“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Not long ago, when I lived in Birmingham, AL, I had a memorable conversation. It was about my daughter’s elementary school, creatively called West. The conversation was with a former student who was now an adult, fondly recalling her time as a student. She reminisced, “West is best, East is least.” I loved our time at West, but I still wonder at the sentiment in that statement.
Competitive sports thrive on similar statements. It’s so universal I have to wonder. What is it that makes us need to be the best. And not just the best, but the best at everything. Are our egos so fragile that we can’t let someone else be better? Maybe.
The Steinbeck quote shines new light on our need to be the best. Discipleship further speaks into the myth of perfection. Of course we’re not perfect. We can, however, be perfectly us. Discipleship helps us reveal that in people. It gets down into those parts of us that might be hidden simply because we aren’t the best.
In youth ministry, we often see teenagers who struggle with this perspective. They are moving from that concrete, self-centered world into a more abstract one that involves complex social structures. Some of our best work comes in helping them see the truth. They aren’t the best at everything, and they don’t have to be. Discipleship helps them frame that desire to be best into the freedom of grace that says you are unique and special. You are created in Christ.
This might be the biggest struggle of this generation. Perfection as a goal is slavery. Grace as a way of life is freedom.
One of the most important parts of discipleship often goes unmentioned in the church. I blame this on the declining cycle of real discipleship. Leaders fear making statements specifically about people they lead. They should certainly be cautious, but leaving it out causes more problems. Let me explain.
Start with the assumption (though not a big one) that Jesus knew how to disciple people. Part of his process involved noticing specific characteristics about people and publicly proclaiming them. The most obvious example of this is when Jesus renames Simon in Matthew 16. Jesus calls out something special in Simon – his ability to boldly speak truth – and then changes his name to reflect that part of his identity. Peter wasn’t the only one Jesus nicknamed.
Of course, Jesus was the Son of God, he knew things that we don’t. But we still have a responsibility to this aspect of discipleship. Granted, when I do this, it usually sounds more like this, “Hey, I see this about you. Do you see it? Do you think that God made you to have this?” Either way, the power of these kinds of statements is immeasurable.
This past week, I was reminded of just how powerful proclamation is. I met with my YMCP Cohort. Three or so years ago, this group of people got together to help each other become better in almost every way we could. In one of our meetings, I was talking to my friend Jeff Goins. At the time he was serving in a ministry mostly helping them with marketing. I could hear his heart through the words he used. I think I might have even interrupted him mid-sentence. All I said was, “Jeff, you are a writer. All you have to do is write.” Read more about that here.
Those words did something in Jeff. Nowadays Jeff is well-known, publishing his fourth book built off his very established platform of helping others find their writing voice. Let me clear, I didn’t make Jeff the awesome guy he is. God did that. I didn’t make Jeff successful. He did that, through a lot of great work I might add. All I did was call out what I saw in Jeff. I wasn’t the only one. There were others who were doing the same thing. So I’m not trying to take credit here. All I’m saying is that these proclamations do change people. They are an essential part of discipleship.
If you lead a small group, or meet with people regularly, or even just hang out, they need to and want to hear someone tell them what they see in them. Take that chance sometime to prayerfully look at them. See what God is crafting in them. Then tell them. It’s that easy.
Edgecraft identifies the soft innovations that live on the edges of what already exists. Apple did this a long time ago with the iPod and later the iPhone. In the late 90’s, Apple posted some of it’s worst earnings. The iPod changed that for them by going to the edge of their user’s experience of the computer. Tying the iPod, an edge product, back to the computer through iTunes made a synergistic effect for Apple.
Youth ministry lives in a place of more and less defined edges. As many older models for youth ministry lag behind in effectiveness, churches are looking for what’s next. I don’t think it will be one thing. There are just too many variances in regional culture and context. Social media is near the edge, but one area’s teens may be really into Twitter while another area might solely use Instagram.
The leverage for edgecraft comes from how solidly an edge can be linked back to the main value of a ministry. For example, you might move your traditional printed devotions to Instagram (check out this article I wrote on that experience). This leverages something most teens use all the time, smartphones, back to the local youth ministry. The point being, go to the edge and make a path back for students to connect to the local ministry.
My team will be spending the down time through the holidays to edgecraft our local ministry. I would invite you to do the same. Share a crazy idea you have with your team and see where it leads. Youth ministry is presently wide open for edgecraft.
I’ve recently become a fan of NBC’s show The Voice. It redeems other shows like American Idol, which I loathed. What works for The Voice works for discipleship. Instead of tearing down every fault of each singer, they find strengths and polish them. In essence, they want the artists to become the best version of themselves. This past week, something amazing happened though. One performance crushed everything.
Josh Kaufman became something magical. He owned that song. It just seemed so natural and easy. That is of course a complete myth. Kaufman has practiced singing for so long it now seems natural. That’s what discipleship does.
Honestly, I often listen and hear performances that I think are only pretty good. That’s really fine. The discipleship process works like that too. Growth happens in those safe places where you don’t have to be amazing. Then one moment clicks and inspiration bursts forth.
In discipleship, these moments are so varied. There couldn’t be a show for them. Healthy youth ministry breathes these moments regularly, though. Most of the work really happens in recognizing these moments and celebrating them. Encouraging teenagers in each of these moments so that they are turned into fulfilling places. This is just one more example of how discipleship happens all the time, often outside of the institutional church.
I recently watched Gever Tulley’s TED talk 5 Dangerous Things. His presentation points to the problem of over protecting children, and makes a case for allowing danger in their lives for the sake of discovery. It’s a short watch if you want to see it for yourself.
This video got me thinking about youth ministry. Do we protect teenagers too much? Her e are my five dangerous things:
1. Ask questions – Do we let them ask questions? Is it wrapped in the context of us always knowing the answers? It is hugely beneficial to let questions linger. The time spent finding answers almost always has more benefit than the answers themselves. Additionally, this prepares students for life when they have moved on from youth ministry.
2. Ask questions – Do we ask them hard questions? I’m not talking about hard questions like Do you believe in God? I’m talking about really hard questions like What is it about you that you love?
3. Live with tension – Inevitably, if we let questions linger, we have to acknowledge that mystery exists in our faith. There are just too many things we can’t understand about life, and especially God.
4. Work out their faith – So often in youth ministry we feel like we should fix students. This really is a lack of faith. We can’t even fix ourselves. Why would we think we could fix anyone else. It’s the Spirit’s work to bring people to repentance and sanctification.
5. Live with radical grace – If youth ministries aren’t willing to practice radical grace, going beyond forgiveness and into blessing those who hurt us, we really aren’t fully practicing our faith.
So many leaders blow it with their teens by one simple phrase. When confronted with a crying teen, they say, “I know what your going through.” It might be that we do know, but saying so often creates a sense of mistrust. How can we know exactly what they are going through?! In almost every situation, most people just want you to try to understand. A simple, “I’m sorry.” opens more room to connect with their pain and move them into a place of reason.
I recently wrote about emotional health in youth ministry. It describes the ideas of The Whole Brain Child, a book I recently finished. This book, though written for a parent trying to help their child into emotional health, has a lot to teach youth ministries.
One of the best techniques it teaches is the idea of connect and redirect. Sometimes a child is so emotional distraught that they can’t think rationally. In those moments, connecting with their feelings helps them manage without losing control. After they have been connected with, you can then bring them into reasoning out their response. It’s really simple and most people do it without even realizing it.
In youth ministry, we are often confronted with teenagers who bring their struggles into our meetings. They can seem belligerent and off-putting. Most of my experiences, though, have shown that connecting with a teenager emotionally creates the safety to engage their struggles.
Sometimes the best help you can give in youth ministry is emotional health. I like to think that the more someone is in Christ’s presence, the more healthy they can be. But it often takes work as well.
Lately I’ve been reading The Whole Brain Child. It describes part of the problem. There really isn’t any diagnosable criteria for emotional health. There are plenty of categories for unhealth, but no clear picture of what health actually is.
The writers strive for a balance likened to a river. You wouldn’t want to bounce back and forth from bank to bank traversing a river. The best position would be towards the middle. They call this integration. This book describes each bank as either rigidity or chaos. If you drift too far to either side of the bank, emotional illness ensues.
In student ministry, sometimes we have work through emotional unhealth so that people can experience spiritual health. I think of a person who has just experienced a car crash. They are likely in some state of shock and might be injured. They might be in so much pain that they can’t understand what is happening around them. That is a close approximation to some of the students I see regularly.
In the next couple of posts, I’ll walk through some techniques to help diagnose emotional health and give some tools for youth workers to help people towards integration.
When you work for someone or a group of people, it defines the relationship. Working for someone means they decide everything. All of the power shifts to one side of the relationship. In youth ministry, they decide what success and failure look like. Parents get to decide the effectiveness of the youth worker, the pastor gets weighs in on how the youth ministry is running and the teenagers vote on how much they like the person serving under this model.
No wonder becoming a Sr. Pastor is seen as a reward for so many years of youth ministry. It’s like the church says, “You survived how many years in youth ministry?! Ah, you must be ready for the big time then.”
While this paradigm isn’t all bad, it sets up the youth worker, usually a younger, less experienced for failure. The failure comes in a false sense of significance. When you work for someone, all your goals have to be their goals. The job shifts to achieving the many measurable outcomes of all of your bosses (staff, parents, teens). While you are meeting those goals (rarely) you feel good about yourself – successful. When things aren’t measuring up to all the expectations, you feel like a failure.
So here is another way. Why not work with a church?
Working with someone means you consider their expectations, weigh their needs and make your own goals. This balances the equation of longevity in youth ministry. The work of youth ministry is shared under this model. All the expectations are still there, mind you, but the youth worker gets to work within those to define their role. Working with parents means hearing their hopes for their children and partnering with them. Working with a Sr. Pastor becomes a shared burden for the people of your church. Working with teens adds a dynamic quality of ministry instead of a static program.
I admit, I’m playing a semantic game here. Switching prepositions won’t change anyone’s work. However, changing the purpose of meaning of youth work does drastically affect your work.
A great book to read if this post resonated with you would be Orbiting the Giant Hairball.
I wrote earlier about a physical liturgy. Basically, it’s where actions form identity. As a new volume of thought, praxis as formation needs fleshing out. However, there are plenty of sources that have been ringing this bell for quite a while. The desert fathers from Arsenius to the more recent ones have known the value of practice. So here is a new view of it.
In this short video, Ira Glass talks about the gap in time between beginning a creative process and making good art. It makes perfect sense that realizing a great idea takes time and work, but he tells this story that turns the pedantic into the profound.
For believers, and especially teenagers, this has a deeper meaning. Often teens see some part of a spiritual life when they take their first steps of faith. They often fall in those. Not horribly, but enough that they are humbled. And then many give up on the idea of that life.
Part of working with adolescents is reminding them that this new life takes practice. It will feel weird for a while. In many ways it is harder. In all ways it is better though.
Try this little experiment. Take your right hand and make a fist. Not close you hand as tight as you can. Hold that for just a second. Now notice the rest of your body. Are you making a funny face? Is the rest of your arm tensed up? Probably. Tony Boscarino, my worship pastor, preached a heck of a sermon illustrating this.
Our bodies take up physical space. They represent a tangible part of who we are. Of course they manifest how we feel, what we think, and our spiritual health. That can work both ways though.
You can be intentional about your body and let that flow into the rest of your presence. Postures of prayer are a great example. Monks often kneel when praying. Try it sometime. After a couple of minutes, you start realizing your position. Or try this; pray for five minutes with your head bowed. Is your neck hurting? Our physical orientation can change our thought and emotions.
One of the leading treatments for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Basically, you reprogram your brain through looking in a specific direction. It works. The body changes the brain.
I’ve been reading (and re-reading) a book called Desiring the Kingdom. It talks about focusing on what believers do instead of what they think. It’s a physical liturgy. So I am thinking through ways to incorporate this into youth ministry.
How would you use physical presence or posture to help teenagers become closer to God?