It’s past time that churches gave up on the stereotype of the young, cool, Energizer Bunny youth minister. It’s an old trick that Young Life popularized more than fifty years ago – get someone with the “cool factor” who can be an influencer and attract people to the ministry (see Gretchen Schoon Tanis, Making Jesus Attractive: The Ministry and Message of Young Life). So for most of the history of modern youth ministry, search committees have sought that charismatic personality who can plan exciting events that attract a crowd. The only problem is, over the years, research has consistently shown that nearly everyone in the crowd disperses. Youth ministry provided fun and games for the high school years…and little else that would spiritually sustain them beyond those years. We have let thousands of young people come through our churches and have missed the opportunity to nurture their spiritual lives and theological imaginations.
In the years that I have studied and worked in youth ministry thus far, I have become convinced that one of the most important things we can do for the spiritual lives of young people is not to create exciting or fun experiences for them. It is not even to teach them – at least, in the way we often think of teaching. Instead, the most important and transformative thing we can do is to listen to them – to listen attentively to their stories and their lives, to ask perceptive questions that take them deeper, to name how God is at work in their lives, and to help birth their vocation to love others and heal the world. This may seem counter-intuitive, as we tend to assume that spiritual formation occurs when we teach young people biblical stories and doctrinal principles. But what if the deepest formation occurs when we listen first?
On the importance of listening, consider the following quote from youth ministry scholar David White about graduate students conducting research interviews with high schoolers:
“In a recent summer program sponsored by the Youth Theological Initiative at Emory University, sixty youth from around the country gathered to engage in practical forms of Christian discipleship and an elaborate program of study, worship, recreation, music, service, and spiritual direction. To the surprise of the staff the activity that consistently ranked highest on youth evaluations was a one-hour interview with a graduate student for research she was gathering. These interviews were very open-ended and allowed youth to speak about feelings and thoughts they had never spoken about to anyone. These researchers found that creating space for these youth to speak did not simply represent an opportunity for them to say what they knew, but in the process of speaking, they found themselves actively making sense of their lives, speaking themselves into identity. Rarely in this culture do youth experience the full and prolonged attention of a significant adult who wants simply to listen to them – to hear about their loves, hates, gifts, families, hopes, and dreams for the future. Creating such space for listening to youth is vital for them and for us.” (David White, Practicing Discernment with Youth, 112.)
Working at the same program years later, I experienced the same thing. When I asked my group of students during covenant group one evening what had most surprised them about the Youth Theological Initiative so far, they said they were most surprised that the adults actually seemed to want to listen to them – and they thought if parents and teachers and youth pastors listened in that way, maybe fewer youth would feel so alone and maybe the suicide rate would drop.
In their book Lives to Offer, Dori Baker and Joyce Mercer also have a chapter on listening with youth. Based on similar experiences interviewing young people, they note how interviews provided a space for young people to voice aloud some of their deepest fears and hopes, and in the speaking, begin to construct meaning. I have seen this play out in my own interviews with young people, hearing them comment with surprise at their own words, “I guess I’d never thought of it that way before until I said it!” Giving young people space to process their developing beliefs and ideas is crucial for their faith formation (see also Amanda Drury, Saying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development).
Joyce and Dori refer to this practice in youth ministry as “holy listening” – which is a term often used in spiritual direction. A spiritual director is a wise and contemplative person – who is deeply rooted in their own spirituality and relationship with God – who listens prayerfully and attentively to another person and to the Holy Spirit to discern the work of God in a person’s life. They are different from a counselor or a life coach in that their primary goal is not to give advice, but rather to point to the Holy Spirit. They might suggest a Scripture or a theme for the directee to meditate on, or ask a probing question for them to consider prayerfully.
This kind of holy listening requires a skill set far beyond what we typically want from a youth minister. It requires the following characteristics:
- A deep relationship with God. A youth minister who is not spiritually deep cannot nurture spiritual depth in your teens. Ask your youth minister candidate about their prayer life, about their spiritual disciplines, about how they make decisions in their life. Ask them how they’ve seen God at work in their life lately and how God was working in their previous ministry. For more on rooting youth ministry in the minister’s own spiritual life, read Mark Yaconelli’s Contemplative Youth Ministry. This book was life-changing for me and still ranks as one of my top two books on youth ministry (the other is David White’s book quoted above).
- The capacity to listen deeply and attentively. They need to be able to ask good questions and never interrupt; to be comfortable with silence; to listen to what is not said; to self-differentiate and not emotionally react in a way that distracts from the young person’s own sharing.
- A quality that I can only describe as wisdom – to be able to connect dots in young people’s stories, to meditate on them, to see what themes surface and how they connect to what is going on their life, to hear how God might be speaking to them and be able to name it for them.
The person who embodies these characteristics may be super charismatic and be able to plan an amazing lock-in. But more often than not, the people who are wise and careful listeners move through life without attracting much attention to themselves. If they are interested in youth ministry, they’ll likely be overlooked because they don’t have the “wow” factor in the interview. But my hunch is that few of these people would apply for a youth ministry position because they know they aren’t what a church is looking for; because the stereotype of the “youth ministry personality” is pervasive enough to discourage them; because the job description looks more like an event planner than a spiritual director.
But if it’s true that holy listening is one of the most important things we can do for a young person’s spiritual life, and if cultivating their spiritual life is what will give them resources to tap into after they graduate, perhaps the best youth ministry hire is not a cool 22-year-old camp counselor. Maybe it’s a 56-year-old woman whose career has been in spiritual direction. She’ll be totally out of the loop on youth culture, and although they’ll good-naturedly laugh at her, I guarantee that none of the teens will care. She might not plan the most knockout events, but I truly believe that a young person would trade all of it – the games, the snacks, every single attractional gimmick we can come up with – for the rare chance to be heard, known, and loved by someone who was really gifted in holy listening.
What if we could radically re-envision the way our youth ministry worked? What if we could calm down and slow down enough that the primary task of ministry was listening? Imagine it with me. The youth minister still teaches Sunday school and plans some events, but the bulk of her time is spent in mentoring and spiritual direction relationships with her students. In the afternoons after school, she makes appointments with her youth to come in and spend some time with her. She asks them, “When is a moment in your life lately that really made you come alive?” She watches their eyes light up as they share about their niece’s first steps, and she says, “Wow, that sounds like a really sacred moment. What do you think it was about that that made you feel that way?” Over time, she comes to recognize a theme: for this student, they feel most alive when they see other people learn and grow. She names this for the student, who begins to look for God’s presence for themselves in those moments. Instead of letting those moments fall by the wayside, they begin to remember them, to dwell on them, to see them as sacred. Ultimately, together they discern that perhaps the student’s vocation is in teaching.
She facilitates small groups, using her skills to help young people practice holy listening with each other. They share stories from their lives and discuss together how it reminds them of stories from their faith tradition. They name for each other where they see God at work in each other’s lives. A seemingly mundane story that would have been a passing moment becomes an opportunity for theological reflection. (See Dori Baker, Doing Girlfriend Theology: God-Talk with Young Women.) And in the process, they begin to interpret their lives through the lens of faith.
At the end of each day, instead of quickly moving on to the next project, the youth minister takes some time to really reflect on what she has heard today. She thinks about what John shared in conjunction with a passing comment his mother made last week, and she senses that perhaps there is tension in their family right now. She noticed in Bible study how Hannah grew silent when someone else mentioned sexual assault, and she wonders about it, mentally filing it away to inform future encounters with Hannah. She notices how Deborah kept using the word “alone,” and although Deborah was saying she likes being alone, the frequency of its mention makes her wonder if it’s not true. She takes a mental note to think of a Scripture to give Deborah next time that can remind her that God is with her. She dwells on all these things, wondering about them, praying over them, giving thanks and sitting with the sorrow.
This would be a very different kind of youth ministry than we typically imagine, but everything in my experience and intuition tells me that it’s a kind of different we need.
Young people can play sports at school, go on vacation with their family, and have fun with their friends. But where in their lives can they have adults really listen to them, take them seriously, and reflect on their stories enough to be able to offer the gift of spiritual direction? In our society, young people are isolated from caring adults, and the adults who are in their lives seem more interested in lecturing them than listening to them. We live in a society where social media is increasingly replacing face-to-face encounters, making human interaction a “luxury good” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/23/sunday-review/human-contact-luxury-screens.html). And our hurried pace never leaves us the margin to dwell on the moments of joy and sorrow in each day to hear how God might be speaking to us. In light of this, perhaps hiring someone trained in spiritual direction as a youth minister – or at least someone with the gift of contemplative listening – is the greatest gift your church could offer your young people.
If that’s the case, you’ll need to seek one out, as they likely don’t think of themselves as youth ministers. And you’ll need to change your job description and expectations accordingly. But I have a hunch that having a relationship with a wise and contemplative person could be life-changing for students and revolutionary for the practice of youth ministry. I have a hunch that maybe, just maybe, spiritual directors might make better youth ministers than youth ministers do.