I was reading an article in the Atlantic the other day (you can read it here). It was written by a Mom who is struggling watching her child lose her love of learning. The diagnosis is that the loss of love for learning that she was witnessing was essentially a byproduct of that child's loss of the willingness to fail and risk. The teen sensed the need to perform, achieve, and succeed to meet up with her parents' desires/fears. I have argued that this plagues many of the students that I work with. Many of them walk around with this notion that they "are" this or that. They "are" an artist or they "are" an A student. These identities are not really learned as much as they are bequeathed by their parents in an effort to be encouraging. I find myself doing this all the time with students and my own children. Ultimately these identities become this millstone around their necks. They have to maintain this image of themselves that they have been told over and over, at all costs.
It's a bit like going to the studio sets at Universal Studios. If you have ever been there you will know what I mean. Universal has this wonderful way of building these fake neighborhoods and cityscapes that look remarkably real. It's crazy! Especially when you are a child! What is so weird about it is how authentic it all looks. Check out the picture below of a New York City street.
The problem that is so creepy is that a closer glance quickly reveals how messed up it all really is. Things have kind of an awkward and claustrophobic feel to them. It's really real...but it isn't. All you end up with, factually, is an empty lifeless neighborhood of facades. And this is what some of our students (particularly in the higher achieving groups) sense about their world. They know that they might NOT actually be a great artist or awesome scholar. So, they become terrified of taking any risks in order that those facades can won't come crumbling down. They want to make sure that they achieve and don't disappoint their parents.
So, as we think about innovation in youth ministry we need to keep this trend in mind. A number of people and places are talking about making room for doubt in youth ministry. But, one of the main doubts that teenagers have is not just about who God is, or if God is, but about who THEY are and who THEY are becoming. We need to create spaces for self-doubt and the not-yet formed teenager. We need to make sure that we have corners of our ministry that allow students to fail. The main problem there of course is that will mean developing ministries that allow students to engage in projects in a hands on sort of way. They will need to be able to have ownership over things. Maybe worship, music, student leadership, or some kind of missional endeavor. We have to allow them the joy of attempting and falling short. The joy of "being in the arena" amidst all the grit, terror, and struggle.
Part of the reason that I think a jobs based youth ministry might work and why I think social/missional entrepreneurship is so critical to the North American Church is that it opens up just these sorts of horizons to us. Social Entrepreneurship allows for small scale missional endeavors of all kinds to take place in our world! They are just the sorts of endeavors that require hands on work! Jobs allow teens to fail in all sorts of small and correctable ways. They need have to learn to problem solve and risk. They have a chance to observe lots of different kinds of adults, and that is critical to them deciding who they want to become and don't want to become. Jobs based Youth Ministry is going to need to have adult feedback loops who also help mentor them and help them process their mistakes rather than avoiding them.
I continue to believe we need new experiments (lots!) in the area of ministering to teenagers. Whatever those experiments are, they need to allow students to problem solve and fail. My hope is that as social entrepreneurship becomes a necessity in order for the American church to maintain its Kingdom work in the world, that youth ministry will begin to be populated with more and more niche ministries that value just these sorts of virtues.