, unbelieving. It's been a long and circuitous journey to where we are now. And there's a long way still to go. But God is not through with us yet, and he is leading us somewhere.

So thanks for sharing your story with us, Scot - it's been a great opportunity to reflect on my own story, and to think about the part that remains untold. It's going to be an adventure, and I am looking forward to it...


At 9:50 AM, March 04, 2006, Blogger Scot McKnight said...

Great, great story. Where are you in seminary? One of your lines in a comment at my site made me think you were one of my students once.

At 10:02 AM, March 04, 2006, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...


So great to hear more of this part of your story. From my own experience (which I just posted as a comment on Scot's post) I've become convinced that the best approach to youth ministy is "start small with a discipleship/bible study emphasis for the few who want that, and God will do the rest." Seen it time and again, and your story and Scot's are more confirmation.

At 10:10 AM, March 04, 2006, Blogger Christian said...

Hi Scot, I'm at Westminster Theological Seminary - not one of your former students (sorry), but I went to Wheaton (so general vacinity), and you and I have talked in the past about Emerging Church stuff. It'd be nice to connect over coffee sometime (I have no idea when or how... maybe you'll have to take a vacation to MT sometime ;-)

Yeah Mark - I'm a firm believer in "word" over "programs". And that's one of the things I like about the emerging movement - I think there is much more interest in an organic, word centered, community kind of approach.

At 11:33 AM, March 09, 2006, Blogger Rick said...

Christian - That was a great story. Thanks for putting it out there.

I relate to your story very deeply: I work as a sys-admin/programmer and am working through a long-distance ed. (slowly! est. completion is years and years away) - I struggle to find what I 'should' do...and constantly need reminding that I need to do what God puts in front of me right now, and let Him worry about tomorrow.

But it's really hard sometimes.


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