When their storms become ours: closing the distance between leaders and young people
… the storms she loved because they were not hers,
There’s nothing like a good thunderstorm from a great view. You see it coming. Take a seat. Take it in.
The “view” changes, however, when you’re trying to drive home during a snowstorm in the East, run for cover from a tornado in the Midwest, or brace for a hurricane in the South. And this seems to be what Christian Wiman suggests in his poem, Revenant – storms enjoyed at safe distances aren’t really storms. They’re experienced as something else.
Youth ministry leaders run the risk of viewing young peoples’ lives this way. Positive views (“You are the hope of the present and future church!”) or negative ones (“You are the leavers, the dones, and the nones!”), actually share same vantage point – distance. Both perceptions are offered from safe places that fail to get close enough to understand young people’s true experiences. As a direct result, youth ministry often remains programmed, theoretical, Pollyanna-ish, distanced.
Distance denies urgency.
This distance, then, may account for why addressing topics such as sexuality, immigration, singleness, interfaith dialogue, race, or war is so rare in youth ministry (and church) settings. Stormy topics at a distance do not demand immediacy or specificity.
For young people, however, these topics are not at a distance. They are increasingly felt up-close and personally. Their questions, vivid emotions, and challenging statements are not about philosophical musings but cries of real-life faith. While we as adults want to talk theoretically about the challenges young people face, young people experience these challenges as life-and-death realities. And they are wondering who will enter the storms of their lives with them.
We talk theoretically about challenges young people face, but they experience them as life-and-death realities. (tweet that)
As leaders, we need to realize that well-meaning gestures or platitudes won’t survive here. Those of us who want “more time to address the topic” often don’t feel the pressure young people experience now. Adults who ask young people to “be patient” often don’t appreciate the intensity of fear and anxiety young people perpetually hold. Youth ministry’s hopeful promises that “it’ll all work out” don’t acknowledge the broken pieces scattered around young people and the friends they care about. Young peoples’ real lives seek real-life answers through a reimagined, reliable faith that can’t be kicked down the road of “later.”
For them it’s now, not tomorrow. It’s now, or it will dissolve to never.
Youth ministry’s role must remain true to its call by challenging the distances that can make faith irrelevant to young people. This will require youth workers to risk taking the first, closer steps. I offer three considerations for youth workers to close the distance between you and young people:
1) Moving closer means letting your heart be broken.
While youth ministry has matured in its requirement of qualified workers, providing leaders with advanced degrees and creative ministry titles doesn’t guarantee that you know your young people. In fact, youth ministry’s growing legitimacy tempts youth leaders to look for personal validation rather than the needs of young people. This obsession with legitimacy and the constant comparisons with each other (go to a youth worker training event and you’ll know what I mean) creates faux-humility and unhealthy competition. The bigger the ego, the greater the distance.
The bigger the ego, the greater the distance. (tweet that)
What youth workers perpetually need is for their hearts to break all over again. Our scholastic knowledge of “adolescence” doesn’t guarantee that we know the adolescents in front of us right now. Can you name the last conversation you had when you didn’t try to be the expert? Will you dare to reflect on your gender, racial, ethnic, and socio-economic biases and blind spots that affect your ministry? Are you willing to risk being moved to tears?
Are you willing to lean in so that you can truly know them, hear them, and see them? Will your ego get out of the way in order to let your heart be broken?
It’s your move.
2) Moving closer demands that you look beyond excellence toward empathy.
Some youth workers have happily settled into improving their ministry brand with little awareness of the larger social and psychological forces affecting their young. Young people don’t need a break from their worlds, they need advocates to help them navigate their worlds.
Advocacy is using the power youth workers have—positional, social, educational, economic—to invest in young people for their benefit, not ours. Advocacy perpetually asks questions like: What do young people need from us? How do we shift to ensure we’re addressing the most essential needs of our young? Where do our young people need support, protection, education, or resources? Who must we partner with and who must we confront?
Answering these questions may radically change your role and your definition of success.
It’s your move.
3) Moving closer requires you to stop collecting and start emptying.
The youth ministry narrative of leaders making sacrifices to serve young people can sometimes be more theory than reality. Our job is not to check tasks off a list, garner gratitude from others in leadership, or build a well-oiled ministry machine that operates on its own. Instead, we need to do something quite difficult; to empty ourselves of the systems and accolades we’ve worked so hard to earn.
To do this, we must disrupt our perfect schedule. While there’s nothing wrong with a managed schedule, recognize that interacting with young people in your time, during your programming, or on your terms maintains your position of power and control. Implicitly, you’re asking young people to “come to you” rather than you going to them. Your movement will be costly and inefficient, but deeply worth it.
We also must resist delegating everything. Your volunteers (not minions) are here to work with you, not for you. Delegating up-close ministry will eventually distance us from young people. If you don’t know the names of the young people you say you serve, consider this a warning sign.
And finally, we need to see our job as bridge builders, not wall builders. Some churches assume that they have hired a youth ministry leader like you to be the solution, even the barrier, between young people and adults. Your presence eases their consciences and preserves their worlds. But this isn’t your role. Your job is to shrink the distances between young and old so that young people are seen, understood, and supported. Some church members will be confused, misunderstanding that you weren’t hired to close the gap, but to keep the distance. It's time to change this.
It’s your move.
Let’s build storm-chasing youth groups.
Movement that brings youth workers closer to young people’s worlds will change them. And if we all do this, it will inevitably change the images people have of youth ministry. What if the default images of youth ministry were those of refugee camps, art galleries, health clinics, tutoring hubs, drop-in spaces, multicultural centers, extended families, film studios, confession booths, and public debate areas? If young people can’t find these kinds of spaces, and adults who are willing to be there, they will go someplace else. They’ll have to.
May young peoples’ storms become ours. May we get close enough that we feel the energy and the danger to move us back toward the exciting, risk-taking, empathetic, advocating, emptying, Jesus-trusting heartbeat that got us into youth ministry in the first place.
I believe this is what young people need. I believe this is what youth ministry wants. And I still believe that this is what youth ministry can be.
It’s our move.
Today’s young people are anxious. Teach them they’re not alone.
Faith in an Anxious World is a 4-week high school curriculum that will empower you with language and tools to respond to young people in your care, linking anxiety and depression with conversations about discipleship and faithful living.
 Christian Wiman, Hammer is the Prayer, Revenant. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2016.