the secret weapon for youth ministry

I have been out of youth ministry for almost three months now. It has been a welcome break, and one that has helped me to be able to think about youth ministry without the stress of being in youth ministry day-to-day. At the time my previous ministry came to an end, I thought I was done in youth ministry. It had become a grind, and I had become filled with more questions about it than I had answers: “How do we get kids to share their faith?” “How do we reach out to kids outside the faith?” “How do we help kids own their faith?” “How do we keep kids in the church after they graduate?” “How do we keeps kids in the church until they graduate?”

While I doubt I have discovered a silver bullet that will answer all these questions, I think I have found something that will help. This idea is not a new idea in ministry but rarely do I see it being made the main emphasis of youth ministry. Used comprehensively and intentionally, it could help kids be bolder about sharing their faith, it could help a youth group live missionally in its context, it could help kids own a faith that will last into adulthood.

It’s daring and it’s risky and it starts at the top with the youth pastor. The secret weapon for youth ministry is vulnerability.

I am enchanted with underdog stories, especially when the underdogs are able to use their supposed weakness against their opponents in order to achieve victory. The Bible is full of these stories. David vs. Goliath. Jesus choosing crucifixion over waging war on the Romans. God’s grace making Paul’s weakness perfect. In our perceived weakness, we can accomplish great things. So, as a pastor, youth or otherwise, I suggest that we play to our weaknesses more than our strengths. I suggest that we minister out of a place of vulnerability rather than our giftedness.

This is a scary idea, and not just for pastors. Most people I know do not want to think of their pastor as a human being with faults just like them. They want their pastors to be a finished product, not a person in process. They want their pastors to discuss their issues in the past tense. Most pastors I know go along with this. We do not want people to see our weaknesses and our struggles, as we assume this will diminish our pastoral credibility. We want our pastors to be humble but not vulnerable. We want them to have arrived. We do not want them to be in process.

But how effective is this, really? First of all, one cannot be humble without being vulnerable. To be humble is to admit that you have weaknesses, to do so honestly would require a great deal of vulnerability. Secondly, is it better for us to be the image of “the arrived Christian” the one who has been sanctified and is no longer in process, or is it better for us as pastors to model what it looks like to be a Christian who is still in process, who is still learning, growing, maturing, struggling, and becoming? Because, after all, there is no such thing as a Christian who has arrived. Why project that to people as a model to emulate when it is impossible? Why not show your congregants or students what it looks like to grow. To learn. To process. To struggle and wrestle with God. To become.

What a powerful force this could be in youth ministry. A youth pastor who is willing to share, from a place of honesty and vulnerability, what he or she is learning, how he or she is growing, how he or she is struggling. Obviously, there are professional boundaries to keep in place and not everything is appropriate for your students to know about. However, if a youth pastor is willing to admit fault, show how they are growing, and model how they are comfortable with the fact that they are still in process, they have modeled to their students the very things they will need in order to grow in their own faith.

Think about it: Youth workers who model vulnerability:

  1. Normalize vulnerability for their students. They show that it is OK to make mistakes and learn from them. They show that failure and shame is not the end of the world and how it can help them grow. It helps them be comfortable with the fact that they are still in process.
  2. It helps them to live into their God-given identities. One of the most common pieces of advice students (and adults) receive is “just be yourself.” We forget how hard that can be! When we live as our true selves are mocked or teased or rejected for it, it can be quite painful. We hide behind masks in order to protect ourselves from that kind of a rejection. We rarely show our true selves to anyone! But if youth pastors can be comfortable in their own quirky skins, if youth workers can model how to be their true selves, it provides for our students a way to understand how they too can be their own God-designed selves. This requires a degree of vulnerability and emotional risk that most people are not comfortable with but can unleash oneself to take great risks and do great things.
  3. It can show students how to handle their sin. Sin can so easily lead to shame, which cuts at our identity. When we sin, we don’t just say, “I sinned” we say “I am a sinner.” But Jesus died so we don’t have to say “I am a sinner!” Jesus died so our shame would die with him. When shame takes over it makes us think that because we ourselves are bad, we have no hope of ever changing. But, when we can learn to turn shame-statements into guilt-statements, when we can still say “I am redeemed!” in the face of sin and limit it to “I sinned,” we are able to remember and receive God’s grace, remember our identity as his redeemed child, and deal with the sin from a place of hope. Modeling this to our students in an appropriate fashion is essential to helping them trust in God’s forgiveness and grace.
  4. It can help them dare. It takes daring to reach out to social rejects at school to show God’s love to them. It takes daring to share one’s faith with a friend. It takes daring to go on a missions trip. The more comfort with vulnerability, the more resilient to shame and the more comfortable with failure we become. Therefore, we are willing to risk because we have the tools to overcome potential failure. We need to help kids become resilient to shame and comfortable with failures as life lessons to be learned in order to help them dare for God’s Kingdom.
  5. It helps faith go from a mask that can be easily removed from a kid’s identity to core to their being. Sticky Faith talks a lot about how students never really make faith central to their person, and it is likened to a sweater that can be easily taken off when social situations warrant. When someone is comfortable with risk and vulnerability in regards to their faith, it goes from being a sweater to being their underwear, something they really can’t take off.They aren’t going to care about trying to fit in with a crowd that won’t accept them because of their faith, they are going to be comfortable being a Christian in an environment that may not appreciate or approve of that. It will help them navigate that tricky time when they first start out on their own without compromising their faith or their values.

My hunch is this is just scratching the surface of the positive impact a youth ministry designed towards helping students be vulnerable and geared towards helping them be shame-resilient and take risks in order to be the person God created them to be. Youth ministry should be about these things, about helping a student know who they are, be comfortable with it, and willing to risk living into their God-given identities. We should be equipping them with the emotional tools they will need in order to overcome rejection and shame. We need to focus on normalizing vulnerability so they can understand and appreciate that they are still a person in process, that they are still becoming. Youth workers can model this, teach it, and live it out in front of their students. They can help parents unlock the power of vulnerability in their homes. They can create a safe environment for kids to be willing to risk being who they are.

P.S. I am indebted to Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly for much of the thoughts on vulnerability and shame in this post. I highly recommend reading that book, even if it means not having time to read any of my future posts 🙂

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