I think us new guys on the youth ministry scene tend to treat all those who’ve paved ways before us (the pavers) like Coach Brickma from Rookie of the Year (the coach in that clip, who for some unknown reason was an MLB pitching coach). There’s a fad (which I love to be a part of sometimes) that loves to bash those youth ministries and youth pastors who have gone before us. Don’t get me wrong, I love making fun of old youth ministry names like “Xtreme” (I’m looking at you dad… In his defense, it was cool at the time), and “C.I.A. – Christians In Action”. And don’t get me wrong – there were and most definitely still are some Brickmas running youth ministries all over America. But why not apply the golden rule to our forerunners, here? Let’s treat those who have gone before us the way we should treat all pioneers – by asking the question: What can we learn from their successes and failures?
** For the sake of brevity, “those who have gone before us”, aka all those youth pastors who ministered from about 2005 and back, I’m going to call “The Pavers” (open for suggestions on a better name).
I believe there are a few factors at play for WHY newbies tend to treat Pavers with a “pffff” kind of attitude:
Because many of us have risen out of the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement.
The rise of neo-Calvinism, like many movements, has had its share of negative impacts as it has also had many positive impacts. Careful, theological discernment and concentration on true Gospel ministry with Christ-centered preaching have created a lot of “amens” for a lot of well-supported reasons. However, it has become prominent among this conservative evangelical sub-culture to create unnecessary lines in the sand just for the sake of originality and/or argument. Just because many of the Pavers and their fellow staff members and church leaders probably got carried away with building churchy kingdoms with some legalistic foundations does not mean we go to the opposite extreme. In effect, it has become trendy to treat many Pavers like everything they did was wrong and/or anti-Gospel. This simply is not true and creates division within the universal church instead of Christ-centered, cross-generational unity. Ease up on the heat there, Rocket (Another Rookie of the Year reference).
Because many have a sour taste in their mouth from a Brickma.
So you had the displeasure of sitting under the leadership of a Brickma youth pastor as a student; the guy who had no theological or professional youth ministry training, and since there was nobody else “young enough to relate to “them young’ns” or willing, they called on Brickma to coach ‘em up. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because you had a bad experience with an untrained youth pastor when you were a student, doesn’t mean you should throw all of “those old, traditional youth ministry methods” out the window. Pump the brakes there, Scuffy McGee (and another… its just such a great movie).
Because many are badly mishandling statistics.
The Lifeway study from 2007 that discovered, “70 percent of young adults ages 23-30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between ages 18-22”, has been vastly mishandled. This is one of several “dropout” stats from which so many youth and senior pastors have been shocked into overreactions. It’s a freakout which has certainly increased Family Ministry advocates’ book sales. Instead of rewriting an already beautiful script, I’ll let a veteran debunk these faulty stats by turning them on their heads – actually proving there’s a reason to celebrate youth ministries:
Whatever reason(s) you may have jumped on this train of critique, it’s time we stop and ask ourselves, “What can we learn from the successes and failures of the Pavers?” So, here are 6 lessons I believe we can take away from them:
1. Fun is Necessary
Let’s be honest, the Pavers were pretty creative with fun and games. The rise of PowerPoint games was genius was it not? I’ve heard statements from my generation of youth pastors like, “We don’t do games because if they are the draw for our ministry, they’ll be the anchor… and we want Christ to be the anchor.” Pardon me while I throw up. Since when did this notion that fun and games removes Christ from a ministry’s center, come about?
Elle Campbell, a blogger over at stuffyoucanuse.org and ellecampbell.org, recently wrote concerning the matter of fun, “We should be strategic about infusing our weekly environments with fun.” She gave these reasons: “Fun matters to a kid’s faith, fun matters to a kid’s relationships, fun matters to a kid’s development, fun over time equals connection, fun over time convinces kids you actually like them; fun over time makes a friendship go deeper; fun over time reconnects what has been disconnected.” (Go check the full post out here)
Students connect with fun. You can build trust through fun avenues and break walls down that would not have crumbled had there not been a sledgehammer of fun. This doesn’t mean you develop an entire youth ministry around fun and games. But it also doesn’t mean you dump fun and games completely. I’m thankful for creative Pavers who actually understood and applied this. How sad it is to develop a student ministry in the name of “creating true disciples”, that no one wants to be a part of… get your spiritual nose out of the clouds, bro.
2. Developmental Levels Matter
I’m very grateful for Pavers who are now teaching the importance of understanding adolescent developmental levels. This is essential to ministering effectively in youth ministry. All of life can be seen as a stretching or a shrinking back. Growth from one stage to the next is not automatic and certainly not directly related to age. Every teenager is working through different physical, social, emotional, and intellectual levels of life. Without a proper understanding of where they’re at in their development, we’ll be wasting time. We can take a lesson from the Pavers in understanding developmental levels to help us holistically approach discipleship to students.
“He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments”– (Psalm 78:5-7)
The Psalmist is wanting to touch the MINDS of youth – what they know, “that the next generation might know…the deeds of the Lord… the works of God.”The Psalmist is wanting to touch the HEARTS of youth – what students feel, “so that they should set their hope/trust in God.”And lastly, the Psalmist is wanting to touch the HANDS of youth – what they do, “keep his commandments.”
I pray that our generation of youth pastors will take notes from our forefathers to be learners of the adolescent developmental levels so that we can minister to the minds, hearts, and hands of youth. That is how we see faith put into action – that’s how the vets did it.
3. Putting The Right Students in Leadership Roles exemplifies Eph. 4:12
It’s downright painful to watch a student who has not been equipped for the work of a ministry, in a leadership role – doing damage to the testimony of Christ. But at least that youth pastor is trying… what’s even more painful to me is seeing a one-man show youth group led by the megalomaniac youth guy who has control issues – never equipping saints to do ministry and lead out. The Pavers can teach us a lesson on equipping saints for ministry.
4. Isolation From Parents Is Necessary
Let me explain. I agree that too often, parents use youth ministries as a “spiritual drop off service”; too often, parents see youth pastors as “professionals” they pay to do the disciplining. But the solution, I believe, is NOT to integrate them into every inch of your youth ministry; or just completely abandon age-segregated ministries in exchange for family ministry. Instead, let’s take a page from the Pavers’ notebook and be strategic about when and how to include parents. Adolescents benefit greatly from local church leaders’ discipleship. A students’ small group leader can reach a student in a way that a parent cannot. A youth pastor’s sermon can preach in a way that the senior pastor’s or the fathers cannot. I’m thankful for the re-emphasizing of parents being the primary disciplers of the home that has surfaced these last few years. But let’s not make Pavers the scapegoat of the broken partnership between parents and youth and children ministries. The church as a WHOLE is to blame for not partnering with parents. Senior Pastors need to be preaching it; small groups need to be discussing it; youth pastors need to be reinforcing it.
Family Ministry advocates can use their “adolescence was an invention in the 20th century” excuse all they want, but those of us in the 21st century not trying to turn the clock back are going to “understand the times” (1 Chron. 12:32). Students need a Christ-centered community to belong to that separates them from their parents for 3 hours of the week. This allows walls to break down that wouldn’t have happened if mommy was 10 feet away.
5. Emphasizing rights and wrongs created legalism
Unfortunately, there seemed to be too much of an emphasis from the Pavers on the do’s and don’ts of Christianity. The intentions were for the sake of holiness, no doubt – but what happens when we emphasize rules? Legalism. On the reverse, what happens when we emphasize grace without works? Licentiousness. The Gospel destroys both. Thankfully, this new wave of youth ministry seems to have revitalized a true Gospel focused on teaching sound doctrine. My prayer is that we don’t make the mistake of swinging that pendulum from the extreme moral right, over to the extreme reckless left. Let us teach our youth how to love the Lord their God with all their mind (KNOW), heart and soul (FEEL), and strength (DO).
6. Hand Motions to Worship Songs Were Horrible.
Thanks for that one, Pavers…
What are some other lessons this new generation of youth pastors can learn from Pavers?