They have to audition for the musical.
They have to study for the honor roll.
They have to apply for their summer camp job.
Everything they know,
Everything they love to do,
Everything they think is worth their time,
Our youth have to earn it.
They have to work for it.
There's always another level to reach.
There's always another leadership role to strive towards.
Everything in their world is based on the model of
you do the work then you achieve the honor.
Everything, that is,
except for church.
Church is the only place in their lives
where there is no formal progression of achievement.
And some might argue this is a good thing.
Some might argue this is what makes church a sanctuary.
Some might argue this lack of demand is what makes church a stress-free zone.
Some might argue that this lack of hierarchy makes church a more welcoming environment.
I beg to differ.
That's exactly what makes church feel so foreign to our youth.
That's exactly what makes church feel more like an obligation.
At most mainline churches we have an entire committee,
An entire committee devoted to begging people to be leaders.
We call it the Nominating Committee,
But it should really be called the,
"I Bet You're Sorry You Didn't Let This Go To Voicemail Because We're So Desperate For Help" Committee.
I don't know about you, but I'm sick of recruiting.
I'm sick of always begging people to help out.
I'm sick of always worrying whether or not an event will actually happen.
What would it look like if you had to apply to be a church leader?
What would it look like if people did work for the church
- not out of a sense of tired obligation -
but out of a desire to be an important part of this community,
because they believe in the work of the community?
What would it look like if Church weren't such a foreign concept,
if Church looked like everything else our youth love,
-- elite, desirable, exciting, achievable --
but somehow maintained the open invitation of progressive theology?
That's what I've been working on with my Youth Group.
And it's been revolutionary to the success of my ministry.
If the only thing I did in my time at this church was build this new leadership model,
I could leave here knowing that I did something big and important.
My first year, I tried to implement a leadership program for what I called Youth Deacons. And it fell flat on its face. It never even launched because the sound of it made the kids' noses wrinkle. The problem: it operated on the traditional mainline church leadership model. We recruit you to do the work, rather than everything else these kids know and love, which operates on a model of you step up to do the work then you get the honor of being a leader.
The problem is really a matter of marketing.
It's a matter of what we inadvertently communicate in our structures.
The Nominating Committee model communicates: "We need you and we are desperate. So when you say yes, it will probably be at least in part due to a sense of obligation, which means you'll be committing to years of doing something you aren't actually that passionate about."
The Sports try-outs model communicates: "It is an honor to be part of our organization. Only an elite few are able to earn a spot on our team. And then only an even smaller elect elite are chosen to play. And then only an even smaller elect elite are chosen to start. And then an even smaller elect elite earn the captain's patch. We aren't desperate for you. You're desperate for us."
That's the power of sports. If you miss practice, you're fucked. At least that how the kids and the parents feel. It's as if missing practice means their entire path towards success will come crumbling down around this one decision to miss one practice. So if I'm the coach, I don't care if I schedule it during church or youth group or vacation, because if you miss it, you're benched.
In contrast, if you miss Sunday School, then what? Nothing, that's what. There is no immediate incentive. Well, I guess if we were old school Puritans, we'd say you're going to Hell, but that's not really our deal anymore, assuming you're a UCCer like me or from a similar denomination.
I'm not advocating that we go to a punishment-based model. Fire and Brimstone doesn't really look good on us. But that's one of the things I can't stand about the current sports culture. It is Fire and Brimstone religion without the religion. Kids aren't choosing sports because they like them better than church (well, not always at least, assuming you don't have a mega-boring church). Sometimes kids choose sports out of fear, which is just as heinous as going to church out of fear, and just as disheartening as going to church out of a sense of obligation rather than a sincere desire to be there.
But there is something to this Sports Culture in their marketing that says, we are worth your time. You want to earn this honor, so you want to be here.
Church needs a PR makeover. It's not always the product, sometimes it's the marketing. Although sometimes it is the product that's the problem, but that's for another post. For now, let's proceed under the assumption that we are doing this work because we believe in this work and that we are really good at our jobs…I'm sorry… calling… we are really good at our calling. *cough*wink*
So how can we turn church leadership into an elite honor you have to earn
rather than a desperate act of obligation or pity?
I don't want people to come to church because they feel guilty.
I want people to come to church because they want to come to church.
Because they believe something important is happening there.
Because they can feel God in our labor.
Because they feel some sense of pride in their measurable accomplishments.
Because they are looking forward to their next achievement.
So I introduce to you, my new Youth Intern leadership model…