Rethinking and Redefining our roles as Youth Workers

I realize that the hot trend today is to call ourselves “youth workers”.  It seems to be a safer word than “pastor” in this day and age.  Using that word also helps us get credibility and find commonality with other youth ‘workers” such as teachers, coaches, and counselors.  We are all on the same team…that sort of thing.  I do believe that we must work closely with other adults and organizations interested in the well being of students, and I really do believe in the importance of a holistic approach to student development, growth, and maturation.

In the past, youth pastors have tended to focus solely on the “spiritual” aspect of the teenager, while often ignoring or avoiding the other aspects of their life. Somewhere along the way, their “soul” became much more important than their mind, body, and spirit (emotions).  We failed to see just how interconnected they are and failure to address these areas is a failure to address to true and full spiritual development of teens.

But at the same time, I have also seen the opposite take place.  Youth “workers” whether in churches or secular institutions work tremendously hard to bring mental, social, physical, emotional, and intellectual wholeness to teenagers. Yet, at the end of the day (or the end of their invested time with a particular student), nothing is ever said regarding their soul.  Now the problem arises when someone believes that a person’s “soul” or “spiritual” life is composed of all the above mentioned areas:

mind+body+spirit= soul

or

intellect+physical+emotional+social= spiritual

Again, I do believe that is correct to an extent, but I have found this model to be lacking in real transformation.

So, while it is all well and good for us to pursue health in those areas, we are called to more!

Whether you chose to define yourself as a youth “worker”, “leader”, “director”, or something else the bottom line is that we are all pastors.  This implies a radical new understanding of our roles and responsibilities.

We are not called simply to  direct activities and programs for students.  Clubs and after school programs do that.  We are called to the spiritual formation of students.

Whether you work at a church, club, organization, or school, we are all in youth work.  Yet, if we believe that God has called us towards this ministry, than our “work” takes on another added dimension. (more on this in a later post)

Now, in order to bring this kind of spiritual transformation and life change to teenagers, we must be willing to think creatively about our roles outside of the church and traditional parameters.

I do agree with much out there today about changing the spheres of influence and rethinking tradition roles.

Clearly a coach, teacher, or tutor will have much more interaction and time spent with students than a traditional youth pastor. In my area in New York, I am not even allowed to eat lunch with the students or be with them at flagpoles. (So I became a baseball coach and now have full access to the school!)

Also true is that students no longer flock to youth buildings or programs at churches (even if you have a sweet Rock Band set up).  Youth workers must be willing to go where the students are.

Hanging out at a local Starbucks, movie theater, or mall is a good start. That kind of exposure will help, but exposure with influence is much better. Volunteering as a coach, serving as a tutor, actually working at a local Starbucks…these are the kind of creative ‘out of the box’ roles and jobs that emerging youth workers will intentionally pursue.

Besides, some extra cash always helps as well!

However, emerging youth workers will gladly welcome and embrace any opportunity to serve the local community, not out of financial necessity but because of the unleashed potential.

I recently met with a church planter (former youth pastor of course!) who wanted to pick my brain about finding someone to work with the teens in his community. His church was around 100 people with only a small handful of students. They had no church building, no offices, and no meeting space for the youth.  His heart was to see the teens in his community not come to their church, but rather to be exposed to the love of Jesus on their turf.

So, his informal job description had this youth worker hanging out at football games, playing pool and paintball,  and spending time in arcades.  Even more astonishing was that rather than renting out the local Boys and Girls club some Friday evening for a “Youth Group event” (which probably would draw like 5 students), he envisioned the youth worker volunteering there and simply getting to know these students and building trusting relationships over time. In his mind, ministry would be the natural outflow of true friendships and relationships built over shared interests and activities over time.  Now there is a great model!

But for that particular community, I guarantee that approach will be far more effective and reaching than your typical youth outreach or youth “pastor” role. More students will be exposed to Jesus (through conversation and friendship) than if invited by the youth pastor to some event (because they would never go!)

But, the purpose behind this role is not to help students improve their basketball game and be more polite and respectable citizens. The hope is for them to meet and embrace the person and presence of Jesus and allow Him to transform their lives and futures.

I do believe that more than ever, youth leaders will not take on traditional roles in churches.

For one reason, with the economy the way it is, churches will be less likely to pursue full time youth pastors. A few collegues of mine recently have been demoted to part-time status because of the economy and have been forced to be bi-vocational.

But additionally, pastors simply do not have access to the places where students are…at least not here in the North East. As previously mentioned, I cannot simply show up during lunch with pizza to hang out with my students.

You may never get a student to step foot inside your church building, but if you can gain access and trust on their turf..than that’s a different story.

Youth leaders and workers need to be in the schools as teachers and counselors, on the athletic fields as coaches and serving in other capacities such as instructors and tutors.

Running after school programs, running a recreation league, volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club, working at Starbucks..these are where emerging youth leaders must be found…that is truly where the greatest impact will happen.

But we must always remember the reasons why we are there.  To love, serve, and introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ.

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