Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Emerging Generations: I

During my six years of ministry alongside George Mercado, all of the youth leaders who worked with George were introduced to Sonlife Youth Strategies (as it was called then); Sonlife is a ministry that flourished big time in the 1980's, with its focus on developing a discipleship-based approach to youth ministry that was aimed at training youth leaders to train youth to be people of impact in their high schools.

A lot of churches adopted Sonlife's approach, with varying results. It's success or failure seemed to largely depend (surprise, surprise) on the hearts of the leaders who were involved. (Not forgetting that if God doesn't move, then any of our efforts, no matter how well-intentioned and strategized, won't count for squat.)
First off, Sonlife challenged us as youth leaders to think long and hard on what was called a "Description of a Discipled Student" (DDS). Simply put, they were asking us, "If you 'successfully' disciple a high school student, what will he/she look like after being discipled by you? What are the marks of discipleship? How will you know if you're being effective in discipling or not?"

The old saying -- "aim at nothing and that's what you'll hit" -- is still true in our 21st century context. What does a discipled teenager look like, and what is your role (as you work hard to NOT usurp the Holy Spirit's role in their lives) in the journey of spiritual transformation in a youth community?

The first area that Sonlife stressed was the "Atmosphere of Love & Acceptance"; we've often used the term "a safe place to take risks" in more recent ministry settings with teenagers and 20-somethings. 
To summarize: What makes our group a "safe place"? How will people who attend the groups be able to tell?
It starts with us. What we model, becomes "normal" for the group. Youth leadership means risk-taking in the areas of being transparent and vulnerable with the group. If we act like "having the right answers at all times" is the greatest goal in a group setting, that is what our group will learn from us -- act like you're all together even if you're not (you don't want to look unspiritual, do you?).
We are always communicating, even non-verbally. The question is: what are we communicating by our words, actions, and the ethos that we set for our group(s)?

Ongoing checklist:
  • Evaluate our own lives - do we honestly love those God has called us to? Or are we just "chaperones"?

  • Are we "above" the youth, or do we share the same spiritual journey? Do the youth believe that we don't see ourselves as "above" them by the way we talk to and treat them?

  • Evaluate your own ability to communicate love. Key question: do THEY know we love them? How can they tell?

  • Create situations in which love can be expressed. Is love flowing in the group, or not just from leaders or just from group members?
The last item in that list could raise the issue of authenticity in youth ministry -- ie. "create situations" could come across as fake and manipulative. Without going into a long diatribe about it, allow me to suggest that there's a difference between 'manipulation' and 'influence'.
Manipulation is orchestrating events (and attempting to force people) towards a pre-determined destination. Influence, on the other hand, means that we can clearly set what our personal direction is (based on the words of Jesus), but it's an invitation to the youth to respond to; no coercion involved. It's still their decision as to how they will respond.
More to follow...