The twilight of 20th century Youth Ministry – watching the end of an era at NYWC

“Any of you in high school during the 1980’s?”

This was a lead question by Tim Neufeld, lead singer of the band Starfield, during the opening Big Room session of the NYWC in San Diego (National Youth Workers Conference) this afternoon.  The question was met with a roar of affirmation and in many ways was the right question to ask.  Youth Ministry in America is a field that has a number of outliers – contemplative, ecumenical, urban, globally minded – but still struggles under the legacy of the explosive growth in the field during the Reagan era of the 80’s that framed youth ministry as event-driven and programmatically framed where numerical growth in a youth ministry is a mark of success or failure.

*BAM!* (I was just hit in the head by a Frisbee… nothing major…I am fine… )

The exhibit hall here at the NYWC is filled with pounding music, vendors selling witness-wear T-Shirts with various morphing of pop culture semiotics and references to bible verses, bigger and more effective video projection units, Christian video games, flashy camp experiences and tons of books promising the latest method for helping youth find their way in the Christian faith. This is pretty much the same as past NYWC I have been to and blogged about.   Amidst all the glimmer and glitter of this festival celebrating a vocation deeply concerned with the state of teenagers in our culture, there is also a tiredness and almost last-ditch “Hail Mary” attempt to recover the glory days of the 1980s when youth ministry in America was reaching out to the suburbs, Contemporary Christian Music was gaining a large audience, and Zondervan, Youth Specialties and Word took youth ministry publishing to a new level.

Kids who were in youth groups during those glory days are now the youth workers wandering the exhibit halls.  These are the ones who responded to Tim Neufeld of Starfield when asked if they were in high school in the 1980’s and when they stop by to talk to me about graduate education there is often a notable pause in the midst of the noise surrounding them as if they are really unsure about what they actually need to meet the challenges they face.  When I ask them what youth ministry for the 21st century should look and feel like… to a person they don’t mention anything around this convention center.  Or at least not that which meets the ear and blinds the eye.  It keeps coming back to a simple thing:  being in relationship with kids and modelling a life that is worth living amidst the madness of the consumer driven age.

In many respects youth ministry leading into the 21st century has been an exercise of confidence in an unchanging message coupled with an ever-increasing attempt to turn up the volume to be ‘heard’ above the crowds.  But that era is fading and the writing, as they say, is not in the book stalls but on the proverbial wall.   A change is happening and the method of turning up the volume just isn’t working like it used to.  These tired and burned out people who spend a lot of time on iPhones following the FB status updates and texting with the young people they are committed to yet in a way that isn’t seeming to change anything.  These folks, like my friend and soul brother Lars Rood who is a Youth Pastor in Dallas recently blogged about being here at NYWC, are part of a tribe I celebrate.  These are people who think and feel with a depth that folks in the academy often don’t take seriously – which is a crime.  Youth workers are some of the most ingenious, entrepreneurial, energetic people you will meet. As Lars puts so well, this is a group that have hearts committed to being with teenagers and that is something to be celebrated:

Being around other youth workers who love all parts of youth ministry is an amazing thing.   I don’t feel like I have to try to “explain” what it is I do with my life. I don’t have to justify my role or why I hang with students all the time.  I don’t have to be the “slightly older guy” who is still hanging around and I don’t feel guilty for wearing shorts and a v-neck.  I love knowing that we all “get” each other and value the gifts, skills and sacrifices we make to do what we do.

Part of what it means to be in a “tribe” is also to realize that the larder for the winter is low on food, that the hunting may mean taking us to new lands, and that banging rocks to keep the demons at bay can only work for some long before we either give up in exhaustion or find a new vision and purpose.

So I sit here with the folks in my tribe and ask whether it is truly time for a revolution.

Moving from ‘weak ties’ to ‘strong ties’

In the recent New Yorker Magazine, Malcolm Gladwell published a provocative article entitled “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted.”  In it he recalls the way the Civil Rights movement took shape and caused a massive shift in our country in a time without Facebook, Twitter, or cell phones.  When he reflects on this point, he notes that many of the Civil Rights activists had personal relationships at the core of their work and passion which is what he calls a ‘strong tie’ form of activism.  By contrast Gladwell notes that the use of social media platforms to galvanizing change is hampered by ‘weak ties’.  As he puts it in the article:

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this [the forms and effectiveness seen in the Civil Rights movement] at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

Gladwell goes on to note that ‘weak tie’ networks can foster a high level of participation as long as it doesn’t cost too much and doesn’t demand change of how I live my life.  He cites examples where FB campaigns have raised millions yet at 9 to 10 cents per person.  There is certainly volume to be found, but social change only occurs at a robust and lasting level when someone gives more than 9 to 10 cents of themselves.  ‘Strong tie’ relationships are those that are led by a selfless commitment at all levels and a personal invitation mirrored with incredible commitment to change that will risk everything. Another part of this is that a vision for change must be made and led in a directive fashion and cannot be left to the masses to figure out on their own.

Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Back to the NYWC in San Diego and the tired youth workers that are walking by the book stalls and T-Shirt sellers.  Many of them have over a thousand FB friends, have churches that both trouble and support them and a burning desire to serve in ways that the US Congress could learn something from.

But that isn’t enough for the revolution.

But perhaps this weekend it is time to start forging some ‘strong ties’ beyond the ‘weak ties’ and asking each other the hard and difficult questions as we listen to the booming voices, see the endless books, T-shirts, and stickers promising a new day that requires little of us beyond putting the merchandise into a bag and keep walking.

The revolution in youth ministry will not be loud because embracing someone, sitting with them face-to-face, committing to a new way of doing things that defies consumerism and the cult of immediacy, and turning to a different road less travelled by is a solemn thing.

No, the revolution will be quiet people.  So we need to turn things down a notch so we don’t miss it.

Thoughts?

1 Comment

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  1. I agree with what I think are your two main points. Yes, the idea of a “friend” on FB is manufactured because it sells. I agree that is a weak tie. And yes, nothing is more important than personal connections in any type of relationships, especially when working with youth.

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