6.22.2012

Why Jonny Picks Football Over Youth Group

It's become a habit of mine to sneak away for a private retreat at a local monastery the week before summer youth camp. I need the time. I need the space. Or perhaps less spiritual but just as true, in youth ministry, maybe I just need the silence for a change. I need these retreats to re-tune my heart to God's will and refocus my life's calling. I can get so busy "doing" things for God that I forget to just "be" with Him.  When I feel like I'm drifting from my first love, I go to Mount Angel Abbey and get my monk on.

With camp only a few days away, I use a significant chunk of the retreat to pray by name for every student and leader who will be making the winding trip to Estacada, Oregon with our church. Summer camps have always been huge in my own spiritual journey. It was at a summer "camp" that I fully surrendered my life to Christ (I use quotations because my "camp" involved staying in air conditioned dorms and going putt putt golfing). And it was at that same camp a few years later that I first felt God's tug on my heart to enter into pastoral ministry.

So here I am, basking in the solitude of this Benedictine monastery, soaking in the Scriptures (Ezekiel this time around), and praying hard for our 33 students and 6 leaders who will experience camp together... and the text message comes in ...

(Don't judge me -- I normally turn my phone off or don't even take it on such retreats, but with my wife 8 months pregnant with our first child, I thought it would be wise).
"Mike, I'm really sorry. But I can't go to camp. It was a really hard decision, but my softball team has a game. And I have to be there to support my team, because several players are hurt and..."
Uh...God...that's not exactly along the lines of what I've been asking You for these past few hours.

Immediately, my mind went on the attack: "Why can't these students show the kind of dedication to youth group that they show to sportsl!?" "Why do church activities  always have to take a backseat to track, Little League, or __________!?" Every youth pastor I've talked to has run into the "youth group vs. sports" dilemma. It can be maddening when you're scheduling events or counting on particular students and parents to commit. There is a legitimate place to challenge the idol of "student"  athletics in our culture. Rarely does the current system have the holistic well-being of our teens in mind.

But God's Spirit checked me this time. Am I upset because this or that student is missing out on a golden opportunity to grow in their faith? Or am I mad because their lack of attendance might make this event less "successful" (or "my job" less secure)? Is my anger righteous? Or is it just selfishness masked as holy indignation?

Maybe instead of always railing against what has become of high school sports, maybe we should ask why these students gravitate more towards sports than our small group programming? Put another way, what does student athletics offer this student that our youth ministry is weak at, or worse yet, is completely missing? On that note, I offer you: 

Ten Reasons Jonny Picks Football Over Youth Group...
  1. Because Gatorade is so much better than Dr. Thunder or Tang.
  2. The football coach expects a lot from him and openly challenges him. The youth pastor is just happy if he shows up and doesn't cuss too much or flirt with the middle school girls.
  3. On the football field, after getting smashed to the ground, Jonny's teammates pick him up. After openly admitting his struggles with sin, Jonny's small group pushes him further down with their awkward silence.
  4. Football offers a clear goal and strategies of how to get there. Youth group seems chaotic and unfocused. What exactly are we doing here anyway?
  5. There are always new plays to be learned at football practice. On Wednesday nights,  the topics are too simple and overplayed.
  6. Jonny can work his way up to positions of leadership on the football team. He started as a reserve cornerback and is now starting wide receiver. At youth group, the same 3 or 4 students (or families) get all the leadership opportunities. It's unclear how someone gets involved or progresses.
  7. Football requires sacrifice for a common goal. Youth group offers pizza, games, and a 10 minute lesson all about "my relationship" with God.
  8. When he scores a touchdown, the whole stands erupt. When he takes a significant step forward in the Christian faith, he gets a "thanks for worshipping with us" card.
  9. At football camp, Jonny is surrounded by strong men he longs to be like. At church, all Jonny sees are old women and little kids. 
  10. On the football team, Jonny finds acceptance and a sense of belonging. At youth group, he finds condemnation and isolation. 
What would you add to the list?

And if you were making a list of all the things Jonny could get from being a part of the student ministries at your church that he couldn't get from football, what would be on it?

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