You need to get out more

“Leaders are learners.”

We’ve all heard this. And most people I know in youth ministry are very well read. They read a lot of books and attend a lot of training stuff.

But I also think one reason people can’t think outside of the box to solve problems is that their context is so tiny. They only really know how to “do youth ministry” one way. Sometimes I’ll sit down at a conference or spend an hour on the phone with a friend and we’ll agree… their current strategy isn’t working. But they’d rather get fired than change.

Why is that? 

  • Is it that they are stubborn? (No)
  • Is it that they are uneducated? (No)
  • Is it that they are dispassionate? (No)
  • Is it that they lack creativity? (No)
  • Is it that they lack the power to change things in their ministry? (No)

It’s usually because they’ve only ever seen youth ministry done the way they do it. They grew up exposed to a style. They went to college or seminary and were fostered in that methodology. Then they got hired by churches who want them to run a program that same way. And they hang out with people who do ministry like them. And when they go to conferences, they go to conferences who do ministry just like them.

You know the mantras— We do Sunday school and small groups. Or we do a midweek program. Or something like that.

These are all viable methods. But there are TONS of other methods available in youth ministry. Chances are good that you never even took the time before you started the job to figure out, “Does the method I know even work in this context?” Oh no, we usually come at it the other way. “This method worked for me in another context, it’ll work here.

It’s not a lack of learning holding them back. It’s the lack of contextualization, study, observation, and experimentation that’s killing you.

You need to get out more

If you want to consider this a profession, you need to expose yourself to a wide variety of methods. It’s like going to a doctor who only wants to cut people open. He might know there are other types of surgery out there, and he might have heard about some pills that you can take, but he’s really into cutting people open because that’s what he knows how to treat your problem.

You wouldn’t go to that guy would you? He’s a 1-trick pony.

But that’s how we roll in youth ministry. We have tribes of people who are 1-trick ponies. It’s not that they don’t know there are other methods out there. They just do what they do. We hide behind terminology like “primary giftedness” and other ways of self-convincing ourselves that we can only do ministry the way we grew up doing it.

Learning that isn’t diverse in its approach isn’t really learning, it’s reinforcing what you already know.

You need to get out more.

If learning is a value and all you’re doing is reading books or going to conferences reinforcing what you already know, you’re not a learner. Spend some time observing other methods. Go visit other churches who aren’t like yours. Go see youth ministry in another culture. Make the time to do so. Set up some experiments. Create some brand new theories and test them out.

Whatever you do. Don’t keep working on something you’ve proven doesn’t work in your context.

That’s not professionalism, that’s insanity. 

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

5 comments

  1. Adam, could we potentially have a follow up blog about more ways to get out? More suggestions on how to learn from ministries that are not like ours?  I love what you are saying and I just want more of it.

  2. Adam, I think this is a really important line of reasoning. I’ll add a point that I think informs and underlies what you are saying, but didn’t rise to the surface: I think as we continue to identify and unpack the unprecedented change(s) our culture is undergoing, old methodology and philosophy will need to evolve and in some cases fade away. And to your point, if we’re not seeking other ways of doing things, we will find our options quite limited. Well said, bro.

  3. This is a significant reason why my experience in the YMCP was so transformative for me. I met some incredible people who are VERY different from me–different personalities, different stories, different contexts, yet all the same love for Jesus and young people.

    Surrounding yourself with people who are radically different than yourself is absolutely necessary for this kind of learning and growth. Even if I don’t agree with you, I can learn something from you.

  4. Yeah boy… yeah boy…… This will preach until Sunday.

    I must admit experimentation is very addicting.  I was really thankful that I was able to experiment like crazy.  

    It took me a while to learn that bad experiments yield bad data and parents get really mad.  And consequently you are left with bad results.  This is why getting others involved is so HUGE!!!!!  Select other youth workers that are in a completely different context and don’t align with your personality, methodology and personality.  In time of experimentation lean into your critics because they will ask the tough relying questions.  These “others” will not only keep you and I halfway humble in the experimentation process but they will point out our bad methods and blind spots immediately.

    The best way I learned to experiment was by experimenting on myself.  If you don’t feel comfortable experimenting in “church” start running experiments on yourself.     
     
    So my question to you, Mr. McLane:    what would you suggest to a youth worker who is stuck in a culture/tradition that doesn’t support experimentation?  Should he/she leave?  Try it anyway– and pray it works?  Submit to authority?  Make babysteps?  

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