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Dreaming of a better way at doing youth ministry.

Where is youth ministry going?

Say you were a youth ministry meteorologist and your job was to provide an accurate forecast to where youth ministry was going. What would that forecast entail? A meteorologist has different tools at his or her disposal to provide the most up-to-date weather information for people to prepare their lives around. Yet, it seems that the best way to predict weather is to see what it has done in the past and use that to estimate how that will interact with the current climate. Many times the meteorologists get it right but a few times they don’t.

Using meteorology as an analogy I wonder what youth ministry is going to look like in the next ten years. When I first started in 2004 we were on the coattails of riding the intergenerational model. It was new in its beginning but the whispers of this movement were fresh. When Kenda Creasy Dean and Christian Smith released their data from the National Study on Youth and Religion it became quite clear that a huge shift in theology needed to occur. Kids, according to Kenda Dean, will mimic the kind of faith their parents model. A synopsis of her book summarized two conclusions based on her findings (source):

  • First, too many parents have thrust the role of faith development upon church youth ministries and Christian education programs, and youth pastors and Christian education directors have been too happy to oblige by providing a syrupy-sweet version of Christian faith to the young people under their care.
  • Second, for those looking for a quick fix to “benign whateverism” in teenagers, whether in new curriculum, a new youth program, or a new youth pastor, the thrust of Dean’s book will be difficult to hear. Namely, there is no quick fix but only radical revision of the life and faith of the whole Christian community (emphasis mine).

She wrote those sobering thoughts in 2009 and I am afraid many (at least in the wing of Christianity where I serve) have not let that sink in fully. Youth ministers are fired, let go, burned out or they did not simply “fit-in” and the problem may not be so much as the youth minister him/herself but it might be the faith community that surrounded them. How many times has your church youth search committee, or parents, or elders said, “If we just find a dynamic person to full the role then our youth ministry will be amazing”? Yet what do they mean by amazing? Are they going to have fun? What exactly do they mean?

I am not a big fan of the Messiah-complex churches place on the youth minister. After all, if the youth ministry does not work out you have someone to blame for the failure right? Call it what you want but I think it is eschewing responsibility and shifting ownership that should be mutual instead of unshared. Yet, in all of this I still believe in youth ministry and think it is important to have one in a church’s communal life. I have seen a few churches attempt the parental/committee/team leader aspect and I have not seen it run well at all. If you can afford it, you need someone on point making the tough decisions.

So where is youth ministry going?

First, I foresee churches will need youth ministers who are empowered theologically to come alongside of families and speak kingdom truth to them. When I first started in youth ministry I would buy all kinds of curriculum so that I would have the latest and greatest to help teach kids. What I found (specifically in our own church wing) is that most of the stuff was surface level and really, well, sucked. So I started writing my own when and where I could and it changed the dynamic of our group. There is some great stuff out there for sure (Youth Ministry 360 for starters) yet, we need someone to advocate for teens and speak to larger issues more than surface level issues. I have two graduate degrees and many times when I would walk around youth ministry circles they would almost balk at the fact that I had these degrees. Sometimes I would hear snide remarks about “making bible class like a seminary” and I really wondered what motives these guys had. We don’t need to be on ivory towers and you certainly do not need a master’s to come alongside of kids but that does not mean you sell out and teach students to be nice church kids so that when they grow up they won’t leave the true church or miss services in the morning.

Second, I foresee youth ministry collaborating with the larger narrative of the church rather than combating it. If a youth ministry is going to thrive it must do so by bringing the young with the old, the poor with the rich, the black with the white. I alluded to this earlier but many churches are still trying to figure out the whole intergenerational ministry thing. The Fuller Youth Institute’s Sticky Faith initiative was (and still is) monumental for the church. Even then, it is more than having a couple of token old farts at an activity but bringing them together organically (I’m using all kinds of Christian buzz words) so that the young folks hear the testimonies (don’t think Baptist youth rally type) of faith from the older folks.

Third, I foresee youth ministry scattering unique disciples instead of warehousing homogeneous pew packers. Church, we need to suck up our pride a bit and empower our students to disciple others who are not in our local church. Perhaps God may call them to stay but we need to send them away for a while. Students who have graduated from our youth group are all over the map when it comes to Christianity. I love it. Some of you just shifted in your seat uncomfortably muttering, “He’ll have to answer for that” but I think that many times we are more concerned about our pride than we are about our people. If we are going to survive we need to empower students to lead others to Christ wherever they might land. If our local church closes its doors because we do not have members but we have empowered thousands still active in churches across the world then we are closing our doors for good reasons.

Fourth, I foresee youth ministry ditching the antics. I never was good at the antics. You know the ra-ra-ra type of youth ministry where it is more about a personality than it is about the personhood of Jesus. I always advocated a more contemplative approach and so any of the antics really left a bad taste in my mouth. The bait-and-switch, big budget, cirque du soleil type of programming that some youth ministries tout. They can get teenagers in the door but that is about it. After teens graduate high-school when asked about their youth ministry journey they say, “Dude, we had a lot of killer games and the youth group band was hype.” Really? I always appreciated what Doug Fields. Josh Griffin and Kurt Johnson did at Saddleback. They had a massive budget and programming yet they still implemented principles for teenagers to practice their faith long after they left the youth ministry.

So those are my fallible thoughts and I am curious as to your experience. Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

To Grow your Faith You Must Leave Your Church Home

I remember the last time I looked at my parents before leaving to go on my honeymoon in 2003. It was a bitter-sweet moment and both of us knew that things were never going to be the same again. I was passionately vaulting myself into adulthood establishing roots with someone else while they were forced to face a reality that their rearing was over.

Mom and dad had to let go for me to really grow as a man. For me, I had to let go of mom and dad so that I could also grow as a man and an individual.

After close to eleven years of ministry I firmly believe that in order for a person to really grow in their faith they have to leave the familiar to embrace the unfamiliar. In other words, they must leave their church home.

Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward describes exactly what I am trying to say:

Many people are kept from mature religion because of the pious, immature, or rigid expectations of their first-half-of-life family…One of the major blocks against the second journey is what we would now call the “collective,” the crowd, our society, or our extended family. Some call it the crab bucket syndrome—you try to get out, but the other crabs just keep pulling you back in. What passes for morality or spirituality in the vast majority of people’s lives is the way everybody they grew up with thinks. Some would call it conditioning or even imprinting. Without very real inner work, most folks never move beyond it. You might get beyond it in a negative sense, by reacting or rebelling against it, but it is much less common to get out of the crab bucket in a positive way (pp. 82-83).

I like that word picture of a “crab bucket” when it comes to the faith formation of students. Sometimes the crabs are implicit but other times they are explicit. Some people want to indoctrinate you to make you think this way or that way to in turn produce more people who think that very same way. Unfortunately many people have the audacity to call that “discipleship.” I cannot fathom my parents saying that in order for our marriage to be complete we would have to do it exactly like theirs and to make sure we did it like theirs they would locate themselves in proximity to where we lived to keep an eye on us.

Not the case. Mom and dad wanted us to have our own marriage filled with lessons they could teach us but also things we had to learn on our own.

I think this is where faith formation needs to go when it comes to our teenagers. I wonder if the push back from Millennials in our churches comes from a history of rigidity and a lack of letting them go.

Rohr again is poignant:

The nuclear family has far too often been the enemy of the global family and mature spiritual seeking. Perhaps it has never struck you how consistently the great religious teachers and founders leave home, go on pilgrimage to far-off places, do a major turnabout, choose downward mobility; and how often it is their parents, the established religion at that time, spiritual authorities, and often even civil authorities who fight against them. (p. 84)

Let that sink in a bit. This is a stern warning to all youth ministers and parents alike who wish to, in the name of “pure doctrine,” smash out the dreams and wanderings of our kids. When former youth group kids would come back to our church I often wished they hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong I love their presence but a part of me wanted them to push the envelope and own their own faith. Perhaps that is why God told Abraham that to receive the promise he had to leave his family (Gen. 12:1). Maybe that is why Joseph was sold into slavery and spent most of his life away from his family. Maybe that is why James, John, Andrew and Peter left their parents to follow after the divine tugging at their robes.

Please know that I advocate them leaving the church home…not the Church. I also propose that the leaving does not imply a never-returning. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo leaves the familiar to embark on a journey of unfamiliar. That unfamiliar contained all kinds of unspeakable turmoil and evil while simultaneously containing pieces of good and purpose. He returns home different but full of purpose. Tolkien famously said, “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” I like that.

So whoever you are reading this I bid you farewell on your journey to leave your church home. I am uncomfortable typing those words knowing not where your journey might take you. But you have to leave friend. I promise you though, God will be there to reveal wonder and beauty on this journey and I assure you that if asked you would say that the journey was worth it.

Leave.

Book Review: Teaching Your Children Healthy Sexuality by Jim Burns

Say your kid walks in from school one day and the conversation goes something like this:

  • James: “Hey mommy I got to ask you something?”
  • Mom: “Ok James. What’s on your mind?”
  • James: “What does the word ‘sex’ mean?”
  • Mom: “Oh dear…”

I bet many of you parents have had that same conversation in your house or something similar. Depending on your story the word “sex” can either be a word that has negative or positive connotations to it. I am not sure how you guys had “the talk” growing up but my tutelage on sex usually came in “locker-room” conversations and not from my parents. Unfortunately, our children are more likely to hear sex from media or other sources and by the time talk about it they may know more than we do.

Jim Burns, President of HomeWord and Executive Director of the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family at Azusa Pacific University, is the author of this wonderful book called Teaching Your Children Healthy Sexuality. I purchased this book probably five years ago and on a whim decided I should read it and took it off my shelf. I should have read it years ago.

The book is a practical approach at how to come alongside of your children to teach, coach and train them in ways to think healthy when it comes to sex. By “healthy” he means approaching the subject with a God-centric mentality. He spends the greater part of a chapter coming up with a theology on sex. The good part is that God loves sex and we should to but within the confines of its ordained place: marriage. Dr. Burns tackles the tough issues and does not shy away from handling these conversations but does so with grace.

For me as a dad, the best section he discusses is the chapter on creating a plan and a purpose for discussing age-appropriate developmental issues. There is no such thing as “the talk” and Dr. Burns is quick to note that it is a bunch of talks handling a bunch of issues over time.

I recommend this book as a primer for parents to initiate these conversations with their children. Many of them, I think, are like me where you are just wondering: “Where in the world do I start?” Start with this book. I am serious. It is that important. I also think this is a must read for youth and children’s ministry staff which should serve as an introduction for all sex discussions within the youth group.[1]

Quotes…

  • Sex is better when couples have a spiritual connection, and sex is not better if you live together before marriage. (p. 16)
  • Another troubling aspect of the crisis is that sex fools kids into “instant intimacy.” When young people become physically intimate with each other and then break up, it leaves scars…The more I saw a negative change in the emotional health of students who had just broken up, the more I heard they had been sexually involved. (p. 23)
  • No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to keep your kids in a bubble long enough to not be influenced or impacted by the culture’s view on sex. (p. 33)
  • SEX IS ENJOYABLE. ([Emphasis mine 😉 p. 36)
  • Modesty is actually more than wearing non-revealing clothes. Modesty applies to the way we act, dress and live. (p. 54)
  • The most effective way to teach healthy sexuality is to take advantage of spontaneous teachable moments whenever possible instead of more formal talks. (p. 72)
  • Frankly, you aren’t running a popularity contest as a parent. You are, in fact, in the protection business. (p. 86)
  • Oral sex is sex…Our sexuality is based on so much more than just intercourse, and this needs to be communicated to kids. (p. 91)
  • I have several friends who are women. I love them and respect them, but I also know that in order to keep the relationship healthy, I need to set good boundaries. (p. 126)

 

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[1] Especially helpful was Chapter 6 that deals with sex abuse issues. Ministry folks recognizing the signs and signals of sex abuse could be the difference in a young person’s life.