When I finally decided that a jobs based youth ministry was an experiment that was worth trying, I presented it to the Session at my church. One of the first questions that I was asked was by an elder on my board was , "So it sounds like you are just bribing kids with money?" This is an interesting question and one that is valid.
For starters, there is no denying that a bunch of my thinking has been rooted in understanding the economics behind American culture. Particularly much of my leap into this way of doing youth ministry was driven by an awareness that time has become the most precious commodity that any American teen or their family has and that if the church is going to compete for that time it is going to need to change its value proposition. I am unapologetic for that line of thinking. We built a model that no longer fits with how American society works or views the world.
My response to the elder was, "Yeah, in a way you are right. But, you are sort of already in the bribery game, to state it crudely. Wouldn't you rather bribe students with job experience and life experience that prepares them for the world they are about to walk into rather than with couches and cheetoh eating contests?"
The shift in my thinking was caused when I baptized a student in our ministry a couple of years ago. This particular student had been brought by a friend to our ministry and had stayed connected throughout middle school despite living about 15 miles away from our church. During their first year of high school, they decided to get baptized. It was wonderful. At least it was wonderful until the night I dropped them off at their home a few weeks later.
I realized I was driving away from a leaky trailer that had no running water and had piles of garbage packed around the outside with a passel of dogs that circled you like sharks every time you went to the front door. As I wound my way out from their property I thought, "Great, we baptized this kid, but what is going to happen with them in two years? How will they provide for themselves?" James 2:16 came to mind immediately. I had blessed them and told them to go in peace, but had I filled their stomach or put clothes on their back?
My basic idea is simply that as we embody and proclaim the good news that we ought do so in a way that blesses the world around us. If that blessing is a bribe than I suppose I am guilty as charged. Right now I live in a culture in which teenagers are being SOLD massive college loans and a gospel of self actualization through achievement. It is a vapid sort of skulduggery that beggars my imagination. The idealists have sold everyone on the right and need for a university education while the industrialists and the government have been happy to provide the loans. Meanwhile our teens are being isolated from other generations in youth room ghettos, and sport activity ghettos, and electronic ghettos surrounded only by people their age. And we do research to help us figure out why they aren't ready to make the leap to the adult world. Please!
Teens' economic future is crumbling and I think the church has some obligation to help teenagers find their way in that world while offering them a transcendent and passion filled narrative worth dying for. I think it is right to give them job experience and life experience so that they can provide for themselves in a difficult economic picture. I think that is a deep blessing to get them away from fellow teens for a few hours a week and into jobs that expose them to the adult world and to tasks and activities that are better suited to help them decide what they are good at and what they find to be life giving! It is wonderful to help kids get caught up in the presence of Christ in our world, it is better to do so while they can feed themselves and their families. I want a student that walks through my youth center to be blessed whether they respond to God's voice or not. I happen to think that jobs and work are a much more suitable blessing than only offering fun and games. And I would even argue that the most beautiful transcendent hope in Christ is a bit of a one one eyed optometrist if it is absent of any tending to the present life.
The difficulty will be holding the transcendence and the temporal blessing in tension within this new experiment. More on that later. For the time being I plan on keeping the "bribes" coming.