I want to continue to build on some thoughts I began to share here. I will continue to use Marko’s observations on the Asian American (AA) youth ministry as a framework for my response. In my first post, I tried to tackle the idea of youth workers being treated as second (or third) class citizens in Asian American churches. Today, taking on the idea of youth workers being treated as hired guns in AA churches…

68 guns
Certainly, the phrase “hired gun” is loaded (oh, the puns). Though I do have certain critical observations of AA churches in this regard, I do not believe that most AA churches intend for their youth workers to be simply hourly wage-earning automatons — nor do I believe this is what Marko was implying in his original post. Most, if not all, of my peers in AA youth ministry have had a tremendous pastoral heart for their students.

Marko is right in using a somewhat explosive (again with the puns!) phrase in highlighting his underlying point, though. It it vital to recognize that youth ministry is not simply entrusted to AA youth workers, but abdicated to them. This happens for a number of reasons, from my experience.

Perceived inadequacy & professional relevance
First generation (1G) parents often feel inadequate in raising their own children. Beyond the obvious language, cultural and generational differences, many first generation parents simply do not have the time (or, in the worst case, inclination) to sit down and spend time with their children. However, this might also spring from a cultural difference — the idea of Dad tossing around a baseball with the kids on a lazy Saturday might be idealized in the Western perspective, but not necessarily upheld in an Eastern worldview. The 1G love language can be very different, and difficult to understand, for their second generation (2G) children, and vice-versa.

Then, because of this perceived inadequacy (coupled with the frustration of having moody, incomprehensible, hormone-filled teens stomping around the house), 1G parents hand over the reins to the “expert” — the youth worker. Often, these 1G parents prefer to have someone younger leading the youth ministry because they mistakenly believe that the youth worker will naturally understand their children’s culture.

It is important to recognize that while a 2G youth worker probably does have more insight into the life and culture of students than their parents, there is still a huge gap between most youth workers and their students. For example, in high school I inhabited a world without the internet. And, although youth workers just a couple of years younger than me are more native to a wired world, the pace of change is so rapid that even my high schoolers have a hard time relating to their middle school peers at times.

More importantly, the trade-off between perceived relevance and stability/experience is completely uneven. I would much rather see AA churches filled with grizzled old youth ministry vets who are in it for the long-haul than to have young, hip and “relevant” people bounce in and out every couple of years.

Sunday’s best
1G parents then, out of both exasperation and wanting the best for their 2G kids, pass along much of what should rightly be their responsibility to the youth workers. This includes everything from the profoundly spiritual to the mundane.

Many 1G Korean American parents express their faith through such spiritual disciplines as early morning prayer. In our church, the Korean congregation gathers every morning at 5:30 am to sing a couple of hymns, here a short sermon and pray together. In many ways, this disciplines has been reclaimed and redeemed from their Buddhist/shamanistic background. Most of these 1G parents recognize that such a model will not work for their 2G children. But instead of working through it with their kids, they expect the youth worker to be responsible for the spiritual formation of their children — as if that were remotely possible in just a few hours each week. Youth workers are primarily responsible for teaching students about why developing a personal relationship with Jesus is important, how to walk with God, how to serve the church, how to see the world from a Christian perspective, how to have a quiet time, and on and on.

One complaint I have heard from many different parents in several different churches, located around the country, is that their students do not dress properly for church – and could you tell them how to dress? I suppose I should be ready for it by now, but I am always a taken aback by such a request. After all, do I take their children shopping? Do I see them before they come to church on Sunday? Can I adequately convey to the students the good reasons behind dressing nicely for church (without it degenerating into yet another set of “rules” for good church-going)? Other related issues usually center around teaching their children manners or urging them to study harder. Again, these are clearly parental responsibilities. As a parent myself, I understand their hearts but I also recognize that the best I can do is partner with them – not take over as a 2G surrogate parent.

Anyone want to volunteer? Anyone?
Many AA churches lack adult volunteers for their youth ministry, which further exacerbates the problem of isolation and departmentalization. Many 1G adults are frightened off from serving in youth ministries because they live under the same false assumption of “relevance” being the most important thing — maybe their English isn’t perfect, maybe they feel too old, etc. In addition, these very same people who would have the heart to serve are already living in the 80/20 rule (80% of the work is done by 20% of the people), wearing several different hats in service to the church. This is certainly true of the wonderful adults who volunteer in our youth ministry. Not only do they teach youth, but they are in the worship band, are cell group leaders, offering-counters and Sunday greeters. I marvel at their ability to keep their heads on straight.

Many AA churches hope to rely on their English-speaking adult congregations (EM) as a pool for volunteers. Unfortunately, many of the EMs are barely getting by on their own; I have often seen more resistance from EM pastors than from their 1G counterparts in terms of encouraging their congregants to volunteer in youth ministries.

A servant’s heart
Add all of this up and most AA youth ministries find an urgent, fundamental need to develop student leaders. While this leadership void is filled through formal channels (i.e., student council/cabinet/core group, worship band, etc.), it is equally important in an AA setting to develop an overall concept of servant leadership for every student.

In part, this is because 2G students will serve, whether they like it or not. The ideal of filial piety (respecting your elders) runs deep in 1G congregations. The practical reality is that these 2G students will end up doing lots and lots of grunt work by the time their youth group years are up. A favorite example in our family (loosely based on our experience growing up in Korean American churches): some random deacon pulls up in front of the church with his van packed to roof with boxes of oranges. The random 1G adult will then proceed to conscript any English-speaking young person in the vicinity for orange-moving service.

The issue, then, is not if our 2G students will serve, but with what attitude they will serve. There is some truth to the idea that the true measure of our servanthood is revealed when we are treated as one. A huge part of my ministry to 2G students has been to develop a Christ-like idea of serving and loving simply because this is what He asks us to do.

A safe place to lead
It is not only necessity that makes developing AA student leadership so vital. The church is often the safest place in which these 2G students can develop leadership skills. Many 2G students live as constant outsiders — navigating the choppy waters of school with their Western lens, then subconsciously switching gears to navigate their home culture through a completely different perspective. I was shocked to hear the story of one of our 10th graders. She described how her social studies class recently covered Pearl Harbor, and how several of her classmates began to harangue her aloud with “ching-chong” type of mockery. Her teacher, though clearly hearing all of this, did nothing to intervene. Sticks and stones, I suppose…

As horrible as her story is, though, it does illustrate the greater point. Because of the constant cultural navigation, many AA students will not feel comfortable developing leadership in a strictly Western (i.e., school) setting nor will they be at ease leading in a 1G context. While it might be a Western value to be outspoken, assertive, even aggressive, this will definitely not fly at home for 2G students. Even in the face of such obvious injustice, it was difficult for this student to speak out.

AA youth ministries, then, have a unique and significant opportunity to nurture and develop leadership in a safe context — one that recognizes the complexities they face, and provides some guidance into a deeply Christian sense of leadership.

From hired hand to good shepherds
As I stated up front, most AA youth workers do not view themselves as hired guns. The issue, then, is creating an overall culture in AA churches where the shepherding of students is upheld as a legitimate, valuable and necessary ministry.

As Jesus said in John 10:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.