An easy way to love your students: SNAIL MAIL

An easy way to love your students: SNAIL MAIL

Do you have piles of pictures from old youth group activities or trips?  Do you at least have them on your phone?  Well, here is the easiest way to use those old pictures for good!

One of the most fundamental needs we have as humans is to be seen and to be known.  In an age of social media we can give a lot of love by simply "liking" a students status or pic, and we can get even more when we tag them on Facebook or Instagram.  But we all know deep in our hearts that doesn't really cost you anything.  Did you know that if you simply print off that picture and mail it through the post office, that you have actually satisfied, albeit briefly, that longing to be seen and known.

Here is all you do to make your students feel seen and known:

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What your numbers tell you about your ministry

What your numbers tell you about your ministry

It is amazing to me how much ministry numbers totally rule my life.  In my mind, I have a threshold number.   If that number is reached or exceeded I am on top of the world, loving my job, and thankful for the privilege of being considered a youth worker.  If less than that number of kids, then it is down the death spiral.  I question my effectiveness, my calling, and a stop off at McDonalds to get my binge eating on is all but given.

I get that I am probably more emotionally unstable than you, but I do know that most of my colleagues in ministry are continually wrestling with numbers and always trying to grow their ministry.   And I also know that for most of my youth worker friends, after their first year on the job, their numbers have gone flat.  The numbers they grew to in their first year are now the numbers year over year and year after year.

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Can your own love for Jesus and learning actually have a negative impact your love for middle schoolers?

Can your own love for Jesus and learning actually have a negative impact your love for middle schoolers?

There are three things that I have found to be true in my life. And surprisingly, I have found that these three things turned out to be in conflict. They are:

1) I love Jesus 2) I love learning 3) I love middle schoolers

On the surface, these three things are every youth worker's bread and butter. It is these three foundational values that have launched us into this unique vocation. But what I have been wrestling with is that the combination of these three values have almost closed the door on good, long term vocational ministry.

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Quit trying what works other places, and discern what God has for your unique context!

Quit trying what works other places, and discern what God has for your unique context!

There are so many micro cultures in which to do ministry:

A couple of weeks ago, I met an transfer student to our local seminary, Golden Gate Theological Seminary. Like most of their students, they come from the heart of the Bible Belt and study in the heart of one of the last churched contexts in America.

As we talked, I found myself fascinated with his home context and the joys and struggles he experienced doing student ministry in his home state of Kentucky. As he told me about his church and his ministry, I found myself mesmerized about this foreign world where 80% of the student body has some connection to some local church.

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I'll show you mine, if you show me yours #fallcalendar

I'll show you mine, if you show me yours #fallcalendar

Planning a fall calendar, let alone an annual programmatic and curriculum calendar can often be quite overwhelming.  We have a couple of things going against us.  1)  Most youth workers are relationally focused and to spend the  hours planning ahead is a tiresome task.  2)  We all think we are the smartest people we know and don't really want to share our best ideas or admit that we are out of them. But if we are all going to continue to grow and thrive in ministry and if we are going to continue to provide the best possible ministry experience for our students then planning must be a part.  I highly recommend putting an annual calendar together by early August complete with program, events, and curriculum.  Then roll that out in a way that works for you and your context.  For us, we roll out calendars 4 times a year.

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The Wild Life: Theme song of summer and of life for my students

The Wild Life: Theme song of summer and of life for my students

Have you come across this song?  It is a great song and has become our unofficial theme song of summer for my little weekly surf crew.  Hitting the beach, shredding the gnar, soaking up the sun, has been right inline with the catchy hook of this song.

But as the weeks have gone on and I have listened to this song a number of times, I finally started listening to the words.  And, with no surprise, it turns out that this isn't just the theme music for my summer, but the actual song is the theme song for my students.

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VBS: the best thing on my sumer student ministry calendar

photo There is definitely a wide verity of opinion regarding Vacation Bible School and its importance, effectiveness, and mission.

I have some friends who put on the most excellent program of all time.  It is a well oiled machine with incredible sets, dramas, teachers and group leaders.  It is done in the exact way the developers of the curriculum dreamed up.  I have some friends who are convicted by the Holy Spirit that VBS is the biggest waste of time and resources.  So, for my friends on both ends of the spectrum, feel free to stop reading, and / or check out my good friend, Ryan Reed's blog :)

For me, VBS is the best thing on my student ministry calendar because:

1) I get daily contact with a large group of my student ministry.  Besides summer and winter camp it is really hard to get this many hours with a large group of students.  It is easy to forget that the number one way to build community and friendship is by logging in hours and having shared experience.  VBS does both. Plus it costs zero dollars so every student from every demographic gets to participate without it costing my budget a dime.

2)  It is not about them.  It seems like everything in their world is about them.  And unfortunately everything I do in my student ministry program is designed around them and their needs.  But for one week, they just get to serve. Not for community service hours, not for glory, not for anything other then to put someone else's needs and program above themselves.  They have to give up sleep and spend 3 hours getting to know and caring for kids younger than them.

3)  It is actually for them.  As culture continues its massive slide into post-Christendom, VBS is a great primer on some of the most simple truth and well known Bible stories found in scripture.  It is easy to think that our students know all these things, but if you actually talk to them, or even tested them, you would realize that they don't know any of these things.  And if they do, they have never internalized them.  VBS is a chance for them to rediscover some of these truths and think about them in a fresh way.

4) VBS models the life long chain of discipleship.  For whatever reason, there seems to be this vibe in student ministry that spiritual life begins and end with middle and high school students.  But the truth is that when our students have older college students to look up to and who will pour into them, they are so much more likely to model them and their faith, then us old guys who are paid to model it.  The same is true for the kids in children's ministry.  Instead of only mom's talking about Jesus, our kids get to see middle and high school students talk about their faith, and in doing so makes faith a real option for them.  We should always be talking about the people we are pouring our lives into and those who are pouring their lives into us.  This never ends, and VBS helps model it.

Thank you to my Children's Ministry team for a job well done, and for being willing to sacrifice a little bit of excellence for some much needed opportunity and ministry to my middle and high school students!


Leaders Eat Last

I am currently reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.  It is an awesome book and rocking my world a bit.  As I am in the middle of it and still digesting the concepts and ideas  My friend Jeremy Zach shared a video of him speaking on this topic and I think it could fundamentally change how you approach leading.  Whether you are a book learner or a visual learner, this guy has will rock your world and your worldview as you lead.  And there is a huge challenge / rebuke for leaders who enjoy the rights and privileges but not the responsibility when danger approaches.  (I hope that isn't you) Enjoy!

Simon Sinek: Why Leaders Eat Last from 99U on Vimeo.

The myth of senioritis

This is it, the final few months of high school for the class of 2014.  They have been suffering from senioritis for a long time, and for many of them, long before they were even seniors. According to wikipedia, “the main symptoms of senioritis include procrastination, lack of motivation, a drop in academic performance, and ‘coasting,’ which is the act of going through classes with very little concentration or application of intent along with truancy."

I wonder if this dreaded disease might not really be a disease at all, but a way to justify the massive drop off of engagement and participation from our seniors. Our seniors live into this description, and many of my fellow youth workers do as well.  But when I step back and actually look at my seniors, what I see is a group of students who have figured out what is important and what things aren't.  Because seniors are practically adults, they feel empowered to make their own decisions regarding their time and effort.

They know what things bring them life and what things are purposeful.  They willingly pour hours into friendships because they realize that this is the last time they are going to be together with this group of people.  Seniors do well and study hard for their AP classes because they know that their AP tests which will give them college credits.  They practice and train hard for teams that are competitive. and at the same time they understand that more and more of their life is being filled with busy work, barely worthy of their time and attention.   The teachers and coaches who are just filling time get students who begin to show signs of senioritis.  The same might be true with our student ministries.

The truth is that seniorites really isn’t a disease at all, but rather a truth serum.  What seniors do with their time and attention is the true test of what they see as valuable and important.  So, maybe the reason for seniors beginning to lose interest in youth group is not senioritis at all, but a true representation of how valuable they think youth group is.

Since we know seniors are fully engaged in the things they think matter, the bigger question is how to actually reach out to and meet the needs of our seniors.  If student ministry mattered to seniors and they viewed it as important, they would be there in mass.  So, letting them fade away because of senioritis is a crime.  We are youth workers who are called to run after and care for students, and last I checked, seniors are still students.

To help seniors stay connected we need to:

  1. Give them a purpose for participating in youth group. For students who have been around a while, youth group can and should be pretty old.  Youth group is really designed for 10th and 11th graders.  They have heard your lessons, played your games, and heard your jokes and stories many times.  There isn’t a lot for them to get out of youth group.  And truthfully, there shouldn’t be.  But what an opportunity to give them a bigger purpose for participating in youth group.  Help them see themselves as leaders, tone setters, as mentors to the younger students.  By calling out the truth that youth group isn’t for them, they get to live into their true calling as servant leaders.
  2. Give them responsibility at youth group. You are probably a great communicator, and your leaders probably do a fantastic job of leading games.  But what if we all stepped back from some of our up front responsibility and gave that to students.  Maybe seniors should get special privileges, like allowing them to teach at youth group and Sunday school, or help lead games, trips, and activities, then they will have some ownership.  There is something they have to do, and if they have to do it, chances are they will show up, support their friends, and model that to younger students.  Their senior year is the time for them to step up, not step away.  We play a huge rule in what we allow, or don’t allow them to do.
  3. Help shape their understanding of faith development and community.  I always get my feelings hurt when my seniors complain that youth group is boring or not deep.  And while that may be true on one level, on a deeper level this is completely not true.  We can not let students develop the mental patterns that youth group or church is not relevant for them.  Have you noticed that your church service doesn’t change much, or ever.  We do announcements, sing songs, and preach from a passage of scripture.  That is it. And if our students are going to get plugged in to church and stay plugged into youth group, part of our job is shaping their experience.  Youth group and church are part of life, and life is normal and often boring.  Running with perseverance is what we are called to do.  Perseverance means that it is not easy or fun, but  a discipline.  We stay connected and we keep working out our faith in community during normal life, and second semester of your senior year is about as normal as it gets.

There are just a couple months left of high school for our seniors.  This time doesn't have to be thrown away.  Embrace the 6-10 more youth groups you have and hit it out of the park!.  There are  so many conversations still to be had and so many opportunities for ministry still to be done.  Let’s work hard to hold on to our seniors, celebrate them, empower them, disciple them, and then launch them into whatever god has next.


Big Wednesday: Youth Group with Parents

Screen shot 2014-03-10 at 10.46.03 PM My good friend and brilliant youth worker, Carlos Devitis, from Peninsula Covenant Church established one of the best ministry ideas I have heard in a long time.  In fact, it is so great, I am actually stealing an idea from him for once and implementing it in my own ministry.

Once a month, or at least 4-6 times a year, we are going to invite our parents to join us on our Wednesday night youth group extravaganza.  Now, I am not totally sure what Carlos does, but the way we are working it out in our context is like this:

  • Youth Group happens just like normal for our middle and high school students
  • While the students are getting after it, parents will meet downstairs.
  • The parents will have dessert and coffee, a small mixer and then a discussion led by me.
  • This month our topic is "loving your unique kid"  It's not sexy, but should get the job done.

The whole point of the evening is for parents to not feel so isolate and alone.  To bring refreshment and encouragement to our weary parents.  And hopefully, some of them may connect with each other and build friendship and community.  As parents connect and are encouraged their entire family system does better.

To be honest, parent ministry is not what I am most passionate about.  I love students and student ministry with al my heart.  But good student ministry can only happen when we as youth workers engage the entire family.  Big Wednesday's are how Carlos does it, it is now how I do it.  How will you do it?

I would love to know the creative and effective ways in which you are engaging parents and partnering with them for the sake of the students we work with.

Top 10 Highlights from my 2013 Reading List

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 6.38.47 PM As I look back over my Amazon purchase, Kindle Books, And Web History over this year, it turns out I have had a really diverse reading list.  I have spent this year wrestling with theology, practical ministry, politics, and an overall appreciation for culture.  Of all the hours I have logged in gaining more input, here are the top 10 highlights that have actually made its way from data points to actually shaping the way I think.  Even though I don't agree with all of these people and in some cases agree with very little, what they have had to say and how they have said it have caused me to think deeply in response to it.  So here is my list, in no particular order.

Andy Stanley: Deep and Wide

Tom Wright: After You Believe

Cornel West: Race Matters

David Mcullough: 1776

Rachael Held Evans:

Mark Driscoll: A Call To Resurgence.

Real Clear Politics: A blog that captures the entire spectrum of political discourse.

Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath 

Torn: Justin Lee

Brock Morgan: Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

What did you read?  What shaped your worldview? What shaped your heart?  What shaped your ministry?  I would love to know so I can populate my 2014 reading list.

Happy New Year Homies!

Merry Christmas 2013 from the Kerns Family

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 6.20.30 PM I trust that you had a great 2013 and enjoying the long and gentle onramp towards Christmas.  As I reflect on our last year and all the highlights that communicate how our family is the best and brightest, a recent event in our family’s life pretty much sums up our year.

Remember that horrific cold snap a week or so ago?  In our neck of the woods the temps dropped down to the high 40’s.  CRAZY!!  Well, being that our entire family is only outfitted with hoodies, we were all cranky and cold.  And to make matters worse, it was beginning to rain.

As we all arrived at home from work, boy scouts, and various errands, everyone was tired, grumpy, and cold, myself worst of all.  I don’t totally remember the interaction, but MacKenzie said something snotty to me, or to her mom, or maybe just asked me a question.  At this point, it doesn’t really matter. I did what I naturally do when one of my kids is cranky and begins to cry…send them to their room.  So off MacKenzie went.  And in a moment of brotherly empathy, Noah followed to make sure she was okay.

And for the first time all afternoon, Katie and I found ourselves in the kitchen with some peace and quiet.  Even though one of our kids was crying and the other was busy being empathetic, the calm brought with it a brilliant idea.  “Let’s all go out to a special dinner together and rent a movie.”  (Okay, no one rents a movie anymore, but you get the idea)  So, with all excitement to regain some family love, I call back to the kids with this benevolent news.  “Grab your coats, we are going out to dinner.”

What happened next was totally unexpected!  From the end of the hallway I see that Noah has ditched his cold and wet clothes for pajamas and yelled back, “WE REFUSE!”  And not only did he say that, but he and his sister began chanting , “We refuse!  We refuse!” I saw red!  But unlike my normal yell back followed by more crying, I fought fire with fire!

I immediately called our neighborhood babysitter, offered her $20 for the next hour or so, set out some tortillas and cheese, and hit the road with my wife.  And for the next hour and a half had the most delightful time with Katie.  We drank wine, ate pizza, got caught up with all the logistics for the week and even talked about some of the real things that are happening in our lives, separate from our kids.  #bestnightever.

And in this one evening, you get to see:

  • How much our kids love each other
  • How much I have grown as a father
  • How much an hour and a half without my kids is worth to me, $20
  • How much I love being with Katie and partnering in all of life with her.
  • How much global warming sucks!  (Sorry, climate change ☺ )

For as hectic as life is, I am thankful that chaos actually doesn’t define me, my life, or my family.  In fact in the beginning God looked at the chaos and said, “Let there be light!”  And this Christmas season we celebrate that God sent his Son to be the light of all.  It is this light that we look to for peace and purpose and our prayer is that your Christmas season is marked not by chaos, but more and more by peace!

Merry Christmas!

Love the Kerns Family

Highlights from the Open Bay Area

This last weekend I had the pleasure of being part of the organizing team for the Open Bay Area.  The Open model is the brain child of The Youth Cartel and a really innovative way to gather, network, and train youth workers.  The Youth Cartel's vision is to allow local practitioners to have a platform to share their unique passions for their unique contexts in a local setting.  And this is exactly what we did. We attempted to use the TED model of short, thought provoking talks to generate further conversation.  Please check them out, and as you do, I am sure you will be as blessed and encouraged as I was!  Also, if you have any feedback and would like to create a virtual Open with some pushback and or questions, feel free to do that in the comment section.

Thanks team and thank you Youth Cartel for a great event!








For the rest of the day, check out The Youth Cartel Youtube channel:


The best video on leadership I've seen in a long time!


Some questions that this video sparked in me:

1) What is the cause?

2) Who is the first follower?  How do I treat them?

3) Is my treatment of the first follower actually hindering my leadership?

4) Do I care more about the cause or about being recognized as leader?

The real guts is not to be the lone nut, but to identify who the right lone nut is to follow,and then put your own street cred on the line to help create a movement.

We are taking a little detour . . .


Dear faithful readers of this blog (i.e. mom),

In just under a week I am taking a team of students and leaders on a mission trip to Guatemala.  For the past few months we have been managing mountains of paperwork and endless logistics combined with team trainings and meetings.  And now, in just under a week we are hitting the road and going to do some incredible ministry alongside an amazing church in the little town of Santa Apolonia.

In an attempt to embrace this new world we live in where access to information and technology is no longer an option, but a way of life, I am coming up with an entirely new social media strategy for this trip.  I am going to intentionally use Facebook and Twitter to share pictures and updates throughout the day.  On top of those updates, I am planning on  using this blog to post a daily summary so that our church (and parents) can be encouraged by all that God is doing in and through our group.  My hope is that our church community would be able to pray specifically for what is going on within our group and in our village, and for me to reflect daily on the places where God is showing up.

For many of you who are younger youth workers, I know you are probably laughing and shaking your head with how slow I am on the uptake with these initiatives.  But for me, who cut my mission trip teeth on CB communication and mixed tapes, I am pretty proud of my progress. :)

All this is to say, that for the next week or so this blog space is becoming an arm of the student ministry of Marin Covenant Church.  So, if you were expecting some sassy blog post about the inner workings of youth ministry, have no fear, those will come back online on the 24th of June.  In the que are posts about over sharing, preaching like Francis Chan, loneliness in student ministry, and a couple of book reviews. Who knows, I may even re-post my epic blog on bikinis.

If you are a parent who is sending your child with me to Guatemala, this is the place for all the latest and greatest regarding the trip.  (Also, don't forget to check out my Facebook or subscribe to my twitter.)

I could really use some extra love and prayers this week as we put together the final details and I find myself wrestling through my heightened anxiety regarding every and all things about this trip.  I do not want to get lost in the details or spin out about what's next.  I long to be present with my students and my friends in the village of Santa Apolonia, and mostly to be present in my walk with God.  God is at work, and I don't want to miss it!

Thank you in advance for your prayers and support!

See you in GUAT!


What to do when your own kid pushes back from God:

For parents of a troubled teen, the main question that is asked time and time again is this: "What is missing?" Parents feel like they have failed in some way because there is something that is missing from their teen's life. They see this as the cause of all of the trouble. However, you should know that it is not your fault. If you have raised your teen in a warm and loving home, and he or she has still not turned to God, He could be the real element that is missing. You need to know how to reach out to your teen for God so that He can begin working to change the child's life.

Teen Angst

Do Not Be Overbearing

The number one mistake that parents make in this situation is to be overbearing. They try to push religion on the teen so much that the teen naturally starts to push back. Your son could reject the message just because he is so sick of hearing it. Remember that teens often are striving to be individuals. They may reject things that you say just because you said them, and for no other reason. Do not push too hard, or you could close that door for communication.

Do Not Be Judgmental

Another thing to avoid is judging your teen. Do not pick up all of your daughter's faults and call her out on them. She already knows what they are. If you are angry and judgmental in your approach, she is just going to return your anger. She will not listen to what you have to say about God.

Ask Questions

Many teens want to talk. They want someone to listen to them. If they are walking away from God, do not yell at them or lecture them. Instead, ask questions about their decisions. Sit down and really get to understand why the teen is making the choices that he or she is making. This information can help you to communicate with your child. It also shows your child that you care. When the teen knows that you care and that you want to hear his or her side of things, your child will be more likely to listen to what you have to say.

Connect God with Things that the Teen Enjoys

There are many ways in which God can communicate with people. If your teen loves music, there are Christian artists who can bring a good message to any style of music. If he or she loves to read, there are also Christian authors who are writing great books every year. Rather than just dragging an unwilling child to church, you should try to use the child's interests to bring them to God for better results.

About the Guest Author K. Sontoya writes in behalf of .  She helps them in spreading awareness about troubled and depressed teenagers (and how to deal with them).  Help Your Teen Now aims to increase awareness on the current psychological and societal stresses of today's teens and how these factors affect the future of our society.

Back From Sabbatical!

After 3 long months, I am finally back in the saddle.  It has been an amazing time off and I actually feel rested.  At first I was a little bummed that I didn't have money or space for some grand adventure like hiking across Europe.  I failed in my pursuit to become an Abercrombie model, and didn't memorize an entire book of the Bible. (Even 3 John) But because I wanted to stay married and have a relationship with my kids, I put some of those dreams on hold for some practical and needed maintenance. Sure enough, settling in, relaxing, becoming comfortable in my own skin and playing endless board games with the family has paid off in a healthy person, dad, husband and pastor.  I am so thankful for my church family and their care for me!  It is so extravagant for a youth pastor to be cared for like this, for their staff and volunteers to do such an amazing job, and to even welcome me back with such excitement.

I love our church and I love student ministry.  I look forward to this next season of ministry.  And for better or worse, I look forward to doing in the unique manner in which God has created me to do it.  I don't want to keep striving to be someone else, nor do I want to continually judge myself by some false ruler that I continually come up short on.  I know my gifts, I know my failings, and I am planning on bringing all of that to the ministry God has called me to.


ps: Here is a little video one of my students, Spencer Wilson, made.  He is an awesome young man and friend, and blessed the snot out of me and made me laugh with this video.  Enjoy!


pps: Here are some home made Ben Kerns Fan Club shirts made by my homie!  YES PLEASE!


ppps:  Everyone needs to work hard in one context, take a break, and come back ready to take ministry to the next level with kids who you have walked through some significant road together.  (If that isn't part of your call or contract, let me at your elders!)

Bay Area Youth Ministry Forum happening this Saturday! Would you consider joining us?

Our culture is changing, shouldn't our ministries adapt as well? One of the areas of passion for me is contextualization. As our context becomes more and more post-Christian, I am realizing that the way forward is going to be complex and challenging. Because of this a couple of the youth pastors in my network whom I love and respect decided that we should host an event to wrestle through some of these issues.

We genuinely believe that the the community of youth workers in our context will have a much better shot finding a way forward than a book by an author from a totally different context or by the oner person with the biggest personality and loudest voice pushing their agenda.

In just one week we are going to take a big swing and gather our peeps from the Bay Area for this conversation. If you call the Bay Area home, would you consider coming? If you consider me a friend, would you come as a personal favor :) If you are no where near us, please pray for us and feel free to chime in!

Below is how we are wrestling through these issues.  I would love your thoughts on how you wrestle through these issues in your context.

Bay Area Youth Ministry Forum

You are invited to be a part of a day long discussion on the present and future of youth ministry. Your voice and experience is needed to wrestle with and understand the complexity of our context.

We live in an increasingly post-christian, entitled, and hyper-scheduled culture. At the same time, we are called by God and by the church to present the gospel to this next generation. But where is the thin place the gospel can truly enter into this worldview?

The world our students live in is dramatically changing. It is vital for those who are called to reach students to understand these shifts and adjust accordingly. We want to spend the day wrestling with two questions:

1) What is the crisis in these students lives that the gospel solves? In general, for our parents, the crisis was one of rebellion and the solution was justification. Our crisis is one of brokenness and the solution is redemption. For our students???

2) How do we structure a program within the church to that meets the real needs of students and satisfies the expectations of our church leadership?

We are glad to have Mark Oestreicher join us as our facilitator in this forum. Mark has over 30 years of experience and has been a part of all the major conversations regarding youth ministry for the last decade. He is an expert on culture, adolescent development, and church systems. time with him alone will make this forum worthy your while.

Would you consider bringing your expertise of our culture and context to the table as we work together to answer these important questions?  Let us know if you are coming so we can make sure we have enough food.  Blessings!

Important Information: Who: Youth workers who do ministry within the context of the local church in the bay area. Where: BayMarin Community Church 150 N. San Pedro Rd. San Rafael, CA 94903 When: Saturday October 6. 9am - 4:00. Optional dinner and drinks with Mark afterwards. Cost: $69 for you.  $35 for student. Lunch is included. Scholarships available. Tickets:

Calling Teenagers to a Developmentally Appropriate Faith

teenagers2[averageym Note: Andy Blanks is becoming a good friend, and in fact a good enough friend that we found ourselves disagreeing on some ministry philosophy.  I love when we be come good enough friends and that there is already a foundation of humility and grace that we can actually wrestle through issues, sharpen each other, and learn from one another.  Thanks for inviting further conversation.  The post below was featured yesterday on the blog.] [ym360 Note: This thoughtful and thought provoking post is born out of a discussion Ben and I had based on a post I wrote entitled, "Stop Telling Students To Invite Their Friends To Church." (You can see Ben's comment at the bottom of the page.) I was reminded once again of the great truth that there's room for different opinions and approaches as we all seek to lead students closer to Christ. I'm deeply thankful for Ben and his devotion to Christ, his family, and his ministry. Even if I don't always agree with him. :) --Andy]

This last spring we signed up my 5-year-old for his first season of T-ball. It’s quite entertaining to watch 5-year-olds learning the game of baseball. By the end of the season, the goal is that these kids will (almost) know their positions, the direction to run around the bases, how to hit a ball off a T, and, well, that’s about it. But the foundation has been laid.

While I’d love for my son to live out my his dream of playing in the big leagues one day, my ultimate dream is for him to be a godly man who loves Jesus, and who lives a life that reflects that love. My dream is that he would live “within the culture as a missionary who is as faithful to the Father and his gospel as Jesus was in his own time and place.” In essence, my dream is that my son would live a life that is missional.

I’ll come back to this baseball analogy. But first, I want to talk about this concept of missional living as it relates to the students in our ministries.

I believe missional living is advanced Christianity because it assumes the foundations of the faith are firmly established within an individual. It assumes we know our identity in Christ. It assumes we have a biblical worldview, among other things. With this foundation of faith set, we can then differentiate ourselves from our culture, wrestling with the task of being faithful to the gospel message in our time and place, just like Jesus was in His time and place. This is missional living. And being effective at it depends on having certain foundations in place.

So how does this relate to youth ministry? While I agree that this missional living is the needed direction for our churches, the issue is how much of this our students are ready to embrace.

Everyone from Chap Clark to Time Magazine is pointing out that adolescence is lasting years longer in the current generation of teenagers and young adults than in preceding generations. The excellent book Starting Right provides one take on why this is the case, namely the ability (or inability) of young people to answer three significant questions regarding their identity: Who am I? Do I matter? How do I relate to others?

How do we as youth workers lead students in embracing this advanced form of Christianity when they can’t even answer with much certainty who they are, let alone even begin to answer the final question about how they relate to others? We need to be engaging students with these conversations, helping them work through them. But in doing so, it’s vital that those of us who work with students don’t project a spiritual journey that is developmentally too far ahead of them.

In other words, what we’re teaching students has to be different than what we’re learning.Our current “location” on the path of spiritual growth is (hopefully) different than that of the 15-year-old boy in our student ministry.

In Hebrews the author lays into the congregation for still drinking milk. But this admonition was about expectations. The expectation was that the Hebrews were no longer babies in their faith. Yet many of our students really are spiritual babies, and rightfully so. “Milk” is the expected drink for babies, right? The rub only comes when they should be eating solid food and are still drinking milk.

In my experience, high school and certainly middle school students aren’t at all ready for the "steak" of missional living. This isn’t a put down. If we’re honest about the average students in our ministry, isn’t there a healthy number who aren’t ready for this advanced form of Christianity? They have little idea who they are, whether or not their lives matter, or how to relate to others because of their identity. They’re still working out the fundamentals of their identity and faith. It’s only after this is done that they’re ready to engage their culture in any sort of meaningfully missional way.

And so my son’s T-ball season is more similar to student ministry then I thought. T-ball teaches fundamentals. It paints the picture of what real baseball is like. My son’s coaches don’t just give them the age appropriate version of baseball mechanics; they give them the age appropriate version of baseball. The difference is significant.

This is the delicate balance we need to strike in leading our students. We don’t force-feed them a faith they aren’t ready for. And we don’t baby them by painting a picture of a faith for “just where they are.” We give them an age appropriate faith that points to what a mature faith should look like.

In seeking to lead our students in a developmentally appropriate spiritual growth, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:

We should model a “steak-eating” Christianity This means that, as adult leaders, we live lives of purpose. We model spiritual habits and practices that are foundational to spiritual growth. We live lives where we seek holiness in our personal and public lives, where we love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God . . . Missional lives firmly planted in our cultural context.

We communicate the basics of missional living in our words and deeds My son’s proficiency at running the bases and throwing the ball to first base doesn’t really matter in T-ball. But it’s vital in baseball. In the same way we demonstrate missional fundamentals to our students. We take them on mission trips, we do acts of service and compassion, and we partner with organizations who work for justice. Even though our students aren’t developmentally ready to embrace missional living, we help them develop the foundational habits of missional living.

We model missional living in an age-appropriate manner Because we work with teenagers, our focus should be on identity formation, not identity application. We have to help students figure out who they are and how they matter before we put them to work. If they’re just doing the motions without a clear identity, they’ll struggle with how their faith is any different than the Lions Club or Rotary or Habitat for Humanity. We live missionaly because we’ve been redeemed and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ. This is the hope that is the foundation for any sort of missional living.

We need to be missional, we need to push our churches to be missional, but our students need to understand who they are and who they are in Christ before we push them to missional living.

What about you? How do you approach challenging and leading your students to live out their faith in their unique contexts (both cultural and developmental)?

My prayer for all of us is that Jesus, who is so faithful and uses all our feeble attempts, continue to woo, redeem, and transform our students so that He may use them to be missionaries in their context.