Old People Doing Youth Ministry
I’d planned on publishing this blog a lot sooner, but I kept forgetting. Because when you get old, like me, there are two things that go: the first one is your memory… And I can’t remember the other one.
Not too long ago, I was at a churchy gathering, promoting what The REAP Team does. And I was taken by surprise when a friend of mine (who, ironically, is older than me) approached our display table, looked me straight in the eye, and sarcastically said, “You would think that they would have someone a little bit younger promoting youth ministry.”
My friend was teasing me, of course, as my friends often do. And since I knew he was teasing, his comment didn’t sting too badly – but it did sting a little – because his comment touched on a fear that can grow a bit stronger in my heart with every passing year. That fear is based upon a lie that I used to believe: namely, that only the young, hip, and trendy should be doing youth ministry. That lie is the sin of ageism, and when we believe that lie, everyone loses.
Since I am 55 years old and embarking upon the 30th year of the ministry of The REAP Team, it’s time to publicly talk about this fear – that a person can be too old to do youth ministry – and lovingly smash it to smithereens.
Why would I be afraid of being too old, unhip, and out-of-touch with the trends to do this important work? Well, because I might end up looking like these guys:
While I have no doubt that the people in this band were well-intentioned people of prayer, hoping to do great things for the glory of God, that’s not what’s happening, is it? This video almost certainly has over 11 million views because it’s abso-freakin-lutely hilarious – and because when a song like this gets stuck in your head you don’t want to be alone in your misery. Feel free to share the video with friends and foes alike.
The older I get, the more I fear appearing just like those folks in the band. Like them, I’m a well-intentioned person of prayer, striving to do great things for God. And yet in no way do I ever want teens to look at me the way I look at the members of that band – hilariously hokey, outdated, and making no real connection to the audience’s lives (other than causing them to laugh).
I fight my fear, first of all, by being honest about it. As Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” I’m no longer afraid of being afraid. I once told my father-in-law about my fears before giving a talk to teens, and he replied, “If you weren’t afraid, I would be.” Some trepidation is always a good thing, because it can help us to rely on God more than ourselves.
Secondly, I fight my fear with a sense of humor. Laughter kills fear. I freely joke about my age. My friends sometimes say that some day I’ll be hobbling up to speak to a group of teens with a walker – complete with tennis balls on the bottom of it – and saying, “When I was your age…” I hope that you (and I) live to see it some day on Instagram (or whatever social media app replaces Instagram).
I also fight my fear with learning. I am always trying to understand the constantly changing adolescent world. As Walt Mueller articulates so clearly in his book Understanding Youth Culture, those of us who love teens should be constantly striving to understand their world as well as we possibly can. Perhaps the best way to understand adolescent culture is by spending time with teens and asking them a lot of questions. There is even the possibility of understanding their world better than they do, since some of us might have some wisdom and perspective that some adolescents lack. The older I get, the more difficult it is to understand teen culture, but it’s worth it to keep trying. Seeking to understand is one of the highest expressions of love.
Finally, I fight my fear with the truth, since the only way to successfully overcome any lie is by crushing it with the truth. As Jesus tells us in John 8, “The truth will set you free.” I have witnessed many old people who are highly successful in youth ministry. Though there will always be plenty of young, hip, and trendy youth ministers out there, there are plenty of us who are gracefully aging and who are still making a difference – because of how much we care and because we’re faithful to prayer.
Just stop for a moment to think about some of the older folks you know, including, but not limited to: parish youth ministers, priests, deacons, religious sisters, ministry volunteers, parents, grandparents. Consider the larger-than-life role models of St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta. Undoubtedly, they influenced – and will continue to influence – our world’s young people because of their passion for Christ, which keeps the heart young even as the body ages.
I once heard someone say (and please forgive me that I can’t remember the source – that dang memory thing again):
Middle schoolers are drawn to the oldest person in their lives who they know really cares about them.
Retweet. (See? Still hip to the youth slang…)
If you are a youth minister who is old, there may come a day when you retire from your job, but your ministry just might never end. As my friend Pete told me once, when I expressed my fear of someday being too old to work with teens: “When teens no longer wear masks, when teens no longer get hurt, when teens are no longer tempted to numb out, and when teens no longer need God – then you will no longer be able to effectively reach them. But, until then, keep doing what you do.”
When it comes to serving God and His young people, I doubt I’ll be done ‘til I’m dead. And based upon some revealed truth we have about Heaven, we may not even be done when we’re dead. St. Therese of Lisieux said, “I will spend my heaven by doing good on earth” – which just might mean that from our privileged position in Heaven, we will be able to intercede for others more powerfully than we could possibly ask for or imagine here on earth.
Until that day, I am going to fight my fears and keep on loving God’s kids. And I’m going to trust that my best days are still ahead of me.