Products with substance must trump flash or simplicity, youth panelists say

FORT WORTH–WisdomWorks founder Mark Matlock asked one of the largest Christian youth ministry publishers if the proliferation of products might actually be harming the ministry they seek to help.

Recalling the conversation before the recent Youth Ministry Forum held at Southwestern Seminary, the man told Matlock, “We sell what they buy and they buy what we sell.”

Another panelist at the forum, Jeff Pratt of LifeWay Christian Resources, agreed, stating, “It’s a huge market that’s been created by our student ministry culture.”

Matlock told the group of youth leaders who gathered to determine a biblical model of youth ministry:
“I’m not the kind of guy who likes to hold up a box and say, ‘For $99 I’ll solve this problem I’ve just made you aware of.’ But more often than not youth pastors come to you and say, ‘Hey, I want the box.’
It’s frustrating because you’re saying, ‘I’m not trying to think for you. I’m not trying to make this easier for you, just make your job more efficient.’ But it’s hard because people come to you and say they want the box.”

In his new role of developing student ministry products at LifeWay, Pratt described the struggle of responding to customer satisfaction surveys from people who want material with great quality that is both simple and deep.

“I want to put into the hands of a teacher or student pastor biblically sound material that’s going to teach solid, biblical principles,” Pratt remarked. “How simple can we make a piece of curriculum that we’re not going to expect teachers to be able to teach?” he asked.

While youth ministers chase after a curriculum to solve one problem or another, Pratt said he believes a solution lies in first training teachers to teach.

“There’s a biblical mandate, a spiritual gift of teaching that helps that process. There has to be responsibility for those people who are teaching.”

Unfortunately, Pratt said, “We want it easier, faster, and better in the box so that all I have to do is spend 15 minutes on Saturday looking at something and then go and steward a group of students. It just doesn’t happen.”

Pratt assured youth ministers that LifeWay’s leaders are creating sound expository material to present biblical principles to teenagers. He spoke of a strategy described on the LifeWay website whereby tools can be customized for use by volunteers, bivocational ministers or full-time student pastors.

“We provide you with good, sound, biblical teaching with a balanced development through a six-year plan.”

He cautioned, however, that youth leaders must give attention to training their volunteers to teach a curriculum that is deeper in content and expository in nature.

Eric Bancroft of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., also spoke of the frequency of calls to his church asking for curriculum advice.

“They just want to download the curriculum, use it and teach it.”

While saying he wished he could be more encouraging, Bancroft doubted most inquirers are enthused by his response.

“I tell them we start with the Bible and train our leaders how to read a passage, observe it, interpret it and apply it. We write lessons off of that and then we discuss it.”

Bancroft said he wants teenagers to see who they are in relation to God and recognize “his amazing gift of the Bible” instead of praising some “amazing author,” then asking, ‘When can I get the next download?'”

In the quest for something easy to teach, panelists agreed that youth ministers have a longstanding reputation for depending on entertainment to attract and engage youth.

Richard Ross of Southwestern Seminary said Southwestern’s library includes a full set of the original Youth Specialties “Ideas” books on which youth leaders of his generation depended for activities like “peanut butter in the armpit” or “lift up your shirt and draw a face.”

“What every one of us did every week was flip through those books to find some craziness. I can’t believe we hooked a battery to a chair to shock kids on Wednesday night,” the Christian education professor said.

He said he looks forward to a day when local churches recover the biblical priority of equipping parents to disciple their youths using the Bible as the curriculum.

“We’re going to see people looking back to 2006 the very same way we’re looking back to peanut butter in the armpits. People will say, ‘You don’t mean parents just taxied the kids up to church and that was it?

You don’t mean everything was event driven? I believe there will be such substantial change that we will not believe we let it get to this point.”

Matlock added: “I’ve heard it said that kids don’t want to listen to a lecture for a long time, but they will and do. Youth leaders assume they only want fun, but the math teacher doesn’t do that or you’d never learn about mathematics. We try to make it too ‘Macintosh’ for them so that all you’ve got to do is click on something and get this great goody. We’ve got to get back to the DOS prompt, the command–that’s where the power is.”

“We underchallenge our teenagers. If they can learn calculus, they can sure learn theology,” said Johnny Derouen, associate professor of youth ministry at Southwestern.

When training volunteers to use a curriculum, Pratt reminds them, “You’re not the teacher. The Holy Spirit is the teacher. Are you comfortable with not having all the answers?”

Bancroft believes ministers often are looking for someone else to do the work. “We’re supposed to be known in our calling as pastors for how we handle the Word.” He turned to Nehemiah as an example of revival. “They brought the book. So bring the book and God shows up–guaranteed.”

He warned youth ministers to steer clear of “mysticism, emotionalism and experientialism,” promising God will show up when the living Word is the curriculum.

Bubba Thurman of Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall said he believes misplaced expectations drive some of the demand for pre-packaged solutions.

“Whatever is driving the box sales is what we measure,” he said.

Noting that youth ministers are often judged by pastors or other supervisors based on the number of youths in attendance and baptismal statistics, Thurman said a few bad evaluations cause some to start looking for a box that brings in 50 more kids.

During that closed-door meeting the youth minister may explain, “‘We’re working harder on teaching theology and doctrine,'” but the pastor is more concerned that the numbers get back up, he said.

Sometimes the church calls someone in from outside who gets the numbers up, added Voddie Baucham, pastor of Houston-area Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring. “Never mind that he completely pollutes the gospel and spiritually molests the young people to get them down the aisle. But he gets the numbers up.”

Pratt agreed, referring to churches that “pay big dollars” to go to certain camps “because we can go home and report those dramatic results.” He warned against measuring success by “hankies and tears.”

Bancroft reminded, “Emotions are a gift from God … but they do not determine the truth. They’re a response to truth so they can be wrong often.”

While one student may respond to a song with goose bumps, another remains quiet, seeking to reflect on what he understood to be an amazing truth, Bancroft said. “The experience to be validated has to be connected to the source–the truth of Scripture.”

“Teenagers are familiar with the altar call and commitment services, but do they understand the gravitas of the gospel, the seriousness of what we’re calling them to respond to,” Bancroft said. “Are they being asked to count the cost or make another decision?”

He urged those responsible for ministering to students to be faithful the theology of the gospel, describing a message that includes the righteousness of God, the universal and comprehensive nature of sin, the wrath of God culminated in hell, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ and the resurrection as a declaration of God the Father’s acceptance of payment.

Thurman spoke of developing a list of core competencies students will acquire by the time they move out of the youth ministry.
“Most youth ministries fail because they have no comprehensive plan for what they’re trying to accomplish. If I don’t know where I’m trying to take them, what value is it?” he asked.

“One of the most humbling experiences of my life was doing a survey,” he said, recalling one student defining a spiritual gift as the things received at Christmas. “I thought I was doing pretty good, but now I realize my need for God to do something really big. I’m not even close to giving them what they need.”

Derouen of Southwestern Seminary agreed that few churches have a plan for discipleship.

“What should our students know when they graduate? How can workers and youth ministers step alongside parents and help them learn?” he asked.
Challenge teenagers to develop spiritual disciplines so they know how to walk with God, he said.

He proposed discipling students in grades seven through 10 to the point of being available as 11th & 12th graders.

“They’re not to take that role out of the hands of parents,” he said, recalling Paul’s instruction in 2 Timothy 2:2 entrusting disciples to pass on those things they heard from their teacher.

Give that child a chance to pass on truth,” Derouen said. “Encourage discipleship.”

Instead of depending on a curriculum or program to redirect student ministry, Ross said restoring teenagers to a right relationship with their families and God will yield long-term results.

“We’re hoping programmatically to fix something that the programs aren’t going to fix,” Richard Ross lamented. “It is a heart issue for most of them and once we fix that, as long as the curriculum is biblically solid, it’s not so important what it is. It’s not so important that I have the box because these kids are ready to hear the mission.”

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