I am a classical ballet dancer. I don’t use the term “ballerina” because I don’t feel like I’ve earned it yet. I don’t feel like I know enough or am proficient enough in the skills needed to qualify as a “ballerina.” Some would contest that my 15 years of formal ballet training would earn me that title… or that my experience pioneering a dance program for our Lutheran Church and School would earn me the title “instructor.” And yet, here I am. Perhaps I have a bit of an inferiority complex, but I think it is mostly an acute realization that I’m not where I want to be just yet.
As a Christian, I draw a correlation from my dissatisfaction with my dance proficiency to a dissatisfaction with my faithful Christian practice. While I know that I cannot attain perfection here on earth, as a dancer or as a Christian, I strive for perfection in both of those areas of my life. As we read in Philippians 4:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
In a sinful world, we will never reach perfection. Only when we reach the Kingdom of Heaven will we reach the perfection intended for us at the Creation of the Universe. How then do we seek after better understanding of who God is and what God is empowering us to do in our lives and ministry? How does a dancer proceed after completing a decade of training? How do nurses and doctors continue in the field of medicine after passing their initial board exams?
The answer to all these questions is continuing education as lifelong learners.
If we do not continue to learn and grow, we risk wasting the talents and abilities that God our Father has given us. Continuing education does not always require a formal academic institution, because there is no end to the knowledge we can acquire. As youth ministry leaders, it is easy to become complacent in the knowledge that God’s word is the same yesterday, today and forever.
We must not fall into this trap of complacency, because our sinful world is constantly changing. Sometimes the changes are minute and barely discernible, other times we live through things like a global pandemic and the changes are big and sudden and very obvious. Either way, our job as youth ministry leaders is to help translate God’s eternal living Word to the constantly changing cultures and people around us. We must be fluent, both literally and figuratively, in multiple “languages.” In order to continue our own transformation and continue to be effective in our ministry, we must also continuously be learning. To have a stagnate faith or intellect is to slow the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.
During this pandemic many dancers found themselves without a physical space to continue the everlasting endeavor of their education. As a result, the dance community quickly mobilized and began offering live streamed classes from world class ballet companies, schools and individual dancers, often free of charge. I found myself, an older dancer who didn’t have the financial means to pursue more formal ballet training pre-pandemic, suddenly overwhelmed with many amazing opportunities to dance with, and learn from people and organizations that I would never have had access to previously. My dance education, while in a smaller space, has advanced as never before. I’ve been able to find so many opportunities – including different styles, techniques and conditioning methods.
Youth ministry leaders can seek out or create learning opportunities that will help us fulfill our many vocations. For starters, always be sure to continue to grow in God’s Word. If you aren’t already, you should commit yourself to regularly reading the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Dive into Biblical theology that helps explain how our world is broken and how God can bring hope. Additionally, read a book that one of your students recommends or one on youth ministry like Connected for Life from CPH. Google words your students are using that you don’t understand (thank you, Urban Dictionary). Many webinars and recordings out now can help you develop tools to better share the Gospel with your young people. Always be sure to continue to learn in God’s Word.
Research things that are impacting those you serve. Do you have a student suffering from an eating disorder that has been exacerbated by the isolation of pandemic lockdowns? Research the disease in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders and then find resources through Melrose or ANAD. Is a member of your youth’s family struggling with a cancer diagnosis? Learn about the disease from the American Cancer Society’s website so you can understand the needs of this family that is so precious in God’s sight. Unless you have extended education, it is important to know how to care and properly resource those in your congregation. But you are not all things to all people, so you have the liberty to relinquish control back to the one who is truly in control, God.
In the same way, encourage your students to be always inquisitive.
Encourage their questions and help them identify the tools, people and resources that can lead to the truth. Let them see you as you continually deepen your understanding of God and what he has done for us. As you look for ways to better serve them, you are setting an example of what it is to be a Christian – a lifelong learner of God’s Word – and how they can learn to better share the gospel in their own vocations, now and in the future. Empowering students to seek their own answers through appropriate avenues has the added benefit of growing their self-confidence and strengthening their mental health. When a young person gains knowledge about something that affects them, they are no longer at the mercy of an imperfect system.
Lifelong learning requires introspection that many of us are uncomfortable with. It requires us to acknowledge that we are not the beings that God intended us to be when He created Adam and Eve. It requires us to repent of our sin and shortfalls. I encourage you to view this as an opportunity. When we make the effort to learn, not only do we acknowledge the intellect that God has gifted to us, we also demonstrate His love to us. Without this love, we are “a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” Continuing education in any form creates a more multifaceted character, this in turn allows us to serve more people and therefore come ever closer to our goal of making disciples of all nations.
Any dancer will tell you that without constant education and maintenance, it is impossible to move forward.
They’ll also tell you that forward is the only path to success. Big changes are often the easiest to deal with, they are usually clearly defined and therefore the solution is obvious… for example, a stress fracture in the foot equals rest and rehabilitation. Small changes can be nearly imperceptible, and this is why dancers practice with tutu’s on, why they always use the same brand, size and model of pointe shoes and the same, exacting methods to break them in. When a small change takes place in the base of your movement, it can affect the entirety of not only the individual dancer’s performance, but the entire company’s performance. Butterfly effect? A little. This is why we constantly learn new things, and why we always start at the barre and “go back to the basics” on the regular.
In the same way, create and attend to habits that keep you focused on the basics. Prayer, worship, reading God’s Word, and finding a system of support and community cannot be neglected. We should encourage this not only in ourselves but other leaders, in our families and in our youth. Now, more than ever, we need to be vigilant about our holistic health. The development of our minds and a commitment to lifelong learning is a key aspect to that health. Just as the muscles of a dancer’s body can atrophy, so too can the intellect and faithful practice of the minister.