If Only Game in YM

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.


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


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.


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.


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.

Ministering out of Community - Les Comee

Video: Ministering Out of Community

Youth Ministry veteran, Les Comee, teaches 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.



“Jesus begins with calling a group of people – instead of being alone.”

“‘Encourage – stand beside’ God’s people will know they’re saved when there are people standing beside them… Salvation equals community standing with each other.”

“Kids AND leaders want to belong.”

“We’re going to get together, and we’re going to eat, we’re going to enjoy food, we’re going to enjoy each other, and then we are going to share our lives… if you’re going to have a community or a real team – somebody has to hear the call of God and articulate this is what God wants us to do.”

Ministering out of Community - Les Comee

“We learn about community or team from our first community – our family.”

Les’ Childhood Family Rules 😉

  • If you have a problem in your life, there’s only one answer – you just work harder.
  • You never ask anyone else for help, you did it on your own
  • All boys in the family have to eat their peas.
  • If anybody needed a place to stay, our house was always open.

Community begins with the call. Jesus says to the disciples – come follow me. Pretty simple. My wife said let’s eat together and lets share our lives… Community begins with the call. Community continues with people standing beside each other. The community decides how they are going to do that. Not just the leader, but the community decides this is what that is going to look like…”

Community begins with the call. Jesus says to the disciples – come follow me.

Slowing Down

“We got this group of people and I still remember our first meeting when someone really listened to me. I thought – wow! What else I found out was as I listened that there were a lot of volunteers that were just about as tired as I was. And we needed to listen to each other and we needed to figure out how are we going to do this so that everybody isn’t burned out, tired, exhausted all the time. You know what amazing thing they came up with? We’re going to start playing with the kids. We’ll take them to the beach. We’ll jog with them. We’ll do all the stuff we like to do, but we’ll do it with the kids!”

What else I found out was as I listened that there were a lot of volunteers that were just about as tired as I was.

“Our problem as leaders (and I’m quoting Mike Yaconelli) our problem wasn’t sin, our problem was speed. We were going all the time. And we weren’t slowing up. And we weren’t listening. We weren’t paying attention to God. We were performing.”

“The Hebrew word for breath is the same word for Spirit – Ruah. So when you take a deep breath, you are breathing in God’s Spirit, God’s life. You’re having a mini sabbath, you’re renewing yourself. I know that’s true and I don’t do it enough.”

“Your team needs to learn how together to slow up, listen to the Lord, depend on God, play, relax.”


“If you are going to be in a real community, you are going to have conflicts. You are going to have different expectations, different hopes, different dreams, people are not going to come through for you… so you are going to have to learn how to deal with conflict.”

“If you’re going to help you team grow, or help your kids grow, speaking the truth in love makes a huge amount of difference.”

If you are going to be in a real community, you are going to have conflicts. You are going to have different expectations, different hopes, different dreams, people are not going to come through for you… so you are going to have to learn how to deal with conflict.

“Then, you walk with them, and walk with them, and walk with them, while they deal with what you said. And you ask them how they are doing with what you said. It’s not a one time ‘speak the truth in love’.”

“‘Speak the truth in love’ then you walk and walk and care and talk and listen. That’s how kids grow. That’s how your leaders grow. You shoot straight with them.”

“Transformation is a part of a process and you are a part of a process.”

YM in a Post-Christian World

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Two Corinthians

In the 2016 presidential primary race Donald Trump bungled the name of a book of the Bible. I heard the story over the radio in my car. It began with the quote “Two Corinthians 3:17…that’s the whole ball game…” I was alone and I laughed out loud. The follow-up to the story was an explanation of why evangelical voters would notice the gaffe. The commentator did not assume his audience would hear the difference between “second” and “two.” He laid it all out. We should be more like him.

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Preaching Was Easy in My Day!

I once heard a preacher at a Pentecostal revival explain how it was so easy to lead people to Christ when he was younger. He talked about how they already knew the Bible and had a sense of how to live, they were just running from their “default-Christian position.” He went on to about how now when someone comes to Christ their lives are a wreck and they have no sense of who God is or how to have relationship with God. That was in 1997, you can only imagine how that guy feels now.

But one thing is for sure: if American culture was ever Christian, it is no longer… America is in a post-Christian age.

I hear him, I get what he was trying to say. But I also doubt its veracity.  I mean, really, I’ve seen Mad Men…they weren’t all that holy. Just how Christian we were in the past, or what it means for a whole culture or country to be Christian—these are ideas worth exploring. But one thing is for sure: if American culture was ever Christian, it is no longer. Newsweek told us about it, The Washington Post agreed and National Geographic affirmed that the rise of “No Religion” is a world wide trend. The Christian press began wringing their hands and dreaming of new strategies in light of the stats. No one is arguing this fact, it’s just true: America is in a post-Christian age.

1) The Harvest Is Plentiful

You have to have a strategy for evangelism. You can’t just open the doors to the church and read the Bible. You are ministering to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith. How exciting is that? You have the opportunity to reach students who aren’t burdened with all of the complex and morally murky trappings of cultural Christianity.

If you are doing ministry with teenagers, You are a missionary. Even if you’re in the South. Even if your kids have parents who come to church every week. Especially if you live in a city. You are surrounded by kids who have no concept of relationship with God, kids whom God loves deeply, kids who are being drawn in by the power of the Spirit, kids who have no language to talk about faith and no sense of their place in the grand biblical story. That is exciting!

You are ministering to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith. How exciting is that? You have the opportunity to reach students who aren’t burdened with all of the complex and morally murky trappings of cultural Christianity.

2) Watch Your Language

Back to “Two Corinthians.” You would do well to shake loose the technical and loaded language the church has grown so accustomed to. You’ll need to work a little harder, but if you do you’ll communicate more clearly. Grace, Redemption, Sin, Fellowship, Accountability—these words are important to us, but you’re speaking to a generation who has been raised without ever hearing them. Explain the concepts clearly, and they’ll pay attention. Although they may not understand the words, they’ll recognize the concepts.

Quick Case Study:

If you step up in front of kids and say, “Turn to 1 John 4:16” then you are about to talk about a really great and beautiful passage. But if you immediately read the passage you have invariably lost some kids in your group. While it might sound like a silly question, ask yourself: is anyone turning? Or are they all holding phones? If they are turning, are you helping them get there?

While it may seem cumbersome, adding some simple instructions (e.g., “1 John is near the very end of the Bible, page 1,335 in this Blue Bible we are using,” or, “If you are using a smartphone just search ‘First John,’ then go to chapter 4.”) can really help young people to track with you.

3) Don’t ASSume

We shouldn’t assume kids share our common language of “Christian-ese.” We also shouldn’t count on them knowing Bible stories or theological concepts if we don’t help bring them along. When I write talks for students, I only use one or two Scripture references and I refer back to them repeatedly through the talk. This isn’t because I don’t love the Bible, but because I don’t think students keep pace the way mature Christians do. For those of us who have heard most Scriptures hundreds of times, we can hear a reference, plug it in, and keep moving. “Post-Christian” teenagers will need some time and work to get there. So go deep, using fewer stories and references.

4) Rise To the Occasion!

It’s not a value judgment to recognize that our teens are living in a post-Christian culture. It’s just a statement of fact. We have the opportunity to teach theological ideas, from the ground up. If it’s true that kids are mostly unfamiliar with the Bible, we have the opportunity to make them familiar. We are at the front lines with brilliant students, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

That Pentecostal preacher in 1997 was a fool to complain about his lot in ministry. He should have been celebrating the opportunity to live and preach the Gospel to a generation who does not take it for granted. That is our lot, let’s celebrate and get to work!

About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doing 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!)

Youth Ministry & Mental Health - Sarah Kamienski

Video: Youth Ministry & Mental Health – Interview with Sarah Kamienski

In this video, our own Zach Gurick talks to Sarah Kamienski, licensed mental health counselor and faculty at Flagler College, about youth ministry and mental health.

This interview took place after Sarah’s presentation on Youth Ministry and Mental Health at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. Be on the lookout for her full presentation to be released in an upcoming post!


Zach Gurick: So hey! We’re sitting here with Sarah Kamienski. And you just spoke at the Flagler Youth Forum for Youth Ministry, about adolescents and mental health. And you are a licensed mental health counselor and you’ve been doing that for?

Sarah Kamienski: 15 years.

Zach: 15 years, so a lot of experience working with adolescents and mental health obviously. And we are talking about youth workers today so, what would be the ideal scenario for you if a youth worker were to call you and say ‘Hey Sarah, I need some help, I have these students that are having these challenges.” What would you say to youth workers about that situation?

Youth Ministry & Mental Health - Sarah Kamienski

Sarah: Great question. I wish more youth workers would do that to be honest. I would probably be amazed at first, because that has happened so little in my experience, much more recently. But my first probably reaction would be, to could kind of just, that typically happens in crisis, so I would probably walk through, is there eminent danger in this very specific situation? Kind of walk through on what is happening.

But kind of going forward preventative, that kind of thing, I’d probably encourage them to get to know me, to add me to the rolodex of excellent list of people who could be called. I think one of the best things that youth ministers can do is sort of recognize when they are kind of hitting the lid of their own competence. And when they need to get help from a professional.

Just calling me and saying ‘Hey Sarah, this is what just happened.’ If you know me and have a relationship with me it’s a lot easier than just like panicking, you know ‘what would we do next I have a girl who’s cutting and she’s wanting to kill herself’.

So I would say preventatively, seek out a few counselors in your area, cultivate relationships with them so that you could have an ongoing relationship there. And then additionally I would love to… (Excuse me) I just talked to a youth pastor about this 2 days ago – as a counselor I would love to like partner with you and depending on your obviously your church and what is your situation is. But if you are interested in a kind of training yourself, your staff, and the other youth volunteers that you have to kind of go over, some of just the basics of listening, kind of crisis intervention, you know – is this an ongoing problem? is this a crisis? what is our protocol? and that kind of thing.

I think just talking about having conversations about those things can sort of help people know what to do so they don’t panic, they are not acting reactively, but instead they are offering soul care that is consistent with who they want to be as youth ministers.

Zach: Soul care… that’s a good word…

Sarah: Yeah

…just having conversations about those things can sort of help people know what to do so they don’t panic, they are not acting reactively, but instead they are offering soul care that is consistent with who they want to be as youth ministers.

Zach: So maybe having a bit of a plan and a place, having those relationships built ahead of time rather than, ‘Oh my gosh! This just happened, now what would I do?’

Sarah: If possible, don’t wait for the crisis – try to identify a few people in the area in advance who could be helpful in working alongside.

Zach: Do you have some partnerships like that; you mentioned you spoke with a youth pastor a couple days ago. Do you have partnerships here locally; is that an ongoing thing for you?

If possible, don’t wait for the crisis – try to identify a few people in the area in advance who could be helpful in working alongside.

Sarah: I think it’s kind of a thing on the rise and I’ve just kind of entered into the youth ministry department at Flagler. But I would say every connection that I make with the youth minister, the more we talk, the more their face kind of lights up and oh, there is hope here, there are answers to some of these problems. And by answers I just mean, an ability to learn how to create a safe space for someone to be where they are, because that’s, in general, what we do in counseling. But just knowing what kind of framework is for that, I think is really helpful and it dismantles a lot of fear.

Zach: Yeah I would say, thank you so much for what you are doing. In 15 years of youth ministry experience there have been, many times where I hit that competency and been way over my head. Just having someone like you as a partner that is involved would be an amazing gift.

Sarah: Absolutely, thank you.

Zach: Appreciate it.

Interview Steve Schneeberger

VIDEO: The Teenage Brain – Interview with Steve Schneeberger

In this video, our own Zach Gurick talks to Steve Schneeberger of the Youth Ministry Institute.  YMI empowers youth ministers to become skilled and effective leaders.

This interview took place after Steve’s presentation on The Teenage Brain at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.  Click here for the full presentation.


Zach: Ok so we’re sitting here with Steve Schneeberger at the Flagler Youth Forum Ministry, Youth Ministry Conference and Steve you just spoke about Adolescent Development and what is actually going on in their brains as they are growing and developing. And so would you share, we have maybe 2000-3000 youth workers out there watching this video, it is really important for us to as youth workers how we can help them in this context of adolescents. What is actually happening in the brain of adolescents?

Steve: There is probably a funny answer to that too right? Not much or a lot, or it’s all confused. But what really is happening is that they feel a lot and we need to pay more attention to their feelings than maybe their thoughts. Their thoughts are important also, but sometimes we want to go right for what they know, as opposed to how they are feeling about what they know.

Interview Steve Schneeberger

Zach: Yeah you’re focusing on their feelings and the emotional rather than on just what they are thinking?

Steve: Yeah and also activating the part of their brain that likes to take risk and allowing them to take risks in ways that they are actually safe for them. You know, white water rafting, those types of things or simply getting up in front of a group of people and speaking or sharing their story. And those things help develop their brain and develop them spiritually really is what we’re after.

Zach: Okay so giving them opportunities to really participate and to embody this, whether it’s white water rafting and jumping off a ramp at the end of a ropes course. I mean all high-risk kind of adventure type things.

Steve: Yeah those ropes courses and initiative games, those play right into the teenagers’ brain. Really it’s what they need and make spiritual connections, emotional connections for them that they will remember for a lifetime. We tend to rely too much on what we say to them in a sermon or a lesson, and it is really the experiences and those things that are connected emotionally that they will remember over time.

We tend to rely too much on what we say to them in a sermon or a lesson- it’s really the experiences and those things that are connected emotionally that they will remember over time.

Zach: Well that makes a ton of sense and that’s really helpful and so I think sometimes like you said, ‘oh the ropes course, it’s fun or oh yeah let’s go white water rafting’ but it’s actually molding and forming these neural grooves on their brain that are going to be remembered for a lifetime.

Steve: Yeah, the mistake that we make is when we do those activities we do them because they’re fun, instead of drawing spiritual connections, and  close out the loop on their experiences as being also spiritual. I mean risk taking is pretty pivotal to our own spiritual experience of being Christian, so it would be important to draw that back for them as they move forward in life.

…the mistake that we make is when we do those activities we do them because they’re fun, instead of drawing spiritual connections…

Zach: That’s fantastic, thanks for sharing that. Let’s shift directions, you also lead the Youth Ministry Institute, you do a lot of coaching for youth workers, can you tell us a little about that?

Steve: Yeah, primarily we are an on-the-job training program for youth ministers. So we take people that are working in the context of the local church and we train them. Once a month we meet with them and give them some instruction, but more importantly we also, along with that, coach them. So they have a personal coach, they meet them with their own region monthly and then they also meet in a cohort with the coach and other youth ministers to do some personal development, and things that we develop. (That’s fantastic.) We see a lot of mileage out of the coaching and the personal development, which actually we segmented off this year so they can do that, without the instruction, (Oh that’s great). It’s a lower price point and allows people to really still continue to grow and feel supported, which is critical for youth ministers.

Zach: Yeah fantastic, how can people get a hold of you or join a cohort or sign up and get some coaching?

Steve: We have a website is really the main address and there is a phone number which is my cellphone so they can talk to me about that and ask me questions and there is an inquiry form that they can ask questions for that also.

Zach: that’s the place. Thank you so much Steve. Thanks for all you’re doing…

Steve: Thanks. Thank you

Meaning & Wonder of Youth

The Meaning and Wonder of Youth

Science is important, perhaps more important than ever. We face all kinds of crises that require some diligent scientific discernment and intentional action. But are we, as youth workers, prepared to talk about science with the young people in our churches? Are we interested in answering the questions that young people are actually asking and wondering about?

I think we’ve been assuming way too much about what the real relevant questions are right now, and you know what happens to you and me when we assume….

Meaning & Wonder of Youth

What Questions Are We Answering?

If someone decided to peruse all the available resources that are designed for youth workers trying to facilitate a conversation about science in their youth ministry, it’d be easy for them to conclude that the only question science really addresses is, “How did we get here?” One could easily conclude that science is just a big investigation into the earth’s origins because almost all of the ministry resources out there only seem interested in this one issue when it comes to science.

Our preoccupation with origins—the “how” and “where” questions—has a long history I won’t fully get into here, but they are what several generations have considered to be the real front-line, the “Normandy beach,” in the war between faith and science. The question, in this preoccupation, is about evolution.

Can you believe in evolution, the theory that’s currently accepted in one form or another by 97% of the scientific community, and still be a Christian? That is the question that most youth workers, according to what’s out there, need to be answering. And with this presupposition, the various resources available either say “yes” or “no” to that question—they are there either to divide science from faith or to synchronize them.

What Questions Are Young People Asking?

But in all youth ministry’s preoccupation over the apparent tension between faith and science, it appears, according to Andrew Root’s research at Science for Youth Ministry, that young people aren’t even feeling this tension. There’s no battle. While youth workers are busy answering the “how” and “where” questions, young people are asking, “So what?” and, “Why?”

In the face of real immanent crises in the world, the young people in our churches don’t need answers about how old the earth is or whether or not Darwin was right about anything. Our young people’s questions are much more existential—“What is the meaning of all of this?” “Where in the world is God?”

You would think that youth ministers would be pros at addressing these questions. After all, we’re much more concerned with the actual theological questions about science…. aren’t we? Huh?

But that’s the problem. In our preoccupation with evolution and the origins of the earth, we’ve missed our opportunity to address those questions. In the face of naturalistic descriptions of life and its origins, we’ve just been trying to offer a different and “biblical” description… we’re in a tug-of-war of description. But we don’t need more description. What we need is meaning.

Re-Encountering Wonder

In his post, Blair Bertrand writes about the need for wonder. The question of meaning is all about wonder. It takes a real sense of wonder—seeing beyond description and beyond ourselves—to investigate the question of meaning. As Bertrand writes, “…at the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry should pay attention to this for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.”

But we don’t need more description. What we need is meaning.

The German theologian, Wolfhart Pannenberg, argued for the importance of meaning and wonder in his 1976 theological masterpiece, Theology and the Philosophy of Science. According to Pannenberg, “…description by means of natural laws cannot deal with a particular but essential aspect of the human world, that of the perception of meaning.” Pannenberg recognized that, when it comes to what we’re willing to consider relevant to science, we’ve got a real meaning problem on our hands.

We’re trained to think of the more measurable things in life as more real—and our preoccupation with evolution only aggravates this tendency—but reality includes the immeasurable question of meaning. Reality includes not only the question of “how “and “where,” but the “why” question too. 

For Pannenberg, this “why” question always leads to God. In ignoring the “why” question, in worrying so much about evolution, we’ve actually left God out of the conversation. But just as Augustine said, addressing God, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” In the same way, our minds are restless until our questions open us to encounter God.

In ignoring the “why” question, in worrying so much about evolution, we’ve actually left God out of the conversation.

Meaning Matters

“But hey there!” you might be saying, “If we’re in such a crisis—an environmental crisis or what-have-you—shouldn’t we be helping young people address it directly? Doesn’t description and scientific process matter?” The answer is yes. We do have crises on our hands and we need our young people’s generation to address them (that’s why the education crisis is a crisis too). But if we cannot offer meaning to these descriptions—if we can’t encounter God in all of this—we won’t be properly motivated to address these issues in the first place. We need to know why any of it matters.

So what kinds of conversations have you had about science in your youth ministry? How is science implicitly or explicitly addressed? Do you offer space for young people to address the “why” question? Have you opened a space for young people not only to know about God but to wonder in the face of immeasurable meaning? Or have you foreclosed on the question of meaning by answering the wrong question?

Make space in your youth group for the “why” question this year. Don’t just investigate facts, like the “what,” the “how”, or the “where”—inject meaning into them by offering the “so what” and the “why.” Set an example for your young people, and show them the need for meaning and wonder, since through wonder, they will encounter the living God.

The WonderFull God

To read more on this topic, check out Blair Bertrand’s recent post: The Wonder-Full God: Science, Faith, and Wonder in Youth Ministry.


Science for Youth MinistryAlso, want faith and science in conversation? Join the conversations—between scientists, authors, pastors, theologians, and philosophers with Science for Youth Ministry.  Visit for some great resources.


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.

youth, volunteer hours, and social media

Youth, Volunteer Hours, and Social Media: A Service Conundrum

Finding a Safe House

In 2015, my husband and I found ourselves briefly living in Ronald McDonald House. The previous nine months had been riddled with anxiety as I visited specialists two or three times a week throughout my pregnancy. After a series of complications and tests, doctors were preparing us for the worst.

youth, volunteer hours, & social media

In September, however, my beautiful baby boy was born with an unexpected capacity to breathe on his own. After a minor surgery, they monitored him in the NICU. They couldn’t tell us how long we would be there while they gave him medical attention—a couple of days? A couple of weeks? Probably more like several months. And so, we found ourselves living away from our daughter, in Ronald McDonald House, trying to keep it together. This was the hardest time in my life. I was fatigued, depressed and on edge.

Ronald McDonald House was a safe house for my husband and me in many ways. Without it I’m not sure how we would have managed. The staff was immensely supportive and it really felt like our home away from home. We spent most of our day at the NICU, being with our son. When we came back to Ronald McDonald it was usually for meals. Daily, folks donated dinner to Ronald McDonald House. It was usually pizza or sandwiches.

Service with Strings Attached

On one particular day, we arrived in the kitchen to find an entire Moe’s buffet complete with queso. We were beyond excited—in times like this, the littlest thing is worth celebrating. As we made our way into the kitchen, however, we noticed that there was a group of six or seven people we didn’t recognize standing around with name tags. It became clear that a department from a local corporation had donated the food and had decided to stick around. We tried to smile politely while making our way to the food—but as we sat down, we were joined by one of the visitors.

Dinner was usually our time to check-in with one another as husband and wife, to make plans for the next day—should we ask one of our parents to bring our daughter up for a visit?—and to make crude and inappropriate jokes (when we’re in survival mode, we revert to humor neither of us are proud of). But this particular evening, dinner was a time to answer a stranger’s list of inquiries about our son. Things that were so raw and sensitive for me, that it was painful to discuss with a stranger (add in post-partum hormones and you have yourself all sorts of fun). She was well-meaning, and I knew that, but remember that Ronald McDonald House was our home. Imagine a stranger walking into your home, sitting down at your dining room table, and asking a long list of personal questions. And because she had volunteered her time and money, we felt obligated to answer. It felt, well—icky.

A Service Conundrum

It’s been nearly two years since that experience, and Friday night I found myself with a group of seven middle and high school students from my youth group preparing and serving dinner to folks experiencing homelessness. We do this on a monthly basis and every time I’m asked to be sure to take photos either for social media or for school projects—and I always feel… stuck.

The clients congregate in a room outside of the kitchen at the shelter. There is a large opening that serves as a window into the kitchen. This is where clients line up for their meal, and as we cook the meal, we can be seen. As the kids prepare the food and I meander around the kitchen interacting with them and supervising them, every time I think about lifting up my phone to take a picture, I notice our guests on the other side of the barrier, and I stop myself. In many ways, this, at least for the day, is their home—their safe place, their refuge. Just like Ronald McDonald House was mine. This shelter is their place to stay warm or to cool down, depending on the time of year. A place to get a meal or get a shower. A place to be in community with people going through something similar. For many of them, this is the hardest, lowest, darkest time of their life.

Obligatory Service

Something about taking a picture of a 15-year-old kid who skipped his golf lesson to come serve dinner, or the 17-year-old kid who is adding up her service hours for graduation, feels like I’m trivializing the experiences of those we are there to serve. It feels dehumanizing in many ways—and isn’t the point of serving this population to add dignity to their lives? Not take it away even more?

At this particular shelter, after dinner is done, there are always two clients who are responsible for cleaning the floors and taking care of the trash in the kitchen. While we finish up dishes and do some cleaning up, those on duty come in to start taking care of their responsibilities. On this particular night, as we’re wrapping up the evening, three or four kids come up to me to ask me to sign for their volunteer hours… in front of people we just served. For the person mopping the floor nearby, this night is about surviving; for the kid two feet away, it is about an obligation.

And so I struggle. What is a youth minister to do? Not sign for volunteer hours? Refuse to take pictures?

For the person mopping the floor nearby, this night is about surviving; for the kid two feet away, it is about an obligation.

When Service Becomes about Us

Especially during Lent, I am reminded of the passage from Matthew, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (6:1).”

Is turning in service hours practicing your righteousness in front of others? What about sharing a photo on social media of smiling kids prepping some food? On the one hand, these photos are a handy tool for engaging parents and parishioners from the church in what the youth are doing. On the other hand, it feels, well—icky. Further, allowing kids to participate in service projects for the youth group so that they can turn in their required service hours for school and other programs is a great way to pull kids into what you’re doing. On the other hand, it feels, well—icky.

Is turning in service hours practicing your righteousness in front of others? What about sharing a photo on social media of smiling kids prepping some food?

Living as Disciples

Don’t get me wrong—providing opportunities for our youth to serve their community is essential to their spiritual development. I want to know how we can provide these experiences for our youth so that they’re truly living out their lives as disciples, while adding dignity to the lives of others instead of taking it away.

How do you keep this balance? I don’t have any answers; at least not yet, but let’s get a conversation going and maybe we can come up with some helpful solutions together!

About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.
Rhythm, the Woods, & YM

Rhythm, the Woods, and Youth Ministry

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Henry David Thoreau wrote those words 170 years ago.  And it seems to me that, over the last two centuries, desperation’s volume has well surpassed any semblance of “quiet.”  A brief survey of the average Instagram account screams fearful discontent.  Thoreau, in response to his own contemporary situation, promptly headed into the wilderness.

Rhythm, the Woods, and YM

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

This past summer, I visited the very pond where Thoreau penned those words in his seminal book, Walden.  Sitting there among the trees, his thoughts and actions seemed to press several questions upon me.

“Where do I experience the nagging voice of desperation in my own life and in the lives and culture around me?”

“Why do I often retreat into the wilderness, and why do I think it important for others to do the same?”

“What does it mean to live deliberately and what is to be gained?”

“Is a deliberate and balanced life even possible?”

The Wilderness

For the past 20 years, I have been leading and guiding wilderness trips and have experienced the profound transformation that happens there.  Through the hiking of miles, the telling of stories, the chopping of wood, the silence of solitude, and the sharing of meals, I have witnessed the redemption and reconciliation of fractured lives and relationships.

Yet, the questions raised above push me to get at the heart of why and how this all comes about in places far from the comfort of french fries, central AC and a strong wifi connection.

I believe that one possible reason is that of rhythm.

Rhythm in the Wilderness

In the woods, as I’ve experienced it, days are governed by the movement of the sun far more than the movement of the clock.  When enough time is spent away from the tyranny of deadlines, soccer practices and “Dancing With the Stars” marathons, there develops a pattern of work, play, reflection and rest that is intrinsic to the physical environment and to those who have chosen to dwell there.

And in this pattern, mind, body, and soul become integrated in a way that is often absent in regular living.  For some, the virtual world dominates their modern lives and the body is neglected.  For others, the busyness of work and frantic activity make reflection impossible.  Some are consumed by worry, others by unrelenting schedules.  Most long for a place and a time to be still, to sit with a friend, to laugh at the day’s events, and to enjoy an unhurried drink.  It is in the wilderness, then, where many experience for the first time a life lived deliberately.  Or, as Eugene Peterson would say it, the  “unforced rhythms of grace.”

For many of the high school and college folks that I take on trips, the initial shock of being without phones, car keys, and hair straighteners immediately besets them with symptoms of withdrawal.  However, as the week progresses, the ever-present anxiety of regular life begins to dissipate.  They sleep well.  They take time to enjoy simple meals.  They spend hours talking, working, resting.  Days are emptied of technological and psychological distraction, and, instead, become filled with joy.

This is, of course, what we encounter in the life and person of Jesus. 

He moved effortlessly between activity and rest, community and solitude, prayer and silence, work and Sabbath, the miraculous and mundane, city and wilderness.  His life was true Incarnation where there existed no false dichotomy between body and spirit.   Wholeness and holiness dwelled together in His sacramental life.  And it is in this sacramental life which we are invited to participate.

It is in the wilderness, then, where many experience for the first time a life lived deliberately.

The Spirit pushes us into the wilderness to experience, with the Son, the words of the Father saying, “You are my beloved, so take a nap.  Walk and work in the garden.  Reflect on the suffering you have witnessed and come to me for healing.  Look at the stars.  Experience life the way it was meant to be lived.  Welcome to the kingdom of God.”

Want to Lead a Wilderness Retreat for Your Students?

If you think the wilderness could be a place where you students could grow in their relationship with God, check out David’s video guides on how to lead a wilderness retreat. To find out more about the full guide, visit The Wilderness: A Retreat Guide Focused on the Spiritual Life.

About the Author: David Johnson

david johnson - kindred youth ministryDavid Johnson has been working with students over 20 years, and leading wilderness retreats for almost as long. A former YoungLife leader, David is also the author of the Kindred Youth Ministry Wilderness Retreat Guide.


The Wonder-Full God: Science, Faith, and Wonder in Youth Ministry

Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe. Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.

Abraham Heschel, Who Is Man?

The WonderFull God

Science, Faith, and Wonder

Curiosity, awe, reverence—wonder. All of these are tied up in wonder. Together they are the desire and ability to encounter something simply because it is interesting, awesome, or holy. In my understanding , wonder is a virtue, something that we should help young people cultivate over time. Sadly, North American society disagrees with me.

A peculiar pragmatism rooted in the material reality around us structures our lives in such ways that we are not only blind to wonder, we actively avoid it, going so far as denigrating it. Shoving aside wonder and settling for its enemy, willful ignorance, leaves us with bald anti-intellectualism and a reduced sense of reality. This kind of reduction hurts us as individuals and as a church because wonder is at the root of both science and faith.

Sometimes science and faith get pitted against each other as if they are antagonists in some cosmic MMA fight. Science gets reduced to solving material problems and faith gets reduced to solving our spiritual needs in this battle royale.

To defeat willful ignorance, to overthrow anti-intellectualism and expand reality past the mere physical, science and Christianity must band together and use the power of wonder in active battle.

The Battleground of Youth Ministry

While there are many fronts to this battle, one where there is a natural overlap is in youth ministry. Young people of high school age are both discovering God at a deep level and engaging in the deeper questions of science. And isn’t it the hope of every teacher to inspire their protégés to love science so much that they pursue it all the way down? Isn’t it the prayer of every youth worker and faithful parent for their loved young person to be so enraptured with God that they become a disciple?

At the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry must pay attention to wonder for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.

At the foundation of science and at the root of Christian faith is wonder, and youth ministry must pay attention to wonder for the betterment of science, Christianity, and young people.

Wonder and Language

Language  of battle and wonder and anti-intellectualism can sound more dramatic than the prosaic reality. Take a conversation between two middle-aged men I overheard. I was sitting in a hospital waiting room and they entered having a loud conversation.

Blue Flannel Guy: “…there you go again using a $50.00 word, spending money like you’ve got tons. Can’t you just use a $1.00 word instead?”

Green Flannel Guy: [Awkward chuckle.] “Well it is pretty early in the morning, I’ll have to think of something.”

Blue Flannel Guy: “Seriously. Who uses ‘all-e-gor-ay’ and expects other people to understand what they mean?”

Green Flannel Guy: “Well, you know, I was just talking, you know, just…”

There are a number of problems with this scene, not least of which are sartorial. Now, stop. Really stop and honestly answer whether or not you know the word “sartorial” in that last sentence? Could you intuit its meaning? Did you look it up?

Acknowledging Ignorance

Both of those responses, contemplating the meaning of “sartorial” or researching it, call for creativity and curiosity. Ignorance can lead to wonder which in turn calls forth creativity and curiosity. Sadly, Blue Flannel Guy exhibited neither of those traits. Instead, Blue Flannel Guy made fun of his friend for using a literary term that a society that has near universal education should likely know. For Blue Flannel Guy, his ignorance was not the problem; Green Flannel Guy’s discussion of something that he had worked hard at understanding was the problem.

This kind of anti-intellectualism isn’t particularly noteworthy except that there are consequences when we, as a society and as a church, let these kinds of exchanges go on without remark or critique. Consider the number of unfamiliar terms that Blue Flannel Guy, Green Flannel Guy, and me, Know-What-”Allegory”-Is Guy will encounter as we step into the medical doctor’s office.

Addressing Ignorance

For example, I was in the doctor’s office because a friend was having an electroencephalogram. Because I know some Greek I can see that “electro” and “encephalo” and “gram” are distinct words and can piece together that an EEG, what the test is usually called, is really an electrical picture of the brain. And this is how it was described by the technician to my friend.

The technician was a student herself and was being apprenticed by another trained staff. The technician-in-training hooked up 29 different sensors to my friend’s head and upper body, all the while holding two conversations. One, with my friend, was describing in accessible ways what was going to happen.  She used words that were precise but not technical like, “I’m placing these sensors so that they can create an image of your brain in that computer there.” The other, with the supervising staff member, was filled with hard words that I would need to look up. She was clearly referencing different parts of the brain and methodically working through a process that involved a great deal of precision and technical expertise.

The Need for Expertise

I did not begrudge the technician her use of $50.00 words. I would never think to denigrate her for knowing them. Truth be told, I would have been scared if she hadn’t used them. She was, after all, hooking up electrical sensors to my friend’s brain. I wouldn’t want her to be ignorant of what she was doing when I have no idea what the health consequences might be for my friend.

Ignorance can lead to wonder which in turn calls forth creativity and curiosity.

I wonder if Blue Flannel Guy would be calling out his doctor for using $50.00 words rather than $1.00? Later I overheard him talking about why he was there. He had cancer. He needed a blood test to see how the treatment had gone. He was facing a 50/50 chance of dying soon and only medical science, with all its $50.00 words, could save him.

Lucky for Blue Flannel Guy, at some point someone had to wonder how the human body worked. At some point we knew very little about the human body but we wondered what made it move. We ate and wondered how that worked. We had sex and then nine months later had babies. This was a mysterious process that prompted us to wonder. The human form fascinated us and so we began to sketch it, to poke it, to prod it, to test it, and eventually dissect it so we could take our sketching, poking, prodding, and testing down, down, down, all the way to the molecular level. Once we learned some things we had to unlearn them and discover new things and then we could build knowledge from there. And in the process of wondering and studying and searching we saved millions of lives. Millions.

When Utility Overshadows Wonder

But science, when combined with capitalism, has denuded the wonder that founded it. We don’t value wonder; we value utility. Science is a tool that we use to get something that we want. We want longer life and so we invest heavily in research and development and then sell the results of that research as drugs to those who are dying.

At some level this is actually a good thing. Again, note the millions of lives saved. Science, when understood in relation to capitalism, always leads to a kind of pragmatism. This pragmatism can be the good kind or, as often is the case, the bad kind.

Good Pragmatism: Responsible Humanitarianism

The good kind poses questions that are germane to the broader human experience of life together. It uses wonder and instead of inquiring about the object—say, cancer or tuberculosis—it inquires about the humans that suffer from cancer or tuberculosis. Science is a tool to solve problems broadly held to be morally and practically important.

For example, we can think of Paul Farmer and the organization he helped found, Partners in Health. Farmer’s quest is nothing less than the eradication of tuberculosis and AIDS from the poorest of the poor in the world. His story, as told by Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, is one of deep, and good, pragmatism.

Farmer saw his patients dying from tuberculosis, which science had dealt with in parts of the world that could afford treatment. The problem: drugs exist to save lives but the current system means that millions will needlessly die. Besides using science to solve the problem of tuberculosis, he used science to answer a deep wondering—what would a country of Haiti be like if they did not die of tuberculosis?

Bad Pragmatism: Profiteering Oppression

In contrast, the bad kind of pragmatism limits the scope of the problem to the immediate beneficiaries. That is, it focuses strictly on those who financially benefit from a new drug rather than those who would physically and emotionally benefit from a new drug.

For example, we might remember Martin Shkreli, who raised the price of an AIDS drug by more than 5,000% overnight. When defending this decision before the United States Congress, he repeatedly invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to cover up the fact that he knew that this was immoral. Shkreli’s company maintains that they lost money on Daraprim, the AIDS drug—yet they approved $685,000 in raises for three highly compensated executives the month after raising the price and spent $23,000 to charter yacht service for a night, $6,500 in fireworks, and $250,000 on entertainment, listed on the receipt as a “celebrity performance.” This is an instance of bad pragmatism: using science to solve an immoral problem, namely, how to line the pockets of CEOs.

Pragmatism Neuters Wonder

This combination of science and capitalism that leads to pragmatism, either good or bad, is one of the main culprits of the willful ignorance that leads to anti-intellectualism in our society. We risk fundamentally misunderstanding science when we reduce it to its pragmatic benefits for us, however good those benefits might be. We willfully look past the fact that the giants of the science world have moved well beyond a simple mechanistic vision of the universe because we can easily see the benefits of that simple mechanistic view.

What has quantum mechanics done for making my life better? More than four dimensions are possible? So what? Does it make my phone get a better signal? If not, it’s too hard. Too much deep thinking for so little pragmatic benefit. As long as the doctor can cure us of cancer or find out what is wrong with our brain, we don’t care what words they use, what got them to that point, how the body fits into the rest of the matter of the universe. We just want results. Because we conceive of science pragmatically, we miss that a science rooted in wonder isn’t asking the same questions.

Pragmatic Faith?

If we are honest, Christianity falls victim to the same dangers as science does. Christianity plus capitalism  equals a certain kind of pragmatism. Our faith becomes something that helps us to do something else, but does not have value in and for itself.

God can help us when we struggle. We search the Psalms and find comfort knowing that God is our rock and our fortress because we really want God to be that in our life at that time. God becomes a cosmic soother or blankie because we are scared and frightened.

God can help us when we have an ethical dilemma. We think and meditate on the Ten Commandments or the double love commandment that Jesus gives us, distill them to life principles, and apply them to whatever situation we face. God becomes an ethical principle because we need to do the right thing. Whatever the case, God is anything but God, since pragmatism will always start with our problems, our needs, and our wants.

God Is No Pragmatist

This reduction of God to something based on us as humans inherently reduces the role of wonder in our faith. We cease to be captivated and awed by God as God, we stop wondering how the divine can take shape in the material world, we cease our search for understanding how God and time interact or how atonement works or how sanctification really plays out or … well you get the picture. We find answers and settle for them because they work. Providence becomes palliative and grace transforms into an ethical principle.

God was never interested in being simply a principle.

It turns out that God was never interested in being simply the answers to our needs. God was never interested in being simply a principle. God insists on being so much more—the power that creates, sustains, and accompanies all things. That God does not come to us as a principle but as a person—namely, Jesus Christ—is far from pragmatic. It is wonderful and lavish.

Mountain or Molehill?

Presenting it this baldly likely has some protesting. “Hey, I read my Bible! I let God be God!” And this may be true for you. But consider whether it is easier to lead a youth program based on God being God or on the pragmatic God?

Education: How Can I Apply This?

Two experiences jump to mind for me. First, for a number of years I taught youth ministry to undergraduates. Many of those students were amazing and it was a privilege to be present with them as they started out their university education (I taught an Intro to Youth Ministry course). However, I am sure that many of them would tell you that they struggled to see how some of what we discussed “applied” to what they imagined youth ministry to be.

When discussing youth culture, “postmodernism” was a catch-all phrase meaning all things bad. Universally the students had learned in their churches that postmodernism was antithetical to the Gospel, that Jesus had nothing to do with it, and that it was dangerous. I took that as a challenge and assigned Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard. To a student the response was, well, incredulous. “Why are we studying this! How can I apply this!”

Any time someone skips straight to application, you know you are deep in the grip of pragmatism which cannot wonder about reality outside the narrow criteria of utilitarian value. And this was my response. We study these thinkers because they are asking deep and significant questions about reality, a reality that young people live in. We might disagree with their answers but unless we wonder alongside them, how do we really know that Derrida is the devil? Wonder was not a virtue that their churches had inculcated within them.

Congregations: Challenged to Wonder

The second has less to do with youth ministry and more to do with the church culture at large. I sit on a committee of my denomination charged with considering church doctrine. It is largely made up of academics, ministers who have graduate degrees, and lay people with advanced education. These are not dumb people.

Yet, when I used the word “apophaticism” in a paper meant for them, more than one essentially pulled a Blue Flannel Guy. “While I have access to a dictionary right here on my computer, this is an unfamiliar word and should be excluded.” Really? Apophaticism is a form of mysticism that approaches questions of God through the negative. If you have ever uttered the phrase, “dark night of the soul,” then you have uttered an apophatic statement. There are large chunks of Scripture that witness to God in an apophatic way (think Wisdom literature). Throughout Christian tradition there have always been those who have wondered about God this way. Yet, in a forum filled with educated people discussing theology, I am instructed to dumb it down?

Wonder as Respecting the Other

Wonder, at least as I am presenting it, requires that we encounter the other as a subject and an agent in its own right. We don’t wonder about an object without respecting that it is other than us, that its existence is complex, that there is a mystery inherent because we can never wholly capture it, that there are limits to our own knowledge and therefore limits that the object we encounter cannot transcend as well. If this sounds a lot like what Andy Root argues in places like Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry or The Relational Pastor, then good. Where Andy focuses on our relationships with each other and therefore with God, I am extending part of that logic to science and Christianity.

Andy’s critique of youth ministry is that it has been captured by a certain kind of pragmatism, the same kind that I tried to describe that has also captured science. There are better and worse forms of it, but at the end, it is all problematic because it reduces something that is far more complex, mysterious, tragic, and wondrous to an expression of our own perceived needs. Frankly, we don’t know ourselves very well when we reduce our own needs to that which we can easily understand or articulate.

Real Living Requires Wonder

Both science and Christianity, at least in their best forms, reject a kind of pragmatism infused with capitalism. Rather, both science and Christianity beg for an encounter that starts in wonder and leads to curiosity and diligent study. When pragmatism reduces us to our own poorly understood needs it also reduces the possibility of wonder as wonder.

So how do we “apply” this? How can we inculcate wonder? I have three suggestions:

1) Wilderness

First, I think that we do not make sufficient use of North American wilderness and young people. It takes days, perhaps weeks, of exposure, but we can help young people get close to wonder by removing them from the distractions of modern convenience . To sit on rocks as a raging river rumbles at your feet, to cross over a pass among the Rockies, or to contemplate the intricacy of a spider web—all can induce wonder, awe even. This is not some kind of natural theology, but it does force someone to take the natural world as it is and not as it serves us.

We have a God who is ceaselessly, unpragmatically creative, so let yourself be formed in the image of this God, rather than the God of American pragmatism.

2) Wrestling

Second, we should not shy away from pushing young people to grapple with some of the great questions of faith. This includes grappling directly with Scripture. Of course not everyone will become great theologians or scholars; however, programs that push young people not only to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, but also to think broadly about what discipleship means in their context, can only help dispel the anti-intellectualism that permeates much of youth ministry.

3) Widening

Third, we can model an alliance between science and Christianity. By broadening our own understanding in the areas that we are weak in, either science or Christianity, we can exercise our own wonder. If we are not curious, if we are only interested in applying whatever we learn, then how can we expect young people to do anything but? Clearly, we operate within a world dominated by economic pragmatism, so wholesale rebellion is not likely, perhaps not desirable. But it is a worthy goal of wondering broadly, of searching for answers to questions that entice us into areas of ignorance, and for appreciating the mystery of science or Christianity. The reality of both depends on it.

The Capacity for Wonder

So don’t be satisfied simply with application. Model wonder for your young people, drawing them to the tremendous God you love and want them to learn to love as well. Be willing to explore those vistas of ignorance in your life, and cultivate your capacity to wonder. We have a God who is ceaselessly, unpragmatically creative, so let yourself be formed in the image of this God, rather than the God of American pragmatism.


About the Author: Blair Bertrand

Blair BertrandBlair has been doing youth ministry since he was a youth, a time when his beloved Montreal Canadians were still winning Stanley Cups. While working in churches as a youth director, he discovered that he wasn’t bad at school. He now has an M.Div., and M.A. in Youth Ministry, and a Ph.D. in Practical Theology, all from Princeton Theological Seminary. His last call was to be the minister at congregation doing a big building project in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and his next call is overseas; Blair, with his wife and three kids, are all moving to Malawi so he can teach at a seminary and consult in the denominational youth office.

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.