Friday, March 18, 2011

Please Stop. . . . Some Thoughts On Youth Ministry Celebrity. . . .


I'm not sure that there's any way I can express my thoughts in writing that won't sound arrogant or condescending. I want in every possible way to express my thoughts in a way that captures the deep concern I have about something I see happening in the little world where I live known as the world of youth ministry. It's a concern motivated by a desire to see the best happen in the Kingdom and for the people who inhabit it. My recent trip to another Simply Youth Ministry Conference hammered home a concern that flares up every time I participate in some sort of national youth ministry gathering.

For years, my concern has been fueled by a small group of people - usually very young and in youth ministry - who would always approach me one-by-one to ask me this little question: "How can I do what you do?" "You mean, study youth culture?" I would respond. "No," the inquisitor would say. . . "I want to know how I can become a speaker." What once started as a small group is growing larger.

I've been asked that question in one way or another over the years to gain a pretty clear sense of what's really being asked. The same question has been asked of enough of my peers in this unique calling as "trainer" that we can compare notes that are, for the most part, identical. Like I said, those doing the asking are typically very young. They have the advantage of years and years of opportunity to serve the King on the horizon. On the other hand, the years of experience, training and learning that lay behind are few. Sadly, I think the aspiration is motivated more and more by the self-centered beast that lives within (all of us, by the way) - a beast that finds a welcome home in a culture that sees feeding the beast as virtuous, and that gives us all the tools we need to create and build the brand known as "me, myself, and I" even if that brand is only a facade covering a lack of depth, knowledge, and experience. I'm talking here about things like the Web, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and lots, lots more.

So, after years of being asked and deconstructing both the question and the ones doing the asking, can I offer a few thoughts in response?

1. Why?. . . why do you aspire to do what I am doing? Rarely is someone asking about studying youth culture. When that's the case, I light up! Usually, the person is on a quest to make a name for themselves and develop a following. If that's the case, then it's time to squelch your aspiration.

2. I didn't choose my vocation or my position. . . nor did I ever ask for it. I was called to be someone doing youth ministry in the local church. About 12 years in, God used a series of circumstances to call me into doing what I've been doing with CPYU for the last 21 years. Initially, I fought the calling. Eventually, I had to yield. It's the same for everyone I know over the age of forty who gets their face pictured next to seminar titles in conference brochures. None of us - as far as I know - asked for it or sought it. God prepared us for it over the course of several years, and then He pushed us into it. . . in spite of the fact that some of us went so far as to push back.

3. Don't pursue a platform or a following. Pursue faithfulness and obedience to the God who has called you to do what you're doing, and continue to do what He's called you to do right where He has you doing it.

4. Don't open your mouth in front of a group unless you've got something to say. . . and be sure you've taken the time to know as much as you can about what it is you're talking about. That's a rule I have for myself. I slip up enough, I know. But it's a rule worth working really, really hard to follow.

5. You're not a brand. You're a person. The profile and "press kit" you build for yourself can be whatever you want it to be. That's a dangerous thing. The reputation of your character, your commmitments, and your work will take care of itself. . . if you take care of your character, your commitments, and your work. And by all means, don't use your spouse and/or your children to build your brand. I have some very famous former neighbors who did that, and they are now living out a very public train wreck.

6. If God gives you a platform, watch out. It's not easy. The travel stinks. Being away from your family is very, very hard. You have to set limits. The temptations run deep and wide. I could go on and on. Simply stated, it's not what you think it is.

At the most recent Simply Youth Ministry Conference, a youth worker spotted me at the front desk of the hotel. He came over and started a conversation by saying he was excited to talk to a "celebrity." I cringed and immediately became very uncomfortable. I know he didn't mean anything by it, but it was a very difficult moment for me. I never want to be seen or perceived that way. I never want to aspire to that status. And, when I have the opportunity, I'd tell everyone I know to avoid the pursuit of celebrity like the plague. . . for the simple reason that that's what the pursuit of celebrity in youth ministry seems to be becoming.

27 comments:

Ben M said...

Thank you for your reminder of the true calling of Youth Ministry. You and other "Celebrity Youth Leaders" have always challenged and inspired me to do more for whatever large or small group God has blessed me with.

Phil Bell said...

Great post Walt! Thanks for tackling this issue. I agree, it seems to be getting worse in recent years.

I really appreciate you painting the realistic picture and challenging life of being a speaker.

I agree, faithfulness and odedience to God come first.

Thanks again!

Phil <><

adam mclane said...

OK, I'll bite. This is juicy and fun!

First, the notion of "celebrity" or "Christian-famous" makes me giggle. Most of the country just got introduced to Rob Bell in the last week. That makes 4 pastors whose name could be considered "American famous." (Rick Warren, Joel Olsteen...) And, as you mention, it's hardly a glamorous lifestyle.

I totally agree with the sentiment of your post. The whole thing feels odd.

Absolutely, and for goodness sake, have something to say before you seek attention. There's nothing more annoying than a so-called expert who is really just a book reporter or commentator. Too often, the limit of their scope is an inch deep. (But, hopefully, the desire of their heart is hopefully a mile deep.)

If I could read into your words, I'd presume that you don't see anything wrong with the ambition to train others... just the method of self-promotion which has become popular, you see as repulsive. If that's the case I whole-heartedly agree.

Hard work pays off every time. Having a high Google page rank doesn't make one an expert.

Along the same lines, I wonder if it would be healthy for someone somewhere to outline an acceptable strategy for "moving up the ranks." (Whatever that means.)

My assumption is that there are too few people who take the task of youth ministry seriously (whether vocational youth ministry or any of the myriad of disciplines emerging as viable forms of youth ministry) and that part of reversing that trend is that we are going to need many, many more people capable of training, writing, teaching, mentoring, etc.

What I don't see is the pathway. How do we take the ambition, which most of these younger folks would label as from God, and give guidance along the way?

Like you mentioned, printing t-shirts & business cards to self-promote at conferences isn't going to gain you an ounce of credibility. But what is?

Len said...

Great thoughts Walt, reminds me of being faithful where you are and you won't be able to predict where you might be. But contentment in the present is a hard place to be in our driven culture of success.

Your thoughts also remind me of one of my favorite quotes that has guided me and helped me fight the desire of "success" in youth ministry over the years.

"We must remember throughout out lives that in God's sight there are no little people and no little places. Only one thing is important: to be consecrated persons in God's place for us, at each moment." Francis Schaeffer

Doug Fields said...

Walt: I wrote on almost exactly the same idea last night (www.dougfields.com). The only difference is that you wrote on it much better than me. So my question is; "How can write more like you?" Love you my friend.

Matt Murphy said...

Thanks Walt.

I had the same feelings, which is why I didn't approach you. Didn't want it to be an awkward teenage girl running up to some rockstar they admired moment. I do admire you because I think you add so much to the youth ministry domain. My passion and calling is helping teens out in dark places (engagingtheshadowsofyouthministry.org) and feel that what I do, needs what you do to enhance my skills and how I bring what I do to parents, etc.

My question is: how would you differentiate between (or know whether or not) you are working on a passion and calling, or just chasing the Ymin limelight trying to get your 15 seconds of fame?

Thanks

Benjer McVeigh said...

May we have the same spirit as Barnabas and Paul in Acts 14:8-18...they tore their clothes at the thought of getting any glory that rightly belongs to God alone. Thanks for this post!

Brit said...

Walt I'm sorry I didn't serve as your room host this year! I would have speared some youth workers.

Thank you so much for this reminder. I have been struggling with my calling lately seeing God push me into a realm of Spiritual Direction and intentional formation for myself and ministry and opening doors I would have never thought about opening. I am greatly encouraged to know that I'm not alone in resisting Gods path sometimes. And greatly appreciate the warning and caution to guard myself and family in the process because it won't be easy. That said that comment really has nothing to do with being a celebrity in youth ministry.

I heard a speaker several years ago at a Ywam & mission conference. Can't remember the speaker (some president of some mission company) but man did he bring it home.
he said & I quote "So you wanna move over to china or tibet and love on a foreign culture, you wanna go to africa and help heal and love those afflicted with aids, STOP KIDDING YOURSELF YOU SELFISH LIME LIGHT SEEKERS! Some of you aren't event talking the chinese kid in your class, your not helping at the aids clinic in your town. How... better yet why would God call you and give you an honor for something that you ignore that is right in front of you. Be faithful in the now with the little, and maybe, just maybe God will invite you to be involved in something that might kill you...if you're lucky'

I remember just being rocked to my core when thinking about youth ministry and so many 'class mates' who were studying to be youth ministers and how few were currently involved in any ministry.

I think a conversation I had with a young man the other day really lends itself to the situation.

I was providing some spiritual direction for him as he began to tell me he feels God is calling him to quit youth ministry and become a senior pastor, possibly even a church plant. As I asked questions he admitted, his youth ministry was stagnate, didn't have good healthy leaders, many students left his ministry, and doesn't feel he has been a good leader... I asked how he felt those traits and set backs would lead in his heart to believe he was called to be a senior pastor... his comment floored me but I think speaks to each and every one of our 'beasts' with in.

"Brit I want to be significant! I want to do something significant and be significant." The conversation took a different turn after that, but I think it speaks to our desire to want to be more, and more in the eyes of God and other. Our 'culture' and heart desires to be stars and famous as the world would see it. Our Christian culture no longer is seeking the 'downward mobility of Christ' (thank you Henri Nouwen). In being Christ like we seek to be known less so God may be known. Christ's celebrity status landed him on the cross for our sins... "Jesus may we be at your right and left?" Dangerous question to ask the son of God

bwcagrl said...

spot on...thank you for giving voice to this.
after 16 great years in youth ministry and writing curriculum for 8, i can handle the 'spotlight' but i much prefer (and am called to) the life of servant and prophet even though it is often seen as much harder than being 'known.'
for me the prayer has become, "God am I empty enough of myself for you to use me now?" instead of pleading with God to use me in a certain way.
thank you for your reflections!

Roodman said...

Walt- I know we don't know each other so please know I'm not attacking here but I think there is another side to this story. For all the comments you posted I could say the Old Guys of youth ministry are equally guilty. Self Promotion is the sane thing regardless of the number of books you've written. My own 2cents is that the biggest problem is that young guys don't know what paths to walk. It's bot the same as it was 30 years ago and the path is muddy.

I'll be honest and say there is a part of me disappointed that some of the old guard seems to be more inclined to try to keep their hold on power than release it to a new generation. In my opinion one great exception to this is Mike King who always seems to be surrounded by young guys.

Again I fully admit I don't know you or many of the old guys but what if these young leaders had someone like you actually building into them and affirming their strengths and giving them the opportunities.

I'm sure this will give us something to talk about. I may be off base and if I am I apologize now and will retract. I think that the YM world has benefited so much from those who came before us but I think we are in a place where some power needs to shift. But it is so much better when power is given instead of ripped away. Younger youth workers need to be empowered.

ofgrace said...

Thank you for the sober and wise wake up call to this spiritual pitfall for our the young people (though none of us is actually completely immune)! As I look back, I realize in my 20s especially, it was a huge temptation to look for my sense of significance in the approval of others and in my perceived "achievements". Of course, this is also spiritually completely deadly as you have pointed out with your example of the "train wreck" you have seen.

As a former Evangelical become Orthodox Christian, I've found the Orthodox Christian tradition is rich in patristic wisdom about the road to overcoming vice and obtaining virtue in the struggle for union with Christ--the supreme virtue, being that of humility from which flow all the others. The pursuit of Christ's humility is the antidote to the spiritual disease you discuss. A good familiarity with the Desert Fathers and others like St. John of the Ladder--if we could take their words and examples to heart-- would be good medicine for this spiritual illness. We need a radical departure--especially in Christian ministry--from the world's definitions of success.

The bottom line is this; Without humility we will not be filled with the Spirit of Christ, and if we are not filled with the Spirit of Christ--with the kind of wisdom that is born of an actual experience of Christ Himself as He makes Himself known to us in the depths of our own hearts--we have nothing of value to offer anyone else.

Gman said...

Reminds me of an old post I wrote on "I hate Doug Field" ...not hating on doug but people trying to be like him or anyone else they consider be "Christian Celebrity" be who God called you to be.

Faith and Mark said...

Hey Walt,

Last night I was going through Matthew 6 with my youth, so when I read this post I giggled in a school-girlish way. What motivates us to serve God and others? Am I even posting here today for Him or me?

So many of us want to be special, have a purpose that we think will make us exceptional and be noticed by others. It isn't a bad thing to aspire to be someone like you. The public you, that is - the you that we see and hear and read. Unfortunately most of us don't see the private you building a fabulous tree house with your kids who have had to wade through culture in everyday conversations and encounters.

Our desire for significance cries out loud and comes out in these questions. And you're hearing it expressed. But really, who are we trying to please or be significant to? What (or who) satisfies us? "Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be (Mt. 6:21)." When we look for the approval of others, that's all we get in return.

I'm grateful for your faithfulness to the calling God has "pushed" you into, Walt. So much for the glamorous celebrity of Christian leadership *smile*.

(The way you feel about people who ask that question is similar to the way I feel when people tell me that youth ministry is only a stepping stone for them to enter other ministries.)

Mike said...

Thank you for this post. I've been doing this long enough that a number of my former students are several years into youth ministries of their own. I'm passing on the link to them. It's easy to listen to that obvious & frantic voice telling us we should be 'noticed' by now or asking when we get our headshot on the conference promo (as if I have a "headshot")...

While the voice pushing us to "more" may not always be rooted in pride for all of us, this is a good reminder to continue to be faithful with what's been entrusted.

Like Adam, I kind of chuckle at the thought of upward mobility in youth ministry. Even at the top, you're an adult buried in a world that many of your peers and contemporaries don't even want to engage. There's no esteem there - like you said "it's not what you think it is." I think a key component to Adam's bit of pushback is answering the question "How do I effectively mature in youth ministry?"

Walt Mueller said...

Roodman- I need to respond with a couple of thoughts. Sadly, the danger is there for all of us.I'm sure - in fact I know - that there are many in our circles who self-promote, and they have the stage. We should always be aware of the tendency and danger. . . And run from it whether we see it in oursleves or others. Second -and I can only speak with confidence about the older folks I know - nothing brings them greater joy than leaving a legacy through teaching and being with those who are younger, and learning from those who are young.Mike is a great example of that.Thanks for a good reminder!

Lars Rood aka Roodman said...

Thanks Walt. Not sure why my earlier post was titled "roodman". I'm sure I did something wrong. This is Lars Rood. Your reply was gracious. Hopefully my original comment was as well. My hope is that all of us who are older (I fit the bill) do all we can to not just mentor and teach but to give away the opprtunities to mentor and teach to the younger guys. My ultimate goal is to go to planning meetings and talk about men and women who people have never heard of that have great value and just be a cheerleader for those folks.

Your post was a good reminder to me but just also made me aware that there may actually be more responsibility placed on those who currently hold the power

dave4godsteens said...

I once heard a wise person say...I can't remember who it was...probably was you, Walt...anyway, they said "God told me 'You worry about the depth of your ministry...I'll take care of the breadth of it." Thot that was relevant and I was reminded of it when I read UR post. Continued "Praise God's" and Thanks 4 who U R and what U do... Dave

Paul Turner said...

Thanks Walt. I enjoy being part of the old guard, in my own little world. There will come a time where I will lay this thing down called youth ministry. I hope, for all our sakes, no one holds too tightly. It is only on loan to us. It is also my strong desire that at the end of it all, I did not leave a shallow example of what it means to have the pleasure of training others. Your wisdom and insight are a blessing. Keep it up Walt.

Anonymous said...

You can accomplish much if you don't care who gets the credit.
Ronald Reagan

There is no end to what you can accomplish if (or when) you don't care who gets the credit.
Florence Luscomb

There is no limit to the good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit.
General George C. Marshall

There's no limit to what a man can achieve, if he doesn't care who gets the credit.
Laing Burns, Jr.

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
Harry S. Truman

It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.
John Wooden

theradicaljourney.com said...

Walt,
You've answered so many questions I've had spinning in my head for years with this post. I thank you for your humility and honesty with me. Recently, I admit, I asked a similar question of a well-known blogger. Though I never received a response from him personally, I believe the Lord has responded to me through your post. Indeed, it is God who takes us from feeding lambs to sheep; we in no way can promote ourselves into that role. Thanks again for the clarity!

Nick McDonald

KJ said...

When I was a young youth worker, a mentor said to me, "Don't seek out bigger ministry opportunities, but don't be afraid of them if they come your way." such simple, wise advice that I have followed ever since.

Oh, and the security word I had to enter to post this comment was "undies", which I found hilarious...

Anonymous said...

Humility is crucial, isn't it? After everything I do wherein people praise me, I try to always pause and give that praise to the LORD. He gives me the words, the thoughts, the clarity, the courage, the breath and the pulse to get me up there and reaching out to people. May we never believe that we can do anything good on our own steam - TO GOD BE THE GLORY!!

Kathy Koch, Ph.D. said...

I can so relate to what you wrote. So many women ask me the same question. My first comeback is usually to ask, "What would you talk about?" Their blank stares concern me. I then suggest that God won't give them an audience until He gives them a message. I encourage them to write a 10-minute, 20-minute, 30-, 40-, 50-, and 60-minute version of the same talk so they'll be ready when someone calls them. I tell them if they stay enthused and want more mentoring, to call me. Only two have every followed through.

Alvin Lau said...

Amen! Been having that same sense especially when I start seeing FB ads on "how to be a great youth speaker" showing up.

Derek said...

Well said, Walt. It's been an honor to meet and learn from you, but I would say that considering you or any others in the field of YM training and support to be celebrities would be missing the point of it all.

This said...

Walt, you describe me. When I was in that "very young" stage of life, my ministry aspirations were for glory. I had been blessed with some great youth pastors, and I selfishly wanted to be like them. I wanted to be influential in the lives of kids SO THAT they would look back and see how much difference I made in their lives.

It wasn't until I was halfway through college, preparing to be a youth minister, that God shook me up and permitted me to see the self-centered orientation of my ministry goals, stemming from too much self-love and too little love for God.

I fled from ministry altogether, terrified by my own selfish heart. Strange providence has brought me back, kicking and protesting, 15 years later.

I know the heart of selfishness all too well. May God deliver the church from such youth workers, and us youth workers from the dangers lurking in our own hearts.

The_BGRT said...

Amen.