Resisting the Urge to Do Cutting Edge Youth Ministry

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In my early twenties upon moving to Birmingham, AL, I attended for three months a mega-church with an impressive growth rate. The pastor regularly boasted about the church’s increasing attendance in between opportunities to talk about the large audiences, to which he was speaking around the world. My last Sunday was capped by the pastor’s proclamation that the incredible prosperity of the church resulted from the “cutting edge ministry,” which they performed (and, oh yea, God too.) I exited with a bad taste in my mouth and a headache from the number of times I rolled my eyes that Sunday. 

Fast forward ten years. I had been working for six years as a youth pastor at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. During a meeting with a business leader in town, where I explained our somewhat unique approach to reaching postmodern teens through a fragmented ministry of smaller, intimate clusters of students, the entrepreneur said, “Wow, it sounds like you guys are really working at the tip of the spear.” As I burned with pride, the voice of my ego whispered, “You might even say that we are on the….cutting edge.” In the one- and only one- potentially cutting edge moment of my life (which lasted ninety seconds), I felt this rush of pride as if my efforts made the difference and as if I had distinguished myself from other ministries. (These are ironically vain sentiments for someone who still uses a flip phone.)

In all spheres of ministry, the temptation lurks to be “cutting edge.” This enticement may exist more in youth ministry more than other sectors, due to the frequently evolving nature of teen culture, where the target seemingly moves every five to seven years. In a valuable manner, youth ministry people seek to keep a watchful eye on the most efficacious means by which to reach teenagers. It is part of what makes the field exciting and dynamic. At the same time, youth ministry can dedicate exorbitant amounts of attention to finding a magic bullet in our methodology. 

The longer I work with students, the more convinced I am that there is nothing sexy or cutting edge about effective youth ministry. I have annoyed many a colleague with my penchant for repeatedly saying, “There is nothing new under the sun: if you want to be cutting edge, go into biomedical engineering or particle physics, not ministry.” Effective youth ministry boils down to pursuing relationships, teaching scripture, proclaiming the Gospel, worshiping, and praying fervently. That is it. Ministry revolving around these five components has endless possibilities. Other parts of ministry, such as missions, social justice, and fellowship, can have great vibrancy with such a foundation. Ministry that lacks relating, exegeting, proclaiming, worshiping, or praying usually evolves into an exercise in futility or a practice in “playing church.” 

Such a minimalistic philosophy will not sell many books or land you on a panel at the next conference. Nobody has ever been impressed when I describe our strategy with a few participles: loving, teaching, proclaiming, worshiping, and praying. Perhaps, this is because effective youth ministry involves a healthy lack of confidence in our ability to effectuate change and transfers all hope upon what Jesus did do and what the Holy Spirit can do. Thus, our methods become less sexy and sophisticated and more simple and basic. What a relief! Thanks be to God.

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