Disruptive Witness in the Noisy World of Teenagers

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Youth ministry is noisy. For students, there is the noise of events, the youth band, the youth pastor teaching, and the reminders of future events that daily pop up on their social media feeds. For student ministers, there is the additional noise that comes with planning events, parents asking about those events, and the endless organizations letting you know about their latest student ministry tool that will revolutionize your ministry.

Whether you are a student or a student minister, much of your life is lived in a cloud of noise, during which the goal of everyone involved appears to be increased volume output. More games. More students. More trips. More projects. More and more noise.

In the midst of unceasing activity it becomes easy to equate noise with success. Yet when our students are already entrenched in a world characterized by similar noise, perhaps the tool we need to bury in the hearts of our students isn’t one characterized by noise but something entirely different: careful and quiet reflection.

This subject is reminiscent of Alan Noble’s recent book, Disruptive Witness. In it, Noble addresses the much broader question of how we, as believers, can best communicate our faith in a culture marked by increased secularism and constant distractions. According to Noble, too many Christians assume that their audience is comprised of active and attentive listeners who come with an existing biblical concept of God and who are prepared to think deeply on matters of faith and its personal costs. With that assumption in mind, we can too quickly gloss over complex matters of theology thinking our audience is rightly interpreting key terms.

For many of us, failing to understand the common breakdowns of communication in this day-in-age is a failure to communicate the Gospel in a meaningful manner. For much of his book, Noble seeks to correct our common misconceptions regarding our audience today. Then, with that picture in mind, he describes the types of practices that will not only encourage clearer communication but will help in the work of cultivating a witness that is able to disrupt the secular aims of those around us.

Foundational to all of the practices discussed in the latter part of Disruptive Witness is an emphasis on consistent and careful and quiet reflection, and the development of what Noble calls “the double movement.” That movement, which is required if we are to live with a constant awareness of God, is the practice of first acknowledging the goodness of God on display all around us and then, “turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbor.” While the terminology may be foreign, the concept is rooted in familiar language of passages such as I Corinthians 10:31:

“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

The double movement encouraged by Noble is one that is clearly biblical and something we must daily pursue. In the midst of all the noise that accompanies so much of what we do in student ministry, are we encouraging this movement or hindering it? To help us think through this question, let us consider three particular areas of our ministry and life.

1. In our Teaching: Some of the most beneficial “noise” heard in our student ministry ought to be our preaching and teaching. We all have precious little time to pour into the lives of these students, so there is good reason to fill much of that time with studies through books of the Bible, doctrines of the faith, and basic instruction. But might it be the case that some of us are creating a data overload in the brains of some of our students? As we run through major doctrines of the faith, are we scheduling the necessary time to ask questions of our students, allow our students to ask questions of us, and to simply let students quietly meditate on truths we have just covered? If not, I fear we are expecting far too much of them and offering information that will be impossible for them to see as different from anything other teachers are covering. As we plan out any given lesson, are we encouraging reflection or mere memorization?

Teaching is an area where silence can positively disrupt, guiding our students to see the goodness of God all around them.

2. In our Events: In some student ministries there is an unspoken rule that you cannot have any “fun” event without the inclusion of a short devotional. This rule is often accompanied by the assumption that said devotion somehow “redeems” the fun event and succeeds in that double movement, that necessary disruption that Noble addresses. Without being overly critical of this particular practice, I would suggest that a simple devotional does not accomplish what we are talking about. As Noble details in his book, the double movement is the ability to acknowledge the goodness of God on display all around us – in the Word, yes, but also in friendships, in the beauty of God’s creation, and in the joy we experience interacting with our peers.

To inspire a habit of double movements in the lives of our students, let us look for those opportunities in the midst of any student ministry event. Let us take just ten seconds in the middle of a game to comment and reflect on the goodness of God we are personally observing so as to remind our students that these events are also opportunities for worship and reminders of God’s constant presence.

3. In our Personal Lives: Even when we are striving to help encourage our students to take time to reflect and think deeply through their beliefs, it is easy to let the noise continue in our own lives. I can distinctly remember a number of occasions in student ministry when I would instruct our students to spend ten minutes in silent prayer. As those students prayed what did I, their student pastor, do? I would jump on my phone and respond to emails related to other youth events, I would continue working on my next lesson for that following week, or I would simply take a few minutes to read through an article or continue a book. I was, for the most part, doing work that was important to my overall ministry – but I was also failing to take part in the basic practices I was claiming were essential in the spiritual lives of my students!

What I needed was to let silence disrupt my own noisy life.

The fact is that ministry is able to keep us busy and distracted from our personal growth every day if we allow it. But if we want to help cultivate necessary habits in the lives of our students, then we must first be willing to put in the effort to cultivate those same habits in our own life that are discussed by Noble and commanded in Corinthians. We must be willing to set our phones down, delay responses to emails, and perhaps even spend a little less time working on our next lesson. We must consistently take the necessary time it takes to pray, meditate on truths God is teaching us, and observe the goodness of God always on display all around us.

We all live in an increasingly noisy world. As those entrusted with the care of students, let us do more than yell our message louder than the next guy. Let us develop ministries that are grounded not in a constant offering of events, but in a consistent encouragement for quiet reflection. For many students and student pastors alike, it will be that often times neglected tool of silence that is able to do the work of disrupting our sinful hearts and turn us constantly back to Christ.

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