Not sure why I am not writing as much lately but hopefully I will get back on track at some point. Anyways here is my June Newsletter about a youth ministry conference I attended in Seattle.
If you read my last newsletter column on the state of youth ministries today you were probably asking yourself the same thing I have several times: Ok, so what should we be doing?
Since starting at Lebanon Mennonite in November the church has been kind enough to send me on two adventures. The first was a one day conference at George Fox called Kaleo and the second was a two day conference at Seattle Pacific called Passionate Faith. Both of these conferences were great times of fellowship, learning, and connecting with ministers who work with today’s youth. At the same time, both were better at diagnosing where youth ministry went wrong in the past rather than assessing a positive direction for the future. In all this I thought what I heard most clearly coming through is that the problems and challenges of youth ministry today aren’t just isolated occurrences in the youth room; they are the challenges for the church today.
The speaker at the Seattle Pacific Conference, Kenda Kreasey Dean, shared two very powerful illustrations that I think have a lot of potential for us at Lebanon Mennonite. The first story she shared was of her father’s love for White Castle. She recalled that although she never really liked the burger chain, her father could never pass one without buying a burger. Now, even to this day she cannot drive by a White Castle and not think of her father’s enjoyment and passion for the burger chain as well as his love for her. Then she asked us if our youth and children at the church would be able to recall our passion for the gospel and the church. Would they be able to acknowledge that it was something we thought worth passing on or would they more likely point out our love for U of O football as what we hoped to pass on, weekend fishing trips, or afternoons with Oprah. This doesn’t guarantee that our children will continue in the faith (there are no guarantees of that), but it clearly points out to them that church isn’t a club, or an organization, but it is a place where people go who are passionate about Jesus. While this is more clearly a challenge for parents, if they grow up and aren’t called to the faith, hopefully they can drive by churches and remember what it felt like to be loved and accepted in our community.
The second thing she provoked us with was a call to do something risky because of our faith. What she meant by this is that our teenagers are very good at detecting insincerity and disinterest. Believe it or not they watch how seriously we take our commitments to Jesus and the church (even the worship service). Many can and do sense that faith is not a primary motivator in the lives of adults and the next step is to opt-out completely. They can tell if our faith descends to the level of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The call to do something risky is clear in the way that we show our youth we are serious about commitments. This may mean being willing to say that we are going to do service in the community once a month or week, and it doesn’t matter if your homework is done or not (placing God above school). It means giving up Monday Night Football to take Mondays to pray together and read from the Gospels as a family. It may mean using time-off school and work to take part in a broader mission. It could be turning off the TV and eating together with prayer and celebration, or inviting someone from outside into your lives. There is not a right or wrong way to do this but I would encourage us to consider doing it with a sense of mission about who God is and with openness and grace. This isn’t just a challenge to families but is something everyone at church should do, as well as doing it as a church. This kind of risky behavior should be the church’s collective witness.
My final solution for us is to talk more about Jesus and the Triune God. This seems like a no-brainer given that we are Christians. However, I think we often talk about God in generalities more than we talk about our God who is most fully revealed in his Son, and isn’t singular but Father, Son, and Spirit. One study presented at the conference found that youth were very capable of talking about God but weren’t quite as good at talking about Jesus. But we worship, follow, and pray to a particular God that worked through a small nation of people (Israel) and an even smaller group of disciples. Learning to say and see Jesus again is the most amazing and interesting thing we have to do. As one of my favorite theologian says, “God has entrusted us, His Church, with the best story in the world. With great ingenuity we have managed, with the aid of much theory, to make that story boring as hell.” Let us here at Lebanon Mennonite begin to turn that pattern around.