Electronic communication, thorny social issues and skepticism of authority mean churches are looking for youth pastors who are in it for the long haul. Long the bottom rung of church ministers, youth pastors and ministers are getting their day.
On a recent Wednesday evening, about a dozen teenagers and adults are lazing around on couches arranged in a horseshoe shape.
Jay Bush, youth pastor at First Church of the Nazarene in Springfield, strides to the front, dressed in jeans and a University of Michigan pullover. He adjusts a music stand that serves as a lectern.
“You kids having a good week?” Bush asks, with answers not matching his enthusiasm.
“What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?” he tries.
“I found out I have a Constitution test Friday,” offers a student.
“The Constitution — that’s important,” Bush shoots back.
The inevitable followup question — bad things that happened over the week — draws more reaction.
“My car broke down,” one girl says.
“So what’s wrong with it?” Bush asks.
“Something with the engine,” she replies to laughter around the room.
“Engine problems — I had that once,” Bush says, jokingly.
After a few announcements and prayer requests, Bush draws a pie chart on a whiteboard. Soon, he’s filling out sections that make up students’ lives — family, school, friends, work, church/God.
Quickly, they get the picture. “God desires to be more than a slice of your life,” Bush says.
He then produces a pile of aluminum pie pans and, during a prayer, encourages the students to each take a pie pan.
“I want you to put it somewhere as a visual reminder,” Bush says, “that you’re willing to have God have every influence in your life. True freedom to Christ is when you give him everything.”
Long the bottom rung of church ministers, youth pastors and ministers are getting their day. First Church of the Nazarene created a full-time youth pastor position, reuniting Bush with his home pastor, the Rev. Fred Prince. At West Side Christian Church in Springfield, four ministers work full time in family life ministry, including Josh Ryder with its high school students and Chris Sandel with its junior high students.
And with the rise of social networking on Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the way youth pastors approach their job has changed significantly — leading some to think that the field needs experts who specialize in the needs of young congregants.
“I don’t perceive it as a stepping stone,” says West Side Christian’s Sandel, 29. “To me, I feel like this is what God called me to do and gifted me to do. But sometimes,” he adds, smiling, “I feel like I’m a big kid.”
A “social” presence
Bush, 38, got into youth ministry as a happenstance: during a year off from college, the pastor of his Walled Lake, Mich., church asked him to fill in for a year.
“I really wasn’t that passionate about it,” Bush remembers. “I made a decision after the first three months: either I was going to pour my heart into it, or I was going to leave it.”
Bush’s affirmation bore out a calling. Four years ago, he was reunited with Prince at First Church of the Nazarene after Prince created a full-time position for youth pastor.
Still, those who minister to youths sometimes get labeled as glorified “baby sitters,” a ministry fobbed off on greenhorn seminary students trying to get their foot in the door.
“‘When are you going to start doing ministry?’ I get that from time to time,” says Ryder, 29.
Those comments come at a time when youth ministry has undergone radical change with the explosion of electronic communication.
Youth ministers have had to adapt to forms of communication favored by teens. That means having a presence on Facebook, texting and tweeting.
“It’s an extension of communication,” Sandel says. “When we use it, it’s how we can be in their realm.”
“Until a year and a half ago, I had never heard of Facebook or MySpace,” Bush admits. “I thought it was a waste of time. Now I look at it as a tremendous tool at my disposal. It’s made communication so much more accessible.”
The Rev. Jenn Simmons of Webster Groves, Mo., who has written extensively on youth ministry, says Facebook has “changed and revolutionized everything,” noting that young people are unabashed in how they use social networks, from expressing their joys and sorrows to ending relationships publicly.
“They’re willing to share things on Facebook,” adds the Rev. Tasha Blackburn, associate pastor and youth minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, “that they wouldn’t share face to face.”
Young people, Blackburn says, “care about the relationships they develop (in youth ministry),” even if they’re leery of church as an institution.
“It’s like that book ‘They Like Jesus But Not the Church.’ That’s exactly how kids are,” Blackburn says. “What are you going to put down my throat? What are you trying to convince me of?”
While relationship-building is a component of youth ministry, so is building a relationship with God, Sandel says.
“If they’re not challenged (in that relationship with God), they feel that void,” he says.
“Most of decisions about faith are made at the end of junior high or earlier,” Ryder says. “It is humbling to think about.”
“It can be a time of turmoil and vulnerability,” Simmons says. “They have to see church as a safe place for them to gather.”
“It keeps me honest”
Blackburn says young people want a youth pastor who is just as open and genuine as they are.
“I stay with it because it does keep me honest, but, boy, they have you doing a range of emotions in the same night,” says Blackburn, 34. “If you had a good night or something resonates, they’ll let you know. On another night, you’ll get hormonal attitude.
“There’s great joy in the work, but it’s also humbling. Both are great reasons to stay in it.”
“You have to be bent a different way (to do this work),” Ryder says. “I like being in front of kids and doing goofy stuff. I really value where I am.”
“He’s (Ryder) always energetic, and he can connect well with high schoolers,” says Chad Long, a junior at Chatham’s Glenwood High School. “He hasn’t been a whole generation removed (from us.)”
Bush says he appreciates First Nazarene creating a position for a full-time youth pastor. The church, he says, sees value in young people, who play in worship bands, run audio-visual equipment and work in the nursery.
“They’re woven in the fabric of the church,” he insists.
Bush says he tries to model what he preaches. He knows anything less wouldn’t be authentic.
“I try to keep myself grounded. Family, kids, my parenting, my responsibilities. My relationship with God centers on that.
“I can’t lead these students spiritually if I’m not willing to go deeper spiritually.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at (217) 622-1788 or firstname.lastname@example.org.