The first Youthwork Blog of the year comes from Fraser Keay, who shares his thoughts on youth ministry and the important role the Church has to play.
Ever heard of ‘Lawn Chair Larry’? There are plenty young people and young youth workers like him.
In 1982, having been prevented from becoming a pilot in the United States Air Force due to defective eyesight, Larry Walters decided he would gain the experience of flying - by himself. So he strapped himself to his garden chair with a bunch of weather (high altitude) balloons filled with helium. Armed with a few sandwiches, a can of lager and a pellet gun (to shoot a few balloons when he needed to descend), Larry planned on ‘flying’ at 30 feet. When his friends cut the rope tying him to his car parked below, Larry shot up into the sky and ended up not at 30, not 100, neither at 1,000, but at a dizzying 16,000 feet. By that time, too scared to shoot some of the balloons, Larry drifted into Los Angeles Airport’s main approach route (imagine pilots circling around the airstrip reporting to the control tower: ‘There’s a man on a chair, with a gun, and he’s in our way!’). He eventually shot a few of the balloons and came back down to earth catching a few power lines and knocking out an entire neighbourhood’s electricity in the process. He was in the air for fourteen long, cold hours. When arrested he replied, ‘A man can’t just sit around’. http://darwinawards.com/stupid/stupid1998-11.html
Young people just don’t sit around either; neither do talented young leaders-in-the-making. If prevented from fulfilling a deeply held ambition, they often seek opportunities outside the local church. One previous contributor to this blog wrote, ‘I felt the Church wasn’t doing enough to engage with young people in mission and I felt that young people in the Church weren’t being given the responsibility and resources they needed to be active disciples.’ (Nick Shepherd, July 2015). Too often within the church there has been insufficient opportunity to give expression to a God-given sense of call. The result? Like Lawn Chair Larry, young people and talented young youth leaders end up looking more outside the local church to fulfil their calling, gain their leadership wings, and impact young people for Christ (the point of the illustration is not Larry’s destination but his inability to fulfil his dream).
Too often within the church there has been insufficient opportunity to give expression to a God-given sense of call
Like the US Air Force, for them the church is no longer the primary vehicle. As a result they do not impact local churches and their structures as directly as they could; in the long run this can have a massive bearing on a local church’s ability to develop future generations of church leaders (both in youth work and other leadership roles) and impact young people with the gospel.
So why is it so important to keep young people and young leaders in the local church? Simply, because they need the local church and the local church needs them. If young people, including youth workers/pastors, are not given the opportunity to put down roots and grow, they may never fully integrate into any local church and just wander from one new and exciting experience to the next, rather than learn what it is to be discipled and mentored and then pass that on to others. Below are three problems that can lead to the kind of frustration Lawn Chair Larry did something about, along with some suggestions on how to start addressing it.
Problem 1: An inadequate theology of Church and/or unwillingness to implement it
As the book of Acts makes clear, the local church is God’s vehicle of choice for evangelism, discipleship, training and mission. Nothing else is. People, including young people, are saved and then added to the local church. That was and should be the pattern (Acts 2 v 41). It is also important to note that young people and those who lead them should not be expected to exist in a vacuum separate from the local church. Young people and young up-and-coming leaders need opportunities within the breadth of their local church to be trained and mentored and, since God has added them to that church, it is fair to assume that He knows the church needs their gifting and input.
‘Older’ and ‘younger’ are relative terms so even youth leaders have a responsibility to train up leaders younger than themselves
Starter solution: Church leaders teach right through the book of Ephesians, a major letter on the theology of church, and with the leadership and ministry teams, decide how to apply it practically so it involves the whole church, including young leaders and young people generally.
Problem 2: Inadequate training of younger leaders by older church leadership
‘Older’ and ‘younger’ are relative terms so even youth leaders have a responsibility to train up leaders younger than themselves; in this way, one generation raises up the next generation of leaders. Jesus had hundreds of hours with twelve guys close beside him, through thick and thin, as he ministered. Peter would have ended up drifting away at 16,000 feet had Jesus not at times personally trained, rebuked, prophesied over, encouraged and restored him, usually in the context of a team. We see the result. With patient investment, maverick leaders like Peter end up pioneering new things, but do not become isolated, unaccountable or unsupported. Like Peter, they can become a solid rock on which to build new or stronger ministries which are centred upon and are all about growing the local church. Similarly, in the context of God's call on Paul, Barnabas' encouragement was pivotal in his leadership development, and we see the result.
Starter solution: Church leaders take on one younger leader each, perhaps in their particular area of responsibility, and serve together for a period of time. Meet together regularly as a group to discuss what you have been learning; age should not determine who gets to talk and there should be no hierarchy of paid versus unpaid church leaders. Having older leaders and a team approach also helps combat three youth culture trends observed in 2009, such as a sense of entitlement, individualism and consumerism (http://www.eauk.org/church/resources/theological-articles/the-missing-generation.cfm).
Effective youth work engages families and creates family for the young person who does not have one.
Problem 3: The professionalisation of youth ministry
I have an MDiv with a specialism in youth and family ministry and applaud solid efforts to ‘up’ our game in the practice of youth work. However, there is a real danger when parents and the church see a full time youth worker as the solution to ensuring that teenagers are saved and discipled. I studied youth and family ministry because family still has the biggest impact on young people – no matter how good the youth worker/pastor is. Youth workers need to work in partnership with parents; and parents should not expect the youth worker to do their job for them. As I stated above, we need a robust theology of the church as the family/community of God. Young people from non-church and church homes need relationships with parents and other adults who are living out authentic Christianity (with all its pains and struggles as well as its joys); parents need support from the wider church family. Most of all, young people need youth workers/pastors who will stay for more than two years at a time, and who do not see their youth work role as a stepping stone in their ministry ‘career’. Effective youth work engages families and creates family for the young person who does not have one.
Starter solution: Stop recruiting short-term youth workers/pastors. As part of the wider church leadership team, give them access to as many areas of church life as they need in order to integrate young people and young leaders into the wider church family, where they can lay down roots and find opportunities to grow.
Talented young leaders just do not sit around. The Church has too often failed to provide talented ‘Lawn Chair Larry’s’ the opportunities they need to impact young people with the gospel. Many have thus found other ways to express their passion and calling, with mixed results. And in the long run, the Church has not benefited from their developing influence as it might have done. What will help solve this is a stronger theology of church, more effective mentoring of such leaders, and less ‘professionalising’ of youth work. In this way the future Peter’s, and indeed gifted Paul’s whom Barnabas more than once took under his wing, will not only more greatly influence young people for Christ but the effectiveness of the wider body of Christ in its ministry to young people, just one of its global mission tasks.
Fraser Keay comes from Scotland and has served as a youth pastor in three churches in Scotland, USA and Wales, eventually taking on a wider leadership role in the local church. Whilst he takes time out from vocational ministry, he is writing two books, one on leadership development, the other on youth ministry across the continents (co-authored by eleven youth pastors from ten countries). Both are due for publication in 2016. www.firsthalfleadership.com
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