It goes without saying that youth ministry is always changing. (Oops. Well, it would have.)
I grew up in the land of the forgotten nightmares of Unsafe Sanctuaries. “Chubby Bunny” was the least of our worries. Our adults were encouraged to take kids off alone; we’d go fishing in the middle of nowhere with a Sunday school teacher. We’d play cash card games on choir tour with trip money loaned to us by the leaders for the evening. We shared hotel beds with our youth workers. And it really wasn’t about seat belts as much as it was about how many kids you could stuff into the borrowed custom van to drive to Florida.
It was all good youth ministry. You could ask anybody.
Most of those nightmares have faded into the morning light of “common sense” in our current climate of appropriate relationships and acceptable adult ratios. But our satisfaction with how we’ve corrected the past makes it so easy to forget one of the most obvious lessons we can learn from the big picture of youth ministry history: if we’ve got a rule about something in youth ministry, 99% of the time that rule reverses something that was once common practice. Which means without a doubt that much of what we’re doing today will be frowned on in 5-10 years and disallowed in 15. What are we doing wrong right now?
I think the buddy youth worker is dying. Or maybe needs to.
There’s an interesting societal dichotomy in progress between how we interact with our kids at school and how we interact with them at church. Schools have crystal clear boundaries about how/when/why teachers can interact with students. Even in the most relaxed communities eyebrows are raised if a student and teacher appear to be developing a friendship beyond the interaction of student and teacher. But at church the youthworker is expected in many cases to break down that boundary; you’re not just their spiritual instructor, you’re supposed to be their friend. Their awkward friend that always needs to have another adult in the room.
My wife and I were talking the other day about how awesome our son’s 1st grade teacher is. To watch her work is like looking into a magical fairyland of knowledge and fun and control; she’s fearless, loving, and always knows just what to do. As we talked, it occurred to me: of course she is. For her, they’re always in the first grade. She’s an expert in 6-years-old. If our son Grey stayed 6 years old for 20 years, we’d probably get pretty good at handling him too. But we, like all parents, live in the real world of kids that are always getting older, never quite getting a handle on this age before they move to the next. And, as much awesome as she brings to his 1st grade world, I’d never want to just hand over this part of his life to her.
The buddy youthworker needs to take note of that distinction. We are often the loudest voice into the spirituality of youth. Sometimes the most most informed. Almost never the most influential. Parents have been, are, and will remain the single largest influence into the lives of youth. Youthworkers, according to a study I saw once somewhere, rank somewhere around #17. I believe “dentist” was #16 on the list. What’s alarming is that #1 regularly drops off their child to #17, believing that all-things-spiritual are in better hands. The sentiment echoes in their own words: “We’re afraid to talk about this stuff at home; we feel like they know more about spiritual stuff than we do.” “We don’t want to look dumb.” “We’re so grateful that you’re here to teach them all this stuff.”
The problem is that we’re not talking about ABCs or months-in-order or what colors mixed together make what other colors, all bits of knowledge we’re content to let Mrs. Downer (best teacher name ever) teach Grey. We’re not simply dispensing spiritual facts or information; we’re talking about living lives of discipleship, lives motivated to becoming more Christlike and following hard after God, even when we misstep. There are incredibly valuable lessons to be learned in those missteps, particularly when you learn them from your parents. But by letting the parents hand off spiritual training to youth ministry, we’re letting youth learn that; that when it comes to spirituality, we can’t handle it in the home. It’s not something that we talk about at home much; we’re so glad you’re learning about it somewhere. Hopefully when you have kids of your own you’ll be able to find a church to drop them off at to learn about this stuff.
Back to the dying buddy.
I think the window where churches can allow youthworkers to exist as “friends” to their youth is closing. Churches have begun closing off closeness in those relationships (and with good reason). Policies are starting to exist about interaction through social media. If the schools are any indication (and they are), it’s worth noting that some school systems are now disallowing their teachers to have friends on Facebook under the age of 18. Interaction outside of school is discouraged, heavily. So what happens when the church begins to close these same doors? What happens when in 5 to 10 years youthworkers are discouraged from individual student contact?
Seriously, what happens?
I feel like we must move quickly to re-empower parents to be spiritual leaders. Or at least make them aware that they are the spiritual leaders in the lives of their kids. For good or for bad. What are they teaching them by the way they live? What would they rather be teaching them? How can we help that process?
I’ve got a pile of questions I’d love to hear some feedback on. What remains valid about the youthworker/youth relationship? What do you think needs to change? If ministry shifts to re-empower families, what happens to youth in less-than-supportive families? Youth without families?
youthworker :: musician :: friend :: twitter: @elvisfreakshow
www.kevinalton.com :: www.youthworkercircuit.com