In this final blog post related to the release of a book I [Syler Thomas] co-authored with one of my oldest friends, Steven Tighe , The Small Group Leader’s Quick guide to (Almost) Everything , targeted at leaders in a youth ministry, I want to discuss the idea of “polite” ministry.

Many youth ministries are what I call “polite.” The teenagers are generally well-mannered and kind to one another. They show up for events and it’s…fine. They learn some things they didn’t know before. And then they go home, back to their best friends where they’re asking difficult questions and where they can really be themselves.

I have no interest in polite youth ministry. Here’s a quote from the book:

If the best we can hope for is “polite” youth ministry, then honestly, what’s the point? Jesus is calling us to join him in making disciples, not polite churchgoers. The goal of any effective youth ministry is transformational discipleship, and it most often happens in the context of a small group.

There’s not a shortcut to the kind of transformed disciples Jesus wants us to be. Some youth pastors are so excited about teaching that they don’t step back to examine the big picture: we’re here to make disciples, not just teach students our lessons. Teaching is important, but only insofar as the teaching leads to transformed Jesus-followers. And in Steven’s and my experience in youth ministry, transformational discipleship happens when students are connected to a healthy, thriving small group of some kind. And thriving small groups have well-equipped leaders.

More than just in youth ministry though—isn’t that what you want church to be? Don’t you want to move past polite? I think of the brilliant and whimsical Annie Dillard quote: “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

When have you experienced this (for lack of a better term) “deeper-than-polite” church?
What changed in your experience to make it possible?