The Bummer Realities of Brenda-Centered Youth Ministry

Originally published March 2006.

There was a time in my life when I thought pretty highly of my Brenda-based youth ministry.  I felt alive.  I felt like I was making a dent in this world.  I felt true joy when some teens "got it."  But I also felt tired, overwhelmed, stressed, etc.

Something had to change.  

Something did change.  But first have you ever felt or thought (maybe even voiced) these thoughts?

∙    I pour myself (often sacrificing my personal time) into that one special youth.  That one youth who I know will be the lead youth, that strong youth.  That one youth who will actually make a difference among his friends.  I pour myself into that one youth only to have this last for two years because once he gets his driver's license and a job to support the car he no longer has the time for youth group responsibilities.  And I'm left missing our relationship.

∙    Even though I have millions of things going on, I am expected to remember a teen's birthday or if a teen had a band concert even though I wasn't asked to attend.  It should be easy for me to keep track of 40 teen birthdays and the schedules of 9 different schools.

∙    I try so hard to be hip and relevant so I can try to understand teens' lives.  Yet if I mention that I still prefer listening to DeGarmo & Key, I'm the loser.  And no, I don't want to spend my few bucks to see "Final Destiny 3" so I can be relevant.

∙    I am supposed to be friends with only people ages 11 to 18.  Anybody older would betray these friendships--or so I find out from reading a MySpace entry.  Besides I already don't have enough after school pizza times to meet with the youth who do want to talk to me.  

∙    Very few people are concerned that I don't have good relationships with people my own age.

∙    I'm always trying to schedule more one-on-one times with individual youth because I see that their faith walk needs that individual attention. But I can never seem to find the time to get to all of these individuals.  That frustrates me to no end because I know I can do more.

∙    If I could schedule every moment I have out of the office, I can maybe get to all those pizza times but I have to be in the office for a certain amount of hours. I have to update the webpage, schedule the worship practice, edit the video, and arrange travel arrangements (total ugh!) for the next road trip.  Or I have to work my regular job and still do all these other items.  

∙    I know that if I could just get a hold of this one youth, I can talk him out of making some big mistakes.  But he's not returning my phone calls or e-mails.  I need to spend even more time im prayer.

∙    If I want to do something because I want to be with my family or I just want to rest or do something with people my own age, I am selfish with my time.

∙    I am supposed to look over every silly teenage thing a teen does even if the behavior is not socially acceptable.  Or it makes the church look bad.  If I correct you, I'm not cool. And I have to listen to the incessant whining of why I corrected you.

∙    I listen to teens and hear what they are going through.  I hear all sorts of warning signs which I know from my experience are not good and will probably lead to bigger problems.  But I am not allowed to share those concerns with any parent because I'm their friend.  

∙    Nor will they listen to me when I tell them from my aged experience what these behaviors may lead to.  I'm their friend, but I still don't know what it is like to be them.  

∙    Since I am their friend, I am not supposed to be surprised when she cancels on youth group to spend time with another friend.

∙    There is always that one teen who demands all of my time.  Even though there are 30 other teens, I am expected to spend countless hours with just her.  And I already do spend a lot of hours with her.  She has been with me when I buy groceries so often that she can pick out what food I like.  But that is still not enough.

∙    My life is an open book to my teens.  They have met my parents, heard all of my adolescent stories which I have honed to become great lessons, and some have spent time in my home. But if I ask a teen why his grades are slipping, I am trying to know too much.

∙    If I have a bad day, I never hear the end of it.  But if a teen has a bad day, I'm not supposed to notice.

∙    A teen can talk bad about me, write things about me on MySpace, glare at me, gossip about me, and tell her friends that I am intrusive, but my feelings aren't supposed to get hurt.

∙    When IMing a teen, it's okay if she IMs ten other people while she's talking to me but if I don't respond back quick enough to her smiley face, I don't care about her.

∙    When a teen has a crush on someone and suddenly his behavior is goofy and hurting the group dynamics, I am not supposed to notice.

∙    I remind teens of the concert by e mail, announcement, postcard, and phone call but many teens will still forget.

∙    In scheduling that special retreat, I bend over backwards to make the schedule work for the most teens.  But as soon as she has something better to do, she is not coming anyway.

∙    In scheduling that special retreat, I bend over backwards to make the retreat special.  But if so-and-so isn't going, she isn't going to go either.  No matter what I have planned, hyped and encouraged.

∙    I spend hours and hours making every part of the youth retreat special.  I designed special retreat books.  I put together what should be some powerful skits.  I came up with one non-music form of worship as well as put together a music worship team which will travel.  And I gathered all of the props for every game.  Yet I still will have ten youth who have paid but did not show because something more important came up.  

∙    When a teen graduates, even though I had spent tons of time with him, he doesn't say thanks, doesn't call or doesn't even send an e mail letting me know how college is going.  

∙    Then a year later I hear that this teen has now joined a fraternity and is doing things I taught him not to do.  But my schedule is too busy scheduling in those pizza times to even write him a letter.

There is no standard youth ministry model which works across the board.  Church situations vary.  Leadership personalities vary.  What I do at my church will probably not work as a whole at your church.  But I do know that “Brenda-centered youth ministry” is not the way youth ministry should be done.  For me or for you.

When my church asked me to step in as overseer of the youth ministry, I didn't want to do it because of these very complaints.  I was already emotionally spread thin with my work with God's Family.  Nor did I desire to be a part of what I hear youth workers complain about again.  According to Wild Frontier thinking, there had to be a better way. So the pastors and I prayed about what to do and we stumbled onto how we do family-based youth ministry.  I have learned much from that stumbling point on.  

Bringing parents into the youth ministry doubled our group size.  But that is not why we do it.  

When I scheduled the youth group to prepare a meal for the homeless shelter, I didn't get the expected hesitation of too many minors in the industrial kitchen without the appropriate number of adults.  I got a chipper relief in her voice when I told her we do youth group with our parents required to be involved.  But that is not why we do it.

We do it because we realize that teens take their spiritual cues from their parents.  Even if they don't have spiritual parents but spiritual longings, these teens attach themselves to other parents who do.  Sometimes even fondly calling them "mom" or "dad."  So in all reality, a teen’s faith will only grow as far as the parents' faith.  So why not challenge the parents alongside the teens?

I can tell you why not.  This model does present a whole new set of problems one could complain about.  A parent could have soccer as a higher priority than youth group.  A parent could have a very immature faith that has been stuck for fifteen years.  A parent could still expect me to do the spiritual training of their child despite me telling her for three years that it is her responsibility.  I remind parents of the concert by e mail, announcement, postcard, and phone call but many parents will still forget.

But this I know.  The parent is who God ordained to be responsible for their child's faith.  I am called to be that church resource to help them.  I do this because I love teens.  

Mark Riddle wrote in his blog, “The gospel exists within community, not simply the family. Ministry to teens has never simply been about two people (parents) in the lives of a child. It is far more than this. Churches who take parenting seriously but who do not take community seriously are only shoveling the hot coals of guilt upon the heads of parents and then setting them up to fail. There is no healthy parenting outside of community."

This is true.  It takes both--family and church family--to grow a child’s/teen’s faith and I'm in the position to help both do their roles.