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Self Experimentation

Practicing Pragmatism: Self-Experiment In Your Youth Ministry Context

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10 — NIV)

The Great News:  Youth pastors are one of the church’s best practitioners.  Youth pastors love to experiment in order to develop better methods and practices for their youth ministry.

The Bad News:  Youth pastors are bombarded with information, models, theories, books, resources, magazines, and blogs, which only leave youth pastors more confused and directionless when it comes to how to do youth ministry.  This can be labeled as paralysis by analysis.

How can youth ministry theory and practice not only reconcile but produce actionable youth pastors that test theories in their current context?

I am highly suggesting youth pastors adopt AND practice the philosophical idea of Pragmatism in their youth ministry.

Pragmatism 101:

Pragmatists say that life is a process of discovering the truths of how our actions work for us.  Pragmatism causes us to ask, “Does it work?”

History has shown us that some of the best ideas have failed in practicality.  Theodore Roosevelt, 26th U.S. President and one of the most notable Presidential pragmatists, said:

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

In addition Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer said:

The strongest streak in the American character is a fierce pragmatism that mistrust blind ideology of every stripe and insists on finding what really works.

The term, pragmatism, is derived from the same Greek word pragma, meaning action, from which our words ‘practice’ and ‘practical’ come from.  Some of the notable pragmatist philosophers have said:  “whatever works, is likely true.”  The philosophical idea of pragmatism is beautiful because it equally fuses together both:  ideas and reality.  We know pragmatism works because it is testable.  Pragmatism does not deal with correlations, rather it only deals with causality.

The Big Daddy Question?

How does a youth pastor who comes across a ton of youth ministry ideas via conferences, blogs, seminary, magazines, and books still have the time to put them into action and be honest about the results?

I will admit that I am more interested in what works than philosophizing and pontificating on what may be a good idea in youth ministry.  It has taken me nearly a decade to finally admit this is true.  When I started in youth ministry, I was all about practice.  I realized that only practice was surface level and 2-D.  Then I went to seminary and I was all about theory.   I realized only theory is irrelevant. Then I got out of seminary and realized that 80% of the great and well-articulated theories don’t work in present day youth ministry.  I realized I needed to find ways to reconcile theory and practice.

The Huge Value Of Self-Experimentation

Self experimentation in youth ministry has a high probability of failure, and parents tend to get mad because things are always changing. But you get to find out what works with your particular students in your particular church. In my youth ministry experience, I was never micro-managed or under a set model/tradition for how to do youth ministry, so I got to self experiment a lot.  I was very thankful that I was able to work outside of the system and pull from different models, methods, and theories.  I was very persistent to take any idea I was wrestling with and test it.  This is why I started my youth ministry blog, because I had to synthesize and record the youth ministry ideas I was testing.

Charles Darwin said:

I love fools’ experiments.  I’m always making them.

Sample:  Self-Experiment — Dare 2 Share Gospel Journey Maui

For example, a few years back I was wrestling with the Dare 2 Share‘s Deep and Wide strategy.  I blogged a lot about my discontentment and disagreement with their approach.  In fact, I contacted the dudes (Greg Stier and Jason Lamb) at Dare 2 Share to pick their brains to make sure I was understanding them correctly.  Jason Lamb suggested I check out the Gospel Journey Maui series.  I thought to myself, if I am critiquing Dare 2 Share’s mission, I better try their goods. So I bought it and tried it.  Guess what?  It worked.  My students loved it and they learned a lot and, more importantly, their youth pastor learned a lot.  I wrote Jason Lamb an email apologizing for my anger issue and said I was sorry for not testing their stuff before critically blogging about it.  This is why I love pragmatism – because it allows everything to be tested which enables everyone to come to a conclusion about whether things work or not, regardless of how you think or feel.

My Conclusions

–  You cannot argue with what works in a particular church for a particular group of students.

–  Don’t use skepticism as an excuse for inaction.

–  It is not about what youth ministry idea/model/philosophy/strategy is right or wrong, but what works.

–  The guys and gals who are doing stuff in youth ministry that is making an impact need more respect.  Don’t hate on those who are doing great stuff that is working for the Kingdom of God.

– Youth pastor pragmatists keep theorists honest.

–  The greatest youth ministry resource and idea involves you and your youth ministry lab.  Experiment freely!!  The future of youth ministry needs you to play.

–  Publish your lab write ups via a youth ministry blog.  Please start a youth ministry blog….. so you can process, contemplate, dialogue, and report your results with what is working and not working in your youth ministry.

About Jeremy Zach

Orange XP3 Specialist | Youth Worker | MDIV | Hot Sauce Addict | Dr. Dre Beats Lover

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  1. I see your point about needing a mix of theory and practice. However, if you are not careful you can miss the big picture by focusing too much on experimentation. It’s important to keep your goals in mind. That way when you are evaluating which of your programs “worked” you will know what you mean by that. Does that mean you got more youth to come to the event or that your youth are growing deeper in their relationship with Christ?

    • Yes I agree. It is imperative to keep the end goals in mind. However that doesn’t mean our end goals are concrete. In fact, experimentation is a great measurement on what to exactly manage. Another words experimentation can give you a better understand on your priorities.

      To get to your question: Does that mean you got more youth to come to the event or that your youth are growing deeper in their relationship with Christ?

      I think this is up to the youth pastor in how he/she defines what works based off of what he/she is measuring.

  2. Jeremy. Love this post bro. Keep writing! Love the heart.

  3. I have to say that your conclusions at the end are the best part. Particularly your first conclusion I feel Is something I need to remember. Just because I think this way of doing ministry works doesnt mean the youth group in the next town over is wrong for doing it another way.

    I also am blessed to currently be in a church that somewhat allows me to expirement. I say somewhat because I can do what I want, but if I do anything other than the normal, typical things, I get yelled at by parents and leaders. So its a freedom thats not really there. Thanks for this post.

  4. great post jeremy. I am with you, for lack of a better term, on a practical level. let me push back a bit though. how far does this go? in other words, how particular and how general do we adopt this philosophy. at the end of the day, as disciples, are we not called to simply be faithful rather than productive? if that’s true, it should bleed over into our discipleship of others.

    an example is confrontation based evangelism on the streets of hollywood. one person believes the gospel and suddenly confrontation evangelism, standing on a soapbox scaring the hell out of people, becomes a legitimate evangelism tool because “it works”. but we would say that screaming at people that they are going to hell is not necessarily faithful to how the gospel is spread through the new testament. we would say, God is the one who works, not the method. therefore, our task is not to be concerned with “what works” in evangelism but what is most faithful to the call of God on our lives to share the gospel with the world around us. so, in this case, pragmatism doesn’t seem to work well.

    does any of this makes sense? I think I’m still on bored in terms of “what works” in context – teaching methods, missional living, etc. and perhaps that’s the point of your post and I am just missing it. hope you had a great new year dude!

    • @Jon
      I am totally tracking with you and I have thought a lot about your questions before I wrote this post. I was curious if anyone would challenge me on my assertions because pragmatism is deeply layered and has many implications.

      **how far does this go? The biggest critique of pragmatism is it’s relative features. For the sake of my post, I only wanted to deal with it, within the praxis of youth ministry. I would suggest you can take this philosophical idea and input into any system. I would say: take it as far as your comfort levels allow for you to take it. What fascinates me is that pragmatism is such a poignant philosophical idea that is can literally deconstruct anything; if you are open to test your practical theological assumptions in the context of youth ministry.

      **we would say, God is the one who works, not the method.
      I agree- But I am looking through the lens of doing a lot of different stuff and observe how God works and moves in and through your obedience of trying it all. I would argue that this procedure honors God’s authority more because we are truly assessing what God is up to. And sometimes God is working on the fringes because we are so busy doing our thing. This why I love experimentation because you are always have to observe, record, and redirect. Complacency and routine are not associated with pragmatism.

      We have to admit that in some places in the world confrontation based evangelism works. Yes it doesn’t work in Hollywood, then again nothing that is Jesus-centered works in Hollywood. But at the same time I can name many countries where this method works.

      Is faithfulness and productiveness two separate things or the same thing?
      Honestly if we are being faithful, it will mean we have to move and do something for the Kingdom of God. Is doing something for the Kingdom of God productive? Maybe?

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