Managing To Be Nice

October 4th, 2009

Bobby Knight, the former Indiana University basketball coach, famous for both winning National Championships and pitching hissy fits, may have more in common with your ministry that you'd like to admit.


Because, like a winning basketball program, many winning ministries are hard charging, high-flying, and fast moving. They get the job done. And, like Bobby Knight, many youth pastors require hard work, discipline, and long hours from their students. Isn't this what it takes to build a successful ministry? Unfortunately, such a focus on growth sometimes leads to the neglect of grace, where success is celebrated more than faithfulness. Growing ministries sound wonderful, but often they're short on nice.

I think this is a big problem and one that often goes unrecognized. Let me explain.

What I Don't Mean

When I suggest that many growing youth ministries are not very nice, and therefore imply that they should be, what I don't mean is that they should be tolerant. At least not as that word is currently used. Our culture has elevated relativism to such a degree that anyone who isn't willing to support everyone in everything is considered small-minded and mean. This is nonsense.

Never mind that it's impossible to truly be tolerant of people unless you first disagree with them. Never mind that the list of things we're supposed to embrace is both politically-driven and ever-changing. And never mind that those who preach tolerance are often very intolerant of anyone who doesn't agree with them. In the end, tolerance, as it's currently celebrated, is often simply diseased moral passivity. Even in its best moments it's a concept far too weak to be embraced by God. After all, He didn't call us to tolerate our enemies—or our neighbors. He called us to love them. So, when I say “nice” I don't mean tolerant.

Furthermore, I also don't mean weak. As Christians we're engaged in a cosmic battle with eternal consequences. We'd be foolish not to expect conflict and equally foolish to back down from it. Jesus was gentle, meek and mild, but he was no push over. (Remember the moneychangers?) By preaching nice I'm not advocating that we wave a white flag and surrender any ground.

What I Do Mean

By nice I mean gracious and warm. I'm referring to the quality or pathos of a fellowship that has elevated love over works. Or, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I'm referring to the quality of a ministry that has learned how to avoid the downside of focusing on Christ's Lordship.

The Downside of Christ's Lordship? Now, before I'm bound, gagged and tied to the stake, please hear me out. I believe in the Lordship of Jesus. Furthermore, I believe we are called to build disciples who proclaim his supreme authority, power and worthiness to all. So, when I refer to the downside of Christ's Lordship, I'm not challenging His eternal position. Rather I'm expressing this concern: those ministries that call students to be “radical” disciples often end up creating a work-centered orientation that is decidedly non-Biblical. By focusing on Jesus' Lordship they create an unhealthy focus on obedience. And when this happens the fellowship ceases to be a community responding to the love and grace of God and instead becomes a collection of individuals gritting their teeth and trying, under their own strength, to shape their will. It's a predictable and common trap and one that youth groups are especially susceptible to.

Why Youth Groups?

Why is this a pothole we're likely to fall into? In addition to the reasons that are common to any age group—human depravity, spiritual pride, etc.—those not yet able to vote must navigate some additional challenges.

• Adolescent who are hungry for acceptance seldom understand grace. It takes a certain level of reflection, indeed a level uncommon among 25 year olds, let alone 15 year olds, to understand and embrace grace. This not only means that most adolescence seek growth by doing concrete things, like prayer, Bible study and evangelism, but also that many of them are going to be doing the right thing for the wrong reason, like trying to earn God's favor. It'll take some time before they learn to rest in what Christ has done for them.

 Adolescents are steeped in unchecked idealism. Appeals to adults are often fairly reasoned and temperate affairs, but the rallying cry to a high school crowd is almost always an appeal to the heart. Why? Because kids are idealistic. What's more, teens find something especially intoxicating about long odds. It doesn't matter how difficult something will be; if the cause is noble, they want to support it. And while there are some historical upsides to this (many revivals were started by those too young to know better), there are downsides as well. For starters, the fine line between healthy faith and complete insanity is often crossed. And our calls for “total commitment to a radical faith,” and our pleas to “burn out before we rust out” are often the bridge.

 The first stage of spiritual growth is about doing not being. When we first come to faith (and many of those attending a growing youth ministry are taking those initial steps), our first six months are often spent mastering the basics. We get this list of activities we're suppose to stop doing: lying, stealing, cheating, sleeping around, getting drunk, etc. And there's a parallel list of things we are expected to start doing: studying the Bible, going to church, praying, sharing our faith, etc. Mastering these lists is a common place to begin our spiritual pilgrimage. However, as most of us soon realize, additional growth doesn't come by adding to either list; it comes by changing our focus all together. Actions become less important than thoughts. Doing gives way, in large part, to being. Those who fail to make this transition will often bog down in a works-based righteousness. And while I'm not sure it's fair to imply that many high school students get stuck there, I think it is safe to say that many are still there because they haven't yet had time to graduate to stage two. And this creates a problem.

• Youth groups often reward the wrong thing. Trouble begins when we inappropriately reward those with an immature faith; and it's very hard not to. After all, what do you say to a young believer who wants to hold a week-long prayer meeting? How do you respond to their desires to start a soup kitchen, build an orphanage, or go into the ministry? Please hear me clearly. These are all good things. Wonderful things. And we are right to be encouraged. But my concern is this: the new wunderkind may be motivated by a set of theological assumptions that are at least two degrees off the mark. And to the extent that we praise their efforts, more kids will follow their lead; and we will move the group towards a culture of works rather than a culture of grace. This is a huge challenge. It's even more difficult than I'm implying; because it's hard to recognize, because the student's hard work will often lead to numerical growth, and because you'll likely be applauded for what's going on in the youth ministry. But it's critical that you're aware of the dark lining. To fail to do so means that you're going to endorse a culture that wins basketball games but fails to model grace.

Last month I bumped into a student who was trying to sign people up for a fast. Now, this sounds like a wonderful thing and certainly one that any youth pastor should embrace. However, this was not an ordinary fast. It was to be forty days long. And the people he was trying to sign up were 18 years old.

As I've tried to explain above, I think I understand how something like this gets started. “Hey, we should have a fast. Let's go three days. No, let's go 12. You know what, Jesus did 40. Wouldn't that be awesome? And it's totally biblical!”

Now I'm not opposed to a forty day fast. (Who could be?) But I have very real concerns about a youth group sponsoring one. Even if we ignore the obvious health concerns and are prepared to stand against the parents' reactions (“My 110 pound daughter says you want her to go without food for a month and a half!”), we have to think about the cultural impact on the group. Do we really want to create a climate that says, “If you love Jesus you will fast for forty days. And if you don't fast for forty days, the best you can hope for is second class status in the group?”

And it doesn't have to be such an extreme event to create the same dynamics. In fact, it's unlikely that it will be. Far more often, a works-based culture will develop on the back of projects that are far more modest, such as all-night prayer meetings, Scripture memory contests and student mission trips. Good events all. Just good things for the wrong reason or good things out of balance.

As a youth minister, you must pay attention to the culture you foster and help channel the energy, idealism and zeal of those under your care in healthy directions.

So How Do We Engineer Nice?

• Teach on it. Cultures are caught, not taught; but you have to start by explaining the goal. Set aside a few weeks to study the concepts of grace and love. Let those who have moved from works righteousness towards a grace orientation share their testimony. If you fear that the group, or a subset within it, are far out of sync, extend the lesson or revisit it often. Remember, when people are in error, the best approach is to teach, not to scold. Those who have yet to fully embrace God's grace don't need to be confronted as much as they need to be loved.

• Model it. Are you nice? Would loving be one of the first five words people would use to describe you? I'm not advocating that you just “practice random acts of kindness,” but there is something to be said for making sure you are practicing what you preach. For instance, one of my friends recently cancelled all of his meetings so he could simply meet one on one with all of his friends to tell them that he loved them.

• Import it. I'm not certain that it's possible to expect an insecure 15 year old to understand grace, let alone model it. But it is possible to expect a 30 year old, or better yet, a 70 year old, to do so. Make it a point to recruit volunteers who love kids and who value grace over works-based righteousness.


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.