Crazy for Youth

October 3rd, 2009

“Doesn’t Joe Brown work with you?” I asked the businessman.

“Yep, he’s my VP for Marketing,” he answered.

“Joe is a member of my church,” I added.

“Joe’s fairly much a fool,” he replied. “He comes up with some of the craziest ideas you’ve ever heard.”

“So why is he your vice president?” I asked.

“Because he’s the only guy I’ve got who has any ideas,” the businessman answered.

In a tight, efficient business organization, “fools” are needed—people whose courage, creativity, or craziness enables them to break free from the constraints of conventional thinking. That reminds me of an observation by distinguished Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggemann. When asked, “What is a primary attribute of an effective church youth worker?” Bruggemann had a simple response:

“Crazy for youth.”

He explained that the job of working with teens can be so difficult that adults must be crazy about students to really enjoy them. The adults also have an obligation to be crazy for students—that is, teenagers’ developmental needs require exposure to adults who embody, model, and embrace a wider array of options for life than may be available in conventional, established culture.

Thus St. Paul boasted that he was a “fool for Christ”—someone who, in obedience to Christ, eschews common sense and worldly wisdom and follows the One whose way is a “stumbling block” to some and fine foolishness to others.

From what I observe, Christian teenagers in our culture are frighteninglydependent upon foolish adults who’re just crazy enough to rescue them from the clutches of Calvin Kline, Merrill-Lynch, Harvard, and all the other adult variations of Toys R Us.

Kids are subject to powerful formative forces that bombard them, mold them, and limit their vision of who they ought to be. And it’s all too easy for many adults to think that the only options for them are to be Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Janet Reno, and Britney Spears.

But youth workers are just crazy enough to believe that God has created and called teenagers for more. Just foolish enough to have faith that even for affluent North Americans, it’s possible—by God’s grace—to break free, to escape, to resist, to rebel, to defy.

In short, to be Christian.

“He’s a perfect pastor,” said the Duke student. “You know, never on time for anything, car always a mess, forever in trouble with the Board of Deacons. Last night he called me at midnight, and we talked for nearly an hour. That kind of pastor—just perfect.”

I wondered what effect this disordered, caring pastor was having on this punctilious, upwardly mobile, successful (as this world defines “success”) university student.

He must be giving this student a vision of an alternative path, a countercultural way out of the constraints of soul-smothering conventionality. If this man can be used by God for that, I’d say—at least so far as his ministry to students is concerned—he really is a perfect pastor.

At the Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention in San Diego—now there’s a collection of crazies for you (the delegates, not San Diegans)—I encountered this huge guy, bedecked with a studded leather vest, no shirt, and tattoos of various Bible verses on his arms. He’d just dismounted from his Harley that he’d driven into the convention center parking lot.

I know I was in California, but I was still impressed in a taken-aback sort of way.

“We’ve got a powerful ministry up in northern California,” the biker informed me. “I’ve brought more than 100 kids to the Lord.”

(I was thinking right then that if a guy that big invited me to become a Buddhist, I’d seriously consider it.)

“God has blessed us,” he continued. “I specialize in work with gangs. The fields are white for harvest, man. Gangs are great. These guys are angry, but smart enough to know something’s bad wrong with America. We can work with that.”

One of my criticisms of the under-20 generation is that far too many of its members are far too easily pleased with present arrangements. Too many of them want too little. They’re satisfied with the world of their elders, just dying to bed down in corporate America or enter a life devoted to acquisition. I find among many of them an all-too-common tendency toward the cultural status quo.

When Christianity is presented as mere cement for social conformity, when discipleship is dumbed down to no more than middle-class respectability, the gospel is lost. And to our dissident young people, the gospel is much less interesting—especially because they’re actually really eager to be summoned to a more abundant life than they’d otherwise have if left to their own devices.

Let me put it this way: I’ve been a campus minister for nearly two decades. And in all my years on campus, I’ve received only two or three calls from worried parents saying, “Help! My child is sexually promiscuous!” or “Help! My child is addicted to alcohol!”

What I have had are 20 or so anxious calls from parents—some of them quite angry—saying, “Help! I sent my child to the university, and she has become a religious fanatic!”

Want to know the extent of one student’s religious fanaticism? She went to Haiti for two years of mission work.

See? Jesus is still capable of disrupting families, unsettling children, and agitating elders.

And in such foolishness is our salvation.

Emma Goldman—the wild and crazy anarchist of the 1930s—worked as a midwife for poor, pregnant women. With the birth of each new baby girl, Emma would whisper in the newborn’s ear, “Rebel! Rebel!”

At Duke, some of our campus ministers complain that they’re marginalized, insignificant to the university—neither faculty nor administration. In their minds, the university goes merrily along its way without a thought of them—the men and women who work with students in the name of Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, the Presbyterians, whomever.

But I’ve observed that their marginalization is itself a gift in their ministries! Students who know enough to be suspicious of faculty and administrators also know that these campus ministers—lacking the allegiances and attachments of so many other adults on campus—may be wonderful sources of free, uninhibited, loving guidance. There’s much to be said for people not having power (as this world defines “power”), particularly if the people in question are called to serve students and offer advice in the area of vocational discernment.

I know a youth worker—a young man, fresh out of seminary—who served in a suburban church near me. Everyone at his church seemed pleased with his ministry there. Lots of kids were coming to his group’s events. Lots of youth ministry was happening. Then he had the bright idea to lead his kids in a Bible study of Jesus’ teachings on wealth. As part of the study, the kids were encouraged to tape television commercials and analyze their appeal. His students met with him and conducted a critique of the advertisements and commercials, all from a Christian, explicitly biblical point of view.

Shortly thereafter he was unceremoniously fired from the church staff. The charges? “Acting immaturely and with bad judgment.”

In other words, he was crazy, crazy, crazy to think the Bible is true, that we’re meant to follow Jesus—not to simply believe in him— and that even trapped, privileged suburban teenagers can be disciples.

Though Emma Goldman was not a Christian, I wish she had been. Call me crazy, but she might have made a great youth worker in my church.


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