I'm in a season of my life where my learning curve seems pretty darn steep. Everywhere I turn, I am bombarded with new insights regarding my own inadequate definitions of relationship, success and community. Perhaps that greatest thing that seems to be cleansing the palate as of late is this whole concept of relationship and program.
I'm knee-deep into my tenth year as a youth pastor, and I think I know less now that I did as an eager, young, fresh-faced college grad! I can remember thinking I had this whole ministry thing figured out before I had even began working with people in an "uncontrolled" environment (the church) instead of theorizing in class (the controlled environment). Everything I thought I knew about how to build and sustain a successful youth ministry has changed over the last 10 years, and I am so thankful for that!!
Early on, youth ministry was built upon the premise of program...the field of dreams mentality: "If you build it, they will come." Success was defined as providing the next best thing in terms of event type activity for youth to connect at. As youth ministers, we played the role of pied piper, but our end goal wasn't to have them follow us or necessarily make disciples, but to somehow pad our measurable stats in order to be able to justify our role in the church at the next congregational meeting!!
What I've learned about building ministry on a program is that it is simply unsustainable. One day, when resources are not easily available, the program will suffer...that and the fact that there will always be better entertainment available at one's fingertips. Maybe this is why so many marriages fail? We seem to set our relationships up for failure when the relationship itself is built on program and dependent on program for its' sustainability. I can remember when my wife and I first started dating...dinner out once a week (at least) at some new place to eat. Over time, we realized this was simply an unsustainable "program" element to our relationship that we couldn't afford. So we became creative in how we built upon our relational connection and detoured away from the dangerous program-based relationship.
Sadly, what has happened in youth ministry over time is that we've created a culture that is dependent on program. Thanks to the recent recession in North America, youth ministries all over our continent have been forced to be more creative...to re-create themselves and to reshape their value system and philosophies to reflect this shift in our culture. The crazy thing is that this shift is more geared towards where youth are today than the days of program-driven connection type ministry. Instead of relying upon the program to create the relationship, we are now recognizing that it is the relationship that creates the program (the system & philosophy). Consider your own family rhythm. There is a program quality to family life, be it vacation, extra-curricular activities or schooling of some sort. When the program qualities of a family rhythm are the foundation for the formation of relationship within the family unit, the relationship itself suffers. If, however, the pre-existing, non-program dependent relationship foundation informs the creation of program elements such as vacation, the relationship structure within the family unit flourishes. It's merely a question of motivation. Instead of using language like "Must I or Do I have to?" we begin to ask use terms such as "I want to and Can we and should I?" when we allow relationship to dictate the pace and flow of our lives.
Ministry that is sustainable is ministry that recognizes, protects and fights for relationship. When our focus shifts towards the program, the relational connection we so desperately crave will suffer.