Reconsidering “Professional” Youth Ministry

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I completed the summer internship for my college degree in youth ministry at a large, seeker-sensitive church. I have since come to reject “attractional ministry,” but I learned many important lessons during that summer. One of the memories that stands out most was placing address labels on envelopes for a large mailing to high school students.

I vividly remember being told to re-do a stack of envelopes. By carelessly slapping on labels as quickly as possible, a number of them were crooked and I was communicating a message of carelessness and sloppiness to the person who would receive it in the mail. The other intern and I tried to argue that the envelopes would be fine, but finally we relented. We addressed and labeled the shoddy envelopes in a way that communicated thoughtful attention and care towards the addressee. To this day, I tend to be meticulous about address labels.

That summer was largely filled with administrative duties and Frisbee football. The amount of paperwork shocked me. During that time, I struggled with the reality that I had few opportunities to contribute beyond routine administration. I remember feeling brushed aside, as if being an intern meant I didn’t have anything good enough to offer beyond routine administration. I was not yet “professional” enough to meaningfully contribute. Excellence in mass mail-outs was, apparently, a prerequisite.

Maybe it’s my own baggage from this internship, but I get concerned whenever I hear calls for “excellence” and “professionalism” in ministry. I appreciate the exhortation to offer the best we have as an act of service to God and to others. I am also aware that expecting excellence in all things will keep some people from offering anything at all. I have seen faithful volunteers step aside after such urgings, their confidence shaken by the implication that they don’t measure up.

Volunteer leaders, interns, and new youth workers – you have much to offer! You may not have read all the latest books, attended the conferences, and you may not have hours to invest in preparing the perfect youth group experience; but you have something meaningful to offer the students you serve.

Don’t Look Down on Grain Offerings
In the Old Testament’s sacrificial system, the people were called to present their offering before the Lord. Because God is holy, He would only accept unblemished sacrifices. Anything that was less than perfect would be rejected. It is impossible to read Leviticus without being confronted with the reality that God cares about details.

In the midst of God’s expectations for proper sacrifice, however, exceptions were made for the poor. Those who were unable to afford a cow or goat or sheep could offer a bird or some grain (depending on which type of sacrifice was being made).

God is worthy of our best cattle. He deserves more than our leftovers. But He is also worthy of a simple bird or a grain offering, if that’s what we have to give. Both sacrifices are equally pleasing and honoring to Him when offered according to His Word.

There are people in our churches who only have “so much” to give to students. Others have much to offer. When we demand professionalism and excellence from everyone in our ministries, those who have less to offer will be tempted to sit back and let the “professionals” do the work. In these cases, we are removing the opportunity for provisions from the poor, and demanding the unblemished cow.

The only truly perfect offering was the Lamb of God, sacrificed on the cross. Because no one other than He has a perfect offering to present to the Lord, we rely on Jesus, the Lamb of God. In the Church, the mother who is in the rotation to provide snacks might not be a good small group leader, but she has a valuable ministry because she is a member of the body of Christ. Meanwhile, the worship leader couldn’t lead a well-run game if his life depended on it can be confident that his offering is pleasing to God because he’s been justified by the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Every Christian is an Ambassador of Christ
Because of the gospel, every believer has become an Ambassador of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). As you recruit youth workers and equip the saints for the work of ministry to teens (Ephesians 4:12), do your best to consider what type of offering each youth worker can present before the Lord. Some will offer cows; others will have a grain offering. Both are acceptable sacrifices of worship and service to the Lord. When the call for professionalism and excellence turns people away from using their spiritual gifts in service of the church, a spirit of elitism has infected the body of Christ.

There will be times when people offer their “leftovers.” Leadership in these situations obviously calls for some difficult (though grace-filled) conversations. While all people have something to offer, Paul exhorts believers, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). Carelessness and lack of preparation do not honor the Lord or adorn the gospel and should be addressed.

When I was a college intern, it was right for my mentors to make me redo those envelopes. I also wish my leaders knew me well enough to know that I had more to offer than grain at the time.

As youth pastors, we need to set our leaders up for success. If we only show preference to “high performing” volunteers, then we’re looking down on what people have to offer. Recruit new youth workers who might be overlooked by other ministries in your church. Refuse to allow a desire for excellence in ministry to slide into looking down on the bird offerings.

Teenagers will be transformed by the faithfulness of God to the Church, not because of our perfect ministries.

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