Sleep, Science, and Sabbath

In 1965 seventeen-year-old Randy Gardner set a world record by going without sleep for eleven days.  Though others have attempted and claimed to accomplish similar feats since Gardner, Gardner’s case stands out because of Gardner’s youth and because of the extent to which his condition was monitored throughout his sleeplessness. Among those keeping watch was Stanford sleep scientist William C. Dement, who chronicled the effects of Gardner’s self-induced insomnia.

[Gardner] became irritable, forgetful, nauseous, and, to no one’s surprise, unbelievably tired. Five days into his experiment, Randy began to suffer from what could pass for Alzheimer’s disease.  He was actively hallucinating, severely disoriented, and paranoid.  He thought a local radio host was out to get him because of changes in his memory.  In the last four days of his experiment, he lost motor function, his fingers trembling and his speech slurred.[1]

Gardner survived and recovered, but the trauma of sleeplessness and the fear of what could happen during future record-setting attempts ultimately led the Guinness Book of World Records to cease tracking duration of sleeplessness as a record.  An exceptionally rare genetic disorder suggests the Guinness Book made a wise choice.  Fatal Familial Insomnia affects only about twenty families worldwide.  It typically manifests itself in adults in their thirties, and the condition makes it impossible for its victims to sleep.  Its symptoms include fevers, tremors, profuse sweating, uncontrollable muscular jerks and tics, feelings of crushing anxiety and depression, and psychosis.  “Finally, mercifully, the patient slips into a coma and dies.”[2]

The facts that a genetic disorder causes Fatal Familial Insomnia and that Randy Gardner ultimately recovered from his self-induced insomnia may lead us to the popular conclusion that sleep deprivation is a bit like middle school: inconvenient, but not fatal, and most recover.  The science of sleeplessness suggests otherwise. 

Consider, for example, the influence of fatigue on driving. “[F]atigue-related crashes account for 1.2 million accidents and 500,000 injuries annually – including 60,000 debilitating injuries and 8,000 fatalities,” and young people are disproportionately likely to drive drowsy.[3]  Furthermore, inadequate rest among young people has been associated with obesity, anxiety, physical distress, problems with memory consolidation, ADHD, and mental illness. This should give us pause. Sleep and rest – according to developmental and sleep science – are matters of life and death. Yet the broader culture shrugs its collective shoulders, and young people find themselves caught in the crosshairs.

Does youth ministry have any sense of what’s at stake when it comes to rest? Youth group lock-ins suggest not. Another tradition deep in the Judeo-Christian theological tradition suggests maybe so.

Sabbath: We’re Incomplete without It

Though theologians, pastors, and youth ministries frequently overlook it, the very first saga in Scripture features rest at its apex. Swiss theologian Karl Barth (rhymes with tart) looks to the seven days of creation in Genesis for vital clues about the identity of God, creation, and the nature of the relationship between the two. Barth insists that God’s goal and purpose for creation is to make possible the covenant relationship between God and humanity in Jesus Christ.[4] God creates the heavens and the earth so that God can be in relationship with creation, and with humankind in particular. The first six days already reveal the initial contours of this relationship, yet as Barth turns the page to the seventh day, he writes, “Creation is finished, but the history of creation is not yet concluded.”[5]

Does youth ministry have any sense of what’s at stake when it comes to rest?

There is more to the story than the first six days.  While Barth clearly did not use the NRSV in his study of the seventh day, the NRSV translation of these verses lifts up a dimension of the text which Barth emphasizes.  Note the confusing use of the word “finished”: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done” (Genesis 2:1-2). The first use of “finished” appears to point backward to the work of the first six days. That work is finished.  And yet, on the seventh day, God “finished” the work that God had done.  How do we make sense of this?  How is it possible that on the seventh day God both finished and rested from all the work that God had done?

Barth insists the finishing and the resting cannot be separated.  This, however, does not mean that God continues creative activity similar to the first six days. Rather, it means that on the seventh day, it is God’s very rest that brings the whole creation – and humankind as part of that creation – to completion. Imagine. It is no material thing that finishes creation. Rather, it is God’s Sabbath rest and the implied invitation to all of creation to join in that rest. On this read, we remain incomplete and unfinished apart from Sabbath rest.

Now What?

The sleep science and the Sabbath do not say exactly the same thing, but they do surely raise common questions. Faith and science converge on questions of rest, sleep, and young people. They converge to ask, what if it is true? What if Sabbath and sleep science both echo a deep and mysterious truth about what it means to be human? What if our very lives and even the whole of creation remain unfinished and incomplete apart from regular and sufficient rest? How would this change our young people? How would it change our ministries, our teaching, our parenting, or our relationships to work and technology? How would it change us?

Though vibrant and relevant answers to these questions require input from those closest to us and our ministries, I’ll offer here a few ideas to get the ball rolling.

Mandatory Naps

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I know a youth pastor who scheduled mandatory nap time into all the retreats and trips she led for her youth group. It took some time for the tradition to take root, but it wasn’t long before the youth named nap-time as one of the primary reasons to go on youth trips. When new youth come along, they sometimes scoff, yet the youth who know the grace of the naps quickly defend the quiet time. The napping tradition echoes the theological conviction of the seventh day of creation: rest is integral to our identity. It’s just part of who we are.


In 1859, nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale wrote, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel abuse of care which can be inflicted on either the sick or the well.” Contemporary science suggests Nightingale had it right, but do we ever give our young people the gift of silence? Or are we more likely to frantically fill every moment with noise (talking, music, videos, earbuds, etc.)? Just this week, I spoke with a youth pastor who works in an affluent community in Florida. She incorporates extended times of silence into prayer with her junior highers. At the end of a recent gathering, she gave them the choice of ending a bit early or doing silent prayer. They chose silent prayer. How might we regularly include silence into the rhythms of our ministries?

Slow Food (not what you think)

For many of us, quick meals at fast food joints while traveling from one place to another are part and parcel of our youth ministries. We have to get to the retreat by 8:00 Friday night; we left right after school; we stop in a hurry; “Everybody eat as quickly as you can so we can get on the road!”

What would it look like to orchestrate meals with our youth that are intentionally slow? In Genesis 1, the description of the sixth day includes explicit mention of food. God provides food for all creation (Genesis 1:29-30). Then comes Day Seven. It implies there may have been some slow dining on that first Sabbath. When God provides manna in the wilderness for the Israelites, the Sabbath instruction forbids gathering manna but commands eating (Exodus 16:25). What if a slow meal sensitizes us to God’s presence and provision?


I’m on tricky ground here because many who lead youth ministries also take the lead when it comes to worship. That may not feel like rest. It may not be rest. Yet vast swaths of the Judeo-Christian tradition have included and continue to include worship of God (prayers, song, teaching, sacraments) within their Sabbath keeping. At some level, we might even argue that worship is the whole point. At its best, our worship of God reminds us that human achievement, status, and accomplishment have never been enough to bring us to life or save us from ourselves or others. God alone brings life and salvation. Both Sabbath and worship point to this. Maybe we can thoughtfully put them together. Even if leading worship is part of our job, at the least we can teach young people how worship at its best embodies holy rest.

A Word of Caution

I’d like to think all of this sounds enticing – like a delectable multi-course meal. Through the Sabbath, God does offer an extraordinary invitation. Yet if we’re addicted to noise, productivity, and fast everything like I think we are, then we should be prepared for a real struggle. The Sabbath challenges identities rooted in ceaseless motion or getting stuff done. It calls for their passing. If your journey is anything like mine, this means that the Sabbath journey will go through anxiety and death, not around it.

Thankfully, we serve a resurrection God who would never lead us through the death of any identity unless a truer, more faithful identity was already prepared. The hope is that in the end we may hear God’s stunning affirmation: “You are my beloved child.”

May it be so.

This blog is excerpted and adapted from Disorienting Grace: Youth, Sabbath, and the Hope of a Grace-Rooted Identity by Nathan T. Stucky, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, forthcoming.

[1] As reported by John Medina.  John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008), 151-2.

[2] Medina, Brain Rules, 152.

[3] Richard T. Moore, Rachel Kaprielian, and John Auerbach, “Asleep at the Wheel: Report of the Special Commission on Drowsy Driving” February 2009, available at

[4] Ibid, 42ff.

[5] Barth, CD, III/1, 213.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at or on Facebook at

About the Author: Nathan T. Stucky

The Rev. Nathan T. Stucky, Ph.D., hails from Kansas but lives in Princeton, NJ, where he serves as Director of the Farminary Project at Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA), Nate’s work with the Farminary integrates theological education with small-scale, sustainable agriculture at Princeton Seminary’s 21-acre farm. He has a special interest in the role of community formation and Sabbath in the education of pastors, church leaders, youth ministers, parents, and young people.  A musician, frequent retreat speaker, and farmer, Nate holds a B.A. in music from Bethel College (Kansas), and a M.Div. from Princeton Seminary.  Before coming to Princeton Seminary, Nate worked in youth ministry and farming.  He and his wife, Janel, are the happy parents of Joshua (11), Jenna (8) and Isaac (5).

One Thing Every Youth Worker Desperately Needs

The Value of a Mentor

You’d think as youth leaders, we would know firsthand the necessity of a mentor—someone slightly further along the path of life that we can emulate and learn from. After  all, the entire occupation of youth ministry is built upon the value of mentoring! But far too often, we spend all our time and energy being the mentor and role model for young people. And instead of investing in our own spiritual walk, we stagnate. You need a mentor!


This mentor can be a spiritual director, a counselor, a pastor, a church member, a business person in your town, or a parent of a student you know. Or contact our friends at PRYME, and get connected with a veteran youth worker in your town. It all depends on what you need. Let’s be clear, though—you need this person in your life! If you aren’t growing personally, your life and ministry will, without question, eventually reflect this.  As youth leaders, we are constantly pouring ourselves out. We desperately need to find people that are going to invest in us if we are going to continue to give ourselves away in ministry!

My mentor’s wisdom, counsel, advice, and affirmation help to dispel the false narratives that are trapped deep in the recesses of my mind, and replace those with narratives that allow me to become more of my true self.

Finding Your Mentor

So how do you find a mentor? About ten years ago I was challenged to make a list of the top five people I would ask to mentor me if I could ask anyone. I wrote down the list, mustered up some courage, and typed in the phone number I’d received from a friend for the person at the very top of my list. I’d only briefly met him once before and didn’t think he’d even remember me. A few minutes later, I had a new mentor. Come to find out, people with a lot of wisdom are often looking for ways to share it, and younger people to invest into… A few days later, I showed up at my new mentor’s house and found out that many years before, he’d been mentored by an older, wiser man who was a little further down the road than he was, and it had been one of the most meaningful relationships of his life.

To this day, my mentor speaks life into me. He affirms the gifts and talents he sees in me, and encourages me every time we meet. We talk about the spiritual disciplines and just by asking about my spiritual life, he holds me accountable. If I have a major life decision to make, I want his input, and I trust his voice in my life. His wisdom, counsel, advice, and affirmation help to dispel the false narratives that are trapped deep in the recesses of my mind, and replace those with narratives that allow me to become more of my true self. Because of my friendship with my mentor, I have so much more to offer to those that I lead.  He is a close confidante, he has walked with me through some very trying and difficult times, and celebrated many joyous occasions as well. When we meet, we mostly talk about Jesus, life, and what we’re learning. Sound familiar? Kind of like what you and I do with students all the time!

Who’s Your Mentor?

So, my friends, why not sit down now a make a list of five people that you know of that you could ask to mentor you? I’d be willing to bet that you will be pleasantly surprised after making a couple phone calls just as I was!

My friends and I here at KYM put together an entire e-book of ideas, tips, and tricks like this called “11 Hacks for Youth Ministry.” I hope you’ll download it today at, and continue to invest in yourself, so you can continue to invest in others. We hope it’s helpful for you and your ministry!

We also want to invite you to join a Kindred Coaching Cohort! Find a sense of community.  Learn practical skills like time management, team building, leader recruitment and training, and how to delegate. Have your entire year planned including all the curriculum and resources you need to make it happen provided by leading scholars and practitioners!

You are not alone! Set yourself up to thrive in the work of youth ministry and in life!  

About the Author: Zach Gurick

Zach Gurick

Zach started in youth ministry in 2001 and has developed ministries for middle school, high school, and college aged students in cities throughout the state of Florida. He’s also the co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. He loves to study theology, leadership development, and is especially interested in spiritual formation. Click here to read more about Zach.


Ministering out of Community - Les Comee

VIDEO: Ministering Out of Community – Interview with Lester Comee

In this video, our own Zach Gurick talks to Youth Ministry veteran, Les Comee, about how we practice youth ministry out of a place of community.

This interview took place after Les’ presentation at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.


Zach Gurick: So we are sitting here at the Flagler Youth Forum, with Lester Comee. He is a legend in youth ministry because, you have been doing it for so long and you have influenced and impacted so many lives in the last 47-48 years that you’ve been walking with youth, standing beside them and you have just spoke about mission community and doing ministry out of a sense of community. So rather than having a team where you’re just focused on pushing them out to perform, reach more kids, grow, do more, you’re saying- we need to share life together. We need break bread together, have a meal together, focus more…

Lester: …many meals together.

Zach: And out of that ministry natural flows, we go out in this community together, we go, enter into kids lives together. And a lot of time we are going to need each other. So we talked about, Ruah –the breath of God and being reminded of being renewed with every breath that we take and helping our volunteers especially our leaders that we work with, to so slow down, to take a Sabbath, to take rest, to play together. And the other thing that really came out was, when you have this sort of community, this team, there is going to be a lot of conflict and so maybe tell us a little bit about how you work with that on your own leadership and in your life.

Ministering out of Community - Les Comee

Lester: One of the things I have talked about in the seminar, Zach, was, in my family growing up, we didn’t learn how to deal with conflict, so here I am in the leadership position and they’re all people like me broken, hurting, lonely. And so we’re bumping heads with each other all the time, without skills. We maybe have a theology out of Matthew 18 says ‘Care for one another, talk to one another, one at a time, two at a time’ but we don’t know how to do that, so we talked for a little while in the time about dealing with conflict, and who can help us deal with conflict.

So, rather than having a team where you’re just focused on pushing them out to perform, reach more kids, grow, do more, you’re saying- we need to share life together…

I went to a couple of people that were my mentors and just watched them and then asked them ‘how do you deal with conflict?’ Cuz’ that’s different. I had to learn, I have to learn all those skills to help work with the community. And you read in “Life Together” about community and Bonhoeffer is very honest about people not getting along. Cause’ we don’t. And we’ve had pro’s come in when I didn’t know what to do. I go online on Youtube and look for conflict, what is Brene Brown had to say about conflict? And actually she, for some National Management forum, has some incredible stories, that’s great stuff on YouTube. You just do a little research, but the hard thing is spending the time to take it into yourself. And how’s it been for you learning how to deal with conflict? – I’m dead serious.

We maybe have a theology out of Matthew 18, it says ‘Care for one another, talk to one another, one at a time, two at a time’ but we don’t know how to do that…

Zach: That is a struggle of mine as well and I feel similar (you and me brother). I would much rather avoid, deny, run away from conflict and so it’s a lot of internal work for me to really shoot, shoot straight for someone. A classic two on enneagram, a classic people pleaser. I don’t want to upset anybody, so having those hard conversations is so challenging. Something that, I see as I grow and as I’m transformed then, I’m able to lead others in that much better. So you mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer for life together, Brene Brown fantastic resources, you mentioned Bill Hybels…

Lester: … Intervarsity has numerous books on building a team that deals with all kind of stuff and conflict is one of them. I don’t remember the titles, but a lot of Intervarsity books on that. But as much as anything ,it’s finding somebody who can help you understand who Zach is, or who Les is, as a denier or as a run from person and then how do we deal with that? How do we work with that, it’s a slow process, for sure.

Zach: Yeah! Well thanks a lot for sharing with us today and thanks for continuing to pouring into the lives of young people.

Lester: Thank you Zach.

How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes Ellis

Video: How Should We Think About Young People?

In this video, Zach Gurick of Kindred talks with Wes Ellis about how we as youth pastors should think about young people.


Zach Gurick: Alright so we’re here with Wes Ellis, just finished up the Flagler youth ministry forum, we have these amazing people all gathered together, so we had to take the opportunity to hear from Wes who is somewhat of an expert of bringing together youth ministry and theology, studying for your Ph.D. at Aberdeen right now. Maybe you could tell us a little about, how should we as youth workers think about young people? We call them youth, kids, teens, adolescents; tell us about that because you’re one of the leading experts on this.

Wes Ellis: Haha well thank (you). First of all I don’t know if I’m a leading expert but yeah there is… there has been, always been this debate about, what should be call kids? Obviously a bias right there, but how should we think about young people, what we call them and does that matter. I think it matters because I think there’s a sort of an impulse in youth ministry to think about young people as sort of potential adults, and that’s sort of what adolescence is all about, what adolescence means.

How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes EllisThat has been, kind of the running theme and the strongest paradigm in how to think about young people in youth ministry, and it’s been helpful to us in so many ways, but I also think that when youth ministry is about developing young people, developing adolescents, into mature Christian adults, what tends to happen, is we as youth workers feel like we failed when our young people in our churches aren’t developing the way we think they should. Also, we tend to leave behind those young people who aren’t developing the way we think they should.

So we elevate the kids who fit our paradigm, the kids who model those things in the present that we look like what we want to exist in the future. And, as youth workers with limited time having to choose where to invest that time, we tend to leave some kids behind.young people - kindred youth ministry - 1

And I think it would be powerful for us to begin to think about young people not as adolescents in a stage of development toward adulthood, but actually to think about them as human beings who are engaging in a practice, in a social practice of youth, and teaching the church some things about the way God is working in their lives. The fact is, the God who’s working in the lives of young people is not a junior Holy Spirit, this is not… this is the same God who is working in you and me, is working in 13 and 15 year olds, and we have some profound things to learn from that.

So youth ministers can think of young people as people, as human beings, and expect to find not just a ball of clay to be molded into an adult, but someone who can actually reveal to us something that God is doing in the church.

Zach: That is a fantastic paradigm shift for us, and I think that as you are talking I’m thinking about kids in my mind that I have learned so much from by doing this and I’m getting just as much out of it as I’m giving to them.

Wes: Yeah it’s a two way street like we are…

Zach: … God is revealing to us through them as well and us.

Wes: Absolutely, we always sort of co-mentoring each other. And the church, we can think about all the ways youth people can transform and give energy, we don’t even know all the potential for what they can teach us because I think we’ve been so set on what the path of development should look like. So maybe let’s just get out of this… let’s stop thinking about a path of development and start thinking about ministry. And I think there is a difference.

young people - kindred youth ministry - 2

Zach: Yeah. That’s fantastic, I think that’s an amazing overview of who you are and what you’re working on and I can’t wait for more to come.

Wes: Cool. Thank You.

How should we think about young people in youth ministry?

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.


Volunteers: What’s Your Calling?

Got Volunteers?

We’ve all been there. Sitting in a classroom with the teacher getting ready to call on people. Everyone darts their eyes away quietly whispering, “Don’t call on me, please, don’t call on me.”

Volunteers - What's your calling?

It can feel the same way in the church when the refrain goes out through the halls of churches across the nation, “We need more volunteers!” Can you feel all of the eyes darting away?

The request comes from understanding the truth that one person can’t do it all when it comes to caring for our youth. That’s of course, hoping you’ve even found that one person.

Every church is a different setting and scenario. Some churches are able to hire full-time staff and are working on building a thriving ministry. While these churches can do excellent ministry, they can also fall into the trap of putting on a professional show instead of loving young people.

Other churches have far fewer resources, but they are seeking to respond to the needs of families who are asking for someone to minister to their youth. They are desperately looking for a volunteer who will do “something” with the three kids that attend the church. Both situations, and the ones that fall in between, are repeated far too often throughout the church and the ones who are losing out are our youth.

Having Volunteers Isn’t Enough

A widely taught axiom of youth ministry suggests that a good ratio for youth leaders to youth is five to one. The axiom means that a leader can effectively pour into and truly know five youth and what is happening in their lives. Some stretch the ratio to six or seven (Mark DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry).

Almost every faithful youth ministry has used this axiom to make sure there are enough leaders who are there, loving youth, connecting into their lives, and being one of the tangible expressions of Jesus in the lives of kids. Praise God! But if these leaders only pour into both and fail to connect them to God’s larger church, we still have a big problem.

But if leaders fail to connect youth to God’s larger church, we still have a big problem.

Most recently, Sticky Faith has done a great job of picking up the banner of helping us understand we have been failing youth in connecting them to the larger church. As a result, a high percentage of youth and their faith have fallen by the wayside as they move into the college years. Youth have not been helped to build long-term faith relationships within the body of Christ, and, all too frequently, their faith has therefore died on the vine with no one there to nurture it.

As youth leaders, we are often powerless and heartbroken as we watch young people who have graduated slowly walk away from the faith we wanted to instill in them. We have new young people in our programs with their own needs, and we lack the time and energy to care for both current youth and graduated youth.

Volunteer As Calling

My challenge to all of us in youth ministry is to re-evaluate our understanding of who our volunteers are. All too often, we have been so desperate to fill holes, we have taken any “warm body” who seems to be willing. The problem is “warm bodies” hang around for six to twelve months and then move on to wherever the next desperate need is. Rather than having people who are stable in the lives of our youth, our youth often experience a revolving door of adults, who would seem to leave just like the world does.

I could be wrong on this one, but I’m pretty sure the word “volunteer” never shows up in the New Testament. Sure, you could probably volunteer to be in David’s army to go up to Jerusalem, but when it comes to the New Testament and ministry, Jesus called the twelve to himself. Paul was called as an apostle. Jude says we have all been given this calling. Jesus didn’t go around looking for volunteers. The Apostle Paul turned down Mark who volunteered to go with him. Over and over again, God looks for those He has called to ministry to respond to Him. And God equips each of those called for the work of ministry. Maybe the greatest example of this is God calling Moses to be His person to lead Israel out of Egypt and His promise to equip him fully.

Purpose-Filled Volunteers

How does this play out in ministry? Rather than having volunteers who fill holes, a ministry that is built upon helping people to discover their callings ends up with people who are equipped for the long haul. More than that, when people discover a call that is connected to their passion, they begin to see it as “their” ministry. They aren’t just putting in time. They are living out their life purpose.

Rather than having volunteers who fill holes, a ministry that is built upon helping people to discover their callings ends up with people who are equipped for the long haul.

Let me give you some examples of people who discovered their calling and are living it out still today.

Jerry’s Care

Jerry is a very successful tech hardware systems salesman. What makes him successful is the care he gives to his clients. Jerry started working in our ministry in 1990. He wasn’t sure if he had anything to offer, but he was willing to step in and start loving kids. He has been loving kids since for 25 years as they sense in him a genuine concern and compassion for their lives. He is the one who meets them for coffee, counsels them through challenges, teaches them how to make a budget, and helps them move hay bales for their wedding. That’s because they know he is there for the long haul with them.

Susie’s Notes

Susie wasn’t sure what she had to offer, but she was willing to come and learn. Her gentle demeanor made her incredibly approachable for even the shiest high school student. What we didn’t know was that Susie discovered her gift as an encourager through letter writing. Hundreds of youth have received a “Susie Note.” It’s not just a signed card, but a letter written from the heart—often filled with glitter—received by kids for over 15 years.

Cullen’s Projects

Cullen was a pretty new Christian, married with no children. When he was baptized there were also high school students baptized that day and he saw something that caught his heart. An electrical engineer with strong relational gifts, Cullen thrived when we was turned loose with projects that allowed him to engage kids in making a difference. Whether it was planning out service projects, helping with Eagle Scout projects, going on mission trips, Cullen encouraged kids by walking with them. Now, 10 years later, he is still there and has started his own STEM program as a way to minister to homeschool students.

Calling and Passion

Each of these adults are examples of people who discovered their calling to ministry, which, coupled with their passion with youth, have made them lifetime ministers, not temporary volunteers. As a result, youth have people who are connected into their lives for the long haul. Youth are connected to the Body of Christ because the Body of Christ is committed to them.

Youth are connected to the Body of Christ because the Body of Christ is committed to them.

As leaders, our job is not just to look for volunteers—although I totally understand the desperation of the moment. It is to help people find their calling to ministry. That means, if they aren’t called to youth ministry, turn them loose and encourage them to discover where they are called.  I believe this is what Paul meant in Ephesians 4:16: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” 

Come and See

One of the methods I use is the “come and see” approach. I invite people to just come and see, hang out for a month and see if God is putting this ministry on their heart. Rather than just throwing people into the fire, I want to allow them to discern where God is calling them. I find this gives people great freedom to explore and discover.

God calls us a royal priesthood and a holy nation in 1 Peter 2:9. This isn’t just the lead youth worker or the pastor, but all believers! Think about how you discovered your call to ministry. How qualified were you the first time someone gave you the reins?

While it may be scary to give away parts of a ministry you understand to be yours, it is necessary, both for youth and the larger church. When we do an effective job of recruiting leaders who are called and give them space to live into that calling, two amazing things happen: 1) Youth receive love and care for the long haul, and 2) Youth get connected to Christ and His community for a lifetime.

How would your youth ministry look differently if your leaders had permission to live out their calls among your students? If you don’t know, why don’t you come and see? This week, watch what happens when your volunteers are set free to love and serve—to pursue their calling.

About the Author: Drew Hulse

Drew Hulse

Drew is a youth ministry veteran with almost 40 years of experience. His last two calls were for 21 years as Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry in Vancouver, WA and 8 years as Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry in Honolulu, HI. Drew has had the opportunity to train over 100 interns, while mentoring new youth workers across the West Coast. He has M. Div. and a D. Min. in Youth and Family, both from Fuller Theological Seminary. Drew and his wife, Cathy, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They recently moved from Kailua, HI to Tucson, AZ, in order to be close to their two grandkids.

Stop the Chaos

Video: Stop the Chaos

Emily Felgenhauer gave this presentation, titled Stop the Chaos, at the annual Youth Ministry Academy conference in Orlando, Florida. This event was presented in conjunction by the Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and was sponsored by Kindred Youth Ministry.

Below the video you can find the transcription, if you prefer to read Emily’s content, as well as images and links from the presentation.


Good morning everyone!

I’m so excited to be here, I love talking with youth ministers cause you get it, we get it, not a lot of people get it. So I’m so glad that we are all here together this morning.

This documentary called Race to Nowhere was done in 2010 and it calls us to challenge current thinking about how we prepare our children for success. It features heartbreaking stories of students across the country who’ve been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing, and relentless pressure to achieve. Race to Nowhere points to a silent epidemic in schools through the testimony of educators and parents and educational experts. It reveals an educational system where cheating is the common place for our students. Students have become disengaged they have stress related illnesses like depression and burn out is rampant among our students and young people arrive at college and the work place unprepared and uninspired.

Stop the Chaos - Emily Felgenhauer

So I want to ask you guys, I need some audience participation her, I want to give you some scenario’s I’ve encountered in the 10 years that I have been in ministry and I just want to see if you’ve encountered them to with your families and your students. So if this is you, if you relate, if you can stand.

So the first one is – How many of you have noticed that your youth program dwindles in attendance in as the school year goes on because kids are in extracurricular activities and they have taken over? Okay, alright thanks.

Here’s the second question – Do you often hear your students tell you that they have too much homework or need to study for a test and that’s why they can’t make it church? Wow, okay.

And the last one – Do you have students who seem to be going a million miles a minute trying to keep up with the pace that has been set by them, by their parents, their peers, their schools, and the colleges that they are applying to? Please stand.

This is our America. This is what’s happening to our students. Thank you so much for participating and honestly it made me feel lot better because I’ve gone through the ringer about this and I’ll get to why.

How does the church fit into the chaotic schedules of our students? Are we part of the problem? We’re going to discuss today, and today my workshops I’m going to be talking at 2 and then again at 3:45 about some ways that we can help stop the chaos that our students are going through.

So it is clear chaos that ours students have little to know down time, right? Because they have so much going on. So many youth are over achievers and they strive to have several above average classes like AP classes and IB classes, it’s more unheard of now to hear of students not in extracurricular activities.

How does the church fit into the chaotic schedules of our students? Are we part of the problem?

So according to a survey done in December of 2015 by PEW research center about 7 in 10 parents, 73%, with at list one child the age 6-17 say that their children participated in sports or athletics in the last 12 months prior to the survey, okay. So most of the time, school activities take up several nights in a week and especially weekends too while we are doing programming.

A group of professors from Stanford and Villanova had been collecting data since 2007 on the issue of ‘how much is too much’ when it comes to managing after school activities. They surveyed 8,838 students attending 15 different schools, 9 were private schools and 6 were public. The magic number is 20 hours. That’s where they started to see some health issues with our kids. The kids spend an average of 9.6 hours, Monday thru Friday on outside activities and that is an average, meaning half of those students were over that number. And this with private schools putting in 20% more time than the public school students.

When do they study? When do they get their homework done? When do they have social life? And when do they actually get alone time just to be with themselves? When do they get family time?

You know if you’ve got programming and Sunday nights like we do, that’s when I hear the most push back for families and from parents saying, this is the only time we get to spend as a family. It’s hard.

So, according to US news report in June of 2015, the national sleep foundation recommends that adolescence get 8-10 hours of sleep each night. However, High School students, drawn from dozens of high performing High Schools from across the country, report an average of 6 hours during the week nights. Again, an average, meaning half of them get less than that.

I know that you feel the stress of your kids and your parents and I have heard many from my youth director friends that it makes them want to pull their hair out at the thought of the constant battle of trying to make church a priority with families, when the reality is success has become the priority of our kids.

Harvard Graduate School of Education released a project in 2016 called, Turning the Tide. It’s a report that has concerns for students going to the college admissions process. It says that Generation Z, students who were born from 1995 to 2010, are obsessed with personal success over their own common good. Which means that they are involved in extracurricular activities and higher level classes in order to find personal success over balance of what we truly now is good for them, for their heart and their soul which of course we say ‘it’s church and Jesus.’

It’s becomes so obvious that our students are completely stressed out and over worked with their busy schedules, even colleges are responding with solutions to help our children chill out. So let’s take a look at this clip from Today’s Show, it was done in January of last year, and it addresses the pressures that High School students have and how it’s getting greater and greater and greater. And several ivy leagues schools are calling for some stunning changes, let’s take a quick look.

Alright, so this is a three year process that just came out last year. We’ve got two years still to go to see colleges actually making significant changes and getting the word out to our kids that they don’t need to be doing so much. So, colleges are noticing our depressed students as they’re coming in and colleges are adjusting. So, it’s time we as the church that we take knowledge of this and we adjust as well.

You know I will get so frustrated at my parents and our you know our students, why aren’t they making church a priority? Why aren’t they making God a priority? So I aired my frustrations to my leadership team one day and they’re made up of parents and small group leaders and I just shared, you know, like ‘what’s going on with our kids, our attendance is going down?!’ like ‘why are they in so much many extracurricular activities? …all this kind of stuff.’

Colleges are noticing our depressed students as they’re coming in and colleges are adjusting. So, it’s time we as the church… adjust as well.

And I have one of my parents, one small group leaders, her name is Anne Crownan, and she has students that are in my programming and she shared the frustration that she felt as well as a parent. And, you know you know sometimes her kids, she’s always there on Sunday night, she is always a faithful volunteer but sometimes her kids miss church, they miss programming, they miss events but her mom is usually there, her mom’s made the commitment, but their kids has such crazy schedules.

You know, she’s got two daughters; one’s a freshman, her name is Julia, and the other is a junior, and her name is Suzanna. Both of them go to two different magnet schools to specialize in their fields, so eventually major in college. Julia the youngest, precious little thing next to the tree, she wants to be a professional trumpet player, and Suzanna, standing by her daddy, wants to be a veterinarian.

So, Anne shared with me in the meeting that night the real struggle and frustration of the expectations that those two girls’ schools have put on their family, have put on their family. She’s not excited to run her youngest daughter back and forth to marching band practice, and she’s got an ankle injury that she has to hurry up and get ready for marching season to make sure Julie can do it. Suzanna doesn’t drive yet and she has to do experience for veterinarian school, at farms, at veterinarian offices, at pet stores. All that kind of stuff. And she babysits to make some money too – to eventually buy a car. So you know their driving all over!

You have the exact same families in your youth program. You know exactly what I am talking about.

So after they get home from logging for hours, for their specific fields, then they have to still do homework, right? So their up until the middle of the night and Anne and her husband are like ‘our daughters aren’t getting sleep, their like malnutritioned.’ Like you know they’re going through the ringer about this.

This is not a choice that Anne would have chosen for her daughters, but this is what expected of them to the school system.

You know this was really enlightening to me to hear Anne’s story because I don’t have kids yet and you know at the end of the day, just like all of us, I just want to do a good job at youth ministry. I do! You know, and honestly, there were some hard adjustments that I needed to make, and how I was viewing family priorities.

There was also some program adjustments that I wanted to talk to my leadership team about, you know with how do we make quality programs and a time with our students really matter? We need to stop the chaos of over-programming and we need to start helping parents escape the success driven pressures that society has created.

You know through the years after I referred myself as Martha in scripture. You guys know the story, Marian Martha was sisters and Jesus comes and spends time with them and Martha is busy in the kitchen and you know she was doing stuff around the house. She wants to be the “hostess with mostest”. And their her sister Mary sitting on Jesus’s you know feet, listening to him, taking in every word and Martha’s like ‘I need some help Mary.’ You know and she goes to Jesus, ‘Can you please ask Mary to help?’ and Jesus says ‘No, but Mary’s doing is a good thing.’ It’s a good thing.

We need to stop the chaos of over-programming and we need to start helping parents escape the success-driven pressures that society has created.

I know the truth of the matter for me is I needed to own that I was making students attendance to our programming and the church more of my priority that the success of our students growing in relationship with their Savior. Ouch. So I could relate to them, I could relate to them.

My success is my career right? Youth Ministry. I was wanting our families to make church a priority because that’s how I would look successful, and I needed to own the reality that I related with our students in this area. I want to look successful in my life and career. Would guilting them work? No. Would complaining about them work? No.

It’s our job as the church to work with families to help unify them with God. We as a church need to look at our programs and how we are creating space for families to strengthen and grow. It’s our job to come alongside them and be their cheerleaders and not guilt trip them, which I was doing.

You know according to Miriam Webster, success is labeled: the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect or fame. Our students and parents are being groomed by our higher education that if they take the harder classes, they take more curricular activities, which causes them to stay up later, sleep less, and aim for perfection in grades and competition amongst their peers, that this will lead them to a successful life. We as the church can come alongside them and offer our families, parenting classes on how to relieve stress and be the bright light to them in their future.

We can stop over programming and look at our programs to be more quality oriented than quantity. We can be their cheerleader even when they’re too busy to come to church and help them feel valued, loved and wanted without putting pressure on them. They’re getting pressure from everywhere.

You know Jesus told Martha, the fact that Mary was sitting with Him and just being with Him was right instead of being too busy and over stress and chaotic. This is contrary of what American success driven culture is telling our families and our students. I’m naturally an A type personality and I’m detail-oriented I’m a doer by nature. So my next step of wanting to make some real changes for our program and for our families wants to answer the question of how? ‘How are we going to be a participant in stopping the chaos?’

During my workshops today we will be exploring more of implementing these things and discussing practical ways for any ministry and any minister to be part of the solution and not the problem of our society’s chaos and drive for success. Thank you.

About the Author: Emily Felgenhauer

Emily FelgenhauerEmily Felgenhauer is a graduate of Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee, Illinois, with a degree in communications and the Youth Ministry Institute in Orlando, Florida. At a Chrysalis retreat her freshman year of high school her life changed. From that point, “I understood what a ‘relationship with Jesus’ really meant,” she says. Emily is the proud aunt of two nephews, She has a chocolate lab, Bear, “who means the world to me.” She currently is the youth minister at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. Emily teaches Delivering an Effective Message for the Youth Ministry Institute.

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.

Reimagining Missions

Video: Reimagining the Missions Trip

This week we would like to share the full teaching from Tyler Fuller on Reimagining the Missions Trip. Tyler taught this session at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.

Youth ministry veteran and Flagler alumni, Tyler is currently the missions pastor at a church in the Florida panhandle. Over his years of ministry, he has had the opportunity to participate, lead, and plan mission trips all over the globe. We are excited to share a bit of his experience and insight with you all.

Excerpts from Tyler Fuller:

“So if at the end of this, you’re thinking mission trips are bad, then this has been a failure. But what I would like us to be thinking about is, we know we are going to do this, right? Your church and your community should be doing mission work. A better way to think about it is – how might we do it better?

Reimagining the Missions Trip

“What we do, when we send the kid to do a job that someone else is capable of, is that we are saying to that person, ‘you don’t really know what you are doing, or maybe you know what you’re doing, but we have the power here, so just move out of the way and let us do the job.’ And so I think the primary question we can ask to kind of help redirect us and how we think about mission trips is – what do our groups have to offer? What are our assets? What do we bring to the field?

What we do, when we send the kid to do a job that someone else is capable of, is that we are saying to that person, “you don’t really know what you are doing, or maybe you know what you’re doing, but we have the power here, so just move out of the way and let us do the job.”


“…the good news is we are a good fit for a lot of things… I think the magic sauce of any good student ministry mission trip is building relationships. Your kids know how to build relationships. And the places we go, everybody needs relationship, right? You’re not going to cause harm if you go explicitly to build and nurture relationships. And if you do that well, overtime you’re going to have a better and better sense of what it is that the field needs because you know the field and the field knows you.”

I think the magic sauce of any good student ministry mission trip is building relationships.

Tyler Fuller - Reimagining the missions trip

“And so, if we’re going to aim our trips more towards relationships, it takes a lot of teaching to our kids to make that experience valuable. And I think what we’re trying teach a kid, if you’re saying that building relationships is more important, is that ‘perhaps your experience on a trip is less important then what we’re actually doing on the field. I know that you want to use a hammer, but guess what, they asked us to do VBS and I know you don’t work like working with kids.  Maybe this isn’t the right mission trip for you, because the field wants us to work with kids and that’s what we’re doing.

And so that’s a hard lesson, right? Especially if you’re a people pleaser. and you know a lot of us in ministry are. It’s very hard to say to a kid who wants  to serve,  ‘Hey, this is how we are serving. It doesn’t fit what you want to do.’ But it’s also important to say, ‘perhaps your self-interest is less important then the mission we’re trying to pursue.‘”

“If we want to do this theologically, what we’re trying to do is honor the fact that every single one of us is built by the same God, in the same way, with the same power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not that we from churches with money, or we from the West, or we who travel have somehow different gifts from the Holy Spirit. Different gifts actually is a good way to say it. It’s not that we’re with gifts to a place where there are no gifts. It’s not like we’re coming with the Holy Spirit to a place where there is no God.

What we’re trying to do when we do trips in this way, build relationships and use our gifts, is honor what God is doing on the field, honor the fact that these people, like us, are built by God with skills and talents and abilities and power. And when we step into their place, we’re telling them they don’t have power and they don’t have skills. And we might not have the skills, but we have the power the show them that, right? We might not able to accomplish what they’re going to accomplish. But we can devalue them by the moving them out of the away.”

…what we’re trying to do is honor the fact that every single one of us is built by the same God, in the same way, with the same power of the Holy Spirit.

About the Author: Tyler Fuller
The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doingtyler fuller Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)
Everyone is an interim

Everyone Is an Interim: Sustainable Youth Ministry

Sustainable Youth MinistryMark DeVries’ book, Sustainable Youth Ministry, is a classic in the field. If you haven’t read it by now, and you’re involved in some way, shape, or form with youth ministry, I encourage you to go pick it up. Sensible, practical, pastoral, full of evocative examples and imagery, this is a deceptively simple book that’s also a must-have. Let me whet your appetite with what I consider to be not only the practical, but also the theological core of DeVries’ argument: “Everyone is an interim” (p. 92).

That’s right. Every single person in ministry is an interim. No one is permanent. Or, as the Psalmist might put it: “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15–16).

Everyone is An Interim

Nobody Stays Forever

I don’t particularly like this insight. I don’t like to think about the fact that, some day, I will be gone. But it’s true. At some point in time, I will no longer exist. In an even shorter amount of time, the ministry I care about so much will probably no longer be under my care. And, truth be told, even the longest serving ministers only stay with one ministry for a few decades.

The majority of ministers hang around for even less time. “The average youth minister,” writes DeVries, “serves a single church for 3.9 years,” or, put another way, the span of seeing one cohort of young people through the four years of high school (p. 92). Now, DeVries was writing a decade ago. Perhaps youth ministers stay longer than that nowadays. But even if a youth minister stays in one place for a decade, eventually, one day, she will leave.

But even if a youth minister stays in one place for a decade, eventually, one day, she will leave.

But, as DeVries goes on to argue, this is the point. If we actually come to grips with the interim nature of our particular participation in a particular ministry, “Those of us in ministry might free ourselves just a bit from the tantalizing illusion of our own indispensability” (p. 93). And so, indeed, might those alongside whom we are serving.

In fact, hopefully, this realization will help us direct ministry toward God and toward the world, instead of centering it on ourselves. “Maybe,” DeVries encourages us, “that interim title would help churches and search committees come to grips with the fact that they are never searching for the youth director but for someone who can, for a season, steward a vision much larger than themselves” (p. 93).

Playing Our Role in God’s Story

This insight changes the entire character of ministry. Interims, DeVries suggests, “proactively prepare the way for a future that does not include them. Interims are midwives, not mothers” (p. 92).

This is the theological and practical core of Sustainable Youth Ministry. If we’re no longer searching for the person, but paying attention to what God is doing and the structures that enable us to participate in what God is doing, we just might catch a glimpse of this larger vision and make steps to participate in it over the long haul. This makes our ministries “sustainable,” not in the sense that even the ministries will exist forever, but that, by taking part in what God is doing, they take part in something lasting. Again, as the psalmist would say, “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children” (Psalm 103:17).

The Work of God

These kinds of ministries are also sustainable because they rely less on our effort and more on God. If we switch from the Psalms to the prophets, we might be reminded of Isaiah 40. The prophet echoes the psalmist: “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:7–8). The prophet is told to cry out in order to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (Isaiah 40:3–4).

This is the structural work that DeVries calls for: leveling the “dance floor,” so that ministry can proceed with grace—even if that’s a messy grace (p. 52)! In this way, ministry might even be seen as less about what we do than what we don’t do. How do we clear the way for God to work? How can ministry be about getting out of God’s way?

How do we clear the way for God to work? How can ministry be about getting out of God’s way?

In doing so, we learn to cast ourselves upon the one who “does not faint or grow weary,” but who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isaiah 40:29). After all, “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:30–31).

Sustain Youth Ministry

There’s a reason we understand God as a Sustainer—God is the one who creates and preserves all life. Ultimately, the youth ministry in which we serve is not ours to sustain, but God’s. So take Isaiah 40 seriously. Remember that the youth ministry work we do is always interim work, in which we play second fiddle to the work God has been doing, is doing, and will continue doing long after we leave.

Let us sustain youth ministry by giving it back over, fully and completely, to the Lord who began the good work.May it be so in our ministries and in our lives.

About the Author: Marcus Hong

Marcus HongMarcus A. Hong is a child of God. He’s also the Director of Field Education and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a PhD Candidate in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary, and a cultivator of worship who has served in congregations, college chapels, and youth groups for over fifteen years. Marcus loves movies, fantasy literature, poetry and songwriting, and, alongside his brilliant wife Sarah, has his hands blessedly full raising two precocious children.

Food Games & Fart Jokes

Food Games, Fart Jokes, & Youth Ministry

Food games are the “Fart Jokes” of student ministry meetings. Actually, fart jokes are the “Fart Jokes” of student ministry meetings. Food games are the Adam Sandler of student ministry meetings. They appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Food Games & Fart Jokes

Somehow, instinctively, we know that they will work—they’ll be a hit. But just like every Adam Sandler movie after Big Daddy, we also sense that they are truly terrible. This seems like a good time to say, I’m about to get on a soap box. I’d apologize, but I’m already kind of worked up.

The Temptation to Be Relevant

Henri Nouwen warns Christian leaders of our need to put on a show, because we are terrified of ministering from a place of vulnerability. Appealing to the lowest common denominator is one tool we have for proving our relevance. We demonstrate our power by soliciting a predictable response from students; we know we are good because we can get a laugh, or a teardrop.

This temptation rears its head in the bowels of every Hell house scaring kids towards repentance and in the perfectly timed slick production of our laser-light worship bands. We need to know we can do it, and pandering affirms that we can.

Either our group has kids in it whose homes don’t have all of the food they need or our group has no kids who have ever wanted for food. In the first case, playing food games is callous to their needs. In the second case, we are teaching them to be callous and unaware of the suffering of others.

This is a matter of our insecurity, it’s about us needing to know we are capable. When we follow our insecurity down the rabbit hole, we end up compromising our integrity. Our issues get projected towards our group, and everyone suffers. This is sin—we need to deal with it.

Now, onto the food games.

On The Scarcity of Provisions

I once stopped eating meat for two years because of a John Wesley sermon. He laid out some air-tight logic in a 250 year old argument about the price of bread-corn. It goes like this:

IF:  People (in England) are starving
AND:  The amount of corn being distilled into alcohol contributes to food scarcity
AND:  Scarcity is driving up food prices
AND:  The high price of food is a major factor in people’s suffering
THEN:  For God’s sake let’s stop drinking alcohol, and give the people their corn!

He goes on to make the same argument for a number of staple crops:

Oats are fed to horses, let’s raise fewer horses and replace them with pigs and chickens. Then we can eat oats, pigs, and chickens at lower prices!

I said I was getting on to food games. I am.

Don’t Be Evil

No lie, I was once leading a game where we covered a student’s face in whip cream and threw cheese balls at him. A kid in the back interrupted the game and said “I could have eaten those cheese balls” and he was not kidding. I had no idea our stupid game would affect that kid, I just wanted a laugh. In trying to break down walls, I was building them.

Either our group has kids in it whose homes don’t have all of the food they need or our group has no kids who have ever wanted for food. In the first case, playing food games is callous to their needs. In the second case, we are teaching them to be callous and unaware of the suffering of others.

We play food games because they work, and kids laugh, and memories are created. I get it. I played food games, for years. But the bottom line is wasting food is irresponsible. Find a better way, revel in your vulnerability as a leader.  Shoot higher even if you miss more often. Create memories, make kids laugh, break down walls; but for God’s sake quit wasting food.

About the Author: Tyler Fuller
The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doingtyler fuller Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)