Whitewashing our Youth Ministries

I was just finishing up my first semester of college, and I needed a new car. I loved the car I had, but it simply wasn’t reliable…it even left me stranded several times. That December, I was able to purchase a ’97 Honda Civic that would stay with me through 10 states, 122K miles and 7 ½ years. I took this picture the day I sold it to a former student, and it felt like shooting my dog. I loved that car.

old-civic

I would try to keep it clean and comfortable for others to be in, but I always focused more on the exterior of the car. I wanted the windows to be clear and the wheels/chrome emblems to shine, and I washed it fairly often. Essentially, I took care of my car by making sure it looked good. I think we can take that same approach with our youth ministries, and it can be very dangerous.

In Matthew 23, Jesus is talking with his disciples and a gathered crowd about the dangers of the Pharisees – the pious Jewish leaders who often sought to discredit him. Among the several accusations Jesus levels against them, a prominent one is whitewashed tombs: “[They] outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So [the Pharisees] also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within [they] are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

My last post talked about how our social media/attention span-less culture has driven the idea that fast and flashy methods are far superior to patient and slowly developed methods. We want things now, and they better look fantastic…like a car after a fresh wax. The whitewashed issue isn’t quite the same, but it is related – we want things to look great on the outside; however, it’s the core that really matters. Building that core takes time and patience.

I feel like this is a tension that’s most applicable to youth ministers who have just entered a new youth group, or have been with their current youth group for 6+ years. When you come into a new ministry, you have the urge to switch things up, and put a fresh coat of paint on everything (sometimes literally!). We make everything look/sound great, and start pushing students to invite friends to programs and events. While the rush of a fresh start is great, we may get caught up in trying to preserve everything the way we started it…by focusing on the exterior. The same goes for a veteran minister who has seen his entire group graduate, and feels like things need a fresh shake-up. We look to update or improve our youth ministries, but we look at things that improve a room…a sound system…list of games…things that are external and commonly utilized. Those elements do need maintenance and attention, but remember: the Pharisees looked pristine on the outside, but their hearts and minds were void of anything resembling spiritual health.

If we want to establish healthy youth groups that foster meaningful growth while also providing a fun, inviting atmosphere, we need to adopt an inside-out ministry approach. Just like the hit worship tune “From the Inside Out” by Hillsong United insinuates, our lives of worship should be an outward reflection of an internal transformation. Jesus also said that others would know we are his disciples by how swag our youth rooms and Instagram accounts are. Wait…that’s not right. Oh yeah, it’s that we would be associated with Him by our love for one another. But, just so we’re clear, Jesus is not anti-swag 😉

Here are some brief thoughts and applications to close:

New ministers – Don’t mix everything up upon your arrival to a youth ministry. Put your spin on current programming, but be a champion of consistency to help the rough reality of transition for students. I would suggest finishing out at least one semester, if not the entire school year before changing a program. The only thing I would bring relatively quickly is a student leadership team. They will be the core of your inside-out approach.

New and old ministers – Listen well to your students and parents, and observe.

Do your students love each other well?

How do they respond to visitors?

How do they respond to you, your adult leaders, and other adults/parents?

What do they need? What are they asking for?

Are your lessons bound to status-quo mandates, or are they addressing issues that students need and are asking about?

How does your group worship?

How are they growing outside of youth activities?

Conversations with parents and student leaders are a great start to evaluating and changing something in your programming or overall ministry. Don’t fall into the easy pattern of chasing trends and adding in new things haphazardly – youth ministry resources make great supplements, but they can’t start and drive authentic growth on their own. Through the Holy Spirit and presence of Christ, that’s your job! Have an open dialogue with others, pray, and move into what develops from it. Build from the inside-out: develop a healthy core so you can have confidence that the exterior of your ministry isn’t the main substance…but rather, an inviting foretaste of the ministry’s core: a Christ-centered community.

Oddly enough, in recent years, I don’t care much about the exterior of my car. I care about the interior, and people take more notice than they ever did when I primarily focused on a shiny exterior. I guess the interior matters more.

How’s the core of your ministry?

 

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