Erring on the Side of Challenge

Originally published in 2005.

My local newspaper ran an AP story about the use of dodgeball in churches. To quote the author, “Christian youth leaders in (city deleted) consider dodgeball more than just a game.  For them, it’s also a way to bring together teens from different denominations--and most importantly--bring Jesus Christ to young people who are seldom in church.”  The article was titled “Dodgeball--The Latest Trend in Church Outreach.”  Are you kidding me?  What about dodgeball says Jesus Christ?

One youth pastor who was interviewed said, “It’s a good recruiting tool.  It’s easier to get them to something like that than Bible studies.”  Another youth pastor said, “You have to be creative and do things that intrigue them.”  Another youth pastor said, “Me, personally, when kids are new, I don’t want to hit them up right over the head talking about God.”

But according to the author, “The only thing that seemed to be on the minds of the kids playing dodgeball recently in (city deleted) was staying in the game.”  (Potomac News, October 1, 2005)

One of the things I have learned in my years of youth ministry:  Youth are scheduling youth group into their busy lives on purpose.  Teens want to know about understanding God, about their place in the world and about why they were born.  The church is expected to offer this.

I know not every community is overscheduled and full of taxi driver moms.  But wherever  teens live, they are still choosy about how they want to spend their time and teens are still choosing to come to church.  The building they are purposely entering is a church that contains expectations that they will learn something about God there.  I do believe they may want to be gently hit right over the head so they can talk about God.

I found this youth ministry article mentioned in many different blogs.  The meat of this article has struck me and actually haunts me a bit.  To quote: “One common strategy (of planning youth ministry) involves front-loading youth programming with fun activities, hoping to sneak in a little Bible teaching at the end. The point is not to do anything too weighty that would turn kids off. Keep it light; keep it fun. Large youth events, like Christian concerts, appeal to youth ministers with their ability to entertain kids while simultaneously conveying a positive, family-friendly alternative to things like MTV. This stuff works to a degree: as Smith and Denton (from the National Study of Youth and Religion and authors of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers), show, ‘religion actually does influence positive outcomes’ and religious teens tend to do better than nonreligious teens.

“But teens don't need Jesus to be crucified and raised from the dead to have positive outcomes and pursue family friendly alternatives to MTV. Values like being positive, encouraging and tolerant are already widely available in the culture. When kids realize this, and many do, they struggle to articulate the difference that faith makes. It didn't surprise me that many teens told Smith and Denton, "I guess it'll be more important when I'm older."

“One student I know didn't want to wait to know this difference, so he participated in his church's "40 Days of Purpose" campaign, hoping that an exploration of Rick Warren's popular book The Purpose Driven Life would help. Instead, he reached this conclusion: ‘I don't understand why you need God for a sense of purpose, self-esteem, or whatever...lots of people have that without God.’ This young man was onto something.

“Religion may help teens find a sense of purpose, stay focused on schoolwork, avoid drugs, drive responsibly, and so on. These are good and important things and they are all part of the "religious package," but they are not the point. They are like the paper bag you get for free if you buy the groceries.”  (“Jesus Isn’t Cool, Challenging Youth Ministry,” Chanon Ross, The Christian Century Magazine, September 6, 2005)

I’m not in youth ministry so I can help teens find a sense of purpose, stay focused on schoolwork, avoid drugs, drive responsibly, and so on. I’m doing what I’m doing because I want to introduce teens to the life changing opportunity of a life with Jesus.

I’d like to add another quote from Dr. Christian Smith:  “Most young people are not being formed primarily by their religious faith traditions; rather, they are being formed by other notions and ideologies.  And in part this is because adults are afraid to teach.  They are afraid of young people. They are afraid of not looking cool when they teach real substance.  And yet youth actually want to be taught something, even if they eventually reject it.  They at least want to have something to reject, rather than an attitude of anything goes.  Teens need an opportunity to articulate, to think and to make arguments in environments that will be challenging to their faith.  And I don’t think they are getting that.  In general, religious traditions that expect more and demand more of their youth get more.  And those that are more compromising, more accommodating, more anything-goes, end up not getting much.”  (Ethics and Public Policy Center, February 15, 2005)

The extensive National Study of Youth and Religion found that youth want to be taught about God.  There is nothing in there about dodgeball or anything else of the like.  This is what haunts me.  This life changing message has been weakened to a throw-in at the end of a dodgeball game when in reality churches that demand more from their youth get more. 

This is an easy case to make on paper.  I, like you, have to put together a calendar with my team of parents for the youth ministry at my church and plan stuff that the youth will come to.  Stuff that the youth will schedule into their overscheduled lives.  In planning, I can see in my mind which individuals will roll their eyes and which ones will be hard to get to attend anything, no matter what is planned.  I know the temptation to schedule a Texas Hold ‘Em night as a youth group event under the guise that I could teach the lesson that the Lord knows when we are bluffing in our daily lives.

But I have decided to err on the side of challenge.  The little time the youth are in church, I would rather challenge them with creative Bible teaching than host a water olympics.  I would rather spend my time putting together creative Bible teaching than wiring and setting up a Halo tournament. 

However, I do know personally of ministries who are experiencing fruit by using paintball.  I’m sure there are other such successes using other means like paintball.  What is different about these is often these ministries are not on church property.  The expectations are different.  The dodgeball league may be held off of church property too but according to the youth pastors who were interviewed and who were running it, they clearly were not erring on the side of challenge. 

I am called to youth ministry.  My means to minister is through my church.  The expectation of my church is to teach Biblical truths about God.  So I will err on the side of challenge even if I get the rolled eyes.