Friendship, Joy, & Youth Ministry

Meet Bobby

Bobby is one of those high achieving kids. At school, he’s an “A” student who sits in the front of the class, actually does his homework, and (gasp!) studies for tests. Bobby’s also a pole vaulter on the track and field team. He’s always among the first to arrive and the last to leave. His coaches consider him to be one of the team’s leaders and an example to his teammates. They hold him to a high standard and, just like in his event, he works hard to clear the bar.

Friendship, Joy & YM

 

For Bobby, church is no different. When he comes to Sunday School, he always brings his Bible with him and is the first to find the Bible passage when the youth minister calls it out. At youth group, he loves to play games, but when it’s time to sit down for Bible study, he never hesitates. He shuffles to the front couch in the youth room and when the youth minister asks, “Who wants to pray for us?” the fingers of most of the other kids in the room often point to him. When Bobby is a senior, he’ll be a shoe-in to preach on Youth Sunday, and his youth minister is just sure he’d be a great pastor someday if he wants to be.

Meet Sarah

Sarah is what we call a problem child. She’s not interested in school. She sits in the back of the class and rarely has what she needs with her. She knows what her teachers expect of her—she’s been made to know, all too well, through compulsory visits to the principal’s office and angry lectures from her parents—but she’s become numb to those expectations through a few too many failures. She’s on the drama team, but finds it pointless to audition for the lead roles, since those seem to always go to the same kids anyway.

For Sarah, church is no different. She goes to church because her parents want her to be there… and she knows her parents are really only there because they want her to be there too. In vain, her youth minister has invited her several times to sing with the worship team or start a drama club in the youth group. She’s been told that God wants to “use” her. Sarah is tired of being used. She politely smiles and declines.

She sits through the Bible studies, listening to all the expectations God and her youth minister have of her. But she knows a thing or two about expectations. She listens while she texts her friends on her cell phone—a safe haven to which she must discretely retreat from the barrage of “calls to action” … until her youth minister takes the phone away, of course. Sarah will never preach on a Youth Sunday, as even praying out loud would be just short of traumatic for her, and she’ll never live up to the standards to which she’s told her God and her youth minister seem to hold her.

The Culture of Accomplishment

Bobby and Sarah live in the same world—a world marked by standards and expectations and contracts. They’re responding in different ways, but they’re both responding to the same culture of accomplishment. It’s a “dog-eat-dog” world, an “I and it” world (to channel the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber). It’s a world that worships at the altar of productivity. And, for Bobby and Sarah, the church is no different. That is our real problem.

For a long time, we in youth ministry have been worrying about the wrong problem. We’ve been concerned with figuring out which goals we want to get young people to accomplish.

For a long time, we in youth ministry have been worrying about the wrong problem. We’ve been concerned with figuring out which goals we want to get young people to accomplish. Do we want to help them become mature Christian teenagers or mature Christian adults? Do we want to make sure their faith is “sticky” and that they stay in the church after high school? Do we want them to have a working knowledge of the Christian faith and a clearly defined and internalized sense of mission? Do we want to find ways for them to be leaders in the church and to help transform it?

These are all really important questions, and choosing our outcomes—or finding ways to integrate them—will always be important for youth ministers and practical theologians. But the real problem is the question of motivations. What’s motivating us in youth ministry? If the answer is an outcome, another accomplishment, an expectation we heap upon the shoulders of our young people, then the church will continue to be no different from the culture of accomplishment for Bobby and Sarah. And the ways they respond to those expectations, no matter how diverse they are, will all reflect the same problem. Bobby and Sarah are both being failed by the same distorted motivations.

So What’s Our Motivation?

Bobby and Sarah, even though Sarah won’t often be given credit for it, are both good listeners. They’ve listened to what the world wants from them—while Bobby works his tail off to give the world what it wants and Sarah has decided to just give up, they both respond to the same demands. And even though some might assume that secularization should preclude it, Bobby and Sarah are both confronted by the same God, a God who wants to “use” them, a God who could just as easily be a CEO or a college admissions officer.

Because God is motivated by joy, God will never be satisfied with a world that inhibits it.

But the God of Scripture is not a CEO and Jesus Christ would have been fired from the admissions team (Yale and Harvard don’t really want “the least of these”, see Matthew 25). The God of Scripture is, fundamentally, a God of joy. This is at the core of God’s being. Even when God suffers—and God does suffer—it is because God is a God of joy. Because God is motivated by joy, God will never be satisfied with a world that inhibits it.

Rejoicing in Joy

Joy has a way of undermining the culture of accomplishment because joy is an end in itself. Accomplishment always needs a goal. And once that goal is achieved, it will need another one because the culture of accomplishment is what it is by virtue of its pursuit of a goal. In this framework, the value of people and things are appraised according to their ability or inability to accomplish.

God doesn’t just want Bobby and Sarah to be good religious kids. God wants to enjoy Bobby and Sarah just as they are.

This is, perhaps, especially true for young people. I mean, think about how we talk about them. The word “adolescence” itself has a clear goal. It means “growing to maturity.” And developmental psychologists, at least since Erik Erickson, have talked about it in terms of accomplishment: “the tasks of adolescence.”

But joy is about love, it’s about delighting in the beloved, not reaching some other goal. And since God is motivated by joy, God did not create the world to accomplish something with it. God created the world to enjoy it. We are God’s beloved and God delights in us. God doesn’t want to “use” us, God wants to enjoy friendship with us.

What’s God’s motivation? The answer is joy. And as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has put it, “…this answer abolishes the intent of such questions as: For what purpose has [humankind] been created?… For the answer does not indicate ethical goals and ideal purposes but justifies existence as such” (Theology and Joy, 42). God doesn’t just want Bobby and Sarah to be good religious kids. God doesn’t even just want to be their guide to adulthood. God wants to enjoy Bobby and Sarah just as they are.

Let’s Be Different

The problem for Bobby and Sarah is that the church is no different. So let’s be different! When Bobby and Sarah go to church, they don’t need another teacher or another coach. What they need is a friend. They need adults in their life who aren’t just worried about getting them to the next accomplishment. They need adults who actually enjoy them—adults who will listen to them, laugh with them, and take interest in them. And beyond that, they need a youth ministry that won’t just offer new or different goals and standards but an actual alternative to the rat race. So here’s how the church can be different: we can worry less about our goals, more about our motivations, and we can start letting joy be our motivation.

Youth ministry needs to say, loud and clear, “You’re already who you need to be!God is working in the kids we love and they can encounter God just as they are!

Our hope isn’t that we can earn the love of God, but instead that God loves us because of who God is!

This will be good news to Bobby because it means he can relax a little and realize that his value doesn’t come from accomplishments (not even “Christian” ones), but from just being Bobby. And this will be good news for Sarah, because it means that she doesn’t have to be defined by her failures or the successes of other people. She matters and she’s loved just as she is.

Our hope isn’t that we can earn the love of God, but instead that God loves us because of who God is! And guess what! Ironically, when that message is heard—when God’s joy motivates us to say, “You are already who you need to be”—it will transform us. It will transform Bobby. It will transform Sarah. And it will change the world.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

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