Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of 30 Stories that appeared in the 100th edition of Youth Leaders Only. Make sure you check out the other great stories from this special edition celebrating 30 years of YLO.
Cleaning the garage after the last of my kids graduated college, settled into a career and got their own place to store their junk, I ran across a box marked YOUTH LEADERS ONLY. My wife caught me staring off into the pale South Texas wintry blue sky with a vacant look in my eye. I was having a flashback.
In the early 90’s at my first youth ministry conference, I timidly ambled from the registration desk to the exhibit hall. I turned the corner into the hall and this thing called interlínc hit me with a visual and audio feast. A bit overwhelmed, I passed on by, looking but not looking. The other booths were buttoned up, staid, denominational, Sunday School. Over the next two and half days, I observed. There was always energy at this booth. It seemed to be all about music. Good music. People were hanging around talking with this distinguished, lanky guy dressed in Hawaiian shirts. I explored the offering of the entire hall. This was the only booth with anything approaching relevant for teen culture. Towards the end of the conference, I finally came by when there were not many people around. The Hawaiian shirt guy grabbed my hand and introduced himself. He had this thing that once a quarter sent straight to your church a box of music, a video, some posters, stickers, and a handy dandy curriculum guide. This stuff would match up to any style of music a teen might like. I met YLO. I wanted in.
Two things I know about music. 1) I like it. 2) I don’t know anything about it. Now, with YLO, I could get the latest music that might have a chance of connecting with my students. Those skater kids grinding rails on the curbs in the far parking lot – Hey, do me a favor, take this and listen to it and tell me what you think. They are in. Audio Adrenaline got them in. Those guys squatting on the sidelines talking guitar riffs while everyone else plays hoops – check out this CD, think you could play it? They are in. Guardian got them in. Those pale girls writing poetry in spiral notebooks – they are in. Rebecca St. James got them in. In a matter of weeks, I had those students around the fringes all connected, active, engaged, initiating conversations with me. Instead of me struggling to do something to overcome my weakness with music, I had a tool that was inverting my ministry. Music was sparking connections.
Each time the box arrived I paused everything and poured over the content. I organized the CDs for personal listening. Sunday school teachers got first pass at the music video, planning upcoming lessons that would hold the student’s attention. The weeknight Bible study leader got the Music Study Guide for selecting songs and studies for interactive discussions. The Atmosphere Team got the selection of posters, stickers, and occasional kitsch that graced the box. I picked a sampling of songs from the CDs I listened to and interspersed them in our routine student workers meetings, asking how the adults might use a particular song in a lesson from our planned and structured curriculum, or how they might connect with a student by recommending a particular artist. In our student leadership meeting, I would pass out CDs with assignments to write a short review for our weekly handout to encourage other students to sample a particular CD. Finally, I would add the CDs to our music library. The empty box was even used to store games, resources, and equipment in our giant student ministry toy box. Standing in front of the group in a Sunday morning, I would hold up a few CDs and talk about the songs and artists I liked. Students would constantly stop by my office to check out CDs from the library, leading to some great conversations.
Admittedly, all these things did not happen immediately, but emerged over the course of a couple of years to where the arrival of the YLO box sparked creativity, new relational connections, and relevant conversations at the intersection of faith and youth culture.
I had my own personal Y2K. I looked around and realized that hundreds of teens that had passed through my student ministry over the past twenty years were no longer connected to church. I got together with a group of people and redesigned church from the ground up based on months of informal conversations with former students. As a pastor with a student minister’s sensibilities, I took the lessons learned with teens and translated them to a church for emerging generations. Over the years, I had evolved a sense of how to use music for connections and conversations. I discovered music as a soundtrack instead of an event, enhancing the experience of multi-sensory engagement. Most importantly, I had discovered music resides at the intersection of humanity and spirituality. We discovered that music would calm and focus, mentally and emotionally moving people from the secular to the sacred as they began to settle in to the worship atmosphere.
The experience in student ministry with YLO studies sparked an anytime anywhere group around music. The idea was that any selection off the shelf in the local bookstore or music store could be a starting place to discuss life and faith, reminiscent of Re:tuned. My former students knew how to make the leap from their experience as teens. Drawing their friends, they connected over things I never would have chosen like hip-hop and rap. People who would never darken the door of a come-and-watch us church were sitting in a public space openly discussing their struggle with faith or lack thereof.
Each time I attended a student ministry conference, I would talk with the Interlinc team. I got connected with the group who previews all that music and prepares studies. Before long I had accepted an assignment. Through the transition from student minister to lead pastor, I routinely took on writing assignments, most of the time stretching my 70’s rock sensibility, but certainly enjoying the challenge of finding ways to talk about faith in culturally relevant music.
Our church served its purpose, reconnecting people to a faith community, and engaging those never before engaged in a life of faith. After 28 years, I had grown old in ministry. Tired and weary, I found a 9-to-5 in a comfortable office. Still, I kept on in that writers group, writing less and less until a few days ago I reflected on an email for writing another round of YLO studies and realized I was far out of touch with teens. My current job is managing transitions in enterprise software – mostly working with knowledge transfer.
Through the years, I collected an extensive toolbox of student ministry resources. But none was more valuable than the resources from the Hawaiian shirt guy, Allen Weed, and the team at interlínc. Of those, none was more anticipated and none more useful per dollar invested than the treasure box they call YLO.