In my area there is a small shopping mall. This mall has the basic stores that you would find at most malls. As well as way too many pretzel stands for its size. It’s an average size mall for the area it is in, especially considering what the surrounding population consisted of when it was built. However, in the past year shoppers at this particular building of commerce have become scarce. This has, in turn, caused many stores to vacate – leaving some areas of the mall to seem eerily vacant. Most attribute this to two things. The first would be the economy. Of course the economy has become an easy target for our blame. The second reason people give for the decay of this mall is the horrible construction at the main (and only) interstate exit that leads to the mall. There has been construction for months to make the bridge at that exit larger, which may be a good thing in the long run, but is bad for the present. Traffic there has become a nightmare. This is one of those construction areas that you avoid like the plague.
I, however, have a theory that the demise of our local shopping mall started long before the declining economy or the atrocious road situation. First, the problem started with the very beginning concept of the mall’s layout itself. When they first constructed the building for the mall they built it with no food court. This may not sound like a very big deal, but it has had negative repercussions. The main problem that this oversight has caused is that shoppers going to this mall have no centralized point of community. There is no convenient place to meet up with friends or to rest over a coffee between stores. Now, there are food places there, but that is not the point. Shoppers are not lacking food choices at this mall. They are lacking community – and community is what people in our postmodern culture are looking for more than anything else.
The second reason I see for this demise comes out of the first, but it is significant enough to mention on its own. The management of the mall, in frustration with the state of their business, is inadvertently driving away customers. This is how they are doing it: they do not let any group stand in one spot for longer than a few minutes without telling them to move along (once again breaking up community). I realize that security becomes an issue; nevertheless they are driving customers away.
Another issue that stems from the management’s frustrations is the lack of motivation to move forward. I have had discussions with individuals who have had “run-ins” with the mall management and all sense the same issue. The management is set on what they want and how things have always been done and is afraid of change. Even though their cliental are changing, they refuse to change with it. Thus, the mall is at a steady decline that will end with its demise if these issues are not remedied.
The question is what does this have to do with youth ministry? I am not saying that the church is a business and we should conduct it as such, however, there are things we can learn from this mall’s mistakes that led to it becoming irrelevant to its culture.
The first thing we can learn is that youth ministry, first and foremost, needs to be aware of the needs of its culture. This would mean adapting and changing the ways ministry is done as needed. I am the first to say that if something is working don’t change it simply for change sake. I am talking about adapting and changing events, ministries, structures, or whatever part of your youth ministry that has become pointless in your culture, in order to make it relevant. For example, at our youth group we used to hold all-nighters. We actually did them quite often. For a while they were great events and were well attended. It gave me a great time to get into meaningful discussions with students as well as a fun and safe place for a new student to experience what the youth group was like for the first time. However, it became an increasingly stressful event for the adult sponsors, the parents, and not very enjoyable for the students. There are many reasons for this that I will not take the time to get into. The point is that it became an unneeded and negative thing in our ministry, so we stop doing them. Instead, we have 5th quarters and hang out nights that end at midnight. Students have more fun, my adult sponsors aren’t as worn out, and parents feel better now that their teens aren’t sleeping away the entire next day.
In youth ministry you cannot be afraid of trying something new. To be perfectly honest with you, I thought that doing 5th quarters at our youth group was going to fail. I didn’t think we had the facilities to attract students to hang out after the local high school football game. But, I went ahead with it because we had adult sponsors who were really excited about doing it. The great thing that happened was that I was proven wrong. Fifth Quarters are proving to be an increasingly beneficial event for our youth group that is based around intentional community.
Too often in ministry we have the point of view of Garth in the movie Wayne’s World. When asked how we feel about change we respond, “We fear change.” If we were completely honest with ourselves we all would admit that we fear change in some way. This comes out of our fear of the unknown. This is human nature. However, in ministry we need to move past that and not be afraid to try something new even if it has the possibility of failure. In ministry we need to give ourselves room to fail. Thomas Edison failed many, many times before inventing a working light bulb. When asked about his failures he said that they weren’t failures, but ways he learned how not to make a light bulb work. Change is scary, but at times change is necessary.
What works today may not work tomorrow. The question is, in your ministry, what needs to change and what is working well or needs to stay the same? Just as we don’t run from change, we also don’t change simply for the sake of change.
The second thing that we can learn from this shopping mall is that without community, people are not drawn in. Intentionally authentic community is a crucial part of a healthy youth ministry. We have a great opportunity to fill the void of community in student’s lives. In a society driven by text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, our culture is looking for authentic community and acceptance. What better place to fill than the church.
We need to be cautious though, to not force community. Like I always tell my adult leaders in our youth ministry, “We are not the Holy Spirit. We cannot force spiritual moments to happen, but what we can do is create an atmosphere that leaves room for the Spirit to work in student’s lives.” The same goes for community. You cannot force authentic community to happen, though we have a responsibility to create spaces where authentic community can occur. Community can happen naturally, however, authentic community must be intentional.
For authentic community to occur in youth ministry you must be very intentional in your programming, your lessons, your ministries, and your space. I believe that we often take for granted the importance of our youth space. For community to happen in youth ministry, just like at our local mall, how the space is set up tells students what you are about and what is important to you. In their lives, so many things are changing and moving. The space we create for students needs to be a constant place that they feel safe, where they belong, and a place that belongs to them. Intentionality is important and our students need a space that is intentionally designed with community in mind.
Our God is a relational God. We are created in His image as relational beings meant to live in community. Students are hungry for this. They were created with this need. To minister to students we need to not be like the mall whose only goal is to get them in, “buy the product”, and move on. Youth ministry is a place where healthy relationships can be fostered in authentic community. This takes time and can be messy as well as dangerous at times. Youth ministry is not a business that is all about the numbers; it is about being a body of faith where authentic community can occur.
Community and change could save our local shopping mall; however, I am not worried about a mall. My main concern is for students. As youth leaders we are called to make this world a better place by loving students. To do that, we need to be aware of what’s relevant and make our ministries a place where intentional authentic community can occur.