I remember how easy it was to feed my kids when they first came home from the hospital? They cried and I just popped a bottle in there and the noise magically stopped. And then there was the initial excitement when they started holding the bottle on their own!! FREEDOM! Not only could I pop the bottle in to stop the crying – now I could walk away! My kids were finally feeding themselves!!
Then I realized the shocking truth! It was only an illusion of self-feeding. Just because a baby can hold his own bottle does NOT mean he is feeding himself. I was still prepping that bottle for him – making sure it was disinfected and the contents were fresh and safe. The milk was safely contained – only available when the baby applied the right amount of pressure in the right places.
Is that my youth ministry? Give the kids a bottle so they don’t make noise…and if I’m really progressive, let them hold their own bottles? What happens when that safe, prepared bottle runs out of milk? Just refill it and stick it back in? If you’ve ever parented – you know that doesn’t work for long….
Eventually babies grow up. Milk is no longer enough to satiate their appetites. I vividly remember the day I first started giving my son a little cereal with the bottle? He was growing up and I was so proud! He was finally getting REAL food. Man food. He would soon be a carnivore!! Maybe, but it was still safe – spoon feeding – baby food. It was easy to swallow. Knowing that nothing on earth would make mashed up peas from a jar attractive to my son, I packaged it in the fun of a spoon becoming an airplane flying into the hangar. And lo and behold – he was still fully dependent on me. I made the cereal. I bought the baby food. I sat at his high chair and made it attractive. I shoveled it in…
Is that my youth ministry? Play games and shovel in food, whether the kids like it or not – and just hope and pray that they get some of the nutrients they need to sustain themselves? Sooner or later, kids want to crawl out of that high chair and make their own food….
Using a parental perspective on youth ministry, helping students self-feed might look a little bit like this. After we progress from the bottle and baby food, we give them Cheerios. It’s virtually mess-free. It helps improve their dexterity. It’s easy clean-up and not ridiculously unhealthy. We remove the bottle and offer them a sippie-cup instead – it still offers the protection of a lid, but kids have to learn a new way of drinking from it. And if they leave it sitting improperly, it could get messy. We start moving in spoons, plates, lid-less cups, bibs…and it gets messy. They throw food on the walls. They miss their mouths. They may even occasionally give up and go back to eating with their hands for a time.
And what do we do as youth pastors? We embrace that! We LOVE that! We facilitate that. We sit near the high chair and watch as they learn to become self-feeders.
My kids are all in high school now. If they’re hungry – they make a sandwich. They can cook. They clean up their dishes following a meal. They know how to use napkins if they make a mess. And I am here to help them when they try out new dishes….
THAT’s true youth ministry – and the kind I want to perpetuate! I want to be a youth pastor that sits next to the high chair while they make a complete and utter mess of ‘learning’ how to feed themselves. And that’s really dirty business that usually sees a lot of stains and requires a lot of clean up along the way. And that’s OK – I like messy. I love the ‘AFV’ moments where the kids have spaghetti in their hair, on the wall, coming out of their nose. It’s then that I truly see their faith maturing, growing, and becoming their own. Soon, they’ll become truly independent….completely feeding themselves. And I am quite confident that their ‘messes’ will have equipped them to teach someone else how to hold a spoon…..and that’s the mess – and beauty – of true ministry.
Darren is a veteran youth pastor in Corpus Christi, TX, and co-hosts a weekly podcast for parents of teenagers (http://www.facebook.com/mipodcast) with his wife, Katie. You can catch his blog at www.everyonescalledtoyouthministry.com and follow him on twitter @darrensutton.