In reflecting on the success of the TV show, Friends, it's producers have said, "Our best episodes became the ones with just the six of them in the room.” To the show's producers, the heart of Friends was not it's flash. It wasn't special appearances by big name celebrities, scenes shot on location, or other gimmicks (even though the show did all of these things at various points). Instead, the show's heart was the relationship between six friends. It's best episodes flowed from that.
The same is true for those of us in youth ministry. Our ministry's are at their best when they center on Jesus, who is the heart of our faith. We're at our best when we lose the gimmicks and instead allow our content to flow from scripture.
Sadly, this is something I forget... A lot.
For me, this forgetfulness manifests itself early on in the school year, when I tend to teach topically using lots of gimmicks - video clips, music, and even games.
To be clear, I'm a champion of experiential learning, which in my opinion is not the same as gimmicks or flash. I also believe there's a very real place in ministry for video clips, music, and even games, just as I believe there's a time for topical discussions.
The problem comes when we allow fear to dictate our methods.
Unfortunately, fear is what drives me to utilize these methods far more at the start of the school year than at the end of it. It's as though at the start of the school year, I'm afraid that without these and other gimmicks, I'll lose students. I'm afraid that unless I make it interesting, scripture won't engage students. It's as though I start each year having forgotten that the “word of God is alive and active”.
Typically, I remember this truth around November, usually after an upperclassmen makes a comment along the lines of, “I just don't feel like we're growing as much as we did last year”.
After sending me into a whirlwind of panic, such comments typically prompt intentional reflection wherein I realize that while our conversations have been good, they haven't been driven by scripture. Instead, they've used scripture as a footnote in a lesson about something else.
At that point, I sigh deeply, get out the calendar and start scheduling some discussions about the Bible – studies on specific books, discussions on the life of Jesus, and explorations of the early church. While the studies themselves differ, what remains constant is that at this point, the Bible and therefore, Jesus, return to the center stage of my ministry.
This year's panic recently resulted in the start of one such study. During each week of this series, there was no preamble; no gimmicks; no games to set the lesson up. As students walked in, they grabbed Bibles, opened them, and dove in.
Not even a verse into our lesson each week, hands shot up. Question after question surfaced as students approached our conversation with an eagerness I hadn't seen in weeks. They stared in wonder (and sometimes horror) at the stuff found in scripture. They shared deeply from their lives, listened, and then questioned some more, desperately trying to find themselves in the story of our faith and figure out what these stories mean for their lives. After each week in this series, different students said how awesome our conversations were. Both weeks, I stood there, simultaneously surprised and yet not surprised at their response to straight-up scripture.
Having been reminded of this, my prayer is that in the future, I'll have the courage to lose the flash and dig into scripture throughout the whole year, recognizing that when I do, my best youth ministry episodes usually occur.