Bless Your Heart, I’m Walkin’ Here!: When You Dont Match the People Around You (Part 1)

March 7th, 2017

 “As I hacked off the brushes strewn around me, I peered through to the opening to find a strange people, jumping around, wearing bizarre garments, and chanting anomalies. I emerged from the security of the jungle, wary of their initial reaction…”

There are two ways you might read this account. One reading might imagine an anthropologist happening upon a foreign tribe in the deep recesses of the jungle. The second reading might correlate strongly with the time your youth council welcomed you with a toilet paper dousing of your office.

As a New York born-and-raised single girl in her twenties, I never imagined that I would be serving at a local church in a rural west Tennessee town whose population was less than my already-small private undergraduate institution. Over the years that I have served in the small-town southern context, I have kicked and screamed through the ways God wholly changed my ministry approach.

I came with the idea that I would enlighten those around me, but it is only in them enlightening me that I have truly answered God’s call.[1]

Perhaps God has led you to a place where you do not match the people around you, and the shock of a new culture has overwhelmed you. You are embarking on a calling that necessitates bold and courageous faith, and I applaud you for stepping out of your comfort zone. Before you step back into the trenches, let’s explore how the anthropologist does good and effective field work and explore how this might shape the way we do good youth ministry. We will do so by taking tips directly from the rules of fieldwork for social anthropology and re-meaning it for the youth minister,[2] who is an anthropologist of sorts in their own unique way…

Youth ministers must seek to talk with, walk with, and learn their students’ lives.

“The anthropologist… must throughout be in close contact with the people among whom he is working,he must communicate with them solely through their own language, and he must study their entire culture and social life.”

Here is the hardest news of all: As you explore your identity in a new and different place, Christ must ultimately define it – not your culture. If you enter into your ministry with the idea that you are going to enlighten everyone else with your human perspective, you set yourself up for failure.

[bctt tweet=”Good youth ministry involves far more listening and learning than proclamation and preaching.” username=”ys_scoop”]

Jesus was both fully God and fully human, but the latter never came at the expense of someone else’s humanity. There is more than enough room for you to express your unique gifts and passions, but you should never think of yourself as the “superior standard” to everyone around you.

Learning about the students and congregation will take plenty of time.

“The earlier professional anthropologists were always in a great hurry… Survey research of this kind can be a useful preliminary to intensive studies and elementary ethnological classifications can be derived from it, but it is of little value for an understanding of social life.”

There are several numbers that have been called out as the average tenure for youth leaders, ranging from six months to three years. In any case, the average youth minister is typically not in town for long. Although the reasons for leaving will vary, I can assure you that time is one of the best teachers in youth ministry. If you feel so different from the people around you that you want to b-line out of your position, I encourage you to respond in the most courageous way possible: stay just a little bit longer.  You may feel very uncomfortable, but you will learn more about God’s movement through students by persevering one year through a strange place than in ten years through a comfortable one. (Clarification: Do NOT stay in a place where your physical, emotional, or spiritual safety is at high risk.)

The youth minister should immerse themselves in the practices of their students and families.

“The anthropologist will not produce a good account of the people he is studying unless he can put himself in a position which enables him to establish ties of intimacy with them, and to observe their daily activities from within, and not from without, their community life.”

To this day, one of my least favorite youth ministry practices in rural west Tennessee is going to the high school football games. I like football and I love teenagers, but they both take rare form as they rev their engines and throw down their trucker caps in celebration. I still don’t understand tailgating… Do you just picnic on a pickup truck? Where’s the red flannel blanket? Can I listen to the symphony instead of Blake Shelton, please? I encourage you to take your loneliest experiences and learn what makes it so sacred to the people around you. This doesn’t mean you need to paint your face and wear a foam finger, but simply listen and learn about what makes those practices so defining to the people around you. It is in these that times you will often find the common thread of Christian love that somehow unites all of humanity.

[1] See Paul’s approach in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

[2] Source for all bolded statements: Social Anthropology, by E. E. Evans-Prichard, 1951, published by Cohen & West, pp. 77-80.

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.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.