Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Anxiety and Youth Ministry

I taught a one-day course at Presbyterian College in Montreal on Saturday. I’m not entirely pleased with how it went. I was feeling ill for one. I think that the promotional material for the day promised too much and so it was inevitable that I was going to disappoint everyone at least a little. I got sidetracked into a discussion concerning the relationship between youth ministry and ecclesiology that became way too big. I got hijacked by a “Well in my church . . .” story, something that rarely happens to me. All of these make me feel that the day wasn’t all that it could have been.

At a deeper level, however, I’ve been doing some serious thinking about these sort of one day deals. I’ve done a bunch of them in the past, mostly for my denomination but sometimes for others. In general, I come in, talk as much and as fast as I can, and leave feeling empty. What did I really accomplish in the lives of these people? Very little in my opinion.

In reading Mark Yaconelli’s new book Contemplative Youth Ministry, he’s reminded me why. These events are almost always motivated by anxiety. Parents and churches feel anxious and so they ask the wrong questions and have the wrong expectations. On page 79 Mark starts a list:

Anxiety seeks control. (How do I make kids into Christians?)
Anxiety seeks professionals. (Who is the expert that can solve the youth problem?)
Anxiety wants products. (What book, video, or curriculum will teach kids about faith?)
Anxiety lifts up gurus. (Who has the charisma to draw kids?)
Anxiety rests in results. (How many kids have committed to the faith?)
Anxiety seeks conformity. (Are the youth meeting our expectations?)
Anxiety wants activity. (What will keep kids busy?)
Anxiety wants answers. (Here’s what we think. Here’s who God is.)

I’m the guru (or rockstar in some folks words). I’m the one with the degree, the one who has worked for Kenda Dean (she is such a big dog guru/rockstar that YS uses her endorsement for Mark’s book), the one with the experience who is supposed to have the answer. “How can we get kids to come?” “How can we keep kids in the church when they graduate from high school?” “What is the best confirmation curriculum?” Anxious, anxious, anxious.

Don’t get me wrong. All the folks at the deal on Saturday don’t want to be anxious (this is ultimately Mark’s point but you’ll have to buy the book and read my review when I’m done to get the full argument). They want to be faithful but somehow, unlike Mark, when presented with anxiety, I answer back in that language. Mark answers with wisdom and no small part of wit. For me, when they say, “How can we get more youth?” I answer back seriously but naively, that is, I answer the surface question when I should be wise enough to pose a question in return which would expose the root of their question – anxiety. What I should have said on Saturday is the second part of Mark’s list:

Love seeks contemplation. (How can I be present to kids and to God?)
Love seeks processes. (What can we do together to uncover Jesus’ way of life?)
Love desires presence. (Who will bear the life of God among teenagers?)
Love relies on guides. (Who has the gifts for living alongside kids?)
Love rests in relationships. (Who are the kids we’ve befriended?)
Love brings out creativity. (In what fresh way is God challenging us through our kids?)
Love brings awareness. (What are the real needs of the youth?)
Love seeks questions. (What do you think? Or as Jesus said, “Who do you say that I am?)

I have some issues with Mark’s understanding of contemplation and this focus on love is not entirely adequate from my perspective, but it is so much better than the anxious perspective that my soul cries out in relief. It is so much better in fact that I’m not doing any more one-day deals besides the ones I’ve committed to already. I'm boycotting them from now on. I can’t let other people’s anxiety determine my ministry and it seems, at least at the moment, that it does even though I know better.

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