I’ve been reading a book that was stuffed away in a cabinet at my desk called Your First Two Years In Youth Ministry by Doug Fields. Every page seems to resonate with me by either telling me how to better prepare myself as a youth leader or by explaining to me why I failed in the past. Around August of 2010, I took over the student program at BGBC and after a mere 6 months I was completely and utterly defeated. I was full of excuses in the months and years following, but I’ve settled on the simple explanation that (a) I was not mature enough, spiritually or mentally, to take over that kind of position and (b) I was focused more on what ‘I thought a student ministry should be’ rather than what God was calling me to do with the students at Bowling Green Baptist. Doug Fields’ book does a great job of outlining exactly what I was doing wrong and what you can do to avoid falling into the traps that so many other youth workers (not just leaders) fall into. Over the next few days, I’m going to go through each of 10 “commitments” that Doug recommends every youth worker make and point out what I learned through my first foray into youth ministry and what I hope to accomplish this time around. Hopefully this will help keep me accountable and aid anyone else who happens to stumble upon this little blog in the future.
Commitment #1: I will move slowly
When I was a freshmen at NC State, I was on scholarship with the US Air Force. During that time, I remember one of our trainers telling me that if/when I became a fresh 2nd lieutenant we would have the ability to make a lot of changes, but just because we could make changes didn’t mean we should. When I originally took over the student ministry at Bowling Green Baptist, I took the Field of Dreams approach to ministry: build it and they will come. In my head, I knew I had thought of all the things our student ministry was missing and I was going to roll in there and build it all so that the herds of teenagers would come flooding into our youth room.
Needless to say it didn’t work that way… at all. (shocker)
From Doug Fields’ book…
It’s safe to assume you want to make some changes at your church during your first two years. Great! But these changes probably don’t need to be implemented right away. With confidence, I can guarantee that even the changes that appear to be no-brainers cause pain for someone. […] If you’re the lead youth worker, fast changes can appear arrogant or reveal a maverick’s personality to your church. (Doug Fields, Your First Two Years In Your Ministry, pg 23)
With a great deal of certainty, I can confirm that Doug’s warnings are very true. One thing that I did was create sort of a ‘large group seating area’ where we could project worship lyrics and show PowerPoint slides to support large group lessons and talks. The only seating we had suitable for this type of area were metal fold-out chairs which I zip-tied together to form rows that wouldn’t move around, even if we were horse-playing or moving furniture. Once I stepped away from youth ministry in January 2011, I was told that the simple act of zip-tying the chairs together really, really bothered some of the parents/church members. They perceived it as controlling and authoritarian which sounds suspiciously similar to what Doug suggests (“…arrogant or reveal a maverick’s personality…”). As Doug said, it seemed like a no-brainer to me, but it caused pain for some and their pain is just as valid and deserves just as much respect as anyone else’s.
The scripture Doug uses to setup all 10 of his commitments is Exodus 23:29-30…
But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply and threaten you. I will drive them out a little at a time until your population has increased enough to take possession of the land. (Exodus 23:29-30 NLT, Source: Bible Gateway)
Doug’s commentary is that God knew that giving the Holy Land to the Israelites was going to be a long journey, especially with so many not-so-friendly people settling the land during the time in which the Hebrew nation was in Egypt. ‘Rome’, or in this case Israel, ‘wasn’t built in a day’. As I continued reading this particular section on moving slowly, I was reminded of the famous 1 Corinthians 8 section where Paul writes about meat that was sacrificed to pagan gods. The Hebrew Christians came from a long-line of believers who were raised thinking that such meat was unclean. Was it unclean for Christians to eat this meat? Of course not, but as Paul explained, some people believed it to still be wrong because of how they were raised. Growing past the deeply ingrained teachings of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ based on man-made actions versus Christ’s grace wasn’t going to happen over night and trying to push too much radical change on the basis of legalistic ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ weren’t going to help the early church or early Christians. Similarly, a youth leader who seeks to change the culture in one aggressive push is going to face a tremendous amount of push-back by any church body and possibly turn advocates for their calling into adversaries of their ‘maverick’ nature.
What I learned from my past experience is that there is no rush to change a culture or a program or traditions associated with the way a youth program has been run, especially if the people who previously ran that program are still active in the church. If God is calling me to love our students and to build up a ministry that can foster closer relationships with God, it is going to occur on God’s schedule, not mine.