Youth Ministry: Playing as a Team

As long as I can remember I've loved football. When I was 12 years old, my brother, two neighbor kids, and I formed "AFAS," short for "Alley Football All-Stars." We had plays we had practiced, we had cheers we had worked out, and when it came to game time, we scored touchdown after touchdown against the other kids in the neighborhood. That is, until Mom called us in for dinner.

But even when no other teammates were around, I still loved to play. I'd hike the ball to myself, take a few steps back, throw the football high into the air, try to catch it, and then run as fast as I could for the crack in the sidewalk that marked the end zone, dodging imaginary defenders. I didn't even have to have a real ball. I was a one-woman team. And I played with gusto.

As I scan the current youth ministry horizon, I don't think I'm alone in pretending to be a one-person team. Far too many youth workers I know do it every week. They are dedicated men and women, rookies and veterans, church and parachurch workers, working diligently to make sure their youth group is welcoming, encouraging, and inspiring. Some are very good at it, but they are often tired individual players, on the verge of injury and near defeat.

My aim is to identify and explore the metaphor of a youth group community as a team. To maintain a balance between sociology, theology, and practical ministry, I will use a three-step methodology that raises critical investigative questions, engages in theological reflection, and suggests a renewed paradigm.

Fundamental to this investigation of youth group community is the belief in "theory-laden practices." According to Don Browning, widely recognized in the field of practical theology, atheory-laden practice is an act or behavior that emerges from a principle or set of principles, however subconsciously these principles may be held.1 Most and, quite possibly, all practices reflect beliefs and theories, and most, if not all, theories overflow into practices.2

The Critical Question

Why do you think your students are coming to your youth group? If you answer that they walk in and decide to stay because of the relationships and friendships they've developed in your youth group, research suggests you are largely correct. In a 1998 random national telephone survey of 600 teenagers, 70 percent responded positively when asked if they attended a church youth group weekly or even occasionally. The second most important reason these students gave for their attendance was "relationships" or "friendships."3 These are good reasons for attending a church youth group, but they could just as likely be given to explain attendance at a soccer practice or student government meeting, or any other of a wide range of student gatherings. While the nature of adolescent intellectual and socio-emotional development leads one to expect a common set of reasons for students' attendance at any club or meeting, I would also hope that the encounter with God at a youth group would be substantively different from any other meeting. Furthermore, it is unclear if the reasons students come to a youth group match the biblical picture of why they should come. Thus it may be helpful to ask: What are some purposes for a youth group meeting that may be missing from students' current understanding of their youth group involvement?

The Role of the Youth Pastor

The multiple vocational roles associated with the pastorate have been widely and repeatedly documented.4 An empirical survey examining the more narrow category of the youth pastor reveals eleven vocational roles, including that of administrator, educator/enabler, recreator/activities director, counselor, and pastoral worship leader.5 In the midst of the multiple roles expected and sometimes demanded of youth workers, it's possible that some roles are more important and maybe more biblically supported than others. Thus the critical question becomes: What is the purpose and role of adult leaders in a youth group community?

The Role of the Student Leader

Many youth ministries describe their attendees as advancing through a sort of progression. While expressed in various diagrammatic models – ranging from a bullseye to a pyramid to a funnel – the progression remains fairly constant: from casual attendees, to more committed attendees, to influencers in the ministry. The message that is often implicitly, or even explicitly, communicated in these diagrams and practices is that there are two different kinds of students: "guests" and "hosts." What is often assumed is that the guests are the less mature and skilled who receiveministry; in contrast, the hosts are the more mature and skilled influencers who give ministry. Often the latter are called "student leaders" or "student ministers."6

While there is almost certainly a continuum of spiritual, psychological, and socio-emotional maturity among adolescents, the underlying theory seems to be that some students are willing, or possibly even able, to minister and others are not. Thus an important question is: What is the purpose and role of a student leader, and how is that different than the rest of the students?

Theological Reflections

The most stunning change for adolescents today is their aloneness. The adolescents of the nineties [were] more isolated and more unsupervised than other generations. It used to be that kids sneaked time away from adults.... Today, Mom is at work. Neighbors are often strangers. Relatives live in distant places. This changes everything.

Patricia Hersch
A Tribe Apart 
(Columbine, 1998) 

While keeping in mind the backdrop of the whole of Scripture, I intentionally focus on the Pauline epistles for two reasons: First, Paul, while being a theologian, maintained a strong sociological thrust by paying attention to the social attitudes and structures of his day, even adopting them at times.7 Second, far from being cloistered in isolated theological reflection,

Paul was actively engaged in understanding and responding to the Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures that blanketed the Mediterranean region. Following the practical methodology explained earlier in this article, Paul allowed these cultural issues, as well as the problems and questions of specific communities to direct his creative energy and the topics of his letters.8

What are some purposes for a youth group meeting that may be missing from students' current understanding of their youth groupinvolvement?

The nature of the church community can be partially understood from Paul's use of the termekklesia.9Used over 100 times in the New Testament, 60 of these by Paul, ekklesia, while commonly translated as "church" in Scripture, is generally defined in the Greek language as "assembly."10Most often these assemblies were held in private homes.11 Not once does Paul employ the term to describe a building, for church buildings did not exist until the third century. Rather, he consistently uses it to describe the gathered believers.

For today's youth group, a baffling element in Paul's description of the purpose of this assembly is not so much what he teaches, but what he does not teach. Paul does not label the primary purpose of the gathered community as teaching or learning. Neither does he describe it as worship.12 Rather, for Paul, worship is a consuming lifestyle of obedience that can be experienced both corporately and individually at any time and in any location.13 Furthermore, Paul never defines the assembly's mission as evangelism and/or social action. Although important to his theology, dispersing the gospel and serving others can also occur outside of the gathered church.14 Of course, teaching, worship, evangelism, and social action can and do happen when a community gathers, but they are either precursors of consequences of a greater purpose – the strengthening of the church.15

What is the purpose and role of adult leaders in a youth group community?

Because of the transformative power residing in the spiritual gifts of community members, ministry in the community should be by the community and to the community. In Ephesians 4, as Paul leads up to his description of community ministry and spiritual maturity, he gives a blueprint to help adult leaders build a serving community. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul describes the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers as those who "prepare God's people for works of service." Note that the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors/teachers do not do the works of service. themselves. They support others as they do they do the work of the ministry.

What is the purpose and role of a student leader, and how is that different than the rest of the students?

Although all members are gifted, it is almost inevitable that some members become more visible within the community, either because of their gifts or because of their personalities. However, the uniqueness of students with these gifts is in the visibility and scope of their gifts, not in the fact that they possess gifts. It is theologically incorrect to treat and even label only a portion of Christian students in a youth group as "ministers." Every follower of Jesus Christ is a minister.

A Renewed Paradigm

Many youth workers have discovered at least some of these conclusions in books and seminars, or in their own study of Scripture – and maybe even taught them in their own classrooms or youth meetings. Despite this, youth groups that let theories permeate their actual practices seem to be the exception, not the rule. It may be that these theories have not been translated into concrete behaviors because youth workers find it difficult to break through the dominant stereotype of the strong and gifted leader who remains the driving force of his or her youth group. Even if he or she believes that the purpose of the youth group meeting is to strengthen the youth (and, ultimately, the larger adult) community, that the role of adult leaders should be one of preparing students for ministry, and that every student is gifted for ministry in some fashion, youth workers may have difficulty finding models of the application of these theories. Without such examples, it is difficult to apply these theories in actual practice.

Whatever the obstacle, the final step is to map out a renewed paradigm for youth group community that I call a "mutually ministering community." In order to make this model understandable in today's context, I will use the image of the football team. In order to make it transferable, I will briefly highlight both guiding principles and concrete practices that can potentially be copied or adapted to fit youth groups in a variety of settings.

Keep in focus what you want to have accomplished when the game ends.

All football team players and coaches know exactly what they want to have accomplished when the whistle blows at the end of the game. They want to have scored more points than the other team. Their ultimate mission could not be more clear.

The mission for every youth group is equally clear: to see lives changed by Christ in order to change the world. 

In alliance with Paul's doctrine, the mission for every youth group is equally clear: to see lives changed by Christ in order to change the world. The mission of a youth group is not to grow bigger, to have fun, or to welcome others, although youth workers (and sometimes students) desire these. The primary purpose for gathering is so people will walk out a little – or a lot – different than when they walked in.

Youth workers who recognize this must take advantage of the variety of opportunities they have to share it as they stand in front of students in their youth groups, meet with parents, and share proposals with the church board. This will make not only the youth worker and the youth group, but also the church and its leadership, more likely to look beyond the more superficial gauges of youth group attendance, budget, and staff size to the ultimate standard for evaluation: life transformation.

Only do what helps you win the game.

No football team would run drills and execute plays that weren't designed to help them reach their end goal of winning the game. If passing the ball isn't working, a wise team adjusts and runs with it instead.

When certain elements of a youth group aren't bringing about life transformation, they should probably be eliminated, at least temporarily.

When certain elements of a youth group aren't bringing about life transformation, they should probably be eliminated, at least temporarily. Whether it's because what used to be provocative has been so often repeated it is now mundane, or because this year's seniors aren't like last year's, even previously effective practices of a youth group can become impotent.

However, a wise youth worker recognizes the subtle but surprising influence that some youth group elements have in forming students' – especially young adolescents' – image of God. For instance, the crowd-breaker you play will probably teach more about the wild adventure of following God than your well-planned talk. The greeting students receive when they step into the youth group may say more about God's love than memorizing 1 Corinthians 13.16

The greeting students receive when they step into the youth group may say more about God's love than memorizing 1 Corinthians 13.

Eliminate the stands.

Like many youth groups, a football game is comprised of a few players on the field who desperately need rest and a crowd of people in the stands who desperately need exercise.

Instead of viewing themselves, their adult leaders, and at some level the entire adult congregation, as a hard-working team playing in front of the rest of the spectating students, youth workers in a mutually ministering community "eliminate the stands" and set up a series of adjacent practice fields instead. In other words, they do everything they can to convert guests into hosts, and spectators into players. It might mean they change their seating arrangement so that students are seated eye to eye instead of shoulder to shoulder. Or it might mean that they change their terminology, referring to all of their students as ministers. Perhaps if they're involved in a larger youth group, they might choose to model their ministry after the early church and regularly divide into smaller groups that allow for more interaction and discussion. The overriding goal shifts from entertainment to active participation.

Remember that lots of seasoned coaches are needed

Although every football team has a head coach, no head coach can supervise all the players, nor can he develop and maintain expertise in all positions. As a result, most teams have additional specialized coaches to give focused attention to the defense, the offense, and the special teams. 

All youth pastors, regardless of the size of their church or ministry, can and should be expected to recruit other adults to help them in their coaching.

No youth pastor can or should be expected to develop and maintain mastery in all the spiritual gifts. It is a theological and anthropological impossibility. But all youth pastors, regardless of the size of their church or ministry, can and should be expected to recruit other adults to help them in their coaching, especially in their weaker areas. An insightful youth pastor who excels in evangelism will seek out help in areas of pasturing and teaching to ensure ongoing spiritual formation. Similarly, a youth minister who has the gift of teaching should intentionally pursue fellow coaches who have gifts of service and giving in order to make sure students experience God not only in their heads, but with their hands. Some of these fellow coaches may be "long distance mentors" who inspire and guide through E-mail, phone calls, or letters.

Figure out the best position for each player

 

A good coach never assumes that the positions the players currently occupy are optimal. Instead, he or she constantly assesses, experiments, substitutes, and improvises with the players, helping them discover their ideal role on the team.

In a youth group, the youth minister, adult leadership team, small-group leaders, students, student leaders, and students' parents all need help in deciphering their ministry gifts and positions. Three common methods of helping people identify their gifts are personal reflection, spiritual-gift inventories, and input from others. It is best to use a combination of all three methods because personal reflection can be distorted, spiritual-gift inventories can be impersonal, and input from others can be biased.

When the ball gets fumbled, all grab for it.

 

While a football team will only be successful if the center does his job and hikes the ball to the quarterback, who in turn does what he is supposed to and throws the ball to the wide receiver, who does what is intended and catches the ball – when the ball is fumbled, everything changes. The center, quarterback, wide receiver, and linemen alike all scramble to grab that ball.

Similarly, as youth workers help their students understand and move out in their spiritual gifting, they must be on guard against lopsided spirituality. Most (potentially all) of the spiritual gifts are also practices of discipline and obedience that are universally expected of every believer. While believers excel in their specific areas of gifting, all should be able to "play the positions" of showing mercy, giving, serving, sharing their faith, teaching, praying, having faith, and exhorting others. That way, when something unexpected happens, the body remains balanced and productive.

It seems appropriate when referring to football to quote the most winning NFL coach of all time, Vince Lombardi.17 According to Lombardi, "Any man's finest hour – his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear – is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause, and he's exhausted on the field of battle."18 What Lombardi realized is that playing a game, whether it be professional football or youth ministry, can be simultaneously draining and exhilarating. What he missed is that a person's finest hour is not when he or she has worked his or her heart out for a good cause, but when that person has been part of a team that has the best cause –an eternal cause.

Kara Eckmann Powell

ENDNOTES

  1. Don S. Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology (Fortress, 1991), 6.
  2. Because of the lack of research on youth ministry, it is difficult to ascertain the exact principles that drive some of the behaviors of youth groups. However, I suggest some theories from recent research and from my own observations.
  3. George Barna, 1998.
  4. George Barna, Today's Pastors (Regal Books, 1993), 130; Samuel W. Blizzard, "The Minister's Dilemma," Christian Century (April 25, 1956), 508-510.
  5. Martha Jean Woody Minardi, "The Role(s) of the Minister of Youth" (Ed.D. dissertation, Southern Baptist Seminary, 1987), 67-68.
  6. Joe Brown, "Do You Believe Your Students Have Spiritual Gifts? Are You Sure?" (Talbot School of Theology, July 31, 1998), 2.
  7. 1 Cor. 9:19-23.
  8. Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community (Hendrickson, 1994), 4-6).
  9. While some might assume that Paul's use of the term koinonia, or "fellowship," is equally important, Paul more often uses it to refer to fellowship with Christ.
  10. Banks, 1994, 27; Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III (Eerdmans, 1965), 503.
  11. Acts 2:46; Acts 12:12; Rom. 16:3-5; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2.
  12. Maurice Goguel's claim that the church is assembled for worship seems to be a flawed exegesis of the passage reports Maurice Goguel in The Primitive Church (Allen and Unwin, 1964), 52. [sic]
  13. Rom. 12:1-2.
  14. Banks, 1994, 89.
  15. 1 Cor. 14:12-26; Eph. 4:11-13.
  16. Kara Eckmann Powell, "What Lurks Behind Those Fish, Toilet Paper, and Pantyhose Games?" Youthworker Journal, XVI, 1 (Sept./Oct. 1999), 21.
  17. Lombardi's career coaching record was 105-35-6.
  18. Web site for South End Zone, Packers Coaches, Lombardi, Quotes.

When this was published in 2000, KARA ECKMANN POWELL was assistant professor of Christian education and youth ministry at Azusa Pacific University, and served as the assistant Junior High pastor at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, California. Since then, she received a Ph.D. at Fuller Theological Seminary and in 2008 is an assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Fuller, and the executive director of Center for Youth and Family Ministry. www.cyfm.net

Originally published in Theology, News and Notes, June 2000, pp. 17-20. Copyright 2000 Fuller Theological Seminary.

Kara Eckmann Powell
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