Monday, September 10, 2012

3 Temptations of Youth Workers

My favorite book on leadership is Henri Nouwen's tiny modern classic, In the Name of Jesus. A former Yale and Harvard professor, Nouwen made a radical decision late in life to minister to the L'Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, a community of people with developmental disabilities. His little book outlines three temptations for church leaders in the 21st century, which I believe perfectly correspond to three temptations for youth workers:

1) Relevance. Jeremy Zach's recent post on chasing cool in youth ministry highlights this desire to be interesting, to defend Jesus and the Gospel from the designation of "boring." Boring is anathema in youth ministry, and there are dozens of books, blogs, and workshops centered around finding ways to keep students engaged. While the above post paints a picture of how to explore culture and become "cool," Henri Nouwen offers a radically different approach:
I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God's love. The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God's Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.
This isn't a call to become boring or uninteresting, but rather a redefining of what makes the Gospel relevant. The Gospel is, in fact, the most relevant news in all of human history. It transcends time and fashion and culture, penetrating into the deepest of human longings and offering the best of outcomes for having invested in it.

2) Popularity. The temptation to be the spectacular youth ministry in town is a reflection of Western culture's fascination with popularity and pedestals. We have a compulsion to compare ourselves to others and an innate desire to be noticed. Celebrity culture is not absent from the church, and we love our heroes of the faith. They're the ones with the biggest or fastest-growing churches, the ones who get asked to speak at conferences about leadership and influence, the ones with the most Twitter followers or book deals.

In the youth ministry subculture, it's the desire to be popular both within the world of students and our own youth ministry tribe. We want students and volunteers to like us, so we try our best to please them. We also want fellow youth workers to like us. There's been a noticeable increase of youth ministry blogs and start-up organizations in the past year or so. The advent of the Internet allows more voices to be heard and levels the playing field, but it also can add to the noise and foster opinion vomit.

Nouwen calls us away from popularity to focus on ministry, to shepherd the flock that God has given us and lay down our lives for the sake of others:
Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life....It is Jesus who heals, not I; Jesus who speaks words of truth, not I; Jesus who is Lord, not I.
3) Power. While most youth workers likely don't feel very powerful in their vocation or role, there is a subtle temptation to be in control of one's ministry. There is a drivenness, a busyness, a desire to get bigger and better, to see tangible results. Youth workers may connect their own self-worth and value with their job description and performance, making the desire for control even greater. Our egos are crushed when a student visits another youth group down the street, or our anger is piqued when our event-planning or teaching ability or small group structure is questioned. Nouwen writes:
What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life....Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.
Jesus has a different vision of maturity: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go.
The release of power and control requires a humble recognition that it is truly God's work in the lives of students that makes any difference. We are just along for the ride as His kingdom advances in our world and our hearts.

Confession: I struggle with each of these temptations. It requires a daily repentance and divine intervention for me to embrace the ways of Jesus and resist the temptations so common in our vocation.

Which temptation(s) resonate with you? How have you struggled or overcome these in your own life and ministry?

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