Speaking of the Word: Who Jesus is for our Youth

After sharing with my pastor the results of a little two year 'experiment' I did, he asked me to type up a report to share with our Parish Council. I presented the following on Sunday, March 18.  On a Wednesday night in February of 2010, I asked our youth a seemingly simple question: Who is Jesus? They answered with things like, “best guy in the entire universe,” “awesome,” “ultimate psychiatrist,” and “helps me play video games.” The most popular answer was “my best friend,” given explicitly by at least three youth before we all just kind of agreed that Jesus was all of our best friend. These answers all show that our youth had a generally positive impression of who Jesus is, which is good, but they are not particularly biblical, nor are they spiritually or theologically deep answers.

They also gave some standard, ‘textbook’ answers, but were unable to speak about them at any length. They said that Jesus is, “the Son of God,” “our Savior,” “Son of David,” “miracle worker.” These answers are obviously much more biblical and have some theological and spiritual depth to them, but further conversation revealed that our youth were unable to elaborate, explain or articulate what these answers mean or why they were significant for their day-to-day lives. Our youth seemed to be quoting “right answers” as if they were learned by rote rather than personally held convictions that they truly owned. The only possible exception was one girl who said that Jesus “saved my life by dying on the cross and forgiving my sins.” She said that in the middle of everyone claiming Jesus as their best friend, and right afterwards our conversation quickly steered back in that direction. But that evening I wrapped up our discussion by highlighting this answer, and wondering aloud why only one of them had given it.

Two years later, in February of 2012, I asked the same question again: Who is Jesus? Answers included “The Son of God,” “Savior,” “the only pure one,” “makes us whole,” “the one through whom God completes our lives and relationships,” “fills our emptiness,” “makes our lives whole.” But more importantly, our youth were able to elaborate on all of these answers, giving them much more color and demonstrating a deeper kind of knowledge. This time around they weren’t talking about Jesus as their best friend or psychotherapist, and they weren’t just rattling off textbook answers either. But even that wasn’t quite enough for them: the conversation pushed onward to what it looks like to follow him. “Jesus gave it all, so we should be willing to give it all...following Jesus looks like the cross.” “Following Jesus looks like love - Jesus on the cross is ultimate.” We had a real, substantive conversation about who Jesus is in which our youth demonstrated the ability to talk about Jesus at length, and in their own words!

Two years apart, same question, totally different conversation. The National Survey of Youth and Religion, conducted just a few years ago, found that while adolescents in the United States are eager to share their opinions on a wide range of issues, almost all of them are incredibly inarticulate when it comes to their faith. I am really excited to report that our youth are growing in this area. Don’t get me wrong - we’ve still got a long way to go. We’re learning to “talk the talk,” but that doesn’t mean much if we’re not also learning how to better “walk the walk.” But regardless I think our church has something to celebrate - our youth are asking great questions and they’re really seeking God as their Answer. We’re making some observable strides along the road from faith learned by rote to faith they can really own as truly and authentically their own - what some people call “sticky faith.” This can only be described as an act of God’s grace. And by God’s grace we’ll continue learning and growing together toward the kind of Christian faith that lasts.

'Student' vs. 'Youth' Ministry

Leonardo I recently asked a friend and colleague if she knew where the term "student ministry" came from, and why so many people use it. She wasn't really sure, but she did point me to this blog post guest authored by Christian Smith that served to confirm my apprehension about that way of speaking of our ministry with teens.

I was still in high school the first time I ever heard someone use the term "student ministry," and even then it caught me off guard. It seemed really weird to me that a church would label me as a student, because I did not think of myself in those terms. These days I am actually working in youth ministry, and I've only grown more convinced that it's a weird way of talking about ministry to teens. Here are a few of the reasons why I never say I work in 'student ministry':

First of all, the church should be careful when it defines people in terms of their occupation. What we 'do' is an important part of who we are, but privileging any one role tends to be reductionistic, especially when that privileged role is chosen poorly. This is particularly true with young people, who are so often engaged in a number of activities outside the classroom that they count more central to their identities. I'm not sure that I know a single teen that would self identify first as a student. As far as they're concerned they are softball players, guitarists, gamers, band members, and (I hope!) Christians before they are students. If they don't identify themselves primarily as students, why do so many churches?

Second, it's a bad idea for teens to be thought of as students in the church, because the term 'student' reinforces some unfortunate but common misconceptions about discipleship. The term 'student' lends itself to an excessively cognitive understanding of what teens are, and therefore to an excessively mental, intellectual view of discipleship. Teens are thought of primarily as neutral idea-receptacles that need to be filled with the right kind of information. This is problematic insofar as Jesus doesn't call us just to think the gospel, he calls us to live it. Christianity is less about what you know, and more about who and how and why and where you love. Worship is a very different genre from what goes on in the classrooms our teens frequent. And thank God for that.

Third, the term 'student' overestimates the difference between teenagers and the rest of the church. On the one hand, 'student' risks suggesting that the rest of us have nothing else to learn, nowhere else to grow. And on the other hand, the term overestimates the tentative nature of teen faith. We need to invite teens to be the church today along with us, and they can't do that as just 'students'. And if the rest of us are going to be the church together with them, then we too need to get in touch with the fact that we are still students, or better, disciples of the master too.

Fourth, the term is exclusive. The church has a responsibility to minister the gospel to all teens, regardless of whether they are students, home-schooled, dropouts or early graduates. This one seems like a no-brainer to me.

I don't mean to suggest that the term 'youth' ministry is perfect and unproblematic. Only that it is far less problematic, makes much more sense, and doesn't carry so many risky misconceptions. Separating a group by its age can be problematic, especially since I think we should be striving to be one church, worshipping God together, across generational lines. If for Paul it was important to point out that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, man nor woman, slave nor free, in our age we might just as well add that in Christ the differences between young and old are reconfigured as well. So 'youth' ministry might overestimate the difference between youth and the rest of the church as well. But if such a ministry is put together to make sure young people have a place in our community ('in' being the operative word, not apart, alongside or near), then maybe the difficulties of the term can be minimized. Regardless, I still think this is a smaller barrier to overcome than those with 'student' listed above, so I'll stick with 'youth' unless someone can persuade me otherwise.

On that note, I'd be really curious to hear if anyone knows why the term 'student ministry' is so popular? What are its benefits? Or what's the critique of 'youth ministry'; why is that term so bad?