I was in my second year as a paid youth and young adults minister when it happened. As I look back, it was a major turning point – a total collision with a reality that said, ‘Everything you are doing in youth ministry is fatally flawed’
OK, that might sound a little melodramatic, so lets just clear a few things up. There was no blood. There were no actual fatalities. But it was a major experience of disorientation that forced me back to reconsider some of my most basic principles and foundations for how I minister to and accompany young people on their spiritual journey.
So, “What happened?” you ask. Well, it goes like this…
I was involved in facilitating a discipleship group for late teens at the local church where I was employed. These teens were the up-and-coming leaders of the youth group and from the beginning the discipleship program emphasised teaching solid truths about Christianity, prayerful engagement with one another and passionate times of worship. As a result these young people appeared to become solidly grounded in their faith and passionate followers of Jesus.
I have to say, I was (secretly) just a little bit proud of the discipleship program, because it contained almost every tool for discipleship I could think of:
- Friendship and Community: These young people gathered together fortnightly for prayer, study and worship.
- Study: The teaching focused on a systematic introduction to Christian theology, expounded by the associate minister who was (and still is) a very sharp and and engaging teacher.
- Memorisation: They had to study and memorise scripture, as well as the Lord’s Prayer, Apostles Creed and other foundational statements of faith.
- Mission: They were engaged in a service project where they got involved in missional activity (of their own design).
- Mentoring: They were hooked up with a mentor.
- Integenerational Connections: They even completed homework where they read a Gospel twice through the year and responded to questions (which they were to discuss with their parents)
While many of these young people seemed fired up, involved in the church and active amongst the youth, there was a still a persistent voice in my heart that said something was missing. So one evening the team that led this program decided to change plans – instead of the usual time of teaching and instruction, we had a un-structured time of discussion over pizza and soft drink. We didn’t quite know what we were trying to achieve, but we knew we had to start asking different questions in the hope of discovering different answers.
After many pizzas had been devoured and spontaneous conversation was abating, one of the other leaders on the team blurted out what at first appeared to be a very odd question. He asked, “If your faith were a pizza, what kind of pizza would it be?”
At first there was laughter that was quickly followed by silence. Quite understandable really – I mean, how do you answer that kind of question? You could see many furrowed brows as they struggled to think of the right answer – what kind of pizza-faith should I have?
One brave person broke the silence by saying she was very comfortable with her faith – maybe it wasn’t a Super-Supreme like Mother Teresa, but it was at least a Capriccioso. Another person declared that theirs was a Mexican because they were so fired-up about God.
But then there was another girl who had a different kind of furrowed expression on her face. It was more the look of ‘Am I bold enough to actually admit what I am about to say?”
In a courageous move she said, “If my faith were a pizza, it would be a Hawaiian”. Now, this was met by chorus of jeers because earlier in the evening she had denounced the use of pineapple on Pizza as ‘an abomination unto the Lord.’ But she stood her ground and responded, “That is my point. I say this, because pineapple should never be found on a pizza, and I know that there is stuff in my life that contradicts my faith.”
And with that, the whole presence in the room changed. The bravado borne of a correctly answered question and triumphal expressions of faith had been replaced by vulnerability.
Then a boy with a similar furrowed expression spoke up. “I’d say mine is a margherita – just the base and some cheese. Not even a few herbs.”
When asked if he could say a little more, he responded, “I’ve been going to church my whole life. I know all this stuff about God. But let’s face it, I only pray during prayer group. I only open my bible at bible study. I only worship God when the band at church is really pumping. I just can’t see any reality of faith in my life when everything else is stripped away.”
Another responded by kicking an empty pizza box across the floor. “Yeah – my faith is like this pizza box – only the smell lets you know that there used to be something yummy and great here – but whatever it was, it is gone now.”
Running Out Of Tricks
Slowly the stories came out one-by-one. Instead of trying to find the right answer each young person tried to find a way to describe the reality, the mystery and the poverty of their day-to-day faith life. Each story leaving their lips was like a hammer, banging nails into a sign that has reminded me ever since that whatever this discipleship course was doing, up until this point it was only reinforcing a kind of surface-faith. Faith like a veneer that not only hasn’t gripped the young person deeply, but worse still, might even be a way of protecting themselves from deeply engaging with God.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, a second realisation, maybe even worse than the first, suddenly struck me.
I was out of tricks.
I didn’t have anything left in my youth-discipleship toolbox. I’d used them all up in this program (of which I was so secretly proud). And all that I had to show for it was faith like a hawaiian, a margherita or an empty pizza box.
So, What Went Wrong?
Needless to say, this experience has remained with me for some time now and its significance has grown over the years. More than a decade has passed since that evening. I’m not even sure the young people (who are not so young any more) remember it, nor understand it in quite the terms I do now.
It has served as something of a catalyst. For the last ten years, I and the team behind NEXT have been researching and seeking to understand what makes the difference between discipleship that reinforces a surface-faith and an integral spiritual formation process that grows deep-faith in the lives of young people.
I’d love to say that there are some nice easy answers and quick fixes – but we all know there isn’t. In fact that is kinda the point. There is nothing quick about nurturing deep-faith. Everything that we’ve learned over the last decade points to long-term, personal relationships where spiritual questing and questioning allow young people to inspect and test aspects of their surface-faith in order to internalise or reject it – and so make their faith more … well, personal.
This is the fundamental philosophy of NEXT. Everything we do gets scrutinized and tested by the question, “Will this grow deep-faith? Will this help a young person own their own faith and help them to give it expression in their everyday life?”