Rabbit Starvation and Missional Youth Ministry

Here is a post I wrote for Youth Worker Journal. They have an incredibly resource-rich website as well as a magazine filled with excellent articles to grow your faith and capacity as a youth worker. If you work with youth or lead family ministry the Youth Worker Journal needs to be on your radar.

It took me ten years to discover the reality that lasting change in the lives of the youth God has called us to lead does not happen best in programs or events. I had this idea that our mission was accomplished by kids coming through the turnstiles of our church. The more kids that came, the more often they came, and the more we were on a mission and fulfilling the great commission. Looking back over 20 years of ministry in the same community to the same families, I can see where God, by his grace, moved into the lives of kids, and as I look back it was in ways I didn’t expect. 

The relevance myth – 

Keep them coming, and hope something sticks. This is the biggest mistake most youth workers make in the first five years of ministry. You relate to them and with them and become friends, but friendship is not discipleship. You preach to them messages that are memorable but not ultimately transformative. The path of relevance makes you feel like you are accomplishing your mission, but the reality is your kids find no difference between the God you preach and the gods this world proclaims. True relevance is not what people say they want but proclaiming to them what their hearts always wanted to hear. 

The pragmatic myth –

If it works then do it. If I had a quarter for every time I heard someone say, “Healthy things grow,” I would have a lot of quarters. It’s one of those idiomatic sayings you hear when you are around church long enough. The problem with pragmatism is sometimes unhealthy things grow. Weeds grow, cancer grows, and the Bible tells us sin grows (James 1:15). The American church and youth ministry, in particular, is filled with pragmatic ideologies. If you can get 200 kids in the room do it. Whatever it takes to get kids to bring a friend, do it. The end result of this myth is you have to outdo yourself every week. You end up preaching your message upside down in a tank full of piranhas because 250 Jr. Higher came out not to hear your message but to see if the piranhas would win. 
The mission that the church proclaims through pragmatism and relevance through events and programs are touted as transformative and life-changing but they are actually a form of rabbit starvation. Am I saying we shouldn’t be relevant? No. Should we have programs? Yes. What I am saying is when our mission is all protein and no fat, the church suffers. Rabbit starvation is a rare form of malnutrition that is caused by the abundance of protein but the absence of fat. The Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote, “Forest Indians who depend at times on rabbits, the leanest animal in the North…who if they have no fat from another source, will develop diarrhea in about a week, with a headache, lassitude and vague discomfort. If there are enough rabbits, the people eat till their stomachs are distended; but no matter how much they eat they feel unsatisfied.” Overconsumption of relevance and pragmatism has left many churches distended and unsatisfied. 

What is the church missing in its diet? 

What does it mean to be missional? If you look at what Jesus said in the great commission, we see what it means to be on a mission. In Mark, we see Jesus telling us our mission is gospel proclamation. In Matthew we see disciple creation as our mission. 

Matthew 28
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Mark 16
“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
The “fat” of missional Christianity that keeps us from rabbit-starvation Christianity is not in a “go and be” versus “come and see” model but rather in a “Gospel preaching Disciple making” imperative. If we want our students to be on mission it requires us to preach Christ’s mission, to reconcile back to the Father that which had been lost. These messages of gospel proclamation and disciple creation start with us. We must apply the gospel first to the dry soil of our own lost hearts. It isn’t until we see ourselves as we truly are that we can behold the sufficiency of Christ. As leaders, we have to stop counting how many people are following us and start evaluating how well we are following. We have to find our joy and satisfaction in Christ alone. 
“Many church leaders unknowingly replace the transcendent vitality of a life with God for the ego satisfaction they derive from a life for God.”  Skye Jethani
It is through the confronting of the idols of our hearts with the gospel. Yes, even in the idolatry of mission, we see the surpassing beauty of Christ. It is in a long obedience in the same direction that we become disciples of Christ. Our youth culture in America must wake from its rabbit starvation Christianity before it’s too late. Pastor, it starts with you and me proclaiming the gospel and producing disciples. Christ commanded it. He empowers us to do it by his Spirit. He did not leave us to do this work on our own. (John 14:18)

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