Virtually Meaningless: Youth Ministry In Exile and Other Hopeful Content

Zac Workun
November 5th, 2019

The year was 1999.

I was raised in a golden age of youth ministry, in a thriving youth group at an aging Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma City. We listened to DC Talk and played games with bananas, eggs, and pantyhose. We were “Jesus Freaks”, “walking in the light”, and “entertaining angels by the light of our TV screens”. Life was probably more complicated than all of that, but everything seemed to make sense.

But it doesn’t seem to feel that way anymore.

And, like many of you, I am worried.

When Reality Feels Virtual

I am worried for the overall well-being of our youth ministries in this new digital, post-consumer, post-Christian age. I am mostly concerned for the population of young, not-yet-fully-understood or well-formed youth today. Some of the most precious parts of what it means to be human are suffering in the drift of a shifting landscape of infinite possibility, insta-fame, and enviable vicarious experiences.

This current age of students are so overwhelmed by options and expectations that they are lost inside of their own stories, their own existence.

It is truly an age in which it is easier to live in the glow of someone else’s work, achievement, or adventure, than to risk your own creativity.

Our students are no longer consumers of goods and services, but consumers of other peoples’ experiences. Our increasingly virtual selves catch livestreams, subscribe to other people’s work, and swipe endlessly to see how the end of other folks’ daily stories turn out.

Leading While Lost In Digital Babylon

In their most recent work, Barna CEO David Kinnaman and Youth Ministry Guru Mark Matlock offer that our post-Christian world is in need of a restorative faith; a faith that would speak to a people no longer in occupation, but rather occupied and exiled. We are the captives and captivated of a Digital Babylon. We are those seeking a homeland with no real ground beneath our feet.

David and Mark contend that the root of hope is tied to creating resilient disciples. The work of youth ministry is now about instilling the grit it takes to be faithful in the face of conflict and perhaps even persecution.

The worry for a faith in Exile is not only how, but where do they want us to return?

Developing resilient disciples requires that they are able to bounce back into the open arms of a loving and deep faith nurtured by multiple-generations of understanding.

Returning to a homeland means coming back to the importance of relational theology; a relational theology of Christ’s love, community, creation, and care.

However, it is not just enough to navigate the temptations of Babylon towards a more moral and gracious theology for those with no land to call their own. The work of youth ministry is to help establish that there is something deeper than just finding a way through; a way of being in the world that matters, that makes the most of this life and the hope of life beyond this life.

The real worry of healthy spiritual formation for today’s students is less about the myriad of temptations and more about the threat of meaninglessness. Or as youth ministry professor Andy Root would put it, “Young people aren’t choking on hedonism, they are choking on meaninglessness.” Instilling an unshakable piety or moral certainty isn’t enough for those who have been numbed to the real meaningfulness that hope brings.  

The real work of living and working inside of this new Digital Babylon is not for youth to confuse the wandering hopelessness that a stream of endless options presents, but instead to recover the simple truth that their own life matters. Or blogger Charlie Ambler offers, “This sense of meandering existence has only intensified over time, though young people continue to find solace in technologies to distract them.”

Our fundamental work of youth ministry is to not mirror a distracted culture and further occupy our students’ time. Hope is the low beam that cuts through the fog of meaningless. 

We are called to stronger stuff.

A Chance For Ministry To Be Meaning-Making

“People don’t have to hang out with their friends,” he said. “They can just see what they’re doing. I prefer actually talking to people. I would rather get their number than be friends on Facebook, where you have a 100 friends you never talk to. It’s a meaningless friendship.” -16 year old student

Don’t imagine yourself as less meaningful than you are. It is easy to lead from the same numbing fear as the students we are hoping to reach.

We live in the same uncharted Digital Babylon as our students. In some ways this is terrifying, yet it means that we get to lead by voicing our own concerns, writing our own talks, and voicing our own doubts from a place of searching for meaning.

We get to stand in the middle of streams of options and speak the loving gospel truth: That instead of a cosmic decree, Love came down to us, to seek us out, to be with us, and to tell us that we are known.

Augmented Reality

The big question for every sermon, every song, and every student connection is, “What hope does this offer?”

An idea borrowed from Internet gaming and online shopping is the notion that something intangible might be more present to us than what we see with our own eyes. There is an augmented version of what we are able to perceive without assistance, a hopeful lens to see that there is more than likes, subscribes, and DMs.

Consider the hopelessness that you feel about your most difficult (mid)week of youth ministry, and see that inside the loneliness and frustration of not knowing if the work matters, or if it will even work out, is very near to the pain of what it means to be adolescent today. 

We are they, and they are not a world away.

Zac Workun

Zac Workun serves as the Student Ministry Specialist for Lifeway Students and is the co-founder of Youth Ministry Booster, a nationwide membership network for equipping and encouraging youth ministry leaders. Zac is an Okie, black coffee drinker, folk music lover and an Enneagram 7. He is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Duke Divinity School and has served the local church in various youth ministry roles for the last 15 years. Zac and his spouse Karen love brunch, car-camping, and are the parents of two lively boys, Isaiah and Gideon.

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.