By Steve Case
I began life as a youth minister the same year my daughter began life as a…person. This year she’ll turn 15—dating age. That’s left me with two choices, really. I could enroll her in a martial arts class, or I could buy a gun. I don’t like guns, so I found an aikido class for her at our local recreation center.
Since I’m best described as “pear-shaped,” I decided the class might be good for me, too. We’ve already clocked our first year together studying a discipline our teacher (sensei) calls, “The art of getting out of the way.” You don’t break boards in aikido; you learn to ask, “What did the board do, and why would I want to break it?”
Now, with a whole lot of aikido under my (not-yet-black) belt I’ve learned a great deal about getting out of the way… and effective youth ministry. No, I don’t mean I’ve learned five new ways to pin a troublemaking junior higher to the youth room floor (although the thought does cross my mind). I mean the principle that are the foundation for this ancient form of self-defense are readily applicable to my job—especially when I apply those principles to the people in my church who don’t like me or what I’m doing. Sit back, grasshopper, as I share them now with you.
In Youth Ministry You Must Learn How To Fall
The first lesson we learned in aikido is how to fall. We spent ours learning how to roll, both backward and forward, and return our feet. Until we learned to fall well, we couldn’t learn anything else.
If you’ve been in youth ministry for—let’s say two weeks—you already know that not every meeting goes well, not every event draws the numbers you hoped for, not every idea you have gets approved by church leadership, and not every person you meet is your fan. There’s a whole lot of falling in youth ministry. And I think the people who get out of youth ministry have most often not learned how to fall well. The goal is to roll with our failures so we can rise up and try again.
In 1999 I got fired. Just plain clean-out-your-desk-before-the-end-of-the-day fired. It was an unhealthy church and it shouldn’t have been a shock to me, but it was. I took the hit and went face first into the mat. I spent weeks refusing to get up again. I even decided it was God’s way of saying, “Thanks very much, now why don’t you go back into advertising?” I wish I’d known aikido.
These days when I get blindsided by something or someone, I’ve learned to roll. I’ve learned that behind every failure or attack there’s something bigger at work. I’ve learned that all things eventually work out for God’s good. It’s counterintuitive, but if you’re looking for God in your flops and failures, you’ll find treasure.
You’ll Burn Yourself Out Fighting Your Enemies Instead Of Using Their Momentum To Further Your Goals
Aikido teaches you to join your power to your attacker’s power so you become the controlling force. Practically, that means it’s a waste of energy to fight with and complain about the people who bug you. When we work to understand where our detractors are coming from—when we unlock what’s making them angry (or afraid)—we can guide them.
My youth worker friend, Mark, had a woman in his church who was fond of saying, “The youth group leaves this church a complete mess every Sunday night.” So Mark began to ask her questions, quietly and without accusation. He eventually discovered that two boys had knocked over a two-liter jug of Diet Pepsi had failed to mention it. This woman, who’d been in charge of the kitchen for many years, found the mess the next morning.
Mark pin-pointed the bit of truth in this woman’s anger and frustration, then used that understanding to reassure her redirect her negative energy into a more supportive direct They still collide on issues, but Mark knows now to stop exploring for the core problem before it escalates.
You can’t stop a complainer by complaining about him. If you remain calm, do your job, and refuse to get rattled by the minority, you’ll likely increase the volume of the attacks. Eventually others will see the criticism as unjustified and the complainers as “out of line.” That’s how you use negative energy to your benefit.
Enter Into Charged Situations With A Neutral Stance
When you face your opponent (in aikido, they’re called uke—pronounced oo-kay) you take a neutral stance. Only after your opponent commits to his attack strategy do you start your strategy. Never prejudge another’s “stance”—they have an ability to cause harm or do good. That means you don’t walk into a meeting primed for confrontation. You’ll lose if you do. Come to the table believing that God is in charge and that all things together for his own purposes.
Use Your Opponents Strength Against Him
I’m a large man—I bear a startling resemblance to Baloo, of Jungle Book fame. All of my life I’ve gotten by on my strength and size. The most difficult lesson for me to learn in aikido has been that my size and strength mean nothing. Aikido is not force—it’s about movement.
Unlike some martial arts, aikido does not teach us to respond to an attack with greater force—we’re to subdue our attackers by using their energy against them. Jesus understood this.
In Jesus’ time, by law you could strike a Jewish person with the back of your right hand. But it was illegal to strike someone with your left hand. When Jesus told us to offer our enemies “the other cheek,” he wasn’t teaching victim behavior—he was shrewdly coaching us to use our opponents’ own rules against them. In Jesus’ time a Roman soldier could pick someone out of the crowd and make that person carry his backpack for a mile—but only one mile. Any further and the soldier would be in trouble. Jesus said, “Carry the pack for a second mile.” This was not a lesson about being nice—he was teaching those who had no power to make use of their enemy’s greater force and energy.
Don’t Approach Your Detractors From The Fringe
In aikido we’re taught to find our “center”—a place of relaxed balance, a sturdy foundation. The more centered you are, the easier it is to bring down your opponent. What does “centering” look like in youth ministry? Church people often accuse us of being “on the fringes” mentally and spiritually. Some of that is true, but we must also learn to function from the center—to act and react from an immovable strength. If we respond to our detractors from the fringes we’ll look like the aggressor. If we keep our opponents centered in front of us, there’s no attack that we can’t handle.
One of my young people—I’ll call her Marcie—loves to find ways to be the center of attention. She’ll use whatever negative behavior she can think up—she once did her nails during a youth worship service—to force the spotlight to shine on her. If I’d responded to her from the “fringe,” I would’ve attacked her distracting and frustrating behavior with ever-increasing doses of discipline. Instead, I approached her from the “center.”
I found out she’s a poet, so I asked if she’d be interested in writing liturgical stuff for our group. She agreed, and she’s good at it. I also know Marcie needs to be needed (don’t we all), so I began asking her to do things using “need” language: “I need you to write a prayer” or “I need you to unlock the youth room and get the music playing.” I kept the problems Marcie threw at me right in front of me centered—and didn’t let her behavior force a response from my fringe. As I stayed centered, I found she was much more receptive to other things I had to say.
We Can Stop Our Attackers Without Hurting Them
What impresses me most about aikido is its ability to put an attacker down without hurting him. Christ taught us that we must show love to everyone, even those who are out to hurt us. Aikido teaches that with a series of practiced, well-executed moves, the attacker realizes that stopping the attack is in his or her best interests.
In class I occasionally get to train with a girl who’s half my size. She understands she cannot beat my strength, but she knows she can take me down with a twist of my wrist and a turn of her body—those actions tell me to lay down quickly and avoid more pain and discomfort.
As youth ministers, we don’t have a lot of power or political clout. We can’t match our critics’ strength. And if we try to overpower them, we’ll get hurt. Instead, our goal is to subdue them or get out of the way and allow their own energy to be their undoing.
It’s sad that I can write a whole article on self-defense strategies for youth ministry—but this is the real world. A God-centered response to our attackers fuels a God-centered ministry. When we “get out of the way” and let them fight it out with God, we’re succeeding.
I’ve found that the lessons I’ve learned in aikido have even broader application to my ministry than just responding to my “enemies.” For example:
In Youth Ministry We Must Learn How To Master “Soft Movement”
Aikido teaches that your outward appearance and movements should be smooth and soft while your center is firm… immovable. And that makes sense for youth ministry—we can’t shove a student into a love relationship with God. We can guide, comfort, and invite (soft movements) while we stay fiercely determined in fulfilling our calling and mission (the firm center).
One of my students, Rich, had no desire to be a part of a church youth group, but his parents thought it would be a good idea. So I had to drag Rich along on a missions trip a few years back. He spent a great deal of time complaining about how much the new Sega games was going to cost him and how his parents wouldn’t buy it for him.
Rich was 17. At a homeless shelter, Rich met a girl who was 17 and had a 3-year-old daughter. All her worldly belongings were in a cardboard box. That was a beginning for Rich. It opened his eyes, ears and eventually his heart. No amount of teaching or Bible study would’ve cracked open Rich’s door to God, but a full-on experience with the real world could. The key, I think, is to invite, invite, invite—not push, push, push.
In Youth Ministry We Have To Practice (A Lot) Before What We’re Doing Looks Effortless
When others look at what we do as youth ministers they think our job is, well, easy. After all, we’re “just hanging out with kids.” But when youth ministry is most effective it looks effortless, like a well-played game. And that takes a lot of practice. Practice means watching for the kid who’s not having as much fun as everyone else, then finding out why. Practice means listening to what’s not being said, then asking the fourth or fifth question that will unlock that silence. Practice means that when a kid (finally) needs to talk to someone about that big thing he can’t talk about, he sees you sitting there in the stands, smiling.
The best youth ministers “feel” it, they don’t “do” it. And that takes a lot of practice. So stay with it—the early stages of aikido training can seem monotonous, fruitless, and slow. But that’s the price you pay to get to “effortless.”
Impact In Youth Ministry Requires A Wholehearted Commitment
In aikido some techniques appear to be using only one part of the body. Close observation reveals the aikidoist’s movements are, in fact, total-body movements. To do well, you have to commit your whole self. Youth ministry is an art that requires all of you. Jesus said we must love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. He’s asking us for everything we’ve got.
This article “Defend Yourself!” written by Steve Case is excerpted from Group Magazine the 2004 May edition.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”