As another school year rapidly approaches, I’ve found myself thinking about two different pictures of youth ministry.
One comes from the first retreat I facilitated at a new congregation. During a meal where I was sitting with a group of freshmen, the seniors and a select group of “cool” kids came running in, dressed as though they were attending a luau. The dressed-up teens had clearly planned this. For them, it was fun. It signified everything they loved about youth group, including the fact that they were the gatekeepers of a group that was decidedly theirs.
While these teens laughed and joked, the freshmen and “uncool” kids sat there confused. To them, this same experience signified that if they had a place in this group, it was as outsiders. And rather than making them want to join this group, this experience did the opposite – causing some of them to drift away in search of a group they could actually belong to.
In contrast, I recently attended a production of Junie B. Jones: The Musical with my four-year-old daughter. During a dance number, one of the characters, Lucille, lost her shoe. One minute it was on… The next, it came flying off. Soon there were shoes flying everywhere.
Because of the vast volume of flying shoes, I assumed it was a deliberate (albeit strange) part of the choreography. It wasn’t until after the show, when one of the kids in the audience asked Lucille if she’d meant to let her shoe fly, that I learned it wasn’t. According to her, the shoe had accidentally come off and before she could figure out what to do, another character, Herbert, shed his shoe. Soon, the entire cast was dancing with one shoe on and one shoe off.
What does this have to do with youth ministry?
Flying shoes represent welcome. They represent a culture where, when one person suffers, everyone rallies around that person to minimize their pain or embarrassment. They represent belonging and the idea that those with social power actively take steps to ensure that those who lack it are still welcome.
In this vision for ministry, there is no “cool” group. There’s not a culture where some kids are in, and others are out; where some know what’s going on and others do not; where some are invited to participate while others are relegated to a life on the margins. Instead, everyone is welcome; everyone is dancing with one shoe on and one shoe off.
To me, such a ministry is decidedly Jesus-centered. Had Jesus been on that stage I think he would have done what Herbert did and kicked off his shoes with Lucille. In the same way, if Jesus were in our ministries, I’m pretty sure he’d lead the charge in welcoming teens and ensuring that everyone belongs.
As this year begins, I’m going to look for ways to let the shoes fly in my ministry.
I hope you’ll do the same.