“An OASIS Multi-Church Reflection: Soil & Fishermen”
Lately, as I’ve been trying to figure out what pandemic era youth ministry looks like, I’ve found myself struggling with this fundamental question: are we Soil or are we Fishermen?
Here’s what it looks like to be Fishermen: In normal times, sustainable youth ministry requires a bit of hustle. As he said when he recruited his first disciples, Christ calls us to “fish for people.” In this mindset of youth ministry, we need to constantly & proactively recruit. It takes a lot of snail-mailers, emails, phone calls, social media campaigns, in-person encouragement, and text reminders to get youth to show up. Youth Ministry in this model, to put it bluntly, requires a lot of nagging.
Here’s what it looks like to be Soil: In Jesus’s Parable of the Sower, we are not the sower nor the seed. We are the soil. We can be rocky ground, weedy patches, or we can be fertile soil. Applied to youth ministry, this is the “if you build it, they will come” mentality. We simply ensure a healthy and nourishing environment for whatever youth come whenever they come. In a culture of over-extendedness, this model refuses to let Youth Group become yet another obligation but instead a space that exists for them when they need it. The idea is that we don’t want youth to think of church as an event they were forced to attend, but a community that they choose for themselves because it helps them experience the love of God.
Because of the anxiety-filled pandemic reality, we made the choice to be Soil. We sent out open invitations, but let go of our usual hustle to recruit ongoing participation. It feels weird to pressure kids to come to our once-a-month in-person event if their family has decided not to take the health risk (even if we are outside, masked, and distanced). And it feels weird to pressure kids to sign onto our weekly Zoom gathering when they are all zoomed out. And all of our attempts to do outside the box non-event-based ministries (like pen pals, care package buddies, crafting projects, etc) haven’t gone anywhere because everyone is too exhausted to add an extra chore to their chaotic realities.
Being a teenager is stressful enough. Being a teenager during a pandemic is a whole new level of stressful. And so, we decided that during this anxiety-filled moment we want OASIS Youth Ministry to be exactly what our name says we are, an oasis. We want our youth ministry to be a stress reliever, not another obligation for the over-extended; a centering connection, not another video chat for the zoomed-out; a communal anchor, not another gauntlet for the health-protocol-weary.
As a result of this choice to be Soil, we have created some beautiful ministry moments these past few months. But we sadly have also lost the opportunity for some big ministry. Without the normal “fishermen” level of hustle, our numbers have naturally decreased quite a bit. This makes my shoulders tense and stomach knot, especially since the whole point of our multi-church experiment was to achieve a more sustainable critical mass. I’m sure we’re not the only youth ministry worried about a drop in numbers.
And so it is, that I find myself second-guessing our pandemic ministry model. In many parables, Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven as a party where the first round of invitees decline and so the party planners must go out again and again and again, inviting even the people thought unworthy of inviting. If we really believe that our youth ministry serves our youth, if we really believe our Soil is balm for the soul, why would we not put in the extra effort to get everyone to the party? Maybe being Fishermen isn’t about nagging, but about exuberantly inviting.
But the reality is that pandemics are stressful, for both teenagers and adults. Being Fishermen takes effort, time, and energy that many people just can’t sustain in these trying times. Part of why we chose to be Soil was to extend grace to our staff, an acknowledgement that it is inhumane to expect full capacity from everyone during a pandemic. But at some point we have to get back to building the work of building a sustainable ministry. And so the discernment continues and the experiments continue and hopefully someday we’ll find that magical balance between Soil and Fishermen.
Written by: Rev. Jack Davidson