Too big to fail

Too big to fail” is a colloquial term in describing certain financial institutions which are so large and so interconnected that their failure will be disastrous to the economy, and which therefore must be supported by government when they face difficulty. ~ Wikipedia

Since the mid-1980’s the federal government has mandated that some banks are so important to the operations of our country that they, literally, will not be allowed to go out of business.

No matter how bad it gets. No matter much much money they lose. If you stick your ATM into the machine or swipe your card at checkout, it should work. Those companies can be bought and sold, they can be taken over by the government, and their business practices can morph over time.

But these banks are too important to the livelihood of our country to be allowed to go away. 

Youth ministry is too big to fail

Youth ministry is too important to the Kingdom to be allowed to fail. (As I wrote in this article, we do need to address our actual failure though.)

It’s too important to be folded in as an extension of children’s ministry or simplified into a church-facing, sterilized family ministry. (I love potent, community facing family ministry!)

It’s too important to be tamed by lawyers and protected from actually doing ministry by safety policies. And all-too-often true youth ministry can’t be measured by business goals or contained to mission statements, it’s bigger and more important than those things created for Main Street.

We need to remember what youth ministry has always been… A little bit wild, a little bit dangerous, and recklessly chasing all of God’s kids.

Organizations like Youth for Christ and YoungLife were created, not as nice extensions of the church, but as a response rebellion to the churches failure to reach teenagers for Christ.

Sometimes, youth ministry isn’t nice. I know too many friends who were nice about getting fired for reaching “the wrong kids.” I know too many people who are silent as a board embraces stupidity to the default of its most important ministry. I know too many people now tamed by jobs they hate to hold onto a sliver of hope that one day things will get better.

We’re too nice. We need to embrace rebellion again. We need to drag this thing back to the drawing  board and innovate like we used to.

We need to re-embrace our 1-eared Mickey-Mouseness when it means reaching “the wrong kids.” We need to be willing to get fired for the sake of bringing “the wrong kids” into the church. We need to yawn at staff meetings. We need to forsake office hours. We need to be more willing to please our Father than please the board.

We need to adapt to a climate that is less likely to fund youth ministry endeavors, becoming empowered by unleashing our creativity instead of held back by a lack of resourcing.

We need to get really engrossed in ethnography while restlessly becoming disinterested in chasing the latest craze.

Precisely because youth ministry is too big to fail we need to step back, take a deep breath, and allow ourselves to dream again!





5 responses to “Too big to fail”

  1. moderhead Avatar

    Good word Adam. The Youth Worker in me screams yes, yes. The CEO in me says ummm hold on. My guess is that the Youth Worker voice in me will win out. After all, it’s been with me A LOT longer. In general, I feel like Youth Ministry used to be a place where we reached the lost. Now I feel like it’s a place where we are mostly taking care of the saved: (read home school). Now that I’m in charge in my youth world, I want to be the type of youth organization that encourages innovation and dreaming; one that inculcates a culture that rewards the mushroom eaters vs chastises them for not fitting into the box. Youth ministry that does not ruffle a few feathers does not accurately reflect the persistence that the “hound of heaven” showed when chasing us. My CEO hat knows this will create problems for me. But there has to be pain in the birth canal for the fetus to survive. My fear is yours, that in our quest to please the power players in our churches, we rob ourselves the strength necessary to survive.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I love the metaphors. And YD is one of those organizations that really seems to get it, its role as a parachurch has a long history of being part of the rebellion. (I’d be willing to bet YD has a history that came out of either YFC or YL at some point?)

      The difficulty that church-based YM has always faced is one of ROI. We invest a relatively small amount of money in something like Sunday School and see a big ROI as kids accept Christ, come to VBS, and advance to youth group. And we see a similar ROI with adult ministries where we can invest very little and get a lot of return in both impact and cash revenues via giving.

      Youth ministry is different. It has a much more nuanced ROI, similar to Jesus’ parable of the seeds. I participated in a parachurch ministry in which my parents never invested $$$ but my “fruit” has been big in both Kingdom impact & financially supporting that particular parachurch. Like YD, that couple who invested their life into me in high school was largely funded by monthly donors and sending churches. (That’s the parachurch advantage! Donors aren’t normally as involved in day-to-day micro stuff on how it gets done, they just get monthly/quarterly/annual macro reports)

      I guess my ultimate answer to the thought you bring up is, “Remove the money and just do ministry full-time another way.”

      Is it possible to be a full-time youth worker as a high school Spanish teacher? Yup.

      Is it possible to be a full-time youth worker as a carpenter who apprentices 2 high school guys via the high school and helps coach the baseball team? Yup.

      Is it possible to be a full-time youth worker as a mom who has kids over to her house and leads a bible study?

      On and on, these are all solutions that remove the compensation side of youth ministry while still embracing the wild impact/growth.

  2. Kurt Johnston Avatar
    Kurt Johnston

    Could it be that it is actually impossible for youth ministry, as a whole, to fail? Unless adults who love Jesus decide to stop interacting with teenagers is it, by definition, a success?

    Moderhead, nobody abhors the feeling of only taking care of the saved more than me, but I think it still qualifies as youth ministry in some form. It certainly isn’t evangelism….but still ministering to youth.

    “Too Big To Fail” almost feels like a straw man. Because youth ministry IS so big, so diverse, so nuanced, so multi-dimensional… CAN’T fail. At least not at the macro level. At the micro level, I suppose it is failing in one aspect or another all the time.

    Good stuff, Adam. As always you have made me think!

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I think this post came from a couple of blog/podcast interviews I’ve done recently. (I got asked to clarify the Asbury article, reviewing what isn’t working in YM.) That leads to a natural question for those young in YM… “why do we bother? aren’t you saying that youth ministry is dying?”

      Nah, I don’t think it’s dying. But I do think it’s morphing, just like it has for decades.

      I maintain the observation I made a few years back. Big church YM’s are doing great, small church YM’s are developing adaptations, and medium sized church YM’s are feeling the pressure to go both ways.

      The hope of this post was to ask people to double down! Not to look down on church planters… but it’s always a pet peeve when a YM friend stops doing YM because the path of least resistance seems to be planting a church.

      But then I get in trouble for saying it’s a bad thing to plant a church. I can’t win. 🙂

    2. Mark Moder Avatar

      Kurt… I agree it is still important youth ministry to “take care of the saved.” Of course this has to be part of what every church and youth ministry does, and it is SIGNIFICANT work; I just wish it wasn’t an either/or proposition. Too often churches determine to just disciple the ones they have vs reaching out to the unsaved. The problem is that discipleship without evangelism produces sterile Christians. Like mules. Alive but cannot reproduce. This will continue to have ramifications as our youth groups age and the next generation takes over. As a youth pastor for 18 years who is now in charge of a parachurch, it scares me to think that evangelism of youth could be relegated to organizations outside the local church… but then, that’s how youth ministry got it’s start 50 years ago. To revert back to that model, would be a Youth Ministry epic fail in my eyes.

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