Games, Guitars, and a Theologically Grounded Youth Ministry

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by Andrew Mochrie

I entered into youth ministry when I was between eighth and ninth grade. I stumbled my way awkwardly into a youth group because of an invitation to a summer camp from a friend. I have followed Jesus and been involved in youth ministry ever since. Youth group was one of the most formative experiences of my life, so one can imagine how interested I was in reading Relevant Magazine’s article “9 Things We Miss About Youth Group.” Unfortunately, it left me a little disappointed in that it chalked youth group up to being a series of awkward and strange experiences accompanied by acoustic guitars. These things are great, and I do enjoy facilitating these experience for our teenagers, but that is not all there is to youth group. Youth group is more than pizza at every meal and intimate knowledge of chord charts for every Jars of Clay song, but an intentional faith community seeking to help teenagers navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence amidst the light of the Gospel. Youth group is theologically informed, grounded in presence, and intentionally executed.

What Happens When the Fun is Gone?

Though the Relevant article is full of fun nostalgia, it facilitates a basic assumption that youth ministers are just cruise ship directors and that youth ministry exists to provide safe entertainment for teens. The youth group that I experienced was more than entertainment; it was formative and theological. In his book, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, Andrew Root suggests, “Youth ministry could be defined as a ministry of the church that seeks to participate in God’s action with and for a culturally identified group called adolescents” (Root 39). Thus youth ministry is theological because, “its very purpose is to participate in the action of God. To think, feel, and partake in God’s activity–this is to do theology…” (55). What are we teaching about God when the only things we miss and remember about youth group are “fun” activities? What happens when the “fun” goes away? When entertainment exits stage left, what are our teenagers left with? Root is arguing for a ministry centered on God’s activity in and amongst our teenagers. This allows for ministry in fun, but it also allows for ministry in the messes. In order to do this type of ministry we must be intentional and seek to be present.

Though human videos, trust falls, and acoustic jam sessions are not bad (in fact, they’re great ways to get teenagers to move out of comfort zones) we need to ask the question, “What do these activities ultimately accomplish?” If we’re honest, by themselves they, at best, give us goofy memories with friends. Now what happens if we move away from the entertainment view to a theological view of youth ministry? We move into a ministry grounded in presence, for God’s presence becomes crucial. In his book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yaconelli reminds us that, “What youth need most are people who know how to be present to God and to others” (Yaconelli 24). This “being present” means we are present to teenagers (as youth ministers), present in the community (with teenagers), and aware of, as well as making aware, God’s presence in all of these things. When you’re grounded in presence, theological youth ministry begins to make more sense. Root points out that, as a theologian, a youth minister has, “the ability to notice and speak to God’s presence in the context of the lives of her young people” (Root 60). To be grounded in presence is to do theology. Is God’s presence in human videos and trust falls? Most definitely, which leads to the importance of executing youth ministry with intentionality.

Doing Youth Ministry with Intention

The Center for Youth Ministry Training adopted the tagline, “Because good youth ministry doesn’t just happen.” Games that you were too old to be playing, lock-ins, and awkward ice breakers are all great things, but there must be a reason why we do those things. At one point in the article, in the section on Youth Retreats, author Jesse Carey states, “By putting the word ‘retreat’ in the name of the outing, youth leaders could convince themselves that there was some underlying spiritual benefit to going away for two nights to goof around on a ropes course.” Carey is absolutely right: youth ministry done without intentional thought can lead to entertainment with only the hope of actual spiritual development and retreat. Yet it does not have to be and should not be that way. Youth ministry done without intention leads to a script Kenda Creasy Dean describes in her book Almost Christian as, “a B-movie: entertaining at points but ultimately forgettable” (Dean 16). She suggests that there are exceptions, but not very many. Youth ministry is too important to be a spiritual birdshot into a flock of teenagers, praying that just maybe we will hit the mark on one or two. Doing youth ministry with intention is a lot more work: you have to define why you do what you do, you have to put theology into practice and be present to the needs of the context in which you do ministry. Still, would it not be better for our teenagers to come back from youth retreats talking not only about the ropes course but also about what God was doing in and through them? We must do what we do with a purpose.

Yes, youth group nostalgia is great, and youth ministry offers plenty of memories of consuming obscene amounts of junk food and summertime fun involving Super Soakers filled with Kool-Aid. (I just gave you a new game for Sunday night, didn’t I?) Yet those memories should be triggers to the larger picture of God’s activity in and around the lives of your youth at that time and in their present. Yes, have fun, but have a purpose. Be a theologically informed and practically effective youth minister and your youth group’s memories will be built on a much stronger foundation than just games and guitars.

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Andrew Mochrie is entering his third year as a graduate resident with the Center for Youth Ministry Training. He serves as the youth minister at First United Methodist Church in Manchester, Tenn.

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Root, Andrew. Taking Theology to Youth Ministry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.

Yaconelli, Mark. Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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