Thoughts to Ponder are my musings regarding community, things of the Spirit, and living as a Christ-follower. I don't offer the words of a professional or an expert; just a fellow traveler and explorer. Please don't take my musings more serious than I do. I've discovered a long time ago that I do not hold the keys of knowledge or wisdom. If I did, I misplaced them somewhere...typical.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Great Trends In Youth Ministry

I mentioned last post I had been involved in youth ministry for 18 years before I started serving as a preaching minister.

I’ve still tried to keep up with youth ministry in some level for the last ten years. For a couple of years now my wife and I have been serving as a “Shepherding Couple” for Youth Workers and their spouses at a Youth oriented evangelism camp. I serve as a volunteer under our youth minister, attend the occasional youth ministry seminar, and I try to read the current article or book that is making the rounds.

What is exciting is to notice the healthy trends emerging in youth work.

Emphasis upon theology and ministry. Veteran youth-minister-turned-preacher, Mike Meyers, captured the idea when he coined the phrase paideitheologian. For too many years youth ministry was viewed through the lenses of psychology and sociology rather than through the lens of theology. I remember sitting in youth ministry conferences squirming as I heard speakers tell youth ministers they weren't properly equipped if they didn't have a degree in psychology. I knew of one adjunct youth ministry instructor who told those who aspired to youth work they would be better equipped if they sought out a degree in psychology rather than a degree in Bible. (He no longer teaches youth ministry).

This isn't a criticism of sociology or psychology. However, it is ludicrous to think these disciplines take precedence over knowledge of God and Scripture! We are first and foremost "ministers of the word" whose primary mission is to work with adolescents. Theology is beginning to be taken much more seriously by the young men and women who feel called to reaching out to youth. That's a good thing.

Narrative. Post-modernism has been a double-edged sword in this regard. It has been a blessing in that we have been forced to re-think the importance of narrative in the lives of teenagers and adults. Since the 90’s, storytelling and narrative have made an incredible impact in many disciplines from theology and communication to business and education. The down-side has been the postmodern rejection of meta-narrative, an over arching story claiming to give universal meaning (i.e., gospel story).

In 1995-96 I wrote an MA thesis for Lipscomb University focusing on narrative as a model for adolescent faith development. Part of my research focused on current youth curriculum. To my chagrin, I discovered story used primarily as illustrations for religious or psychological ideas (e.g., a study of sibling rivalry using Peter, Andrew, James and John and studies on evidences for the resurrection using Mark 16) as opposed to examination of the story for the story’s sake. There were very few companies actually allowing the stories to speak for themselves or encouraging adolescents to learn the stories.

Today I am witnessing youth ministers painting the overarching story of the Bible for teenagers. They are telling the stories found in the Old and New Testament narratives. They aren’t interested merely in making some behavioral point. They are actually telling the story and letting the story speak for itself. What is really exciting is to see how teenagers are responding.

Organizations like Sonlife are creating youth and training events focusing on the story of God (Merge and Enroute) with various degrees of success. My own tradition, through youth events like Youth WAVE, is teaching adolescents how to share God’s story and their own stories with lost friends. The concept is catching on.

Contemplation. This trend began in evangelical circles in the late 70’s early 80’s with the publishing of Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. Foster opened the door for evangelicals to begin experimenting with the classic spiritual disciplines of fasting, prayer, lectio divina, solitude, contemplation, etc. For the longest of times our Enlightenment background kept us from exploring anything that seemed to smack of mystery or mysticism. The only discipline we were interested in was academic (well, maybe not quite so academic) Bible study.

I think several youth ministers began to read Foster and to take him seriously. In some cases they led the way and blazed a trail for adult ministries. Some of their teenagers grew up and became church leaders themselves and began to emphasize the disciplines.

Mark Yaconnelli, the son of the late Mike Yaconnelli (Youth Specialties) began to make more than just a casual connection between the disciplines and youth ministry. He launched the Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project about eight years ago with sixteen churches of various traditions to explore a contemplative-based youth ministry. This has culminated in his recent book Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus.

While it is too early to tell the success of these approaches, I believe deep down in my bones when we invite teenagers into God’s story and when we encourage them to experience God through serious reflection and the disciplines we are on the right track.

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