Helping Students Own Justice
A Case Study of One Church's Justice Journey
Photo by Nina Strehl
A few months before the summer of 2007, a half-dozen student leaders and I started planning events for four Wednesday evenings in July. The fruit of our deep, 45-minute theological deliberation was—drum roll, please—Barbeques Themed on TV Shows! (think American Idol, Iron Chef, etc.) All the essential pillars of proper youth ministry would be represented: hamburgers, non-blasphemous secular music, some silly entertainment, and a short time of homily-in-disguise.
With three Wednesdays down and well on our way to a fourth, one of our sophomore girls meekly suggested that we take the final night in a different direction; maybe we should have a night of “giving back, or whatever,” and maybe theme it on justice or a cause or something…
She wasn’t on a soapbox. But the more she talked, the more the gears started turning in her teammates’ heads. What if we did something for others? We could have a cool name and a good cause and raise money and awareness and make a difference and…
By the end of our discussion, we had made it as far as “a cool name”—Blackout. We liked that it could be used for the dual purpose of awareness and response, because a “blackout” in our heads is a place where we’ve forgotten or never knew, while a “blackout” action is decisive and permanent.
That summer, the first of our Blackout events raised awareness—and even some money—to combat unsafe drinking water, which kills millions worldwide every year. A few months later, another Blackout dedicated toward human trafficking tripled the attendance of our first event, raised a lot more awareness and money, and generated dozens of letters to various organizations and elected officials urging change. One of our student leaders then organized a duplicate event at her high school, drawing over 500 attendees, the local newspaper, and even a handful of actual justice organizations. Since then, we’ve had a few more Blackouts, and at this moment our student leadership team is developing a multi-level child sponsorship campaign.
It’s been quite a ride.
I shared this story a few weeks ago with a friend of mine, who is also a youth worker, and when I finished he said something to the effect of, “Well, of course it happened that way for you guys, you’re a megachurch.” Yes, we have a large parking lot. But there was actually nothing grandiose or well-funded about the origins of Blackout. And besides, plenty of grandiose, well-funded projects never make it off the launching pad. So what makes Blackout tick? I can think of a few things:
1. Prayer and God’s Faithfulness
Nothing we do would ever work if it weren’t for God’s absurd graciousness toward our small efforts. A good God using redeemed-yet-flawed people to usher in a kingdom? Nonsense. But that’s the way it is. And prayer must be core. To paraphrase a popular proverb, the journey of a thousand miles begins on our knees.
Students must first see the commitment to justice alive in their leaders before they themselves commit in a sustainable way. Justice must matter to the youth worker individually, and the youth ministry team collectively. We need not be Martin Luther King, Jr. or Oscar Romero (or Jesus!), but we must be familiar with their footsteps if we hope to lead others on similar paths. 1
3. Simple and Fluid Structure
Our justice movement is not complex. It all started in a small, quiet meeting space with a notepad and some prayer. Our most recent student leadership team meeting had (you guessed it) a small, quiet meeting space with a notepad and some prayer.
Creating a “movement” instead of a “program” is more than just semantics. As Chap Clark often explains in classes at Fuller, a “movement” is a dynamic organism — an open system — that continually flexes and adapts to best serve the original idea. In contrast, an “institution” is an idea that somewhere along the way became a little more interested in self-perpetuation than faithfulness to its roots. 2
Blackout is simply a justice movement committed to awareness and decisive action, and it flexes based on needs and resources.
4. Creative, Safe Environment
The same Spirit that speaks to Billy Graham also speaks to our students, and so our task as youth workers is not to fabricate spiritual profundity, but simply to create a space for it to be expressed. Students must know — and feel — that when they share, they will be appreciated and protected from derision. They also must know and feel that they have license to submit even the wildest ideas.
In the middle of our recent student team discussion about how to keep the child sponsorship idea fresh, one of our junior girls shared an idea to make bracelets—braided, friendship-bracelet-style bracelets—with different designs, and maybe even our sponsor children’s names woven in. We could sell them for $3-5 each and donate the money. The team decided to run with it. Later, that junior girl emailed me and told me how nervous she was to share her idea, and how much she appreciated being taken seriously.
Personally, I thought it was a brilliant idea. But even if it wasn’t, I am glad she felt safe enough to share it.
5. Use Their Stuff. So, the brainstorming process is done; now it’s time for action steps. Unless the ideas are perfect right off the bat, we have now officially entered the editing process.
The most important thing to remember here is collaboration. The great temptation will be to take students’ ideas and then become a one-person editing house. Resist this temptation. The point, after all, is to maximize student ownership in justice. Therefore, as youth workers, we must include the students when we edit. They will be profoundly moved when they see their ideas come to fruition; alternatively, they will be very hurt if what they submitted is not what goes to print, so to speak.
Recently a junior girl drafted a letter to one of our sponsor children. We typically read these to the high school group on Sunday morning before sending them. Her email arrived on Saturday afternoon, and given the time crunch, it would have been easier if I did the edits myself and gave her the amended version the next morning. But can you imagine how she would have felt if the words she read were not all her own? By changing a few words here or there and then emailing them back to her for approval, we managed to avoid a situation where she felt excluded or patronized. The extra time was worth it.
6. Follow Up. I don’t know where the phrase “like a well-oiled machine” came from, but it was the Wizard of Oz — specifically the Tin Man — that helped me understand it for the first time. When Dorothy and the gang first happen upon the Tin Man, he is rusted stiff. He must have his individual joints oiled if he is going to move.
Similarly, even the most expertly devised justice movement is like the Tin Man, constantly needing oil lest it become stiff and stagnant — and the youth worker’s role is to be the “oiler.” It really is the best metaphor I can think of for what “follow up” should look like.
The oil is also what prevents burnout. As youth workers, we must be involved in every step of every process, but not as the do-it-all workhorse; simply as the oiler, easing things along, keeping everything running smoothly.
Oiling a machine gets a little mundane after a while. So too can the tasks of follow up: typing up notes, sending reminder emails and texts, coordinating schedules, organizing the pickup and preparation of supplies, editing, printing, checking in, etc. They aren’t necessarily the things each of us dreamed of doing when we first responded to the call of youth ministry, but they are the things we must do, and consistently, to keep our program or movement or project moving along. Once the ideas are set, start scheduling, start coordinating…and start oiling.
Let me also add that gratitude is essential to proper follow up. Max De Pree writes that the last responsibility of a leader is to say thank you. 3 Nothing helps longevity and sustainability like proper appreciation of those who have helped. I prefer to do this via the old-fashioned Thank You card. I always have a few dozen handy. They are cheap, but are worth far beyond their weight in gold.
So, is this everything you need to know to begin creating a justice-oriented movement in your own ministry? No, of course not. These are a few things that are working for us, but the Holy Spirit will ultimately be your guide.
May God furnish you with a quiet meeting space, a notepad, and a conviction that the Spirit already alive in your students is poised to do great works of justice through them.