Class – “Authentic” Youth Ministry

I came from an unconventional background, and I lived an unconventional life and did unconventional ministry. I was an unconventional child, much to the concern of my very conventional parents. I tried to re-bury worms when it rained one day because they were coming out of the ground and I thought they would be cold. I cried for hours when I was 6 when I couldn’t find my neighbor friend, and my mom told me he had gone to Washington. She couldn’t figure out why I was so upset…till she figured out it was because I knew Washington was dead, and I thought she was trying to find a nice way to tell me what happened to my neighbor…

I remember my friend David had been brought in as an elder at our church and he kind of defined unconventional. He challenged “doing church as usual,” urged compassion for the less fortunate and irked people who felt inconvenienced by “problem people.” I heard about one meeting where the leadership was discussing whether to help “that family” again since they always seemed to be in need.

David responded, “I know! Let’s just chain them to their beds so they can barely reach their food!”  I would have loved to have seen the shocked expressions…

At one point one of the other elders looked at David and said, “You don’t color between the lines, do you, David?” “There’s lines?” David asked in astonishment.

I get David. I get loops, cliffs, turnarounds, but lines? Not really.

I am allergic to “how to” things – especially “how to” youth ministry books. They’re kids. They don’t color well between the lines either, so I figured, let’s just get ‘em to color. If we get them to do Jesus colors, the lines will come.

Some years ago, God set me in the midst of a group of some of the most unconventional kids you could imagine: “barely saved,” as some would say – still smoking, sometimes going on drinking binges, often cussing, ripped jeans, pierced, tattooed and earringed, kids who often went home to abusive parents, occult families or just the streets. I wasn’t prepared for them – but I was completely prepared – to try to steer the  Jesus bus in the chaos and pain and crazy lives of my young passengers. I understood their hurt – the abuse, rejection, loneliness, crushing sin addictions.

What I didn’t know was, how do I act around them? How should I talk, dress, behave? Do I become super-parent, taskmaster, schoolteacher or buddy, pal, “one of them?”

When in doubt, ask.

“So what’s the best advice that you can give me?” I asked one of our guys that was most honest and understood my heart.  He said, “Don’t blow your class.” I understood immediately. At that time, I was 33. I wasn’t 15 or 18. Or 40. Or 80 or whatever. I could look or act old or like a child but I was still 33.

Recently, we endured what I call the “Rob Bell glasses phenomena.” Rob Bell, the author and later off-the-reservation theological pariah, wrote a millennial-appealing book and did some DVD’s and soon became the de facto role model for a whole new generation of young youth pastors in the early part of the millenium. Soon, everyone was buying Rob Bell glasses, dressing neo-preppie college cool, speaking in short sentences punctuated with angst and profundity followed by long pauses, waiting for the heavy truth to wow the crowd. Short, round bar table to replace the dreaded and outdated pulpit,…iPad and/or MacBook replacing the Bible, which was found on the iPhone app… These guys were plugged in, wired up and ready to go…nowhere…which is where Bell went before plunging off of Heretic Cliff. It was all questions, relevance, the hip du jour trends…and eventually became Emergent Soup, leaving a lot of pretty sincere young youth leaders embarrassed by Bell’s betrayal and having to “rethink” coolness as calling and connecting. All of it was, in the end,  simply the sound of fashion, signifying nothing…

And I think we all go through this stage when we’re younger as we’re trying to find our identity. But really…seeing 70-year-old evangelists with a ‘fro…no.

The Impact of our ministry to youth is not the clothes we wear or the hipness we try to exude. It’s in the depth of our message and the realness of our love and care. If “imitating culture” was the trick, John the Baptist was a total failure. Wearing camel hair and chomping on locusts – definitely uncool.

On the other hand, we don’t want to alienate the culture either.  Missionary Amy Carmichael did the unprecedented when she began to wear the traditional woman’s Sari dress so as to better fit with the people she longed to reach for Jesus. western dress had tagged her as an imperialist privileged person. Wearing a Sari said, “I do care not to offend you. I do want to identify with you..”

It’s hard to find the balance. I think it is partly in Paul’s “I am all things to all men, that I might by all means save some,” (1 Corinthians 9:22) and “whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31).   It’s not to impress. It’s not to be cool. It’s not to be something else. It’s to do what God wants.

And that’s almost always just about matters of the heart. If you’re insecure, you might tend to act and dress to impress. If you were the uncool kid, you might act and dress to PROVE you’re cool. I pray God gives you the grace to avoid all of these things. Just be who God made you to be!

Here’s one key: Paul said, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Simple, isn’t it? There’s no trying, no struggle, no regrets and no one-upmanship. I am just who He made me to be. Be imitators of Christ, not of the world, not of the culture, not of the newest hip worship leaders or motivational “preacher.” Be who God made YOU to be.

I don’t know who said it, but I’ve taught it to many, many of my youth over the years (if it’s you, let me know and I will credit you, because it’s just so great!) but here’s the best bit of advice I’ve ever heard on this:  Be who you is, because if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t.”

As youth pastors, you may be expected to dress up for church events: when you preach, when it’s a special event like Christmas or Easter. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by showing up in ripped jeans and an old Iron Maiden t-shirt. “But I’m not a coat and tie guy!” You’re missing the point. You are all things to all people so you can by all means save some. Even church folks. Get it? It’s not about dress. It’s about the heart. You showing up in radical youth clothes on Sunday is a message: “ I don’t care what you think.” That’s a pretty good way to cut short your stay as a youth pastor.

Tattoos aren’t a great way to “relate” either. I know everyone is getting them. And I will leave the debate about whether it is scripturally allowed or not for another day. I do have a couple of thoughts, though. One, remember that when you get older, everything shrivels and sags and colors fade, and your radically awesome angel will eventually resemble a chunky midlife hippie with receding hair and mysterious lesions on his face…

And if you are getting it to impress others with your coolness, why? And if you’re getting it to impress kids in your youth group with your coolness, how does that model Jesus, bring them closer to Him? How does it model separation from the world? Just a thought for those honest enough to ask themselves these questions. Simply put, what is your real motive?

So how do you dress and still be yourself? Well…dress like you dress, unless (1) It’s offensive or (2) You’re asked to dress otherwise. Other than that, my best counsel is this: dress to minimize attention to YOURSELF. Don’t let anything distract from the message of Jesus. You’re a vessel for the glory, don’t TAKE the glory. It’s ok to look nice, or fun, even hip, but don’t dress to impress. Dress to decrease so He might increase. That means not being decked out in Armani everything and Ft Knox gold hangings that get more comments than whether your message changed anybody. And don’t dress like a slob either. It’s not grungy or classy that counts but what is in your heart’s motives, and whether you are working to become the backdrop to the real star of the show – Jesus.

In the end, kids won’t remember your cool tattoo much. (Unless if was a cheaply done lion head that now resembles a leaf…) They will remember some of your messages, many of your out of the pulpit words, some simple but profound words from God, but mostly, whether you really loved them, and were there for them in that crucial and painful time called adolescence. But most importantly, your prayer should be that they will remember Jesus.

Be who you is – uniquely, warts-and-all you – and avoid the traps of dressing or talking or acting like a kid to impress them with how well you can “relate.” They will see right through it. They’re not looking for someone LIKE them to party with them, but someone different from them to LEAD them.

Don’t stoop to the world to find tricks to impress or clothes to draw attention to yourself. Help youth step up to the kingdom world where it’s not what you wear, but who you are in Jesus that is all that matters.

Don’t blow your class.

Gregory Reid