Mark my words

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I’ve been having problems with my heels for three years. Early in my weight-loss and health journey, I started jogging and walking around my neighborhood each morning. But after a few months, I developed massive pain in both heels, so much so that I could hardly walk. Turns out I have big bone spurs on the back of both heels, and the little pads (called a bursa) between those spurs and the tendons that crossed over it became massively inflamed.

It wasn’t officially Achilles heel. But close enough to make me think about that concept.

Achilles, in Greek mythology, had been predicted to die at a young age; but his mother dipped him in some magical river and he became a powerful warrior. However, because she held Achilles by his heel for the dunking, that part wasn’t impacted by the magical river and his heel became his weakness.

Today, we use the term Achilles heel to refer to a weakness that, despite overall strength, can lead to downfall. It’s a pretty good question to ask about your ministry.

What is the Achilles heel is of your youth ministry? What is that little weakness that, despite its overall strength, could lead to its downfall?

And what is our collective Achilles heel in the practice of youth ministry? What’s holding us back?

When I asked this question to a group of youth workers some time ago, a youth ministry professor named Dr Dave Rahn suggested that, at its root, the problem of teenagers leaving the Church after their years in youth group boils down to a theology problem, based on our theology of church. He suggested each church has a self-image based on their theology of church, and that works itself out in all kinds of practical ways. If you take some of those assumptions down the road a few iterations and years, you end up with teenagers who aren’t connected with their churches beyond youth group.

“Fear has become a motivator for way too much of what happens in youth ministry”

Just today I was doing a little coaching with a pastor in a slowly dying church. Her church loved the energy she brought and thought that was going to save them from death. But force of personality isn’t enough. She has been leading boldly, and even hired a full-time children and youth person, even though there was only one baby in the church and not a single teenager.

The church went along with that one. Then she started tinkering with their stale worship service, and many are staging a hissy fit. Because, theologically, their view of the church – their ecclesiology – is all about their own selfish desires; the church exists to meet their desires and personal preferences. Unless they change, they are quite literally choosing death.

Hear me: don’t allow that little story to lead you to believe this is about those people. This is about all of us.

My observation, based on the youth ministries I observe, is that our collective Achilles heel for decades was arrogance. And this is still present, but I think it’s moved down the list (even more so in the UK than where I live in the States) behind fear. Fear has become a motivator for way too much of what happens in youth ministry these days. All kinds of fear: fear of parents, fear of church boards, fear of our little kingdoms being threatened, fear of our salaries being threatened.

But more than all of these, I’ve seen a fear of culture become a motivating force. Often, this is a roundabout fear: parents and church leaders possess a fear of culture, and youth workers instinctively know that if they play into these fears, they will get resources and job security and whatever else we desire.

But remember, Romans 8:15 tell us: “You did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship [and daughtership]. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’.”

Fear is a cul-de-sac. It might bring short term results; it might get donors to open their wallets, secure your job and get people in your church to see ‘value’ in the youth ministry. But it starves our souls, and sets our teenagers up for a lifetime of wrong-headed interaction with culture and the world.

How we could our ministries embrace hope instead of fear?

“Why, my soul, are you downcast?

Why so disturbed within me

Put your hope in God,

for I will yet praise him,

my Saviour and my God.” 

That verse is – word-for-word – Psalm 42:5, Psalm 42:11 and Psalm 43:5. Now I know there are literary and poetic reasons this verse repeats three times in two chapters. But it also seems to indicate that it’s something we should really notice!

What would it look like for our ministries to be characterised as places of hope?

OK, this column was, I’ll admit, a bit of a wandering reflection. So, let’s land with this question:

What’s your ministry’s Achilles heel? What little, seemingly innocuous part of your ministry could be its downfall and needs a dip in the magic river of the Holy Spirit’s transformation?