I’m pretty excited about attending the “Youth Ministry UnConference” in December at Irving Bible Church. The goal of the un-conference is to: “come together to pray for the youth of the world, and dream about how God might use us to help them know Him more deeply.” It is being hosted by a number of people I like and respect. (Mark Matlock, Shawn Small, Lars Rood, David Grant, and Rawd Jones are great people who have a passion for the Lord and youth.
What more could you want? Great people, a topic which stirs my heart, a format that allows interaction, and reconnecting with friends from DFW sounds like a winning combination to me. But, I want it to be more than that. I want it to be a catalyst for positive change in my youth ministry. I love working with youth at Grace Church, but I want it to be better. More than that, I want it to be powerful. I want the power of the Holy Spirit to permeate the whole group… I want it spilling over in our fellowship, our worship, our service, everything! It’s not there… yet. I pray for it. I hope for it. I try to facilitate it. But, it isn’t happening… yet. I have a problem.
I don’t think it’s a problem with God, obviously. God is quite capable and more than willing to show up in power and glory. God is not the problem. I do think it’s a problem with me and the system. Youth ministry has problems. That is a gross understatement. Youth ministry is, by many accounts, less stable than the Haitian economy. For starters, there is a large dropout rate. Depending on which statistics you read, anywhere from 45%-90% of kids in youth ministry drop and NEVER come back to church with any regularity or commitment. Secondly, youth ministry is producing Christian adults that differ very little, if at all, from non-Christian adults. As a whole very few youth ministry participants are turning out the way youth ministers would prefer. Other issues exist, but you catch my drift. We have a problem. Youth ministry has problem. Many say youth ministry has failed.
This problem is VERY complex though. Youth ministry is tied very closely to its adult counterpart, a.k.a. the church. The church in general has the same kinds of problems, lack of disciple-making, lack of commitment, consumer-driven, etc. I agree with Adam Mclane where he says in his blog that “Christian organizations would rather go out-of-business, accepting failure, than change.” Despite the fact that Christian organizations don’t want to change, the problems with the church at large are still just symptoms of the culture. Lack of personal interaction, moral decline, and an attitude of entitlement are just a few of the problems with our culture. So, many times I feel helpless because to really address the problem with youth ministry I feel like I have fix everything. Fixing all of the aforementioned problems is not possible for little nobody like me.
So, I, like many who have faced this problem, just shrugged and went back to “life as usual.” I can’t fix everything and giving up isn’t an option, so I continue on doing the best I can with a broken system. There is hope though. I was reading a blog on the Fast Company’s website that spoke to problems like these. Jerry Sternin was asked to help alleviate the problem of malnutrition in children who lived in the poorest parts of Vietnam. He was also asked to do so within 6 months and with little in the way of resources. (This does sound like youth ministry!) The problems were numerous and ominous. Sanitation, poverty, clean water, and ignorance all contributed to the malnutrition of these children. Sternin couldn’t fix these problems. Even Bono can’t fix poverty and he can do anything! But, Sternin was successful in fixing the child malnutrition problem. The complexity of the problem and the simplicity of the solution resonated with me.
When we analyze a big, complicated problem — like malnutrition in Vietnam, or a married couple nearing divorce, or a business on the verge of bankruptcy — we seek a solution that befits the scale of the problem. If the problem is a round hole with a 24-inch diameter, our brains will go looking for a 24-inch peg to fill it. So, naturally, the experts on malnutrition in Vietnam wanted to talk about poverty and education and sanitation systems.
Our focus, in times of change, goes instinctively to the problems at hand. What’s broken and how do we fix it? This troubleshooting mind-set serves us well — most of the time. If you run a nuclear power plant and your diagnostics turn up a disturbing signal once per month, you should most certainly obsess about it and fix the problem. And if your child brings home a report card with five As and one F, it makes sense to freak out about the F.
But in times of change, this mind-set will backfire. If we need to make major changes, then (by definition) we don’t have a near-spotless report card. A lot of things are probably wrong. The “report card” for our diet, or our marriage, or our business, is full of Cs and Ds and Fs. So if you ask yourself, What’s broken and how do I fix it?, you’ll simply spin your wheels. You’ll spend a lot of time agonizing over issues that are TBU.
When it’s time to change, we must look for bright spots — the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?
Sternin’s solution was to find poor families (living with poor sanitation, dirty water, etc…) who had children that were properly nourished. He found them. There were a few children among the rest that were well nourished, there was hope. So, he focused on what those families were doing differently. He focused on a solution rather than a problem. There were a few simple things that these families were doing that made huge differences in the health of the kids. After finding out what these families were doing that the others weren’t, he looked at how the community interacted. He knew setting up a school would not be well received by the community. Scientific evidence would not sway mothers to change the way they fed their kids. The solution was to organize families into groups and have them prepare meals together. The moms were “acting their way into a new way of thinking.”
This gives me hope as I try approach the un-conference. I don’t want to be about “youth ministry as usual.” I can’t fix the big problems of the world. In fact, it does not help when I fixate on the problems. But I can focus on solutions, find successes and try to replicate them. Will there still be problems? Of course! But there will be one less significant problem if I can just focus on the solution.