When we look only for success, pleasure, and possessions, and we turn these into idols,
we may well have moments of exhilaration, an illusory sense of satisfaction,
but ultimately we become enslaved, never satisfied, always looking for more.
It is a tragic thing to see a young person who “has everything”, but is weary and weak.
World Youth Day 2013
Way back in the day, 2003 to be exact, YouthWorker published this article, then entitled Faith, What a Rush! Following Jesus, Not the Adrenaline. Faith (and a relationship with the Lord) is the something more we seek, not the momentary exhilaration. I offer a re-run version of it in anticipation of a return home in Thanksgiving from the mountain-top of the National Catholic Youth Conference. Revisions have been made for readability.
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Let’s admit it. We have all been there. We sit around with volunteers, celebrating a well-run program. There were an enthusiastic attendance and the sense that everyone got it. We have done a high five after a well-received teaching or sermon. We rest in a well-deserved moment of contentment. It follows a counseled young person who seems to have gotten his act together.
These are the times when our work is an adrenaline rush. Our ministry feels like high adventure. This occurs without taking risks greater than trusting ourselves. This occurs without trying the patience of the senior pastor. We have all been there. We anticipate, almost lust for, the next experience of glory. (Look, Ma, I’m published in Youthworker!)
A home run rips out of the ball park; the crowd roars! Does it drown out the memory of former MVP Jose Canseco’s suggestion? Do 85 percent of professional baseball players use steroids? In the post-9/11 era, the national anthem or “God Bless America” still gets us. While we give proof through the night of our loyalty and patriotism, has the economy, the war, and society’s woes taken a mental backseat?
The 1972 movie, The Candidate, has Robert Redford portraying Bill McKay as a precursor to Barack Obama. A young, handsome, storefront lawyer in California is approached to run for the Senate. Surprising the state, his handlers, and himself, he wins the election. The movie closes as he can’t find anyone to answer his question, “What do we do now?”
Adrenaline rush. A winning home run. Devotion in times of adversity. Achieving a goal after a long fought campaign. Bungee jumping. Yelling “On belay!” and taking that first step up the rock face. All involve moments of transcendence. But, of course, all our best moments in youth ministry should be about transcendence. Each is an opportunity to know the presence of a loving God. Youth ministry, what a rush!
Are our moments of transcendence in youth ministry, our faith-based adrenaline rushes, real or manipulated? Do they invite conformity or transformation? Are we guilty of marketing an adrenaline-laced faith? Are we conspiring with the Spirit as we disciple young people based from their own experiences?
The Whys and Hows
We can not ignore the recent scandal of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and throughout our society. Change is demanded regarding the environment of our ministry. Every teen’s parents, no matter their faith, should take greater care. They must, with great care, scrutinize the tactics and motives of the adults entrusted with their children’s care. As youth ministers, we must engage in serious self-evaluation of the whys and hows of their ministries.
Why do we do the voodoo that we do? In the spirit of open confession, I got in to stay in. I had positive experiences as a recipient of the experiences provided by those before me. True ministry should replicate itself. But my motivation when I was in my early 20s is not the same during my pilgrimage through my 40s and now the 50’s. (That motivation also does not involve high pay, great hours, nor society’s esteem for my profession.)
In Jim Carrey’s recent Capra-esque movie, The Majestic, an entire village longs for a return to the days. They mourn the times when the younger generation lived among them before the losses of the war. When they believe one of the lost generation has returned, they all pitch in to recreate the spirit of a time past.
“Maybe you had worries and problems out there, but once you came through those doors, they didn’t matter to you anymore. Would you remember if I told you how lucky we felt just to be here? In a place like this, the magic is all around you, the trick is just to see it.” (From The Majestic)
The movie reaches a happy conclusion as the lead character does not move into the past. He is transformed by the spirit of the community, interpreting communal spirit and values into his own life.
When our ministry is about recreating our own nostalgia, we have likely completely missed its mark. It may be working for us, is it working for others? “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but don’t have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
The Sin of Manipulation
As we attempt to emulate the Good Shepherd, we must note the care for his flock of disciples. There are not many stories in the Gospel accounts of hardships beyond those of daily communal living. Jesus used parables, humor, and presence to communicate about the reign of God. His style lacked psychological games, positioning for influence, and self-interest.
Dead to Self
Humility and “adrenaline rushes” are often seen as incongruous traveling companions. It is hard work to trust in our own personal giftedness. It is hard wok to place ourselves in the vulnerable position of leadership. Then, when it all works out, it is nearly impossible to offer the praise and glory to God alone.
A continual reminder of our baptism commitments is helpful. If we have died to a life of sin and enter into life with Jesus, it cannot be just about us—we are dead. And this cannot be just something we pay lip service to with teens; we must know it is true.
“Then Peter said to Jesus,’Lord it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’” (Matthew 17:4). Jesus came so that we might have life to the fullest. Our intense experiences should not build emotional or spiritual tents to capture the experience. Our experiences should involve movement to what is next. “They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road while he was opening the Scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem…” (Luke 24: 32-33).
There is something special about working with young people that we all understand. We enjoy the openness, enthusiasm, energy, and creativity that abounds within this age group. We are honored by the trust placed in us. This is especially true when we recognize it is so emotionally challenging to grow up as a young person today. The expectations are high, and so are the anxieties about safety and security. We need to recognize that the work of faith is still very much an emotional effort.
Our young people join our efforts with varying amounts of emotional baggage. These serve as a challenge for them and their peers, as well as our programmatic efforts. The American Catholic Bishops, in response, clearly identified pastoral care as one of the essential components of effective youth ministry.
We have a responsibility to respond to the concerns of our young people. One of the earliest tasks for a new youth pastor beginning a ministry should be a complete familiarization with the resources available within the collaborative village. Granted, there is often minimal adrenaline rush to be found in a referral, even in preparing to be capable of making a referral.
Adrenaline rushes come from experiences often described by our kids as, “intense.” Beyond checking our own motivations, we have a responsibility for the emotional care of our young people. It is irresponsible to travel for an intense experience or extended timeframe with young people without having first attempted to understand any of their special concerns or pre-existing issues. Larger groups should consider assigning lifeguards. Their responsibilities are to discern the emotional state of the group and the emotional needs of individuals. Lifeguards would have enough knowledge about pastoral care to know when to intervene and when to refer to other youth-serving professionals.
Furthermore, we should begin to consistently plan and offer after-event options for our young people. They must be invited to continue to grow and advance from adrenaline-soaked faith experiences. We must invite the momentary to become the lifestyle. Options such as mentoring, follow-up publications, Internet sites, and especially more integration into the larger adult faith community must be considered. We should never return a kid from an experience; we should always leave them with a sense of being sent forth.
The home run is not just a fortuitous moment in a single game. It comes from season after season of batting practice, spring training, and much coaching. The national anthem evokes memories of two centuries of sacrifice, loss, and heroic choices. Any campaign towards a goal should identify the benefits and outcomes of that goal. Everyone remembers the sensation and the rush of the experience. Those who serve the Lord through ministry with young people should remain mindful. Always remember the journey, effort, and responsible choices made leading towards those moments.