There’s a man who calls himself a doctor, but all he ever does is tell his patients to exercise a little more and eat a little healthier. He has memorable phrases like “More salads than donuts!” that he makes into bumper stickers and t-shirts. No matter what people come to him with, his advice is always the same. He might word it differently, but it’s always “exercise more” and “make better choices with your diet.” He has no medical training save for the fact that he’s first aid certified.
You probably think that this is absurd, but consider this: If this man really existed, he would actually help many of the people that came to him! Those two pieces of advice would solve a lot of the medical issues in our world. In fact, it’s statistically possible that this fake doctor would actually help a large majority of his patients! Those patients would gladly sport the stickers and t-shirts. Most of the references he would get would be positive. Through word of mouth, people would suggest him to their friends. His practice would grow.
You’re shaking your head, and rightly so, because of the obvious fallout. What happens when something really bad happens? When a limb is severed? When it’s cancer? What about medication? Of course, you’re right. The man isn’t a doctor. He’s a fake.
Have we become the fake doctor?
So what about taking this idea and applying it to youth ministry? Do you ever feel like we in youth ministry could give the same few pieces of advice over and over? I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is a real issue. If we’re not careful we’re going to end up boiling youth ministry down to a few small pragmatic steps and then just repackage them to make them fresh. This year’s summer camp will be the same as last year, but we’ll change the theme and update the names of the talks. Genius! (Fail.)
And we help most of the people that come through our doors! And they love the sayings and the bumper stickers and the t-shirts!
Have we become the fake doctor?
I’m not trying to be harsh. I’m simply saying this – we, like doctors, are in the business of healing. And the average healing is actually rather simple. Read your Bible. Pray more. Help others. Etc. But what happens when the formula doesn’t work? What about the kid that is ready to take his life? Do you know how to minister to someone that finds youth group to be lame?
Youth ministry can be faked. This is one of its greatest dangers.
Education and Professionalism in Youth Ministry
You plan a fun game, get a kid to play a couple songs on guitar, do a lesson that mentions one of the pieces of advice, and then send them home. Repeat next week. The kids that love it will come back over and over and bring all their friends. The kids that don’t get it will fall away but you’ll focus on the ones that stayed. And most of the time, the church will be happy with you as long as the numbers are up.
At some point, we will run into the things that can’t be taken care of simply. We will come face to face with the cancer of sin. We will confront real darkness. Real people with real hurt will come to us for answers and comfort.
I’m not advocating that we all need to be seminary trained or get a master’s degree in psychology. Just like any doctor, we all have specialties and if someone comes to us with a problem outside of our field, we refer them to someone that is equipped to help them. But I’m asking you to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself if you have anything MORE than just the few good pieces of advice. Or do you need to refer every problem that comes your way to someone else? I’ve meet many people in youth ministry that are actually dismissive of post-college training. How is that attitude helpful?
And please don’t misunderstand – I’m not asking anyone to get OUT of youth ministry. I’m asking that we make sure our ministry is more than just a fun club meeting that includes a Biblical motivational speech. We should have a passion for knowing God’s Word better every day. We should have a passion for understanding adolescent development and the culture in which our students live in. We should always be challenging ourselves. We need to be growing spiritually and professionally.
For the sake of the Church, for youth ministry as a profession and for the students we serve, we cannot allow ourselves to fake it.
JONATHAN HOBBS is the Director of Youth Ministries at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, Pennsylvania. He has worked in youth ministry for almost 20 years, including churches in New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. He has spoken and/or led worship for multiple camps, retreats, and events around the country and has written multiple articles for blogs, newspapers, and magazines. He also co-wrote/edited a book called “Don’t Do This” which is full of stories about failures in youth ministry. (Something he knows a lot about). He is the founder of J3 Youth Ministry (WWW.J3YOUTHMINISTRY.COM) and is one of the hosts of the J3 Youth Ministry Podcast. He took karate in high school because he thought it would help make him cool. He was wrong. Jonathan and his wife, Carolyn, have two beautiful daughters, Kaylin and Julia. He loves golf, can juggle two balls skillfully and does a halfway decent impression of Kermit the Frog. He’s also a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @JONHOBBSTWEETS.