By Jeff Goins, Editor
Mark Oestreicher is the President of Youth Specialties, professional speaker, and author on the subject of youth ministry in the church. We just sat down for an interview with him regarding his new book Youth Ministry 3.0:
1) In a couple sentences, what is the main theme and reason behind writing Youth Ministry 3.0?
I’ve had this growing sense, for a number of years, that something is significantly wrong in how we think about and approach youth ministry. In many of my conversations with youth workers, I found I wasn’t alone in that concern. So I’ve spent a couple years thinking, reading, and talking about this. For quite a while, all I could articulate was some of what I thought was “wrong”; but that didn’t seem all that helpful. Deconstruction is only part of the process of change, right? And it wasn’t until a little over a year ago that I started to have some inklings about what we should head toward – what a new vision might be. In a nutshell, this revolves around moving away from values, assumptions, and practices of youth ministry that were responsive to needs of teenagers a few decades ago, and moving toward the massive need for belonging found in today’s youth culture.
2) Clearly, there is some brokenness in the American model of church – an over-emphasis on programs and an under-emphasis on life together. In your new book on youth ministry, you address this and call youth leaders to embrace a new paradigm that focuses more on communion and mission. How has this shift occurred in your own life and ministry?
Great question. It’s certainly still evolving in my own life and ministry, which is one of the reasons the book is so light on “action steps”! Let me separate my answer into the two buckets you ask about (life and ministry). In my “life” (which, in this instance, I’m considering as my non-youth ministry proving ground), much of this is being fleshed out for me in my home church. We’ve been meeting for a couple years, and have stumbled onto some great ways of practicing community/communion. Eating together, playing together, praying, laughing, listening, being present to one another. I really am experiencing, with these people, the kind of “communion” I would love to see in youth ministries around the nation. But I and others in the group had sensed that something was missing; and we realized it was that missional piece. We’re now actively involved in collaborative discernment about what a missional calling could be for our “communional” group to engage in the active and present work of God in the world.
For the “ministry” part (I realize these categories are false, btw), I’m finding my own middle school guys small group to be a proving ground. Since I just got a new group of 6th grade boys this year, we’re figuring out that communional piece, and we need to step into the missional bit. I really have come to a sense that the most life transformation takes place at “the intersection of communion and mission.”
3) As a youth minister, what is your number one priority as a leader and discipler?
Well, particularly because my hands-on youth ministry work is with middle school kids, I see myself as a tour guide. I’m journeying alongside these guys, in relationship with them, utilizing my understanding of young teens as well as the story of God to help guide them on their journey. This isn’t about cramming what I know into them, but is more about guiding them in the discovery of how God wants to be present to them on their own unique journeys. To some extent, this looks different for each kid; but at the same time, we’re in this process together, and they are journeying together.
4) In church and youth ministry, what, in your opinion, simply isn’t working? What needs to be dropped, and what can be redeemed?
The days of “reaching the influencers to reach the whole school” is long gone. This set of assumptions and approaches was developed in a day when there was one, monolithic youth culture. This just doesn’t exist anymore, and we need new, incarnational approaches to the multiple sub-cultures of adolescence. In addition (and this is a bit simplistic), the “field of dreams” approach to youth ministry of building a super-cool program that will someone attract kids (which is why many refer to this as “attractional ministry”), and assuming that will result in changed lives, doesn’t work. The days of ignoring families and family systems is gone. The days of building a youth ministry where teenagers are almost completely isolated from the rest of the church need to go away also. Youth workers as party planners needs to go. Youth workers as little CEOs needs to go (which is a challenge when many churches are built on models where the senior pastor operates like a CEO).
What can be redeemed is the incarnational values of early youth workers, who saw themselves as cross-cultural missionaries and anthropologists. We need to return to these humble, missional approaches.
5) Mike Yaconelli, the “grandfather of youth ministry” and co-founder of Youth Specialties, was perhaps the biggest proponent and critic of modern youth ministry. Is there any of Mike in your book, and if so, what? Or, is this an entirely new paradigm for doing youth ministry? What have you gleaned from Mike’s life and vision, if anything, in writing this new book?
I sure hope there’s Yac all over this thing! It’s funny, really: Mike was one of the primary people who built and packaged the “youth ministry 2.0” attractional models. But as he grew older, and developed a deeper connection with Jesus, Mike started to see the folly in that stuff, and – I really think – became a bit of a prophet crying in the wilderness, longing for change, longing for people to jettison all the programming crap and return to a love of Jesus. So, yes, I think Mike’s influence on me and my thinking is riddled throughout the book.
6) Young people are getting more and more involved in social justice issues and how their faith ought to intersect the world’s deepest needs. In Youth Ministry 3.0, how do you explain or address this? What justice causes would you recommend that youth leaders get involved with?
Yes, this is the “missional” value I write about in the book. And it’s to that intersection of mission and communion that we want to take our teenagers and ministries (and our own lives). One of the key points of the book, howver, which I state over and over again, is that there is not a prescription for what this looks like in any particular youth ministry. Youth workers need to develop the skill of group discernment; and no place is this more true than in what “justice causes” will become the missional playing-out of youth ministry 3.0.
7) As a youth leader, what’s something that you just wouldn’t risk getting fired over (i.e. a nonessential)?
Hmmm. This is a very interesting question. I think I would risk getting fired over anything that I passionately believe – whether that’s about approaches and values, or about theological issues. So, I wouldn’t stand my ground on things like particular events or programming bits, but I would totally risk getting fired over a massive collection of things like: the roles of volunteers, the emphases and values of the ministry, our desire to help students meet the radical, life-altering, revolutionary Jesus (in other words, I have no interest in perpetuating the desire
to create nice, compliant, church attending kids), the inclusivity of love, the call to justice, and a whole bunch of other things!
8) As a leader in ministry, what’s something you would risk getting fired over?
Well, I guess I kind of just answered this. And frankly, I think it’s a much more significant and interesting question than what I wouldn’t get fired over!
To find out more about Mark, visit his blog.
Jeff graduated from Illinois College, a small liberal arts school, with a degree in Spanish and Religion. He lives in Nashville, TN. He works for Adventures in Missions, edits this silly little magazine, and loves to do new things.