March 13th, 2017

This is part 2 of a post from Leta Williams sharing how to take practices from anthropology to help you adapt to a community different than your own. You can read Part 1 here.

The youth minister ought to be fully present in their context.

“He must live as far as possible in their villages and camps, where he is, again as far as possible, physically and morally part of the community.”

Youth ministry 101 demonstrates that we need to have “our own life” apart from the youth ministry to prevent burnout – and this is still true. It is important that you maintain your identity as parent, spouse, friend and lover of life, so in this respect, youth ministry differs a tad from anthropology. However, it is also crucial that you are fully present with your students, parents and church. Wholly align with the mission and vision of your church’s ministry. Your ministry shouldn’t happen at the expense of your own personal convictions, but it shouldn’t revolve around them. The Christian community may not be in the same place that you are as an individual, but we are still commissioned to lead the flock. In order to lead with wisdom, we must walk “within sight and sound” of our ministry and never go far enough to leave someone behind. In short: If you’re going to do youth ministry, fully invest in the work you’ve been called to do.

The youth minister should not fear being dependent on their church.

“What is perhaps even more important for the anthropologist’s work is the fact that he is all alone, cut off from the companionship of men of his own race and culture, and is dependent on the natives around him for company, friendship and human understanding.”

One of the most challenging and beautiful times in my rural west Tennessee ministry was when I stayed down here for Christmas. Things were rather turbulent with my family in New York, and I made the decision to only go up for Thanksgiving. I had to depend on the families in the congregation and trust that the celebration of Christ’s birth would be held in common for each of us despite our differences. Although I had to reconcile with a few starkly different traditions, not many youth leaders can say that they had the privilege of spending Christmas day with some of their students!

I pray that you will always find belonging in the place you call home with the people you hold closest. But if you find yourself caught in the thick of the place you are at and you can’t manage to touch base, know that you are allowed to have a healthy level of vulnerability with the community of believers around you. Christ often calls us to rely on the many parts of the body, even (and sometimes especially) from leadership positions.

The youth minister must be attentive to all forms of communication – even language.

“I may add that, as every experienced fieldworker knows, the most difficult task in anthropological fieldwork is to determine the meanings of a few key words, upon which the success of the whole investigation depends; and they can only be determined by the anthropologist himself learning to use the words correctly in his converse with the natives.”

There’s a secret that northerners don’t want out in the open: “Y’all” is a fairly practical contraction. It’s gender-inclusive, and only one syllable! For a long time, I made it a point to say “you guys” when referring to my students because I wanted them to experience cultural nuances without having to take an expensive and faraway mission trip. When we get caught up in semantics at the expense of simply communicating what is on our heart, we are robbing students of God-bearing cultural exchange by catering to our own desires. When I said “y’all” for the first time in youth group, the students celebrated – not out of pride, but for the sake of me belonging in their world. In all manners, but especially language, let’s put our pride to the side and communicate the love of the Lord through all possible means.

The youth minister must continuously seek to understand the people around them.

“Finally, the anthropologist must study the whole of the social life.  It is impossible to understand clearly and comprehensively any part of a people’s social life except in the full context of their social life as a whole. “

I fully understand the desire to bring about change, and I understand that you may be clinging strongly to the people and places where you find belonging. Understand that the same conviction with which you love your “tribe” is the same for the people in the place that you’ve found yourself. Systems of Christian community and belonging are complicated, especially in the structure of church ministry. But we must remember that we are pursuing a call to love students, parents and people in general whom God loves beyond measure. And of course, God feels the same way about you.

So why not join in with the natives?

Leta Williams is a graduate resident through the Center for Youth Ministry Training and serves as youth director at Troy United Methodist Church in Troy, Tennessee. You can find her on TWITTER and INSTAGRAM @lovenotknownot or EMAIL.


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