Fun and Substance in Youth Ministry

The pastor I serve under at my church is an incredibly wise man.  Early on in ministry, in the midst of lamenting about how little of my teaching the youth seemed to retain from week to week, he asked me a question:

“What did you eat for breakfast two weeks ago on Tuesday?”

My response was something sophisticated like, “Umm….”

The reality was, I had no idea what I had for breakfast two weeks ago on Tuesday or where he was going with this line of questioning.  Ends up, my not remembering was the point.  He went on to say that even though I couldn’t remember what I had eaten, it did help sustain my flesh to get to today.

He went on to encourage me to view my teaching as the every day meals we need to sustain a life.  My weekly Sunday school and Sunday night programs were to be the oatmeal of the youth’s spiritual life – maybe not that flashy and memorable, but full of substance.

As I reflected more on my pastor’s words and the relationship between substance and fun in youth ministry, I began to realize that what does make a meal memorable is when it is outside of the normal routine.  I don’t eat out much, so when I do, I tend to remember what I ate – even if it was two weeks ago on a Tuesday.  It adds a bit of excitement to life.

I’ve come to view fun in youth ministry like eating out at a restaurant.  It’s often more expensive and less healthy, but because it is outside of the normal everyday spiritual diet of the kids, it’s memorable and can be a valuable tool in building community and making a point.  However, if you make fun central to youth ministry, it’s like eating out at a restaurant all the time.  Not only does it eventually lose its appeal and deplete your wallet, it’s also not very good for your health in the long run.

In one of his more difficult teachings, Jesus makes the claim, “I am the bread of life.”  He then goes on to say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no eternal life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:,48 53-56)

Whatever else Jesus’ words might mean, he’s certainly saying that we need to look to him alone – and particularly his death and resurrection – for our fullness.  As the Bread of Life, Jesus is the substance that gives true life by the Spirit.

This means that as those working with youth, we need to regularly be preaching and teaching the crucified and risen Jesus as the main staple of their spiritual diet for ultimately this is what promotes spiritual health and growth.

Also, for those of you who know what you ate for breakfast two weeks ago on Tuesday – you probably know because you eat the same thing for breakfast almost everyday.  Similarly, even if our teaching and preaching isn’t flashy, the sheer repetition of pointing them to the crucified and resurrected Jesus week in and week out for substance will by God’s grace lead them to see Jesus as the bread of life that alone fills their soul.

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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