Back to the Future

October 4th, 2009

My senior pastor once semi-jokingly told me that I was running a 1950s youth group. At the time I laughed it off while simultaneously feeling slightly offended. Yet the more I've thought about it the more I've realized that not only was the comment not meant as a criticism but it highlighted a significant truth that I may have overlooked or been unwilling to acknowledge. My youth group isn't high-tech, we aren't cutting edge, and we've never held an event with the word “extreme” in it. But it feels as if we have something special and the kids respond to it. I'm not necessarily saying that we're a retro youth group, but I can't deny that we're firmly rooted within the context and content of the past.

I come from a tradition of what I consider pre-professional youth ministry. Although I've only been in youth ministry about five years, I was hired from within my church and have no official academic or seminary training. What I learned about youth ministry came from watching my dad who was my youth minister in the late '70s and early '80s. Although he went to seminary there were no programs or degrees in youth ministry then, so what he learned about youth ministry came from other people who were working with church youth groups when he was growing up in the '50s. So in many ways, what I know about youth ministry does come from a 1950s youth group.

The first time I heard Mike Yaconelli mention the fact that he never went to seminary I felt my heartbeat quicken at the awareness of a kindred spirit. There was a touch of embarrassment in his voice which I recognized from my own experience, but there was a touch of satisfaction as well. That satisfaction seemed to say, “I didn't go to any fancy schools, but I was taught by wise people who gave their lives to this and from the experience of getting in there and doing what I learned at their feet.” I've come to think of youth work like a trade or beautiful oral tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was an apprentice—learning a trade from my father and other mentors who served as guides through my own youth. We learn from those who've come before us, with each subsequent generation adding, expanding, and adapting what came before. As Doug Pagitt says in his bookReimagining Spiritual Formation, “There is one body of Christ through all time, and we are part of that body in our particular place and time. If we separate ourselves from the work of our body in previous times, we do so to our limitation and peril.”

The Good

Sometimes in our efforts to be contemporary and reach the kids we work with where they are we have a tendency to throw out all of the good things that worked for earlier generations of youth workers. Sometimes the best way to tap into this is to remember the good experiences with your own church youth group. What did you love about youth ministry that brought you to the place you are now?

When I look back at my teenage years I realize what an important part my church youth group played in my life. Although that was over 20 years ago, I easily recall the names of all the people who were part of that community. We met every Sunday evening for a time of games, Bible Study, and just hanging out with each other. My father didn't have the Youth Specialties library to help plan these gatherings, but when I look at these books now I see him all over the place. The games that my current youth group loves the most are the ones I learned in my youth group—Sardines, Quarter Slap, Upset the Fruit Basket—games my father taught me.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, most of the memories of my youth group don't involve anything overtly spiritual. I know we did Bible study and I know there were times I felt close to God, but mostly I remember being with my friends. Looking back I realize that these times of laughing, games, and hanging out were spiritual too. We were a community of Christians who cared about each other and showed Christ's love in a totally natural, caring, and giving way.

The Bad

We need to learn from the mistakes of those who've come before us too. There are things that happened when I was a teen that I want to make sure never happen within my own group. High on this list are practices of humiliation and hazing—all supposedly done in fun, but ultimately harmful and un-Christ like.

An older woman from my church once told me a story about her own youth group that I'll never forget. The youth leader dressed up in an exotic costume and told all the new members of the youth group that he was the King of Siam, and that all of them should stand before him, bow to pay respect, and say these ancient Siamese words, “Owa Tagoo Siam,” repeating them over and over getting steadily faster. Of course, what they eventually were saying, to the high merriment of the rest of the group was, “Oh what a goose I am!” The woman laughed as she told me this story but there was a slight catch in her voice, and I couldn't help but wonder how she really felt that day when she was 15 for that memory to remain with her so vividly for over 50 years.

In my own youth group the initiations often included things like moose hunting (where blindfolded victims ended up sticking their fingers in a cup of shortening that supposedly felt like a moose's butt), snipe hunting (a hunt for an animal that all by the newcomers know doesn't exist), and elaborate stunts that ended with unsuspecting students sitting on wet sponges. I can't know for sure what other people's reactions were to being the victims of these initiations. After all I was a PK (Pastor's Kid) so I knew all the tricks before I ever became part of the youth group and was sworn to secrecy so I wouldn't spoil the “fun” for the others. I do know that among my peers at the time were those who were very sensitive and shy, those who had low self-esteem, and others who just desperately wanted to fit in. Did any of those students leave the youth group after an initiation night feeling any more included or that they had experienced the love of Christ? Maybe some, but certainly others left with a shame and the memory of laughter directed at them.

My father was certainly well-intentioned. Initiation can be powerful and positive, but not when it's done at the expense of those who we're supposed to nurture, guide, and serve. Teenagers are self-conscious enough without being purposefully embarrassed and humiliated in front of their peers at the hands of people they should be able to trust.

The Ugly

I accepted Jesus when I was 6-years-old, after watching a movie about the rapture and being afraid that I would be left behind. My younger brother was 3-years-old at the time and I can remember sobbing, because he hadn't asked Jesus into his heart and I knew that he was bad and wouldn't be taken. You may think my case is a little extreme, but many young people have made a commitment to Jesus out of fear.

Mark Curtis Anderson's heartbreaking memoir Jesus Sound Explosion is about growing up as the son of a Baptist minister in the '70s and is a reminder of what was exciting and fresh about that time, but also what was kind of scary and almost drove him away from being a Christian. Anderson tells about his first experience as a junior counselor at a church camp: “My success or failure as a counselor would be judged by how many campers of mine made ‘decisions' for Christ during bedside devotion time.” Day after day, as the other counselors came forward with the number of boys who had been “saved” in their cabins, Anderson felt more and more inadequate. Finally he used James 2:19, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” He knew that talking about demons would intrigue the boys, and then went on to use stories of demons to scare them until all of the boys in his cabin decided to accept Christ.

Anderson then tells about his own experience as a camper the very next week and the camp evangelist who told the group in graphic detail about the crucifixion, then admonished them, “And he did it all for you! How dare you, how can you even think about, how can you look yourself in the mirror in the morning knowing that he went through all of this pain and suffering to save you from your sins so that you can live eternally with him in Heaven—and you still wont let him into your heart.” Of the approximately 300 youth at the meeting nearly half of them came forward. Anderson was one who didn't, but only because he'd come down earlier in the week. Instead of feeling happy for all those coming forward he felt cheated at being left out of the mass emotional experience; as he expressed it, “Timing is everything.”

The dark side of many early youth group experiences lies in the use of fear, guilt, and peer pressure as evangelism tools. When the conversion count is more important than modeling discipleship and showing the love and forgiveness of Christ, we've started to lose our way. What's so scary about Mark Curtis Anderson's story is not only that he felt compelled to “bring in the numbers” at all costs, but that he was obviously perpetuating techniques that had been used on him as well.

I don't want kids to start a relationship with Jesus out of fear or guilt or because all their friends are doing it. A relationship, any relationship, built on these things won't last. I want teens to have a relationship with Jesus that springs out of love and joy and gratitude. I want young people to want to live a life in relationship with Jesus because they can't imagine a life without him.

Looking Way Back to the Future

My life changed about four years ago when I was introduced to the ancient spiritual practice of Lectio Divina, which is Latin for “divine reading.” This prayer practice combines Scripture reading, prayer, meditation, and resting in God. Once I began this practice I found that my prayers were less monologues by me given to God and more dialogues between the two of us. About a year after I began practicing Lectio Divina I decided to try and use it with my students. We now begin every Sunday school class this way.

When we begin this prayer the energy in the room changes; even though we're still sitting among discarded Pop Tart wrappers, Styrofoam cups, smelly tennis shoes, and lumpy couches, we're suddenly in a holy place. This prayer practice has changed and deepened the spiritual life of this youth group in ways I could've never imagined. Instead of just hearing (or not hearing) the Scripture, the words of the Scripture wash over them and they're listening for the voice of God speaking to them through it. They begin each session in a holy place and the discussion and understanding of the Scripture has grown exponentially.

Other practices that we've explored include praying the labyrinth, fasting, silence, and centering prayer. I've found that these have brought an amazingly spiritual depth to our group. The thing about all of these practices is that they help young people experience God in ways they may never have before. Our world is so fast and each one of these practices from a slower time helps to slow us down as well, to give us time to experience God. The kids in my youth group are desperately in need of some rest in their lives—physical, emotional, and spiritual and these ancient practices offer avenues for this rest. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Ancient spiritual practices are ways of taking away the noise and distraction that fill our modern lives, especially those of young people, and offering a way to focus on God.

Honoring Those Who Have Come Before

As I'm writing this I'm attending the Quest Camp in Green Lake, Wisconsin with my youth group. On my morning walk today I found myself on Memory Lane, a path by the lake with memorials set up to honor those of the past. I wasn't really looking at the memorials, but one caught my eye. It read: 
“In Gratitude to 
the excellent staff of ministers
(especially Dr. Dahlberg) 
at the youth camps of the early '50s 
who were effective
in laying the foundation for our
walks with God.”

Suddenly everything came full circle. The camp that we're attending now is really an embodiment of the positive things that I've talked about here. The students get to play goofy games and have time to just hang out and build lasting friendships; they sing praise songs, worship loudly and quietly, and everyone is made to feel accepted by peers, staff, and God. The focus of the camp is purposefully on spiritual formation rather than on building up to make a decision at the end of the week. During the Bible studies and worship times the teens have been taught the ancient spiritual disciplines and are encouraged to spend time with God. When my kids leave here their relationships with Jesus are strengthened not just for a week or two, but until we return again and beyond. As I walked on Memory Lane I realized that all of these wonderful things are based on a foundation laid by youth workers here at this very camp many years ago.

As we look to the future it's important not to forget the past. We should remember and honor those who came before us and paved the way, making it much easier for those of us working in youth ministry today. Yet, paradoxically, like Paul we must also forget the past (or at least learn from it), straining toward what is ahead, trying to reach the goal for which God called us in the life above.


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