Big Names

Rick Warren. John Piper. Francis Chan. Tim Keller. Andy Stanley. Beth Moore. Ann Voskamp.

Chances are that if you’re an evangelical Christian in America, you know at least one of these names. It’s also likely that if you’re in ministry, you feel pressured to read their books, know their strategies, and emulate them in your ministry. At least I do, and I see something similar in youth ministry – the names are just different:

Doug Fields. Josh Griffin. Kara Powell. Mark Oestreicher. Kurt Johnston. Katie Edwards. Walt Mueller.

I want to be clear: I do not have anything against any of these people. I have read many of their books and blogs, and appreciate the work they are doing for the kingdom of God. But I am uncomfortable with what I’m seeing, that we seem to put way too much emphasis on the top names. It’s as if simply knowing who they are equates successful ministry. Is this what youth ministry is all about in 2017? If so, consider me an outsider. I don’t think this is a healthy culture we’ve created, and I want to encourage us to rethink it.

First, we have to remove the aura of celebrity we’ve created. The “big names” in youth ministry that I’ve met have not projected an air of superiority, so why do we create it? I think it’s due in part to the celebrity culture that exists in America, but there’s also something else at work. I think the primary reason that we’re so fixated on the big names and what they’re up to is because we can visibly see their success (or at least, how we define success: big numbers). What we fail to realize is that we are called to faithfulness above numerical growth. And that in most cases, the success we see with the big names came after years of consistent faithfulness.

I came across an incredibly insightful piece of advice regarding success in youth ministry, in a blog post by Cameron Cole. His former pastor told him, “If anyone asks you how your ministry is doing, always reply with this: ‘I’ll tell you in ten years how my ministry is doing right now.’” Wow – if we took that advice to heart, we’d be more focused on Jesus instead of the big names in youth ministry. In turn, that would free us up to appreciate them for what they should be: tools, resources, colleagues. I’m not suggesting a youth ministry culture that dismisses people for having numerical success, but one that encourages all of us to pursue faithfulness and not feel bad about it.

If you’re reading this blog and you’re a devout follower of one of the “big names”, my recommendation is this: ask yourself if they’re more important to your youth ministry than Jesus, and then pursue greater faithfulness. If you’re reading this blog and you have no idea who any of the people above are, I want you to know that you shouldn’t feel like a lower-class youth worker because of that. Maybe in your case, it’s the bigger church down the road that you aspire to emulate. My recommendation would be the same, to ask if they’re more important to your youth ministry than Jesus, and then pursue greater faithfulness. (All of us have to be careful about comparing with the church down the road, too) It’s my hope and prayer that as all of us reevaluate who our big name in youth ministry is, we’ll create a culture of faithfulness in place of a culture of celebrity.

I want to briefly address a related area of uneasiness I have with the current youth ministry culture, an area that I have less compassion for. Over the past few months, I have been trying to find a couple more podcasts to listen to. In my research and listening to the top youth ministry podcasts, I was struck by how frequently they were self-promoting. I listened to several episodes from each of them and heard about several products, curriculum, and programs that would benefit my youth ministry. Without fail, each of these items were being sold by the podcasters or someone in their pocket. This is contributing to the problem, perpetuating a culture where being a faithful youth pastor means you know the right people, buy their stuff, and outsource your teaching. I’m not okay with that! If that’s what youth ministry is all about in 2017, then I don’t want to be a part of it.

I feel like my thoughts in this blog have been rather scatterbrained, which accurately reflects how I’m thinking. So, I’ll try to present them succinctly here. As I look around at the youth ministry culture that exists, I see an emphasis on knowing who the big names are, and in selling products and curriculum. While I appreciate the value in resources, I believe a better culture of youth ministry would focus more on Jesus and being consistently faithful. In the midst of this, I don’t want to stand on the outside yelling through a bullhorn, “All is lost!” Rather, I want to continue in the trenches, working to redeem the culture of our craft.

Will you join me?

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