The “If Only…” Game in Youth Ministry

Recently I caught up with my friend, a youth pastor, who told me about one of the volunteers at his church. In a moment of frustration, the volunteer confided to my friend, “If only we had a Dave at our church!” Dave worked for another church, and has a reputation of taking charge of his youth group and he’s not even in charge.

If only we had a Dave, if only we had a bigger budget, if only the kids would do what we told them, if only we got the popular kid so the rest would follow; if only.

If you have ever said to yourself or thought “If only…”, then you have a problem on your hands. There is nothing wrong with having goals or a vision for a ministry, but our goals do not need to be to dependent on “if”, and our vision does not need to be so narrow as “only.”

Once we meet our goals, we get the kid, we get the speaker, the volunteer, the money, or whatever the “if only” is our job isn’t done and we’re right back to “if only”. Once again we are wishing for the next big thing.

This is not a sustainable way to live, and it is also indicative of an unhealthy mindset and approach to ministry.

Quick Fix

“If only” is actually a desire for a “quick fix”. According to leadership writer Edwin Friedman, a quick fix mentality is a “low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.”[1]

A quick fix is a fast solution to a current problem. A quick fix mentality is indicative of an anxious group, organization, or society that cannot handle being uncomfortable for very long. A quick fix mentality will focus on exterior issues (read: painting the youth room walls, having just the right curriculum, filling all the spots for summer camp) as the most important issue at hand, rather than (as in our line of work) how the Spirit is leading us in ministry.

If you have ever said to yourself or thought “If only…”, then you have a problem on your hands.

An anxious, quick fix mentality shows up in several ways:

Emphasis on trying harder[2]

We all know that there is stuff we could be doing. We are well aware of how we are not doing enough, not being creative enough, or not being outgoing or excited enough about sharing the Good News. Maybe this is communicated through messages that boil down to “be better!” Or perhaps it is revealed through more prayer meetings or more training. So many sermons, blogs, and conferences can simply be an exaggerated way of exhorting us to try harder. Grace abounds!

Focus on the answer rather than the question.[3]

With wisdom Friedman writes, “The way one frames a question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response.”[4] So if the question is “Why don’t we have X amount of kids here tonight?”, the ministry will be negatively focused on numbers, and the point will just be about filling kid quotas. Numbers are important, but you do not do youth ministry for the numbers.

If the question instead is posed as “How can we extend hospitality to more kids?” then it becomes about a sense of welcome and community, and that opens up all sorts of possibilities. Or maybe it could instead be “Where are the kids going instead of youth group or church, and how can we join them?” Asking the right question is just as important as the answer.

Either/Or Thinking.[5]

This is the type of thinking that lacks nuance. It has to be all or nothing. Either kids need to speak, pray, or believe a certain way or we have failed. A more nuanced view would suggest that God is still at work with kids whatever they are going through, and no matter how much Bible they know, how many songs they sing during the worship hour, or whatever cringe-worthy things they are posting on social media. Either the kids are good Christians or they’re not. Actually, we know things are more complex than either/or thinking. We know all of us are both loved by God and are people who sin, and we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:1).

Whether it’s due to the anxiety that’s caused by an ever changing and increasingly complex world, or questions about our salvation before God, anxiety is a tough place to live. Friedman makes the claim that an anxious society has “lowered people’s pain threshold” where “comfort is valued over the rewards of facing challenge, symptoms come in as fads, and cures go in and out of style like clothing fashions.”[6]

Perhaps you’ve thought, “If only we could get the kids’ faith to stick!” Get Fuller Seminary on the line! Of course, the tactics of getting parents to engage with their kids’ faith is extremely important, but the quick fix is to simply get the curriculum. The larger, deeper, more emotional issue will be why parents don’t talk to their kids about faith, or how to talk about faith at the dinner table. A curriculum or class alone won’t fix that.

Quick fixes are sought after because they are meant to alleviate discomfort or anxiety. The bad news is that leadership requires us to go deeper into the more emotional and anxious parts of our ministry and our people, and remain steady during painful or tumultuous times. But the good news is that our God isn’t anxious!

The cross of Jesus is not a quick fix. It is where salvation takes place, where our sins are ransomed, the curtain separating us from God is torn asunder, and the powers of Sin and Death are disarmed and defanged. We need Jesus to undergo death in order to defeat it by rising again, so that we may rise again as well. Again, the cross is not a quick fix.

The faithful response is not to seek a quick fix, but to do the long work and suffering for others, and when it is for others, it is for the Lord.

N.T Wright, reflecting on Romans 3:21-26 encourages us not to reduce Jesus’ death “down to the small scale of ‘we sinned; God punished Jesus; we’re all right again’”.[7] Instead, when Jesus disarmed the powers and atoned for sin, his death on the cross “was the moment where the great gate of human history… burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion.”[8]

Sometimes we can treat our salvation like a problem. Forgiveness of sins is not a one-time thing, and the cross is not a quick fix to the world’s problems. It is most assuredly the answer to sin, death, and evil, but it is not a quick fix. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

God has reconciled the world in Christ, but God has entrusted the message of Christ’s reconciliation to us in our ministries. God’s reconciliation is reaching out through time and across the world to all peoples. We are included in this mission as we answer the call to youth ministry.

And as the solution to a quick fix mentality is to bear through the conflicts, underlying issues, and anxieties of the people you’re leading and working with, the ministry of the cross also calls for us to suffer through the problems of the world in order to testify to God’s victory in Jesus over all evil and suffering.

N.T. Wright declares, “the victory of the cross will be implemented through the cross.”[9] God’s reconciliation is not an inevitable utopia, nor is it some naturally occurring process. God’s reconciliation happens when the followers of Jesus act like Jesus through suffering love.

This is not an exhortation that you need to suffer in order to achieve salvation. Salvation comes from Christ alone. But the life of faith will often call us to freely suffer alongside, with, and for others. Think how many times kids have broken your heart, or made your life miserable, or have undergone some unimaginable tragedy you feel powerless to help. The faithful response is not to seek a quick fix, but to do the long work and suffering for others, and when it is for others, it is for the Lord.

The truth of long and suffering love is not another version of “try harder.” The point is not to suffer more. There is already plenty of suffering in life. The point is ministry is long and hard work, and no quick fix will solve that. The reconciliation and ministry of Jesus are long and hard walks.

Liturgy

Few things demonstrate this, or give us tools to help us, as the repetitive task of the liturgy.

Sabbath

Our faith cares about rest. Walter Brueggemann points out that Sabbath reminds us how we are on “the receiving end of the gifts of God.” Once a week we stop and remember what God has done for us, and we pray for God to lead us. In our anxious world, we need to pause and make time to spend time with our maker.

Confession

No matter what your understanding of the act, all confession boils down to admitting God is God and we are not. There are things that are out of your control, and the good we receive is a gift from God, not something we achieve or work for.

Praise

We praise a God who died and rose for us! God has decided to be on our side and in our corner. We were made to worship this God, not just once, but for all of our lives. We worship to remember that our purpose is not about achievement in ministry, but serving the God we love.

In your ministry, you do not need a quick fix, but are sustained and loved by the God who is with you, no matter how unsure or uncertain you feel.

Baptism and Communion

The people of God are the persons gathered together before God by God. In both baptism and communion, we remember how a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us and we aren’t doing this alone! There are people who want to help you. Perhaps they’re outside of your particular church or ministry, like, you know, KYM!

The Sermon

The word of God is constantly being preached week in and week out. You are not in need of God’s grace only on Sunday or this week, or even this particular hour of a weekend. You are in need of God’s grace on a regular basis. No matter how anxious you may feel, the Word of God is there for your hearing and nourishment every week, to nourish your spirit in good times and bad.

The Benediction

At the end of the service you are blessed, and reminded that God goes with you wherever you go. The Spirit led you in, and the Spirit leads you out. In your ministry, you do not need a quick fix, but are sustained and loved by the God who is with you, no matter how unsure or uncertain you feel.


[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Seabird Books, 2007, 54.
[2] Friedman, 34
[3] Friedman, 37
[4] Friedman, 37
[5] Friedman, 39
[6] Friedman 53
[7] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion, HarperOne, 2016, 349.
[8] Wright, 349-350
[9] Wright, 366


About the Author: Adam Ogg

Adam Ogg

Adam Ogg is a California native and candidate for ministry in the PC(USA), with a background in youth ministry. He cares a lot about how theology informs our faith and ministry. He also cares about coffee, podcasts, and when the next book will arrive in the mail. He is currently interning at a church in sunny Sarasota, Florida.

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