Guest Post: Mark Matlock has been working with youth pastors and students for nearly twenty years. Mark is the president of WisdomWorks Ministries and speaks at their PlanetWisdom student events across the country each year. He is the author of several books, including What Does God Want From Me?, Living a Life That Matters, Dont Buy the Lie, and Freshman. Mark lives in Texas with his wife, Jade, and their children, Dax and Skye.
When I took over the leadership role at YS just over a year ago, the first thing I knew YS had to do was to get closer to what God was doing in the local church. Don’t get me wrong, YS leadership has always been actively involved in their church or community youth programs, and we’ve always brought in local church youth workers to speak into our programming. But it just feels that God is doing something in our midst as youth workers, so I wanted to travel to various parts of the country to visit with youth workers on their turf and see what God was doing. We called these times YS Listens, and that is pretty much all we tried to do. I didn’t give seminars and we tried to keep marketing to a minimum.
And while I was encouraged greatly there was also a few things that troubled me about where we are as a community and how we think about ourselves as youth workers. Like many of the teens we work with I came away from my travels thinking that youth ministry may be going through a bit of an identity crisis. Let me explain.
As I travelled I heard youth workers saying things like, “Thanks for looking out for the little guys”… “I know I am not a celebrity like some of the speakers at NYWC…” or “I want to hear from ‘in the trenches youth workers’ not academics.” These are just a few that I’ve collected along the way, but you get the idea.
The danger I see is that we begin to treat the various people-roles in youth ministry as “class citizens” rather than understanding the contributions we each make.
There are no “little guys” in youth ministry, we are all youth ministers! Let’s be honest, we are all very little. There are no “celebrities” in youth ministry. There are some people that are more widely known, but c’mon–this is youth ministry—even the well known know that they’re knuckleheads. We shouldn’t be star struck by people who know the same Jesus we do and share in the same inheritance. (nor should we show disdain for the unmerited favor they have received from God!)
Until we begin to see one another in our community correctly, our ministry to teens will be affected. Our little world of youth ministry is too small for us to tolerate division. This is why NYWC is so powerful. At NYWC you’ll see a really broad range of ministries represented including some that others would call our “competition.” There is no “class system” in God’s kingdom.
Can I suggest we use some new language?
At YS we try not to rank people by class, but by the way we might experience them in relationship to our own faith and ministry. The words we’ve been using around YS recently are (1) peers, (2) mentors, and (3) sages. Let me explain:
Sages are those who have persevered and endured (and royally screwed up) in their pursuit of youth ministry and the Christian life, and they possess a lot wisdom to share. True, some may no longer be directly involved in working with teens, but their wisdom, experience, and life-message is simply too rich to ignore. Sages can be hard to come into contact with because they are well known and only have the same relational capacity each of us have, 24 hours. They aren’t celebrities, they are sages, and there is much we can learn (and tweet) from them.
Mentors are those who may not be as well known, but have endured much more than we have and can speak more intimately into our lives. They are everywhere around NYWC, some might be your former youth pastors and professors that you only see at NYWC, but help us by giving us one-on-one personal attention.
Peers are those sharing the same age and/or stage as you. The convention is full of them. They may not always have the advantage of time for reflection to package up their thoughts in a book or seminar, but their insight into what is happening in youth ministry is invaluable. Every year I hear about youth workers who met new lifelong friends at NYWC (some even their spouses)! The experience of peers in the spaces in between the program are some of the richest times of growth at NYWC.
So let’s stop calling out the celebrities, let’s stop thinking about ourselves as the “little people.” Let’s stop thinking that a youth ministry professor, or an executive in a ministry organization, or a volunteer in their church, or a creator of resources in the exhibit hall is more or less valid than anyone else serving teens. We are all in the trenches together serving each other in many ways so we can help teenagers follow in the way of Jesus. Let’s come together to learn, share and create from our unique gifts and communities. I hope YouthSpecialties’ NYWC can be one such place that helps this to happen.