How can youth ministry spark joy?

By Bradon French

Eighteen months ago, Marie Kondo sparked a “decluttering revolution” via her Netflix special Tidying Up. The show, based on her book, invited a global audience to consider each of their belongings and ask “Does this spark joy?” If the item didn’t, it no longer warranted keeping. Simply sell, recycle or trash it. The show saw op-shops inundated with lamps, puzzles and throw pillows.

Fast forward to 2020, and as we all battle boredom and cabin fever during COVID-19 lockdowns, I often find myself wondering whether people are missing those knick-knacks they’d so hastily thrown aside last year. When they aren’t baking sourdough, of course.

And as houses become #minimalist, it seems our church withstood the #KonMari method, however tempting it may have been. Locally and nationally, we remained defiant, as we’re stoically hesitant to lay down those things which came before us. For if we indeed looked at our practices, traditions, meeting processes and asked whether they “spark joy”, I’m afraid what might remain. Presbytery meetings? Insurance paperwork? The all-day-Saturday mission-planning seminar? Intinction?

The same challenge is true of our inherited understanding of youth ministry. I’ve spent 20 years in youth ministry and it hasn’t always been rainbows and sunshine. Imagine the following scenarios and consider whether they spark joy:

  • The morning after the youth group sleepover (which, of course, included no actual sleeping).
  • Scrubbing the hall after the annual messy games event.
  • Attending another choir/band/dance performance of young people who invited you.

The joy can feel a long way down, down in your heart. At this point, leaders and pastors are screaming “yes, but” as we know these serve a higher purpose as we minister to young people. These events offer hospitality, they develop relationships, they form Christian community. And they’re fun … mostly. Which is why we come back to “joy”.

Last year, Miroslav Volf, the renowned Croatian theologian serving at Yale, developed a study into “joy and the good life” and concentrated on the church’s theology and practice of youth ministry.

Volf invited practitioners and theologians to consider what it might mean if joy was imagined as the root metaphor for youth ministry. Not some pollyannerish naïve happiness merely masquerading as joy. Not a utopian joy which ignores social phenomena and struggle. Rather, a deeper understanding of joy as a fruit of the Spirit, a joy shaped by the cross of Christ, a joy which equips us to confront the reality of the world in which we live and love.

It’s true that over the past few decades, youth ministry has been shaped by many root metaphors (friendship, God-bearing, discipleship, adoption, family, intergenerational, etc). This distinctive move to joy marks a paradigm shift for those in ministry with young people. Joy is less about action and models and programs. Joy is harder to measure and control.

This shift is articulated in three new publications, and most notably in Joy: A Guide for Youth Ministry. Practitioners and writers, and indeed Professor Volf, argue the case for joy as heralding the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. Similarly, The End of Youth Ministry, and Delighted, both reframe youth ministry rooted in joy, offering perspectives from parents and youth people respectively. You can check out these titles here.

If our ministries with young people embrace the opportunities joy presents, it must be reflected within the life of our wider church.

Joy cannot endure without the church’s practices that provide the oxygen it requires to breathe new life – practices of expressing joy in scripture reading, prayer, testimony, and song; reflecting theologically on joy’s place in the Christian story; and joyfully giving gifts of hospitality, care, friendship, forgiveness, proclamation, creativity, and justice.

In this context, where the people of God seek and share joy, we may witness the flourishing of all generations.

Bradon French is the Youth Ministry Coordinator within the Intergenerational team. He is a passionate advocate for young people and enjoys challenging the status quo.

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