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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 🙂
Piper Jaffray recently posted its semi-annual study of teen market research. Amidst all the stuff that I am completely incapable of understanding, is an interesting survey on the preferred social media sites of teenagers.
As you can see from this chart, the number of teens who consider Facebook their most important social media site has dropped from 42% a year ago to 23% today. Twitter is now the most important social media site to the most teenagers, with 30% of teens choosing it in the Spring, but down to 26% this Fall. Instagram has jumped from 12% to 23%. Google + was, predictably, dead on arrival, and Tumblr takes about 4%, which is a little surprising to me.
But only that is surprising (to me, at least)*. With more and more of their parents and grandparents on, Facebook has lost its cool factor as an online teen hangout. Teens want to share their thoughts and pictures with their friends, not their parents or grandparents or friends’ parents. With all these adults whining about politics or sharing pictures of their babies or sharing memes that they don’t really understand, teens have migrated from Facebook to other social media sites.
From my subjective experience as a youth pastor, I can attest to this. Fewer and fewer of my students respond to our youth group Facebook page and it is no longer a reliable way for me to get information to them. Most of my students have an Instagram account and more and more of them are on Twitter. (Which, honestly, has ruined Twitter. I’m on Twitter to get news, sports news, and to make witty comments about things I see on TV or about life in general. Oh, and the latest theological controversy. Those are fun. I am NOT on Twitter to see teens constantly subtweeting each other and re-tweeting @CommonWhiteGrl into my Twitter feed.)
Also, Facebook is increasingly terrible. I have no idea how my News Feed works anymore and all the changes they have made have on the whole made the product worse. Their advertising integration has become increasingly annoying and is not nearly as smooth as Twitter’s.
So, the rise in popularity of Twitter or Instagram does not surprise me. What is most fascinating to me is the growth of “Other.” It went from 2% a year ago to 17% today. What I want to know is what is “Other?” Is it Vine? Is it Snapchat? How does that 17% break out?
My guess is teen’s are frequently more drawn to social media that isn’t really for public consumption, but more just between a select group of friends. With more and more of them using smart phones, apps like Snapchat and text messaging are a convenient way for students to connect without fear that their mom or dad are going to see what they are doing.
So kids, what would you consider your most important social media site or app? How often do you use it?
*edited from earlier to fix some truly terrible writing.
Sometimes I get a little jealous of cops or firemen or doctors or, I don’t know, anyone with any job other than mine. They get to see their profession portrayed in books and movies and on television.
Sure, there are many ministers in fiction. Most of them are charlatans or frauds or egomaniacs. Or Catholic. There are very few youth pastors in books or movies or TV shows. And, I’m sure if there were some out there (and if there are, let me know (my knowledge of fiction and pop culture is, unfortunately, not exhaustive)), they would be portrayed poorly.
However, there are many adults in fiction that do actually work with youth, and seeing as how these are as close as I will get to examples of youth pastors, I will explore their characters in an effort to discuss my own calling. The purpose of this series is to find traits and characteristics that make great youth workers and to explore ways these characters might help me in my own ministry and other youth workers in theirs. While the analogies will not be perfect for reasons that should be obvious, I think the endeavor to be worthwhile.
Our first youth worker is Eric Taylor of television’s Friday Night Lights.
On his last night with his disciples, Jesus did something that would, quite frankly, make me very uncomfortable. He got out a bucket, some wash cloths, and decided to wash his disciples’ feet.
This would make me uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. One, I hate feet, in general and my own. I think they are gross. I don’t even like to touch my own feet, let alone have someone else touch them. So, there’s that.
Two, washing my feet is something that I am perfectly comfortable doing on my own. Yes, I know that it was common in that culture to have some lowly servant wash the feet of the guests who had just arrived for dinner. I think this is a part of that culture I would have no problem rejecting.
I would wash my own feet. It doesn’t take long. I could do it just the way I want. And, it would be 100% less awkward.
I think that’s a part of the reason why Jesus insisted on washing his disciples’ feet.
Serving people can be awkward and uncomfortable. For both sides involved.
For the one doing the washing, it’s an act of humility. You are washing someone’s ugly, dirty, disgusting feet with your own hands. You don’t know where those feet have been and what they have stepped in. All you know is that someone has dirty feet, and it’s your job to wash them.
And this is usually the way we read that passage (John 13, for those scoring at home). We read it through the eyes of Jesus, and we should, since he did tell us to do likewise for each other. We read it as our duty to go out and serve others, no matter how humbling that may be. And that’s what my students did on their mission trip to Sanford, Maine last week.
We partnered with our fellow Covenant church, Evergreen Covenant for a week of service in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the town. Our students saw the poverty first hand when we walked around the neighborhood to invite kids to our afternoon activity camp in the park. They saw rusted out cars, screen doors hanging from one hinge, garbage piled up on screened-in porches, and kids with no change of clothes. We pulled weeds, mulched, cleaned up a food pantry, pulled more weeds, played tons and tons of games with the kids, did crafts with them, and then pulled more weeds. We passed out food to seniors in needs. We revitalized a community garden, and cleaned up the flower beds outside the elementary school. We helped fix up a playground at an early education center. We showed love to little kids, many who live in broken homes. And then we pulled more weeds.
All this was done to wash the feet of the people of Sanford. All this was done to emulate Jesus in his service of disciples, and, ultimately, the whole world.
But, on this trip, for the first time, I read this story through the eyes of Peter.
It was Peter who objected to Jesus washing his feet. Perhaps he has the same hang up about feet that I do. It’s possible. You certainly can’t prove me wrong.
But I think he objected because to let someone wash your feet is an admission that your feet are dirty. And to let someone serve you is an admission that you need to be served. And this is where it gets uncomfortable.
Often times, for me, pride gets in the way of letting people help me. I don’t want people to wash my feet. It’s an admission that I am broken and need help, that I am not self-sufficient and that I do not have all the resources to make my life work.
And the people we helped this week, I imagine, could have had a similar reaction. The parents who dropped their kids off at our camp could have been reminded that they couldn’t afford to send their kids to the Parks & Rec camp meeting at the same park. The missionary we helped could have been reminded that she is getting older and can’t keep up with her yard work anymore. The community leader responsible for the garden we tended could have been reminded that she lacks the help, energy, and resources to maintain the community garden. The seniors we packed food for could have been reminded that they can’t just go to Shaw’s or Hannaford and buy the groceries that they need. The principal of the school we helped could have been reminded of her lack of resources.
Being served is not exactly dignifying. It can be an awkward reminder that you don’t have all your stuff together.
So that could be why Peter objected. That and the fact that someone as great as Jesus was lowering himself to wash even Peter’s feet could have set him off. The conversation went like this:
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
Jesus tells Peter that he needs to be washed, and that he is the one to do it and he pretty much needs to get over himself. Peter hears this, and, of course, learns the wrong lesson and says this:
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
I actually relate to Peter here. He hears that his feet need washing and assumes it means his whole body needs washing. He thinks that he is totally broken and in need of total repair. He thinks he is all dirty and all of him needs washing. But Jesus responds this way:
10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
Jesus tells Peter that he does not need to be completely washed since he already bathed. It’s only his feet that were dirty. He is not totally dirty, just his feet.
The people we served were not totally dirty. They just needed to have their feet washed.
The kids we served were perfectly normal kids; they just needed a safe place to play during 5 summer afternoons. Their parents love their kids and are doing their best; they just needed a place to send their kids for free. The school we helped isn’t a lost cause by miles; they just needed extra help around the outside of their building. The missionary we helped is going to Thailand to minister in prison later this year; she just needed some extra muscle to care for her overgrown yard.
These people aren’t totally dirty. They just needed their feet washed. So we did.
We weren’t totally changing their lives. We weren’t rescuing them from systemic poverty. We weren’t fixing all of their brokenness. We were just loving them in a way that they needed to be love and in a way in which we could love them.
They had a small need. And we did whatever we could to fill that need. That’s all.
And that’s all it should be. We all need to realize that we all, at some point, will need to have our feet washed by someone. And it’s not an admission of failure, or of total brokenness, to let someone was them.
My wife is basically on bed rest. She has had a terrible pregnancy, and a lot of the things she would normally be able to do have fallen on me. It’s been hard for me to keep up with all the housework and yard work and take care of our two year old daughter. Still, like the stubborn man I am, I have soldiered on thinking I can do it myself.
Then people from church started bringing meals. And then they started mowing my lawn for me. It’s hard for a man to let someone else mow his lawn for him, but there I was, letting someone mow my lawn for me. It was hard to swallow my pride and allow this to happen, but then I remembered this story, and remembered that I’m not a total failure. I just need a little help in a trying time. So I let them help me. I let them wash my feet.
When we serve, we need to remember that we are not washing someone’s entire body. We are just washing their feet. We need to treat them with dignity, respect, and understand that they are most likely doing all they can with what they have. When we are served, we need to remember that it doesn’t mean we are totally damaged or broken. It means we just need a little help. And that’s OK.
As a postscript, please allow me to brag on my students a little bit. They were flexible when plans changed and brought a great attitude to every project we were given. They left it all on the field without complaint, and I love them for it. (I love them anyway but this past week gave me extra reasons to do so). I was truly blessed by them and by the other adults who helped lead this trip.