What happens when one youth worker plunges herself into the gritty lives and disorienting culture of "fringe" kids, and what she learns from the experience that helps her create a profoundly welcoming environment in her ministry.
by Theresa Mazza
IT was a crazy night in the mosh pit. Fists and limbs swinging through the air—kids colliding, shoving, and rolling off each other. And, like Moses standing before the Red Sea, I needed these roiling waters to part so I could get through to the other side. I had to move quickly or I'd miss my window.
So, with my right arm locked and my fist straight out in front of me, I sliced through the masses, collecting their sweat and bracing myself against their screams. As I reached the other side, I dragged with me our only injury of the night—a broken nose. I could tell by the way he flew back and hunched over at the impact.
But this poor kid had a long way to go before he could declare himself a mosh-pit warrior. He didn't just break his nose—he broke at least three key cardinal "warrior" rules:
1—Never plunge into the pit hesitantly. An appropriate entrance to a mosh pit is announced with the sort of big elbow-y swings that say: "I'm coming in!" If you, instead, communicate "I'd like to get in, please," you're likely to get hurt.
2—Claim your lane. Once you enter the pit, you must maintain your space at all costs. If you don't claim your lane, it will quickly become someone else's lane. And, boom—a collision.
3—Always guard yourself with one fist out. Lead with your fist, never with your face. If you get this wrong you will soon be hunched over, draining blood on the floor.
This guy's broken nose was, of course, the result of rookie mistakes. His nose would heal and he'd be back in the pit in no time. But for now he sat sulking in my office, waiting for his parents to pick him up.
The elephant-question in the living room is this:
How did a 5'3" hundred-and-nothing-pound church youth pastor collect such a vast working knowledge of mosh-pit survival strategies?
I'm a veteran youth pastor who's served the local church my entire adult life—just like a lot of you. A few years ago, if you'd invited me to reach out to teenagers living in the mosh-pit, skate-ramp, and club-night culture, I would've smiled, politely declined, and snarky-whispered under my breath: "Have fun with that—sounds entertaining."
My mission had always been oriented around coaxing teenagers into the life of the church. Reaching out meant hosting lock-ins, taking kids to Rock the Universe, and creating the kind of youth group atmosphere that would compel my church kids to reach out to their friends and invite them into our family. I had long lived in a reality that maximized the church's investment in Christian teenagers. Most—even all—of the students I served came from Christian families and were growing up in the church. My role was to be the icing on their cake—supporting Christian parents in their mission to help their children grow in their relationship with God, committed to the church.
Was I okay with this role? Absolutely! Fueling a Christian teenager's hunger for God has always been and will always be rewarding. Watching students worship God with authentic passion after being dragged to church their whole life still blows my mind. But after a decade of pursuing my "standard" youth ministry dreams, something in me was growing more and more unsettled—God was preparing me for something new...
HAUNTED BY A PROPHETIC DREAM
In my soul, a prodding question surfaced: "Where are the teenagers in our community who don't go to church?" When I first responded to the prod, I had to face a hard reality—our church was not fulfilling its mission "to reach every child for the kingdom of God." My gosh–we weren't even reaching every kid in our city. In fact, if I combined all the youth groups in the city, that number would represent only a tiny percentage of our city's adolescent population.
Soon a haunting and recurring dream crept into my sleep every night. In this dream, thousands of teenagers streamed to a place where they were accepted and loved. It was a place of belonging and caring relationships. In this place, kids weren't going to church, they were being the church. The gospel was lived and demonstrated more than it was spoken. Every night I'd wake up with my heart pounding. I had to do something about it, so…
• I shared my dream, and my soul's new reality, with my senior pastor and executive pastor.
• Together, we began to prayerfully re-engage our call to youth ministry as a church.
• With the help of Youth Ministry Architects (ymarchitects.com), we collaborated to envision a youth ministry for the future of our church.
• We studied ministry models that introduced us to new ways of thinking.
• And, finally, we committed to a new model of youth ministry that led to the opening of a drop-in youth center where all teenagers would be welcomed and loved.
• To gain an understanding about how God works and reaches teenagers through the medium of a youth center, we studied Rocketown—it's a Nashville ministry founded by Michael W. Smith. Every week Rocketown staffers reach out to thousands of teenagers through their music venue, skate park, coffee bar, outreach programs, and mentoring relationships.
Honestly, though our plan was bathed in prayer and we shared a determination to carry through with it, I had no idea how all of this would upend my life and forever change the way I "practice" youth ministry…
48 HOURS OF DISORIENTATION
There was no way to "pick up" what the Rocketown people were doing without an on-site experience, so I planned a two-day "shadowing" trip to Nashville. Those 48 hours were the most uncomfortable of my long youth ministry experience. My "standard" church-based templates did nothing to prepare me for the extreme challenge of my plunge into community-based youth ministry.
Shadowing Day #1—Getting used to the language of Rocketown was like learning Greek to me. They spoke about bands coming to play their music venue that I'd never heard of and genres I didn't even know existed. They used labels like "straight edge" to describe students that went right over my head. Was I living on an island with teenagers from a different planet?
They spoke with clarity, directness, and understanding about students and their stories. They were deeply invested in serving these kids, but they never used churchy language. The stories they told were messy—not sugarcoated with spiritual clichés.
On my first day I met with a few Rocketown students to learn about the ministry from them. The first teenager who spoke didn't tell stories about how Rocketown had changed his life, and how much he loved Jesus as a result. He looked at me with determination in his eyes and asked a blunt question: "Why do you want to do this?" Taken aback, I responded: "I love God and I love teenagers. I think there's a lot of unchurched kids the church isn't reaching out to."
Well, that made this small group of teenagers lean forward in their seats and counter me with a challenge to think differently and drop my stereotypes. They targeted my willingness to tag youth as churched or unchurched, believer or non-believer. They simply wanted to be known by their name—that's it. It messed me up, because it took away the measurements I'd taken for granted in my ministry. And it challenged my primary goal of "conversion." The staffers at Rocketown want to introduce students to a loving God, but their focus is not on conversions, but on relationships.
My church history was a concern for this group of Rocketown teenagers. They were afraid I'd measure success by how many "joined the club," rather than how many felt known and loved. They freely took shots at the foundations of my thinking, questioning my "authority" and firing darts that were hitting close to home. I had the same feeling I get when I see a teenager challenge a parent, and I think to myself: "My kid would never talk to me like that." I'd always said I have an authentic love for teenagers, but I'd never been challenged like this before, and I didn't like it.
Shadowing Day #2—Until this day, I'd never attended a metalcore show, a rave, or Skate Church. The metalcore show was loud, sweaty, and crowded. These were not "Christian bands" singing a "Christian" message. The merchandise sold by the bands clearly glorified and promoted a secular lifestyle. The only words I could understand from the stage were curse-words that "slipped out" between songs. It was offensive, and violated one of the main conditions of playing Rocketown: No cussing from the stage.
"This is never going to happen at our youth center," I thought. "Surely someone is gonna stop this show—shut it down!" But the show continued. Afterward, we headed to the rave. Like an over-protective mother, I had to restrain myself from asking the kids who were kissing on the couch to stop, and every student dressed in black made me nervous. The door opened, and the low end of the bass-saturated beat blasted me into a trance. A Rocketown staffer tried to explain rave culture to me, but nothing could cut through the decibels. What was the point of packing teenagers into a loud, dark room to "move rhythmically" with each other?
The next morning we headed to a skate park for Skate Church. Finally, here was something I halfway recognized—it had the word "church" in its name. But this was my first visit, ever, to a skate park. It was impressive. The skate sessions were full, and kids were waiting on the side for a chance to drop in. The announcement for Skate Church was made over a loudspeaker, and I followed the Rocketown staffers upstairs. One, then two, then three kids shuffled into a small room.
The youth pastor in me wanted to go back downstairs and make the announcement again: "Come on guys, stop skating. It's time for Skate Church!" But the Rocketown staff didn't do that. Instead, they dove into a Scripture study with the kids who'd simply chosen to attend. I went from impressed to underwhelmed. The whole point of all of this was to share the gospel, so why weren't there more kids in this room? Pizza, they should serve pizza!
My disorientation was complete… I couldn't have predicted the light that was about to creep into my darkness.
TRANSMOGRIFYING A YOUTH PASTOR
After two 16-hour days of shadowing Rocketown staffers, all I wanted to do was return to my hotel room and collapse. But at 2 a.m. my heart and mind were still racing with questions and doubts. God was ready to have a conversation with me, and I needed to hear his voice. I felt trapped by the promise of my original dream and the cold reality of what it might look like if we leaned into it fully. Nothing I'd seen looked or felt like any youth ministry strategy I'd ever experienced. All I could do was pour out my honest reservations to God.
• Do metalcore concerts really bring kids closer to you, Jesus?
• How does a rave help accomplish your mission?
• I saw a lot of teenagers, and experienced a lot of adolescent culture, but where were you God?
• Do these kids even have a desire to know you?
This was no peaceful time of prayer—I hurled these questions at God. Then it was his turn to speak: "Theresa, why are you so afraid of what you heard, what you saw, or what you didn't see? You're hungry to be part of a ministry that will fix things and, instead, you were offended tonight. I'm hungry to simply be with them and love them. You want to minister to students, but you don't want to be offended. While you were busy taking offense, the Rocketown staff was busy offering their engaged presence—loving kids and connecting with kids you've never welcomed into your youth group. It's the presence of my love that transforms, not ministry models. They are willing to love beyond what offends them if it means gaining permission to be part of a student's life. Are you willing to be offended?"
This was a tipping-point moment in my life—I let God's words wash over me. In that moment, I let go of my questions, fears, and doubts. And I uttered a prayer that God has since answered a hundred times over: "God, please offend me… God, please offend me. GOD, PLEASE OFFEND ME!"
Because of my prayer, I've learned to see with new sight, love with a new heart, and understand with a new mind. It's no longer possible for me to lead a youth ministry that shields itself from relating to teenagers outside of the church because I fear I'll be offended. Today, I believe…
• We shield ourselves by focusing on where we want students to arrive spiritually instead of allowing them to discover Christ where they are.
• We shield ourselves by prioritizing programs and events that bring students to us on our terms, through our programming, at our church, instead of meeting them on their terms, through things they care about, in places they live and dwell.
• We shield ourselves by investing in our ability to teach and reveal the gospel instead of investing in relationships with students—living and demonstrating the gospel through life together, day in and day out.
When I'm in the grip of offense, I'm in the best position to serve and love students from a place of humility. I'm an imperfect adult loving imperfect teenagers for a perfectly faithful and loving God.
When I gravitate to a comfortable place in my ministry—when I reach cruising speed—I know that I run the risk of shielding myself from teenagers who've been made worthy of God's love. Every time I shield myself, and those who serve with me, I miss an opportunity to allow God to offend us and invite us into the life of one more teenager.
Sometimes, that invitation comes in the middle of a mosh pit.
Theresa is a longtime church youth pastor who planted and led a Rocketown community outreach center when she lived in Florida. She recently relocated to Colorado, where she serves as a volunteer in youth ministry.
Theresa Mazza will lead three workshops at our 2014 Simply Youth Ministry Conference in Columbus Ohio, March 7-10.
GROUP MAGAZINE EXTRA
THE SCIENCE OF GENEROSITY
By JP Shortall
Most of us would like to see the students we work with grow into generous adults, but how exactly does that happen? New research from The Science of Generosity initiative at The University of Notre Dame is discovering how children and young adults become more generous, or not. And researchers are learning how generosity can impact a person's life on a wider scale than a cursory understanding would assume.
To start, most generosity research suggests that young people might not need to be taught to be generous at all. The majority of kids are naturally generous—their greatest need is "practice time," where they can experiment with the generosity that is natural to them from an early age.
Experiments recently conducted at Harvard University, for example, show that children as young as two years old can tell when help is needed—they actually help out without any instruction at all. In the Harvard experiments, toddlers were placed in close proximity to adults performing tasks such as hanging clothes on a clothesline or trying to open a closet door with their hands full. When the adults dropped clothespins on the ground, or had difficulty opening the closet door, most toddlers responded by helping them. The exception is with children who don't seem to be natural givers, or whose natural giving ceases or is inhibited as they advance beyond their toddler years—these might need some encouragement and education to become more generous.
Most research shows that learning to be more generous offers profound benefits for those who practice it. Generous people have better relationships with others and happier family lives. They live more meaningful lives, they experience less stress and anxiety and more happiness, and they live more healthy lives than those who are less generous.
But those who benefit most from the fruits of generous living are those who make it a regular practice. In other words, research shows that those who are occasionally generous—during a crisis, for instance—do not experience long-lasting life effects like those who practice it regularly. So the first priority in teaching young people about generosity is to make it a habit, not a situational response. Like other virtues, it must be practiced regularly in order for it to translate into a character trait.
Instead of embedding opportunities to be generous in one-off events or experiences, make generosity a "rhythm" in students' lives by encouraging them to "give what they have to give" every day. That could include volunteering at a blood bank or a homeless shelter or an animal shelter or a hospital or some other community organization. Closer to home, how many "portals" of generosity does your own ministry offer? Once kids get into this "rhythm," they'll want to continue—they'll love how it reflects on their identity, and the feeling of connection they experience with others.
A lot of research on how generosity works in communities and social networks finds that generosity spreads by a kind of contagion, bringing with it a sense of well-being that also spreads like a contagion.
TALKING THE WALK
Conventional wisdom has long taught us that doing is more effective than talking—that means if we want students to grow in generosity, we must be generous ourselves. But recent research is challenging that conventional assumption—modeling generous practices might not always be as effective as talking to kids about generosity. When we treat a model like a template for generosity, it may feel constricting for teenagers who are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from adults.
But repeated explanations about why generosity is an important practice can motivate them in a way that modeling can't. Your own example of generosity might not delineate its subtle benefits—but if you explain why you do it, and what effects it has in your life, then you leave them free to find flexible expressions of generosity in their own life. Knowing that generosity tends to make those who practice it generally happier will be much more persuasive for most teenagers than knowing that the adults in their community are generous, so they should be, too.
Many of the effects of generosity are also far from obvious, and talking with young people about generosity will likely reveal that. For example, those who are focused on maintaining their possessions, or keeping things as they are in a relationship, are much more likely to experience high levels of anxiety and stress than those who focus on sharing their wealth with others and flexibly responding to changes within relationships. Talking with young people about these paradoxes might deepen their commitment to generosity.
For more information on The Science of Generosity initiative, visit generosityresearch.nd.edu or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JP is a communication specialist with the Science of Generosity project at Notre Dame. He works with Dr. Christian Smith, lead researcher on the National Study of Youth and Religion (youthandreligion.org).