The Three Temptations (that You May Not Even Know You Are Giving in to as a Youth Worker)
Who knew the word “unprecedented” could become so overused, while simultaneously being the most accurate term to describe what is happening on any given day? The pandemic, and all of 2020, has brought with it the need to reimagine youth ministry many times over in the past several months. As we move into the next iteration of this wild ride, we note three temptations that we must actively reject to make sure we keep our eyes on the goal of disciple-making. Although the pandemic has given these temptations a new allure, they aren’t “unprecedented.” They are temptations we’ve had to fight a long time.
1. Seeing yourself as a professional content creator.
Before the pandemic, I used to tell youth workers over and over again to repeat after me, “I am not a professional writer.” Yet, youth workers would come up to me over and over again, telling me about the next series they were writing. It is REALLY hard to write GOOD curriculum. It takes a lot of time, training, and a ton of editing to make something that even approaches good. And most youth workers have neither the time, nor the experience, nor the skill to do it as well as all the people writing for the youth ministry publishing houses.
The pandemic has made this temptation even worse – with youth workers moving from one very difficult creative field (writing) to another (video production). You are not a YouTube star; you are not the skit guys. You do not need to spend twenty hours a week making videos for your group. If you feel the need to post some videos on Instagram, ask a student to help you shoot it, and then turn it over to them to edit it.
Creating your own content has always been one of the biggest time-wasting temptations in youth ministry, and this season has brought the temptation back with a vengeance. It’s a lot easier to spend all your time making videos than to try to actually innovate in ministry and effectively meet the spiritual needs of teens in a time when you are supposed to stay six feet apart. So, put down the ring light and focus on your students. There is a lot of good content out there that you can tweak to make your own instead of creating it from scratch!
2. Believing that programs change lives.
Your programs are not creating life transformation. If we are completely honest, most of your youth sermons aren’t doing that either. One of the most profound pieces of Methodist theology and practice is our conviction that real transformation happens in relationships. That is what John Wesley meant when he used the term “social holiness.” He wasn’t meaning “social” as in society; he was meaning “social” as in interpersonal relationships.
What he discovered through his system of class meetings was that people could go to church a lot, sing a lot of hymns, and listen to a lot of sermons and never experience transformation. But if you put them into a group that spends time developing deep spiritual relationships that helps them focus on actually becoming the people the Bible calls them to be, transformation starts to occur.
During this time when people are supposed to be physically distant, that kind of relational ministry has been difficult. Many youth workers have fallen back on focusing on making a better program, but that program is a mirage. Spending our time perfecting the program is tilting at windmills. If you want transformation, you need to let go of the perfect program and spend your time reimagining relational ministry in the age of the pandemic.
3. Measuring your success by attendance.
I know. When a bunch of students show up, it feels good. If we aren’t careful, we will keep sharing (read that as bragging) our praise report about the number of kids at our last Zoom escape room. But attendance at youth ministry programs both online and in person has taken a dramatic nosedive. On one hand, kids are totally Zoomed out and need in-person interaction. On the other hand, parents are scared to let kids be in person, for fear of putting at-risk family members in danger. Those of us who have given in to the temptation of measuring our success by attendance have been deeply disappointed in our ministry results.
Attendance is only one metric. Although it is important, in this season, it may be time to hang that metric up for a while. Instead of looking at that number, try to look at other numbers. For example, if you are able to let go of the time you spend perfecting your program and creating content, you could be free to spend an hour or two a day making phone calls to check on kids. Then, you might be able to say that you had “x” number of pastoral conversations this week.
And what if you let some of your volunteers out of your next Zoom call and asked them to do the same? How much real ministry might happen then? How much spiritual need might you be able to meet in the lives of the teens in your group?
Look, making videos is fine; having the coolest ever youth Zoom is fine; and taking attendance is . . . fine. But to really bring the kingdom of God more fully in your community, you need to let go of all that and focus on what really matters. It’s not becoming more like Rhett and Link or upgrading your Zoom account to be able to have more participants because “OMG the Lord is really blessing us with attendance.”
It’s not about those things. It’s about guiding students in the way of Jesus as we all live through these . . . unique . . . times.
Check out my website: JeremyWords.com.