When I first approached our current Chartering Organization about a scout troop, one of the issues I had to overcome was their position that “they already had a youth group serviced by a full time Youth Pastor” — so what would be the benefit of bringing in a potentially competing program?
You see, I’ve grown up with scouting in my parent’s home and their church under the naive assumption that any church would welcome a scouting-type outdoor program as part of their ministry to boys and their fathers (and moms where dad couldn’t be there for whatever reason).
It was a little startling to have to justify how this new program would fit with their existing ministry mix — elbowing in for space allocations, budget resources, the promise that we wouldn’t strip adult volunteers away from any pre-existing ministry or program, and that we’d not directly compete for the same youth members by meeting on the same night as the other church functions.
It felt a lot like I was on my own, and that there was very little enthusiasm for the project. In fact, my first attempt to get the church to sponsor the group was shot down! When I pressed as to why this was the case, I was told bluntly that “we’ve had other ministries fail here and we’re just not interested in starting something new that is doomed to failure within the first year.”
So I regrouped, I prayed about it, and I got my local District Executive involved. We tried to find an alternative location at a different church. When we had exhausted our short list of potentials, the District Executive tried something novel. He contacted my church as though it was a “cold call” — listing all the reasons why a new adventure club was needed in the county seat (with a population of 44,000 souls and severely under-served by the local after-school-clubs, little leagues and such). This got a very different reception from the trustees at the church, and ultimately, they agreed to sponsor the unit.
What was different in my initial approach and the second attempt? I had tried to tell them what I wanted to achieve and why I wanted to start the unit. When the District Executive approached them, he explained why THEY should want to do this thing and how it fit in with THEIR mission to the community.
That’s actually a HUGE difference and a lesson for anyone looking to start a new unit at a church. You’ve got to know your audience and their needs. If you can state your desire to start a unit in terms that will resonate with them, and meet their objectives (stated in their vocabulary/terms) then you’ve got a much higher chance of being successful.
All of this got me wondering — what is the mission of most Christian churches when it comes to serving youth? So I did a little research on three major “types” of Christian church groups in the USA: Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. [NOTE: I looked at Christian Churches since I’m a practicing Christian; therefore, I’m focused on these interests selfishly — I’m confident that other faiths have strong interests in helping their youth as they grow up, too. I just chose to limit the scope of my study to keep it manageable]
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a web page devoted to youth ministry. At this page it states:
Three interdependent and equally important goals guide the Church’s ministry with adolescents. These goals state what it means for the Catholic community to respond to the needs of young people and to involve young people in sharing their unique gifts with the larger community. They express the Church’s focus for ministry with adolescents, while encouraging local creativity in developing the programs, activities, and strategies to reach these goals.
Goal 1: To empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world today.
Ministry with adolescents helps young people learn what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to live as his disciples today, empowering them to serve others and to work toward a world built on the vision and values of the reign of God.
Goal 2: To draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission, and work of the Catholic faith community.
Young people experience the Catholic community of faith at home, in the parish (especially in youth ministry programs), in Catholic schools, and in other organizations serving youth.
Goal 3: To foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person.
Ministry with adolescents promotes the growth of healthy, competent, caring, and faith-filled Catholic young people. The Church is concerned for the whole person, addressing the young people’s spiritual needs in the context of his or her whole life. Ministry with adolescents fosters positive adolescent development and growth in both Christian discipleship and Catholic identity. Promoting the growth of young and older adolescents means addressing their unique developmental, social, and religious needs and nurturing the qualities or assets necessary for positive development.
At the Orthodox Church in America web site, it states:
…youth ministry is the Church’s mission of reaching into the daily lives of modern young people and showing them the presence of God. It is a return to the way Jesus taught, putting ministry before teaching and people over institutions. In this ministry, religious content is a way of life for the person ministering and the young person touched, through a sequential development of faith, dependent on the readiness and need of the adolescent.
Because there are many denominations represented within the Protestant church, I actually looked to Wikipedia as a short cut to find a “general” comment on youth ministry:
Most youth groups tend to follow a similar organizational model. The church that supports them will provide an allocation of funds to use for the activities of the group. It also will employ a paid staff member or volunteer to lead the group, known as the Youth pastor, youth minister, pastor of student ministries, youth leader, or other similar terms. This person can be either a lay person, hold a religious degree, or be a member of the ordained clergy, depending on the needs and resources of the church. His or her duties may include orchestrating the activities of the group (in particular, the content of the regular meetings below), providing pastoral care for the members of the youth group, managing a budget for the youth group, and serving as a liaison between the youth and adult bodies of the congregation.
Today’s youth ministries hold regular meetings, often at the same time as adult functions at the church. Youth group meetings generally feature the same types of activities as a Sunday morning church service, modified to reflect the culture of the age groups involved. Services may include a time for worship, drama, games or other activities, fellowship through conversation and/or food, and prayer. Many youth ministers also present a sermon or devotional. It’s common for youth groups to attend Christian summer camps each year.
Naturally, there’s a LOT more published on each of these web pages, and I’d encourage you to check them out, but I saw several common themes emerging. These themes are what THEY are trying to accomplish with their ministry resources. If we understand these concerns, we can then understand how to show our youth curriculum could help accomplish the right outcomes.
In a short summary, I felt that common concerns expressed include:
- Establishing connections or relationships between the youth and:
- Jesus as Savior, Christ, Messiah (becoming a disciple of His teachings)
- Their local church
- Their local community
- Recognizing that teens are in a key developmental time of their life
- Academic challenges
- Investigating the future (vocational calling)
- Discovering giftedness/skills/talents (and how to use constructively)
- Testing boundaries, establishing/internalizing code of conduct
- Providing opportunities to make positive choices, helpful outcomes
- Service projects in church/community
- Positive role models
- Sharing collective wisdom from prior experience in similar situations
- Searching scriptures and discussing principles/precepts
- Tap/Sap energy by putting to productive use
So it got me wondering whether “interfaith scouting” was as good a fit for these objectives, or whether a specifically/deterministicly “Christian” organization would be a better fit to help address these concerns.
For instance, in an “ecumenical” (interfaith, all faiths) camping program:
- Morality is defined by group consensus not specific scriptures (understandable since not all religions, factions, groups would agree to use one faith’s perspective to make all distinctions – still, would that be a plus or a negative to a Christian Sponsoring Organization?)
- “interfaith” celebrations are promoted to avoid offending any one faith group, but end up being a “no faith” exercise since the resulting mish-mash pulp satisfies no one in particular
- An “all paths equally lead to God” approach can also lead to “I didn’t really answer your question” result.
- May end up encouraging leaders to be silent when they could offer something of value to help the teen grow.
- Could lead to confusion about worshiping nature instead of worshiping the creator of nature.
- Could request the youth to pledge to be reverent while tolerating irreverence from co-members.
- Could request the youth to pledge to do his duty to God, but accept behaviors that contradict his duty to God.
- Encourages peer-to-peer relationship building, but discourages peer-to-peer accountability in spiritual matters of maintaining a call to purity/obedience and instead encourages peer “tolerance/acceptance” of conflicting faith ideals and perspectives.
So given the option to go back in time, would I make different choices? Perhaps. In hindsight, I’ve learned that you need to know your audience if you want to gain their trust and cooperation. If you’re going to help a church fulfill it’s mission to youth development (aka Youth Ministry), then you better be prepared to explain how your curriculum partner dovetails with their beliefs or avoids contradicting their beliefs or you’ll risk losing the organization’s interest or support.
After all, wouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable that a church, built exclusively on the propagation of it’s core faith beliefs, want to perfectly align it’s mission with any potential partner curriculum? And if that potential curriculum isn’t a good fit, shouldn’t it then search for a partner that is a fit?
Perhaps this is why some churches are in the process of re-evaluating their choice of curriculum partners, and searching for something that’s a more perfect fit.
Based on this analysis, I’ve decided to attend the upcoming conference in Nashville that is being sponsored by a coalition of people interested in building/launching a “better fit” program that offers boys a more tailored, youth adventure program.
Giving youth the benefits of outdoor adventure, advancement, leadership development, service work AND meaningful, tailored spiritual development beyond a simple workbook approach could really accelerate the meeting of objectives in a Christian church whether they have a full time youth minister or not.
I hope to report from the conference electronically, and will update this blog site as I learn more about the new program.