In 1990-something, my parents took our entire family to a summer camp in the Ozark mountains as a part of a ministry called Shepherd Ministries. This was a very well respected and well-known ministry that had a lot of branches targeting different audiences including families and youth. The leader of the organization, Dawson McAllister, eventually split the ministry’s branches into separate groups with one of them, WisdomWorks, focusing on youth ministry. I’ve gone to their ‘Student Conferences’ ever since I was barely a teenager and have been a fan of them every since. Probably most notable from these conferences is a small band who was passed up a few times for record deals known as “Mercy Me”.
As a youth ministry leader, the materials from these youth organizations hit me a bit differently than they did as a teen. Youth Specialties, which is the group now in control of the student conferences, has a whole host of authors and bloggers who put material out there to educate and encourage other youth workers, both vocational and lay. In an article posted Sept 29th titled “A Youth Worker’s Most Basic Needs“, writer and youth pastor Andy Hastie describes his journey of discovering what truly matters… or what should truly matter. Let’s look at some excerpts…
We turn to social environments in hopes of finding fulfillment there. […] We try to make [those around us] proud of us so that we might feel significant. We try not to show any kind of weakness, and we desperately claw our way to being the best at something—anything. That way we don’t have to feel insecure about who we are.
You and I are no different [from Adam and Eve]. We hide our truest selves. We try to cover up our insecurities, doubts, and fears like makeup over a zit. We blame other people for our weaknesses, and in an effort to produce a false sense of acceptance, significance, and security, we judge and criticize these people for their shortcomings—we attempt to add value to ourselves by trying to diminish the value of others.
This is an extremely important point for youth leaders and for consumers of youth ministry to understand. Youth workers are normal people, especially lay-workers who don’t have the motivation of a career driving their calling. We want validation, love and support, and approval just like any other human being. The difference between what a youth worker faces and what many others face is that religion and children are two very personal topics to parents and to congregants and that tends to get people a bit on edge. When things get personal, our natural tendency is to be critical of what we perceive as flaws rather than affirming of things we see as strengths. This couldn’t be more true when speaking of the feedback a youth worker receives about the instruction or ministry to their children.
To the youth worker, this is a reality-check and call to accountability. Youth workers need to examine where their security and sense of approval comes from. Does it rely on the approval of the congregation, parents, or even the pastoral staff? Even in the most benevolent environments, I’ve always found that when a ministry relies on the approval of other people, even fellow ministry volunteers, the leadership suffers and eventually fails. The cynical engineer (referring to my ‘day job’) in me often jokes that “people are basically terrible”. Even though that is obviously hyperbolic, the joke bears a hint of truth in that our sinful natures often drive us to criticize at every opportunity while passing up most opportunities to compliment and support. This is not due to a church not ‘believing hard enough’ or ‘being good enough Christians’; this is just the sad result of sin in our lives. It’s nothing that any one of us is going to change and it will not change until the day Jesus Christ comes again.
So where does that leave us now? Youth workers, we must not lay our securities, affections, and approvals in the hands of earthly things, people, or institutions. Our basic needs are only consistently fulfilled by the One who was sufficient to die for our sins. As much as we care for our students, may be ‘best friends’ with their parents, or love our spouses, God is the only wholly sufficient object that meets our most basic human needs now and forever. We must guard against the trap to look for earthly approval and instead ask ourselves how God would have us act. For those that attend youth ministry events or send their kids to youth events, understand that youth workers are still human and a few careless words or passive-aggressive quips can really cut to the quick. If you want a successful youth ministry, then what your ministry team needs is love, support, and constructive input. Fight earthly urges of gossip and back-room criticism. Only when we all affix our eyes on God can we unify and achieve great things that will last far beyond our own lives.