A bowl of peas for your birthright—with the benefit of hindsight, this seems like a ridiculous trade. But in the moment, it can seem like a perfectly reasonable exchange.
This particular moment involved two people with a complicated relationship. They were twin brothers, but they didn’t have much in common: Esau, older by a nose, a hunter who spent most of his time roaming the desert; and Jacob, a gardener and gatherer who tended to keep to himself in his own fields. Esau, tired and overwhelmed after returning home, went for the immediate gratification, selling his birthright to Jacob for a satisfying bowl of lentil stew (Gen. 25:27-34).
Maybe you’ve told this story to your youth group. Maybe you’ve warned them that studies show that kids who can’t delay gratification suffer as adults. Maybe you silently wondered why Jacob was such a jerk, and hoped none of your students would ask why God let him get away with it.
In any case, you probably never thought of yourself, as a youth minister, being like Esau. But if you’re like many youth ministers, you’re more like Esau than you’d like to think. Most youth ministers wouldn’t be tempted by a bowl of peas, but there are many other things that would catch us in Jacob’s trap.
The Youth Minister’s Birthright
What, for example, is the role (or the birthright) of the youth minister? The youth minister’s role, at its heart, is to join God in His work of reconciliation in the world. And yet, too often, youth ministers are lured away from this birthright by the latest games, the newest music or DVD, counseling techniques, a bestselling curriculum, an evangelism program, social activism … the list could go on and on and on.
Youth ministers are not that far from Esau, actually. We begin with the best of intentions and end tired, seeking immediate gratification. Our time goes to leaders and adolescents; we run from staff meetings to basketball games to the local hangout. And then when it comes time to pray, lead a group, teach on Sunday, give a talk or plan a retreat—let alone have a one-on-one conversation with one of our students—we are weary.
And that’s how it is for those of us who are lucky enough to have a full-time ministry position. According to a Barna study, only one in five youth ministers in Protestant churches is a full-time paid minister. Four of every five are bi-vocational or volunteer—working full time somewhere else (or finishing academic degrees). We don’t have time for our birthright, and we lose sight of its value.
Even if we hold tight to our birthright, often our churches trade it right out from under us. That many churches would pass over a youth worker with a firm grasp of theology in order to hire one who knows how to manage budgets, create promotional materials and keep a program running is plainly evident from a survey of web postings for youth ministry jobs. We have been taught both formally and through expectations of the church that it is better to throw a good party with a lot of adolescents than to intentionally enter into ministry with one.
No More Shortcuts
Without realizing it, youth ministers—and churches and ministries alongside them—model Esau, asking questions like: “Is there a lesson I can prepare in 30 minutes or less?” or “Is there some video clip I can show to make me look like I know what’s going on in the world today?” or “I have a student in crisis; what would a social worker do?” or “What song or movie can I name-drop to get the kids’ attention?”
There are more than enough resources out there for all these questions and more. But the more we come to rely on them, the more and more of our birthright we’re outsourcing, and the less and less actual ministry we’re doing.
Youth ministry over the years has put much emphasis on studying, analyzing and learning adolescent culture. This work has often been motivated by a desire to better minister to adolescents. Yet, in the process, youth ministers have traditionally not been encouraged to take theology seriously.
Thankfully this is changing. Whereas most youth ministry publications over its roughly 100-year history compartmentalized theological and psychosocial frameworks, much recent youth ministry literature emphasizes the integrative work of practical theology.
Theology takes time and effort. A lack of focus on this has resulted in a plethora of well-intended, sincere-hearted but shallow-at-best and dangerous-at-worst teachings and leadings across denominational lines.
It is important to note that it is not because youth ministers are incapable or lazy. Rather, in the fast-paced world of the dynamic lives of adolescents, youth ministers find themselves lacking in time, skills, knowledge and a point of entry to do much beyond what they are already doing.
Theology was never intended to be an irrelevant exercise in academic gymnastics. It is our faith, guided by the questions of our day, seeking understanding from God. For the youth minister, these are the questions which arise from looking closer at the lives and culture of the adolescents whom we are called to serve, whom we love and whom we know.
Adapted from The Adolescent Journey: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Practical Youth Ministry by Amy E. Jacober, copyright 2011. Published by IVP Books. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. Visit the IVP website for more information and other recently released titles.