When I tell people what I do for a living (I work in Youth and Worship Ministry) I typically get one of two responses. Most of the time when I answer, “I work in Youth Ministry at a church,” the person I’m talking to, with slight panic in their eyes, seeks to hide any alcohol they have on them and begins speaking with careful grammar. I don’t mean that they just stop cussing, but they actually start speaking with better annunciation and vocabulary. It’s a really funny thing to witness. The second response is an immediate look of pity. This tells me if the person I am speaking to has also worked in Youth Ministry. After receiving a heartfelt hug, I really enjoy communicating how I feel about ministry to students.
I grew up in Andrews, TX, where it seemed we had a church for every 10 people who lived there. For most of my life, that I can recall, I was in church. I remember us housing youth groups on weekend retreats, attending more potlucks than any one person should go to and being baptized at a very young age mostly because I knew it was something I was supposed to do at some point. I soon grew into a pretty psuedo-rebellious teenager. I use “psuedo” because I actually enjoyed appearing rebellious more than actually rebelling. The image was the important thing to me. I wasn’t willing to quit church and get my lip pierced, but I would wear a fake lip ring to youth group (a pretty rebellious move at a small town Baptist church). This translated into a love of Christian punk rock music, a genre that had come to be really popular in the early 2000’s. It was loud, made old people nervous and could be played with almost no musical talent whatsoever; therefore, it successfully met all of the requirements for music when I was in high school, and it didn’t cuss; so it was cool with my parents. It also echoed my own feelings about how I felt about any institutions that sought to tell me what to do, especially the church. I saw the church as something that was out to be a controlling parent figure to make sure I didn’t have any fun. A few friends of mine and I began to practice these three chord pseudo-rebellious anthems in my garage and soon became good enough for us to think we could successfully fight the powers that be. We came to our Youth Minister at the time, a man named John Sayger, and asked him if we could lead a youth praise team. It just so happened that worship music required no more chords than we had learned playing punk music, so it was a natural fit. Our particular brand of worship music was to take praise songs, speed them up, make them louder, and make them as much like punk rock songs as we could. Much to our surprise, John said, “Yes.”
While it was exciting to finally get a venue to play music, it was weird to us that John would agree to it. John was an accomplished musician who played and represented the type of music that we hated like Dennis Jernigan and Hillsong. He knew we were pretty awful, pretty loud, and mostly selfish when it came to our motives; and he still said, “Yes.” We were ready to fight the power and the power turned around and gave us keys to the building to rehearse, total freedom in song and arrangement choices and encouragement to keep playing every time we saw him or talked to him, even long after he had moved away from Andrews. We were shown a level of respect and understanding that was new for most of us. I personally experienced someone taking me seriously as an individual and choosing not to simply write me off as a silly kid.
Now almost two decades later, I still love punk music, more than ever. But it represents something else to me now than it did when I was a teenager. I think if Jesus had been in a garage band, it would’ve played punk music. Doing things according to something other than man’s flimsy institutions and choosing to focus on the things culture devalues and devaluing that which culture holds so dear is all part of the punk ethos. To love one’s enemy is about as punk rock as it gets. What could be more countercultural?
When it comes to my personal experience in Youth Ministry, if there’s no legitimate reason to say, “No” to a student, then I want to say, “Yes” (a philosophy unashamedly stolen from my buddy, Trae Porter). All people are deserving of respect and dignity and teenagers are absolutely included in that. For those willing to listen, oftentimes you can learn more from the open mind of a student experiencing the world than from an older mentor. What’s really exciting about ministry though is that soon, very soon, that student will be in a place to influence others and the culture surrounding them. Music is one of the great loves of my life and I have learned more from music than I ever learned from any book. I wonder how much of that is owed to John Sayger saying, “Yes.” I have had the beautiful opportunity to help lead worship at my church for the past 14 years. Would that have happened had the answer been different? Would I treat music with the respect it deserves had it not been encouraged by a man who represented the institution? Would I have the same relationship with God that I currently have? To be honest, I don’t know, and I don’t have to know. What I do know is that if a single answer and encouragement can mean so much to me as a student, I want to do everything I can to carry on that legacy for as many people as I possibly can. We all need support, respect, and dignity and I believe that teenagers need more of it than anyone. That’s why I love being a part of the Youth and Worship Ministry.