Fruit of the New

For one year, one Confirmation season, we served dinner before class began. It was a new idea, something that class had not done before. There was a small response. Many of the families in the class that year had very full schedules; students would walk to class after sports practice, while the parents were meeting other commitments with the other children. Every week, 6-10 students would gather for dinner, and a few times a family came along too.

The next year, we stopped offering the dinner on Wednesday nights because in its first attempt, we hadn't seen the result we hoped for. I was confused by the decision that year; in the incoming confirmation class were a number of families who lived farther away from the church; when those students came to class, their parents and usually siblings would be along. We were holding youth group on Wednesday afternoon after school, before class, and I took up feeding those kids dinner because they were at the church most of the evening, and would be hungry. The second year would have been a far better field to offer a family dinner, but we had abandoned the project.

I flipped through the Group Publishing 2006 catalog and noticed a full-page ad for the new website. One promise the ad made was "An entirely new model for youth ministry!"

I worry when I see ads like that because a number of youth ministers are going to be caught up in whatever the new model is and abandon perfectly usable or growing ministries to give it a try. When the "new model" appears, it will probably not have a disclaimer on it that not every church will be able to use it, that the strengths of each congregation are so different that just taking a new approach out of a box will not be enough to change the direction of struggling programs.

A youth minister's greatest liability is his eye for the brand-new. Often, we don't give the seeds we're planting enough time to start growing before moving on. Part of this is a symptom of our flimsy job stability. It's hard to let anything grow unseen when church bodies are pushing for results. When a miracle formula comes along promising near-instant attendance, growth and spiritual development, we jump for it. Another facet is the pressure we let other ministries put on us-- "so and so's church is drawing in a hundred and fifty kids a week; why aren't we?" is a defective question. How long has that church been working to get to that level? How many staffers have they burned through until now?

The first vital step is to get back into the Gospel; let's learn to teach from the Teacher. We can take the principles we find there-- storytelling, hands-on experience, service, and time-- and use all the resources the church has to make them happen.

Second, we need to look very carefully at the natural strengths of the congregations we serve. If we use those abilities, rather than striking out in our own direction, we will keep our youth ministries centered in the life of the larger church, in harmony with the whole congregation rather than in conflict with it.

Finally, we need to move from a spending model to an investing model. In job searches, we need to carefully look for places that will keep us nourished and able to stay for more than 18 months at a time. Once we're in service, we need to put things in place (personal support networks, Sabbath time, worship outside of work) that will keep us healthy and growing. The picture in our minds should be to buy, not rent, our time in a congregation.

All these ideas need more development, and how to make this mental and vocational change is the key question I am pondering right now.

No comments: