Changing My Thinking About Change

Times, They Are a’ Changin‘” is not a strategy.

What’s The Matter with Kids These Days” is not a plan.

I’m 37. I’ve been ordained for nearly a decade, and I’ve only ever known decline in my denomination. I started my seminary training the week of the September 11th attacks. The rapid, unpredictable change gripping the church and the world has been my constant companion from day one. It has neither surprised nor troubled me. I have taken change as a given in my vocation and have thought condescending thoughts toward those who lament or, worse, resist it.

Defending the status quo is not a vision for ministry.

But neither is embracing every change.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our calling in times of changing patterns, mores, and norms is to discern which changes ought to be resisted and which ones embraced. To ask together: which changes promote bonds of community and which fray them? Which elevate virtue and which vice? Which compel compassion and which apathy?

Neither fighting for nor fighting against Change is a good unto itself, and the choice between the former and the latter is false. Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s bore.

I’ve written a bit in this space about Youth Ministry 3.0, Mark Oestreicher’s provocative vision for youth work published in 2008. Its description of the changes shaping youth culture compelled me early in my present call to cultivate a menu of student programs, each of which might appeal to different students in the church and community but none of which would have central importance.

Out went The Youth Group and in came youth groups–two on Sunday afternoons and two on Wednesday afternoons. Also, special events became opportunities to engage particular groups of students in ministry and not another thing The Youth Group is expected to show up for. Scheduling a youth retreat does not cancel the weekly youth group.

Specifically, I heard clearly Oestreicher’s plea for smallness:

Smallness is both a value and a practice, though the value has to precede and continue on through the practice. Smallness values community in which teenagers can be truly known and know others, rather than being one of the crowd (even if it’s a really fun crowd). Smallness champions clusters of relationships rather than a carpet-bombing approach. Smallness waits on the still, small voice of God rather than assuming what God wants to say and broadcasting it through the best sound system money can buy. Smallness prioritizes relationships over numbers, social networks over programs, uniqueness over homogeneity, and listening to God over speaking for God (emphasis mine).

Clusters of relationships. Social networks. That’s what I’ve nurtured these past four years.

Today, though, I’m looking at these clusters and feeling acutely what they’re not doing. They’re not making much of a claim on student’s passion. They’re not holding up well to the carpet-bombing approach of homework and soccer and band and debate and water polo and A.P. classes and college applications. They’re not growing student’s knowledge of the Bible. They’re not compelling commitment to the gospel of Jesus.

Maybe they’re not experiential enough. Maybe they’re not fun enough. Maybe they’re badly led.

Or maybe the splintering changes gripping young peoples’ lives today shouldn’t be accommodated by championing smallness. Maybe these are changes to resist. Maybe bigness and uniformity gave where they appeared to be taking.

Could the last four years have been embracing changes they ought to have been resisting?

4 thoughts on “Changing My Thinking About Change

  1. Well said, Rocky. Thank you for writing.

    I’ve been in youth ministry for over a quarter of a century. I have seen fads, trends, and manifestos for change come and go. I have seen youth culture move at the speed of light toward the “virtue” of busyness. And one thing has remained a constant throughout. Young people are still young people. Even though they sometimes act as if they don’t care (that’s kind of in the job description of teenager), they really do. They don’t need more programming or opportunities. As you have stated so well, their schedules are already full enough. The students can always tell when they are being programmed “at”, if you will. They know full well what it’s like to be the “target audience” of add campaigns and marketing executives. Sure, they play the game and enjoy its fruits. But at the end of the day, they aren’t connected, and they know it. Our quiet conversations with them bears this out. They desire to be known. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They know they can make a difference if given the chance. They want to engage the bigger questions. They want a moment to catch their breath but they just don’t know how.

    I think it may be time for us to reexamine the idea youth ministry as a whole. I am not sure what that will look like. I know that there is much that we have done in youth ministry that has been really effective and wonderful, and I know that there is just as much on the complete opposite end of that spectrum. Or maybe it is just me who has made some colossal mistakes. I am not one to always advocate change for change’s sake. I also try hard not to just hold on to the past because it used to work. But I do wonder, sometimes out loud, if it isn’t time for a complete reboot.

    Would love to be a part of the conversation if there are others out there who would like to think and dream together.

    Thanks again for writing this piece. Would love to connect sometime.


    1. Thank you for your very engaging comment, Brian. I’m trying to get myself to the Progressive Youth Ministry event that John Vest is throwing together in March. Is that in your plans?

      It’s he being part of something bigger than themselves that I think small social networks has lost. A group of 7 is a group of 3 on a bad week, and I wonder if that doesn’t depress participation rather than enhance it.

  2. I was in youth ministry, officially, for 40 years, unofficially for 50 years. I am supposedly retired but still interested and concerned — for the sake of the youth. Not so much for church growth or diminution. I’ve seen so many youth pass through my programs and where they are now. It gives me perspective. I do still feel there is real value for the youth to have a youth program of some sort. Most of the changes we have gone through over the years are furniture rearranging. There have been some slow evolution and a few individuals that by sheer force of will do some different and exciting things. For the most part it remains the same except for the exodus out of organized religion, which youth ministry has little control over.
    A summary of my thoughts:
    1. In the overloaded world of our youth, a youth program needs to be diverse in a lot of respects. An all or nothing youth group or other single event is just not viable nor helpful in most situations.
    2. Staying focused on serving the youth is crucial
    3. Overnight events are necessary and important
    4. Youth do want depth and theological exploration
    5. The current generation is more interested in doing something worthwhile and productive than being entertained or sitting around “discussing” (or being preached to)
    I could come up with more.

    1. Kent, that’s a succinct list of guidelines, and I thank you for it. Regarding #5, how do “Teaching Elders” do their work with students who are so over-their-heads with school work?

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