.::Performance-Based Youth Ministry

If I am completely honest, much of what I did in youth ministry focused on a students ability to perform well.  If a student showed up regularly, participated, behaved, and dressed right, then they fit in.  Parents were happy.  Elders left me alone.  Life was good. . . . or was it?

The number one question students are trying to answer (and many adults) when it comes to life is “Who Am I?”  This is a question that haunts us for much of our lives.

Think about these three ways that many seek out in an attempt to answer that question:
  • “I am what I DO”
  • “I am what I CONTROL
  • “I am what OTHERS SAY ABOUT ME”
According to Henri Nouwen, each of these responses is inadequate, and even destructive for both us and the students in our ministry.  If I am honest I have called kids to be defined by those as well.  For example:
  • “I am what I do”=Do more youth group things to be a better Christian.  Sports are good, but youth group is better. I think of those students in my ministry that define themselves through the multitude of activities they participate in.
  • “I am what I control”=If you keep your head above water morally and emotionally than you are a better Christian. I think our churches send the message to students that as long as they got through youth group with passing grades, didn’t get pregnant or high (too often) then they are alright.  I also see student who go after extracurricular after extracurricular in order to define themselves through being able to control their identity this way.  I also think of the overachieving academic student who defines themselves this way through his or her grades and transcripts.  
  • “I am what others say about me”=If everyone likes me than I am a better Christian.  We see this in all areas of adolescence as kids seek approval from peers in a variety of ways, looks, compliments, relationships, number of Facebook friends, etc.
For Henri Nouwen, the answer to the single most important questions affecting all of humanity, “Who am I?” is the message of Jesus and the Bible.  Our students have been created, redeemed and called to live as God’s precious and beloved child.  I heard another author put it this way, “I can’t follow Jesus any other way than as me.”  
Beneath all of their gifts, talents and abilities, each and every child is more than the sum of their abilities and personality.  At their core, each is the beloved child of God.  But that would take some radical restructuring on our parts in our ministries and our families.
  • It would mean that it is alright for a student to miss youth group in order to go to a family event celebrating an Aunt’s birthday.
  • It would mean that my daughter doesn’t have to get good grades in order to get my FULL approval of her effort on her academic work.  (After all, don’t we feign total approval many times when a B or C or D  shows up?)
  • It would mean that we are proactively looking to see the DIFFERENT and UNIQUE ways that students express their faith and we begin to LEARN from THEM!  (Could I actually learn something from my daughters music choices instead of insisting that she love U2 as much as I do?)
  • It would mean creating space for students who don’t fit into our demographic molds at church to feel just as welcome and a sense of belonging as the next student.  It MIGHT even mean helping them feel MORE at home than the student who has always been a part of your ministry.  (Didn’t someone once talk about leaving the 99 to go find one sheep?)
  • It might mean that it is fine for a kid to have purple hair, countless piercings and body art for doesn’t God love that student too?  (If not, than that isn’t God at all)
  • It might mean trashing the gold starts we are so fond of using in children’s classes.  (I hear the whispers of “heretic,” but aren’t gold stars just a Sunday School version of Shamu’s sardines?)
  • Maybe it means we stop counting people who show up to church and stop publishing the attendance numbers or contribution?
  • Maybe we stop giving out trophies for Bible memorizations, memory verses, Bible Bowl, etc.
I get that I have gone off the deep end.  But what if we starting looking at each individual student as God does.  What else might we have to change?  Please comment away . . .

One Response to “.::Performance-Based Youth Ministry”

  1. Interesting article Dr. Surdacki,

    I would love to see a follow-up article that merges the “image of God” vantage point with the research we talked about at the Switch conference. I agree wholeheartedly with your call for people to stop seeing their worth in what they do, what they control, and what others say. However, I know that it’s still important for children/ teens/ everyone to receive feedback helping them to know when they’re conforming even more to the unique image of God inside of them. In other words, I think it IS important that we praise people- and not just for being alive. But at the switch conference, we talked about praising people’s “growth mindsets,” rather than their skills or accomplishments. The example we were given was: DON’T say “you’re a great artist,” DO say “You worked hard and achieved your goal.” I wonder what it would look like if the church stopped praising our 8th graders for the # of verses they could memorize and started praising them for a mindset that was looking to bear the marks of the mind of Christ. It’s a difficult distinction, but I think it’s important for people to receive rewarding feedback without being tempted to put their worth in said feedback.

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