By Dave Rhodes
Thanks for joining us on the all-new Wayfarer Blog. I want to begin with an observation: Being a youth minister today is difficult. Now I know what many of you are thinking – this is not exactly profound. But being a youth minister is difficult – and not for the reasons you might think.
I bring this up because it is time NOW for us to start doing something about it.
I make the observation that being a youth minister today is difficult based not on a glance but on thousands of different conversations I have had in hundreds of places. As a traveling speaker and writer, I’ve had an ongoing conversation about this difficulty for 15 years. It has bubbled to the surface over and over as I spend time with youth and college ministers over dinner or on drives to and from the airport. It’s a privilege to listen to youth ministers express this difficulty and to sometimes speak into the lives of these often unsung heroes.
Now it’s time to open this conversation to everyone.
Being a youth minister is difficult not because the teenagers or college students of today are a difficult combination of out of control hormones and low attention spans. It’s not difficult because of ever-changing and ever-more complicated sport or club schedules. It’s not difficult because of parental expectations. Rather, being a youth minister is difficult because of the subtle unspoken pressures that have come to define what a youth minister is supposed to do. And one of these pressures is to make sure the senior pastor keeps his job.
Let me explain…
It is no secret that the Western church is in a state of decline – even as we try is to hide from this ever-present reality. But with recent statistics suggesting that just 4% of the millennial generation (those under 30) is in church each Sunday, it’s getting harder and harder to hide.
In the wake of this decline, we as ministers have spent a lot of time and effort saving face. We do this in terms of the statistics used to measure ministry success: baptisms and bottoms. Get people to come to the building for an event, and get them to make a decision. Count both baptisms and bottoms, and whatever you do, make sure this year’s number is bigger than last year’s. It makes no difference whether lives actually change (OK, that might be a bit of an overstatement) or that they might be counted in the number of the church just down the street next week. In this mentality, it makes little difference whether you even know who the bottom belongs are if it is his or her 53rd baptism. As long as you as a minister get a registration card at the beginning and a decision card at the end, you win.
Pastors serve these unspoken pressures. Conversion is the name of the game, and pastors know that statistics show that most people are “converted” before the age of 18. So if a senior pastor wants numbers of baptisms and bottoms, he hires a youth minister who knows how to get kids in the building and how to get them to sign a decision card.
The youth minister had better work quickly – because everyone’s job security depends on it.
As a traveling speaker and “evangelist,” I know this is the case because I sense this unspoken but ever-present pressure whenever we begin talking about the “invitation.” It’s as though the whole event hinges on how those five minutes (or in some cases, two hours) go.
More than once I have felt as though my job as the traveling speaker was to save the youth minister’s job and, by doing so, to ultimately save the senior pastor’s job. Somehow, everyone’s job security hangs on whether a 15-year-old kid walks an aisle or signs a card. (That includes mine, because I only get invited back to speak if that kid does.) And God forbid something go wrong with the music during this time and mess everything up.
It’s a vicious cycle for me, a traveling speaker. It’s a vicious cycle for youth pastors. But it’s also one for senior pastors. Everyone is caught in it.
Don’t get me wrong. Most of these ministers have the best of intentions. They really want to see life change. That’s why most they got into ministry in the first place. But because we have equated life change with conversion, we have painted ourselves into a corner.
I believe this pressure is part of the reason why the average stay for youth minister at a church is between 18-36 months. Even if a youth minister can add bottoms and baptisms for a season, continuing to pull it off is unsustainable. It’s better to leave early and often than to come up with a new bag of tricks. (This is certainly a topic we will be addressing on this blog in the future.)
Of course I believe that people coming to faith is important. But more important than conversion is what Jesus has always called us to do – making disciples. You see, Jesus’ invitation was to discipleship, not conversion. He knew that disciples would make disciples who would makes disciples…and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger! Making disciples is hard work. The results are slower at first, but in the end they change the world.
I hope some youth pastors and senior pastors might read this post and say out loud what has for too long been silent – that we want to give our lives to making disciples and not running ministries. I hope some churches might take ministers who long for this up on their offer. I hope expectations change and that we get back to changing the world by making disciples.
It can start with YOU. That’s why we are devoting the future of the Wayfarer blog to the conversation of making disciples and changing expectations.
Why don’t you join us and offer your voice to the conversation? Leave a comment on this post or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter to let us know what you think. (These will link you to 3DM; Wayfarer is the youth/young adult arm of 3DM.)
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