Does our desired youth ministry “platform” face the wrong audience?

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about “platform” and the steps needed to reach a larger audience.  Surprisingly the platform conversation has entered into the world of youth ministry, which presents youth workers with a significant problem:

The platform as it’s being defined isn’t about working with youth and it isn’t facing an audience of youth. 

The push to be on the platform (again, in its current definition) is one to be known among peers.We want to be heard, validated, recognized, and respected.  This push for recognition is true in many occupational fields.  In education circles, we had teachers who “lived” for the conferences and wanted to be known as a seminar speaker or validated in their work (to be “sought after”) by their peers.  I saw this desire in myself too in my early years and wonder now if it was because teaching and youth work can often be thankless never-ending jobs and we’re looking to others to see if we’re doing ok.  Or maybe we want something more?

Let me give another example of the platform’s audience and how it misses the intended audience:  Did you ever purchase a textbook in your early days of college and start reading and felt lost?  Do you remember thinking “this author has no clue that I’m an 18 year old who has never had this subject before”?   The reality is that many textbooks are written to impress other scholars in the field, not educate undergraduate students.

The platform is designed to reach other youth workers, not minister to youth.

Of course we don’t start out that way at first, but over time, whether due to a lack of support or our own insecurities, we tend to want to be recognized by other youth workers.  Perhaps youth work doesn’t satisfy our drive for “success” or we aren’t getting the encouragement and support as youth workers.  Perhaps our leadership drive is for youth work AND recognition that our youth work is effective.  I can certainly understand all of this as many of us in youth work have a strong drive.

I’ve done a quick scan of the word “platform” and “youth ministry” and find that most of the youth workers writing about it are working to get into the blogging world.  Now, obviously I’m writing this analysis from my own blog (part of my own platform, I guess), so please see that I’m calling for balance here for all of us.

The critique (unfair, I think, of course) of youth ministry is that it’s not making much change in the lives of youth and that the local community is rarely impacted or changed because of a youth ministry group.  Perhaps we should desire to build a “platform” within the local high school, community, and families of our church or community? What kind of transformation would then happen?

Here’s my stall by the side of the road, a personal philosophy that I’ve never shared in print, but firmly believe (and teach) about youth ministry:

Youth workers need to spend half of their worktime (20-25 hours a week for full-timers) with youth.  

What if you decided to invest 25 hours a week with youth (take an adult along with you whom you can show how to do this and then turn him/her loose in a few months) and worked to build relationships, do basic pastoral counseling, see teens from your school give their lives to Christ?  Isn’t that why we got into youth ministry?  To work with youth?

I grew up in a ministry that espoused the 25 hours minimum time with kids rule.  I would say it was the secret to our success as a ministry.  When people would come to visit us and see how we did what we did and they say that rule of thumb, they were shocked.  Then we’d be shocked that youth workers would be… well…. working with youth.  Even now as a professor I can’t help but get out of the office and go hang out with students.  My home this past weekend had multiple teenagers hanging around each day.  This is what we do! And no matter our titles, number of followers, or SEO abilities, this is the life-on-life dynamic that makes youth ministry transformational.

As churches and ministries condense and work towards efficiency, anyone can run a program, anyone can show a video (what I call “host teaching” … don’t get me started on this one), and anyone can develop a blog (do churches now pay youth workers to blog?).  The invaluable youth worker is the one who can live among youth and their families, can teach without technology, and has the expertise to help youth grow, learn, and become mature.

Richard Dunn advocated for a side-by-side “pacing” approach to youth ministry.  If maturity, or a “sticky faith”, is our goal, then this is what will be required. Dunn wrote in Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students: A Guide for Youth Workers, Pastors, Teachers and Campus Ministers, “You can’t tell a kid into maturity.”  To help students grown in maturity and faithfulness will take time and presence.  And more time and more presence.

I want to be an encouragement to you to consider your schedule next week and how you can spend 6 more hours with teens than you did this past week.  Here are four ideas:

  1. Go hang out in your community where teens hang out.
  2. Go see an event or game at school and meet as many kids as you can (start with the friends of your own teens).
  3. Plan a fun event (walk the mall, hang out at the Pizza place – and buy) for about 3-4 teens in your group and a few friends.
  4. Think of two teens who would benefit from a one-on-one conversation with you in a safe public place.

If you added these 4 activities to your weekly schedule every week, you’ll be surprised what may happen, what you’ll notice/learn, how you’ll grow closer to youth, and how God will use you in their lives.

  • Todd Gongwer

    Well said Terry! A truth that apply’s not only to youth workers, but to all those in the body of Christ who truly desire to walk as He walked and impact as He impacted … He avoided the large crowds and sought out the few way more often then not!

  • Brian Seidel

    This is great! The more I have worked to build my “youth ministry platform” that everyone says I need to publish writing, the more frustrating it becomes. Last week after hanging out with students more than my normal amount I seriously thought to myself how much I still love youth ministry. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Terry Linhart

      Brian, great stuff. I showed the movie SOUL SEARCHING in class a few weeks ago and it always gets me a bit teary because it connects with my love/call for youth work so well. And Kel and I have made 2012 a much more intentional year of working with youth so that we’re not just sitting on the sidelines of this grand adventure you/we love so much! Thanks for reading and stopping by. Hope to see you this fall again!

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  • UltimateYouthWorker

    Love the post Terry. It is so easy to strive to be the best “Youth Worker” in the eyes of others that we miss the young people. It is why we started the Ultimate Youth Worker. almost everyone i spoke to wanted to be the one who every other youth worker looked to for the answers. It is such a misnomer!!! The ones who are closest to the Ultimate Youth Worker’s are those who daily plug away through the good and the bad with their young people. Thanks for the reminder to us all.

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