It Takes a Village and a Jell-O Dance

Okay, when you hear “it takes a village” it sends your mind to a couple of places, right? Well, this isn’t my endorsement for a political candidate, so we must be talking about the Village People.

We can learn a lot from this unique group that brought their different gifts and professions together to create an experience of music, motion, and laughter for almost 30 years. Young and old of varying abilities and flexibility have come together and in unison have declared how much fun it is to stay at the YMCA. We can learn a lot about ministry through the experience of this song.

This song is a collection of rhythms and motions and to reach its fullest fun-factor, needs to be done in a community of young and old with common and exuberant hand movements. It would not be the same if we did one letter over and over again; it needs a variety of motions. Imagine if there was only one village person, dressed in their standard church work apparel, who introduced this dance. The movement would have been over before he got to the C.

If I am truthful I probably spend more time in ministry centering the program on my ideas, thoughts, and abilities. It would be similar to us introducing the YYYY (or maybe better said the IIII) dance. Is this not a form of self-idolatry? But in youth ministry we are not called to be a single village person. I mean, if Jesus, who is both divine and human, assembled a team to do ministry, what makes us think we can do it alone? We have the opportunity to call others from different professions and gift sets to join us as we try and figure out what kind of dance will impact the youth with whom we get to work.

Many of us have been hired or volunteer to organize and run the youth group. The goal and basis for evaluating how successful we have been is usually how many people we can get to be a part of the youth group. That is how I started out in youth ministry and soon began to struggle with the thought that there must be a better way. It led me on a journey to find out what I was trying to accomplish. I then began to think in broad terms that my job was to create a community, a true village. That community would be a collection of people from different walks of life (financial, education, age, abilities and passions) who have come together to use their assets for the greater good. It is a collection of fisherman, tax-collectors, policemen, cowboys, advertising execs, students, housewives (not the desperate kind), mechanics, unemployed, retired, introverted, and extroverted that form this community where no one is more important than another. (For a radical look at a movement called the Simple Way that is trying to create a Biblical model of community read Shane Claiborne’s book, Irresistible Revolution.)

In my congregation, my calling is to walk alongside both youth and adults in order to form this community. In 1 Corinthians 12, God declares that He has given us the gifts of various spiritual gifts but the same Spirit. If this were written in youth ministry language, it might look more like this: God has given some to be speakers, some to be prayer warriors, some to be small group leaders, some to love details and planning, some to stay up all night and actually gain energy, some to lead leaders, some the gift of cooking, some to snowboard, some to love finances, some the ability to fit their whole fist in their mouth, some the gifts of vision, and some the gifts of evaluation.

My job is to decipher how to bring these gifted people into this community so that they can experience the joy and connection of using the gifts God gave them. I believe that when we connect an adult into our ministry in the area of their gifts, that it can impact six to eight kids in our community. There is no way I can minister to the whole community alone; in fact, I believe the more I try the more I am being disobedient to God’s call of leadership in my congregation.

So you have been asked to create a community and you are wondering where to start. I am guessing that we have the same question: What would the Village People do? They would create a dance that would help form a community that is unique to our congregation and culture. They would probably have five letters that would help focus them on forming this community.

Leadership: One of the great shifts for me in leadership was to create the vision of the community (along with others who had those gifts), and then to invite other adults into the joy and opportunity of using those gifts. In creating that community at Woodbury Lutheran I had to refocus and spend more time with leaders in discovering where they fit best. The challenge for me was that I was used to spending my time with the youth and creating those relationships but had to shift in creating a community where other adults would take more of that role.

Evaluation: We needed to spend time evaluating our overall community as well as individual programs and events. This helped us point out our strengths and areas where we needed improvement. It was important to invite different people from our community to be part of this evaluation to balance perspectives and give a broader range of information from which to draw direction. How are we doing with discipleship? Outreach? Biblical Teaching? Training? Prayer? Relationship? When we figured out what we were doing well, it was important to celebrate that with all who were involved. After we figured out where we were in need it gave us the opportunity to search for those gifts and to bring others into our community. This evaluation process has helped create an outline of what our community will look like.

Joy: When you’re involved in ministry with teammates who experience joy, that atmosphere is a huge catalyst for a positive and energetic community. We have a program set up where leaders can “test drive” a ministry opportunity for two to three weeks and see if this is a place where they would enjoy serving. What we have noticed is that when we match their gifts and passions up with one of our needs, the person experiences a deep joy in serving. We have also noticed how recruitment each year gets easier as adults really want to be a part of a positive and impactful community.

Long term planning: In many of our ministries this can be a significant weakness. We are focused more on getting through the next event or preparing the next talk instead of spending enough time evaluating and planning long term for the community. When we plan only for the short term, it is more about setting up a system for the time that we are in a particular congregation, instead of setting up a community that will continue to minister and flourish, even when we move on. When we look at how Jesus did ministry, he spent a lot of time with His disciples and others to equip them for long term ministry. There was certainly grieving after His death and resurrection, but the disciples continued that community and expanded it. The more you can connect leaders with their gifts and joys into the community the more they will commit to long term ministry.

Ownership: The key in forming a community is helping each leader understand they have ownership in it. The more you can help them see how their serving leads to ministry, and the more you can connect their individual service into the larger, long term picture, the more each leader in your community will have ownership in your program. This means inviting them into casting the vision, planning, leading, and evaluating of the programs/events. Even though we have three Youth Ministers on staff, we still have several events that are organized, planned, and led by volunteers in our community. We also have several volunteers be the point person for the event, even if one of the staff members attends the event. The more they feel a part of the process, leadership, and direction of the community, the more ownership they will feel. One of the great gifts of creating community ownership is that the community, not just one person, leads the way for the ministry.

What we have seen is tremendous growth not only in the number of adults that have taken ownership within our community, but also in the number of youth that decided to be a part of this community.

For our program we really rely on these five things:

J oy of our leaders using their gifts
E valuation of our programs to note strengths and weaknesses
L eadership in creating the vision for community
L ong term plans that go beyond me
O wnership by the leaders in the community

Yes, you can probably see that to create a bigger community what you need is a little Jell-O. I can see it now, each of us grabbing people with different gifts, ages, and professions and heading into the dance that is youth ministry and in unison raising our energetic hands and doing the Jell-O dance. In every community there is always room for more Jell-O.

Published August 4, 2008

About the author

Derek is an Associate Pastor with an emphasis on Senior High Ministry at Woodbury Lutheran Church in Woodbury, MN. He enjoys the variation of Youth Ministry and creating caring community inside and outside of the church walls. He loves spending time with his wife and three kids, playing most sports and sitting on his deck with a good book. One of Derek's great joys is having coffee with people talking about life and our walk with Jesus.
View more from Derek

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