How to turn hot topics into relational bridges

How to turn hot topics into relational bridges

"What's your opinion on abortion?"

“Gay marriage?”

“Weed?”

“Evolution?”

“Trump?”

“The end times?”

There they are, standing in front of you, casually chatting about their upcoming weekend plans until, BOOM, out of nowhere the question drops. It’s you and them, in uncharted territory, with nervous eye contact and weight in every word.  

Um.

Perhaps it’s the question you dreaded. “I have no idea what I think of that, I’m still figuring it out. I don’t want to look like an idiot right now! What am I supposed to say??”

Or maybe you love those questions, and you excitedly try to summon all your theological wit, all your communication skills, all the hours you spent winning theoretical arguments against friends. “This is it! This is why I’m a good Christian. I’ve got this. I researched this exact question all last year. I have my elevator pitch MEMORIZED.”

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Why vocational youth ministry will be here FOREVER!!!! :)

Why vocational youth ministry will be here FOREVER!!!! :)

There has been some discussion lately among some of my youth ministry friends about the future of our profession. There seems to be another round of shots fired across the bow at youth ministry and the professionals that lead these ministries. Sticky Faith, Family Based Ministries, and people with axes to grind continue to lay the decaying faith of adolescents and young adults squarely at the feet of us professionals and the failed models we are propping up.

Fellow professional youth workers have no fear, our jobs are here to stay!! 

We have an amazing calling and part of an amazing legacy, and I am convinced that for the foreseeable future, churches will continue to do everything in their power to make sure their staffs include a paid youth worker. Here's why:

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Longevity beats personality every time!

Longevity beats personality every time!

I was recently asked why the youth program at our church was so amazing.  Between you and me, our youth ministry really isn't amazing.  Numerically we are right there in the 10%-13% of big church attendance.  Our program is fully mid-1990's, and the guy in charge used to be me.  I may be a lot of things, but I am for sure not a pied piper when it comes to student ministry.  I love students and love walking through this season of life and faith with them, but I feel awkward when I show up on campus, and struggle with one on one contact time. Two years ago I finally tapped out, and brought on an incredible couple to carry on our church’s student ministry tradition. And while I am no longer implementing our student ministry, I am overseeing it, championing it, and clearing the way for our student ministry directors to crush it!

As this parent and I talked, I began to reflect on his impression of our youth ministry and realized that our success in student ministry actually has little to do with me, and comes from the leadership of the church and lead pastor long before it comes from me.

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It is impossible to do ministry where your students live :(

It is impossible to do ministry where your students live :(

Remember the good old days?

Back in the 1970’s Young Life dramatically changed how the church has done student ministry. With two key foundations, go where students are and earn the right to be heard, countless teenagers have come to know and love Jesus! The church was a little slow on the uptake, but by the time I started doing youth ministry in the late 90’s those values had become the bedrock of church based student ministry as well.

20 years later youth ministry has really taken it on the chin. We have declining numbers for programmatic ministry, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to an effective model, and there seems to be less and less money for staff. It may seem like the sky is falling, and it is, but not for the reasons stated above.

The reason for alarm is that even with all the challenge in front of those incredible people called to love students right into the family of God, it has become next to impossible to do the one thing most of us have been called to do. To make contact with students, meet them where they are, and earn the right to be heard as we love them and point them towards Jesus.

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Have you grieved your 20's?

Have you grieved your 20's?

Dear fellow youth worker,

I wanted to thank you so much for your faithful service to the church for all of these years.  In fact, you are above average in your attempt to live for Jesus and to help others do the same.  In fact, for many of you called to youth ministry, your call began in your own youth ministry experience and it was during your late high school and early college careers that you decided to serve Jesus by serving kids!  For this, the church, your students, and Jesus is thankful!

You spent your late teens and early 20's being a perfect model of Jesus.  You actually refrained from sleeping around and for many, turned this burning passion into a young marriage.  You and your spouse got married young and then together set out to change the world.  Because the age gap between you and your students was small at first, you gladly gave up alcohol as to not confuse your students or their parents.  And for the last 5-10 years you have been cranking along just fine.

But for some of you, including myself, there is something rumbling under the surface.  Is it discontentment?  Is it bitterness?  Is it jealously?  For many youth workers who got into this gig at an early age, there is a close identification with the older brother in the story of the prodigal son.  Our younger brothers and sisters went crazy!  And now our peers are slowly coming back to church, back to faith and are being welcomed back with open arms.

As they return, I sense God coming to the back  yard where you / we are pouting.  We gladly gave up our 20's, gave up the parties, the girls / guys, the chaos, in order to live an exemplary life for our students and for Jesus.  And for the older brother, and for me, and for maybe you, the question arises, "For what?"

Before you jump right back with the Christiany answer that all we have is God's and that we did the right thing and that God is pleased by our service, or God is displeased in our religiosity, or whatever knee jerk, bumper sticker you want to put over this feeling, I am asking that you would stop for a minute and reflect.

Do you need to grieve the coming of age rebellion that everyone experienced except for you?

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“Oh, the places they will go!”

“Oh, the places they will go!”

Having served in youth ministry for 20 years, one of the joys, and unpredictable elements is, ‘where will my students end up.’ I refer to “my students’ to include the former athletes I have coached, as well as youth leaders. I have served in ministry and coached in places, including; Saskatchewan, Washington, Minnesota, California and finally, Kansas.

My biggest joy comes from witnessing what I taught students, and seeing them passing God’s truth on to others.  I love that I get to see former students at denominational gatherings like Kara, Amy, Christian, Kara M., Nicholas & Drew who are now leading others.  I kicked Drew out of youth group one time and he is now a youth pastor in rural Alaska.  Maybe I should kick out more students!  Also, this job sometimes makes me feel old.  When at Bluewater Camp in MN, I saw the kid who almost drove me out of ministry, now counseling others. 

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Parents Just Don't Understand #thinkorange

Parents Just Don't Understand #thinkorange

As youth workers, our entire lives are wrapped up in connecting with students and helping them connect to Jesus.  We spend countless hours doing contact work, developing compelling youth groups, and planning special trips and camps.  And the worst part is that parents just don’t understand!

How many times have we had conversations with parents who just don’t seem to get the importance of what we are doing.  It is us who are standing in the gap, who are the last line of defense in the faith development of their children.  They don’t help their kids show up at youth group or our special events.  They seem to think sports, school, and family vacations are more important than youth group.  How do they not realize how important our programs are?

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Youth ministry is the most important job in the world!!

Youth ministry is the most important job in the world!!

I actually don’t think that it is an oversell. I truly believe this with all my heart. I have always thought it was the best job in the entire world, but more and more, I am convinced that it is the most important.

You see, we live in a culture that has totally abandoned kids. Chap Clark has been talking about this for over 15 years. But now the ramifications are being fully realized.

Clark argued that kids have been abandoned by adults and are occupying the “world beneath.” All the organizations that were supposed to come alongside families and support the character development and care of kids have abandoned kids as well. Teachers teach to the test, coaches coach for the win, and even youth workers plan for the numbers. And in all of this kids go unseen and are living in this hidden world where it is truly the Lord of the Flies.

What none of us realized is that this world beneath has become the world above. The cloud has become the center of life for all of us, but the center of reality for students. And now, more than ever they have been abandoned because parents are just as distracted on their phones as kids are, except that parents are fully formed adults and our kids are half cooked.

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Some pro tips for parenting Generation Z

 Some pro tips for parenting Generation Z

Today is the final week of my Generation Z class. I am not going to lie, the study and preparation for this class has been one of the most formative endeavors I have done in over five years. I am blown away at how quickly culture is changing and it is impossible to keep up. I am not talking about understanding Tik Tok or the millions of different Youtubers out there speaking into our kids’ lives. I am talking about the core of the culture that is unseen, but moving us all whether we are aware of it or not.

(You can take a look at my notes and bibliography here if you want to know what has helped shaped me this last month.) What is incredible is that this is just the tip of the iceberg and we must dive deeply in so we can help navigate our churches and families well in this moment. And even more, have no fear, but be filled with hope because the gospel is good news in every situation, in every culture, in every part of the world, in every time, and that is especially true for us!

With that being said, I wanted to share with you my last piece from this class, some pro tips for parents in helping their kids and their soul navigate these tumultuous waters. Without further ado . . .

THE TOP 10 PRO-TIPS FOR PARENTS WHO ARE RAISING GENERATION Z:

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The spiritual foundation of Generation Z

The spiritual foundation of Generation Z

As I have been studying up and preparing for my three week class on Generation Z, I found this last section to be the most compelling and heartbreaking. It is easy to get lost in the stats regarding technology and the correlation between screen time and depression. Or to examine the LGBTQQIP2A+ sexuality alphabet soup and the implications of that. (Both incredible topics and worthy of discussion)

But this week we take a look at the spiritual foundation for Generation Z and what is the native tongue for this generation, is not even on the radar of church leaders or parents. The spiritual moment our kids find themselves in goes all the way back to the garden. It is the total antithesis to orthodox Christianity, and the more I have been studying, I have been alarmed at how much it has influenced the church and me.

What is this new spirituality, this new religion? Humanism.

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Do you want to understand the soul of Generation Z?

Do you want to understand the soul of Generation Z?

Before you poo poo this video and say to yourself that this person does not reflect any generation Z person that I know, watch the first 1:20 again. What they say, in my opinion, perfectly sums up what is going on in the very heart and soul of this young generation.

In fact, what they share about is right in line what my 11-year-old, white, suburban daughter choir nerd thinks about herself, her friends, and the world.

I think we are fooling ourselves if we don’t take a good, hard look at this worldview and work hard to understand it, empathize it, find the beauty in, and also find the unique way the gospel is going to impact them.

Our kids are growing up in a world with fewer rules and standards:

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What do you know about generation Z?

What do you know about generation Z?

This has been the question that has consumed my thinking for the past few weeks. Starting next week, I will be teaching a class at our church called Raising Generation Z: examining the technology, sexuality, and spirituality of this rising generation and what parents and church’s role and response should be. (Something like that)

There has been countless words spoken and written about the millennial generation. And this has shaped how we currently do youth ministry as well as how we are currently doing church. I think this is a good thing, primarily as the millennial generation is aging and becoming significant leaders. And I am willing to be that most, if not all youth workers these days, (Except for Tom Pounder) are in the millennial age bracket.

What is unique about student ministry is that, at its core, it is a cross-cultural ministry to a completely different generation. Most people miss this and just put their thoughts, desires, passions, and perspectives onto a younger generation. This works, but what works even better is taking a step back, differentiating ourselves from those whom we minister, understanding their worldview, their issues, and then craft a ministry style, that cares for them where they are currently living.

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Marry Christmas from the Kerns Family 2018

Marry Christmas from the Kerns Family 2018

Dear Friends and Family,

I wanted to begin our annual Christmas letter with an apology.  I am sorry.  

For the past 20+ years I have devoted my entire professional career to loving teenagers and walking through the chaos of adolescents in a kind and loving way with kids and a wise, non-anxious presence for parents.  Those were good years.  

In the space of one year I hung up my youth ministry hat and became a parent of two middle schoolers.  And sitting on this side of the fence, my only reflections from this last year are a simple recognition that caring for middle and high schoolers is quite a different thing from parenting them.  

What’s funny, is that I have been gearing up for all the chaos, the temper tantrums, slamming doors, strange fashion, abandonment of faith, trying out dirty and dangerous things.  We are touching some of that and I am sure there will be more in the future.  But these sorts of issues are the challenges of our kids developing their own sense of self and becoming their own version of themselves.  I have walked with countless parents through these brutal experiences, but now it is my turn and I am not that thrilled with how the tables have turned. 

But, if I’m honest, what I have found to be more difficult and character building is not the brutal challenges of individuation, but the three precursors to this process:  

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Don't overlook the shepherds in your student ministry

Don't overlook the shepherds in your student ministry

I hope by now you have wrapped up your student ministry semester and enjoyed your end of year Christmas festivities. And now you are ready for a break. You should be. But as you go wheels up this Christmas season, don’t forget about the shepherds among your student ministry.

What I mean by this is that we do student ministry for the masses. We do it for the kids who come and love it. We sing songs, play games, have small groups and the kids that have shown up are the ones who get it, or at least get you. But if your church is anything like ours, some students don’t fit the mold, don’t go with the program. They are smelly, lice filled dredges. Just kidding. Those are the shepherds. :)

However, similarly, some kids are basically like that loosely connected to your student ministry. And while your supervisor doesn’t know about them and they don’t count in your numbers, they are still valuable humans who Jesus longs to meet in a profound way. They are the outskirts of your ministry, and therefore most likely missing the good news that is for them.

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Are you ready for "Youth Pastor Sunday?"

Are you ready for "Youth Pastor Sunday?"

It is Advent and, if your church is anything like mine, the church is in full Christmas mode. We have our best sermon series, our best music, our best decorations, all building to our Christmas Eve service! It is going to be incredible!!!

But then, in just a few short days after Christmas, everything will go dark. Everyone goes on vacation, including the Lead Pastor. That means that it is once again time for that time-honored tradition of “Youth Pastor Sunday.”

“Youth Pastor Sunday” is that Sunday that comes around once or twice a year. While Memorial Day weekend or Labor Day weekend are contenders, no Sunday has more youth workers preaching than the Sunday after Christmas.

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The danger of losing ministry to the program

The danger of losing ministry to the program

I’ve been trying to keep the attendance numbers of our youth group quiet for a while now. When people ask me how many students came on Tuesday and Wednesday night, I give a vague answer. I try to tame my reaction and excitement about our growing numbers and instead share a more qualitative story about a student who prayed out loud for the first time, or who has become consistent about bringing their own Bible and participating in small group discussion. 

Our youth group has been growing steadily over the last year or so, and as exciting as this is, it’s also something I want to handle carefully. At the last church I worked in, my boss who ran the youth program used to say, “Ministry is about the numbers…but it’s really not about the numbers” and the truth and power behind that statement has stayed with me. 

There is a natural excitement that comes when we look at a program that used to host eight or nine regular kids and is now bringing in twenty or twenty five people each week. Obviously this growth is an answer to prayer! As youth workers, we care deeply about students and we want every teenager in our communities to be reached for Christ. We go to sporting events, volunteer at schools, hang out at fast food restaurants and encourage kids to invite their friends because we want to see more and more students experiencing God and plugging into the church. I’m sure we can all agree that steady growth is a good thing to be seeing in a youth program.

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10 minute, 10 word prayer experience to spice up your youth ministry

10 minute, 10 word prayer experience to spice up your youth ministry

10 for 10 is one of those ideas I think God just downloaded into my mind to keep me sane. You know the feeling: you’re in Mexico, you haven’t slept in several days, caffeine holds no effect anymore, and you hate the sound of your own name. If one more person calls for me…. Every shirt you packed is stained with the tears of teens and the dirt of the tent you’re sleeping in. Can no one remember to take their shoes off outside?!

All those lofty ideals and theories you had for moments of spiritual transformation feel as far away as — soap.

Then you’re bumping down a dirt road in a 12-passenger van, avoiding potholes and perritos. No, you cannot bring that dog back across the border. Yes, that does make me a monster. No, I do not care. You’re breaking up a backseat argument for the 10th time that morning. Surely I didn’t fight this much when I was 12… right? You try something desperate (er… creative?) and suddenly 8th graders are excited about a Bible passage. 

Let me just say that last bit again. 8th graders were actively dialoguing about a Bible passage. Praying. And loving it. And you start to mentally backspace the resignation letter you were writing. We had a ton of fun with 10 for 10 during our drives the rest of the week.

Here’s the general idea:

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5 easy tricks to get any middle school boy talking in small group

5 easy tricks to get any middle school boy talking in small group

The greatest mistake youth workers make when ministering to students, specifically middle schoolers, is that simply talk at them, telling them what they need to know and what they need to do.  

This mistake makes sense.  We love Jesus deeply and we got into this business because we want, more than anything, for young people to fall in love with Jesus as well.  So, week after week, month after month, we try our best to compel them to love Jesus the way we do.  

But here is what we forget.  When we were 12 we didn't love Jesus the way we do now. 

When we were 12 we were developing our faith and our heart for Jesus.  We did have some experiences in middle and high school that contributed to our faith and put us on the path to know and love Jesus in the deep an intimate way we do now as adults. 

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1000 Frisbees

1000 Frisbees

Big games are the worst! Don’t get me wrong playing games and having fun with students is often the highlight of my week, but finding the right game often feels like eating a box of nails. Every week I would scour through all the different game sites to find something. Something, that would fill the allotted time and didn’t result in ten kids sitting on their phones in the corner. I found my average success rate would be right around .300 and that should impress you.

This grind every week to find compelling games lead me to think differently about how I approach the creative process in this important area of my weekly programing. Two things that changed things for me. 

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Your faith journey is different than that of your students. Help them with theirs. :)

Your faith journey is different than that of your students.  Help them with theirs. :)

Most youth workers, including me, have been doing student ministry since they were students themselves.  Because of this reality, there is often an unchecked issue brewing just below the surface.  This is that we often fail to differentiate our spiritual development and needs from those of our students.

Remember being a high school student?

There was a time, and maybe you are still in that time, when you remember being a high schooler and you remember the spiritual journey of that time.   This memory is one of the things that makes you such a great youth worker.  I remember how great it was when I first started out in student ministry.  Whatever I was learning, however I was growing, only added fuel to my growing passion for students and for them to encounter the living God who was rocking my world!  In fact, I have found that it is always best to teach from a place of authenticity and personal growth.

But as the years wore on, I began to realize that I was outpacing the spiritual development of my students.  I found myself trying on new ways of connecting with Jesus.  Lectio Devina, candles, solitude.  I found that the more I was growing spiritually, the more I wanted to share my new spiritual growth with my students.  But now realized, the more I shared with my students, the more I was losing them.

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