There are many images or metaphors that one can use to think about the role of the youth pastor. One might be a trail guide – one who has traveled the path before and can walk alongside young people on their journey, pointing out areas of beauty to contemplate or difficulty to watch out for, and helping them reach their destination. Another might be a coach – one who pushes young people to reach their fullest potential, helping them train their minds and bodies for the spiritual life the way one trains for a sport. No metaphor is exhaustive or perfectly describes the role, but it can give insight into a youth pastor’s assumptions about youth, themselves, and the life of faith, and illuminate why they do what they do as a youth pastor. What is their goal when they teach? How do they interact with young people? How do they hope they will have shaped or formed young people by the time they leave youth group?
One of my deepest core convictions guiding the way I do youth ministry is that young people have gifts to offer and vocations to live out. Because of that, everything that I do in youth ministry is intended to equip and empower them to live out their God-given vocation to love others and heal the world. I deeply trust the passions of youth, seeing them not as something to be tamed and tamped down, but rather encouraged and resourced. When I teach or lead discussion, I try to do so in such a way as to value their agency, respect their contributions, and help them find their own voice. Because of this, the image of the youth pastor that comes most naturally to me is that of the midwife. I find that it meaningfully describes my philosophy of youth ministry for several reasons.
First, a midwife is someone who assists in the birth of someone else’s child. The midwife had nothing to do with the child growing in the womb – her job is to bring into the world what is already in the world, in nascent form, hidden within the mother and known to her alone. It’s easy to think sometimes that young people are like blank slates, and our job is to write on those slates all the creeds and doctrines of the faith. But I don’t believe young people are blank slates – no matter how young, I believe that God has given them a vocation and gifts that will resource them. I didn’t put it there, and I cannot claim credit for it. And while I may assist in the birth, it is their body that will give birth. I can teach them spiritual practices the way a midwife might teach breathing techniques. I can give them information and resources. I can be at their side, wiping their tears, coaching them to breathe and push as they do the hard part. But at the end of the day, they have done it. They had what it takes all along.
Second, the role of a midwife is to care for the mother as well as the child – it is both healing and purposeful. As a scholar trained in religious education, I spend a lot of time thinking about the role that education plays in youth ministry in relation to other aspects of the work. Ultimately, I find Christian education inextricably intertwined and enmeshed with pastoral care. Teaching should be caring and pastoral, not authoritative and abstract; and pastoral care and the healing it provides should contribute to the growth of the young person. We shouldn’t be attempting to achieve a goal that ignores the young person in front of us and their need for care (delivering a baby without regard for the mother’s health and comfort), but we also shouldn’t deny that our role in their lives is something other than a best friend. There is a purpose and goal to our role as youth pastors, and it is to care for our young people as we help name and resource their own Christian vocation.
Third, the practice of midwifery is rooted in hope and expectation. Jurgen Moltmann’s eschatology reminds us that our hope in the future of Jesus Christ radically changes the way we live here and now. We are always pressing toward, and living into, that future in which everything will be made new. The apostle Paul reminds us of this in Romans 8 – that the world groans in the pains of childbirth as it hopes for what it does not yet see. In Educating Congregations, Christian educator Chuck Foster writes about the implications of this theology for education in the church. Christian education in youth ministry isn’t just about passing down the tradition, but it’s also about pressing toward the future. We don’t just hand on the doctrines and creeds as though they are something to be kept preserved in a glass case, or as though they themselves are the faith. Rather, they are testaments to and resources of the living faith that is always speaking good news into changing contexts. So when we teach, we aim to awaken the theological imagination of young people, so that they can dare to live into God’s future and participate in it. Which brings me to my fourth point…
Fourth, the ultimate goal of the midwife is to deliver life to the world. The work can be painful and messy, but the promise of new life is what keeps us going. And it is life that is the goal – not tithes or attendance or a safe, uneventful transition to adulthood. We should not be preparing our young people to be wealthy and successful by the world’s standards. We should not be teaching a gospel of behavior management so that they can be “good enough Christians.” We should not be passing on a faith that sustains the status quo for the benefit of the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. If we are equipping our young people to be bearers of a gospel that is death-dealing rather than life-giving, it is no gospel at all. No, the youth pastor as midwife loves, works for, bears witness to, and delivers life to a broken and hurting world. And where is evidence of life? Well, it is first in literal life. If young people live out their faith by feeding the hungry, working for a suicide hotline, or studying nursing, there is life. Second, it is in love and human connection. If they love the unlovable, offer hospitality to the stranger, and march for civil rights, there is life. And third, it is in spiritual liberation and healing, offering the hope and abundant life found in Christ.
While these are the four reasons that most get to the core of how I conceive of youth ministry, there are two other meaningful aspects of the midwife image that are more like playful addenda:
- The midwife image is deeply connected to embodiment. I love the mind and the intellect, I really do. I love helping young people develop the discipline of critical thinking, and it brings me so much joy to watch them get excited about it, to re-animate the love for learning that school so often dulls. But our minds are not the only way we learn and process information. We also learn, know, innovate, and remember through our bodies. So I love pedagogies that lift up the role of the body – sensory stimulation, various forms of drama. So often in our post-Enlightenment culture, we sublimate the intuitive knowing of the body to the “certainty” of the rational mind. In fact, this is one of educator bell hooks’ feminist critiques of critical pedagogy, and one of the ways she builds on it – we tend to neglect the role of the body in emancipatory education. Thus, she focuses on holistic healing in teaching – mind, body, and spirit.
- To think of youth ministry as midwifery allows for travail – more commonly called “teen angst” – without pathologizing it in the way we tend to. So often we fail to take seriously the suffering of our young people, chalking it up to “raging hormones” or “attitude” instead of taking it seriously as real pain, but pain out of which life can emerge.
So this is my philosophy of youth ministry in a nutshell – to labor alongside young people, to care for them, to nurture their faith, and to assist them in discovering and living out their Christian vocation to love others and bring life into the world. It’s mostly them and God, this process. God is the creator of life, and they co-create and labor to bring that life into the world. I just get to be there to help deliver it, and to share in their joy.