Published at Youthworker Online (A part of Youthworker Journal)
Read the online article here
The ‘Us’ has become ‘Them’
I remember early on in my youth ministry career, besides being young, immature, arrogant and having a chip on my shoulder; I was also part of a mindset that seemed to be prevalent in youth ministry: the battle of ‘us’ verses ‘them.’ The us refers to youth workers and the them refers to the senior pastors, adults and others that just did not get youth ministry. It was not just the youth workers that were young that thought this way; you heard it from almost everyone in youth ministry. Mike Yaconelli was constantly critical of those in the ‘them’ crowd in the church for not understanding the nature of ministry. While there was (and still is) plenty of arrogance in youth ministry, I believe there was some truth to the idea that it was youth workers who really ‘got it.’ The church was resistant to new ideas, unconventional thinking, creativity, and outside the box thinking. Youth workers attempted to lead the way in helping the church think differently. I remember so many conversations around this topic as recently as 2005, but something has changed.
Hopefully some of us (present company included) have grown up and matured (some would say ruined). Youth ministry has changed. It does not have the importance, power or influence that it once did. The busyness of culture, the lack of youth and adult participation and the economic realities that have changed the church staff market in general are all part of the equation. The world has changed, the church has changed and youth ministry has changed. Maybe it all makes sense, or maybe it’s just me. Yet I think there is something else going on. The ‘us’ crowd, the creative, innovative youth workers that used to lead the way, have become ‘them.’ It’s no longer the senior pastors, adults and other leaders of the church that are resisting change. It’s now those of us in the youth ministry world. I am not sure what happened; perhaps we are just comfortable or maybe even tired. We have lost some of our power, leverage and influence. I don’t think youth ministry has matured though. In fact our youth ministries seem more theologically immature than ever. I see some of the same games, strategies and mindsets that I experienced as an intern in the late 1990’s. Youth workers seem more resistant than ever to ideas from parents and those outside their circles, especially senior pastors.
While I have yet to hear a single youth worker utter the death phrase ‘we have never done it that way before,’ I see so many youth workers operating out of that very mindset. What happened to our innovation? What happened to our thoughtful, cutting edge, rebellious nature? Where has our sensitivity and discernment to the changing needs of culture gone while trying to engage the Holy Spirit? While I would say that we have lost our way (and we did need to grow up), I also believe youth ministry has become a victim of its own success. We have fallen into the trap of being professional ministers. We have lost sight of the mission and have found comfort in our own empires (no matter how large or small). Much like the church leaders of the past (and perhaps the present), we are unable to challenge our own thinking, especially if what we are doing is appearing to work.
The problem is that I am not so sure it is working anymore. Sure we have amazing youth ministries with fun games and messages that change lives instantly (or at least we think). Yet, in a world where our teenagers hide more of their lives from us, we have created an alternate world that looks more like a Christian bookstore than the Kingdom of God. Our youth are coming to faith and experiencing radical change, and moments later they are off to the parking lot to have sex in their cars. Our student leaders are not the youth that are ‘sold out for Jesus.’ They are the youth that are able to manage multiple selves and pretend better than others. Everything has changed, and the problem is that we have not changed with it. It’s now those in the ‘them’ crowd that are leading the way and it’s those of us in the ‘us’ crowd that are stuck in our own comfort.
Rev. Marcus J Carlson has worked with children and youth for over 14 years and is a spiritual director. He current serves as Associate Pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs, CO. (marcusjcarlson.com).