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Why Ask Why? Beyond the Unexamined Youth Ministry

  • Dave Sanders Assistant Professor, Department of Youth Ministry/Adolescent Studies and Applied Christian Ministries, Judson University; Ordained Pastor, Evangelical Church Alliance; Degrees from Virginia Tech and Fuller Theological Seminary.
  • Updated Mar 23, 2011
Why Ask Why? Beyond the Unexamined Youth Ministry

Six years ago when I attended one of the major national youth worker conventions, I was scarred for life.

I wasn't physically scarred, but I found myself emotionally and spiritually marked in a way that changed me rather dramatically. In time, this scar became one of those good scars that represents a successful surgery and subsequent healing. Let me explain.

I had returned to America after 11 years of youth ministry on 22 military bases in Europe, including a leadership role in Germany with Club Beyond (a joint venture of Young Life and Youth for Christ). I had been systematically removed from American consumerism and marketing practices during those years.

Then as a professor of youth ministry at Judson University in Illinois, I became a victim of transition trauma and severe reverse culture shock. It was in this condition that I attended the youth ministry convention with several enthusiastic students in tow.

We entered the expansive exhibition hall, and I was immediately overwhelmed. After strolling down one aisle (of 15 in the exhibitor area), I informed my students that I had to leave the area due to sensory overload and severe disequilibrium from too many iPod offers, lights flashing, music cranking, candy tossing, balsawood airplanes looping and T-shirt slogans!

The next day, I ventured back into the exhibit hall, this time with the specific purpose of chatting with the many folks promoting short-term mission trips. Wandering around, striking up conversations, I continually heard what they could do for my youth group. When I asked them their reason for doing mission trips, the answers seemed almost scripted—"The Great Commission!" Gently inquiring what that meant, I asked if they made disciples or baptized on their trips. I got mostly a blank stare or polite no.

Asking How or Why?
My scarring experience that weekend burned a deep question into my heart, ministry, teaching and practice. That question is, "Why?"

When the consumer-driven, marketing culture drives us headlong into buying (literally) the "How?" of youth work, we are in profound risk of disconnecting ourselves and our ministries from the deeper, formative question of "Why?" When we don't ask "Why?" we are doomed merely to imitate ministry models rather than remain connected and driven by solid theological principles. Imitation eventually fails because it lacks passion and purpose. It also lacks personal commitment to the hard work of developing reasons for ministry. Buying someone else's model only works for a season.

I attended the same convention in 2010. I stopped at a booth where a woman literally was staring into space from exhaustion. Catching her attention, I struck up a relaxed conversation and asked her about her organization's purpose.

Then I asked her, "Why does your organization do what it does?"

After a long pause, she responded, "No one has ever asked me that question." She didn't really answer me. I was stunned! Apparently she never had asked herself that question either. Many of us haven't.

A great teacher named Socrates is credited with saying, "The unexamined life is not worth living." In youth work, I would say that an unexamined ministry is not worth doing.

That's the reason I continually ask my students, "Why?" It creates an opportunity for them to respond thoughtfully to the Holy Spirit's promptings and the unique cultural expressions of the kids with whom we are called to journey.

Asking, "Why?" leads us into some basic theological and philosophical orientations that most often will change how we conduct ministry. I believe it will change us as youth workers, and that will transform our youth ministries.

Take it from a person with scars—it's time we all welcomed some purposeful examination of our ministries by asking, "Why?"