A Youth Ministry Like the Pulse Nightclub

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Like everyone else, I sat dumbfounded when I heard the Sunday morning news on June 12th: 50 people killed in an Orlando nightclub. As the days past, numbness set in. And then I heard an interview on NPR with a young man named Justin Torres. Justin talked about his connection with the gay community in Orlando, the Pulse nightclub, and in particular the Latin theme night that had drawn club-goers on the night of June 11th. After listening to this interview, my numbness turned into resolve, hope, and focus.

Let me elaborate.

In Justin’s interview, he talked about Latin night and the Pulse nightclub the way I wish and hope students will talk about the church. He said that when you walked into Pulse on Latin night, it was a safe place where “you’re nothing special and everything special, you know, all at once.” He said that Pulse was sacred: “It’s a place to kind of be transformed…it’s a space where you are the majority.” He even goes on to call Pulse his church; a place where he could go and (in an interesting choice of words) worship. “You dance. You celebrate. You connect.”

Obviously, there are aspects of Pulse that the Bible does not condone, but the culture of the club is something we can learn from and emulate.

I long for my student ministry to be a safe place for all kinds of teenagers: for kids who have special needs, kids struggling with self esteem issues, kids from broken homes, kids from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, and kids who struggle with their sexual identity and gender. The church is the one place where all students, regardless of their particular issues, should feel safe, should feel like they have a community of people who want to help them navigate these challenges.

But, in large part, it isn’t. Why?

Historically, I think student ministries have engaged in a discipleship pathway that follows the Behave, Believe, Belong trajectory. If you first Behave and “do the right things,” as well as Believe “the right things,” then you can Belong to the church. We may not teach this explicitly, but when the rubber hits the road, so often this is what our actions and relationships with students convey: in order to belong here, it’s on you to get it right and look the part.

I know I have gotten it wrong too many times to count. So often, I’ve failed my students. I talk about grace, but then live before them in a way that emphasizes behavior as the determination for their belonging. I say one thing and do another. It’s no wonder the church doesn’t feel like the safe place for students that it should.

Thankfully, Jesus provided and continues to provide a better way. The Gospel teaches us that instead of Behave, Believe, Belong as the ideal spiritual progression – a life with Jesus means we Belong first, then we Believe, and finally we Become. The Gospel teaches that whether you are a male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, regardless of your moral standing with the church, the body of Christ is a place where anyone can and does belong. Like Pulse, the church is a place to dance (ok, well maybe not some denominations), to celebrate, to connect. A place to be a part of, to be valued, embraced, encouraged, and included. A place for one to (at the very least) ask the hard questions in the midst of confusion about his or her identity. But also a place where we experience the rigorous growing pains of transforming into the people who God created us to be.

To be a youth ministry that embodies the Gospel – a safe place that follows the discipleship pathway of Belong, Believe, Become – I want to do three things.

1. Invite

I want to make sure that everyone is invited. I don’t just mean, “tell every student to invite their friends.” Of course, do that too. But I, as a youth pastor, must also personally invite, and I can’t leave anyone off of the guest list. I must invite everyone into conversation with a “Hi,” a smile, and a high-five when I visit their school. I must invite students to be honest with me about their views of the church, and who they think God is. I must invite them into a friendship. And then, after all those things, I must invite them to church and youth ministry and (above all) into a relationship with the One who came to save them.

2. Offer a Relief from the World

I want to make sure that what a student experiences in relationship with me (and others in the church and youth ministry) is a break from the way of the world. They must experience more of being listened to and less of being talked at – more grace, and less condemnation – more honesty and less sugar coated niceness. I want the students in my ministry to experience more real care, love, and empathy for each other and less indifference and selfishness. I want them to “love thy neighbor,” as much (if not more than) they love themselves.

3. Experience Gentle Guidance

I want students to experience gentleness when we lead them towards faith, and into sanctification and becoming more like Christ. I am often heavy handed without realizing it when I lead students, constantly “challenging” them and in doing so communicating that they aren’t good enough or trying hard enough. How we lead students in the Spirit should ooze the fruit of the spirit.

If I can aim for these three objectives in my student ministry, I am confident we will embody the Savior who gave us the Great Invitation in Matthew 11: “Come to me, ALL who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

When all in our care know they are invited to belong, to be in relationship, they will find rest from the world and they will feel safe. When we lead them with the gentleness of our Savior, their faith will flourish, because His burden is easy.

I long for the church and its student ministries to be the kind of place where Justin (from the NPR interview), as a middle and high schooler, would have described as a safe place, a place where he could better understand who God created him to be. A place to dance. To celebrate. To connect. A place to belong, to believe, and to become. A place to be loved.

[EDIT: We just noticed Wes Hill’s recently published article, “If the Church Were a Haven,” which beautifully expresses similar sentiments as above. His article is truly a must-read.]

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

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