Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Youth Ministry: Preparing the Child for the Path

I posted yesterday about my own spiritual journey and the role that hard times have played in my understanding of God and how he relates to us and also how he wants us to respond to him. Today I read an email account of someone who was at a Regent's banquet at a high school in Texas.

The guest speaker for this banquet was Brad McCoy, who is well-known as a football coach, but even more well-known for being the father of Colt McCoy, who has been the face of Texas Longhorn football for the last four years. Being from Texas, the celebrity status of the nearly-national championship team hits close to home. In fact, I know a couple of the players on that UT football team who happen to be from my home town of Palestine, TX...but I digress.

According to the email, Mr. McCoy shared his story about the recent events surrounding the National Championship football game in which Colt was injured on the third play. He shared how God worked through this seemingly dire situation for a young man who had played over 40 consecutive games only to get hurt at the very beginning of the most important game of his life. One comment that was quoted from Brad McCoy was the philosophy that he and his wife share in raising their children, "You prepare your child for the path, rather than prepare the path for the child."

As I thought about my approach to youth ministry, these words resounded with me. I think many times youth workers do try to prepare the path for the child--and I used to be one of them. We are so busy building a hedge around our kids to shield them from the perils of the real world that our kids learn to live in a purely Christian bubble. We take them to Christian concerts and Christian youth days at our favorite theme parks. We show all the latest Christian movies by Christian production companies and teach lessons based on the movies. We give them Christian T-shirts and bracelets with witty acronyms and slogans on them so they won't stray from their faith. We encourage them so much to avoid certain activities that inadvertently they avoid anyone who does those activities. I'm afraid, many times, these kids will learn to function within the confines of a church, but not in the real world, because the real world is nothing like this Christian bio-dome we've created. These students will not know how to be relationally evangelistic because they will not have any friends who are not Christians. Now some people go too far the other way and really just teach that Christianity is just a supplement to a number of other important things in their lives. I don't agree with that either. I'm not saying Christian movies or T-shirts or events are bad--many of these things are good. But they shouldn't be our source of identity as Christians or four our teens in our youth groups. So how do we prepare students for the path of life, rather than preparing the path for them? How do we find that balance in what we teach without creating a Eutopia of shallow kids with a huge stash of Christian T-shirts, bumper stickers, and bracelets with abbreviations on them? Here are some things I think we can do.

1. Don't be afraid of the world in which our kids live. Let me make a distinction here. I think there is a difference between addressing the world the kids live in and embracing it. Truth is absolute. And I believe all truth comes from God. But I think truth can come in many forms and does not necessarily have to come from a “Christian” source. Rob Bell said in Velvet Elvis that the word "Christian" is a great noun, but a horrible adjective. I happen to agree. When the label "Christian" becomes the primary component of our filtration process, we can miss a lot. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of truth. But, if there are things students can learn from movies, music, books that aren't "Christian", we should be open to embracing the truth found in those things, even though they don't have the adjective "Christian" somewhere in their description. Something doesn't have to be labeled "Christian" to be true, but somehow we try to teach our students that truth can’t exist in anything that doesn’t come from a “Christian” source. So when they see a Scientologist or a Muslim teaching about loving one another or some other tenet they share with Christianity, it creates a crisis of belief for the student. An example of this occurred a few of years ago when mainstream Latin rock band Los Lonely Boys released the song "How Far Is Heaven,"-a prayer asking God to deliver the writer from the trials of life. The song quickly became a smash hit on pop radio. Not long after the song's release, the song was covered almost note-for-note by Christian Latin rock band Salvador and the song became a huge hit on Christian radio, even though many listeners now feel the original version is superior. Why did the song have to be “Christianized” before certain radio stations could or would play it? God's truth doesn't have to come in a box with the word "Christian" stamped across the top. By allowing students to see truth in their world, they are less likely to have this philosophical meltdown when they realize that someone who isn't a Christian can have similar views to their own. But they will also be able to know that their beliefs are founded on who God is and how he was revealed in Jesus Christ. Likewise, they will be less likely to abandon their faith in Christ for some merely humanitarian ideology that isn't centered on the person of Christ because it looks similar to Christianity.

2. Teach them to serve others without regard for a person's religious views. I've served a number of churches over the years. It seems many of these churches were great at taking care of their own members, but not very good at meeting the needs of those outside the church. Their own members who were elderly, sick, or poor, were nonetheless saints of God who lived out their faith daily. These are important people and most certainly should be helped. But when we serve someone and do not question where they attend church or whether or not they have put their faith in Christ, students learn from it. I'm not saying we shouldn't be evangelistic. I'm saying our agenda should be showing love to someone rather than making a convert. If God opens the door for them to put their faith in Christ, great, but love should be our motive, not a notch on our Bible or another church member. Another possible outcome is students may wind up serving someone who isn't overly appreciative or friendly, which creates a different internal reaction to the time spent serving. Learning that everyone we serve in love is excited and appreciative of what we do creates an unrealistic expectation of how real people in the "real world" will respond to loving assistance from followers of Christ. After Katrina we had a chance to do a mission trip in New Orleans. We worked five days on two different houses and never met the homeowners the whole time we were there. No thank you notes. No appreciative phone calls. Nothing. My students came back with a different sense of what it meant to serve someone who, at least in the students' eyes, didn't appear to be thankful.

3. Give them opportunities to spend time with local Christian students from other denominations. One thing the youth pastors and leaders in our area have a passion for is building unity among the teenage members of the body of Christ across denominational lines. So we plan three to four events a year that allow students from all denominations to meet together in worship and prayer. This shows the students of our area that these other students are on their team. They may go to different churches. They may do some different things in their worship. But they are on the same team! I believe doctrine is important to every denomination. Students should know what their church believes and what they personally believe. However, something is wrong when we get so ingrained with denominational doctrine that we spend our time arguing with other Christians about things like the methodology of baptism or predestination vs. freewill instead of joining our brothers and sisters under the banner of Christ to impact our communities for the glory of God. Reading Jesus' conversations with the Pharisees we can see what Christ thought of legalism. Yet, we get so dogmatic sometimes about the aspects of our faith that are less important that we forget to focus on the things that are most important. If our students refuse to fellowship with other students because they don't baptize like we do, or they have a female pastor, or they speak in tongues at their church, we have done something terribly wrong. Paul encourages us to look past our differences in Ephesians 4:4-6. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

We live in such a godless society, it is easy to get caught in the trap of trying to create the perfect Christian kingdom for our students. But when our goal is to prepare them for life after youth group, or after high school, our focus is not on creating a perfect environment, but rather on creating a student with an arsenal of tools to deal with a cold, harsh world that has lost its sense of who God is. What things do you do in your ministry to "prepare the child for the path"?

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