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What Youth Ministers Can Learn From A Small Town Newspaper

What Youth Ministers Can Learn From A Small Town Newspaper

I saw a story yesterday on (You can read the article in its entirety here if you’d like.) The gist of the story was this: In the rural town of Jasper, Indiana, there is a newspaper called The Heraldthat routinely wins prestigious awards for its photography and journalism. The reason the paper wins awards? Here’s a quote:

“The paper, a tabloid instead of a broadsheet, has created a following mostly because of its now-famous Saturday photo stories, which combine thoughtful reporting and powerful photography. They’re run ad-free and take up the entire front page plus five additional pages inside, sometimes more.”

The super-short story of this unique format is this: The paper didn’t run on Sunday. But people weren’t reading the Saturday edition either. By the time they got to it, which was usually Sunday, it was old news. So in the late 70’s, the paper’s owner, John Rumbach, decided a change in format was needed. The new format was born, thus creating the now famous Saturday photo edition.

“Great story, Andy, but what does it have to do with youth ministry?” Glad you asked. Because the answer is, “plenty.

Rumbach did two things in implementing this new edition that are very instructive for us who invest our lives in the spiritual development of teenagers.

1. Gave People A Voice

First, Rumbach empowered his photographers in a way they had never been empowered before. It seems like they had previously been seen as merely part of the machine, a vital piece, but a piece who was never really asked to think, only to be, well, vital. The story says Rumbach gave his photographers a “real voice . . . bucking a trend of second-class citizenship that still plagues other photojournalists across the country.” It’s been my experience that many youth workers don’t include their students in a lot of the big picture, vision-level planning of their student ministries. I’m not talking about what summer camp looks like, or what movie they want to watch during the lock-in. I’m talking about the big stuff . . .

  • When was the last time you asked any of your students to help you and/or your team set overall goals for your ministry?
  • Do you seek their input in how you program to meet these goals?
  • Have you asked them to evaluate how your small group structure is working?
  • Have you sought their perspective on a better model for “out of class” learning?
  • Do you incorporate enough of their passions when you’re planning your missions/service initiatives?

When Rumbach did this, he found an untapped pool of ideas and creativity. You may find the same thing.

2. Flexibility Wins

The second thing Rumbach did was something extremely counter-cultural to the news industry. He let the story dictate deadlines, not the other way around:

“We don’t want to put a deadline on the features,” [Rumbach’s son] Justin says. “We let the photographers and reporters tell the story until it’s done.”

While we need structure in our youth ministries (a point I wrote about here), we don’t need the kind of structure that inhibits relational and spiritual growth (a point I wrote about here). Rumbach succeeded by changing their process. They reduced rigidity and increased flexibility.

As we think of how relationships are developed between our students and adults, I would encourage you to do all you can to reduce the type of restrictive, programmed structure that often inhibits organic relational growth, and move toward a structure that allows relationships to grow as they grow best: naturally. The same thing can be applied to how we structure for spiritual growth.

We have to have a plan. We have to know what we want to see accomplished in our students. But maybe, just maybe, the inflexible nature of much of our programmed ministry isn’t the most conducive way to shape our students spiritual lives.

Empowering our students with a voice and increasing flexibility in our structure: two great points we can learn from an innovative newspaper in rural Indiana.

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