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Not the Greatest Show on Earth: Why Youth Ministry Shouldn’t Be a Performance Art

  • Walt Mueller
  • 2011 14 Apr
Not the Greatest Show on Earth: Why Youth Ministry Shouldn’t Be a Performance Art

The truth is I was jealous. I was convinced there was no way I could compete. Even worse, I believed there was a competition.

I was a young youth worker doing ministry in a suburban church during the 1980s, a decade marked by excess and greed. I realize now that I had allowed myself to be swept up into the cultural frenzy where even in the world of youth ministry, bigger was always better. The fact that I was standing in a neighboring church's sparkling new youth building—complete with gymnasium!—made our youth ministry seem small, insignificant and suddenly not so good.

I wish I could say the days of believing that bigger is better in the world of youth ministry are long gone, but they aren't. My travels now take me to a variety of churches large and small. Depending on where I find myself, I am taken on a facility tour with narration punctuated either with great pride or great lament.

At the larger cutting-edge churches, I stand in wonder and awe as proud youth workers show me youth facilities that combine Starbucks ambiance and Dave and Buster's fun with the theatrical environment and technology of the "Saturday Night Live" set. During many of those tours, I thank the Lord that I'm no longer my 80s youth ministry self. If I were, the envy would kill me.

At the smaller, more traditional and budget-limited churches, my tour guides are usually apologetic as they grieve the fact that they just can't measure up to the big church in town. Cutting-edge for them is using a beat-up VCR to show a movie to a youth group made up of seven or eight kids who jockey for position on a pair of rust colored, cast-off couches that no longer have legs.

OK. These are stereotypes, but you get the point.

On with the Show?
Sadly, those of us who do youth ministry sometimes have morphed into pursuing our high calling in not so admirable ways. Even sadder is the fact that we don't even know it's happened.

Perhaps it's because we're too busy doing stuff for God that we've lost our ability to slow down and let God tell us who we're supposed to be and how we're to do what we've been called to do. Is it possible that in an effort to do great good for God, we actually are doing something horribly bad? I've also wondered if in our efforts to promote and further the kingdom of God, we actually might be keeping kids from going deep in the things of the kingdom.

Sure, cutting-edge sound, computerized lighting and a couple of nice smoke machines help get kids in the door. They are all great ministry tools, but do they facilitate a deep and lasting faith? I don't think any of us would answer yes to that question. Yet our growing fascination with and dependence on that stuff might be evidence of an unconscious nod in the affirmative. Could it be that we're nurturing kids into a spectator faith that won't be (and shouldn't be) the least bit compelling when boredom sets in (the novel always gets outdated) or the power grid goes down?

I recently talked to a friend who got to speak to students at one of those cutting-edge places. Their technology was so advanced that he had to visit the venue a couple of days early so their three—yes, three!—tech guys could make sure his computer would mesh and function with their system, which by the way, was set up in a huge and extremely impressive room. Two days later, everything ran with seamless precision as he was projected and amplified to a room partially filled with 45 high school kids.

I've been in settings such as that myself, where being tethered to the latest and greatest technology impedes the relational intimacy that could and should be, replacing it with the feel of a major performance. While my friend's hosts should be commended for their commitment to doing these things with professionalism and excellence, I sometimes wonder if excellence with ministry props and performance leads to the medium being the attraction rather the message.

Maybe, as Marshall McCluhan once wrote, we're making the medium the message…and we aren't even aware that it's happening.

My friend also told me about how the state-of-the-art room was being used regularly. His hosts explained that on any given weekend, there are three times when the church congregation gathers. Every time gathered on the campus, the adults go to the main service while the teenagers worship in this place that's all their own.
Twenty-five years ago, my younger self would have embraced the opportunity to rescue my students from the boredom of "big church," if I had a trendy place for them to gather with their peers for a relevant worship experience all their own. After all, the older folks didn't understand kids and how to minister to them. I easily could have administered the antidote to boredom simply by giving them what they wanted. I have to admit, there were many times during those years when that was the criteria for my ministry decisions.

Crowds or the Cross?
Age, numerous mistakes of my own, a few years of watching a changing youth culture and the effect it's having on kids, and what I hope is a deeper understanding of God's heart for the church as found in Scripture have turned me around.

In fact, I've gone from celebrating when large numbers of kids are drawn to the church to wondering if we've done a good job of getting them to the church building…but not to a deep understanding of the life-altering message of the cross.

It's ironic that one of the marks of today's emerging generation is a deep need for community and connectedness, yet we plan and program in ways that cut them off from experiencing community and connectedness with people who aren't their age. It's also ironic that while we say we want to see our kids embrace Jesus and mature into a deep faith that's integrated into all of life, we separate them from the wisest and most seasoned members of the body. Not only that, but we cloister them together with their peers in a trendy room designed to draw and keep them, which actually might promote the irrelevance of anything in the church that exists outside of that room.

This is tragic because it also isolates them from the people who populate "big church"—the very people who God has gifted students with to influence and support them in the context of community in ways that lead to deep maturity. What we've done is extend Chap Clark's "systemic abandonment" into the very system that should be caring the most for our students!

Have you ever wondered what youth ministry as it's being done today will look like with 10 or 20 more years under our belts? I wonder if history will remember these youth ministry years as a time when we did just about everything with tremendous excellence except for leading kids to Jesus, building their faith and integrating them into the larger body of Christ.

That would be a tremendous shame because, after all, that's at the crux of who we are as youth workers and what we've been called to do. Here's the good news: Pulling that off doesn't require money, electricity, fancy technology or big rooms. Instead, it requires a handful of people who love Jesus, love kids and love to show and tell the greatest story—the story about the redemption of our broken world.

Why then, I wonder, do we make it all so complex?