I have replaced the original text of this post with the rewritten version that was published on Matt Tapie's blog, Two Cities, in December 2005. I have changed this post because in addition to the critique against youth ministry that it was intended to raise, some felt it was an attack against a particular group of people. Thanks.
Some of my friends think I don’t like youth ministry. I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion. Sure I don’t like lock-ins (does anybody actually like lock-ins?). I don’t like babysitting. I don’t like ski trips. I’m not a big fan of shaving cream wars or even water balloon fights—I always have to clean up the water balloon shrapnel. I don’t really enjoy many contemporary Christian rock, pop, or Praise-N-Worship bands, and I like going to their concerts even less. I don’t like ski trips.
I’m not a fan of the 5 minute “devo talk” unless it is given by a teenager…those I’m usually proud of. I don’t like using acrostics unless they’re really good, and most are not! I don’t really like marshmallow object lessons. I don’t necessarily like putting together trips to Six Flags, though I do like riding the Titan. But I don’t like water parks at all. Did I mention that I don’t like ski trips?
I don’t like the “initials” language of instant messaging: rotflol…jk! I can’t stand people telling me that I have to have at least four mediums for communicating messages to teens because they don’t have the attention span for a serious conversation. And I don’t think I should look, think, talk and act like a teenager.
But what would make them think I don’t like youth ministry?
In truth, none of this stuff has anything to do with actual youth ministry. Unfortunately, many people (including some youth ministers) don’t realize that. I’ve talked a lot lately about the paradigm of youth ministry that comes from parachurch organizations and has presented itself, in many ways, as a social club or latch-key program for teens. So as someone that speaks out against this approach, I think it’s important that we discuss our theology.
Why do we need a theology of youth trips?
By necessity there are various hats that Youth Ministers must wear. Some of these hats look “religious” while others appear to be more social or administrative in nature. However, this is a false distinction. All aspects of our ministry can and do have a profound spiritual impact. Having a theology of youth trips, in part means that in our role as “program director” we must begin to dismantle the thought process that has led us to assume that attendance is the best indicator of the efficacy of trips, camps, and retreats.I know of one fairly large congregation in an urban setting which has struggled recently with the development of a healthy summer schedule. In an attempt to put together a summer calendar that is low stress and low maintenance (not necessarily a bad thing at all) they have decided to send the kids to a camp at a Christian college where they will be intentionally separated from their youth group and put in with kids from all over.
I know the folks who run this camp and think very highly of them. I understand their philosophy and appreciate the creative way they are introducing young people to new Christian friends. However, this camp is not for this group of kids. These kids are naturally fragmented because few of them even go to school in the same district. They are fragmented even more because their youth minister has left. They are isolated and this camp is going to allow them to withdraw spiritually and isolate even more.
Choosing a camp simply because it is easier on the adults is spiritually irresponsible.
While I doubt that there are many situations where the situation is that cut-and-dried (it certainly was not that simple in the situation referenced above), I believe it is true that our unspoken, unrealized, unexamined motives can endanger the health of a program in significant ways.
I’ve also known of some summer camps that exist more for the adults than the teens. These are often staffed by a group of volunteers who’ve been going out to this camp for years and years and it has become their vacation…much like a timeshare at the lake.
Tradition is great. I love the idea of taking teens to a camp that has a formative history with their congregation or family. However, often these can become a “good ole boys” club and when this happens the spiritual formation of the kids may well play second fiddle to the adults’ enjoyment.
As is true for any group or organization, a camp which forgets its purpose, regardless of how fun or popular it may be, is going to at best have a diminished formative impact.
And then there are ski trips...
Would someone please tell me how spending $600-$1500/person taking a group of over-privileged kids to a posh ski resort has anything to do with the kingdom of God? Maybe you’re from a small town with poor country kids who’ve never been farther away than grandma’s house. I know there are some groups like this. You raise the money and make sure that everyone who wants to go can, and it is a great experience. Cool. But now you’ve done it once and that makes it tradition, so you go back the next year…and the next.
Soon you’re raising $1000 per student every year. There’s no budget money to do service projects unless those projects are raising money for Colorado. Oops. Well, it’s still a bonding experience that they’ll never forget. Right?
Then there are the groups of kids in the big city that plan the trips as well. They decide not to spend their efforts on fundraisers (you know, we need to have time for things like service projects, right?). Instead they just decide that they’ll make monthly payments of $150 for 6 months leading up to the trip. It’s okay that only some kids can afford to go, because if the group gets too big it’ll make the trip more expensive and that wouldn’t be very responsible would it? So in the end it’s the kids whose parents take them to Europe in the summer and go to Aspen in the winter…on a church ski trip.
Yes, I know, that was a vicious little soap box. But the truth is that we can build community just as easily in a Habitat for Humanity project. If it’s a rare experience you’re after, serve the poor somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with doing exciting things and having a good time, but can we really look in the face of the homeless man we see while in vans on the way to the airport to go be ski bunnies for a week? Please understand that this is not intended as a guilt-trip for a trip that has a recreation purpose. It isn’t the planning of a “fun” trip that is bothersome. It is the elevation of the “fun” trip to the key position in the roster. We communicate a very specific and dangerous lesson by spending three times as much money on one self-centered adventure than on any two other experiences.
We need a theology of youth ministry because without an intentional plan we run the risk of leading unexamined lives through an unexamined ministry. Perhaps more accurately, we need an intentional theology to combat against the dangers of unintentional theologies.
Intentionality is Vital
What type of person and what type of community are we forming with our youth trips? A community that believes spirituality is an individual thing, perfectly healthy in isolation from the local church? Someone who sees church as a place for them to live out their fantasies of being in charge and getting their own way? How about a nice materialistic consumer who believes that the church exists for their entertainment?
It’s been said that “it’s a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel.” Maybe, but isn’t it an even more damaging sin to teach a child that the Gospel exists for their entertainment?I believe that our trips should be an extension of that in which we've engaged throughout the year. Each trip should be carefully chosen with an outcome in mind. Questions we must consider include things like:
What type of community are we forming with this activity?
What type of person do we want to form with this trip?
Is this trip contrary to our mission?
These questions must be asked early in the planning stage and we must have the courage to respond when we discover a beloved trip that is forming something other than a faithful disciple of Christ. This doesn't mean that there is one camp that we should all be attending - I don't have a sales pitch for the latest and greatest. The camps that may be most beneficial to the rural youth group of 20 kids - those who were in diapers together and have been in the same school together for 12 years - will not be the same events that benefit a suburban conglomeration of teens who barely know each other.Regardless of the specifics, in each situation intentionality of spiritual formation is needed. We cannot afford to be haphazard anymore. We don't have enough time with these young people and they are no longer growing up in a Christian dominated society where they'll be discipled by osmosis (if that world ever really existed).
Just the Beginning
Youth Ministry is at a crossroads. I am convicted that the Holy Spirit is calling me to a long term focus on church youth ministry. When I was dismissed from a congregation because the position of Youth Minister had been eliminated I received a wake-up call. That decision communicated something important. Those things I listed at the top of this post have been what so many churches have wanted from youth ministry - they don't even know there is an alternative. And yet many churches are realizing that these ministries aren’t producing the desired result. I pray that the Lord will raise up leaders to take responsibility for helping the church mature in its understanding of our responsibility to young people. It is way past time for us to develop an intentional theology of youth trips…and youth ministry for that matter. This is not intended to serve as the final word on the topic. Rather I hope we will begin, restart, or re-imagine this conversation in community rather than isolation and move intentionally toward spiritual maturity and Christlikeness.