Youth worker Tim Gough reflects on why we need to get back to Bible basics
Hi, my name is Tim, and I kill bonsai trees. I kill them dead.
It’s not that I don’t like the cute, miniature, Japanese trees. I really like them. Actually, I think they’re brilliant! I love how they add immediate sophistication to a room, no matter how much other nonsense or chaos exists inside it. I love that if you get really close and squint a little, you can pretend they are real, life-sized trees just waiting to be climbed. In fact, with a little imagination and a few well-chosen Lego minifigures you could pretend far more than that! So yes, bonsai trees are fantastic. But I kill them.
It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve read prolifically on how to keep bonsai trees alive and healthy. In fact, after the first few mishaps people started buying me books on proper bonsai care. I know about the tiny scissors that make the leaves look uniform. I know about the different grades of training wire, which give them their cool curves. I know about root exposure, moss integration, deadwood imitation and summer defoliation. I know about all this stuff, but they still die. Every single one of them.
I’m even quite creative in my care of bonsai trees. I don’t just talk to them, I sing to them. Sometimes I leave the pot in front of my guitar amplifier and pull out some Metallica riffs for their enjoyment. I gave up on simple water and boring bonsai feed a while ago. Instead, I give my tiny trees the daily ‘Dr Pepper experience’. As my trees are all Japanese I sometimes mix it up with lovely hot green tea. I once even decided my bonsai tree might enjoy a soak in the tub, bubbles and all.
You might be thinking: “No one could be that stupid, he didn’t really do those things.” Well, shamefully, yes I am, and yes I did. The list of the dead has grown, and I no longer own bonsai trees.
Bonsai trees are effectively houseplants, and I don’t know anything about the basics of keeping house plants alive. I understand that there’s some pattern of regular watering, sunlight, feedings and pruning, but I’ve got no clue how, when, how much or even why. I spent all my learning time on how to make bonsai trees look cool.
The problem when it comes to bonsai trees is that I know all the particulars but none of the essentials. It’s the essentials that keep things alive and healthy, and the particulars that add vibrancy and attractiveness. Trying to do the latter without the former is a recipe for disaster.
So many amazing articles and books on youth ministry cover the particulars in fabulous depth. They dig into teenage culture, societal strategies and missional specifics. It feels like it’s getting harder, however, to find youth ministry writing on the foundational essentials. But these essentials are found in the Bible, and it is in the Bible that we learn how to keep a youth group truly healthy and growing from within.
The Bible is like a large cavern filled with gold coins, jewels and priceless valuables, and as Christians we have been given shovels, wheelbarrows, and JCB excavators to mine its depths and take home its treasures. Every time we delve into the Bible we are the richer for it. When it comes to the practice of youth work, however, the Bible can easily become conspicuously absent. When we dive down and uncover the foundational principles that drive and undergird our youth work the substance of it isn’t always there.
It’s not that we youth workers don’t love or use the Bible. Of course we do! We know, at least in theory, just how good and enriching the Bible can be, and we can stretch out a cheeky proof-text for days. But the question remains: do we actually know and understand enough of the material ourselves to point clearly back to it in all that we do?
Biblical literacy levels have fallen significantly and — if the statistics are to be believed — we are now facing the first generation of biblically illiterate youth workers. A recent ComRes survey found that only 35 percent of churchgoers read their Bibles every day, while a YouGov report found that only 14 percent of young people could properly differentiate between a Bible story and other children’s stories or fairy tales.
Completely on point, Amos prophesied: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord’” (Amos 8:11). Throughout this chapter God’s people were warned of a great lack. Worship songs would turn to wails of pain (verses 8, 10) and the people will be lost and aimless (v12). This is because God had withdrawn his voice (v11). The presence of God was known through his voice, and losing it was like losing access to all that brought life. There was no greater fear, pain or loneliness than the loss of God’s voice.
We, however, have full access to God’s voice: the words of life in the Bible. We should hunger and thirst for it more than anything else each day. Settling for stale, reheated pizza when there is a fully cooked feast is just crazy! What would God’s people from the book of Amos think of us if they could see us using the Bible so sparingly and timidly, rather than drinking deeply from the well.
It is in the Bible that we learn how to keep a youth group truly healthy and growing from within
Reading the Bible in a year is often seen as quite a spiritual feat, but it only takes three five-minute sittings a day. We spend four times that eating and drinking, and nearly eight times longer on social media.
What about knowing the whole biblical drama so thoroughly that we can place any story or character or idea into its larger context, understanding the links and history that support it, and applying it relevantly to our young people and the 21st Century? This is surely a worthwhile venture, and a reasonable expectation for any Christian minister charged with teaching others.
Getting back to our roots
Let’s be clear, the phrase ‘youth work’ isn’t strictly in the Bible. You won’t find a plethora of youth clubs, summer camps, lock-ins and nerf wars between the pages of scripture. All the component pieces that make up the youth work essentials, however, are there. Principles such as age-specific projects, relevant teaching, one-to-one discipleship, small group work, partnering with parents and developmental formation are in the Bible. It’s the best youth work guide there is!
The Bible has categories for children, young people and young adults, and God cares about the transitional stages between them (1 John 2:12-14, Job 31 and 1 Timothy 4). Characteristically, youth is a time to develop away from sin and temptation (Proverbs 8; 1 Timothy 6:11) and grow into a deeper relationship with God (Proverbs 1-9; 1 Peter 5:5). What a great aim for our youth ministries.
From seed to sequoia
It’s easy to settle for our natural and often low expectations for young people (“Tommy, stop eating that glue!”). But God’s expectations for them are incredibly high. We desperately need the Bible’s lead on what to expect from our young people or we will inevitably end up valuing them less than we should.
Many crucial events in the Bible find a young person at centre stage. Just ponder for a moment what some of its heroes accomplished while they were still children or teenagers. Rebekah showed incredible faith by serving and consenting to marry Isaac, journeying with him into the unknown (Genesis 24). Joseph rejected sexual sin when advanced upon by a powerful older woman (Genesis 39). Samuel was called to speak to God’s nation during the most fearful and difficult times (1 Samuel 3). David defended God’s honour and holiness against a giant (1 Samuel 17). Esther risked taking a plot against her people to the king and saved many (Esther 2-7). Josiah lived righteously before the Lord as a child and pursued God wholeheartedly as a teenage king (2 Kings 22-23). Daniel committed to remaining pure in Babylon surrounded by idolatry that makes our world look tame (Daniel 1). Mary remained a virgin and trusted in God’s promise of a virgin birth (Luke 1).
At the very heart of God in the Bible we find the heart of a youth worker. He simply loves to use young people, and he does world-changing things with them as a matter of routine. Having this perspective lifts our expectations and even starts to shape the way we approach our youth work projects and strategy.
It takes a forest to raise a sapling
I’ve never been completely bitten by the superhero craze. I don’t read comic books, I don’t like the movies, and – call me old-fashioned – I believe men should wear their underwear beneath their trousers. I have, however, unintentionally picked up on a thing or two about these characters. I know that every superhero has a significant weakness. Apparently, Superman isn’t too keen on kryptonite. I think it kills him or something. And wasn’t Batman afraid of bats? I’m no counsellor, but considering the outfit it’s pretty clear even to me that therapy would have been a much more sensible option than beating up bad guys.
I keep hearing that youth workers are like superheroes, swooping in where no other churchgoer would dare to go. I think it’s true that we have some quirky kryptonites to contend with, but beyond that I’m not too sure the analogy works. I think one of the key things the Bible teaches us about youth work is not to swoop in, and not to be the only person responsible for young people. Instead, it encourages us to marshal the resources of the whole church and get everyone to help young people meet with Jesus.
We’re not supposed to be ‘superhero youth workers’. The Bible calls us to be enablers and facilitators who help the whole church tribe raise our young people. What a load off that would be if we did it, and how much healthier our young people and churches would be as a result.
TIM GOUGH is director of Llandudno Youth for Christ and author of Rebooted: Reclaiming youth ministry for the long haul - a biblical framework (IVP)