March 17, 2011


The world we live in today has radically changed. 

The people in the world have changed.

And we haven't quite figured out what that means... yet.

At the risk of sounding like an old, worn out, cranky person, I can't figure out what is wrong with kids these days. 

That's at least where this post starts from.  A frustration with the young people I work with week to week in youth group.  They are energetic, quick to pick fights, easily berate and offend one another, like to have fun, push buttons, and exhaust me on Wednesday nights.

I'm not trained to be a youth minister.  And the lack of respect for us as leaders and for one another as peers really drains and frustrates me.  I'm not sure how to respond, how to build the trust that leads to respect, how to encourage them to think about what another person is going through.  I'm stuck.  But I love these kids and I'm going to keep at it.

What I have realized however, is that this is not just a problem I'm having with one particular group of kids.

Lack of respect is a larger societal problem.

And I think it has everything to do with authority.

I had read Carol Howard Merritt's Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation a couple of months ago.  In her book, she talks about the diffusion of authority, the growth of grassroots and networked communities.

I love this reality.  I love the fact that more people have a voice and power and the ability to determine their own destiny.

Yet at the same time, I live in institutional structures that depend on authority and respect in order to work. 

The role of the pastor used to carry with it respect and authority.  The pastor was a leader in the community and people listened to what the pastor said.  That is not the case, today, as people double check what their pastor says with what the latest television evangelist or popular religion book says.  On the one hand, I applaud these efforts.  But it makes it awfully hard to encourage my church to think in a new way when they keep hearing different messages from other places.

But not only pastors have this problem.  So do teachers.  So do medical professionals.  So do scientists.  So do community leaders.  As power is distributed and shared, as knowledge is filtered downward, everyone thinks they know it all... or at the very least have access to the information.

Take the field of medicine for example.  I'm not feeling well and so I check some online database and think I know what I have.  So I go to my doctor and present my symptoms and now I have colored my answers with what I think I have.  If my doctor suggest something else or running tests, I look for a second opinion.  My doctor has to worry about me suing them or governmental laws and regulations and their own paychecks. 

The fact that we all have power means that we no longer trust and respect one another.  We are quick to assume the worst.  We are not willing to see another person as our partner, but as a threat to what we know and believe and hold to be true.

We are living in this strange "inbetween" place. The postmodern diffusion of authority is a good thing... but our society has not yet fully adapted and been transformed to this new reality. We are living with feet in both worlds - one in which we have power and knowledge and another where there are experts in their field who have answers we need. 

The simple truth is... we need experts.  We need people who truly focus and go deep in certain areas of knowledge to ask questions you can only ask and answer if you live in that field.

I cannot spend my lifetime becoming proficient in Greek and weather patterns and geometry and quantum mechanics and the policy implications of petroleum based energy. 

But for the decisions I make in my daily life, I might need access to that knowledge. 

So, we need conversation.  We need a two-way path between those who know things and those who have questions and insights from another perspective. 

That cannot happen unless we respect one another.  Unless we can ask questions without demonizing.  Unless we can see the person sitting next to us as a human being who has just as much claim and voice and power as we do . Unless we are willing to assume that someone else just might have our best interests in mind. And unless we are ourselves willing to learn, to be taught, and to work for the common good.

What does all of this mean for postmodern youth ministry?

I think first of all it means that I have to respect the experiences and struggles that my youth are experiencing.  I need to hear what they say and make sure they have a voice and are heard.

This entails not only personally listening, but also making sure that they are heard and respected by one another.  The "how" of this first point is something I'm still working out.  It works much better in smaller groups, but we just don't have the number of adults needed to have small groups.

This has practical implications for how we plan our activities, the kind of ownership we give to our youth, and the rules/covenant we make with one another.

Second, as adults, we have to build our own trust with the youth from scratch.  It doesn't just come with the job.  Just because I am 10-15 years older than they are and I'm a pastor does not mean they will listen to me. And every mistake, every slip up, will set us back all the way to the beginning. 

This is part of the reality of our "inbetween times."  We simply wait for authority to rub us the wrong way and their cred is completely gone.  Discounted.  Done. If a teacher makes one mistake, they are colored that way forever.  If a pastor says something you don't like or agree with, you are out the door or stop giving. If a doctor makes one mistake, the patient goes elsewhere. There is no room for grace with the limited authority figures we do have.

Third, we need a structure and a covenant to get us through this. Respect is not going to be the first impulse of our relationships with one another and so we need to find ways of holding one another accountable.  At the beginning of this school year, we worked hard to make a list of five things we would all agree to do in our life together. 

But it has to stick.  Our kids have to believe in what those things say.  We as adults have to live by those rules ourselves.  And we need to revisit it on a regular basis to remind ourselves of who we are and why we are here.

I don't have the answers to this problem.  Part of me wants to start from scratch, because what we are currently doing in our programs and relationship building is not working.  All I do know is that our respect for one another, our ability to honor the authority each person brings, has to be the foundation for any work we do with one another.

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