Shortly after I arrived at my first full-time job as a youth pastor I was told that “youth Sunday” was coming up, and I needed to help the students come up with the program for the morning service. Looking back, I’m not even sure how youth Sunday became a tradition, or who decided it would be a good idea (probably some attempt at intergenerational community) Anyway, it is still roaming around out there I’m sure.
I digress… back to my story.
At the time, there were a lot of changes taking place at our small church. The Senior Pastor wanted the youth ministry to be the best thing around, and honestly, so did I. I thought it would be cool to launch a weekly Church service for youth. After all, that is what Saddleback Church was doing, and I thought that was the best model for us too. So we came up with the idea of making our youth Sunday service a model for our new weekly youth service. I planned, I cast vision to my students, I planned some more; it would blow everyone out of the water! Novel, experiential, communal, biblical, I felt good about it for sure. The night before our service I gathered the students together to prep for the service. That’s when it all fell apart. The chairs didn’t set up quite the way we wanted them too. The worship band was having a major communication breakdown. Not to mention there was a conflict with my wife and a couple of mischievous Senior High guys who thought it would be funny to huddle around the bathroom door and stare at her as she came out. Tensions were so high it was palpable. We tried very hard to work through the struggles of that night, and the service went off without a hitch. My pastor informed me later that the board was very pleased. I was not. That experience set off a chain of events that lead to more, and more conflict between me, and my students. It became plain to me that I was pushing for something they did not want. At the same time I felt pressure to perform by my pastor and my board. The relationships I had built with my students were compromised. My students felt like I was not listening to them. At the same time I wanted to things to look good. I thought I knew what a successful youth ministry looked like, and felt I needed to get it there, faster than it would take to foster relationships. I look back on that moment as a mistake that I will never make again. I will never compromise the relationship I have with my students for the desires of running a successful program, or youth ministry.
I look back on that experience and wish that I had done one of two things. First, I should have put aside my program plans to truly engage with my students. It was, after all, their service. Why was I so afraid of letting them plan the service how they thought it should go? Second, I could have stood up and said no, on their behalf. It felt to me that youth Sunday was just something that the church did, without really thinking through the purpose behind it. It was an awkward tradition that felt forced, and perhaps cultivated a culture of separation between the youth and the adults in our Church. Needless to say, I could have been a better advocate for me students. Instead I distanced myself, giving way to a false notion that I know what’s best for my students, instead of nurturing and cultivating a community where students can grow, and practice their faith. My intentions were good. Our intentions are good. However, if we want students to own their faith, perhaps we should think ourselves not just as “youth workers,” but “youth advocates.” (More on this later)