It was about 7:30 a.m. in the busy L’Enfant Plaza subway station. There among the crowd, a young man in jeans and a baseball cap was playing the violin. His case collected the occasional dollar, tossed in by a rushing passer-by. He played for 43 minutes. The Washington Post reported that 1,097 people passed by, six stopped to listen, and $52.17 was tossed into the case – just another busker in a subway station.
No one realized that the young man was playing a 300-year-old Stradivarius, valued at 3.5 million dollars, or that he was playing one of the most difficult pieces ever written for violin (Chaconne by Bach). With the exception of one woman, who tossed him $20, no one recognized that the young man was Joshua Bell, a world-renowned violinist. It was an experiment to see if people would recognize a musical feast prepared by a world-class artist. The Washington Post called the subway concert, “art without a frame.”
What would an experiment in youth ministry without a frame look like? Youth ministry is normally framed in pronouncements like, “if you build it they will come,” or “bigger is better.” I once sat in on a parents’ meeting where the senior pastor told the room that the youth ministry philosophy of that church was “go big or go home.” Sometimes, it is framed by what we experienced as youth, or the latest trend. Youth ministry done that way can be frustrating for volunteers and troubling for a congregation.
In some ways, that musical experiment in the subway was about recognizing what’s good in front of us and stopping long enough to take it in. Youth ministry is much the same.
Recognizing what’s in front of us
Over a decade ago, the work of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project provided youth workers and congregations with a simple yet profound practice to recognize the young people in front of them. When encountering young people, they said, see them, hear them, be moved by them, show kindness, and delight in them. Conversely, when young people encounter us, be seen, be heard, let them be moved, receive their kindness, and let them delight in you. When adults in any congregation engage young people like that, something more than mere youth ministry happens.
Seeing that it is good
What we think about youth determines how we experience young people. Recently, I asked a teacher how the year was and he said, “If I didn’t have students, teaching would be great.” Are youth seen as something to be tolerated? Or do we see them as something good? The same is true about youth ministry: what we think about youth ministry determines how youth and the congregation experience it. We need to stop seeing young people as merely objects of ministry and instead empower them as agents of ministry.
Bonheoffer argued that it’s a mistake to set aside youth as some kind of privileged consumer of youth ministry alternatives. Rather, he said, youth ministry ought to be ministry that moves youth into the centre of community life, rather than separate from it. Instead of planning a full calendar of social events for youth, hoping that it keeps them in the church, we should think a little more about engaging them at various levels of church life. It is important to listen to their ideas, be experiential with faith formation, and involve them in ministry of al kinds.
William Willimon, Professor of Ministry at Duke University, writes, “Some of the greatest moments in youth ministry happen when you grab somebody by the collar and say, ‘Hey, kid, come over here. You, try elementary school teaching. You, try nursing. You…’ In college, I meet so many who are just desperate for an adult to say, ‘You know what you are good at?’ ‘You know what we could use from you?’”
Stopping long enough to take it in
One of the leading strategies in youth ministry has been the importance of small groups. Whether as a means to community or for faith formation, the move to small groups has been ubiquitous. The good news in this is that having four, five, or nine youth is enough for youth ministry to happen. Instead of relying on resources designed for larger groups, look into the abundance of resources developed specifically for small group ministry. These resources are often designed to be experiential and can be easily adapted as youth group materials.
One of the principles of small group theory is to use the size of the group as a means to determine where the group meets. So experiment. Meet the five high schoolers at their favourite coffee shop or restaurant rather than the church basement. Good youth ministry is a blend of small group and large group activities, so take advantage of denominational youth events, city-wide events, and maybe even plan an event or two with another church to provide a larger feel. In doing this, youth just might stop long enough to take it in.
Youth ministry without a frame is about experimenting with what we have and knowing that it is more art and craft than it is science or marketing. It is more relationship than technology. It is about knowing that youth don’t simply need to be entertained by the church, but they need to be connected in faith community. Youth ministry without a frame is about providing spaces for young people to encounter Christ who, as Andy Root of Luther Seminary notes, “meets them not with a call into a fashion but with an invitation to follow.”