Courage, Communication, Contradictions: Rob Bell on Youth Ministry

By Josh Seligman and Dean Nelson | October 2 2009

Rob Bell is the founding pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most recent book, Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering released in August. A graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, he is one of the most popular preachers in America. Perhaps he is best known for the provocative and creative work he does with video storytelling. Called NOOMA (the phonetic spelling of the Greek word for breath), the videos are staples in churches around the world.

In San Diego for the National Pastors Conference, he met with YouthWorker Journal to explore issues in youth ministry.

YouthWorker Journal: What are some specific tools youth pastors need for effective ministry? Back in my day, if you could play guitar (you needed to know chords C, F and G, but not much more) and could lead kids in wacky games, you pretty much got the job. If you could provide an insight into a Bible verse at the end of some activity, well then, you were gold. What are the magic bullets for today's youth minister?

Rob Bell: I don't begin to think about that by wondering, "How do you do youth ministry?" I begin with, "What kind of person are you?" Let's explore your own experience with the resurrected Christ. So if a youth pastor says, "How do I create a safe place where my kids can deal with their pain?" Let's first talk about your own parents' divorce. Let's talk about how Christ is helping put you back together. A lot of times we've been burned because even if someone could play the guitar and got the job, then it turned out the person had a lot of other stuff he or she was carrying. Who doesn't have some story of a person they respected having a massive collapse spiritually, emotionally, sexually, whatever?

YWJ: OK, the magic bullets, if you don't mind.

RB: The dominant paradigm in churches is production, not discipleship. It's about how to keep kids coming—how are the numbers? In the gospels, whenever there were large crowds, Jesus gave a difficult teaching that thinned out the crowd. Over and over, He chose those moments: John 6—Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood. Nice. Very accessible for kids. There is a certain pattern where He's trying to find out who is serious. Youth workers are put in this position where their paychecks are based on how many people they can keep in the place. When they read the gospels, they realize this whole system seems to be going the other direction. Many youth pastors I've met are promoting something they don't believe.

YWJ: Like what?

RB: They're told by the senior pastor to encourage the students to attend the service where there's a seven-part sermon on raising funds for a giant building, and kids don't really buy it. At the same time, the kids are wearing a red bracelet and becoming passionate about AIDS and water in Darfur. So the youth pastors and the kids sit in a system that says the preservation of this system is the first priority, and they look around at these giant issues of justice that are demanding a generation to step up and do something about it; and guess what they do?

YWJ: So the key to effective youth ministry is to understand the youth pastor is living in two worlds that contradict one another?

The problem for a youth pastor is that he or she has these gut impulses and can't even articulate them, especially theologically or biblically; so the person is in this awkward place of not being able to say this in staff meeting because he or she doesn't have pie charts and PowerPoint slides for it—just an intuitive sense that these kids are resonating with things and that we ought to be listening to these impulses; but they don't fit into the paradigm. So, I would say the first thing youth pastors need is courage—courage to be holy men and women.

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