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I am so grateful Chris Folmsbee is writing this weekly column for us about youth ministry. We need more focus on the next generation… so here goes… Let’s hear your response.
I’ve found a new hobby. I have found absolute delight in digging up
older books on youth ministry – books from the 70’s and 80’s. Much of
what I find I purchase for a couple of bucks from some obscure website
and they’re usually shipped from places in the world I can only wish I
might one day visit.
Most recently I came across a book by Stephen Jones called, Faith
Shaping: Youth and the Experience of Faith (Judson Press, 1987). Some
of you may remember it when it came out. Me? Nope. I was a freshman
in high school at the time it was released.
Faith Shaping is full of little nuggets that are not only relevant for
today but are required for people who work with today’s youth.
Probably the most helpful morsel of the book for me was chapter 9 on
culture shaping. In this chapter, Jones reminds his readers “We will
not do justice to adolescents unless we help them consider the shape of
their emerging faith in relation to their culture.” (P.89)
So, what exactly is the task of culture shaping? I mean, I have
some ideas but I’d rather hear from those of you wrestling with similar
observances and experiments. How can we move away from our tendencies
to manufacture and manipulate? What are the essential aspects of
culture shaping? Is it even possible to really allow students to shape
their culture or do they need some kind of adult influence to assure
that it gets done? Are we (or more specifically, am I) crazy to think
that youth workers should rely more on students to shape the emerging
culture and less on our own assumptions, preferences and opinions?
When I first began in youth ministry (almost 15 years ago) “peer-to-peer” ministry was the buzzword. The purpose of peer-to-peer ministry was to influence students in order that they might influence their friends. It wasn’t an altogether inherently bad idea. After all, isn’t this what Jesus did with his disciples? Didn’t Jesus find influencers and allow them to do the influencing? Actually, no, this isn’t what Jesus did. Jesus called mere fisherman, ordinary people to follow him. He was present with them incarnating himself for the mission of God. Yes, certainly to influence others but not solely limited to influence. Jesus called his disciples to shape the culture and move it toward becoming a Kingdom culture.
Most often youth workers who talked about and built “peer to peer” ministry models functioned with the idea that to influence students meant we had to create consumers who bought what we were selling and who conformed to the culture that we created. The mistake in this concept wasn’t the motive to influence or even the call to conform to a culture (that was often mere words and abstractions). The biggest mistake was seeing students as the tool or the agenda and not seeing them as “persons-in-culture” (P.90) who were “not only recipients of culture but also shapers of it.” We trusted students enough to bring their friends to our Friday night outreach events but we didn’t (generally speaking, of course) trust them enough to allow them to shape the culture through their communal and personal faith — a faith that “offers the criteria against which to evaluate one’s participation in culture and the courage, when necessary, to be countercultural.” (P. 90) We called students to live counter culturally, but we didn’t trust the students we were supposedly influencing to really shape the culture so we tended to manufacture and manipulate.
I don’t really hear the phrase “peer to peer” much anymore. I don’t think it is because we’ve stopped doing youth ministry in that fashion. Nor do I think it is because we’ve stumbled upon another, better model either. Honestly, I think for many it was one of those things that either “sounded cool at the time” or just never really “worked” so we’ve abandoned the language. Most youth ministries still operate under the mindset that if I can just influence the right student(s) I can use them to share the message of Jesus with their friends. This doesn’t shape the culture it simply and most often temporarily keeps a few of our students interested and engaged.
The trend we commonly understand as ‘youth leaving the church’ isn’t primarily about the churches tendency toward abandonment, a rise in the influence of media or the Internet or the inability to reach a post-literate generation through traditional methods. Rather, it is primarily an issue of doubt and distrust.
We (youth workers) have not believed in and trusted the Holy Spirit’s ministry and movements enough among youth to allow youth to be the shapers of their culture. Instead, we’ve tried to shape the culture ourselves. This tragic mistake has led several decades of youth toward finding ways outside of the church to practice their faith and shape their culture. This is why students are graduating and not coming back. (Note: I just read the galley copy of Andy Root’s upcoming book called, Unfiltered Relationships. Look for this book from YS/Zondervan this fall. Andy covers the topics above — especially that of “influencing students” — in great detail.)