I was Miley Cyrus’ Youth Director. Sort of.

Posted on in YM Today

by Jason Sansbury

I was Miley Cyrus’ youth director.

Or at least, I used to joke that I was. Several years ago I started to work at a church where, several years before that, Miley Cyrus and her family attended. So when I arrived, thanks to my young cousins, I knew just enough Disney to know that it was odd seeing that name on the rolls. And when I investigated around, it turned out that the family had been active at one point. There are even some pictures of cute, young Miley at Vacation Bible School back in the day.

So I treated her like I did any other inactive kid in my youth group. She was on the mailing list. I sent her birthday cards. I would even occasionally send her a note after I watched an episode of Hannah Montana.

And I would joke that Miley Cyrus had me as her youth director.

So, you may have noticed that Miley recently broke the internet. And suddenly, I didn’t want her name and mine anywhere near each other. But in the days since the VMA performance, I have had some time to think about it. What struck me is that while she lived out a bit of a trainwreck in front of millions of people, I have walked with 2o-something friends after they have messed up colossally. If she and I did have any kind of relationship at all, the way I do with some former youth who are now her age, here are some of the things I would say to her over coffee.

1. “I’m sorry.”

Sorry that the whole world feels like it is OK to pound you into the ground because you made a mistake. Sorry that the church folks have been the worst. I mean, I have seen a couple youth workers say things on Twitter that make me think, “Wait. You are supposed to have a heart for kids.” I mean, if I’m honest, there are kids in my youth group who have probably done way worse than what Miley did on stage. How would they feel seeing me condemn someone so harshly in my Twitter feed?

Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t get on any social media platform that exists without seeing people talk crap about you. So I would want to say to her that I am sorry for what she is living through.

2. “This doesn’t define you.”

I have walked with youth and young adults who have messed up royally and overwhelmingly; they feel like who they were is over. More than once, I sat with kids before or after a court hearing and listened to them tell me that they can’t come back to church because of what they have done. I know firsthand what all the Sticky Faith, etc. research has shown us: we are inadvertently teaching young people a faith that is about obeying rules and when they break the rules, they think the game is over. What I have learned to do is to share with students in that moment the truth that who they are is rooted in Christ and that is bigger than the mistakes that they have made. It has helped to point out the flaws of the people of the Bible, but even more so it has helped to share my own failures. I love what Kara Powell has shared about one of her family’s new mottoes: Jesus is bigger than any mistake.

3. “What are you learning?”

Over the last year, especially as I have stepped into a new youth ministry, I have determined that one of the biggest calls of youth work is asking people to be more thoughtful and reflective about their lives, which they can live entirely on autopilot if they aren’t careful. I am amazed that it always feels like we have those moments when the metaphorical light bulbs go on and we are able to help students think on the meanings and points of their own lives. So, in the moments where we have messed up, we need to reflect. To learn. To hope. To change through the grace of God.

4. “This isn’t the end of your story.”

Are you going to live through some of the consequences of what you have done? Yes. Will some of that be awful and painful? Yes. But there are better days ahead. Days full of hope, promise, and endless do-overs. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel like you will NEVER not be reminded of your mistake everyday. But grace is bigger.

And to close, we should share with youth the truth of Ecclesiastes 3. The wisdom of Solomon points out that there is a season for every purpose. There are moments when we live through painful seasons. And there are moments when we live triumphant seasons. How we endure the roller coaster of life is by keeping our hearts and minds focused on Jesus.

And then I would hand her a copy of The Ragamuffin Gospel, tell her to listen to Gungor’s “Beautiful Things” on repeat and to call/text me whenever she needed to talk.

I wasn’t really Miley Cyrus’ youth director. But I have loved kids just like her. Their epic trainwrecks just didn’t go viral.

*****

Jason Sansbury is the youth minister at Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.  Previously, Jason has served churches in Franklin, Tenn. and Georgia and has been on staff with YoungLife. Additionally, Jason was one of the founding partners of Crossed-Up Ministries, a ministry specializing in putting together large worship events for youth groups.  He has a heart for helping young people find their call into ministry and succeeding early in their ministry and careers. For fun, Jason loves movies, music, and television. He is a fount of useless pop culture trivia and dreams of being a winner on the TV show Jeopardy.

50 thoughts on “I was Miley Cyrus’ Youth Director. Sort of.

  1. I enjoyed your article on the train wreck that Miley Cyrus has just been through. I was actually in a discussion on Facebook with some young people and some were condemning her actions and some were upholding her actions. I did take the part of condemning her actions, maybe that was entirely wrong but when do people take ownership of their actions and when do they know what is right and what is wrong to do with their lives. Her behavior has been a little out there, in peoples faces. I know, it's her life…but she does influence others, especially young people, whether she wants to or not. I guess I missed the part about her asking for forgiveness for what she did!

  2. I enjoyed your article on the train wreck that Miley Cyrus has just been through. I was actually in a discussion on Facebook with some young people and some were condemning her actions and some were upholding her actions. I did take the part of condemning her actions, maybe that was entirely wrong but when do people take ownership of their actions and when do they know what is right and what is wrong to do with their lives. Her behavior has been a little out there, in peoples faces. I know, it's her life…but she does influence others, especially young people, whether she wants to or not. I guess I missed the part about her asking for forgiveness for what she did!

  3. This is one of the best redemptive stories I've read about Miley so far. Thanks Jason for being the reality check for my judgmental self. I'm still a youth leader sort of…and my husband is a youth leader now…so this business of sticky faith has a lot to do with being there for young people where the rubber meets the road…sometimes in a roll over—colossal tragic crash.

  4. A great reminder for me as a youth minister that I shouldn't judge or be posting my first reaction toward these things. She's an extremely broken young lady that needs Jesus to replace the garbage in her life.

  5. This is one of the best redemptive stories I've read about Miley so far. Thanks Jason for being the reality check for my judgmental self. I'm still a youth leader sort of…and my husband is a youth leader now…so this business of sticky faith has a lot to do with being there for young people where the rubber meets the road…sometimes in a roll over—colossal tragic crash.

  6. Excellent article. I saw a church friend post something the next day about how he would use her performance to show his daughters how NOT to act, and ended his statement with "now Miley's finally useful for something". I'm glad the God of the universe doesn't view us as useless, even when we mess up.

  7. A great reminder for me as a youth minister that I shouldn't judge or be posting my first reaction toward these things. She's an extremely broken young lady that needs Jesus to replace the garbage in her life.

  8. Excellent article. I saw a church friend post something the next day about how he would use her performance to show his daughters how NOT to act, and ended his statement with "now Miley's finally useful for something". I'm glad the God of the universe doesn't view us as useless, even when we mess up.

  9. I've read the gambit of responses to Miley's performance at the VMA's. I appreciate this alternate point of view. And, to some extent I agree with you, Jason. But, there are some essential things I think perhaps you may have overlooked.
    First, this wasn't a mistake. A mistake is losing your keys. Miley's performance is the result of a calculated, controlled degradation of morals by both Miley (an adult) and the adults around her. Including the adult on stage performing with her (Robin Thicke). She is a rebellious child who is mocking her parents and her upbringing. I know you're familiar with this passage, and others like it: "You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred."

    (Not her family, not her fans, not her success, not even her own body.)

    "They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good."

    We saw that both on stage and on Twitter.

    "They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!" Mmmm. Now it gets sticky. "Stay away from people like that", he says.

    There seems to me to be a movement among youth workers these days to throw open the doors of acceptance of any behaviour (despite what the scripture says) to make it more palatable to those who might be graced with the long shadow of their loving and tolerant presence. This is frightening to me because the same writer (led by the same Spirit) also wrote: "I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin…" "You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship."

    Something even the pagans don't do. I'm pretty sure even the pagans last week were aghast at what they witnessed. We are called to a higher standard. I write this part hesitantly because I'm not certain that Miley considers herself a part of the church. I'm in no place to make that judgement call. However, I see that you've written your response in the context that she is/has/could be… and that this is how you'd respond to anyone in your youth group that would behave the same way.

    All of that to say this: mis-labeling and minimising it as a "mistake" presents a two-fold problem. First, it downplays the seriousness of blatant rebellion and open displays of grotesque sexuality. Second, it cheapens the gracious work on the cross. It's not a mistake. It's sin. And, it's a sexual sin that many, many young people are finding themselves tangled in every day. It's really quite serious, devastating, and life-changing… perhaps eternity changing.

    So, let's call it what it is.

    Now, to the rest of your article… I give a whole-hearted "AMEN!" to that kind of response to one who is willing to listen to wisdom and turn from foolishness. That kind of love will go far and will cover a multitude of sins. (Including mine.) That kind of love was shown on the cross by the one who took on the punishment for our sins. Not our mistakes.

  10. I've read the gambit of responses to Miley's performance at the VMA's. I appreciate this alternate point of view. And, to some extent I agree with you, Jason. But, there are some essential things I think perhaps you may have overlooked.
    First, this wasn't a mistake. A mistake is losing your keys. Miley's performance is the result of a calculated, controlled degradation of morals by both Miley (an adult) and the adults around her. Including the adult on stage performing with her (Robin Thicke). She is a rebellious child who is mocking her parents and her upbringing. I know you're familiar with this passage, and others like it: "You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred."

    (Not her family, not her fans, not her success, not even her own body.)

    "They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good."

    We saw that both on stage and on Twitter.

    "They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!" Mmmm. Now it gets sticky. "Stay away from people like that", he says.

    There seems to me to be a movement among youth workers these days to throw open the doors of acceptance of any behaviour (despite what the scripture says) to make it more palatable to those who might be graced with the long shadow of their loving and tolerant presence. This is frightening to me because the same writer (led by the same Spirit) also wrote: "I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin…" "You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship."

    Something even the pagans don't do. I'm pretty sure even the pagans last week were aghast at what they witnessed. We are called to a higher standard. I write this part hesitantly because I'm not certain that Miley considers herself a part of the church. I'm in no place to make that judgement call. However, I see that you've written your response in the context that she is/has/could be… and that this is how you'd respond to anyone in your youth group that would behave the same way.

    All of that to say this: mis-labeling and minimising it as a "mistake" presents a two-fold problem. First, it downplays the seriousness of blatant rebellion and open displays of grotesque sexuality. Second, it cheapens the gracious work on the cross. It's not a mistake. It's sin. And, it's a sexual sin that many, many young people are finding themselves tangled in every day. It's really quite serious, devastating, and life-changing… perhaps eternity changing.

    So, let's call it what it is.

    Now, to the rest of your article… I give a whole-hearted "AMEN!" to that kind of response to one who is willing to listen to wisdom and turn from foolishness. That kind of love will go far and will cover a multitude of sins. (Including mine.) That kind of love was shown on the cross by the one who took on the punishment for our sins. Not our mistakes.

  11. Jennifer King. Right on. That was my reaction to this article. While I appreciate Jason's attempt to be loving and forgiving, he needs to realize that this was not a mistake. It was clearly calculated (most likely with lots of help from her new manager who used to manage Brittney Spears) to separate her from her former "image". The sad part too, is that the song of Robin Thicke's that they performed has the most heinous lyrics ever. Robin Thicke is a 36 yr old married man with kids who should know better. But that's what the celebrity world requires. Doing whatever it takes to rise to the top and stay there. So each new thing is more and more outrageous. I have only seen clips (I don't have a TV) but what I saw broke my heart. She needs a truly caring adult in her life to show her that you can do amazing things as a singer/songwriter and still maintain a level of class. But then her aim was getting talked about. And she succeeded. May God bring that person into her life who can love her back into the Kingdom. Because she is off in the weeds right now. :-(

  12. Jennifer King. Right on. That was my reaction to this article. While I appreciate Jason's attempt to be loving and forgiving, he needs to realize that this was not a mistake. It was clearly calculated (most likely with lots of help from her new manager who used to manage Brittney Spears) to separate her from her former "image". The sad part too, is that the song of Robin Thicke's that they performed has the most heinous lyrics ever. Robin Thicke is a 36 yr old married man with kids who should know better. But that's what the celebrity world requires. Doing whatever it takes to rise to the top and stay there. So each new thing is more and more outrageous. I have only seen clips (I don't have a TV) but what I saw broke my heart. She needs a truly caring adult in her life to show her that you can do amazing things as a singer/songwriter and still maintain a level of class. But then her aim was getting talked about. And she succeeded. May God bring that person into her life who can love her back into the Kingdom. Because she is off in the weeds right now. :-(

  13. It's interesting that so many are more outraged about Miley rather than Robin. Same behavior, but he's more "grown up" than her. Anyway, I completely agree with Jason. Calculated or not doesn't matter, it's still a mistake. Calling it "calculated" doesn't mean Jesus loves her any less, and we should love her more than ever. She's a precious child who needs people in her corner….she's the lost child.

  14. Thank you Joann, you said exactly what I was trying to put into words. Who we are surrounded by matters, words matter, actions matter, our willingness to reach out matters, Miley while a young adult has been surrounded by for the most part those who see her as a commodity, their goal is to create excitement around their product, and unfortunately it's a young woman who most of us saw grow from a child into the person we saw onstage at the VMAs. There are many others each of us can think of it we take a moment, but no matter who they are, no matter what they've done, no matter whether they've asked for forgiveness, they and us (thank God) are still beloved children of God. The question we are asked is "will you love them anyway?"

  15. It's interesting that so many are more outraged about Miley rather than Robin. Same behavior, but he's more "grown up" than her. Anyway, I completely agree with Jason. Calculated or not doesn't matter, it's still a mistake. Calling it "calculated" doesn't mean Jesus loves her any less, and we should love her more than ever. She's a precious child who needs people in her corner….she's the lost child.

  16. Amen! So sad to see what we, as a culture are looking to in "entertainment". Unfortunately, this behavior (outrageous) is becoming normal. I do hope that somewhere in her heart she knows how much more she has to give to this life.

  17. Thank you Joann, you said exactly what I was trying to put into words. Who we are surrounded by matters, words matter, actions matter, our willingness to reach out matters, Miley while a young adult has been surrounded by for the most part those who see her as a commodity, their goal is to create excitement around their product, and unfortunately it's a young woman who most of us saw grow from a child into the person we saw onstage at the VMAs. There are many others each of us can think of it we take a moment, but no matter who they are, no matter what they've done, no matter whether they've asked for forgiveness, they and us (thank God) are still beloved children of God. The question we are asked is "will you love them anyway?"

  18. Amen! So sad to see what we, as a culture are looking to in "entertainment". Unfortunately, this behavior (outrageous) is becoming normal. I do hope that somewhere in her heart she knows how much more she has to give to this life.

  19. This article almost sounds like a grief counseling session. From her perspective that performance was not a train wreck, it was a rocket launch, a stellar success, not a dire tragedy. If she sat down with you for coffee she would reply with something along the lines of "what are you talking about, tragedy? I've just won the lottery".

  20. Good for you Jennifer, well said and I agree. Miley is acting like she is worshiping money and the producers who don't value her as a person just a piece of meat and this is what she portrays in a performance like that. Disgusting :(

  21. This article almost sounds like a grief counseling session. From her perspective that performance was not a train wreck, it was a rocket launch, a stellar success, not a dire tragedy. If she sat down with you for coffee she would reply with something along the lines of "what are you talking about, tragedy? I've just won the lottery".

  22. Good for you Jennifer, well said and I agree. Miley is acting like she is worshiping money and the producers who don't value her as a person just a piece of meat and this is what she portrays in a performance like that. Disgusting :(

  23. Erin Thomas (and Jennifer King), I still think it's ok that he came across as forgiving, because, whether or not MS' actions were calculated (and I believe they were), we have all given ourselves permission to judge her and write her off. Miley may even think the joke is on us, but in the long run we will see what regret might look like. If Miley turns around, it won't be to repent and cry on the shoulder of those who judged her and electronically stoned her.
    The lofty (all of them, pharasees and sinners) will be brought low- preferably in this life before eternal life.

  24. Erin Thomas (and Jennifer King), I still think it's ok that he came across as forgiving, because, whether or not MC's actions were calculated (and I believe they were), we have all given ourselves permission to judge her and write her off. Miley may even think the joke is on us, but in the long run we will see what regret might look like. If Miley turns around, it won't be to repent and cry on the shoulder of those who judged her and electronically stoned her.
    The lofty (all of them, pharasees and sinners) will be brought low- preferably in this life before eternal life.

  25. "Judge not, that you not be judged." She doesn't have to repent or ask for forgiveness from us. God says to forgive and love anyway. Love your neighbor. Whether she's repented or not isn't our business.

  26. "Judge not, that you not be judged." She doesn't have to repent or ask for forgiveness from us. God says to forgive and love anyway. Love your neighbor. Whether she's repented or not isn't our business.

  27. Calculated or not, Jesus is bigger. I think, Erin and Jennifer, you're missing the point. We've all made calculated screw-ups. I sure have. And I'm forgiven for those just as much as for the ones you would classify as mistakes. It's not a fair assumption to conclude that this response downplays her actions or cheapens grace. Maybe, in understanding the gravity of Miley's actions, this response actually shows God's love and forgiveness in a greater way. And like the author mentioned, maybe enough people are already blasting her. Why not model Jesus and extend some grace and love BEFORE having the proof that she is "willing to listen to wisdom and turn from foolishness?"

  28. Calculated or not, Jesus is bigger. I think, Erin and Jennifer, you're missing the point. We've all made calculated screw-ups. I sure have. And I'm forgiven for those just as much as for the ones you would classify as mistakes. It's not a fair assumption to conclude that this response downplays her actions or cheapens grace. Maybe, in understanding the gravity of Miley's actions, this response actually shows God's love and forgiveness in a greater way. And like the author mentioned, maybe enough people are already blasting her. Why not model Jesus and extend some grace and love BEFORE having the proof that she is "willing to listen to wisdom and turn from foolishness?"

  29. That's true for us…but likely not for her. The question is whether or not she wholeheartedly believed it was the right thing for her to do. That is between her and God, but speaking generally, if she had no thought for the action being wrong, there is a good likelihood that, to her, it's not a mistake..although many people, including myself would say that it was a mistake. So..if we're talking mistake…we're talking a lapse in judgement that would depend on how earnestly she believed she was doing the right thing. On the other hand..I do know that Satan does a great job deceiving us to believe that many things that we do (including myself too) are just fine, when in God's reality, they're not. Just my opinion.

  30. That's true for us…but likely not for her. The question is whether or not she wholeheartedly believed it was the right thing for her to do. That is between her and God, but speaking generally, if she had no thought for the action being wrong, there is a good likelihood that, to her, it's not a mistake..although many people, including myself would say that it was a mistake. So..if we're talking mistake…we're talking a lapse in judgement that would depend on how earnestly she believed she was doing the right thing. On the other hand..I do know that Satan does a great job deceiving us to believe that many things that we do (including myself too) are just fine, when in God's reality, they're not. Just my opinion.

  31. "When we stop being outraged at God's mercy toward anyone else & are only incredulous at our own salvation-grace has finally pierced us" Jonathan Martin. Thought this spoke better than I could to some of the concerns with the article.

  32. I read your article and you are spot on. I thought she acted silly for her age. It is MTV for crying out loud. It did air. The FCC has some rules. She had clothes on. She acted like the lead singer of KISS. i am trying to not get sucked into it.
    I've behaved badly too but I didn't make millions doing it. Haha
    We see people make mistakes all the time and its unfortunate that when its someone famous we put them down and tear them apart like we're better or something.
    I call her behavior the other night a Madonna moment. It's just a phase for a sweet young girl who has grown up fast and famous.
    Beyonce is doing as much in a Pepsi commercial. Soon everyone will move on to the next celeb who gets media attention. And on and on!
    In the meantime other children are starving for love and food.
    A half million Syrians are living as refuges in Jordon and no one talks about that.
    Thank you for reminding us of what is important.
    Love you!!
    Peace.

  33. "When we stop being outraged at God's mercy toward anyone else & are only incredulous at our own salvation-grace has finally pierced us" Jonathan Martin. Thought this spoke better than I could to some of the concerns with the article.

  34. I read your article and you are spot on. I thought she acted silly for her age. It is MTV for crying out loud. It did air. The FCC has some rules. She had clothes on. She acted like the lead singer of KISS. i am trying to not get sucked into it.
    I've behaved badly too but I didn't make millions doing it. Haha
    We see people make mistakes all the time and its unfortunate that when its someone famous we put them down and tear them apart like we're better or something.
    I call her behavior the other night a Madonna moment. It's just a phase for a sweet young girl who has grown up fast and famous.
    Beyonce is doing as much in a Pepsi commercial. Soon everyone will move on to the next celeb who gets media attention. And on and on!
    In the meantime other children are starving for love and food.
    A half million Syrians are living as refuges in Jordon and no one talks about that.
    Thank you for reminding us of what is important.
    Love you!!
    Peace.