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reimagining youth ministry | ymCafe
Mar 12 2009

The double-edged sword of vocational youth ministry

I don’t think that all churches should hire a vocational youth minister.

I’m not talking about whether churches can afford to hire one or not.  Some churches that can shouldn’t, and yes, I realize given my history of being of vocational youth minister that this probably sounds strange.

The church in America has a big problem regardless of denomination. In general, most churches are missing at least their 18 to 30-somethings, and in reality, it’s more like 16 to 40-somethings. Our youth start leaving when they can drive, and something is seriously wrong with this picture.

Now some of you may be in a church with healthy youth ministries and lots of young people which is great, but unfortunately for the church as a whole, your church is the exception to the rule. And even in your church you can probable see a decline from early children’s ministry, to junior high ministry, with a major decline in high school ministry, or at least in the percentage’s of junior’s and senior’s that you still have.

I’ve been asked by several churches who have noticed this trend if they should hire a vocational youth minister, and seen even more churches run out an hire a vocational youth minister, assuming that will somehow “fix” the problem and automatically start bringing those elusive “young people” into the church.

After all, young people are the future of the church right?

Well, if you’ve read this blog before you’ve heard me talk about how young people are only the future of the church in the sense that without them the church will literally die of old age, but they are also the present of the church, and all too often we forget that.

And so we throw a vocational youth minister at the problem, and go “whew, so glad the youth are taken care of.”

Several problems with this, one, the youth aren’t being actually valued by the church in the sense that the church isn’t giving of their time, only of part of the budget. And while funding is important, it’s not everything. Think about when you were a kid, would you rather have had money from your parents, or time with your parents? Would you rather have spent time with the greatest, most fun baby-sitter in the world, or have your parents actually “invest” time in you?

Now I’m not equating vocational youth ministry to baby-sitting, but the reality is that one youth minister cannot do the job of Christian formation and discipleship for these young people. A vocational youth minister’s primary role should be to mentor adult leaders who can then in turn disciple and mentor the youth. Then the youth will have a connection with the church as a whole, and one part of integrating our youth into the church as a whole will be put in place. (More on this later).

So, then the double-edged sword of vocational youth ministry is that if churches are too quick to hire without having first embraced their youth ministry as a congregation, they end up abdicating the responsibility to that youth minister. The other edge is that with the responsibility pushed to the side, the youth minister is suddenly not as essential as they were, and their position is the first to get cut in a budget crises. This is ironic really, given the fears I hear frequently expressed about the health of the church without young people.

For more see What do young people think of the church? @ Daily Radicals.

Jan 22 2009

Light Shows versus Pipe Organs: Unpacking the Worship Wars

There’s a prevailing sentiment that young people, that elusive group of people that churches seem to be nonplussed about how to bring back, don’t like traditional churches with liturgy, organ music, and so forth. One blogger I read recently claimed that no one under thirty would go to a church for the pipe organ, while I’ve heard similar misgivings from people within our own diocese. From expensive pipe organs on one end to light shows with a full band in the church, which end of the continuum is more successful?

I invite you to play with an idea for a minute. These worship wars are a smoke screen. All of them in their own way are the hunt for the “hot” thing—the gimmick, if you will—that will bring young people back into the church. I don’t think any of it really matters. People come into the church when they are connected with people who care about them. People become Christians when they are discipled by people who are already Christians.

Yes, we should do our services with excellence, the music we have should be glorifying to God, but that can take a number of different forms. Different communities will have different identities and that’s okay. The important question to ask is not how to integrate guitars with the pipe organ if that’s what’s working for you, or how to go out and buy a pipe organ if you’ve been successful with a worship band. The question is: Is our church making disciples? Because that, my friends, is the only way that the church is truly the church.

The second idea to play with this idea of discipleship. I think that the term discipleship is something that perhaps has lost its meaning in the church in America. But considering that it was the thrust of Jesus command to us in the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20), I think that the idea and the practice of discipleship is something we need to keep fresh and keep in front of us always.

Simply put, discipleship is helping people along in the way of Jesus. It doesn’t require a seminary degree, it doesn’t require you to memorize vast portions of the Bible. It’s enough that you follow Jesus, and are willing to invite other people into this journey as well. You can teach about Jesus because you’ve experienced him in your life. You after all, are something of an authority on your own story and the miles you’ve journeyed with Jesus in the past. This is where to start.

Discipleship is about intentional inclusion and invitation. I think it’s the second part we have some problems with. Generally as a church, and if I even go closer and say as a diocese, we do better at including people who show up to our churches, or we at least include them in theory. It’s one thing to be open to anyone coming to church, it’s another thing to purposefully start living your life alongside people outside the church, not simply to eventually lure them into the church, but to be that first contact of Christian fellowship, Christian love, that may indeed eventually lead to that person, young or old becoming a part of the church you worship at. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful if Episcopal Christians all over Middle Tennessee to start living life in relationship with people in there sphere of influence, Christian, non-Christian, regardless of viewpoint or denominational affiliation?

What would that look like? I can’t even begin to imagine how amazing that would be. Oh, and we’ll end up with more people in our churches too. But that can’t be the goal we start out with or we’ll approach new friendships with an agenda, and if our agenda is anything other than friendship, allowing the truth of what we know about Jesus to come out just as part of our lives, then we will be using that person as a means to an end. And that, friends, would be something I think would actually be out of line with the instructions our Savior left for us in his Commission.

Jan 21 2009

So what if Esau got duped!

In the teen class a couple weeks ago our beloved young adults, pretty much across the board, thought it was fine for Jacob to dupe his brother out of his blessing.  When push on the point they thought in general that this was an acceptable way of life.  “It’s Esau’s fault he’s so gullible” came the reply.  It seems the general consensus that these teens believe it’s OK to be conniving to get ahead in life.

Question - How have we as a church taught them the contrary (or indeed have we?)?

How can we reinforce Jesus’ self sacrificing service of others in a way that shakes them free from the grip of their secularism?

Talk amongst yourselves…

God’s peace,

Patrick +

Sep 17 2008

Only Connect! Keeping Young People in Church

As someone who’s invested the last decade of her life in youth ministry, I really hate to say this, but I feel I must: there’s something wrong with the way we’ve been doing youth ministry.  Now, it’s not all wrong, but there’s a very important ingredient or two missing, and there isn’t any one person to blame for this.

Trends in church attendance clearly show that attendance among young people begins declining as soon as these young people turn sixteen.  Give them the freedom of a car, and pretty soon they’re driving away from church.

These students haven’t decided they hate church.  Rather, those who leave say they quit going to church simply because church wasn’t essential to their lives.

This isn’t even a case of going out and “sowing wild oats” for a time or anything like that, the most basic difference between young people who stayed and young people who left was whether their church was essential to them or not.

If we break this down and look at what church is supposed to be, then perhaps we can get an idea of how to make our churches essential in the lives of our young people again.

First of all, the church, as Archbishop William Temple said, “is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of its non-members.”  That goes handily with the Great Commission in which the followers of Jesus are instructed to go out and make disciples of all the world.

So, if we as the church are supposed to exist to make disciples, then we ought to be making disciples of our youth as well.

And we can’t allow this job to fall solely to the youth minister, because if we do, then the youth end up with their own church—separate in all of it’s customs, rituals, meetings, and traditions from “big church.” Is it any wonder then that students toward the end of high school no longer see a place for themselves in the church as a whole?

What’s the solution? I believe we need to stop looking at our youth and young adults as the future members of the church and to realize that they are current members of the church and need to be given leadership roles.  This goes beyond being acolytes and having youth Sundays, as good as both of those ideas are.  This would include youth on the vestry, youth as part of larger out reaches and missions, part of the planning, not just the part of “what the youth always do” or “what we’d like to see the youth doing.”  Let them help figure out what to do alongside of the adults.  They need to have ownership of the church, to have their ideas listened to, to be given a place to serve and make a difference.

But they can’t just up and start teaching Sunday school for the first graders all by themselves either. These are youth and young adults.  They need to be mentored by older adults in the congregation.  Studies  show that there is an inverse relationship with the number of adults in a young person’s life to the percentage of young people that drop out of church.  Where there are no adults from the church present in a young person’s life, the drop out rate is 9 out of 10.  Where there are 6 or more adults that are somehow active in that young person’s life, the drop out rate plummets to only 50%.  That’s 40% of all young adults that could be retained simply by involving them! (1)

And 6 or more adults per young person adds up more quickly than you might think.  For instance, the youth minister who knows that kid’s name is one. The youth small group leader is another.  The retired couple who sits behind the kid’s family in church and has pool parties at their house a couple of times in the summer and keeps up with what the kids are doing are two more.  Then there’s the spouse of the small group leader who keeps up with the lives of the kids who are coming over to the house, maybe fixes snacks for the small group.  The minister can be another in a smaller church, or the music minister who also leads a youth choir, greeters by the door, and so on.  It’s not that hard to get up to 6, but we have to be intentional about it.

So, to keep young people in church, church has to be essential to their lives.  For them to view church as essential, they need ownership, and connections within the church as a whole.  They need to be real members of the church, not future members.  You know how fun it is on youth Sunday to see those teens or children doing the readings and taking such a big part in the service? Why can’t that be every Sunday? Why are our youth largely delegated to this one service, but not on regular rotations?  There are many places in both the service and the life of the church where our youth can take part.  At 16, if they’re confirmed, they can serve on a vestry.  At even younger ages, they can participate in all sorts of different roles if we’re only willing to hear what they have to say.  We might be surprised what God would want to do in our midst through some of our younger members.  The only question is are we daring enough to give them a chance?

Only connect! (2) And then go and make disciples.

(1) Thom and Sam Ranier, Essential Church, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008) p. 124.
(2) E. M. Forster, Howards End, Title page.

Aug 13 2008

Do Young People Prefer Non-traditional Worship?

Last month, we looked at how we attract young people to our church by living out the call of the gospel by getting out of the church building and living in relationship with people. Young people are looking for a faith that is real and lived-out, something that is overtly spiritual, something they can sink their teeth into.

In the midst of sometimes turbulent times for mainline churches, I think we secretly wonder if the mainline has anything left to offer, especially in light of the claims made in articles such as last month’s Tennessean (7/6/08), which claimed outright that young people prefer non-traditional worship.

Pulling from my experiences working with a non-denominational church before moving to Tennessee, I’ve noticed some trends in these alternative worship services. First of all, at the church I was working at, we started experimenting with periods of silence, call and response sections of the service, communion where everyone came forward to the same table to receive—things I have since discovered have been part of the Anglican tradition for a long, long time, and possibly led me to feel more at home here in the Episcopal Church once I tried it out.

Yes, these services usually use contemporary worship music, something that some of our churches in the diocese would find very difficult to incorporate, but I don’t believe that young people’s preference for a church rises or falls based exclusively on the music. Again, I believe it is the way that a congregation lives out its faith and practices community that draws people, not just young people, but people of all ages, to our churches.

And because I’ve witnessed the adoption of practices, if not straight from the Prayer Book, then pretty close, in non-denominational and less traditional churches, I think that what we have in our tradition is a huge asset to attracting people, but especially young people.

So, you may ask, if all this is true, why is there a huge gap of young people in our churches? Well, part of that I think will be the subject of perhaps another article, but I think one part at least is that we as the body of Christ sometimes forget that the body of Christ is a family. And in families, we interact with people of multiple generations; do life with people of different ages; hold gatherings with multiple generations present. It’s easy for us to look to the church to provide our social needs, and as we think of being with friends, we typically picture people our own age. I know I do. But we as the body of Christ are called to more than that. It’s great that we find friends and social interaction at our churches, but we are called to be ambassadors of the gospel (2 Cor 5:20), and to be known by our love for one another (John 13:35).

Imagine what we could be like as we reach out to people in our sphere of influence no matter how similar or dissimilar they are to us, and start doing life with the people around us, including them in our heritage and in the glorious message that we’ve been entrusted to impart.

Jul 25 2008

How to attract young people to your church

I often get questions from churches (and not just in our diocese either) that sound like this “how can we attract more young people?”

Well, thought I, sounds like a good thing to discuss in Connections this time, especially given last month’s article in the Tennessean (7/6/08 ) on young adults’ preferences in worship. So let’s take apart the statement and see if the answer lies within it somewhere.

“How can we attract more young people?” Well two questions pop into my head: (1) why do we want to attract them? And (2) what do we mean by attracting them?

See I think it all boils down to this word “attract.” What’s behind the question? Are there people in our church who feel a call to disciple the younger generation(s)? Is it a question of mission? Because mission as I understand it isn’t primarily about attraction, it’s about finding, seeking, and discipling.

Something’s been bothering me about the question of “attracting young people,” regardless of which of the several reasons is behind it.

The thing is, most of the people, and like I said, regardless of the wonderful motivation behind it, asking this question, want a program or solution to bring young people into their existing church structure.

Well, I think I’ve happened on the solution to attracting young people as I was musing on this.

Get out of the church.

That’s right leave.

Because you see, the church isn’t that building no matter how cute, historic, grand, beautiful, or whatever it may be. The building is an incidental. You are the church.

So go out and start taking the church—and the fantastic message of life in Jesus—to people you know.

Just live life in relationship with people, not from your church (gasp, I know).

Live life in relationship with people with no agenda. Share with them what excites you, hopefully Jesus is on the list, if not, perhaps you should start by doing a little soul searching and having a few in depth Jesus-times yourself.

As you share your life with people, including how you live in relationship with Jesus, they might get interested. Or they might not. But at least they won’t be in the very large category of people that don’t know a single Christian.

Some statistics for you.

The number of non-Christians a person knows has an inverse relationship with the length of time that person has been a Christian (Dan Kimball. They like Jesus but not the Church. Zondervan, 2007). So the most mature Christians, who should be out there making disciples, don’t know any non-Christians. Hmmm…

The average number of conversions per 100 people in mainline denomination per year is… Are you ready?


And those non-mainline folks, their rate of conversion is actually better. And they wouldn’t be surprised to hear that. But wait, what is it?

One point seven. Yup, nearly double, but still, per one hundred? sort of pitiful (Lyle Shaller. From Geography to Affinity. Abingdon Press, 2003.).

People, our entire mission as the church is to make disciples.

And we’re failing! Churches that are growing are mainly getting Christians from other churches.

It’s a giant shell game of “find the Christians.”

So what we’ve been doing, isn’t working. People will no longer “come and see.”

Get out of the church. Get into the world.

It’s time we tried out that whole “salt and light” thing again.

Just go.

Extra: Do young people prefer non-traditional ways of worship like the Tennessean claimed? I think no. In fact, I think our rich Anglican tradition gives us a leg up on ministry with young people, but I’m out of space, we’ll have to explore that later!

Jun 19 2008

Overcoming Insecurities

If we’re going to be serious about ministry to youth and young adults, then we have to face up to the fact that the biggest thing standing in the way of that ministry is our own insecurities. Ministering to young people instantly throws us back to that stage in our lives and we long to be cool again, aligning ourselves with the “cool” kids, and shunning the “un-cool” ones. This is especially hazardous for those of us who didn’t fit into the “cool” category in junior high, high school or college ourselves, and see the acceptance of the cool kids as finally having “made it.”

Of course, since we’re now adults, none of this should actually matter, and putting it out on paper like that sounds rather silly, but I’ll confess it’s happened to me, it’s something I see in me that I constantly have to override (and it does get easier to override as you do it!).

Teenagers by nature want to question everything. A soon to be ninth grader that I was talking to the other day said something about herself, qualifying it with “since I’m at the age where I’m trying to like, figure out who I am and stuff.” She seemed very self-aware for a 13-year-old considering that’s exactly the definition of adolescence but I don’t think most teenagers, especially those on the early end of adolescence, usually see it quit so clearly.

But this constant questioning of everything, including what we as adults believe and why, tends to make us feel defensive, especially if we don’t have a good answer for one of their questions. It makes us want to pull rank, as it were, tell teens to do things “just because I said so,” or knock aside questions that we don’t have answers to.

All of that is detrimental to ministering, and for that matter parenting, teaching, being anywhere near, teen and young adults. And for the same reasons, it makes us as adults actually scared of teenagers in particular, if not young adults as well.

So how do we get rid of these insecurities?

Insecurities fall into the category of things I like to call little demons. They’re usually quite small, but they have powerful cumulative effects, especially when left alone in the dark too long. Sort of like mold, really. A bit of air and light will do wonders for them, as these noisome little demons really can’t stand light, it tends to make them shrivel up and die.

That mixed metaphor is to say that we have to acknowledge our insecurities for what they are, and consciously choose to not act out of them to the best of our ability. This is they only way to make them shrivel and start to die. And, unfortunately, it’s not an instant thing. It seems to be one of those life—long wrestling matches, but one that gets better as we stay with it consistently.

Here’s another way that insecurities get us in trouble in ministry, but especially in youth ministry. As we build relationships with the kids, provided we get around those initial insecurities that make us scared of interaction and such, we find that the affirmation and love we receive from teenagers and even young adults, but especially teens in this case, is unparallel. For all their often justified suspicions of adults, teenagers once they’ve been won over have the capacity for great admiration, love, and dare I say, even a bit of hero worship.

This is actually more dangerous for our own souls then having to get over the fact that they want to question everything we say. Far more dangerous. If we give into this one, we end up doing youth ministry not for the teens, but for ourselves. And that means that we’re using the teens for our own end, something that should never occur in ministry.

Let me say that again, because this is important too. We can’t do ministry because of the results we hope to get either for ourselves or for our church. All of that is a by-product, a function of God working in situations and blessing us and our community for our faithfulness. The ministry itself has to be done for the sole purpose of the people being ministered to. It will be beneficial to both us as the ministers and to the entire community of the church, but again, that’s God working and responding to our faithfulness in answering his call and being obedient to looking after all of his kids, not just the ones that have learned to sit still and not whisper in church (which, now that I think of it, would exclude me some Sundays).

May 14 2008

What Youth Ministry Can Be Part 4: Re-imagining Ministry with Youth

I was thinking as I got started on this final installment of the Youth Ministry series that perhaps this last piece should have in fact been the first.  I’m guessing there’s a good number of you who are reading this, or skipping over them, and thinking that they don’t pertain to you because they’re talking about youth ministry.

And when we talk about youth ministry, we tend to think of programs and youth ministers and buses and lock-ins.  Lots of pizza, staying up all night, and who knows what else. 

And let’s face it, most of us aren’t cut out for that sort of thing!  I don’t even want to stay up all night any more. It’s not fun.  And I’m so sick of pizza that I’ve wondered if it was a good enough reason to leave youth ministry all together! (okay, so I’m not wholly serious on that one!).

So while not all of us are called to be a part of a youth ministry program, I think a lot more of us are called to ministry to youth then we tend to think. 

See ministry to youth, as opposed to all the programs and such, which have their place, is in some ways a whole different ball game.  We as Christians are called to be disciples of Jesus and ambassadors of his reconciliation wherever we go (2 Cor. 5:11-21).  We are the ministers of the body of Christ—all of us, together—old and young, ordained and not ordained.  And as such, we are called to be disciples who make disciples. 

I hope that the previous three articles (and if you missed them, you can download them from the website!) have painted a different sort of picture of what ministry to youth looks like.  It’s a process we can all be involved in at some point or another.  Mentoring teenagers and young adults is something that all of us in the body of Christ can do as we draw them alongside us to journey along in this adventure with Jesus.

I’m willing to guess that everyone reading this knows a teenager or a young adult.  How would it change your relationship with them if you knew that they desperately wanted input from a mature adult?  Adolescence as the process between childhood and adulthood has lengthened to where some say the average end of it is now twenty-four years of age.  Twenty-four! And that’s the average! Which means that you’ve got some later 20-somethings and perhaps even some early 30-somethings that have never made the transition into functioning adulthood because there was no one to show them how.

There’s a poignant scene in the recent movie Lars and the Real Girl where Lars, the protagonist, a 27-year-old living in the garage apartment at his brother and sister in-law’s house asks his older brother, “How do you know when you’re a man?”  And his brother is stumped by the question for several minutes.  Finally he answers some to the effect of “Doing the right thing just because it’s right. Putting other’s first.”  I think the scene illustrates so well the predicament of even 20-somethings who have fewer issues than Lars (the movie is about his recovery from delusion, but that doesn’t do it justice, you really should see it!). 

I think the young people of today are dying to ask us not only “How do you know when you’re a man or a woman” as in “How do you know when you’re an adult” but also “How do you really follow Jesus?” “What does that look like?”  Our society has allowed itself to become so segregated among the generations that few of our teens and young adults have someone they truly feel comfortable asking those sorts of questions.

But they are desperate for the answers.  Will we form relationships with them and help them to figure out what those things look like?  It has to be us that initiates, that proves we’re actually just interested in them for who they are and not what they can do for us. 

Will we take up this call to disciple the younger generations?  To be ambassadors of reconciliation, as though God himself was making his appeal through us?  This is our mission, our vocation as the church, Christ’s body.  How can we say no?

May 1 2008

What Youth Ministry Can Be: Part 3 Coming Alongside

After laying the groundwork for ministry to youth by understanding that God calls people of all ages, we looked last month about what it means to step into what often feels like a completely foreign culture: the world our teenagers inhabit. And so building on the concept that for youth ministry to be effective it has to be incarnational (we inhabit their world as Jesus came and inhabited ours), then the third piece is that ministry has to be relational in ordering for mentoring to occur. And it is in mentoring that the real stuff of making disciples happens.

In the gospel of Mark, we find Jesus and many followers up on a mountainside. “Jesus… called to him those he wanted, and they came to him” (Mark 3:13). There are several points that we can draw from this passage.

First, relational ministry is not to the crowds. In verse seven of this same passage, we see crowds of people following Jesus. He went apart, and “called to him those he wanted.” He limited the group of people that he would spend most of His time with. Second, He called them to Him. This shows deliberate intention on the part of Jesus, and thus, we must also be intentional about how we go about our relational ministry. Third, they came to Him. This may seem obvious, but it is important that we are clear enough in our intentions toward people that we are investing in so that they want us to be in their lives in that capacity. It’s a waste of time to try to mentor someone if they don’t want to be mentored. However, this needs to be done in a subtle way, because the concept of mentoring is often completely foreign to folks. Think of it as coming alongside someone and journeying with them as you both grow in your lives with Jesus. You’ve been further down the path then they have and can help them out as they learn some of the things you’ve already learned. But you can also learn from them, and so while you may be that person’s mentor, don’t forget to be a student yourself! And find a mentor for yourself as well… none of us were meant to accomplish life all on our own.

In Acts, Paul is depicted as always traveling with someone: first Barnabas, then Silas, then Timothy joins with him and Silas (Acts 13:1-3; 15:40, 16:1-3). As Paul went through his ministry, he brought people with him. Despite the fact that it was a disagreement that separated him and Barnabas, Barnabas also followed this model in taking John Mark with him, (Acts 15:39) which increased the number of two-man teams that were modeling this type of ministry in that day. The discipling relationship came before the sending out.

We see this also in Matthew when Jesus sends out the twelve (Matt 10). They had been with him, learning of Him, and then He sent them out. At some point, which is unclear in Matthew, the disciples come back to learn more. In Luke, the evangelist has them coming back to report to Jesus what they had done (Luke 9:10). When they did this, Jesus took them and they went away by themselves, or tried to, but the point is that they withdrew for more time with Jesus.

Again in Luke, when Jesus sends out the seventy-two, He sends them out two by two, they return and tell Him what happened, Jesus responds with more teaching (Luke 10). All of these examples point to a pattern in the Scripture of what relational ministry looks like. In the New Testament, we don’t find examples of people in ministry by themselves per se; they seem to at least be in groups of two. Also, as a pattern for discipleship, the disciples are taught, and then sent out. They return and give a report; they receive more teaching. They are not left cut off from relationships, and they are not left without feedback or teaching. This is key for our ministries today.

We’re not just mentoring young people in a vacuum: we’re teaching them how to do the work of the ministry so that they will be disciples who make disciples. We’re helping mobilize the next generation of workers in God’s harvest, and we’re doing the work of the ministry ourselves while we are accomplishing this.

The Great Commission tells us to go and make disciples of all nations. This is how disciples are made: as we who have gone further in the faith look behind us and pull someone up alongside us and teach them from what we’ve learned. Then as they do that, and the person they pull up beside them does that, we very soon have a whole network of relationships where the people of God are learning from one another and growing together to spread the good news of the kingdom of God to world in turmoil that desperately needs to hear it.

Apr 25 2008

What Youth Ministry Can Be: Part 2 Stepping into the Context

Last post we looked at how the basic groundwork of youth ministry calls us to understand the truth that God gifts young people, calls young people and uses young people and therefore we must take seriously ministry to young people just as we take ministry to adults seriously. But as adults, ministry to other adults is often far easier to fathom. We inhabit the same world, often have similar or parallel life experiences to draw from in conversation. With young people though, we all too often feel at a loss. Their world seems so different, their experiences different than ours, and different than ours when we were in high school. How can we possible hope to relate?

In order to do successful ministry anywhere, we must be willing to follow in the steps of our Savior and become incarnate, or take on flesh, in the world of the people we are ministering to. Paul outlines what incarnational ministry should look like very clearly in his letter to the Philippians, chapter two. We then, as adults who are called to pour into youth, are to follow Jesus’ example in that he made himself nothing, (Phil 2:7) being found in the appearance of a man, (v. 8) and was obedient. What does that mean in our world? He came into our world, assuming nothing. He emptied Himself of all His heavenly glory and authority to come into our world and meet us where we were. We, then, need to empty ourselves of all our “grown-up-ness,” meaning that we must go against the stereotypes youth have of other adults in their world as being aloof, uninterested in “kid things,” authoritarian, among others (but not implying that we have to then start acting like the kids). This doesn’t mean that we have to act like kids. We need to be comfortable with being adults, but not so hung up on it that we can’t be interested in what the youth are for the sake of showing interest in them.

Assuming nothing also means taking on those pesky insecurities that we have that are so easy to sort of take out on the youth in the form of unnecessarily displaying knowledge to the disadvantage of the youth (e.g. making the kid feel stupid for not knowing something). All of these things are potential barriers to adults being able to enter the world of the youth.

Therefore, because of this, we have to consciously empty ourselves, and not consider our current position as something to be grasped (Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped (Phil 2:6)). Rather, we must let go of it and become obedient unto death (v.8)—death to ourselves, death to our pride, death to our insecurities—so that by our death, the youth in our sphere of influence might be exposed to life through Christ. In order to come across in the right spirit to these youth when we enter their world, we must have the mindset of a servant, the “very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7).

Two other things that are important to notice are these: when Jesus came to earth, He came to earth and He came to earth. The first involves motion, the second location. He moved from where He was, but this move was more than moving from the sanctuary to the youth room, He came to where humans were, and not just the clean, nice-smelling respectable humans, but also to the blind, the beggars, the tax collectors, the lepers, the prostitutes, in short, the unwanted, the “unclean,” the outcasts. Hence, it is not enough to be seen in the youth room of our church on a regular basis, though this is important. But we must also be seen in the malls, in the libraries, on the school campuses, at the talent shows, the basketball games, and anywhere else that youth gather. We must go because the vast majority of them will never come to us while we remain safely ensconced in the neat, clean youth rooms (okay, so somewhat clean and neat) decorated with posters of Christian bands and having Veggie Tales marathons and worship services. This going forth, this living in the context in which the youth of today live, this is incarnational ministry, the kind of ministry that points young people to the reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.