I’ve been involved in some part of youth ministry for the past 6 years. I have learned a lot. I learned some great ways to minister, I’ve learned a few things to never try again. I’ve learned from my mistakes and from other’s mistakes. I’ve even learned a few things from reading or listening to other ministers to students. There is something, however, that I am beginning to figure out on my own. I had been leaning toward this concept for a while when I stumbled upon the perfect terminology for it while reading “When Kid’s Hurt” by Chap Clark and Steve Rabey.
In a chapter about teen stress buried in one of the little sub content boxes was the sentence: “Youth ministry should be counter-cultural.” That was it! That was the concept I had been developing my ministry into. Counter-cultural youth ministry. Maybe I’m just behind but I had never heard that before. All I ever read or hear is how your ministry should be relevant to the culture, you should minister to teens in the same way society gets their messages across to them. I understood that concept and for years I ministered that way. It wasn’t until I saw the downfalls of this concept that I began looking for something else.
Downfalls to relevancy.
First of all I noticed how far behind the church always is when it comes to relevancy. The church, youth ministry included, is always reactive to culture. What this means is they are constantly trying to keep up. Just listen to popular Christian music. It’s no coincidence that the most popular christian songs this year sound like the popular secular music of last year. The church is always playing catch up! Teens see this, not as relevant, but as lame. They don’t want to go to a ministry that’s always trying to keep up. They want something fresh, real, and true.
The second and worst downfall that I’ve seen to ministries trying to be culturally relevant can be summed up in one phrase: “Relevancy for the sake of relevancy is simply a lie.” When ministries research pop culture to stay relevant they are just looking for ways to lie to their students about what they’re into. Just because you play “Boom Boom Pow” before your services doesn’t make you relevant. It make’s you a faker. Teenagers see right through the facade. They don’t see a cool ministry, they see a ministry trying to copy society. I submit that they are not interested in that at all.
The last and perhaps most devastating downfall is the shallowness of it all. When you’re main goal is to be relevant, the true goal gets lost in all of that extra effort. It’s my opinion that teenagers don’t need more of what they get in society. They need something they can’t get anywhere else. They need truth, and they need it wrapped, not in relevancy, but in love, acceptance, and more truth.
What does counter-cultural ministry look like?
To be truly counter-cultural in your ministry you must remember a few things:
1. Teens are busy.
The culture of teens is now a busy busy rollercoaster. They are always on the move. Always going. They are never slowing down to rest or reflect on who they are or what they were put on the planet for.
A ministry that approaches services as a non stop, high impact, entertainment extravaganza are just furthering this area of teen culture. I believe that if we allow time to slow down and be less concerned with the non-stop excitement of our services we will see students begin to develop a deeper understanding of who God is and who they are called to be.
You can slow down in many ways, one of the ways we’ve done is splitting our worship into two sets. It provides a focus on the faster “praise” songs and then some time in between for announcements and welcome from me then a separate focus on the slower “worship” set. This separation puts a pause in the action long enough for students to hear from me and do their “huddle groups” (small group time we do during every service.)
2. Teens are dependent on media.
I don’t have to say anything to prove this fact. We see it all around us every day. They’ve even coined phrases for it. You can’t just say tv time anymore, there are too many options so parents now are encouraged to limit “screen time.” With media getting more and more available it seems that youth ministries have become as media dependent as the teens they are ministering to. Services are packed full of videos and every event teens do is on youtube. Music is loud, lobbies are loaded with video games and computers for browsing the internet. Teens step out of a media craving culture into more of the same. This seemed like a good idea a few years ago but I personally saw it stunt the growth of one of our main goals in our ministry. The goal of connection.
When students are focused on media, they see no room or time for connection to eachother, the ministry, or much less God. Students come because they can play XBox or browse youtube and then once service begins they act crazy and can’t listen because you aren’t presenting worship or the sermon in small two minute segments.
Just last weekend we removed our game-room and replaced it with ten couches for lounging, connection, and relationship building. I’m excited to see the reaction of our students, but most of all the strengthening of relationships within our ministry. Then, hopefully once students come into service, they are wound down from their media intensive lives so that they can listen to an actual human play music or speak to them without going through media withdraws.
3. Society tells parents to stay out of the teen’s way.
“Teenagers need their privacy. They need to be left alone to make mistakes and be loved from a distance.” This is the cry of much of our society. Parents are told that every negative behavior teens are into is just a part of growing up and that it’s best to just let them develop and learn from it.
A counter-culture youth ministry will do the oposite of this. The focus of this ministry will be to involve the parents in as much of the ministry as possible. Put them into prayer times and altar services. Let them know what events are coming up so they can get involved or at least attend. Tell them about fundraising so they can get on board and help their student accomplish their goal.
One of my strongest beliefs is that the parent is (or at least should be) the biggest influence on a teens life. As a ministry we should be encouraging that influence, not fighting against it.
You can consider this a rant, an opinion, an interesting concept, or a challenge. Either way I encourage you to take a look at how you do ministry. There are so many things wrong with this society that we’ve tried to be relevant to. I fear that too much relevancy to society will make us irrelevant to changing lives. So, find out what you do that counters the culture and do more of it. Look at what you do that is just for the sake of relevancy and see how you can convert it to a true, counter-cultural ministry tool.
It is my firm belief that if we minister with the purpose of countering the culture we will see students who are far from God become whole in Christ.
Author: Michael Prince
Michael Prince co-authored “What’s in Your Pocket? A parent’s guide to protecting your children online.” with his wife Melinda. They have four kids and live in an RV anywhere in the USA they see the need for an internet safety expert. Michael is leading the conversation in the American Church about family online security. He and Melinda founded BecauseFamily, a ministry that exists to inspire and equip parents to be the first influence in the lives of their children, in 2013. Michael is also a geek and loves Star Wars, Doctor Who, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and strategy board games.