This article was originally published September 12, 2011.
I had a conversation recently with a middle school principal. He was talking about the difficulty of the transition from elementary school for the students as well as the parents. For the students, the challenge is the switch from an almost embryonic environment where they’re surrounded all day (for the most part) by the same group of students led by the same teacher through all subjects to an environment with unsettling inconsistency, surrounded by different kids each hour led by a different teacher. For the parents, the challenge is that middle school, in the words of my principal friend, is where kids go to become grownups. It’s where kids start to see and experience “bad things,” and there isn’t anything the parents (or the schools for that matter) can do about it.
My reflection in the conversation was that youth ministry experiences a similar point of difficulty at the turn into middle school, but here the schools have us at an advantage: even if you’re nervous or unsettled about the new educational environment, you still have to go. Nobody has to go to church.
In later years of grade school and with increasing influence, extracurricular programs are wielding extraordinary “have to” power over the lives of youth (and by extension, their families). Football programs for the fall begin the day after graduation in the spring. Some sports run partial days the whole summer. Some run whole days for an entire month. Fall & spring breaks and even holidays aren’t a safe haven from relentless training and practice. Seem like too much? You can object, but miss too many mandatory practices and you’re off the team. Even missing “optional” workouts or specially called practices means a reserved seat on the bench come game time.
Which is all fine, if you don’t want to be like Jesus or be with your family. But what if you do?
You have to choose.
Parents don’t like to think that they’re choosing between Christian discipleship and sports, but that’s what’s happening. They like it even less if you point it out. But if you’re telling me in August that there’s a force in your life that won’t let you commit to a mission trip next June, you have chosen. There’s not really any fighting it from a ministry perspective; I understand that the schools are telling you what to do and that the coaches/leaders are all under pressure to field the best/most competitive/cohesive-whatever come fall. Your youth ministry promises to pack whatever spiritual discipline it can into whatever time you let us know is left over. But at the end of the day, you may very well one day realize that you have raised a young adult whose former high school athletics haven’t done much for his or her personal spirituality.
And on that day that you come to me, wondering why college Johnny isn’t interested in church or God or helping others any more, I probably won’t point out that while we were on mission trip he was doing chin-ups 9 weeks before his next game or memorizing marching patterns for a 3 minute halftime show two months away. Or that while we were doing a youth leadership devotion on the importance of the practice of prayer he was deciding on his favorite scene from “The Hangover” with his buddies in the weight room. But that’s what happened. Or at least part of it.
I love sports and band and all the rest. Really. But faith and love and Christian living are disciplines too, ones that take hard work and lots of practice. But nobody will tell you that “you have to.” Not even Jesus.
You have to choose.
How does your ministry work around/with/against the complexities of extra-curricular schedules where you are?