Collectives are made up of people who generally share values and beliefs about the world and their place in it, who value participation over belonging, and who engage in a set of shared practices. Thus collectives are plural and multiple. They also both form and disappear regularly around different ideas, events, or moments. Collectives . . . are both contextual and situated, particularly with regard to engaging in specific actions.
They are built and structured around participation and therefore carry a different sense of investment for those who engage in them. When, for example, a person sings a song onstage at a karaoke bar, he is doing it within a collective environment. In the karaoke bar participation is not only valued, it is the substance of the activity itself. The collective that forms as a result provides an opportunity to do certain things (agency) and a connection with other performers who are similarly situated (identity)–neither of which exists in the other two venues.
What is the substance of the activity we call “youth ministry?” Short answer: there isn’t any.
If Mark Oestreicher is right, then there’s no such thing as a “youth ministry” in any particular church. There are youth ministries: various efforts to connect young people, adults, and the world around them in vibrant expressions of faith. All those various activities have some substance to them, but the youth ministry of the church doesn’t. Trying to define it, name it, strategize around it will feel good and useful, but it won’t be. At least not to the youth we’re trying to work with.
I’m wrestling instead with the substance of my Sunday night high school youth group and my Tuesday afternoon junior high guys group and the work trip and the confirmation class and Maggie and her friends. Those are all different collectives. They are all built and structured around a different kind of participation. The agency and connection students get from those different collectives don’t really relate to each other. They don’t have to. And there’s no rule that says they have to live forever. These collective form and disappear around the students in them and the things the students are drawn to.
Yet here’s the trouble I’m having. If collectives are made up of people who generally share values about the world and their place in it, then those are two things that teenagers are notoriously bad at understanding. Most adolescents’ values conform pretty closely to those of their parents, and their sense of their place in the world changes constantly. These are things that the church is helping them figure out.
So let youth ministry be karaoke. Let a group of students who want the substance of their participation with one another in the church to be playing games have that experience. But guide them as well, so that they encounter values larger than the ones they were raised on and so that they can’t settle into an easy sense of their place in the world without being given some options their school and Mtv can’t give them.