The importance of bad jokes

The funniest youth minister I ever met was a short Virginian guy in his forties, with salt-and-pepper hair and paratrooper boots. I was working for a week at a Young Life camp in upstate New York; he had brought a group of about fifteen teenagers, and they were working their way through the high ropes course, one by one. Down below, on the ground, he was telling a slow, steady succession of the worst jokes you ever heard. Youth ministry, like carpentry, is a profession known for the horrible quality of its humor (“Remember, a groan’s as good as a laugh!”), but these were especially bad, material along the lines of “This horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’”

All his teenagers would groan in real pain, like they had just been sucker-punched. He fixed them with a calm, unconcerned gaze and said, simply and directly,

“Way deep down, you thought that was hilarious.”

The kids continued to groan and roll around on the ground.

“Yeah, I see you’re complaining on the outside, but you’re all laughing on the inside.”

I can’t remember if the kids started laughing at that point; probably they didn’t: they just continued to groan as if their appendixes had burst. But I remember thinking that there was something important there, something that I should remember carefully and emulate later. I still think so, and it’s not just the horse joke, which I still use (to Kate’s everlasting regret.)

Even though I gave up the idea of being a youth minister for a living about five years ago, the practice of youth ministry is still a subject that’s very near to my heart. It doesn’t have to be Christian youth ministry, necessarily: I believe that teenagers in our society have a desperate need for committed, sincere, and consistent adult contact in their lives. One of the fundamental goals of youth ministry, I think, is to tell teenagers that they are important in a way they can hear. A big part of doing this is to create spaces in which they feel safe, in which they know what’s expected of them, and in which they aren’t in competition with you. This last part is important: I’ve known several youth ministers who needed the kids to worship them, which wasn’t doing either party any good.

The terrible joke, told with a straight face, is one of the principal weapons in the youth minister’s arsenal. Teenagers like to know what’s expected of them, and what’s more inevitable than the pained groan at the end of the horrible shaggy dog story? It’s a familiar, comfortable pattern that both parties know. The kid groans “you’re killing me!” The adult placidly ignores the wails of pain — “You’re laughing on the inside, I know it” — and demonstrates that they don’t need the kids’ approval, that they are not in competition with the kid for any of the resources the kid needs — coolness, poise, a feeling of control over their social persona. By injecting large amounts of creativity, the youth minister can also drive home that most difficult, elusive, and hard-to-hear of messages — that the teenager is important and valuable.

Witness this beautiful, shining example of the youth minister’s art, sent to me by my friend Will Ronco, who once was one of my teenagers, youth minister-y speaking. Will now has a Unitarian junior-high group at his church in Boulder, and created a scavenger hunt for a church retreat. Originally, he was going to dress adults from the church up as celebrities, and have the kids interview them to find out who they were.

“…The first thing I had to do was abandon all hope of using actual people.
There were just too few adults at the entire conference to pull eight of them
away from whatever dumb thing they had them doing at the adult workshop
(hello, roundtable discussions about whether the church should change its
name? no wonder hardly anyone goes). So I changed it:Teams had to find, in
order, four clues that were hidden around the camp. Clues were given in
limerick form (Some movies of which I’m quite fond/ Are the series that
featuer James Bond/ Which has nothing to do/ With your next clue/ Which you
will find out by the ____) and each one had a hint on it (“Oh I love Trash”).

And we set up like this: The game is called Celebrity Life Match. You are
Ivana Trump and you have just gotten divorced. Over the course of this game
you are going to marry and divorce, in succession, each of the people you find
on your clues. The first team to return to me and tell me Ivana’s new name

She married, in succession, Mr. Bean, Oscar the Grouch, Mike Myers, and a
dacshund. No one found all the clues, at least one group was destroyed from
within by fighting, and one kid fell and skinned her knee. It was perfect.
Only thirty minutes past the alloted time for the activity, I gathered
everyone up on top of a huge rock pile and together we went over the clues:

Ivana Bean Oscar Myer Wiener.”

Yeah, I know. Brilliant, right? And, way deep down, you’re laughing on the inside.

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