The longer I work in youth ministry, the more there are moments I find myself thinking, “I remember when…,” or “that’s not how we did it.” It’s in those instances that I also realize, I have become my parents. I have to face it—I am no longer the fresh, hip, young youth pastor; and perhaps I was never was all that hip to begin with.
This realization most recently arose from encountering what’s been dubbed a “promposal.” Prom itself, with its tuxedo rentals, corsages, and fancy dinner reservations is no longer the sole attraction for high schoolers during the spring season. There is now a growing expectation to come up with an equally exciting and totally original way to ask one’s date to the prom—hence, the ‘promposal.’
‘Promposals’ come in all shapes and sizes, but this guy clearly went all out, jumping out of an airplane and making the request while he hurdled towards the ground.
Youth ministry can sometimes suffer from the same aim-for-the-sky, razzle-dazzle approach as the latest ‘promposal’ trend. And I’m not speaking of the common accusation that youth ministry is all entertainment with its emphasis on crazy games, rock concert worship, and designer mission experiences. There are already enough blog posts and articles occupying the internet on this topic.
Actually, the biblical narratives and the characters that we choose to highlight in Scripture can suffer from the ‘promposal effect.’ I will be the first to admit that getting young people—and really anybody—to read Scripture on a regular basis during the week is challenging. So, the last thing I want to do on a Sunday evening is pick a story that is going to bore them to the point of pulling out their cell phones, checking in with their peers, and checking of the conversation.
And so, Scripture becomes a highlight reel: some of Jesus’ miracles and parables, Mary chatting with an angel, Moses crossing the Red Sea, and the classic underdog tale of David and Goliath. But the problem with continually selecting the flashy moments in Scripture is that it gives an unrealistic picture of faith. We offer our young people a movie trailer without the movie— highlights without the whole story—which can have the unintended consequence of setting them up for spiritual failure.
The flashy moments in scripture are used to paint a picture of what discipleship norms—if there are such a thing—look like. From my own experience in youth group, I remember being asked, “Do you want to follow Jesus? Then see what Paul did...” And on they went, talking about all those major acts in Paul’s life:
Paul was a great follower of Jesus. He healed people.
Paul brought hundreds—if not thousands—to Christ.
Because Paul was faithful, he survived a shipwreck. He got away from an angry mob who wanted to stone him. (For right now, we’ll skip the part where he got lashed forty times.)
Paul is what a disciple of Jesus looks like! “Be like Paul,” I was told. Go to the nations. Preach the good news.
It all makes for a great highlight reel, and yet, what about the rest of Paul’s narrative? What about the fact that maybe Paul could be like Jesus, but Jesus could never have been like Paul? Paul was privileged in a way most of Jesus’ followers weren’t back then—he was a Roman citizen. Even Jesus didn’t have this card.
How often are our youth ministries designed to cater to those with a certain amount of social privilege and economic means?
In one ministry context I served, I agonized over every winter planning session. It was an economically diverse community and congregation. Each year some families would suggest that we take our young people skiing in Colorado. It sounded lovely, until I thought about the families who wouldn’t be able to participate due to the strain it would put on their budget.
To follow Jesus isn’t always fantastic miracles, straight A’s, and success everywhere one goes. Sometimes, to follow Jesus can look a lot like what some might call “failure” in our merit-addicted society.
So, what do we do with moments of apparent failure in Scripture—the vast majority of stories that we so often leave out? The moments when Jesus was frustrated because the disciples wouldn’t listen to him. The moment when Paul loses his sight and has to rely on the help of another person of faith, Ananias. These are among the many narratives of faithful witness and presence that our young people never hear about because they might not be ‘entertaining’ enough.
Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t always lead to success. And it’s not determined by what percentage of the youth ministry activities our youth attend. Sometimes it’s the small moments of faithful witness that count. Providing a place for someone to stay. Looking past a person’s reputation and extending the hand of grace.
I have been in youth ministry for over 15 years now. So I understand the desire to stick with the stories that compete with the bright lights on the screens all around us. But maybe the reasons some young people leave our doors and never return has nothing to do with the stories in Scripture not being entertaining enough. Maybe they don’t come back because we have painted such a high and narrow definition of discipleship that they feel it’s something they are ever going to attain. But maybe they don’t all have to be Paul.
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Rev. Seth Vopat is a writer and American Baptist ordained member of the clergy who currently works as an associate pastor in the Kansas City area. He is an M.Div. graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and has a certificate in Youth & Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary.