When I (Wes) was in high school, I was the kind of kid who went to youth group as often as possible. My parents referred to me as a “youth group junkie.” It got to the point where, if I was struggling with my grades or misbehaving in some way, my parents would threaten to ground me from going to youth group -- and, believe it or not, that was usually enough to motivate me to do better. I was committed to my faith and, even more, I was committed to getting other people to embrace the doctrines of my faith. I read all the evangelism and apologetics books, and my youth pastors taught me how to win an argument for Jesus. On one specific occasion, while I was hanging out with a few of my friends after school, I got into an argument with one of my atheist acquaintances. I remember he was challenging me on the plausibility of the historical resurrection of Jesus. He raised question after question, and I had an answer for each one of them. I knew I was right, and I had no problem bludgeoning this kid with the “facts” of the gospel. A few people were listening in on the conversation. Someone walked in late to the show and asked one of the people listening in, “What’s happening here?”
“Oh, they’re arguing about God … and Wes is winning.”
At the time, I was proud of that review. I was winning! But all I was winning was an argument, nothing else. The kid with whom I was arguing remained an atheist, and, more importantly, we remained merely acquaintances. I don’t even remember his name.
In that after-school theological debate, I did exactly what I was taught to do; I valued exactly what I was taught to value -- the achievement of victory. But wouldn’t it have been better if, instead of caring about winning the argument, achieving, I actually cared about the person with whom I was arguing? What if I had learned from my youth pastors that friendship is more important than winning arguments? It’s in friendship that we encounter God, not in facts and analyses. It’s in knowing God through friendship, not knowing about God, that we experience the joy -- the good news -- of the gospel. But if friendship is not a high value in youth ministry, it will not likely be a high value to the young people with whom we minister. If we’re not offering friendship to young people, if we don’t demonstrate fidelity to them, we cannot expect them to offer friendship to others or receive the friendship that God is offering them.
So what might youth ministry look like if the church offered young people friendship with no strings attached? What would youth ministry be if youth workers did not have to accomplish joy -- if we did not need to achieve anything through our relationships with young people but rather could approach the church as a community where young people experienced God’s delight in them and could practice God’s delight in others?
For this to be possible, of course, we have to do more than simply inject new activities into the youth group. The church is intended to offer a foretaste of the reign of God, a glimpse of an alternative reality to the one young people experience daily. The issue at hand is not just young people’s inundation with imposter friendships, or relationships saturated by expectations of accomplishment. The issue is simply that, when young people encounter church, they experience nothing different. Here is where we can adopt a “medieval cathedral” perspective: the grandeur of the cathedral in the Middle Ages, in contrast to the daily life of common people, was intended to signify God’s connection to the human experience but also allow them to glimpse the utterly magnificent, soaring “otherness” of the dominion of God.
This “otherness” of God’s intended reality is no longer always reflected in church architecture, which today often mimics public spaces rather than seeks to stand apart from them. What matters for our purposes is not the architectural difference of the church from daily life but the relational difference. As young people enter Christian community, they transition from a culture that objectifies them, packages them into roles prescribed by cultural scripts, or (at best) reduces them to their hoped-for potential into a culture that offers them an alternative way of being. Through practices of joy and friendship, churches offer young people a different experience of themselves, an alternative to black-and-white instrumentalism and productivity expectations; they offer them a color-drenched Oz of freedom and love where they experience God’s delight in them, from beginning to end. What does God’s delight in young people look like in this alternative reality? Here are a few possibilities we might tend to.
1. Trust for Trust’s Sake
If we’ve been seduced by the temptation to use the trust we build with young people to influence their lives, we need to learn to build trust for its own sake. Instead of wielding the trust that young people offer us for the sake of other outcomes, we need to delight in the privilege and gift of being trusted as an end in itself. The win here is not primarily that young people trust us, though that is a penultimate goal. The win is that we trust young people; we are willing to let them affect us. The seeds of trust are found in shared vulnerability -- not “equal” or “reciprocal” or “like” vulnerability -- but appropriate, shared vulnerability. This is why periods of hardship, challenge, or depletion bring communities together; they have experienced vulnerability together.
This means turning our attention to different measures of effectiveness in ministry. When asking “What does good look like?” in our ministries, we will describe trust levels as well as attendance, we will count opportunities for shared vulnerability as well as programs, we will look at the nature of our relationships as well as the fact of them. It has been said that either we measure what matters or what matters is what we measure. To gauge effective youth ministry on the fruits of the Spirit -- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) -- instead of merely “butts in pews” is a first step toward making authentic friendship matter.
2. Wonder-full Ministry
Few people contest the importance of engaging young people with Scripture in youth ministry. Most of the time, our approach to teaching and studying the Bible is to get young people to understand something -- a theological lesson or moral. Even our approach to prayer and worship is frequently guided by a desire for young people to “get it right,” to learn who God is -- and who God isn’t -- and how to apply this knowledge to their daily experience.
These are noble desires. But consider an alternative. Reading the Bible is a good thing, but enjoying time spent with God is what transforms the reading of Scripture. Knowing about God is a far cry from knowing God. What plucks the dragon scales from young people’s lives is not resolving textual tensions in Bible study but “searching the Scriptures,” as John Wesley puts it, for places the Holy Spirit encounters them, piques their curiosity, leads them through mystery. More important than a teacher with a seminary degree or a Bible commentary are examples of people who love the texts and traditions of Christian faith, who are beguiled by Jesus, and whose curiosity for what God is doing in the world is so insatiable that they constantly search Scripture for clues. In short, it matters more that youth ministry bathe young people in wonder and encourage questions of the curriculum, of Scripture, and of God than that we indoctrinate them in dogma -- and this requires a wide-eyed willingness to wonder about God ourselves.
3. Playful Vulnerability
Sometimes we treat play and playfulness as pesky things we have to do to keep kids interested, the warm-up act to the real ministry. But no practice of friendship comes as easily, or offers a more effective antidote to the culture of achievement, than play. The Christian community should be playful -- and not just “youth group.” Play is itself ministry (after all, in its most ancient form, worship was a play performed for the gods). By definition, play creates a space in which the only expectations are created by the game itself, which is why we “get lost” in games, we lose track of time in a good conversation or a good book, we “forget our feet” in the joy of the dance. We’re not performing to meet others’ expectations -- we are simply delighting in the play itself.
Play has rules and roles that make sense in the context of the game, but they may be completely upside down from the rules and roles we play in daily life. Play levels the playing field between status differentials in the school hallways; it gives every participant a meaningful part to play in achieving a common goal. These roles prescribe appropriate levels of vulnerability for the purpose of the game, which eases our anxiety (and theirs) about interacting with young people we don’t know well. A playful church liberates us from expectations of usefulness, status, and the constant pressure to improve, develop, and mature. Instead, it invites young people -- as it invites us -- to “waste” time before God as we enjoy the freedom and friendship God offers.
4. Gracious Encounter
Youth ministers tend to be gifted in the art of gracious encounter, befriending not only our “own” young people but other people’s youth as well. This is a gift that we are called to share with young people, and with churches themselves, who often view friendship with “others” as threatening or irrelevant. Yet no follower of Jesus would argue that God’s delight is limited to those in Christian congregations. The practice of friendship in youth ministry must extend beyond churches’ “usual suspects.” If joy stands at the beginning of our work, rather than arrives as its culmination, then all youth need to experience God’s delight in them -- maybe especially those who aren’t involved in Christian communities (which, remember, is most of them).
Three frontiers for the practice of gracious encounter stand out. One is youth ministry in church communities overflowing with young people (yes, there are many): immigrant churches, new Christian communities, and Southern Hemisphere churches, which are largely “off the radar” of North America’s dominant “youth ministry culture.” These vital ecclesial communities are some of our best teachers of forms of friendship like mentoring and discipleship as apprenticeship. On the other end of the spectrum are missionally-inventive churches where most of the youth ministry happens outside the church. These congregations also have the potential for vital youth ministries -- they just serve young people who do not belong to anybody in the congregation. Adopting a school, hosting bus-stop hot chocolate stands, creating community-based SAT prep courses or pop-up cafes for studying during final exams -- the list is endless for ways the body of Christ can champion young people in our communities, extending the hand of Christian friendship to them. For churches accustomed to paying youth workers to serve congregants’ children, this represents a massive shift in focus -- but we suspect this shift is already in progress, and naming it legitimizes work they are already doing as ministry.
The third frontier for gracious encounter is brokering intergenerational friendships in and beyond congregations. One family in our small church decided to open their barn loft -- which they converted into a fully operational woodworking shop -- every Thursday night to anyone interested in learning to create things with wood. They provide the tools, the support, and even the wood itself. All you have to do is come with an idea, and the Kane family helps you see it to completion. It’s actually a fairly low-key activity and might sound a little mundane. But as one young person in our congregation noted, “It’s the only church activity I’ve ever been to that I’m not embarrassed to invite my friends to.” Each week young people gather alongside older adults for snacks, conversations, and some instruction on how to handle a lathe. They create picture frames, jewelry boxes, cutting boards, wooden spoons -- all in the context of community. The evening is framed in a short reflection on the Bible passage to be preached that Sunday. Most importantly, everyone enjoys each other’s company. There was no real plan to get it started, just one family’s desire to share something they love with young people from their church.
From “Delighted: What Teenagers Are Teaching the Church About Joy,” by Kenda Creasy Dean, Wesley W. Ellis, Justin Forbes and Abigail Visco Rusert ©2020 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.