What Lurks Behind Those Fish, Toilet Paper, and Pantyhose Games?
By Kara Eckmann Powell Posted on October 08 2009
Think back to the last skit, crowdbreaker, or game you planned for your junior high meeting. Which of the following best describes your motivation for spending all that time working on it?
A. You wanted your students to like you and think you’re hip (especially since you’re not so sure anymore).
B. You wanted to fill time so you wouldn’t have to lecture on Romans 7 for 75 minutes to squirming seventh graders.
C. You wanted to give your intern something to work on instead of loitering in your office.
D. You wanted to get rid of that rotting fruit you found in the junior high storage closet.
E. Other: ________________________.
Although options A, B, C, and D are plausible, my answer during my initial years in junior high ministry was usually "other"—I just didn’t know exactly what that "other" reason was. Like most new junior high workers, I was too busy doing what I was doing to ask why I was doing it.
Later I stumbled on an "other" motivation that seemed right: I planned fun programs so students would enjoy themselves and want to come back to church. Motivated by a selfless love for students and an understandable desire for job security, most junior high youth workers answer similarly. It’s a good answer, and it’s partly correct.
But only partly.
In my ongoing desire to become a practical theologian—which, by the way, is not an oxymoron, but rather someone who connects God with every aspect of life—I’ve concluded that behind every fish, toilet paper, and pantyhose game lurks something grander than making students want to come back next Sunday. It’s a simple principle that stops me in my tracks, and at the same time, compels me to try harder. It’s summarized in the following equation:
A junior higher’s experience at church = his/her picture of God.
Admittedly this equation is a bit reductionistic. Junior highers are flooded with other subtle and not-so-subtle snapshots of God while they’re not at church: A God who’s distant and uninvolved, a God who’s involved but cruel, a God who’s simultaneously distant and involved because God is whoever and whatever they imagine God to be. Given the pervasiveness of these images, offering students pictures of a good and caring God can feel a bit like handing them an umbrella as protection against a tidal wave.
That is, if you overlook the importance of the learning environment.
Take a moment and think like a 12-year-old. Remember your grandmother’s house, the house that held all the gum and chocolate chip ice cream you could want (with cable TV thrown in, too)? As a young teen, you likely formed an impression of Grandma based on the surroundings in which you spent time with her. Although adults have the cognitive skills to distinguish between Grandma and the ambience of her home, junior highers aren’t quite there yet. They have one foot firmly planted in the concrete world of the here and now while the other foot barely touches the ground of abstract thought. This new land of logic that allows them to separate who Grandma is from her cable TV is unfamiliar territory for all but a few of your junior highers—generally the older eighth graders.
So, for the vast majority of junior highers, their experiences in God’s "house" may be the loudest message they get about the Master of that house.
Your crowdbreaker may say more about the adventure of following God than even your best-planned talk. The way students are greeted when they walk into your room will probably help them understand God’s love more than memorizing 1 Corinthians 13.
This is called environmental ministry, meaning the messages students receive solely through their experiences at church. Although youth workers who point to incarnational or relational ministry as the pinnacle of their strategy are absolutely right, what few of them realize is that because of young adolescents’ position on the developmental continuum, environmental ministry follows as a close second.
Once you understand the value of environmental ministry, you and your leadership team will probably want to wrestle with and pin down answers to the following three questions:
1. What pictures of God are we offering our junior highers through our programs?
Junior high youth workers who sidestep the axiomatic truth of environmental ministry often leave their students wondering why the God they’ve learned about in church doesn’t match the God they see and feel in their junior high ministries.
In other words:
The God they’ve learned about takes time for them, yet their junior high pastor is often too busy setting up a camp registration table to look up as they enter the junior high room.
They’re told about a God who protects them, and yet they’re involved in dangerous games involving blindfolds, baseballs, and bananas.
- They learn about a God who desires relationships with them, but then they see the adult leadership team spending more time at events talking with each other than with students.
These aren’t hypothetical examples but real-life confessions of times when students’ experiences in our ministry clashed with what we tried to teach them in our curriculum.
2. What attributes of God do we want students to experience, and how can we program accordingly?
Ironically, since one of God’s attributes is his infiniteness, there’s no way every meeting will allow your junior highers to experience all of his attributes. Some of these characteristics are rather obvious (his love, grace, and power); but the fun begins as you and your team discover other, more subtle characteristics of God that your students can experience—especially in the midst of the wildest of programs.
This happened to our team last Sunday as we were working on a pretty offbeat drama that evolved into a cross between the cartoon "Superheroes and Samson," climaxing with the live, onstage shaving of two of our staff guys’ heads (I told you it was offbeat). The original script—written by one of our quirky small-group leaders—included the well-known, whiny voice of Eric Cartman from "South Park" who proclaims, "I’m going home!" But our leadership team paused in the middle of our quick rehearsal and agreed that no laugh was worth even the shadow of an endorsement of these cartoon icons of youth culture.
Although we want junior highers to embrace the Emmanuel God who can be their closest friend, we also want them to stand (or maybe even kneel) in amazement at the transcendent God who is wholly Other. Whether it’s God’s holiness or sense of humor or creativity, if you’re using the tool of environmental ministry, your every gathering can reflect the Alpha and Omega from start to finish.
3. How can we help our students and leaders make the connection between what they experience in our ministry and the corresponding attributes of God?
As junior high youth workers, we don’t always do a very good job helping students and leaders understand that we have innovative and fun programs because we know a creative and laughing God.
At one gathering of several hundred junior highers, the leader who introduced me explained to the pseudohyper students, "Now, remember, we’re here to worship God. We’re not here to have fun."
Maybe you’re not that offensive, but when was the last time you began an outreach night by casually foreshadowing, "God is a total blast, and hopefully you’ll get a taste of that tonight"? When did you last remind your students that the reason you don’t want them sticking their friends out the church bus windows is because God cares about them and wants to protect them?
You also need to remind your adult leaders of the inexpressible influence they have on students. When they bring donuts to their Sunday school small group, it means more than getting students hyped on sugar—it means giving them a warm and appealing view of God. When your adult leaders arrive at church an hour early to perfect the nuances of the drama sketch, they’re ultimately showing students how much God cares about them. So when you catch your leaders creating just the right environment, be sure to thank them for it!
You may be asking yourself, "Even if I don’t understand this environmental ministry stuff, as long as students are hearing about God and coming back to church, aren’t I doing the right thing?" On the surface, maybe so. But soon any other attraction for your meetings—whether your adrenaline or your affection for inner tubes—will wither away. Yet when you realize that the 90 minutes you have with them isn’t just for fun and games or merely a chance for them to hear about the Bible, but an opportunity for them to encounter God from the moment they get dropped off in your parking lot, your perspective changes. You evaluate your ministry differently.
The Java Java Can Can game that runs way too long and eats into your worship music isn’t such a catastrophe anymore. Rummaging through your supply closet for that yellow toilet paper you need for your crowdbreaker stops being a mundane, gray chore. Instead, that yellow toilet paper takes on life as a key frame in your ongoing documentary of the amazingly creative God who’s ready to show junior highers a more wild life than they can imagine.