Awhile back I was speaking at a conference for denominational youth workers—they came from more than 20 countries around the world. The organizers asked me to talk about the future of youth ministry. I told them I’d take my best swing at it, but even my wife seems unpredictable to me, so it’s arrogant to predict the future of youth ministry. I did, however, promise to offer my primary hope for the future of youth ministry: “Let’s focus on what we’re for, not on what we’re against.”
That day, I divided the room in half and had youth leaders on each side find a partner. Then I challenged pairs on one side to list things the church is against, and pairs on the other side to list things the church is for. After two minutes I had the pair with the longest list on both sides read them aloud. Then I asked the whole group: “Which list would people who are outside the church be more familiar with?” They had no doubt: “Against!” they screamed. Here’s the sad fact: About the only thing most people know about Christians today is what we’re against.
We need a new acronym—it’s WWJF, which stands for “What Was Jesus For”?
This is exactly what Jesus was trying to communicate when he told the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13. In it, Jesus is essentially saying, “Don’t pay attention to the bad stuff—the weeds; instead, concentrate on nurturing the good stuff—I’ll take care of the bad stuff later on.” Translated for youth ministry, this means we work hard to plant what we’re “for” in kids (the wheat) and pretty much don’t stress about extracting what we’re against (the weeds). A strong crop of wheat will crowd out the weeds, and any that are left over get pulled by the “Gardener.”
So, how can we obsessively focus on what we’re for, not what we’re against? Here are three trajectories…
1. Engage kids with the real person of Jesus—everything He does, we’re for. Five years ago my friend Ned Erickson shared with me something he calls The Progression: “Get to know Jesus well because the more you know Him, the more you’ll love Him. And the more you love Him, the more you’ll want to follow Him. And the more you follow Him, the more you’ll become like Him. And the more you become like Him, the more you become yourself.” The Progression is not only profoundly true—as we help students get closer to Jesus, they become more distinctly who He had in mind when He created them—but The Progression is also an invitation...“get to know Jesus well.” Jesus created the models and boundaries of truth organically, by living out the truth in His life. The way we help others get to know Jesus better is to show them how to slow down and ask more questions about everything He said and did, and to put them in dependent situations where they have to rely upon His strength, not their strength.
2. Emphasize “doing” more than “knowing.” George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis’ spiritual mentor, said this: “One chief cause of the amount of unbelief in the world is, that those who have seen something of the glory of Christ, set themselves to theorize concerning him rather than to obey him. In teaching men, they have not taught them Christ, but taught them about Christ.” MacDonald’s guiding philosophy was “do the next obedient thing you know to do.” It’s in our obedience to Jesus that we chiefly come to understand His heart, and therefore what He is centrally for.
3. Practice the first priority of leaders—to pursue learning. I’m always surprised by people who go to training conferences (like our own SimplyYouth Ministry Conference—www.youthministry.com/symc) and report that they didn’t learn anything new. Look, a person who’s committed to learning can learn something from anyone, anytime. If you tell me you didn’t learn anything during a training event, that tells me more about you than about the event. Of course, some events offer a much richer learning environment than others. But hungry people will always find food, no matter how bare the pantry appears. The more you pursue learning about the wide array of topics under the youth ministry umbrella, the more you’ll be focused on what you’re for, not what you’re against.
If the “wheat” produced by these three trajectories grows tall, the harvest will feed your soul and your ministry. Remember, Jesus has the dirty hands of a Gardener...he’ll take care of the weeds. ◊
I remember first hearing about Jesus while attending youth group. He was God’s Son, and he was the Savior of the world. He seemed kind and gentle—and it appeared as though he loved me with a very powerful love. So I accepted him without really knowing what that meant.
As I got older I realized that the Jesus I accepted as a junior high student was not who I thought he was.
“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51)
Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus a fearless question…but he meant every word he said. In that moment Jesus showed his desire to work on our behalf.
In high school my thoughts related to Christianity were mostly about performance—how many good things I could do, and how many bad things I could avoid. It never occurred to me that Jesus would be concerned about doing something for me.
“Oh unbelieving generation, how long shall I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19)
Jesus performs a miracle on a father’s son—even though they weren’t fully trusting that he could do it.
Whether it’s a flat tire on the way to work, a dropped phone call, or that annoying noise that keeps you up late at night, it’s easy to get frustrated when things don’t go as we expect them to. Likewise Jesus got frustrated when people missed the eternal perspective.
As a student I knew the basics about Jesus, but a Jesus that wanted to do something for me, and a Jesus who was frustrated by my lazy faith…well, I barely knew that Jesus.
As we work with students this week let’s do all that we can to show them the fullness of our loving Savior.