Why Youth Ministry Lost Its Soul (And how to Fix it)

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“This is basically everything you need to rock your youth ministry every week in this one box.” I was sitting in a seminar at my first major youth ministry conference and was in awe of everything, especially this slickly-packaged multi-media extravaganza of a curriculum.

Though the guy was dressed way cooler than a television pitch man, he was hitting the same high points. Apparently all I needed was ten minutes of prep every week, a mic, and a video projector and I was set. It even came with mid-week options and ideas for retreats! Not only that, it was being used and written by a guy at a ginormous church. How could you go wrong?

I opted to take home the free trial and found that, to my great surprise, it didn’t work as well with my kids as I had hoped. I went on to the next sample I picked up in a seminar and repeated the process until I found something that came close to living up to its hype.

My intentions were pure, and I choose to believe the publishers were as well. I wanted to be the most effective youth pastor I could, and I wanted every tool I could find to help me do that. The problem is that I began seeking effectiveness and relevance over a faithful expression of my understanding of God.

Don’t get me wrong, I was well within the bounds of orthodoxy, but if you took a look at my ministry, it looked like the theological version of what happens when my toddlers mix all the Play-dough together. One small group studied the best the Baptists had to offer, while another was rocking some Assembly of God material and we even had our ex-Catholic teaching out of his area of strength: Catholicism.

We went to an Episcopal Camp where we celebrated the Eucharist every evening and Compline every night and then attended a Southern Baptist mission trip where we had a nightly alter call that was at least as long as the message.

Why? Why did we do that? Because instead of thinking through a soul-nurturing program that worked in theological harmony to help students grow deeper in their faith, we were trying to hop on the next big thing hoping to increase attendance and impact more kids.

When that happened… When that happens, when we stop focusing on embodying our theology in our practice of ministry, we lose our center. Without that center we are left to cast about looking for something that will show us where to go and what to do.

However, showing us where to take our ministry is not the role of mega-church pastor or a publishing company, it is the role of our theology. What we believe about God is absolutely central to how we do ministry.

Theology is the deciding factor. And, as a Wesleyan I think it is absolutely clear that our theological perspective has claims on ministry. On top of that, when it is lived out in the real world of ministering to the next generation, I believe the Wesleyan perspective provides the absolute best model for communicating the Gospel and harnessing their passion to further the work of the Kingdom of God.

Just think about it. We believe that God loves everyone and offers the fullness of His grace to them even before they choose to follow him. God blesses them and shouts at them through sunsets and rainbows. That absolutely transforms all your “fun nights” into spiritual events. It means that playing games until 1am is a spiritual endeavor that is communicating the full grace of God in the lives of the next generation.

And that’s just one of the many facets of our theology. I can’t tell you how powerful it is when everything you do is working in harmony with how you understand God. It all becomes imbued with a sense of deep spirituality that is completely missing when you just order the next big thing.

I have spent the last seventeen years trying to figure this out and have tried to put together a field guide to help you live out this brilliant theology in everything from lock-ins (which are of the devil) to fundraisers. My hope is that it will help you do what the title says. I hope that as we shift our focus from effectiveness to living out our theology in the real world, we can begin Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry.

Get Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry from our store here.

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When he is not playing with his four children with his wonderful wife, Jeremy oversees children, youth, and college ministries in addition to leading the evening worship service at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, Al. He is passionate about reaching people with the message of Jesus in a way that engages them with the movement of God. Jeremy is the Senior Editor of the Seedbed Youth Ministry Collective and the author of Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry. You can find a list of all his books, articles and resources for churches at his website: JeremyWords.com

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