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We had a Taizé-style worship service at Western Theological Seminary the other day, which meant we all sat on the chapel floor. I was by Ben Conner, and after the service both Ben and I creaked and groaned as we tried to stand up. We looked at each other and started laughing. Ben spent 20 years on Young Life staff before coming to Western as a professor. I spent 29 years with Young Life. One of us said, “This is the real reason we left youth ministry. We can hardly get up after sitting on the floor.”
Is there any other aspect of church service packed with as many age issues as youth ministry? No one asks, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” to high school teachers. But I sure heard that question a lot during the early years of my career.
And for good reason. I have a vivid memory of the day I said, “I can’t keep doing this anymore.” I spent a Sunday afternoon playing Risk with a few high school guys. We ordered a pizza with triple cheese, pepperoni, onions and hot peppers. The toppings resembled victimized seabirds after an oil spill as they struggled to separate themselves from the lagoon of grease covering the pizza. We washed it down with Jolt Cola. I’m not sure if Jolt is on the market anymore, but the name said it all. It featured something like triple the sugar and five times the caffeine as tamer sodas like Mountain Dew. After a few hours of letting my inner-Napoleon out on the Risk board, combined with the Jolt and grease-bomb pizza, I drove home in a stupefied haze, like Bonaparte retreating from Moscow. I went straight to bed, only to be up within a few minutes for some projectile vomiting that had that sort of short-term pain for long-term gain magic one feels while submitting to a root canal. My head still ached with a Risk/Jolt/grease hangover, but my stomach settled down. My wife then came in from a trip to the drug store, produced a pregnancy test kit, and a few minutes later showed me a stick with a blue cross on it indicating that we were about to become parents. That’s youth ministry. Others drop acid or take up boxing for this sort of masochistic thrill. I hung out with high school kids.
The energy for shaving cream fights and all-night bus rides was waning. The kids stayed the same age while I kept getting older. I walked up to a group of adolescent boys one day and asked, “Is this where the cool guys hang out?” One of them looked me over and answered, “It was.” I knew it was time to do something else but wasn’t sure what that could be. I had the following marketable skills: I was good at song leading, skits, ping pong, foosball and Frisbee golf.
I stayed with Young Life in other capacities for a long time, but I’d never primarily focus on direct ministry with kids again. God bless those ageless wonders that can keep going into their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. I was not one of them.
Youth ministry is sort of the toy department of the church. I’ve been in plenty of youth ministers’ offices that are filled with action figures, various bobble heads, balls of every size and large nets. It’s hard to be taken seriously when your office is where the church stores its nets.
I never had the right name for youth ministry, either: Jeff Munroe was way too plain. Young Life had Darby, Frog, Gumby, Moose, Newt, Crock and Tank. Not only was there Ken Knipp and Tuck Knupp, there was the wondrously named Skeet Tingle and Ty Saltzgiver. I suppose I’d still be with Young Life if only I’d been born Biff Bucklebottom.
And yet . . . the kid that hosted that Risk game is a seminary president today. I see another kid from those days that teaches literature at a local high school. Another is a college professor. Still another a physical therapist. Occasionally I run into another one who always makes me feel good – there had been some rough times in the family shortly before I got to know him, and there was something about him that made me wonder if he would make it or not. He’s turned out to be a good husband and father who volunteers in his church’s youth ministry. His life could have gone one direction, but it didn’t.
I get a little sentimental when I see adults I knew as teenagers who now faithfully lead good lives. I don’t want to go up any climbing walls or ropes courses or sit on the back of a horse ever again. I don’t even want to sit on the floor. But I’m blessed when I see how the lives of kids I once knew are turning out and I know the Risk games and bus rides done not just by me but by thousands of good-hearted adults aren’t in vain.