Church Should Be The Thing That Backs Down

The students I work with are busy. They are debaters, soccer players, and high achievers in the classroom. So when they have a game the same Saturday as a youth retreat, they miss the retreat, and if Monday morning’s homework isn’t finished by Sunday at 7:00, they’re not coming to youth group either.

I’m over being annoyed at this. For a long time I carried a kind of chip on my shoulder about playing second fiddle to all of my students’ more important commitments. I’m convinced now that a youth leader who begrudges kids the things that take them away from church is doing nothing to help them grow. 

Most of the commitments my students take on are zero sum operations when it comes to student’s participation; water polo expects 100% of your effort and loyalty, just like theater does, and just like–lurking in the background–teachers do. My students are conscientious and driven, and I can see them striving to give what’s expected of them. And heaven help them when a game conflicts with a performance or a test, because none of the adult leaders–not the coach, not the director, not the teacher–are backing down from their demand for 100%. The student will be penalized by whatever she misses. 

Maybe my students need church to be the thing that backs down and that expects whatever percentage of themselves they’re able to give–today. Maybe we should celebrate the community that God has gathered today, this weekend, or this work trip, without regard for how it compares to the group we had last week or last year.

My student communities are all appreciably different every time they gather, because their responsibilities and extra-curricular opportunities shape a shifting landscape that barely any of them can manage. Almost none of them prioritize church over everything else. I’m okay with that. Because they’re here today. 

Rather than 100% of their effort and loyalty throughout a season or production, maybe church youth groups and events should make more of the asset we actually have when students gather, something more durable than loyalty and more valuable than their fear of getting cut: the 100% they are offering of their desire to be here now.  

And when they’re there, let’s give them 100% of our attention and connection without expecting future participation in return. 

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27 thoughts on “Church Should Be The Thing That Backs Down

  1. Great post, Rocky. Some ruminations:

    Broadly, I agree with this: the church should be the thing that gets it, gets our busy lives, and shouldn’t add to that pressure at all. NOTHING at church should be about guilt, or shame, or exhaustion. If you want to use the language of back down, sure, I can get behind that too. Its generally my approach to ministry in general, for families and adults as well as busy, stressed, overworked teens.

    I think the thing I wrestle with is what is communicated and how it is put forth. If the message is “church isn’t important, because we’re not saying its important compared to all the other stuff” then no one will care for church. Why would they care if you don’t seem to care?

    Who was it, Penn, or Teller, the a-theist/a-gnostic one, who said he deeply respected evangelicos because they treated faith like something that mattered, like lives were at stake. I could google it but have to run (may try later)…

    There’s a point there. But, with you, I don’t think the response should be: the church needs your time/energy/blood/sweat/tears above all other things. Agreed. Or even in the same category.

    Instead, what I’d like to challenge is the notion that “what demands 100% of our time are the things that are really crucial, really important, really ultimately life giving.” In other words, bring into the conversation the theological roots of sabbath.

    Church fits here because it gets it, or should: our lives break down when we push too hard. Church is absolutely vital, because its what’s calling you to wholeness, to rest, to a break, even if you don’t spend that break with us (all the time). Church is critical, because its what roots you to a story, a meme, a worldview that breaks the bone-crushing schedule of 5, 6, 7 things demanding 100% of you all the time. Church frees you when it has 100% of your heart, maybe, but doesn’t demand 100% of your time, your spirit, your energy, your soul.

    Or something like that: some way to communicate that the church operates with this understanding not because church isn’t really important, but because it is through its actual vitality that you might be equipped to withstand the weight of everything else….

    1. Church is primarily for your benefit and the benefit of the world. It doesn’t give you medals or trophies, and it won’t get you a scholarship. For some students, that makes it less urgently important for their time. That used to irk me, but not anymore. I want to fully minister to those students, even if they’re not fully invested in what we’re doing.

    2. I enjoyed and was thankful for both the post and this response. In the last two days I’ve given this a lot of thought so it’s fitting that I would come across this post now. What do the choices I make regarding my time, activities, and involvement say about me? What do they depict is ultimately important to my kids? What do the choices I make about how my kids are allowed to spend their time say about our family? These are the thoughts I’ve been wrestling with lately. Two quotes that hit home for me were “And heaven help them when a game conflicts with a performance or a test, because none of the adult leaders–not the coach, not the director, not the teacher–are backing down from their demand for 100%. The student will be penalized by whatever she misses.” and “Church fits here because it gets it, or should: our lives break down when we push too hard. Church is absolutely vital, because its what’s calling you to wholeness, to rest, to a break, even if you don’t spend that break with us (all the time).”
      You have both given me lots to think about (and the relief that I’m not the only one wrestling with this!).

  2. I agree with both Rocky and Chad. I’ve often thought, “I wish church were as important as club soccer (or fill in the blank activity)”.
    Yet, if we were to behave as a soccer coach, would the result be “sorry, you missed youth group last week, you’re out of the church”?
    Certainly not the message I want to send.
    One of the realities we faced when looking at the Sabbath service is that what “regular” participation looks like in church is different than it used to be. There are still some people who are there each and every week, but I’ve learned the “usual” for most people. One couple is once a month. Another is every other week or so. It is what it is.
    What I hate the most is when they see me and start apologizing. “I’m sorry we haven’t been here…..we’re bad human beings….I’m sorry…..”
    I keep telling them that I’m just glad to see them and hope they’ve been busy with good and life giving things. I worry the guilt of “we haven’t been to church in a month” might turn in to “we can’t show our faces there again”.
    However people can participate, I want them there. If that participation can lead them to deeper discipleship, even better.

    Good post, Rocky.

  3. One of the ways I have dealt with this is by confronting the idea that all the church’s ministry with youth has to happen in the church building or at church-related activities. This is most definitely a preaching-to-the-choir thing in this conversation so far, so I know I’m not saying anything new to you three folk, but making going to the kids’ stuff (concerts, plays, football, hockey, blah blah blah) a priority and letting them see me there supporting their thing has been a huge help to reducing the guilt and building on what I feel is more important, the relationship and the understanding that church, faith, God are there with them wherever they are. But it’s not just about me. It’s got to be about the church doing that. We put up a calendar on a bulletin board in the building and encourage kids to add their games/activities to the calendar so that anyone from the church can attend those things, not just me. When adults (usually those without kids or youth anymore) complain that “those kids” or “those parents” don’t come to church like they should one of the first things I always ask is “Have you tried going to their game/play/concert to show them that you care?” If the orientation of families is not going to be toward the church every single week (and we know that’s the case for most of them them days), like Rocky said originally, let’s not dig our heels in and be sticks in the mud about it; let’s be the church and rise up and surround them with care and support in a new way. These families can feel judged about it or they can feel like the church community is walking with them through difficult choices. I tell the “judgers” (how was THAT for a judgemental label?) that maybe just maybe if the kids and families know we care about them as more than butts in pews or people in the building then maybe just maybe they might begin to prioritize the church family (as opposed to the church building or church activity) a bit more. Maybe not, but at least we went out, at least we loved, at least we showed up in their lives, and I think that’s worth a whole lot.

    1. “We put up a calendar on a bulletin board in the building and encourage kids to add their games/activities to the calendar so that anyone from the church can attend those things, not just me.”

      I’m totally stealing this idea.

      1. This is an ABSOLUTELY fabulous idea…and I plan to share it at a workshop later this month…and I will fully credit you, Stephanie! And Rocky…THANK YOU for writing this. How different kids’ experiences with church would be if they all had a youth pastor who offered such insight.

    2. It was very touching to me when the youth group at our church attended my son’s first play (this was years ago).

  4. Well said, Rocky. I went through the same shift and realized that when they say yes to church, they are all in. Scheduling is a nightmare for most parents, so this year we have put a parents page on our website for all dates, deadlines, applications and fees so they can plan their year. Should have done it years ago.

  5. Many years ago the son of one of the members of our Sunday School class was quarterback of everybody else’s Homecoming opponent. In the stands at away games were parents of players and some folks from the class. That kid is a regular churchgoer 20+ years later.

  6. All those internet marketing gurus say, “When you reach out to customers you have to offer them a SERVICE…don’t just sell them your thing…give them something they want.”

    Church, when done right, should be the recharge station.

  7. This is my sermon for this week briefly prioritys, ten minutes to gather what you want to save…Passover and fires in n.ca. 2. Why go to church at all because if you have ever wanted to meet Jesus he promises to be there.

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