Youth minister – get over yourself, you’re not the hero!

It has gone slightly out of fashion. But it is still kicking around…

Young people need some good role models!’ 

or, ‘‘if we as youth ministers are not good role models – who else have young people got’  

And so, enter stage left. The youth Minister is called for , parachuted in from the mysterious world that is the jobs pages in Youthwork magazine. Selected through a process of refinement in an interview process and there you have it, one Superhero youthworker, come to save young people from earthly peril. You can be their Hero!

Image result for supermanImage result for wonder woman

It would be easy to blame individual local churches for perpetuating this. Often they are merely repeating the societal fears about young people and hoping, often well intentionally that someone can help young people in their local community. Though its often only the young people already known in the church that are in need of rescuing as for as churches are concerned, rescuing from being contaminated by the world. Its not often that the superhero employed by the church can get time to actually do mission (see my previous post on ‘why youth workers leave the church’= a link to it is here:

So its bad enough that local churches perpetuate the Hero status of the incoming Youthworker. However, it is as perpetuated in the ‘affiliations that could know better’ – when everyone who has ever done anything for a church is a ‘legend’, someone ‘who needs no introduction’ , and is lifted up high on a platform in order that their ministry is proudly propogated. In addition, each and every youthworker receives the same myths as above. Especially as they are going to work with ‘lost’ young people, that if ‘they’ dont rescue them, no one else can, that ‘they’ might be the only person who will ‘tell’ them about Jesus. Hero status is foisted in the youth minister or volunteer from a number of directions. The gravitational pull to be ‘hero’ with a ministry is common.

But what a let down, being a youth minister doesnt feel very heroic on a dreary wet November evening and no one turns up to youth club. It doesnt feel very heroic when the last young person left the church a year ago and none of the kids in the primary school want tickets to your holiday club. It doesnt feel very heroic printing off the church newsletter week by week because theres nothing else to do. You thought being a hero and just being around young people would help rescue them. It was meant to be all action, superhero stuff…

or, the opposite…

Your Hero status gets elevated. Young people flock around you, you walk on water in school assemblies, the kids run to you in the playground. The church promote you in the local newspaper, you are the celebrity. The expectations start getting higher and higher. And everyone knows what your job is, you have to bring the kids into the church. You’re the hero. You create out of your past, the great event that you can play guitar, juggle and preach at, AND IT IS AMAZING…and young people LOVE it. You are their hero, you are succeeding and your ego is running through the roof. And it gets better and busier and better and busier, until all of a sudden the wheel starts spinning off, one too many platforms, presentations, ministries to run, projects to up keep and the cracks start to open up. Burn out is looming being a hero is proving too much, and the wall is hit with a bang.

There is clearly a problem with Hero status youth ministry. Talk of legends of the faith is cheap. But it isnt Biblical, it isnt Theological.

In ‘Improvisation’ (2005) , Samuel Wells draws on Aristotle view of Heroes in Stories and fables such as Tolkein to say that,

  1. Heroes make decisive interventions when things are looking like they might turn out to be wrong. The saviour complex is what this is sort of known as, think Sandra Bullocks character in the film The Blindside, and there are many equivalents. The Story is from the Heroes perspective, it is Bullocks neck on the line, her journey to save the situation and change it.  The story of how the creative music and entertainment affected so many, many lives were changed by Bowie, by Prince and George Michael, they became savific heroes, their music intervened. Thats your job, Youth Minister… intervene… save… rescue…
  2. A Hero’s story is told to celebrate the virtues of a Hero. The Hero has the qualities, whether strength, resilience, determination, wisdom or courage to enable their heroism. Oh how the length of your job description and person specification….
  3. The Hero’s story, presumes that in a world of good and evil, the Hero will risk death for good in their own fight. So Tolkien’s Aragon for instance, or the valiance of the Disney Prince charmings to fight the evil power to reclaim not only goodness but also the trapped or tortured princess. They risk it all for the fight. you hero, going without food or sleep for three days on a residential. (when i say food, i mean showers)
  4. In the Hero’s story, when things go wrong, they can put it all right again, yet their flaws and failings also turn a story heading for tragedy into a fatal disaster  It is ok that Sully can redeem the situation in the Plane heading out of the airport as it hit flying birds and lost control, he is the hero who saved many lives by landing the plane in the waters (see the Film Sully) -but what if even he, the supposed hero wasnt able to cope with the situation, would blind panic turned that moment into even more of a tragedy..
  5. The Hero stands alone in the world. They are the put alone on the stage, and held aloft by the community by their creative excellence or virtue, the decisiveness of their action – or to have the simple right to have their story told. As Rimmer in Red dwarf ( Series 3- Marooned) was quick to say, History is written by the winners, the survivors, those with the power to narrate it – in effect the authors.

However, the Biblical Story is not about Human Heroes. We mistakenly give Abraham, Moses and Mary heroic status. They were no more heroic than Tom Hanks Character Sully, in Miracle on the Hudson.

Image result for sully

Ordinary people given a glimpse of Heroic status, because of the immediacy of the task given to them, and their response.

Who is the true Hero in the Biblical story?  yup… its that right answer.

It has been said recently that the heroic status bestowed on a youth minister might only be because the church itself might think of itself as Gods hero on the earth, the principle and sole agent of goodness, love and mercy in the world. Well, if the early church had anything to go by, especially the letters to churches in revelation, it is as clear within each of these who the Hero is, whose image is to be reimagined, and dwelt upon. Anyway, if the church isnt the hero, it has merely been empowered to act out the goodness of God in the world, and witness to the story of Gods redemption. It is not the story itself. Then you as the youth minister are not the hero either.  It is good theology that helps us to know who we are in the story, and locate our true role in the story in the everyday.

Going back to Sam Wells, he suggests that instead of Hero. Our ongoing role in Gods story, toward its final conclusion, is that of Saints.

The challenge with Heroic status in the Christian faith is one of positioning not necessarily of projection. Imagine if you will the concept that Kevin Vanhoozer and NT Wright talk about, in terms of developing an overall plot structure of the Biblical narrative. Bear with me on this. But if you imagine that there are five scenes to the play, and critically, the play is Gods play. Then these five scenes might look like this:

  1. Creation
  2. Covenant with Isreal
  3. Christs incarnation, death and resurrection
  4. Church, its emergence
  5. Consummation, Revelation and Christs return.

From the Bible story, it is clear to imagine clear moments as acts of God in the ongoing events that unfold. For Vanhoozer, and Baltasar before, they use the term Theodrama, – literally the Drama of Gods actions in the world. The clue in terms of positioning is that the current status of the church, of the whole world in fact, in that it is playing out the scenes in the fourth act. Which, as Wells suggests; ‘reminds the church that it does not live in particularly significant times. The most important things have already happened, The Messiah has come, has been put to death, has been raised, and the Spirit has come’ (p57)

It is not necessary then a time for Heroes.

Even though the world might invoke hero status on its idols. A hero in the church or youth ministry is invoking the wrong sense of who they are, their role and their positioning. To invoke the wrong position might inevitably lead to heroism. To feel like having to act as creator in a situation, then the person is in act One, instead of God having done this act, there is in this a desire for independence, to rename, to discover for oneself (like Adam with the animals). Similar mistakes are made, if the Hero or we the church position ourselves in acts 2 or 3 – to assume Christ hasn’t come at all – and so we play battles of good/evil, or try and teach people lessons, or that we are being Christ as act 3, then we confuse our own role with trying to be as significant in the world as Christ was, and is.It would also be a mistake to think of ourselves in act 5 – as if the ending is set in stone, has already been determined and that our fate in inevitable on the runaway trolley in the temple of doom.

By realising that there are 5 acts of the play, not just one, and that the current position of the church in the world is act 4, then this brings both a freedom and liberation to the church, and also those who minister within it and act in mission in local communities. It leaves Christians free, in faith, to make honest mistakes. It leaves the space open for creative imagining of continuing the story, it leaves the Hero of the story to have already been played, and where God will end the drama as he sees fit. So, the role of the Christian, is then not the Hero, or the anti- hero, but the Saint.

Drawing from Aquinas, Wells describes the characteristics of the Saint, compared to the Hero:

  1. The Saint is almost invisible in the story  and certainly not the crucial character, is easily missed, quickly forgotten. In a way, Tolkeins voice seems to be through Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, yet there are times of great absence on Galdalf, certainly in the books. The Film projected Gandalf as more of a present hero. Was Gandalf the ‘saint’ ?
  2. The Saint may not have great qualities such as the Heros Valeur, – but the Saint is faithful. The Story is the saint is one of persistence and faithfulness.
  3. The Saint needs not to fight for good over evil, they know that battle is secured  the goods they have are in abundance and that matter are in unlimited supply – love, joy, peace, patience – goods which do not rise with the stock market, or need violence to protect them. The battle has already been won, yet their reward is not the Heros, who has his own, but in God’s who redeemed it all
  4. If the Saints failures are honest but go wrong, they highlight God’s greater victory. Though a failing of lesser integrity brings to the fore the receiving of Gods forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. ‘A Hero fears failure, A Saint knows only light comes through cracks’ (Wells, p 44)
  5. The Saint is never alone. They assume, demand and require community. In thinking about St Francis recently, he is rightly commended, but his work was not alone, his wife with him, and he formed community of faith as he travelled. The same for St Patrick who developed communities in Ireland. They call for a communion of the Saints, of other fellow travellers. It is noticeable that those called into key positions in the Christmas narrative are not alone; Mary shared her pregnancy joy with Elizabeth, who can also vouch for angels, and then journeys with Joseph. The Shepherds and Wise Men are both collectives. It is only Herod who stands alone.

Young people do not need you to be their hero. The church does not need you to be its hero. Jesus does not need you to be his hero. That is not your role, your responsibility or the burden you are to carry. 

You are to be a disciple. You are to be a witness. You are to help others in their performance of also being a witness and disciple. Hero might be what an expectant church or youth ministry culture might bestow on you. But hero you are not, person and human you are, saint and disciple, learner and searcher is your ongoing role. Lets also do our young people a favour and not favour those with heroic potential in them either. Theologically we should favour the weak, the quiet, the ignored and the isolated. 

Good Theology will help us as youthworkers to know our place, it may even help us to relax, chill, and look for signs and wonders of God being heroic in our communities, and not us to be his/her principle agent. We cannot do everything, we need community, to take other with us. Lone wolf youth ministry is as dangerous as Hero youth ministry.

You are not anyones hero. Be their saint instead. Have the right perspective on your role, your relationship as a disciple and then being involved in the lives of others. Gods ministry that he has given you a glimpse of (not ‘your ministry’) . The world is looking for a hero. But it isnt you.


Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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