Over the next year, I’m going to be a contributor on the slant33 website. It’s a really great group of contributors (you can see them all here). Last month I wrote on the topic of traditions in youth ministry, and I wanted to share those thoughts with you here.
Creating rituals and traditions in a youth ministry program is a great way to build cohesion and a sense of community. When I started at my current church, I was told about the Pig of Truth and immediately thought it was a bit ridiculous. At the end of each youth group, we get out a little wax pig candle holder and light a votive candle on the inside. Then we pass it around, and only the person holding the pig can talk. Kids have a chance to share what’s going on in their lives and answer a question: Where have I seen God this week?
Before I started doing it weekly, it seemed a little cheesy to me. I think I actually considered how many months would be appropriate before I started to move away from this inherited tradition. But then I started to hear the things the students shared and was pretty amazed. We can have the most ridiculous, goofy games, but for those ten minutes, youth open up their lives and look for where God has been active in their lives. This is a great tradition our youth group has; one that existed before I arrived and one I’m sure will continue after I leave.
I know of some youth ministry programs that have very specific ways that they welcome new students into their programs (for many it involves kidnapping the kids—with parental approval, of course—and having activities that get them acquainted with the youth ministry). These can be exciting traditions that youth will look forward to, creating more interest for the youth program.
Traditions can also help bring about a shared history with youth and the leaders. To have significant and repeated touchstones to look back on seems healthy to me and makes me want to stop and think about those important traditions I had while growing up in the church.
So, traditions can be a great benefit to your ministry. But they can also be dangerous.
When traditions have theological and relational depth, they can be healthy and life giving to a youth ministry. However, when traditions are rooted in the We’ve always done things this way mentality or simply in a specific individual’s personal preferences, they have a tendency to become an unhealthy rut.
Churches aren’t often seen as the most forward-thinking organizations, and sometimes we can get too focused on the past, on the way things have been, instead of being open to the new ways in which the Spirit wants to move. As I mentioned above, it’s a good thing to have traditions in your programs but not if the only reason you’re doing it is because it’s just something you’ve always done. When traditions are seen as sacred cows by some individuals, that’s a pretty good warning sign that there may be something unhealthy going on.
Figuring out how to break those unhealthy traditions (without losing your job, if they are truly sacred cows for the entire congregation) is probably another topic for another series. But I think it’s important to find out what folks value about the tradition. If, through that process, you come to realize there isn’t anything truly beneficial about the tradition, hopefully others will as well, and you’ll be able to find some new avenues for your ministry. But hopefully you’ll find out why one particular tradition is so important, and perhaps there might be other ways that these important needs for the youth could be met. But it’s crucial to realize that these types of changes won’t happen overnight and that a lot of conversation and attempts at understanding all parties will be involved.
Traditions and rituals can be an incredibly important part of your youth ministry. However, if they are unhealthy traditions without strong theological foundations, they can become dangerous, time-consuming distractions from your ministry.