On the classic 1970's TV sit-com Happy Days, Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard) was a clean cut, all-American boy living in the late 1950s and early 60s. He never used any language that would be considered "foul" by our standards today. But when he would get angry, he would call someone a "Bucko." As in, "Listen, Bucko- you can't talk like that to my girl!" There was a girl in my very first youth group- Glenna Osborne- who used to call me a Bucko all the time. In fact, when I moved on from that church they made me a wooden sign (Remember wood-burning kits? Probably not...), honoring me with the first and only Bucko Award.
I have kept this silly thing all of these years because I found it to be hilarious- and more than a little accurate. I was an 18 year old college sophomore when I started with that group and had no idea what I was doing. My efforts were often futile and we didn't accomplish much- except for growing together and loving each other in Jesus' name. But the important part of the award is the last line- "Thanks for being someone we can look up to and laugh at!!!!" Therein lies today's archaeological dig.
I read a blog this past week that very proudly pointed out the the United Methodist Church quit using the abbreviation UMYF (United Methodist Youth Fellowship) for their student ministries a number of years ago. They discontinued the "F." They felt like "fellowship" sounded a little too light and fluffy for the way they wanted their youth ministries to be seen. It sounded too much like pizza parties, beach trips and lock-ins. Well in the words of my old Quaker Lake Camp buddy Michael McGuinn, "Puhhhleeeeesssseee!!!" Someone really decided that too much fellowship is the issue in student ministry? Someone really believes that too much fellowship is the reason teenagers leave the church after graduation and never come back? As I warned my Twitter followers on Tuesday night, I feel a rant coming on...
I am not sure where I first heard it, but someone once said, "Show me a youth pastor with no sense of humor, and I'll show you an empty youth room." I'll go a step farther- show me a youth pastor who can't laugh at her/himself and I'll show you someone who is not being authentic. They are on their way to becoming a Pharisee. It's like someone decided there is an 11th commandment that states, "Christians shalt not haveth funeth"- or something like that! Certainly we need to take seriously the things Jesus taught. Certainly we need to be serious about loving one another and serving "the least of these." Certainly we need to think seriously about the condition of our soul and our eternal salvation. But when did it become some sort of bizarre doctrine to take ourselves so seriously? It is my belief ( and I can say this because I have lived it) that far too many of us who work with youth seek to fool them into believing we are more "together" than we actually are. We are all Buckos- we are all sinners. Students don't need false perfect examples- they need authentic women and men of God who acknowledge their failures and know how to laugh at themselves. How can we possibly teach them about grace if we keep pretending we don't need it?
Which beings us back to fellowship (For a definition, read Acts 2:42. And yes, I know I sound like a broken record!~). A youth pastor friend responded to my tweet about fellowship the other night by saying that some people he knew seemed to want to count "just hanging out" with students as part of their ministry. He wasn't certain that it is a legitimate ministry. OF COURSE IT IS! Fellowship, hanging out, sharing one another's stories, creating a shared history- all of these things build the kind of Christian community that allow us to do great things in Jesus' name. What do you think Jesus and the disciples did during the hours that are not chronicled in the Gospels? They went fishing, sat around the campfire and ordered unleavened bread with tomato sauce from Papa Joseph's. They hung out! Had they not spent 3 years building bonds of friendship and trust, do you really think that group of ragamuffins would have been ready to turn the world upside down after Jesus ascended? Would the early church have spread like wildfire without a commitment to sharing life together? And I have to think that included in all of that time of fellowship was the ability to laugh with and at one another. I can't imagine that they didn't give Thomas a hard time every time he said, "I doubt it." I can't believe they didn't give Peter "the business" every time a rooster crowed. Ted & Lee used to do this great scene from their show Fisheyes in which Peter and Andrew are lamenting how confusing Jesus could be, whether in his parables, his affection for random questions, or his doodling in the dirt. It was hysterical to think about. They laughed at themselves for not getting it- and we should be able to do the same. Because the LORD knows there are plenty of times when we don't get it...
Everyone who does ministry must make prayerful decisions about what God is leading them to do in their specific situation. I just know that looking back on 28 years (1978-2007) of youth ministry and hearing almost daily from former students (in part because of this blog) that there is nothing we did - not mission trips, not worship services, not bible studies, not anything- that has had a more lasting impact on their lives than the fellowship and laughter we shared together in Jesus' name. I'm proud I was a Bucko for all of those years. I'm glad I was someone they could look up to and laugh at. Will your students remember you in 10 years because you could plan great events & teach a great class, or because you loved them enough (1 Thessalonians 2:8) to share life - authentic, failure-filled, laughter filled life- with them? It's a question worth asking. This isn't military intelligence. "Fellowship" and "Ministry" are not mutually exclusive... (That's a joke. If you didn't get it, try reading this post one more time... :D) Now go hang out with some people and start changing the world. In case you haven't heard, it's time for a Jesus Revolution!
Because of Jesus,