Welcome to 2019! This year our focus and theme is on “The Body.” This will be woven throughout our studies, blogs, podcast, and more. Without anymore delay, our first blog of 2019…….
The Body of Christ is Larger
Originally from Chapel Hill, NC, Daniel Potter serves as the Minister of Youth at First Baptist Church in Columbus, GA. He earned his M. Div from the Wake Forest University School of Divinity and a BS in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When not doing youth ministry, Daniel enjoys good music, laughter, spending time with his wife Rachel, cheering on his beloved Tar Heels. He also serves as the Podcast Director for YMC.
Those of us who serve churches, especially in the youth and children departments, have a daunting task ahead of us. Our programs serve as the bubble for various barometers of the “success” of our congregations. In other words, if the children and youth programs are growing, then most churches feel like they are headed in a good direction. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon – churches have always been working to draw in young parents and their children for long-term membership. Yet, church attendance is on the decline across the board. Folks are finding other (and hopefully really awesome) ways to spend their time on Sundays and Wednesdays. At church, the sense is that if something isn’t changed now, at this time, to make it happen, then we’re doomed. The pressure rises, then, for those working in those pivotal children and youth ministry positions.
As church attendance has dropped, an interesting phenomenon has been on the rise: roster swapping. Through ecclesial free agency, church members seem to bounce between several congregations lacking sustained ties to a particular congregation. Churches then compete with one another to try and draw in those who might leave and rejoin a new congregation. I can’t help but think of churches as peacocks – fluffing their colorful plumes to lure in the next conquest. It inevitably trickles down into youth ministry, too, as each program tries to be on the cutting edge that captures the eye of unsuspecting adolescents. This creates an extremely problematic environment for the church and especially for youth ministry. The body of Christ is larger than this!
First, the competition for young people creates a dynamic where the youth are treated as a commodity rather than as members of a family. Focus shifts from forming personal relationships that help reveal God’s light to trying to amass as much as possible. The hungry, hungry hippos gape hoping that just a few more youth will drop in to achieve “victory” when all is said and done. The body of Christ is larger than this! The old adage that was often used in evangelism now turns back on Christ’s earthly body: one cannot serve two masters. Thus, the challenge for youth ministers is to stand in the gap between two positions – the spiritual basis of the ministry and the practical requirements of it. On the one hand, healthy youth ministries must focus on relationships first and foremost. If we love our people well, others will want to feel that and to know why we love like that (aka God/Jesus/insert Sunday School answer here)! Further, tending the stories that spring forth from our youth ministries can demonstrate why this new way of “measuring success” is better than simply a tally of names on the roster. It enables a shift of focus from how many were present to how lives are being impacted by the youth ministry. On the other side, each congregation will have a certain metric or expectation for attendance. At its root, this comes from a good place – to ensure good stewardship! As youth ministers, we must understand that metric or baseline, because meeting those requirements enables the depth and breadth of our ministries. It can be really difficult to manage the two, competing positions. Yet, doing so is essential in the hope of helping our youth feel part of a loving church family and not like a storehouse good.
Second, the competition for young people creates an unhealthy dynamic between various churches or youth ministries. Rather than working together to form the global body of Christ, in hopes that those who need to feel God’s love will encounter Christ, rivalry divides this group from that one and alienates those caught somewhere in between. The body of Christ is larger than this! Youth ministries have the important task of helping the younger generations of the Church realize a different, healthier alternative: that we might all as the different parts of Christ’s body work to spread God’s love to the ends of the earth. It is a difficult task because the truth is we each believe we have the best version of Christianity. It’s part conceit (because…duh…we’re right) and part conviction (because we wouldn’t put our faith in something in which we weren’t convicted to believe). And, naturally, there are certain incompatible theologies that don’t make direct partnership between youth ministries practical. Sometimes, we’ve got to love as Christ loves by giving or taking space. But, the concept of recognizing the many ways the image of God was made flesh must become more than a mantra for inter-youth group relationships. In other instances, however, partnership between congregations enables growth of individuals and of the groups involved. Those youth who don’t quite fit in might find new, deeper connection. Those youth who typically fit in might gain perspective on compromise and compassion. Imagine the good that could come if, inside or outside the church, God’s people spent less time or energy pointing out difference and more time or energy celebrating the image of God in each one. Shouldn’t our churches – shouldn’t our youth groups – be the ones leading this charge?
The body of Christ is larger than youth being a means to self-satisfaction. The body of Christ is larger than religious rivalry. It is infinitely more kind, generous, loving, and hopeful than those two dynamics might have us believe. My hope is that we can have the courage to teach this to our youth, planting mustard seeds of some new, better body of Christ that will spring forth in God’s good time.