The "Ifi" Cations of Youth Ministry
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.’ These are the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and are an accurate summary of my life as a youth worker in Scotland. There is harmony amongst these variations that define for us the true reality of life. Ministry illuminated this truth beautifully for me as I assimilated into a culture not my own and began to love the young people who were significantly different than mine.
It became apparent that the best of times were mixed with the worst of times. The age of wisdom and discernment would be challenged by foolishness and rebellion. As the youth ministry unfolded in Smithton, I began to notice certain trends that would challenge every conversation, every talk I gave, every event we held. The categories of Authority, Amusement, and Apathy were the overarching headings that were pregnant with implications that I (and the other leaders) attempted to address regularly by explaining the Gospel under the three ‘-ifi cations’ (Justifi cation, Sanctifi cation, & Glorifi cation).
Not every young person has authority issues, but the foundation of postmodernism that floods our current age teaches that the acceptance of any ultimate authority is wrong. Traditional authority figures that once existed as a shepherding tool to guide society now exist to be challenged, ignored, or rejected. Life is not found in what is truth, but rather how life is experienced. How one feels, or what gives the most pleasure, is the gauge of purpose and meaning. Amusement is where truth is found. The results are a life of apathy that is unresponsive to ambition, that is summed up by the theme song ‘I can’t be bothered’.
If authority is the drumbeat of postmodernism, keeping the rhythm, then amusement is the baseline that offers the heart-pounding sound of experience; but all attention is focused on the lead guitarist of apathy, who sings about nothing and everything. Incorporate this sophisticated system with natural sinful teenagers, and what you have is the current pop band of the youth in Scotland.
The question of youth work then is, ‘How do you change the music?’ Our model that we employed in Smithton was to offer the music of the Gospel by rediscovering an avenue in youth ministry that seems to have been lost – teaching the Bible. The chords we strummed regularly were the sounds of Justifi cation, Sanctifi cation, and Glorifi cation. These ifi cations become the drumbeats, the baselines, and the lead guitarists of the band, and when it is fully amplified, they become the beautiful harmonies of the Gospel.
Addressing the issue of authority was a balancing act between dismantling the young people’s suspicions of my perceived agenda, while at the same time not encouraging their idols of autonomy and self-love. I quickly learned that ministry was like a beggar, showing other beggars where he happened to have found some bread. Transparency gave me a trustworthy voice with the young people as I spoke of my own struggles and sinful tendencies. They soon realized I was a broken, dysfunctional sinner who needed the same Jesus I was preaching to them. Unveiling my heart was difficult, but necessary in gaining their respect and trust.
Kids today have almost become numb to the enormous stockpile of pleasure-seeking activities at their disposal. All kids struggled with the temptation of alcohol, drugs, and sex, though, in my opinion, technology has become the new substance abuse. This YouTube, mobile phone, Bebo-loving generation has lost the ability to communicate because they can amuse themselves in sheer isolation from anyone else. They don’t need community as long as they have a computer screen. They don’t need Youth Fellowship as long as their mobile phones have credit. However, as the kids discovered what it meant to be an image-bearer of the Triune God, they began to understand that they had a need for community because it was in their spiritual DNA.
As their understanding of the Gospel heightened, the immediate implication was safety, which they previously found behind their computer screen. In the Gospel, they were accepted and loved regardless of who they were or what they had done. The freedom this brought transformed our once cliqueish youth group into a single fellowship of messy, broken sinners who were okay with each other. Our temptation to entertain the kids to death was quenched as we witnessed kids from all ages and backgrounds coming together just for the ‘craic’.
The greatest challenge, however, was dealing with Apathy, which in my opinion is the cancer of the young people in Scotland. We attempted to rediscover a world and life-view that establishes the Sovereignty of God. Uncovering the divine drama of the Gospel and showing these kids how God has written them into His script was our response to their apathetic, ‘I can’t be bothered’ attitude. When they heard that God was bothered about them, attitudes were changed and lives were transformed through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Our main intention in youth ministry was pointing them to the Gospel and showing them the relevance and beauty of a God who loves a sinful, messy, and broken world. It was indeed the best of times and the worst times, but more importantly it was a life-changing time as we witnessed God break into the hearts of many young people. The work is not done, and it is my prayer that the church remains bothered about the young people of Scotland.