Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry: An Interview with Jeremy Steele
Our blog team had a chance to touch base with veteran youth minister, Jeremy Steele, to talk about his new “field guide” for youth ministry which has a uniquely Wesleyan emphasis.
Jeremy asserts that what you believe is central to determining how you do ministry. From the games we play to the Bible studies we choose, from the outreach events we plan to the missions we support, theology has claims of every area of ministry. Our conversation follows.
In the introduction, you talk about why Wesley matters for youth ministry. So, Why does Wesley matter?
It’s simple: his life and theology work for today’s students. You read about Wesley and you read his writing and you discover a person who believed that God could use him to change the world. It wasn’t some sort of academic quest to convince the world of a new perspective on God. No, he wanted to change the way people lived and related by allowing God to use his life to proclaim a brilliant truth.
That truth was that God loved everyone. Everyone. Whether they loved God or not.That truth was that God loved everyone. Everyone. Whether they loved God or not, whether they came home smelling like perfume or alcohol, God loved them. God loved them in the best way possible: unconditionally and unstatically. God’s love is like all love: it has the power to transform us, and that is what he wants to do. God wants to transform us into the best possible versions of ourselves. How does that happen? God fills us with his perfecting love, and as we surrender, we are transformed into the likeness of God’s son.
You want to talk about a theological perspective that resonates with the next generation? Talk to them of the transforming power of love. Tell them of a God who blesses the world because he loves everyone in it. Tell them they can change the world.
Why did you select Grace, Salvation, and Mission as the three Wesleyan tenets that shape your chapters?
I actually didn’t begin with that structure in mind. To be honest, this book flows out of my own years in ministry, and the chapters are much more a result of what I have found that work in my ministry to students rather than some tight systematic approach. That being said, once the manuscript was done there seemed to be a logical flow and natural grouping. For me it all hangs on grace, which is why the book begins with that and seeks to structure all ministry in the three paradigms created by prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.
Instead of focusing on getting everyone to say a magical four sentence prayer, Wesley was focused on getting people into a lifelong working relationship with God through Christian community.From there, the idea of salvation as a lifelong workshop was a nice way of saying, “We have a different view of the life of faith than other major groups of Christians, and here’s why.” Instead of focusing on getting everyone to say a magical four sentence prayer, Wesley was focused on getting people into a lifelong working relationship with God through Christian community. We work out our salvation together through the means of grace, and that is a very different way of looking at things.
Another very Wesleyan value is the outward-focused momentum of the Gospel. It is far bigger than my own decision. Each chapter of the book is meant to help push these ideas out into the real world with questions to prompt serious application, and finishing the book by talking about all of the different “bigger than me” parts of Wesley underscores that deeply held missional value.
The book begins with talking about prevenient grace and lock-ins. How on earth do you make that connection?
I guess I should start by saying that there is a clear case to be made that Satan himself invented the lock-in, but putting that aside for the moment, the lock-in serves as the prototypical youth “outreach event.” You know the ones where youth pastors implore their students to bring their friends and never seem to be able to order enough pizza. These events are the ones that are focused on the largest possible cross-section of students and should be bringing students into the doors of the church who have never been there.
If that is the case, then the form of God’s grace that should be the most logical focus on is the form that is being offered to and experienced by everyone everywhere. That means that the values within the idea of prevenient grace should be the guiding principles in the decisions we make when planning lock-ins.
Specifically, what does prevenient grace tell us about what kinds of programming we should develop for our youth events?
It tells us a lot of things, and many offer ministry-wide guidance while others feel more appropriate for specific types of programs. For example, the idea that God loves and blesses the whole world (think Matthew 7 where Jesus says God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good) means that we need to be blessing people universally. That means that we don’t choose games that end with people laughing AT a student. It also means that it is totally ok to have a huge party and invite our community without having to have an altar call.
On the other hand, the idea that God reveals himself through what has been made (the concept of general revelation) means that we need to focus on pointing out that people know more about God than they think. This means we don’t do Bible drills or quizzes. The programming value implied by general revelation doesn’t work in every setting, though. In fact, some fun version of a quiz can be helpful when we talk about diving deep into the scriptures in a small group setting. But in an open outreach oriented event like a lock-in, it is probably best to avoid potentially alienating competitions.
In the midst of all the day to day tasks of youth ministry, why do people need to take time to consider the links you make between the theology and history of Wesley and how we reach teens in the 2000s?
We all know the basics behind why. Kids remember what we do much more often than they remember what we say. That means that our choices in the activities, scheduling, and games is teaching at least as much as what we say in our lesson time. If that is the case, then we had better take a step back and evaluate those things in light of our theological perspective to make sure we aren’t teaching one thing with our words and something else with our actions. Youth have a word for that (saying one thing and doing another). They call it hypocrisy, and they can smell it a mile away.
More than that, we have a powerful perspective for this generation. I am convinced that if we can clearly communicate and live into this pattern of faith, it has the potential to spark a new revival in our day as students discover a God who wants to change the world through the transforming power of his perfecting love. If we can get that message across, if we can help students live out its implications, we might just get to see what happens when scriptural holiness spreads throughout the land!
You can pick a copy of Jeremy’s book, Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry, here.
When he is not playing with his four children with his wonderful wife, Jeremy oversees children, youth, and college ministries in addition to leading the evening worship service at Christ UMC in Mobile, AL. He is passionate about reaching people with the message of Jesus in a way that engages them with the movement of God. Jeremy is the Editor and Chief of the Seedbed Youth Ministry Collective and the author of Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry.