It is overwhelmingly obvious that the landscape in which we do ministry has changed. The values, morals, expectations, and biblical understanding have been completely turned on its head. If we continue to do ministry the same as we have always done it, with the same assumptions then over the long haul the Church is going to find herself in trouble.
Last week I wrote a little about how the gospel is really not good news at all this this current generation of students. And while many of our students “play ball” for us while they are under our supervision or while they frequent our programs, who they are in the rest of their life has little to no reflection of traditional, Judeo-Christian, ethic, values, or understanding. If this assumption is correct then the penal-subsitutionary atonement brand of Christianity with the discipleship bench marks of shutting down sexuality or not drinking have to change.
Here is a gospel message that seems to be actually be good news to my post-modern, post-Christian kids:
For many of our students, their choices for what is next is starting to become increasingly clear. All of their hopes and dreams for life after high school are starting to mesh with the realities of G.P.A.’s, scholarships, and personal finances. It is one of the few times in their lives where they are objectively judged on their performance and work ethic, and are ranked, rejected, and accepted based on merit. And we as youth workers have an amazing opportunity to walk with students as they deal with this reality.
It is that most dreaded time of the year for me–letter of reference time. It seems like everyone under the sun needs one: schools, colleges, jobs, camps, even the Boy Scouts. One by one I have the dreaded pleasure of writing a one page letter about how great this student is and what an asset they are going to be to whatever endeavor they are applying. I actually really enjoy the process of pausing and reflecting on the best version of that particular student.
Letters of recommendations are vital to the application process. It is a document that vouches for the validity and competency of that individual. As someone writing the letter, we have the responsibility of using our credibility to either stand behind someone, or throw them under the bus. In this season with our students, we have the upper hand as we are the ones writing these letters. But what I think is amazing is that the reverse is actually true. While we think we are simply writing letters for our students, in fact, our students themselves are our letters of recommendation.
This last week I met with a couple of students who are madly in love. They are both seniors, both love Jesus, and both can’t see straight because of their intoxicating emotion for each other. We met because they genuinely wanted some counsel as they plan their next steps towards graduation and college. And as we talked I couldn’t help but admire their almost blinding love for each other and at the same time patronize their naivete.
As much as I wanted to help them understand how silly they sounded, and how shortsighted they were, there was part of me that found joy in watching very young love. Even though it was a very long time ago for me, I caught a glimpse of myself when I was only a year or two older wrapped up in a blinding love relationship of my own.
Upon reflection it is so easy to look down my nose at this young couple, and even at my younger self, at how much I thought I knew about love, and the reality of how little I actually got it. This couple is in fact in love. I too was in love like that. But that love was only a shadow of the love that I experienced when I got engaged to and then married my wife. After almost 14 years of marriage and 2 kids later, I look back and laugh at how much I thought I understood love and how much I loved my wife. The love I experience today is so much deeper and more significant then the more simple version of it I experienced earlier in my life. And when I am married for 50 years, I will look back at myself today and smile at how this love is only a shadow compared to the depth and richness of a lifetime together.
March Madness is one of my favorite times of year. I love betting, I love being together, and I love basketball. Here is a post that seems timely every March!
Whether or not you know anything about college basketball, March Madness is an amazing ministry tool. Now that the brackets have been chosen, it is time to round up any group you want to build some unity with and place your bets. It doesn’t matter if it is with your church staff, volunteer leaders, or small group, as long as it is a group of people that you like and you want to bond with, then this is the month for you. Click HERE to print off your brackets, bring them to your next small group, and let the bonding begin. If you have any doubts, here are the top 5 reasons March Madness is good for building group dynamics:
Who are the students you naturally connect with? Chances are they are students who share similar stories, experiences, or interests. If you expand the circle even larger, I bet that most of the people in your life are also people who share similar stories, experiences, or interests. This is just part of the human condition. There are people that we just naturally click with. We get used to hanging out and joking with people like us, which is great for building friendship among our peers, but means that we are a little out of practice when it comes to getting to know new people, especially people who we have nothing in common with.
Because we are out of practice, it can be really intimidating to try and connect with students who are nothing like you. For me, it often feels like the less I have in common, the harder it is to connect. But I think the inverse of this rule might actually be true. The less you have in common with students, the better chance you have to make a genuine connection.
The awful reality is that students don’t really care about us adults, about our stories, about our likes or dislikes. They could care less what music we like or teams we cheer for. We get so used to sharing our story and thinking that students like to hear from us that we miss the most important truth.
The Truth: Students want to share their stories, their passions, and they want us to respond with love and acceptance.
There has been a lot written lately about what is going on with our students and why are they leaving the church in record numbers after they graduate from college. It seems to me that this is a problem that has been around forever, or at least since I graduated from high school. (Back when Pearl Jam was King!)
What would it look like if we quit wringing our hands about this awful statistic and accepted this as reality.
Everything I have read says that part of the adolescent journey is separating their identity from their family and faith of origin and develop an independent identity. This process of individuation is understanding who they are, where they belong, and if they matter. And these questions can not be done under the thumb of their parents, or their parent’s youth pastor.
So, If 70% to 90% of my students are going to push back from the faith of their childhood during late adolescence, then what is my response going to be?
It seems like blaming the church, youth ministry, the culture, whatever doesn’t move this conversation forward. Maybe there needs to be a different framing question to move this conversation forward. Instead of asking, “Why are so many students leaving the church?” Maybe a better question is, “Why are so few students returning to the church after they become adults?”
While I am sure that most of us want our students to become followers of Christ and to put their unique gifts and talents to work in the expansion of His Kingdom, what we end up valuing and celebrating falls pathetically far from this aspiration. We’ve encouraged behavior modification.
By the time our students are firmly in mid-adolescence we have communicated a very clear, a very boring, and a very hypocritical version of Christianity. You may already disagree with me because I have no idea how much passion and hard work you have put into your gospel centered messages, your exegetical sermons, and 5 point leadership development program.
But the awful thing that I have found to be true is that students could care less with what we say. In fact we truly are the adults in the Peanuts cartoons. It is our lives and actions, our decisions and interactions that communicate what sort of Christianity we are peddling. So good theology and passion aside, I would like to gently push back and invite you and me to examine our actions and wrestle with the heretical version of the gospel we unintentionally sell to our students.
Answer the following questions, and then ask why you answered the way you did.
There are so many great things we do in student ministry. But so much of what we do are simply add ons to what is truly the fundamental core values of student ministry. The challenge is separate out what is the irreducible complexity in student ministry and what are simply the add ons.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it is the add ons, the amenities, and the style points that are what makes your ministry uniquely yours. These are probably what you are known for and affirmed for in your ministry. But if we are not careful, we lose focus and make the amenities the main things. What we really want to do is firmly understand the core values of student ministry and from that foundation we can build what every stylized and culturally appropriate ministry we have been dreaming about!
When you take away the fog machine, the funny video, the dinner together, the lesson, the small groups, the goofy game, the artistic paintings, etc, what is left. What are the core values that must be present in any solid and thriving ministry? Irreducible Complexity is the bare minimum requirements for something to work. And in student ministry, there are 3; Inviting Community, Transformational Relationships, and Incarnation Engagement.
One of the most important aspects to a balanced and thriving student ministry is having an intentional scope and sequence to your curriculum. We must be intentional with what we teach and to use the limited amount of time we have with our students well. And while many of you are thoughtful about your teaching and are biblically deep, contextually astute, and clever as all get out, there might be one significant area that gets left out.
I am sure that you would agree that our culture is getting more and more coarse. Students are increasingly self absorbed and rude. Maybe the truth is that you don’t even realize it anymore or have simply died to it. Maybe you think that you will lose street cred if you push back against their entitlement mentality. Or maybe you are satisfied that you can at last get them to say grace when you are all together for a meal.
As students become more and more isolated, they have fewer and fewer places in their lives where they actually have to consider others. Their music choices, their movie choices, their food choices are all individualized. Whatever they want whenever they want it is their instinct and highest value. If at any time a student is done paying attention in a group, they simply need to plug in their ear buds, check facebook, and check out.
Danny has some questions at the bottom, and if you participate in the conversation by sharing your thoughts you will be entered in a drawing to win a free Average Youth Ministry shirt! The good people at whooptee.com are giving away three shirts. If you ever have a shirt you want made or help in the design, they make great custom shirts. Check out their sight and comment away!
This last week I taught a seminar for the parents of our student ministry on the topic of sex and dating. The basic outline went something like this: The HORROR, The HOPE, and some practical HELP. It is kind of long and the sound quality is awful. But the content is brilliant
Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Oh, wait, read the next line then close your eyes and take a deep breath. When you think of student ministry, who is the student that you imagine? Ok, now close your eyes and imagine those students.
When I do this exercise I imagine my upper-classmen. The students that I have knowns their entire adolescent careers. The students who I have the most invest in and the ones who are either starting to show some good fruit or have really dramatic stories as they spiral out of control.
The reason this exercise is important is because this is the demographic we program for and teach to. But the reality is that student ministry is not just these upper-classmen. They are the 11 and 12 year olds who are just starting the process of individuation, who have much less dramatic stories, who are still concrete thinkers, and are showing little spiritual fruit.
We take our fall kick off very seriously. I think a solid youth ministry has purposeful events, and the kick off sets the tone for the year and direction for our entire ministry. To make our first youth group special, I thought it would be fun to highlight the guys in our ministry and make a Carly Rae video. I know they have been around all summer and are old news, but that is how I roll, about 6 months behind the curve.
I think it is important to embrace the music that is the sound track of our students lives and use them to have a Dance Party, or simply to use it to solidify great youth ministry memories. And that is what we did. This video is the result of some really hard work by one of my students, and in a way totally highlights some of my biggest passions and values.
With all the chaos and work that goes into getting the school year up and going and pulling off our fall kick off, I am tired. So I apologize for the shoddy post. But it is Friday, and it is time for some rest. I hope and pray that you have a great weekend and get some good old fashioned rest this weekend as well. In fact not resting is breaking one of the 10 commandments. How cool is that, taking a nap is what you are called to do this weekend.
We’ll all get back after it on Monday. So until then . . .
[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 youthministry360.com 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.
Last night we had our Manly Mecca kick off! The Manly Mecca is like the men’s ministry to our youth group. It is a gathering of high school guys that meets once a month on a Friday Night. During this time we have one of the guys share their testimonies, do some sort of adventure, and then pass around the “whack jar.”
The concept of this gathering, the testimonies, and the adventures is something I have written about here: It is the “whack jar” portion of the evening I wanted to share with you in this post. In a similar vein to the “sear jar” the “whacky jar” is a jar that students (and leaders) pay into every time they whack off. I am not sure what the correct term for your context is, but this is what we call it. My strongest kids pay only a couple of bucks, and the horniest drop $20. Everyone still divides by 5 or so, but everyone owns up to their struggle and their attempt at victory So once a month we gather and goof off, talk about deep things, and hold each other accountable in our pursuit of sexual purity.
You might be asking yourself, isn’t there shame in this sort of public confession? The answer is yes. For all the joking around there is about it and for the assumption that they all struggle with it, there is something awful about owning publicly how much you actually struggle with it. But because of the total ethos of our ministry it works. And we have made one significant change in how we approach sexual purity, masturbation, and porn that has dramatically altered the course of the conversation. It is this one simple assumption:
Our students are not broken, or rebellious, they are Unique!
As I wrote about in Part 1 and in Part 2, our culture continues to change, and as it does we must be proactive in finding the thin places where the gospel and culture connect.
For our parents and grandparents, the crisis used to be rebellion, the good news was justification. For us, the crisis is brokenness and the good news is healing and redemption. But for our students, what is their crisis? Especially since they don’t see themselves as being rebellious or broken.
Since there is no common morality, there can’t really be rebellion. And since there is not a very good picture of how the world should be, they have no sense they are broken. And you can see this worked out when you actually talk with them and hear their stories.
The things we would classify as sin, rebellion, or brokenness are not things they are ashamed of. In fact they are badges of honor that give them street cred among their peers and make them feel more unique, more beautiful. They have no regrets! Everything they have done and experienced have made them the unique and beautiful person they are today.
Adam Reed blogs over at ypadam.com and is a faithful pastor to the middle school students at his church. His blog is one I often read and am encouraged by because of his humble heart for Jesus and his work ethic to really get after it with students. He recently posted this infographic and I wanted to pass it on to you. Enjoy:
According to the California Teacher’s Association website, generation Z is the generation that “while they may be named for the last letter of the alphabet, they’ll soon be at the forefront of solving the worst environmental, social and economic problems in history.”[i] This generation, born in the mid 90’s, or current middle and high school students, are supposed to be the ones that fix all our problems. This is the generation that will recognize the damage we have done to the planet and to each other and rise up and fix it. This is a perspective by many secular leaders, and is a calling that Christian and non-Christian kids are trying to live into. With social action being all the rage right now the church has been able to find common purpose with our culture to expand God’s Kingdom.
But is social action and world change really the goal of the youth worker? Is mobilizing an army of young people to enact lasting social change what we are called to do?
Justice is part of the calling of all Christians.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments we get the picture that a true and whole faith cannot escape the call for God’s people to live into their faith and be about God’s heart for our broken world. In the book of Micah, when God’s people had all their great religious practices, the prophet makes it very clear that the application of their faith was in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. We cannot love God on one hand and stand by while the poor are being oppressed. James says a similar thing in his book as he declares that faith without works is dead. Our faith shows itself in the way we live it out. True religion is caring for widows and orphans.
It is encouraging to see our culture have a heightened awareness and call for justice. To move past compassion ministries and work toward fixing the systems that keep people in systemic poverty is a mighty task. This is also one of the tasks of the Church. Christians in power must use their power to stand up for those without it. This desire for justice is also the desire of our culture. Civil rights, worker’s rights, going green, fair trade; these are cultural desires that are goodand can easily be partnered with because it is also the heart of God.
Justice is about POWER, and our students don’t really have any.
Do you remember the last time you kicked back, relaxed, and just had fun? I don’t.
Have you ever noticed that high school students that joking and laughing seem to come pretty easy? In fact, if you really look, most of their interaction is light hearted joking with one another. When my friends and I get together, this just isn’t the case. Our conversations are really deep and important. I wonder why that is? But why it is, is not the topic of this post. The fact that it is, is what I would like to explore.
As youth workers, we are called to connect with students, and to be cross cultural missionaries. We are to enter their world and find places where we can share the love of Christ, to bring the abundant life to them, in their context, on their level. What if one of those thing places was actually good ‘ol fashioned fun. Fun in the form of music and dancing might actually be a powerful tool to accomplish this challenging task.
Why do you think we suck so much at having fun? It might just be because we are old. Somewhere along the way we have gotten caught up with all the heaviness of life and our calling. We have taken our jobs seriously as youth workers, and we are pretty good at it. We can teach the spiritual disciplines, help manage sin, provide spiritually moving experiences, all while genuinely providing space to help students grow in their faith. It seems the rule is that the more serious you take your calling to student ministry, the less fun you should have.
What if part of our job was expanded from just creating spiritual experiences for our students to helping them live an integrated life? What if we could help the develop a theology that works for their entire lives, not just their very limited time at youth group? What if we could help them see that being deep and having fun are not mutually exclusive, that being spiritual is bringing Jesus into every activity, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Solomon, author of Ecclesiastes, was on to something when he writes,
“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tar down and a time to build up.A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” Ecc 3:1-4
Most youth workers I know are amazing at providing space for students to grow, to grieve, and cry. But maybe we could add a little balance to our youth ministries by creating space for our students to laugh, and even dance.
Even though students have experienced deep pain and brokenness, and often more than their years can comprehend. At the same time they are still kids and they need space to be kids. They need space to celebrate, to laugh, to dance. What better way to facilitate this than by incorporating the most ancient of rituals into our student ministries: DANCE PARTY!!
Dance Parties provide our students with 3 very important realities:
Dance Party allows students to actually have fun. Music has such power in the lives of our students. When you start cranking the music, you can see their entire countenance change. This is most noticeable when some kid changes the ipod in the youth room from Hawk Nelson and turns on Taio Cruz. Even the most sheltered home schooler starts to sing along, and before you know it, the entire room is filled with kids jumping around, singing and laughing. We have an opportunity to harness this reality and create a safe place for kids to cut loose, express joy, and have fun.
Dance Party allows students to experience an integrated life. You see, for 98% of their life, students live outside the walls of the church. And in the bulk of their life they long to laugh and have fun. They love music that has strong beets and that they can sing along too. If this is their desire, it is a crime to make church and youth group be the one place that shuts down fun and shuts down dancing. When we bust out the dance party, we celebrate, not shut down the God given longing of their souls for fun and laughter. The church becomes the place where all parts of life get to be experienced and celebrated, not just the “deep” and “spiritual” parts, but the abundant life the Jesus talks about in John 10:10.
Dance Party allows us to re shape their musical memories. Have you ever had the experience of hearing a song from your past and immediately you are reminded of a particular time and place, a love interest, or a break up? Music has this amazing power to shape and hold memories. And all the good music that is shaping our students memories right now is secular music. But instead of weeping and gnashing our teeth about it, what if we actually co-opted the power of music to create memories. Most students hear certain songs on the radio all the time and they become the soundtrack of their lives. If we can incorporate their natural soundtrack into our student ministry, especially in the form of Dance Party, the songs themselves actually carry memory associations. A song they hear on the radio every day becomes associated with youth group, with community, with fun, and joy. And without our students even realizing it, their songs help remind them of their true community.
As we strive to find new and effective ways to connect with our students. We might realize that connecting with them is easier than it seems. It just involves us getting to know our students and the songs that are shaping the soundtrack of their lives. Then we have the opportunity to take that soundtrack and redeem it, to re-create it. We do this because we recognize that as deep and spiritual as our kids are becoming, they are still kids. And because of this fact, they need space to laugh, sing, and yes, even dance!
So, next week, when youth group is all over and you have done an amazing job at building community, creating rich opportunities for students to connect to Jesus, try a little experiment. Crank up the volume on your stereo, hit play of your ipod, and watch the dance party begin! For there really is a time for every activity under heaven.