Beyond the mechanics

The power of the right question

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Sep 7, 2005

Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider

Exhausted, empty—Curtis felt like a mouse in a lab experiment. He couldn’t decide whether he felt more like a mouse stuck on an exercise wheel or one trapped in a maze, bumping into one dead end after another.

Either way, after five years of youth ministry, he was sick of the youth ministry regimen. There were always more kids who needed to hear about Jesus, more parents who needed to hear about the next retreat, and more members of his pastoral team who needed to hear back from him about one thing or another.

Desperate for change, Curtis decided to wrestle with a question that had been nagging at him. He wrote a three-letter word and a question mark on an index card and placed it on his car dashboard so he’d ask himself that question no matter where he went. It was a simple question, one that applied to just about every ministry setting. He wanted to ask himself, “Why?”

Why were the vast majority of those who showed up for the Wednesday night outreach program kids from his church? Why wasn’t he able to give better advice to the single mom worried about how her daughter was withdrawing? Why had he agreed to have dessert with a new staff member after a long Sunday when all he really wanted to do was crawl into bed?

Curtis soon recognized the power of asking the right question. It’s not that he hadn’t been asking questions all along. Like many youth workers, he had been barraged by questions: What crowdbreaker could he pull together in the three minutes before an event? When was he going to find time to work on his talk? Which parents could he get to drive on the upcoming retreat?

He was mired in micro questions about logistics, details, and survival. These questions have to be asked, but their answers, while important, don’t breathe life into souls or ministries.

Curtis had finally started grappling with macro questions, the type that get to the heart of ministry theology, philosophy, methodology, and even to his own motivations and insecurities.

Curtis is part of a growing force of youth workers who are stepping back from the time pressures of youth ministry to ask the bigger, and sometimes scarier, questions about leadership, vision, and effectiveness. It’s not like we have all the answers or, to be honest, even that many answers. But as we ask macro questions that scratch below the surface of ministry, we’re able to step out of the rat wheel, escape from the maze, and live out God’s full call for our lives.

How do you know if you’re asking a macro question or a micro question?

Unlike micro questions, macro questions offer the power to take you in new directions—closer to your own people and your own context. The good news is that the field of youth ministry in North America is blessed with wonderful resources that provide ministry theories and suggestions. The bad news is that these resources tend to feed our laziness and can sap creativity. We end up adopting a cut-and-paste approach to ministry. We simply copy successful programs or worship styles without considering our own ministry settings.

Macro questions force us to examine our own strengths, weaknesses, spiritual gifts, areas of expertise, and blind spots. They help us evaluate our resources: the families, adults, and students who work with us, and the support we receive from our churches and communities. They also provide opportunities to think about the unique needs of our kids and families. People who write curricula, books, and articles (including this article) know kids and families in general, but they don’t know your kids and families.

Beyond just what’s successful, we often pattern our ministries on models we saw as teenagers. We replicate our youth pastors or parachurch leaders. This can provide wonderful experiences, but it inevitably keeps us from reaching our full potential; it takes power out of our ministries. Macro questions take youth workers deeper by helping them become deeply theological and then letting that theology impact how they do ministry.

This is important, because we all serve different kids in different settings; and where both we and our ministries are right now is different from where they were ten years ago. Life is rapidly changing, and we must step back and take a careful, macro look.

Many of today’s ministry problems have sprung out of yesterday’s ministry solutions. At the time, they were great programs, but now we perpetuate them regardless of whether or not they’re still working. Macro questions take our gaze away from just this week or this month and help us think and dream about next year, the year after that, and ten years after that.

What are some of today’s most pressing macro questions?

In an effort to better understand and address the complex and often perplexing macro questions facing youth workers, Fuller Theological Seminary created the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). The institute’s work involves brainstorming with others to identify youth workers’ most pressing questions, doing creative research to come up with some answers, and then translating these answers into practical, accessible tools and resources.

For the past two years, a team at Fuller directed by Dr. Pamela King worked to identify youth workers’ most pressing issues. They followed a well researched and documented market analysis methodology developed at the MIT Sloan School of Management. First, 47 key thinkers and leaders in youth and family ministry recognized for their innovative and excellent work were interviewed and asked in-depth questions about youth culture, family dynamics, ministry philosophy and methodology, and recommendations for the mission and work of FYI. Second, the 600 pages of transcripts from those interviews were analyzed, a process that yielded 650 key needs, concepts, and phrases. Third, these needs and ideas were sorted and rated according to importance. Finally, a short, master list of youth and family workers’ needs was compiled based on the general categories that had repeatedly emerged.

While far from an exhaustive list, the most pressing issues and macro questions consistently fell into five general categories.

Theological Foundations

Youth pastors reported feeling so swamped by the demands of running their programs that they lose sight of the theological convictions that caused them to launch these programs in the first place. When interviewed, Duffy Robbins, Associate Professor of Youth Ministry at Eastern University, commented that in his teaching, speaking, and writing, he finds that youth workers are initially more interested in practical ideas than theological training. However, he believes that what will sustain youth workers long-term is a healthy theological foundation. He acknowledges youth workers’ felt needs and then shows them connections between their experiences and their theology. He remarked, “It’s almost like an epiphany. All of a sudden, they get it. They see the theology that lies behind their ministry, and that it’s more than just techniques.”

While a common theme in the interviews was the need for theological training, leaders were adamant about their desire to receive this training in nontraditional settings that are sensitive to their lack of time and money. They don’t want to have to leave their ministries to “go study theology.” They’d rather be engaged in theological reflection in their own ministry settings so they can more easily link theory with practice. Doug Fields, youth pastor at Saddleback Church, said, “it’s not enough to just know church history and systematic theology. The next step is to ask, ‘Okay, but how? Where is there a model for how this can work in my ministry?’”

Youth Development

Because their training seldom includes even basic psychology, youth and family workers are hungry for a clearer sense of adolescent developmental issues. Youth workers want training in issues ranging from identity and moral development to teen suicide and self-mutilation (“cutting”). Mark Oestreicher, the President of Youth Specialties, believes that while teenagers’ basic developmental needs for security, identity, and direction are the same as in previous decades, today’s teens live in a culture in which “everything is so fast now—information, relationships, communication—everything is so immediate. So all of those needs that kids have are much more extreme than they were when we were teenagers. And the issues that you and I dealt with when we were 16 years old are the things that our 12- and 13-year-olds are dealing with today.” In the midst of this acceleration and exacerbation of adolescent crises, youth workers want to better understand risk behaviors and identify ways to improve the mental and social health of the kids they serve.

Family Dynamics

As Cliff Anderson, Vice President of Training and Strategic Resources for Young Life, summarized, “I think parents are dying for answers. I think parents almost universally in any setting are saying, ‘What do I do with this kid that lives in my home? I love them, but I don’t know what to do with them.’” Youth workers want help in equipping and encouraging families in the areas of family communication, family spirituality, and even marriage enrichment. In his work with urban ministry and families, Larry Acosta, the President of Urban Youth Workers Institute, has met countless men and women who “want to be better moms and dads. And better husbands and wives. But no one modeled that for them when they were growing up so they need some real help and tools to be the parents and spouses they deep down want to be.”

Emerging Global Culture

Family and youth workers acknowledged the importance of staying familiar with youth culture, and yet felt unable to stay current due to its ever-evolving nature. Many of those interviewed felt that kids were turning to media and popular culture, especially music, to make up for the loss of familial intimacy. Lynn Ziegenfuss, formerly the Vice President of Leadership Development for Youth for Christ and now the National Mentoring Director for the National Network of Youth Ministries, believes that “the greatest need of kids is to know that they’re loved, and many don’t know that. That’s why they go looking in all the wrong places. They wouldn’t say it, but they’re looking for an anchor.”

Multicultural Perspectives

Those interviewed acknowledged that multicultural issues are important for all leaders to understand, not just those in urban or international contexts. As Efrem Smith, formerly of Park Avenue Foundation and now pastor of the Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis, commented, “It was a multicultural, multiethnic, supernatural phenomenon that led to the start of the first Christian church. So we’d better grasp that ancient-future church is about looking back to a multiethnic, Christ-centered community and looking forward to spending our eternal spiritual lives in a Christ-centered multiethnic community.” Those who work with urban students were especially passionate about the need for a holistic approach that touches not just kids’ spiritual needs but also their emotional, physical, financial, and intellectual struggles. In Efrem Smith’s experience, “You can’t just have a Wednesday night club, you can’t just have a Sunday school, you can’t just have a missions trip if you’re going to be successful in reaching our young people in the inner cities. You can have a Sunday school class, but if kids can’t read, what difference does it make?” Similarly, those involved with the children-at-risk movement worldwide desire multidisciplinary training that meets the needs of kids abandoned to AIDS orphanages, traumatized by war, or sold into child prostitution.

How can you learn to ask your own macro questions?

Each of these categories raises a host of important macro questions. Our mission at FYI is to try to network together with pastors, leaders, and researchers to wrestle with these questions until we pin down some answers.

But this isn’t just a job for professors and researchers. You don’t need a Ph.D. or a fancy title to contribute to the discussion. It’s a role and responsibility for anyone who cares about kids. The problem is that when it comes to tackling big, tough questions about ministry, we often think that we have to summon up all the brain power we can possibly muster and hole up somewhere, and we can’t come out of hiding until we’ve arrived at some divinely-inspired answers.

And since we’ve got plenty of micro questions that stare at us (Figured out transportation for that retreat yet?) and many of us don’t like being by ourselves for all that long, we never do it. We think that if we just go faster and work harder, we’ll get where we want to go. But we don’t. And the students we care about don’t get all that far either.

The reality is that you can wrestle with macro questions at any and all times. They’re quite portable. And you don’t have to be by yourself to arrive at an “aha.” In fact, odds are good that you’ll come up with an even bigger “aha” if you involve others in the process.

Students. The next time you’re having coffee with some students, ask them what they’re struggling with in their families, how it feels to be from their particular race or cultural background, or whether they think it’s different to grow up now from when you were growing up. Make it an official focus group and invite a few students who you know will be honest, especially if they disagree with you, and ask them hard questions about your ministry. What are we doing that makes you not want to bring your friends? When is the last time we’ve taught a subject that really mattered to you? If you were the youth pastor, what would you do differently? If you really listen and value their answers, they’ll be honored that you cared enough to ask (and buying pizza doesn’t hurt either).

Parents. Maybe part of our struggles with parents is that we view them as obstacles instead of resources. What questions can you ask parents, either as individuals or in groups, that will help you better understand them and their kids? When they think about their kids, what are their greatest fears? When do they feel the most spiritually connected with their kids and when do they feel most distant? What can your ministry do to encourage them and let them know they’re not alone?

Volunteers. When is the last time you’ve had a truly interesting conversation with one of your volunteers? If you can’t remember, then maybe the next time you touch base, you should think ahead about what to talk about. What in your ministry doesn’t make sense to them from a theological perspective? What kids’ struggles keep those leaders awake at night wondering how to help them? What can you do together to reach out to the parents of your kids? When they hang out with kids, what are they learning about youth culture that you might be missing?

Youth workers. The next time you’re having lunch with a youth worker from another church, go deeper by probing the macro questions that affect both of your ministries. What are you reading in Scripture or other books that challenges the way you think about ministry? What are you doing to truly minister to families? What are the social, racial, and economic dynamics in each of your ministries that are keeping your kids from loving each other? If the conversation goes well, you might want to agree to each check out a particular Web site or read an article or a book together and meet again in a month or two to discuss what you’ve learned.

Other leaders in your church. Can you articulate a theological rationale for every ministry program in your church? If someone who’d never been to church came to your worship service, what would they think about God? Does your church have an integrated approach to family ministry so that those who shepherd the parents and those who pastor the kids are working together? What will your community look like culturally five or ten years from now, and how should that affect your ministry today? Maybe it’s time for you to respectfully ask for some time at the next pastoral team meeting to start tackling some of these macro questions while there’s still time.

If all of this feels overwhelming, remember that Curtis started with the baby step of asking himself one simple question: “Why?” Like Curtis, is there one question that’s bothering you, the answer to which would unleash a new freedom and power in your ministry? What could you read, or who could you talk to, that would help you get to the bottom of what you’re struggling with? When can you make the time?

This article originally appeared in YouthWorker Journal, July/August 2004.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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