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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Quote of the Day (9)

Youth work is a juggling act.

I haven’t done it in a few years. The cultural distance between me and the current generation is significant enough that I can’t imagine the sort of effort required to properly bridge it, and the opportunity is not there in any case. Others are doing the job, and God bless ’em.

But I’ve put in the better part of a decade leading youth groups and/or teaching Sunday School and I well remember the juggling act that comes from trying to please everyone with an opinion about what you’re doing.

So I relate to this observation from Brett Kunkle:
“The content of most youth teaching and curriculum can be summed up in two phrases: love Jesus and be good. Sadly, that’s about as much depth as they go into.”
It seems to me this is often the case.

Lame, shallow content in youth teaching happens for a number of reasons:

The Kids Are Not Interested

One is the perception that most kids are not interested in the study of doctrine, apologetics or Bible history. And some kids are not. But when you have a few that are, and they are motivated and growing, it’s amazing how much effort their enthusiasm will inspire in others who find themselves wanting to come along for the ride.

One of my Sunday School kids years ago was only in my class because he was dating a girl in the same church. He had no Bible background at all, no Christian home life and didn’t seem all that intelligent or engaged to me. He was laid back and a bit of a joker. I assumed he would hang around for the year and be gone as soon as he was no longer interested in the girl or vice versa.

Boy, was I wrong. The relationship ended, but he hung on, and on, and on. He started sharing his faith at school and was constantly asking questions about how to explain things he was learning to unbelievers. Today, he and his wife live among and reach out to inner-city immigrants with the gospel. And his example continues to inspire others.

In hindsight, the kids who didn’t seem up to much often turned out to be more faithful in the long term than those who did. That’s not much of a rule of thumb, but I have learned not to write anyone off based on first impressions of their interest level, commitment or capacity.

The Leader is Not Up to the Job

There are also times when the problem is the youth leadership. If you have to draft someone to run your youth group or twist someone’s arm to make things happen, it’s probably not worth it.

I’ve sat under youth leaders who were sincere but socially inept. I actually had one take a swing at me (it was richly deserved, but if I’d had any respect for him, I may not have provoked him). Someone thought he should serve this way, so he did. But his own experience in high school was radically different from that of those he was attempting to shepherd and he hadn’t a clue how to relate to most of us. That doesn’t have to be a stopper if the leader is genuinely loving and a good Bible teacher, but it can be a major hurdle to real communication.

I’ve also been in youth groups where the leader was an all-around likeable jock but knew next to nothing that wasn’t in curriculum or a commentary he’d just picked up. The best he could offer was a manual or a book study, never the word of God directly.

I’ve sat under youth leaders who were so eager to please that they were virtually paralyzed by indecision. Their agenda changed weekly with whatever wind was blowing. But to teach anything effectively, you have to be so convinced of its value yourself that you’ll never give it up. You might re-jig or tweak the way you present it, but the content of your teaching is not going to be determined by poll.

Given the vastly different types of Christian teenagers, it is the rare youth leader that can appeal to them all and actually teach everyone something. If your church has one, encourage him!

Interfering Parents

But in my experience, by far the biggest source of shallow content is youth groups is the parents of those same kids.

Really.

Their interference is usually well-intentioned. They fear their teenager is going off the rails and just want him or her exposed to other Christian kids in the hope something good will rub off. Often they insist on it.

So they send their teen to youth group, eagerly quiz them about their experience and when they find out their son or daughter doesn’t enjoy it, start pushing for changes. Usually these involve dumbing-down the teaching, shortening the length of Bible study or eliminating it altogether, adding games or activities and so on.

Sometimes change even involves attempting to push out the current youth leader for someone the parent hopes will relate better to their child.

One has to be sympathetic to the concern of the parent, if not with their methodology. Every true shepherd wants to save the lost sheep. But reordering a gathering of Christian young people to conform to the whims of those who are out of fellowship with the Lord is probably not the best way to do it, unless it is clear that what the group is currently doing does not work for anyone.

Worldview, Apologetics and Theology

So there will be juggling, and sometimes it is impossible to accommodate the wishes of every teen, parent or interested observer in your church. But there is little value in a youth group that meets weekly only to entertain itself, or “because we’ve always had one” or to keep Christian kids out of trouble. If you are going to help anyone, teaching something significant has to be a priority.

In short, “Love Jesus and be good” will not cut it.

A youth group that doesn’t set forth clearly the Christian worldview, help with high-school level apologetics and put theology into language understandable to those willing to take it in doesn’t really serve a lot of purpose.

That’s a mouthful, but Brett Kunkle puts it in English:
“We make sure students are being exposed to the evidence for Christianity, that they see life Christianly, and that they come to understand the great theological truths about our great God.”
It’s ambitious, but I think he’s got the right idea.

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