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Monday, August 22, 2005

Toward a Theology of Youth Trips

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.

10 comments:

Jeff Goolsby said...

Bret,
Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Yes!!!! This is so important for our youth groups - if not the entire ministry of the church. You've hit it right on the head, and I'm so glad you're saying it. Ministry - even among teenagers - is not about entertainment but about the deep and weighty things of God. Are you the only one saying these things? You should be speaking at Lectureship, teaching youth ministry classes at the University, writings books, doing whatever it takes to get the word out. This is so important. Thank you for being brave, sticking with your convictions even if they are unpopular, and saying the hard things. Doesn't Paul warn Timothy about those who abandon sound doctrine for what their "itching ears" want to hear? Keep doing what you're doing: Preach the Word, be prepared, correct, rebuke, and encourage. Thanks for the blog!

Jeff

JaminTheBody said...

Bret,
Great thoughts.
First off, I want to extend my sympathies (sp?) to you and your family about the job situation. I had not heard about this.
I am impressed from this post, Ministry is much more than trips. In My Opinion, youth mnistry should be about allowing people to see God and experience Him.
May God Bless You.
-Jamin

Nate said...

Brett,

You want comments? I got comments!

1. Amen about the Ski Trips... the ultimate example of consumer-driven youth-obsessed western decadence in Church form.

2. Well, I gotta disagree with you on water fights... I love 'em... but then again, I don't have to clean up the shrapnel :)

3. Amen about Ski Trips...

4. About Christian music: I would say that the only type of Christian music that is done well is SOME Hymns and Praise songs, every other type of music that is "Christian" first and "Music" second- only as a propaganda tool to broadcast the proper number of "Jesuses per minute" in their song lyrics- this kind of "music" (I use the word loosely) usually stinks. With that said, there are plenty of artists- true musicians- who are Christians and serious about their art and who produce great art that truly glorifies Christ. The only problem is that most of these folks are not on "Christian" labels and will never be played on "Christian" radio.

5. Oh yeah... and Amen about Ski Trips...

6. If I was in a black full Gospel Church I would be wavin' a hankey and shouting Glory! Halleleuia! Preach it brother! At the paragraph about not having to look, act, or dress like teens, or treat them as toddlers by using 4 mediums of communication!

7. WAIT! Do you really mean to tell me that HOW we do things (i.e. youth trips) should be actually grounded in a theology of WHY we do things??? That's revolutionary! That's earth shattering! That's... common sense. So, why don't more people think like this???

8. You said that we need to "dismantle the thought process that has led us to assume that attendance is the best indicator of... efficacy". We need to decide: Are kids PERSONS, or merely PROJECTS? Are they INDIVIDUALS needing love, or INDICATORS of my own self-worth? Are they SOMEONE who needs help growing into the image of Christ, or SOMETHING that advances our career or our prestige?

9. Let me add to your statement "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". ANY organization that looses its purpose looses its ability to DO what it was meant to do. When the Church forgets that she is nothing less than Christ's Body- His hands and feet and mouth to the world- and starts to see itself as something else, cannot, by definition, function as Christ's Body anymore. It is simply impossible for a Church or any of its subgroups (in this case a youth group) to be Christ's Body when it styles itself primarily as a consumer-based corporate-model dispenser of spiritual goods, or as a country club for some "in group", or as a guardian of a certain type of ritual or tradition.

What is a camp for me? I would say that a camp is to the Body of Christ what a camp is to the physical body of a person: namely a place of exercise and re-creation. When a camp exists to be a place of physical and spiritual exercise and re-creation, then it does its job.

10. You give ski trips far too much credit when you say "its still a bonding experience that they’ll never forget". That's simply not true. It is a short term experience of mere pleasure and entertainment that nobody will care about in one year, and no body will remember in five years. I'm not down on pleasure and entertainment. God gave us pleasure for a purpose, and by all accounts Jesus was very entertaining when He taught. But mere pleasure- pleasure for pleasure's sake- entertainment for the sake of being entertained without it being part of a larger purpose- this type of activity has a very specific name in the sexual realm. It's called masturbation.

Are activities that are based around mere pleasure and entertainment anything more than social masturbation?

11. I think your "intentional" planning questions are great, but lacking an explicit communal aspect. You ask "What type of person do we want to form with this trip?" "Is this trip inherently contrary to our mission?" You need to add one more: "What type of community / family / body do we want to form with this trip?"

12. You say "they are no longer growing up in a Christian dominated society where they'll be discipled by osmosis", and then you rightly add "if that world ever really existed". Let me jump on that soapbox: If the US was a "Christian Nation" where real discipleship could be gained by "osmosis", then we would STILL be a "Christian Nation" today! Because, by definition, discipleship would have been inevitably passed on as something inherent in the DNA of US society.

But, it is abundantly clear that whatever blessings we have from democracy and the free market (and we have many), being a nation that "Love the Lord with all our heart" is NOT one of these blessings. Why? Because the US is not now, nor never has been, a "Christian Nation". Sure, we have a lot of Biblical principals sewn into the cultural and constitutional fabric of our nation, but it IS NOT the Gospel. If our forefathers and foremothers had not bought into the fake cultural Christianity of the "American Dream" and been more intentional about being "sold out to Christ" then maybe the state of the Church would not be so lousy today.

Then again, maybe it would be. Jesus said something about wheat and weeds growing together without being able to be separated. Hmmmmm...

13. I want to end with a article that was in youth specialties a couple of years ago by an acquaintance I know named Holly Rankin Zaher. She asked this at the Youth Specialties Conference (and she had to have the cajones to ask this!): Do we even need youth ministry anymore? Is youth ministry a beneficial, health producing, addition to the Body of Christ?

Here is the article:
http://www.youthspecialties.com/articles/topics/culture/need_youth_ministry_contd.php

Here is her blog:
http://happydaydeadfish.blogspot.com/

So... there. Wrestle with that! ...and have fun :)

May Christ fill your life,
Nate

Bret Wells said...

Jeff,
Thanks for reading and commenting! I hope all is well in the Goolsby household.

Thanks for the encouragement. Even though it sometimes seems as though I'm all alone out on this stinkin' limb, I'm really not. There are quite a few others who have also taken up this prophetic ministry - of course we all know what happens to prophets...

Bret Wells said...

Jamin,
Good to hear from you man - it was pretty out of the blue to randomly sit by you at the Rangers game last month!
Glad to see your in blogworld now. -bret

Matt Tapie said...

Hey Bret! I appreciate your leadership in youth ministry! God bless,
Matt

Demosthenes said...

Bret,
This is HB from Pi Kappa! Greetings to you and other Pike! My there are a lot of Pike blogging these days! Bret, if you need a job, it's really important you call me immediately. 763-226-1642. I'm sorry to hear about Skillman, but you are right, there is work to be done and if you need an opportunity, there is one wide open up here in Minnesota - the catch is that it's Minnesota, but trust me it's worth looking into. Call me and we'll talk or just email me your contact info at jerleshannara79@yahoo.com

Seth said...

Bret,
I hope that we can continue hashing through topics like this one in the future. I really appreciate your thoughtfullness about the responsibility of Christians and the Church to doing whatever we can to form those around us more into the image of Christ. Your words are hard, but right. Difficult for some to hear...but since when has the right thing been easy or the difficult thing not been worth it. I love how your passion for what youth ministry should be has broader appeal for the whole Church. Despite a wonderful summer, I still don't think I want to do youth ministry, but what you say hear needs to be heard by all who think they want to enter ministry and shoulder the yoke of committing your very job to the formation of people in Christ. Thanks!
In HIM,
Seth

sethnbeth said...

Man That freaked me out. my memory's getting bad but I didnt think there was any way I could have written all of that without remembering it at all. Different Seth. whew.

Robert said...

Bret,

I found your blog recently and have enjoyed reading it. I thought you might find Mike Cope's blog entry for today (9/20) interesting because he mentions your very concerns. Thanks for your thoughts!