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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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CYMT is excited about its newest endeavor, Theology Together. Theology Together educates both teenagers and youth workers as they engage in theological reflection, spiritual practice, vital service, and vocational discernment. The Theology Together process produces reflective action that is embedded in the fabric of youth ministry in all of its contexts. We believe strongly that youth are theologians and belong at the center of tough, life-changing dialogue around faith, relationships, and life. We place teenagers in the driver seat alongside their youth pastors and leaders, equipping each individual to think differently about youth ministry, to provoke a sense of awe and wonder: a WOW moment.
Youth theology is theology built upon the simple doctrinal principle of the priesthood of all believers, and takes that principle right down to its natural conclusion: that all believers, including youth, teens, adolescents, etc. are theologians. It is theology that values all youth as theologians. Here we will share with you how to engage with youth theology in your own ministry.