What youth workers can learn from McFarland USA

Mcfarland Usa

Over the weekend, I saw the movie McFarland, USA.

In so many ways, this is a youth ministry movie – a powerful example of the impact adults can have in the lives of teens.

In the movie, Mr. White – a teacher who's been laid off by several schools for his mistreatment of students – has been hired by McFarland High School to be a life science and PE teacher, in addition to it's assistant football coach. Both McFarland – an impoverished school comprised of mostly Hispanic students – and Mr. White are desperate for this situation to work.

One scene early in the movie takes place at a McFarland football game. The team is decimated by it's opponent, with a score of 60 something to 0. Clearly, football is not a game these boys – or this school – excels at.

What these boys excel at is running.

Over time, Mr. White observes them running – in his PE classes as well as to and from school, when not having a car forces them to run from school to their job as crop pickers.

Having seen this, Mr. White suggests McFarland form a cross country team. Initially the principal rejects this idea, saying cross country is a “private school” sport. Eventually, Mr. White uses some creative funding to convince the principal to give it a shot.

As they say, the rest is history.

The team wins the state championship that year, as well as 8 times in the next 14 years.

There is, I believe, an important lesson here for youth workers.

So often as youth workers, we enter a position knowing exactly what it is we have to do: Create programs.

So we go into a church and create or revamp a youth worship service. We fill it with the latest greatest contemporary Christian songs, led by our very own youth praise band. We preach at these services, giving hip, relevant talks that also utilize all kinds of awesome movie clips.

Then sometime during the week, we lead a second program like Sunday school or small groups. Occasionally, we also insert a few social and service events, retreats, and mission trips into our ministry's calendar. Eventually, we train a few extra adult leaders to help us out as well.

None of these things are bad. In fact, some are even critical to the faith formation of teens.

The problem is that too often, we assume there's only one way to do youth ministry and that as a result, what we did at our last church (or what we learned how to do in school) will work at our new church; That what's working at the church down the street will also work for us.

We make such assumptions without any real thought or regard for the unique people and history of our congregation.

Sometimes we get lucky and this works, but many times it doesn't.

What McFarland USA teaches us is that programs that are successful in one place won't necessarily be successful in others.

In actuality, the most successful programs aren't the ones that work for the church down the street. Instead, the most successful youth ministry programs are the ones that take into account a congregation's unique history, people, and gifts and build upon those.

Creating such programs is hard.

It means moving slow.

It means listening to others.

It means laying aside our assumptions about what a good youth ministry looks like.

It means being willing to try and fail... Or perhaps being willing to invest in short-term programs you know will last at most four years (the length of time it takes for a class to graduate) rather than for all eternity.

It means creating a youth ministry unique to your specific context that won't necessarily be transferable anywhere else.

Of course, when we as youth workers successfully create such programs, our reward won't be state championships. It'll be something far better: Teens who actively engage in our youth ministries and more importantly, in following Jesus.

Photo Credit: http://abc7.com/entertainment/take-an-inspirational-journey-with-mcfarland-usa/515446/

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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