Service: the heartbeat of youth ministry
A year after David Cameron unveiled his Big Society vision, which places community groups at the heart of public service, Andy Burns asks what it might truly mean for us to serve our communities, and suggests how doing so might begin to transform them in ways the Prime Minister never envisaged.
One of the main critiques of the Big Society is the perceived lack of social capital, the lack of desire to serve the other in light of the predominant societal voice of consumption, entitlement and individualism. As Cameron echoes President Kennedy’s memorable question: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country’, his message is often met with the less inspiring – ‘don’t ask me what I can do for my country; I want to know what my country is going to do for me!’
As the conversation rolls on, one thing is for sure: Jesus would probably make a similar call – though maybe on a slightly larger scale. Jesus wakes us up to a redeemed and restored society epitomised in the words of Revelation 21 and 22. The invitation stands: ask not what the Kingdom can do for you, but what you can do for the Kingdom.
Service is costly
I was invited a few years ago to speak at a neighbourhood panel meeting addressing issues of anti-social behaviour in the community. As a charity we offered to establish a youth provision. ‘Hallelujah’ was the cry (well, nearly) as people imagined salvation charging over the hill. The semi-charismatic fervour turned into a disgruntled silence when I asked if anyone was ready to help us make the youth club happen. It was as if they had presumed the volunteering was to be done by someone else, while they simply highlighted the issue (Signed yours, concerned of Surrey).
Service is at the very heart of Christ’s incarnational mission, a mission that calls individuals and communities: ‘For even the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45) It’s a mission of service that feeds the hungry, heals the sick and touches the unclean - both medically and socially. Cameron’s Big Society has some of its roots in good missiology!
The definition of ’ministry’ according to the Shorter English Dictionary is ‘the rendering of service – self-denial, the surrender or yielding of one’s own agenda or wishes simply for the sake of the other.’ So our youth ministry is self-denial in favour of God’s agenda for the sake of the young people in our community. While this doesn’t mean giving young people permission to trash our church halls or abuse the youth team in the name of tolerance and inclusion, it does mean something is required of us when it comes to the marginalisation of young people in our community.
The account of Jesus’ time in the garden of Gethsemane is a good starting point for considering a Christ-like response to youth ministry – ‘If it is possible, may this cup of Friday Night Youth Club be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will’ (Matthew 26:39, revised somewhat!). It is a reminder to all that the call of Christ is outworked in a sacrificial rendering to loving God and loving youth. Love is an act of service as St Paul’s creedal statement describes in 1 Corinthians 13. I’d guess this will resonate with many who know that it truly is an act of love to get out of the house on a cold Friday night when a DVD and curry was the preferred option, and to open up the youth club. A great friend of mine has just finished after 25 years running an Urban Saints Group – that’s 25 years worth of Friday nights, planning meetings, church services and youth camps. ‘No greater love has anyone that they would lay down their Friday nights especially when gratitude isn’t always forthcoming’ (John 15:13, again paraphrased). While Hollywood’s prevailing vision of love is an overly romanticised RomCom, the Gospel’s prevailing vision of love is gritty and determined; it’s merciful and compassionate; it leads not to a Vegas chapel, but to the cross.
Service is transformational
Youth ministry can’t be seen as an offer of provision that is devoid of any relational and emotional aspect. Youth ministry has to offer more than ‘youth provision’. Christ didn’t come to host events or offer service provision (by that I mean - simply passing young people through a process such as an employment course and not engaging with them); He came to offer wholeness and communion. It’s the events and provisions that act as the catalyst to engage and serve, but it is primarily the relationships built that makes the lasting difference. The difference between my view, and that of the members of the neighbourhood meeting with which I opened this article, is that I viewed youth provision as a means to get alongside the young people, while the other members considered it a way of simply getting youth off the streets.
Service costs because in youth ministry we are to enter into a sacrificial commitment of fidelity with young people, not offering a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ insult. The cost of youth ministry is more than losing Friday nights to an Urban Saints group; it’s the pain of entering into the world of suffering of the young people. Youth ministers know the emotional attachment of a group of young people who’ve got under our skin. Their joys are your joys and their suffering is your suffering. The young people stop being service users and clients or even ‘young people’, they become Paul and Claire, Stacey and Joe - individuals with whom youth ministers are called to sacrificially connect with and serve.
Many youth ministers cite a sense of ‘brokenness’ for the young people they serve as a key driver for going into ministry. While this sense of ‘brokenness’ is a great motivator, it is also a great drain. Youth ministry takes on a whole new dimension when you move from behind the protective shield of the tuck shop counter and into the reality of the young people’s lives. It is this movement from ‘service provider’ to ‘compassionate servant’ that is so transformative for both the youth worker and their youth work.
The intimacy that service affords enables the Kingdom to be spoken into the heart of an individual in a way that preaching from a relational distance does not. Service brings Christ up close and personal. Jesus’ ministry is a repeated act of selfless giving and unlike human nature; Christ gives not on merit or predicted response. He is the one who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45) and He commands us to live accordingly. Young people who are seen as the heavenly father’s intended recipient of blessing hold greater value to a youth ministry team than if they were viewed as the infidels of a community. It’s when we serve and not condemn that we communicate through our actions the story and heart of the one we are following.
Put yourself in Ellen’s position, rejected and marginalised by the sins done to her and her reaction against those sins. Ellen found herself being constantly blessed by her school’s chaplain day in and day out at school; a chaplain who poured herself out in service to Ellen for years. What was Ellen’s response (at the end not necessarily during)? ‘I need that Jesus stuff.’ She knew she needed it because she’d encountered Jesus right at the source of her pain through someone who simply wanted to serve and bless. Service isn’t for those who can’t face doing evangelism, service if done in the name of Christ is by its very nature evangelistic, because it tells of the Kingdom of the King who compels his servants to serve. Service in our community provokes a reaction that proclaims the Lordship of Christ. Last week I was at a council meeting to discuss youth opportunities in our borough and 70% of the people around the table were from churches wanting to get involved – now what does that proclaim about faith to a secular local authority?
Service creates the Big Society
It’s our acts of service that brings in the Biggest of all Societies - the Big Society of the Kingdom. It’s the holistic, peaceful, inclusive and compassionate Kingdom that I’d guess all political parties would long to see in society but only a few would word it in the way we would. It’s because the Kingdom is so transformative that youth ministry is so attractive to our communities, local authorities and the government. Why? Because youth ministry doesn’t simply deliver provision - it provides community and that’s where lives are eternally transformed.
The best way I can describe this is to mention my friend Nathan who is presently being housed in a Christian family home, after being made homeless. The church community to which the family belongs includes a guy who does rock climbing, so now Nathan has a new hobby and a bit more of a social life. Members of that church have also offered and provided Nathan with work, which helps massively with cash flow and in filling up his CV with glowing references. In the past he’s been in trouble with the police, and lo and behold, the church includes a barrister who provided him with legal advice. On top of all of that his host family serve with a strong foundation commonly known as ‘home’, which is enabling Nathan to succeed in college and puts a smile on his face. Nathan also has a key worker from east to west but I don’t think we quite measure up to being embraced by such a big society as the one called St John’s. Now that’s a Huge Society, causing a HUGE transformation through the power of service. We can’t simply pray in change. By that I’m not belittling the power of prayer, but prayer can be hidden behind as if to ask God to do the work and not us. As Gandhi put it, ‘we need to be the change we want to see’. Through service we can outwork the Kingdom rather than simply grumbling that the world isn’t how we like it.
So the challenge is: who are you called to serve and not simply offer provision to? Does your youth ministry have a servant culture that sees the restorative needs of the young people as its big vision, rather than simply cut-and-pasting the latest youth ministry gimmick? Who are the marginalised and the afflicted? What are the aches and pains in your community, and are you prepared to humbly serve in order that the Kingdom might break in? For then you will see lives and communities transformed and Glory given to one who ultimately modelled servanthood to you in the first place.
Youth ministry is not here to promote Cameron’s Big Society. We are here to outwork and proclaim Christ’s, and being the church we have a head start for in theory the ideals of the Big Society sound a lot like the community of the church. Therefore, we don’t need to try to align ourselves to become this new mandate; we need to take this opportunity to remind and demonstrate to the UK that we’ve always been called to be it.
Andy Burns is the CEO of East to West. www.easttowest.org.uk