In my family, we have a joke. Every time my wife makes anything with potatoes, I respond at the dinner table with my best nasally tone, “What excellent boiled potatoes – it has been many years since I have had such an exemplary vegetable,” a line delivered by Mr. Collins (played with cringe-worthy excellence by Tom Hollander in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice). Mr. Collins is Jane Austen’s bumbling-yet-arrogant English pastor (or ‘parson’). Yet while Austen’s county parson leaves much to be desired, these historic servants of Jesus have been a major influence in how I think about some key aspects of youth ministry.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the average English pastor served a town of perhaps a few hundred people. Usually alone (though sometimes having an assistant), the parson was integrated into all aspects of the life of the town – baptizing, marrying, burying, catechizing children and adults over evening meals, organizing community events, and sometimes working a small farm to supplement income, all in addition to normal Sunday services. This type of life-on-life, often lonely ministry is very familiar to those of us in the world of youth (maybe without the farming). It’s why I’ve started to consider much of what I do as a youth minister, ‘parish ministry.’
1.Talking about ‘orbit’ instead of ‘attendance’: To these English pastors, questions of numerical church membership would have been meaningless. They served their town – everyone. Whether someone came to church or not, if they had a pastoral need, the parson was their guy. If the town was suffering, the English pastor would be there, with prayer and sweat, to help the town flourish.
Youth ministry has changed radically over the past few decades. Today, I have students in my ministry from multiple churches (even across denominations!) who have need of a gospel-centered youth ministry. I have families in my church whose students come to church on Sunday morning, but who attend other youth ministries in my city. I have extremely busy students whose sports, school choices, and extracurricular activities crowd out anything else in their lives. I even have students who don’t come at all, but whose parents attend my church.
If someone asked the age-old question about how large my youth group was, for years I would answer what my average attendance to my “large group” was. This response had multiple issues. First, it was very easy for size (and thus growth) to be an idol. Even in a ‘gospel-centered youth ministry,’ I had no grace for myself. My emotions would often rise and fall based on how many or few students would show up to my group or special events. Second, such a number (and the focus on students it represented), leaves out many students who are unable or unwilling to attend this specific program.
Because of this, I’ve increasingly started to think about my ministry in terms of ‘orbit.’ True, some students are closer in orbit to the key programs and relationships of our ministry. These may be our student leaders, particularly needy students, or simply very active students. As a result, they will receive more regular attention from our ministry. But the student who doesn’t come to church with his parents is still in my orbit. I am actively praying for him, and looking for moments when I can minister to him (illnesses and injuries, family deaths or hardships, encouraging him in his extracurriculars, etc.).
The student who goes to a different youth group has parents I need to be serving and equipping, and I’ve had wonderful partnerships with other ministries in coordinating care for such families. The student who only comes ‘part-time’ doesn’t necessarily love Jesus less because her schedule doesn’t fit into modern suburban youth ministry culture. When I look at the spreadsheet I have on my computer that lists all the students in my ‘orbit,’ I’m humbled (there is no way I can minister to these students on my own), but also filled with purpose – these students are why I have been called to ministry. They need a pastor, every one of them.
2. De-emphasizing large group and other specific events: This ‘orbit’ view hasn’t only led to a de-emphasis of the common obsession youth workers have with numbers, it also led to evaluating the actual effectiveness of a large group meeting. Remember the English pastor? Yes, he preached a sermon on Sundays. But he also commonly visited people’s homes other nights of the week to disciple them. He visited widows and shut-ins, praying for them, and delivering food to them. He was present at community events, fellowshipping with members of the town.
Now, if you know anything about Rooted, you know we love expository preaching and teaching of Scripture. I am not saying that Sunday morning worship is unimportant, nor am I devaluing preaching and teaching of the gospel through God’s Word to groups of students. However, if my students are increasingly scattered, if more students are within my ‘orbit’ than are able to come to my large group teaching, I need to consider the effects of that new reality on my ministry practices.
For some families, I have challenged the idolatry of performance and culture of busyness that is eating students alive. These students desperately need rest and renewal, a Christian community where they can sit and heal and be reminded of a gospel of grace – all things which we offer at our large group meeting. But for other students, I am learning other models of discipleship and how to preach the gospel into their scattered lives. Examples of this are active one-on-one mentoring, technology-driven bible studies, regional small groups that meet on other nights closer to their homes, and even recommending other youth ministries for them. And for all of my students, I make sure that attendance at our large group meeting or weekend event is not the required entry point into our community. This sometimes looks like not over-relying on stories or inside jokes from group trips in my weekly teaching, or going out of my way to connect students who are a part of separate aspects of our ministry when we do joint events.
Ultimately, one of the images about the English parson I love best is his quiet longevity. Many pastors, once they received a call, moved to their new town for the rest of their lives. While I know many will only be in youth work for a time, the stability of the country pastor reminds me that simple pastoral care over a long period of time matters. Considering the unique needs of my ‘parish’ is more important than forcing families into models for ministry that sinfully stoke my ego and build my ‘brand’ of youth ministry. As a result, most people will never see much of the work my ministry does in the lives of our students – our ministry will never ‘seem impressive.’ Yet impressiveness isn’t the point. Faithfulness is. And the faithfulness of ministry to a real group of people to whom you can know, love, and be human in the midst of, is one of the greatest gifts of the gospel of grace. So here’s to the parish youth pastor.