It is interesting how collective subconscious forms within organizations and people groups. Without people ever really talking about a subject in much detail they can often begin to collect around a given topic, adopt a common set of vocabulary and then ultimately become a substantive force to be reckoned with. It is very interesting that while there is often a common vocabulary as to the problem there is rarely a commonly understood and agreed upon meaning. This seems to find exceptional root in organizations like the church. I have observed this effect in many churches across the country. In youth ministry this collective consciousness seems to, in recent years, center around two words:
I have seen youth ministers struggle and rack themselves hours upon hours to try to develop the right alchemy in their ministry to achieve that perfect balance of Fun and Deep. While some do find temporary success it is often short lived and they find themselves answering to the same charges again that the youth ministry needs to be more "deep" or more "fun."
Here is the problem:
These are illusive and almost mythical terms.
Instead of continuing to get on the Fun and Deep hamster wheel I would offer a couple of alternatives.
First, theologically, I would offer that the goal of youth ministry is not to be fun. Fun is a wonderful byproduct and means of youth ministry but should not be the goal. Secondly, when a student goes home and complains that youth group is not fun they rarely mean that there were not enough video games or inflatables. What youth ministers and parents must remember is that students are often not terribly self aware. This lack of self awareness coupled with a limited emotional vocabulary often has students defaulting to a more trite word like fun when they actually mean something much more significant.
When I think of the most "fun" I had in youth ministry it had nothing to do with the playstation we had in the youth room or the fun of a rafting retreat. The most fun I can remember is on a trip to a conference. Two of our vans broke down at the exact same time (no joke) at pretty sketchy gas station at midnight. There were no cell phones so two vans of us had to stay at the gas station until the other working van could drive back to our hometown, an hour and a half away, and bring the other van to shuttle us back over the course of two trips. So there we were sitting, no cell phones, no social media, no nothing. Then a group of us found an old antifreeze jug and started throwing it around like a football. Within a couple of minutes under the flickering lights of the gas station we had a pretty intense game of anti-freeze football going on. We all had a place, the adults were playing alongside us, we all celebrated when someone did well and after several hours of playing we all collapsed in laughter and joy together. That was the most fun I ever had in youth group, and it had nothing to do with fun.
When youth talk about wanting more fun I believe this is what they are really talking about. I believe they are talking about having a deep sense of belonging, having a place and being in community. They are talking about being known by name by both students and adults. They are talking about their gifts being used and being celebrated. When a kid really belongs to a group in this sort of way you will rarely if ever hear them talking about youth group not being fun.
We, in youth ministry, have somewhat co-created this problem. We use this language is a sort of flippant way and our students have adopted it and use it as well. Now please here me. I believe whole heartedly in students doing strong theological reflection, spiritual practices and living a life that reflects the life of Christ. This, however, is not what most mean when they talk about wanting to go deep in youth group. I think that the word deep has two incarnations in our youth ministries. One is a Frankensteins monster, the other is a legitimate desire that most students cannot articulate on there own. First Frankenstein...
In the past 20+ years of youth ministry we have drawn a distinct connection between an emotionalism that is found and achieved in worship with the idea of going deep. Youth began going to conferences, later churches began mimicking them, where the singing portion of the worship was deeply moving, moving to the point of teenagers standing with arms up and tears streaming down their faces singing at the top of their lungs. This very emotional style of worship (please do not hear judgement here) then became the standard of what it meant to "really worship God." These mountaintop experiences then became the standard that we held all other "God times" to. We taught our kids to try to live by jumping from emotional mountain top to the next, by default implying that it is in those experiences where we really experience God. This has led us to a severely diabetic relationship with God where we measure our lives by the spikes and drops in our emotional blood sugar level.
The other, and I would say more healthy understanding of deep we can promote is when a student finds themselves challenged. Challenged theologically, practically and mentally. When we play down to our students and try to give them a "teenagers guide to faith" we miss the point. As I have said before we are not called to create good youth group members or good teenage christians. We are called to help create young christian adults whose faith is mature and whose end goal is not preventative maintenance through their high school years. A youth will rarely tell you that they want to be challenged in these ways, but they want it, they need it and ultimately the church needs them to be. I find students most joyful and spiritually satisfied when we are engaging them in this way. When we push their norms, challenge their assumptions and create crisis points, all in safe community, their faith will grow and their devotion "deepen."
Remember, our job is not to play into a reactionary role when parents and students talk about wanting more fun or going deeper. It is to help redefine and more importantly get to the root of what they are really trying to tell us. Do not react, but respond and walk away with a more fruitful and succinct ministry.