Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Flashback: Old School Youth Ministry

I read a blog post this week that stressed the idea that using youth ministry as a stepping stone to "real ministry" was a dangerous idea.  I couldn't help but laugh a little bit, because I remember well having discussions about that same issue with friends- in 1978!  It is tempting to say that student ministry never changes.  But as you can read below in this vintage post, that is is just not true...

Most of you know (because it says so right at the top of this blog) that I spent 28 years in youth ministry. For the vast majority of the years from 1978-2007 I worked for churches and church organizations. I witnessed a lot of growth and a lot of changes during those years. I was a part of one of the first generations of career youth pastors. Up until the late 1970's, youth work was something you did on your way to something else.  Can you believe that once upon a time people thought the only difference between being a youth pastor and being a senior pastor was age?  Most full-time youth leaders were hired as Associate Pastors or Directors of Christian Education and then thrown to the wolves, regardless of their gifts.  I was around when pretty much the only resources for youth leaders were the Ideas Books.  I was there when youth groups were after-thoughts for most churches, with no budgets and no staff.  I witnessed youth ministry become a priority in many churches, with all kinds of money thrown at the ministry. With one move in 1994 I went from a $800 budget to a $12,000 budget- for almost the same number of youth!  I worked at one church for $50 per month and did not get paid during the summer, because in those early days most student ministries shut down for those months. During those years I worked at a summer camp.  I served as the regional youth ministry resource person and event planner for Quakers in New England in 1985-86, serving over 80 churches, and was paid $14,000 for the year. In 2000 I took a position at a church in Illinois that paid me over $70,000 for doing less work than any other position I have ever held.  And now I am seeing churches cut staff and budgets as the economy impacts ministry.  At least 2 of the positions I once held no longer exist.  We have come full circle.

When I started there were no cell phones,  VCRs,  PCs, cable TV and no copiers (remember mimeograph machines and making newsletters with clip art and rub on letters?).  We did have overhead projectors, CB radios, reel-to-reel movies and film strips.  The only CCM artists I had ever heard of were Amy Grant, Keith Green, Larry Norman and some lady named Evie.  Kids had yet to "want their MTV."  A Praise Band was called a guitar.  I watched as the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention went from a once a year conference with about 600 in attendance to a multiple city event with many thousands of participants.  In those days Doug Fields was just a guy in Jim Burns' youth group, and quite frankly none of us really knew what we were doing.  Later on, we would elevate some of our peers to celebrity status and look to them for methods and models.  When I started, GROUP was a magazine for the students in your youth group- and that was all.  There were no work camps and no magazine for leaders- just a long-since extinct event for students called the National Christian Youth Congress.  I know you are rolling your eyes and thinking this is all ancient history and that everything has changed since those days.  You probably think we had the first SHO-Time at the Brontosaurus Burger with Fred and Barney. There is no truth to the rumor that Moses was in my first youth group- although Duffy Robbins once told a seminar I had been his youth pastor- way back when Duffy had hair!  He also told them I had been his mother's youth pastor.  You get the point- I have seen a lot.  And sometimes I think we have been too quick to discount our own history.

Lots of the changes have made student ministry much better and helped us have a greater impact in the lives of the youth we serve.  There are under-graduate and post-graduate degrees in youth ministry.  Far more women are serving as youth pastors.  We have learned to use technology in many brilliant ways.  We have created new and better resources and become more focused on ministry, mission and worship.  There are now more conferences for youth pastors than there are youth pastors with soul patches. We have involved more adults in the lives of students.  But sometimes I think we have been guilty of changing simply for the sake of change.  As I wrote here yesterday, new is not always better.  We have bought into new ideas without prayerfully considering their full impact; we have been guilty of being trendy. Let's face it; when we decided it was a good idea to sell youth ministry franchises to churches we may have jumped the shark (or to use the more modern  phrase, "nuked the fridge").  In my humble opinion we have too often chosen program and style over relationships.  By choosing theology over Jesus, we have often paid too much attention to teaching students the answers and not enough to helping them ask the questions.  We have tried to model everything after mega-groups, when in fact the average church youth group reaches about 10 students. And we have, on occasion, sacrificed what is best for teenagers to appease their parents.  I realize in some ways I have no right to say these things. I am no longer a youth pastor; I lost that great privilege in 2007.  But I still have a heart for it and a calling to it.  I have a 17 year old son, and seeing how he and his friends are being ministered to (or in many cases, not) gives me cause for prayer and reflection.  If this post sounds like I am preaching, it is because I am!  Nothing brings out the passion in me more than talking about Jesus and student ministry.  And part of that is remembering the past- both the mistakes (of which there were many) and the lessons learned that can help us be more effective today.  A very wise man (although I don't know who) once said, "History wouldn't have to repeat itself so often if someone would just listen the first time."  Youth ministry, like most other things, has a history that can and should influence the way we do things today.  Ignore it at your own peril.

Because of Jesus,

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