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Are We Following Culture or Mission?
Ministry Fads and Super Snarks
Once as a young teen I went sailing with my younger brother on our father’s Super Snark. The Snark is a one-and-a-half man, aluminum and foam boat with a six-foot mast. We launched into the Puget Sound in Washington State and navigated with the wind at our backs until we were some way out enjoying our adventure. As with every good sailing story, the wind and the rain came and tossed our little vessel. We turned for shore and soon realized our inadequacy in understanding the principles that guide a sailboat against the wind. The second leg of our journey took ten times longer that the first. Most importantly we could not steer straight back to the point of departure. We had to angle our boat and sails to catch the wind. Because we did not understand the principles of tacking, when we finally grounded our skiff we were hundreds of yards down the beach. Tired, cold and wet, we had to drag our Snark and ourselves back to the family.
Within the youth ministry world there is a subtle pressure to be “cutting edge” – to have a ministry that is deemed relevant in its methodology to the contemporary generation of youth. New trends emerge continuously, and with them come the latest ministry fad. One youth pastor I spoke with captured well the pressure that many of us feel to have programs and methodologies that reflect the most current “innovations” in ministry:
“I’ve read a lot of the books and you just get in this mode of whatever is the latest fad, whatever is new, whatever is different: that’s what we have to do.”
Regular restructuring of the program and methods based on the most recent idea to hit the youth ministry landscape leads to a busyness rooted in constant reinventing of ministry. The ministry may often lack the kind of philosophical reflection necessary to link methods with vision. Dissatisfaction with one methodology may simply lead to the adoption of a new one, and thus repeat the problem in due time. As one youth pastor commented,
“We can kind of compete programmatically with the world on some level… all those techniques to create all the latest things but, at the base, I have to ask the question where’s Jesus in all of this and he can’t just be in the afterthought, he has to be the one that’s pushing this through.”
Duffy Robbins, long-time youth ministry educator writes, “Ministries in which techniques and methodologies are precious are seldom guided by vision.” Many ministries choose methods separate from goals and in many instances the method replaces the goal. Methods reflect implicit values and may produce results far different from those stated as actual ministry goals. Christian Schwarz, a researcher, explains, “the problem is that their methods are insufficient because they are inconsistent with God’s plan.” He goes on to make clear that “some models parade as universally valid principles” when in actuality they are just that, models, methods or programs.
This is a serious problem facing our ministries. Methods cannot be employed as independent agents, working by themselves, outside of context and without connections and intentionality to the entirety of the ministry philosophy. Methods that are culture driven will inevitably subvert the purposes they were employed to accomplish and replace the explicit philosophy with a different and potentially contrary implicit philosophy.
In a similar way to the sailing story, the longer a method that does not match the rest of the philosophy is employed, the greater the variation in results will be from those originally and specifically desired. A single degree off on our heading can cause us to miss our destination by hundreds of miles on a long flight or voyag–if no corrections are made. In ministry the same is true: small discrepancies in degree of heading will cause a smaller scale of variation from our destination while large differences in heading can cause immediate and visible contrary results from where we actually wish to go. Either way, the longer a program outcome is subjected to the unnatural method the greater the difference in actual outcome from desired outcome and thus the greater the frustration and desire to rewrite the program. All of this can happen in a cycle outside of the goals and beliefs of the ministry philosophy. Duffy Robins sums it up for us, “The first question we need to ask is not ‘Will it work?’ or ‘Can we do it?’ but ‘How does it help us reach our goal?’ and ‘Does it fit our vision?’ This is the mark of an excellent ministry.”