“If you don’t read your Bible, you suck.” Those were my words of advice to the underclassmen in the Youth and Family Studies Department at Nyack College in the fall of 2012. Dr. Ron Belsterling had asked a few of the upperclassmen to come to his Introduction to Youth Ministry class and speak to the new students. We were there to talk about our upcoming department retreat and about the department in general, offering our tips and advice.
Most of the other students talked about the importance of studying hard and doing all the reading, or about getting connected to other students in the program. I wanted to stress the importance of spending time in prayer and reading God’s Word, that we should not go into youth ministry if we were not serious about our own walk with the Lord. Part of this came from my observation that the number of students in our department dropped significantly by the time they graduated. Many switched majors, because our department was rigorous, intended to weed out those who were going into youth ministry because it would be fun or for another similar reason. I wanted to express the seriousness of our department to these students who were just starting out.
I also wanted to stress the importance of being serious about our own faith because that’s what Ron had stressed repeatedly. He told us over and over that it was crucial for us to serve teenagers out of the excess of our own soul. That we could not minister from a dry well. I was Ron’s assistant that year, and continue to soak up wisdom from him even today. My desire to see youth ministry done with excellence is due in large part to Ron and his emphasis on it. While Ron agreed with the underlying sentiment, he did attempt to help me be more tactful. As I said those words, “If you don’t read your Bible, you suck,” I realized how harsh they were and considered if I needed to phrase it some other way.
But I stood by my words that day. And as I’ve had time to consider them over the past 5 years, I stand by them today, for two main reasons.
1. There is no way that we can do youth ministry well, let alone with excellence, if we are not spending time in God’s Word.
The primary way that our God has communicated to us is through the Bible. God’s Word has to be central to what we do in youth ministry, and how can we teach our teenagers the truth of God’s Word if we aren’t spending time in it ourselves? (Maybe that’s why youth ministry has a cottage industry of no-prep curriculum…) Youth workers who are not spending time in personal Bible study and prayer suck, to put it bluntly. If we’re not doing that, what are we doing? What do we think is more important? The teenagers that we have the privilege of serving need us to be serving them out of a deep relationship with Jesus. We’re going to be held responsible for what we teach, so it’s kind of a big deal.
Over the past month, I’ve been reflecting a lot on this topic, and on that day in 2012 when I offered my “advice”. During that time, I’ve been incredibly encouraged to see the focus Walt Mueller has placed on this topic as well in recent blogs and podcasts You can find those posts here and here. If we want to do youth ministry with excellence, that begins with ourselves. That begins with a deep well of Biblical truth from personal study. I see a handful of people in youth ministry emphasizing this and trying to help us refocus on what’s most important, and that’s great to see. However, I also stand by my words because they ring true…
2. We do suck, because we fail to read our Bible, and that’s part of the point.
The second reason that I stand by my words has developed over time, as I’ve matured. While I do think that youth workers who don’t read their Bible suck, and are shortchanging their ministry, I have to be the first to admit and recognize that I fit that description. I fall short and have times where I am not reading my Bible, and that’s truly wrong. I think this is part of the point, though, that we cannot do all that we need to do. We will always fall short and find ourselves in need of God’s grace. When Paul discusses the law in Romans, he points out that the purpose of the law was to demonstrate that no one could uphold it. It was meant to point people to their need for Jesus. I think our failure to study God’s Word and to serve out of that is one more reason to run to God’s open arms and throw ourselves at his feet.
You want to know the beautiful thing about this? When we recognize our failure and receive God’s grace, we’re doing part of what we need to be doing. The study that we have to do is not simply a dispassionate analysis of God’s Word, like it’s an English assignment. Rather, it has to be in the context of our relationship with Jesus. We do not read our Bibles out of obligation or duty, but out of love for Jesus and love for the teenagers we work with. We read our Bibles because we want to know more about the God who loves us and died for us. We read our Bibles because we want to be more like him and we want to point others towards him more and more.
I tell the teens in my youth group that when we find ourselves in a rut, where we haven’t been spending time in God’s Word, that we shouldn’t just give up. Instead, we should begin again. And again. And again. God’s grace is big enough to cover our failures. Youth pastors, youth workers, volunteers, parents, whoever is reading, hear this: we have to read our Bibles. And when we aren’t, we have to receive God’s grace and begin again. And again. And again. Do we actually believe that “the word of God is living and active”1? Then let’s act like it!
What does this have to do with this blog?
This is the first post on this blog because it reveals my heart to see youth ministry done with excellence, and because it demonstrates the reason behind the title of the blog. I’ve titled this blog Uncomfortable Youth Ministry for two reasons. First, I find myself uncomfortable with a lot of what I see in the general culture of youth ministry. I’ll address that a lot more in future blogs (while you can see one area I mentioned above). Second, some of the things I discuss in this blog and the way I say them may make you uncomfortable. (like the title of this blog) I’m not going to say anything for shock value, but I would ask you to examine yourself if you’re uncomfortable. Is it because I’ve phrased something the wrong way, or is it because it would require a change from the comfortable, from the status quo? As I mention on the home page, I am not purporting to be an expert dishing out my knowledge, but rather someone calling all of us to do youth ministry with excellence. I would be honored if you would join me in that. I want to serve my God and my teens with excellence – don’t you?
1. Hebrews 4:12a (ESV)