Guest Outpost blog by Jeremy Cain Wilhelmi
As Presbyterians, we often call ourselves “people of the Word.” We do so because we believe words matter – the Word of God read and proclaimed is an essential part of who we are. Every word we use carries weight. Because of this, I began to wonder about the labels and common words we use in our ministries, particularly with youth ministry, to see if this applies. Here are five common words we find in youth ministry that seem fine at first – but when we consider how they impact our ministry, we may need to drop them all together.
Word #1: Program
“We have a great youth ministry program” is a phrase I hear often from congregations. What does “program” mean in our context? According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “program” is defined as “a plan of things that are done in order to achieve a specific result” and “the performance of a program.” I’m also reminded of the word “program” when I think back to my 3rd grade Christmas “program,” specifically the fact that some are performing the program while others are simply watching it. But for a ministry, that’s not enough! Youth Ministry is about changing lives and hearts through our savior Jesus Christ. In ministry, no one is simply watching. In ministry, we’re not performing for others or God. “Program” is limiting. It just says what we do, but it doesn’t offer why we do what we do. When we think of our work with youth as a “ministry” instead of a “program” our ministry may actually shape itself in what Christ is calling us to do and to be.
Word #2: Student
In the past decade or two, the word “youth” has been disappearing from ministries and being replaced with “student” – as in “student ministries.” Yes, our young people are students and, yes, that is a significant role they play in their young years – but is that their defining word? To label our ministry after a part of who they are seems to be a disservice to them. By calling our young disciples “students” first, have we not already put being a student above being a follower of Christ? Would we ever call someone a “student Christian”? Youth ministries struggle and at times suffer because youth are so overburdened with school and school activities. By calling them “students” first are we not placing that role before “Christian?” Perhaps “youth” is limiting as well, but “youth” is what they are rather than who they are. The church needs to embrace our young disciples for all that they are and find words to refer to them that are not limited to only one role they play.
Word #3: Study
The word “study” means something different to a young person. Because being a student is a big part of their lives, to study means to learn or memorize something in order to produce answers for an exam or essay. It’s no wonder why I have to call a Bible study something different! I know very few young people who want to come to church to have a “school-like” experience with the Bible. They want to engage in Scripture, but not the same way they engage in math. Encountering the biblical text is transformational and life-giving. It is that way not because we “study” it, but because the Holy Spirit moves through these words and into the hearts of our young people to reveal who God is and who we are in relation to this loving creator.
Word #4: Fun
The major issue with this word is not that we use it, but the fact that we tend to use this word first. For example:
“Youth group needs to be more fun.”
“If youth group isn’t fun, I’m not going.”
“Did you have fun serving at the homeless shelter?”
“Come to this youth conference… it’s really fun! Oh, and you might learn something about Jesus too.”
“Fun” can become an idol in ministry quickly. Whether it’s to keep up a high attendance or to eliminate the perception that youth ministry is boring, “fun” can often begin to take priority in youth ministry for the wrong reasons. We all know young people need a place in ministry to let go and enjoy each other, but we must keep the call to follow Christ at the center of it all. Fun can be (when appropriate) a product of what we do in ministry, but it should not be a focal point of our ministry.
Word #5: Fundraise
Ministry with youth is expensive! If one totals up what it costs a youth to participate for an entire year, chances are that ministry is either really expensive or minimally invested by the congregation. For ages, we’ve responded by raising the funds we need to make our ministry affordable. What I have found is that very few (if any) other ministries in the local congregation are asked to fundraise in the magnitude and consistently that youth ministries are expected to raise beyond what their congregational budget. Rarely, if ever, do we see a “fellowship ministry fundraiser” or an “evangelism fundraiser.” Even when we have a spaghetti supper to fundraise for a church-wide mission, it’s typically to raise support beyond what congregations normally provide rather than simply meeting their basic needs. The reason we need to eliminate this word from our ministry with youth is that when we are “fundraising” we’re doing just that and not engaging in ministry with our youth. What percentage of youth ministry (in terms of time, effort, resources, people power, etc.) should be spent raising funds for the times when we actually do ministry? If congregations look for other ways of financially supporting our youth ministries, the less time they will spend raising money and the more time they spend enacting their ministry.
Language matters in ministry. Whether it’s the vocabulary that describes aspects of our ministry or words that relate to practices that take us away from doing ministry, our language says something about who we are and what we value in our ministry.
The questions I’m left with are: Are there other words we need to let go? What words will we use in their places?
Jeremy Wilhelmi is a dad, husband and has ministered to young people for over 10 years. He is the associate pastor for youth at the Salisbury Presbyterian Church in Midlothian, Virginia.