Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Piano Teacher (part 2)

Who bears the primary responsibility for the faith development of children? In other words, whose responsibility is it to teach piano? Who is the piano teacher?

Get this answer wrong and you'll always come up short of God's design for youth ministry!

About a year ago our youth ministry was trying to plug teens into various ministries throughout the church (something I'm sure will be the subject of a future post). One church teen from a good church family was having a hard time with buy in. This teen served...begrudgingly.

Several weeks later I found myself in conversation with one of this teen's parents who brought up the subject. "I told (my teen), 'hey, it's not my job to teach you how to serve others. It's Tracy's.'"

Wrong answer.

Parents. Parents are God's primary design for faith transfer to the next generation.

But most parents don't take on that role. In our youth ministry less than 10% of churchgoing parents of teens did. They drop their kids off to the spiritual piano teacher once or twice per week, thinking they're doing their job. Yet nearly every one of them admit that they couldn't carry on a spiritual conversation with their teen if they were forced to. That's a problem.

It would be easy to point the finger at parents, but let's take a look at youth ministry for a minute. One simple question will suffice:

When does youth ministry ever give parents the idea that they're the most important part of their own kid's spiritual formation?

For every answer we come up with, I'm guessing we could come up with 5 times more that communicate "Hey, youth ministry is the piano teacher."

That's a problem too.

The Piano Teacher (part 1)

When I was young I took piano lessons from my Aunt Carolyn. I hated it! I could think of a truckload of things better to than practice for a half hour per day.

There were weeks when I had barely practiced. I’d sit down at the ivories in Aunt Carolyn’s den and struggle to sound better than I did last week. She knew immediately that the last time I sat down in front of the piano was a week before. No piano was practiced for an entire week!

This happens all the time in youth ministry. I’ve been in the piano teacher role many times. On Sundays we teach the teens who show up the things of God and how they can live them out in their lives every day. It doesn’t take long before we discover that the last time they’ve practiced them was a week ago – last Sunday. No faith was practiced for an entire week!

It's easy to blame the kids for this. Adolescence is the culprit. And after all, kids nowadays are lazier because of video games. Right?

But what if we took a look at the system? What if it's partially to blame? Has the system itself caused teens to have a passive faith?

Think about the role most youth workers and youth pastors fill. Whether they're paid or not their job is to come up with something spiritually engaging week in and week out. I read an article recently that said youth pastors should spend a minimum of 4 hours on every talk they deliver and 2 hours for every bible study. Nothing wrong with that. I believe in preparation. But have we become so effective at delivering our spiritual service that we've created a group of spiritual consumers incapable of functioning on their own?

For years my goal as youth pastor was to equip a group of young people to serve Jesus. I didn't want to be in the high priestly role dispensing a weekly dose of spiritual food. But like it or not, that's what I became anyway. Teens would ask, "When can we have an outreach event so my friend can hear about Jesus?" or inform me that "I'm trying to get my friend to come to church so you can explain things to them." Could it be that teens allow the professional paid youth pastor to do most of the spiritual stuff for them?

Dissecting Youth Ministry

Have you ever wondered if you were the biggest barrier to your own success?

I have.

I came to realize that some of the things that made me a "good" youth pastor were the very things that kept teenagers from becoming fully committed followers of Christ.

It's going to take several posts to unpack that last statement. Some of you have no idea what on earth I'm talking about.

There's a whole list of things expected of a good youth pastor. Creating engaging programs. Planning outreach events. Developing discipling programs. Delivering relevant talks and teachings. Spending relational time with teens. Organizing serving opportunities. Etc. etc. etc.

But what if some of these expectations kept teens from actually growing in Christ? What if it kept them in the "baby Christian" mode?

Very few who are involved in youth ministry will argue that we've got a great track record of successfully producing long-term disciples. National statistics tell us that most teens leave their faith shortly after graduation from high school (and the church's local youth ministry). By the way, in my personal conversations with scores of pastors and youth pastors from several denominations, none of them reported holding on to more than 40% of their active youth ministry students after high school.

So in the next several posts we'll be taking a look at the system of youth ministry and the position of youth pastor. Realize it or not, this youth ministry system we've inherited doesn't date back to Jesus. To be generous, youth ministry as a program dates back only a hundred years or so. The youth ministry we're most familiar with (complete with youth pastor) can be traced back only about 50 years at best.

Does the youth ministry system we inherited play a role in our lack of "success"? Does it ever get in the way? If so, what should our response be?

Hang on. We're in for a wild ride!


Let's start at the beginning. I'm not a youth pastor, but I once was.

I didn't leave the profession because of hurt or burnout. God simply led me to something different. I need to be very clear. I don't hate youth ministry, youth pastors, youth workers, or teenagers. Nor have I given up on Jesus. I still maintain very close friendships with the teens, youth workers, and pastors of the church in which I once served as youth minister. There's no bad blood between any of us!

This blog is a reflection of the effectiveness of youth ministry. That's right, we're going to put youth ministry under the microscope. The thoughts posted on this website are birthed out of years of experiences (mine and others) on the front lines without forgetting to look at it all against standard of scripture.

I believe youth ministry is in need of a reformation.

Some who will read this blog don't.

My conclusions may not sit right with some of you. In fact, they may anger you. They angered me at one time. But be assured - your anger is not my goal, nor is the demise of youth ministry. Many who read this blog found Jesus through youth ministry. That's a good thing.

But it would be a mistake to only look at the good while pretending the bad doesn't exist. If it's OK with you, let's keep the good stuff and throw of the bad (not bad as in "evil" but bad as in "ineffective" or "detrimental"). Or better yet, let's keep the scriptural stuff and throw off the rest.

Here's a statement we can all agree on: Reformation implies change. Consequently, a large part of our discussion might focus on the things that aren't working in youth ministry. The nature of this blog will require discussing the things that might need to change.

And while we're at it: The current form of youth ministry wasn't around when Jesus walked the earth. That in itself doesn't make youth ministry bad - or wrong. But it does imply that we can talk about its faults without feeling irreligious.

I'll likely have my share of critics. That's OK. It's something I expect. But I also expect that those who read will be civil, kind, loving (etc.) in any discussion that this blog might spur. Neglecting the fruits of the Spirit while making a point will not further either your argument or the Kingdom of God. Remember, we're all on the same team.

And I also expect openmindedness and honesty. Let's admit any shortcomings youth ministry might have and allow God to transform them.

It might be a messy journey, but it'll be worth it!