Most street workers and many youth ministers come from what they lead. They’ve experienced the power of a leader’s interest and concern for their lives. They’ve used their own and other leaders as models. They’ve imitated what’s been successful, and creative innovation produces their own models of ministry.
I never received any training or education for youth ministry; I just grew into it. Youth ministry seems to draw independent types, and we can be subtly proud of our specialization. Numbers and applause can keep us going, along with the conviction that we are about a crucial and neglected need in society and the church.
As I look back on my early years, I see myself all alone in a small town and very small youth group. Growing it from three to thirteen (one night), and that’s all the teenagers we could count in that rural community left me satisfied. Then, a few years later, working with a dynamic partner and a wonderful group of volunteers we watched numbers at our “Saturday Night Teenagers” top a hundred, then two hundred, and cap off one time at three hundred exciting and diverse young people.
Both those groups had some lasting effects, but now I see our work as rather amateurish. Here’s what I mean. It was built somewhat around the cult of energetic leaders. It counted success in numbers. It was all about how these teenagers were doing (with themselves, others and God) in the here and now-as if there was no life after high school.
There must also have been some deep problems underneath the surface of some of these young lives. We were bringing black and white students together, but were not dealing with real issues of identity or reconciliation. We were presenting the wonderful life and works of Jesus Christ and following up commitments with study time, but our work was not holistic-didn’t deal with all aspects of these young lives. We could have done much more if we knew more-and we didn’t.
All this is what I mean by amateurish rather than professional-in a strong, positive sense. Professional youth work studies what’s going on underneath the façade and superficial humor and jostling. It sees the lives of youth physically, emotionally, socially, academically, economically and spiritually. It deals with all their needs. It doesn’t just create attractive programs, but enlists youth in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of what’s going on. It doesn’t operate in a teenage cocoon, but considers the systems that surround these students: families, schools and sports, streets or neighborhood, media, peers, and maybe jobs, hobbies, romance, clubs and church.
Youth leaders can see the shortcomings of youth work that lacks depth and breadth as they get older. When you’re immersed in the workt’s hard to realize there’s more to learn and that such learning only really works within a supportive community.
Larry Acosta was a very successful youth leader. Soon, he became director of what grew to be a national organization. Their annual conferences brought crowds in from around the country. Youth workers of all kinds were tremendously inspired, but that inspiration could only last so long. In that context Larry got the vision of bringing leaders together in what he called “Learning Communities.” Groups that would meet together, travel and camp together, read books together, and hold one another accountable for measureable growth.
You’re probably expected to be something of an outreach worker, an event-planner, a social worker, a recreation and perhaps camp director, a teacher, and maybe a pastor. There are master degrees for each of your responsibilities.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
As you think of youth workers across the country, as you look deep in yourself and think of your future, what kind of learning and growth would you like to see in others and yourself?
What would you like to see provided, and how could we help you reach your goals? [Email link for immediate response or questions]
Do you think the contrast between amateurish and mature or professional youth work made here is worth discussing?
What do you think is right about this article, and where do you think it misses reality or important issues? What would you like to add?
If you, or your young sister or child, needed surgery, you’d want to know that the surgeon had a good education and training. We’re talking about a body, but you’re dealing with young people’s souls.
We expect school teachers to be exceptionally knowledgeable about their subject, about young learners and the teaching process because they’re growing the minds of a rising generation. Is your profession any less crucial?
Doctors and lawyers have their professional associations, teachers have their unions, don’t we in youth ministry need to encourage each other to learn and grow?