Youth Ministry That Matters (July-Aug 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Nate Barton
July – August, 2010

82 - What Really MattersI write from Millvale, one of the poorest neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati, where my fellow teens and I are spending a week with our youth group. With trash littering the streets and boards shuttering the windows, Millvale is seemingly unnoticed by the rest of the world. Crime is rampant. It’s a place that requires caution in daylight but can turn dicey at nightfall. It’s a place where drug deals are made loudly and obviously in the middle of the street and where used syringes are found abandoned on the ground. The local elementary school caters free lunches to all its students because not one of them could afford it on their own. On the side of the road, flowers mark where a thirteen-year old boy was shot and killed as he tried to pay his mom’s hospital bills by selling drugs. His name was Mark. On the cracked pavement of Dreman Street, I see glass and used condoms strewn in the crabgrass.

I walk farther down Dreman and take a right on Borden Street, where I see a crew of sweaty teenagers on forty-foot ladders painting a house in the middle of Millvale. With the heat index no lower than 103 degrees, teens are sweating and panting as they make quick swipes of white paint on an old, wooden house. The teens will paint for up to nine hours per day. This house is just one of three houses the group of about forty teens will paint in the coming days. Flashing smiles beam out from sun-burnt faces.

Parents out there just dropped whatever they were holding. Perhaps a few of the unlucky ones just spat out their coffee, while still more took off their glasses for a quick spot check. Teenagers working? And loving it? What happened to the stereotypical uninterested, lazy, gum-smacking teens that cringe at washing the dishes- much less cleaning and painting a house?

Let’s clear up some of the smoke. Today’s generation of youth in America faces a unique set of difficulties unlike generations before it. They are tempted from all sides by the forces of the world. Largely because the media has a colossal impact on how today’s youth function, society today has a way of taking innocent children and spitting them out years later with ruinous issues such as anorexia, pornography addiction, cutting, depression, substance abuse – the list goes on and on. I have personally witnessed this process take its toll on countless peers and friends over the past few years. Teens have an innate desire to seek authentic relationships and Joy. Most of the issues above result from seeking relationships and Joy in all the wrong places. Teens are not lazy, they are not stupid, they are not useless, and contrary to common belief, they are not uninterested. Perhaps they value their “cool card” a little too much, but if youth ministry is presented the right way, teens will begin to peel away barriers, and their true ideals will begin to shine through. They are high energy, they are ready for authentic relationships, they yearn to try new things, and they seek the Joy that only God can provide.

If you were to remember only one thing from this article, here it is. This is why a service minded Youth Ministry is so important. If youth group is no more than a social club, a check off the ‘ol “I’m a Christian List,” or an institution where old people talk at you about why you should do good, then teens will use youth group for what its worth as a social gathering and look elsewhere for what they really want. And that process doesn’t bode well for teens, or anybody else for that matter.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Every generation needs a revolution.” Teens want to be a part of something new- something exciting. This is evident in their choice in music, their choices in clothes, and their willingness to dive headfirst into whatever new experience they may encounter. But how is this applicable for teens within the church? To be completely honest, the average church service (with all of its positives) does not provide myself, or the average teenager with everything we need to grow into a developed contributor of the church body. For the vast majority of junior high and high schoolers, church is just a building where people come to talk- not to live with purpose or to accomplish anything. Chances are, the amount teens participate reflects the fact that they are simply along for the ride when their parents bring them to church. Perhaps unknowingly, from the time we are children, we are taught a philosophy of ‘look, but don’t touch, or ‘ leave the difficult things up to the grown ups to figure out’. But when it gets to the point where teens are gaining maturity (or lack thereof devoid of direction) and have the ability to contribute to the church, many teens don’t know where to look. Sometimes, we are given ‘teen appropriate’ tasks that tend towards helping the ‘grown-ups’ do their jobs better such as moving chairs, babysitting, or passing out bulletins. Along the way, teens grow restless and bored at the fact that the passionate, risky, change-bringing ministry of Jesus that is found in Scripture has often been watered down to being helpful to people in suits once a week. Perhaps this diluted outlook on ministry is partly what wards off hopeful teens in the first place.

Teens have different needs than the rest of the church body. They need a community where they can share what matters to them and gain understanding from people who went through similar situations. They need a community where their ideas are respected like every other church member. They need a community that is reliable, but risky; relevant, but godly; relational, but personal; structured, but impulsive. They need a path. And they need a revolution. As Paul wrote to Timothy,

“Don’t let anyone look down on

you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:12, NIV).

Timothy was a true minister – as are the forty teens that are painting houses in downtown Cincinnati. Factors such as age, experience, or even maturity are not limitations in the kingdom of God. The Rochester Church of Christ youth group, of which I am a part, has visited Millvale for five years now. Teens who were in the 7th grade on the very first trip are now entering their senior year. Guided by our distinctly service focused youth minister, Jason Steckel, we have teamed up with the existing intercity mission led by Pat and Carla Pugh. We have hosted several completely teen-run VBS’s, we have picked up trash in the community, we have fed people, we have time and time again loved on the children in the local community center, and this week we are currently painting three houses. I have personally witnessed people that I have known since elementary school step up to become leaders and true men and women of God. I have seen a collaboration of a wide range of talents intertwine to front challenges that few thought teens could handle. I have witnessed creativity, enthusiasm, and passion. I have watched teens peel away emotions they never knew they had. I have seen their worldviews widened, their opinions shifted, and their beliefs challenged. I am almost positive that at least one or two of the members of my youth group will return to Millvale as adults in full-time ministry.

In the past few years I have been a part of Mission Cincinnati, I have felt my initial opinions of Millvale – an invisible neighborhood devoid of hope, change tremendously as I met people with names like Joy, and Happy, and Christmas, people that seem to shine in even the darkest places. My definitions of hope, of life, of wealth, and of ministry have been changed. I have been impacted far more than we have impacted Millvale. Youth ministry, as I have experienced it, is not a miniature version of real ministry. It changes lives and prepares God’s people for what is to come. The fact that it is centered on service comes with the trade. Pat Pugh, a minister of the church in Millvale, is an inspiration and my favorite preacher to date. “Jesus did not die to start a religion,” Pugh said. “He came to create a relationship. And he came to start a revolution.”

New Wineskins

Nate BartonNate Barton, at 17, is a few years short of the “twenty-

somethings” whose writings have been featured in this issue. Nate is an eleventh-grader at Rochester High School in Rochester, Michigan and a member of the

Rochester Church of Christ. He has an interest in missions, both in the United States and overseas.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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