Cooking the books (redux, part 1)

[In this post, I reworked some of the ideas from an earlier post for clarity and tone.  I’ll try to pull the theories out of the deep pool of sarcasm…emphasis on “try”.  I’m also going to break my original post into two posts. ]

Bedrock belief(s) and practice(s)

Jesus invites all people to follow Him.  People who hear this invitation answer in a number of ways.  Some say “Yes, I will follow you” and they do.   Some say, “No I won’t follow you”, and they don’t.  Still others say, “Yes, I will follow you” and don’t.  And, according to Matthew 21:28 – 31, some say “No, I won’t follow you”, and subsequently change their mind and do.

For those that say “Yes” to Jesus and follow Him, they move from death to life, experience forgiveness from sin, become a part of God’s family (the church) and are empowered by the Spirit to walk in newness of life as they are transformed, by that same Spirit, into the image and likeness of Jesus.

This is a bedrock belief for many, many Christians.

The zeitgeist of the early 21st Century is critical of Christians for this, because this belief does separate people into one of two categories:  Those who take Jesus up on his invitation and follow and those who don’t.  Christians use various terms -some of them clumsy, some of them helpful – to describe these two groups.  Some of them are; Lost vs. found, saved vs. unsaved, believer vs. unbeliever, and Christian vs. non-Christian. (for the remainder of this post, the term “lost” refers to those who have not made a positive decision to follow Jesus)

Another bedrock belief for many, many Christians is that Jesus calls those who follow Him to invite others to follow Him as well.  This belief and practice finds its clearest support in Matthew 28:16 – 20, but also in places like 2 Corinthians 5:16 – 21.  We often refer to this at outreach or evangelism (although outreach can denote a wider range of activities that includes service to others).

These two beliefs, when held together, direct Christians and Christian ministries towards the goal of “reaching the lost”.  Whether you are talking about youth ministry, children’s ministry or ministry to adults, “reaching the lost” is a part of that ministry.  That means that those who follow Jesus are to invite those who haven’t yet made the decision to follow Jesus to do so. That’s pretty simplistic, but it provides a basic, big picture, framework.

Focusing on youth

Given what we know of adolescent faith development, “reaching the lost” is a critical focus of ministry to pre-teens and teens.   Decisions to follow Jesus, made at this time of life – when they find support in a healthy faith community – often serve as the starting point for a life of faith lived in pursuit of Jesus.  That’s why it is a critical time.

At the same time, adolescence is also full of possible pitfalls.  In the midst of trying to figure out who one is, what one values, what one is going to do in key areas of life like vocation, relationships, and so on, there are also many choices that, once made, can radically alter the course of one’s life.    Some teens will fall into drug use and addiction. Others will become sexually active, opening them up to a host of other issues like pregnancy, STDs, etc..  Some may get involved in illegal activity that can have long-term impacts on education and employment, etc.  Adolescents often deal with mental health issues like depression, as well.  That is to say that parents of teens are often anxious, and for good reason.  This leads to a tension that most, if not all, youth ministries have to deal with.

A tension within youth ministry

On one hand, youth ministries need to be engaged in “reaching the lost.”   The primary motivation for this, to quote Bill Hybels, is that “Lost people matter to God.”  This is not a means to another end, but is an end in itself for the sake of people.   A secondary motivation is discipling those who already follow Jesus into a mature engagement with others for the sake of inviting them to follow Jesus (evangelism training, if you will?).  Too often, this part of discipleship is overlooked in favor of deepening an inner spiritual commitment.  As we go deeper in our relationship with Jesus, it is also important that we learn to go out.   We follow an incarnate Jesus who seeks and saves that which is lost.  That means his followers are also to engage in this praxis for the good of others.   [Having been discipled in the context of Campus Crusade for Christ, this was ingrained in me in my early formation as a Christian (Thank you John, Dave and Fred).]  With Jesus as our model, the call to “reach the lost” must involve going to the margins, where lost kids are.  Yes, youth ministries will experience varying degrees of success at attracting lost kids into their activities, but even at its most successful,  that still leaves an awful lot of kids out there, somewhere, in need of hearing the gospel.  Some students require “going to them” because they will never “come to us”.

On the other hand, it is difficult to ask teenagers, who are themselves going through the tough process of growing up, to befriend kids on the margins.  There is fear that the student might get caught up, in an unhealthy way, with what the “lost” kids are doing.  That leads many youth groups to also take on the goal of “providing a safe place for kids to be.”  This is a common expectation of parents towards the youth groups their kids attend.  And, I believe it is a good one.  In Jesus’ ministry, we see a rhythm between the time Jesus spends alone in prayer, the time he spends with just his disciples, the time he spends with a larger circle of people and the time he spends with large crowds.  A crucial time of formation for his disciples is the time he spent alone with them, teaching them what was happening in his engagement with the larger crowds, etc.   There does come a point when Jesus sends out his followers to do ministry without him, but this occurs after a season of intentional training and maturation (not that it always sunk in deeply).

These two impulses – to “reach the lost” and to create a safe place for Christian kids to grow and mature – can create pressure on youth leaders to be all things to all people with limited time and resources.  There is always more to do than time to do it.

Another layer

There is another layer to all of this, in both church-based youth ministry and para-church ministry.  Mark Yaconelli, in his book Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus, writes

As a result most youth ministries in North America are ministries of anxiety.  In fact, most Christian communities don’t even consider the spiritual needs of young people until there’s a critical mass of anxious adults.  Look behind most youth ministry programs and you will find pastors and church boards nervous about declining membership, parents afraid their kids will lack morals, congregations worried the Christian faith has become irrelevant to younger generations, and persistent frustration among adults that something (“anything!”) needs to be done with ‘those kids’. [italics added] (pg 36)

Youth workers, both paid and volunteer, are under pressure from pastors, church boards, parents ,and congregants to produce something, “anything!”.  This pressure, which comes from all sides can lead to unhealthy modalities in youth ministry.

Cooking the books

In my original post, I talked (perhaps, too) sarcastically about something I called “cooking the books”.  This is a negative practice that I am not condoning, but it is a real phenomena, none-the-less, and something we need to be aware of.  Sometimes the competing pressures of time demands, creating a safe place for Christian kids, reaching the lost, and answering to churches, boards and supporters leads to “cooking the books”.  This is something I have witnessed, although it was never done dishonestly or with intent to deceive, etc.

The primary move involved is using criteria other than “making a decision to follow Jesus” to distinguish the lost from the found.  For example, I am a Mennonite and in our statement of faith we affirm non-violence as something Jesus calls his disciples to believe and practice.  Imagine that instead of defining “lost” by who has or has not made a decision to follow Jesus, that we added another requirement that people be pacifist, too.  (we don’t do this)  By our definition, not God’s, followers of Jesus who are not pacifists would now be labelled “lost”.  That’s my definition of “cooking the books”.  It is creating a man-made designation between lost and found that adds to a biblical definition (here my reformation roots are showing).

There are two (at least) areas where these additional requirements may come from.  One is the area of doctrine or beliefs.  There are essential doctrines that Christians affirm (God is real, for example).  There are also non-essential doctrines that faithful followers of Jesus disagree upon (the proper mode of baptism is immersion).  We can cook the books by elevating non-essential doctrines to a place of the essentials as in my example above.  This creates a space where some people who have made a decision to follow Jesus are considered lost by others.  The other area is faith maturity.  An immature follower of Jesus will live differently than a mature follower of Jesus.  This doesn’t mean the immature follower isn’t a follower at all, it just means they need to mature.  We can “cook the books” by making a particular level of faith maturity the demarkation between lost and found.  For example, you are not a Christian if you don’t pray daily, read your bible daily, go to church each Sunday, give money to others, serve others, and so on.

Both of these things can happen in youth ministry.  Leaders in both church-based and para-church ministries come out of a religious tradition.  Sometimes they elevate that tradition’s non-essential beliefs to a point of being determinative regarding other’s salvation.  At the same time,  kids come in all shapes and sizes.  Some of them are very mature for their age.  Some are very immature for their age.  Some kids grow up in church and can have a very mature faith at an early age.  Other kids may be just days, weeks or months into their faith journey.  Because of this, it is tempting (and easy) to “cook the books” or to move the line between lost and found based upon maturity.

Why would anyone “cook the books”?

The simplest reason is that it creates a way through the rough waters of anxiety and pressure to perform.

Time:  Even in a smaller community or school, there are more students that don’t participate in any form of ministry, youth or otherwise, than do.  If every student matters to God, and reaching them is something one is passionate about, it will take going to those students, meeting them on their turf, and developing relationships with them.  That takes lots of time.   Likewise, creating a safe group for Christian kids involves creating many different group environments, teaching events, fun stuff, and social alternatives for students. This also takes a lot of time.  Add to that the intentional relationship building and intentional discipleship of students in the group and one goes from time demands to time impossibilities quickly.  There, literally, isn’t enough time to do it all.

Objectively, a strong majority of youth ministries are understaffed.  Even though this is clearly visible, the expectations that youth ministries address all of the various anxieties of pastors, churches, parents and kids do not decrease. Add to that the youth workers salary is often dependent upon keeping pastors, congregants and parents, happy, and you get invisible, but not that subtle, pressure to “cook the books”.

Why?  Because by “cooking the books” a leader can roll all of these various expectations into one event – the weekly, attractional, youth group gathering.  This is the holy grail of youth ministry.  The all-in-one seeker-friendly, safe, discipleship environment that allows us to meet pastoral expectations, assuage congregational anxiety, reassure parents that their kids are safe, moral and growing in their faith, while also making the time-demands on youth leaders manageable.

A (possible) way out

The first step of “righting the books”, so to speak, is honesty about the situation.  This can be incredibly difficult for the youth minister (not being honest, but confronting an entire system, driven by anxiety, that makes youth ministry hard).  Youth Ministers are often at a disadvantage from a power perspective.  They are often the youngest on church staffs and, even, among their volunteer teams.  Often, but not always, they are the least educated.  Their salary depends on juggling these various expectations.  They also bump up against the subtle (and you would be surprised how not-so-subtle) pressure to grow up and mature out of youth ministry.  [When I worked primarily as a youth worker people would often say, “When are you going to get promoted into a Senior or Lead Pastor role?”] Another factor, borrowing from family system theory, is that youth ministers are often perceived as the most vulnerable staff member.  That means when people have issues with the church, the safest place to unload their anxieties is on the youth minister.  (S)he is a much safer target than the Sr. Pastor or Board Chair.   The proof that youth ministry can be a tough, if not toxic, ministry environment; consider that the average tenure for a youth minister in a church context is 18 months.  For that to be the average, that means a good many youth ministers don’t make it that long.

Pastors, congregant, parents – and even students – need to have a realistic set of expectations as to what a given youth ministry can accomplish.  When churches and para-churches realize that they can’t, on their own, be all things to all people, it opens up new space for creativity and collaboration.  It also takes the youth ministry/leader off the hook for producing unrealistic results that can lead to “cooking the books”.

In the next post, I will talk a bit about the role of friendship and centered-set outreach as another step in “righting the books”.


2 thoughts on “Cooking the books (redux, part 1)

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