youth ministry is vocational

Emmanuel! God is with us, in the vocations of our youth!

Vocation is the most critical issues youth ministry faces today. If we cannot help young people listen for and discern God’s call in their lives, then they will find little reason to stay engaged in the community of faith. When we claim that God is at work in the life of a young person, we claim that biology and culture are not the only factors in human development. From a theological perspective, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-Ecological Systems Theory is incomplete. We would also want to add one more system, the kairos system.

Kairos is God’s time. God shows up and God does God’s work in God’s time. Culture and biology shape our physical, cognitive and social development but God also works on us in kairos moments.

A few years back I conducted a research project in which I listened to teens across the country discuss moments/ experiences in which they thought God was particularly present or active; kairos moments. The language they used to describe these moments was vocational language. They described moments in which they experienced a deeper sense of responsibility for people or creation. They described moments in which they experienced a deepening of their relationship with God. They were describing vocation – kairos moments in which they were being called out of themselves and into deeper relationships with God, others and creation.

If Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the popular religion colonizing American religion, then vocation is the antidote. Young people who believe that God is present and active in their lives drawing them out of themselves and into deeper relationships with God, others and creation cannot possibly believe in the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The late Dr. Peter Benson of Search Institute was engaged in some important research prior to his passing. He was exploring what he called “Spark”; that thing a young person lives for and just has to do – music, sports, caregiving, drawing, writing, etc. Spark is Vocation! He describes “Spark” and his research in this 20 minute TED Talk video. I encourage you to watch the whole thing at some point, but I also summarize it below.

Search Institute conducted 6000-7000 interviews with middle school and high school youth across the country. 100% of these students “get” the idea of having a Spark – that thing inside of you that provides you with hope, direction and purpose; that thing you love to do. They all knew what was meant by this concept. About two-thirds could name at least one Spark right away. Another 20% could name one with a little help from a teacher or mentor.

The research found 220 different kinds of sparks. The most common Sparks were helping/ serving/ volunteering, leading, learning, stewardship of creation, athletics and the arts. The arts, or the creative life, was the one Spark identified most frequently.

What do teens need to thrive? According to this research they need…

  1. to be able to identify a Spark
  2. they need at least 3 Spark champions – adults who know and support their Spark
  3. opportunities to engage and nurture this Spark.

Only about ½ of those interviewed said someone in their own family knew what their Spark was. Only 1/3 said an adult in their school recognized their Spark and only about ¼ said someone in their community (neighborhood, congregation, etc.) knew what their Spark was. This lack of awareness leads to a major mismatch between the Sparks of our youth and the opportunities for them to engage and nurture their Sparks. These opportunities are not in abundance.

Why does this matter?

I would like to argue that what Search Institute has identified as “Spark” is what we would refer to as “Vocation” – that specific and unique call from God, or manifestation of the Spirit, for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). Not only do our young people need to be actively engaged with their Sparks, or vocation; our communities and our world is in desperate need for them to be engaged with their Sparks.

Our world is in need. God has given our young people gifts to serve a world in need. We have the wonderful opportunity to help our young people hear their calls, their vocations their Sparks. We have the wonderful opportunity to equip other adults to notice the Sparks of our youth. And we have the wonderful opportunity to create and identify opportunities for our youth to engage their Sparks for the sake of the world.

Emmanuel! God is with us, in the Sparks of our youth!

This post is the eighth post (of 9) in this “anti-model” series.



About jeremypmyers

Jeremy Myers teaches youth and family ministry at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. His current academic interests include articulating a vocational understanding of youth and a public understanding of church. He lives with his wife and two children in St. Paul, MN. Bluegrass music, strong coffee and huge pancakes are a few of his favorite things.
This entry was posted in theological reflection on youth ministry, vocation, Youth Ministry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to youth ministry is vocational

  1. I am not sure I’d give that a vocation distinction, but that really is just semantics that i’m okay with going back and forth on. My hearing of ‘vocation’ becomes career oriented, and I would really hope this stirs more results of Kingdom building, and justice for God’s people..

    As I was digesting this I was interpreting as inspiration, moving into action. But that might be, as I see it, that we pretty much squelch the imagination and creative nature of our human side for to much process (widget building) & “value” driven vocations and actions. If something wasn’t seen as having value, then we discount it and steer our youth away from it. And from our industrial recent history we’ve wanted to churn out the widgets of perfect teenagers, children, christians without regard for God’s inspiration..

    okay, off that soap box.

    I did like the ‘start of a parents meeting’ with the Spark that is a simple enough and tangible start. Tim Eldred with Endeavor Movement puts it in a framework of “what breaks your heart?” and then lets work with that. Obviously that is a bit more missional of a questioning, but it gets to results of that Spark research.

    realizing now my comment has gone a few differing routes. apologies

  2. jeremypmyers says:

    Hey, Gavin. Nice to “see” you here. This is where I chime in and say that we have mistakenly limited vocation in two ways. We’ve equated it with job or career – which it isn’t. My call is to help young people wrestle with the possibility of God. I use to do that as a youth minister and now I do it as a professor. I think I also do it as a father and a neighbor. There is more to this sense of call then the tasks I complete to earn a paycheck.

    We’ve also made our talk of vocation too heroic. I’d like us to take a more mundane approach to vocation and Kingdom building and justice for God’s people. When we do this we begin to think those things that have more value (quantitatively or qualitatively) are more important, and hence clearly more vocational. You have kids. There ain’t anything heroic about changing diapers, but I believe it is a mundane aspect of our vocation – or responsibility as fathers.

    Yes – what breaks your heart? – is a great question that I’ve found to really work with middle school and high school youth. They get that question and have a lot of insight when asked about it.

    Peace to you, Gavin.

  3. Marge Franzen says:

    Hey Jeremy, Thanks for this! I’ve fwd. the link to our Youth Team. It’s right down the alley of our current scope discussions.

  4. Great post Jeremy!

    In my experience in youth ministry, that spark or vocation is one of the unique things that the Church can bring. Often times, schools are focused on standardized tests and controlling behavior and many of the urban families I minister to are focused on surviving. Youth are often not encouraged to seek that deeper meaning.

    But in the Church–we have the amazing gift to explore each person’s unique giftedness and calling. For me, that is the great joy of ministry. Seeing a young person identify for the first time what makes them special and what they can give the world.

  5. Pingback: Youth Ministry is Holistic |

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