When I was a teenager, we did some really crazy things in our youth ministry. I wasn’t a super risky teen but I did like a thrill. Looking back I can see how youth ministry really played off of that. We went after one thrill after another. The standard ones included retreats, camp, Winterfest, Youth in Action, out of state VBS trips, service projects…and then the crazy ones included…playing in a creepy cemetery at night, driving really fast in the church van over a dangerous and hilly stretch of road called “the dips” and even repeatedly taking the church van up LaGrange mountain, the creepiest mountain road you can imagine where people were known to worship the devil, just to see if we might run into something scary (here is one guy’s story about venturing up there). Not everything we did was thrilling…but that component was definitely in our youth ministry.
Now think about how Jesus discipled people. He led his disciples, taught publically and privately and did miracles. The miracles were not the bread and butter of his ministry. The bread and butter of his ministry was the time he spent with his disciples and what he had to teach them about God, the kingdom and their role in it. Miracles were the exceptions because thrilling people for the sake of a thrill was not a part of Jesus’ agenda. Miracles were done to support the real meat of what Jesus had to say. Miracles testified that the rest of what Jesus was saying was true. Miracles were not the bread and butter of Jesus’ ministry because miracles can be misunderstood (remember that group that wanted to make Jesus king after he multiplied the food?). In fact, Jesus actually turned away the people who came for a thrill or for a full stomach…some ministries thrive on this and in the process miss out on making Jesus the center of attention and replace him with our own desires for the next big thrill, the next big miracle…to be a part of the next big thing that is going on.
A note to all of us in leadership positions, not just youth ministers – When people are thrilled by what we do, it gives the leader a fix. It makes us think we are able to provide them what they need. They need us and we can do things that keep them coming back to us and to our ministry. That can be deadly. I am going to sound like an old fogey here…teens don’t know how to be discipled. I am not saying teens are clueless or that they are spiritually unaware. Many of them are far more spiritually savvy than we give them credit. But discipleship is counter intuitive. They need guidance. They need leadership.
The core of what we do cannot be the thrill. Crosses aren’t very thrilling and neither is washing feet. What is more, I am sure Jesus would have much rather thrilled the crowd by calling a legion of angels instead of having soldiers pound nails into his hands. Needless to say, this type of ministry undermines what discipleship is all about and leaves teens woefully unprepared for life in the real world.
Last thought here…Jesus actually did take his disciples into a creepy cemetery and they actually did run into a creepy guy who was full of demons. Kind of reminds me of my youth group experiences! But Jesus didn’t take them there to thrill them or even scare them straight. Jesus took them there to demonstrate the power of God and redeem that man from the power of Satan. We have to keep pointing people to Jesus. Sure sometimes it will be thrilling but the thrill is not the driving force behind why we do the things we do.