I was horrified when, in my late twenties, my dentist informed me I had done irreparable damage to my gums by using the wrong tooth brushing technique. I’ve always prided myself on my oral hygiene and began, at the age of 12, brushing my teeth for three minutes at a time, at least twice a day, when a friend told me that’s how long it took to do the job properly.
Unfortunately, by brushing my teeth horizontally for six minutes each day for nearly 20 years, the gum line in my mouth is a mess and will always be that way. It’s an awful thing to discover the way you’ve always done things doesn’t achieve the results you’re looking for.
There’s a noticeable increase in New Zealand’s appalling suicide statistics among men in their 60s. I can’t help thinking that some men reach the twilight years of their lives and realise they’ve given themselves to the wrong things – they’ve chased gold, girls and glamour when what they really wanted was stability, satisfaction and significance. It’s an awful thing to discover the way you’ve always done things doesn’t achieve the results you’re looking for.
I petered out of 16 years of service with Baptist Youth Ministries at the beginning of last year. I still consider myself to be a Christian Youth Worker – that’s how I describe myself to IRD – but other Christians are no longer paying my mortgage.
During the last couple of years I’ve come to the conclusion that, as a youth ministry leader, I got some things wrong with the teenagers I worked with. Very few of the hundreds of kids I worked with, in a variety of settings, are following Jesus today. It’s an awful thing to discover the way you’ve always done things doesn’t achieve the results you’re looking for.
If I could have my time over again I’d do things a bit differently. I’m not talking about radical changes. I’d still clean my teeth but I’d definitely focus on a few different things.
Firstly, I’d want every young person I worked with to feel like they were part of a church, not part of a youth ministry. I naively thought my job was to disciple teenagers and then present them (holy and pleasing to God!) to the big church at the age of 18, or 20, or whenever their time in youth ministry ended.
Like a horizontal tooth brushing technique, that did a whole lot of damage. The teenagers I worked with didn’t walk away from the church because I never really introduced them to it. Instead, like all normal people should do, when they left their teens they left the youth group bubble I had created.
Secondly, I’d want every young person I worked with to connect with individuals in our church from every age and stage of life. For too long I bought into the lie that a significant relationship with me, and a few other youth ministry leaders, would be enough to sustain a life time of walking the narrow road. That seems so arrogant now.
Why, oh why, didn’t I give the kids I worked with the opportunity to develop strong bonds with lots of other people in our church? It worked for me!
Thirdly, I would expect a great commitment from Christian parents. Training church kids to follow Jesus is the primary job of Christian parents; it’s not a responsibility to delegate to children’s ministry leaders and youth workers. I spent hours and hours doing things Christian parents could have done quite easily and, probably, quite happily. Instead of involving them in “my” youth ministry I was happy to take over their job only to stuff it up!
Duffy Robbins, an American youth ministry legend, believes genuine commitment doesn’t happen during the teenage years. Therefore, we should be doing all we can to make young people feel part of our church, not part of our youth ministry.
To be honest, I think the model of youth ministry currently practised by churches and youth workers throughout our country inoculates a lot of young people to the truth about Jesus. There’s nothing in the New Testament record of the early church to suggest we should make disciples in the context of an age specific group. Paul, in fact, tells Timothy that everyone in his Christian community should be able to observe his growth in God (1 Timothy 4:11-15).
It’s an awful thing to discover the way you’ve always done things doesn’t achieve the results you’re looking for. But that’s the harsh reality we need to face; while the Baptist Churches of New Zealand reach thousands of children and teenagers with the gospel it hasn’t translated into a whole lot of lifelong followers of Christ.
The responsibility to go and make disciples was given to the church, not to a handful of people who enjoy eating pizza on Saturday nights!
The damage I’ve done is irreparable – I have to leave that with God. But now is the time to change the way we’ve always done things. Our teeth, our time and our teenagers deserve nothing less.
– Randal Scott