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?
16-year-old Marlana VanHoose crushed it. She’s blind and sixteen and awesome. Knowing that she is blind and a teenager with a voice isn’t enough. You have to hear her sing to appreciate who she is.
Being isn’t enough. As much satisfaction that comes from finding your true self, it’s boring, even frustrating without doing something. Old school youth ministry focused on activity to draw people in and keep them entertained. Those days are almost gone. Students are too busy for that. There are just too many other ways to be entertained, and too little support to count on.
I’m no prophet, but I know where my activity plan is heading. Why spend so much effort doing something for teens when you can get them doing something themselves?
- Instead of putting together an awesome slideshow, teach them to do it.
- Instead of having an awesome worship band, give them the instruments.
- Instead of shopping for cool graphics, lend them a camera.
Just give them space to do something cool. Don’t underestimate a teenager. They will always surprise you.
I completely against New Year’s Resolutions. Besides just being plain rebellious, I just don’t like calendar ultimatums. If you are one of the many who do, I might have something helpful for you.
Commit to something bigger than a new diet or a book reading quota. Do something much simpler than that. Throw away your WWJD bracelet and and any comprehensive standard set by “them” for everyone to follow. Be radical.
Instead, set aside some time to find yourself.
You might want to do this at night like the Ignatian Examen or early in the morning. Maybe at lunch would be great. Whenever you decide, just take a short couple of minutes. Ask yourself what you are doing that is good. Even if it’s just one thing, find something about yourself that you like. You might even pray and ask for some help. If your really committed, start a list.
Without any agenda or purpose, you will start to change, I guarantee it.
Not everybody will climb a mountain to the top, but they miss out if they don’t. If you missed The Summit this weekend, you missed a lot. The Summit experience, like the reference to the mountain top, might be impossible to describe with words. I drove 15 hours each way to be there. On my drive back, I reflected on what happened, trying to figure out why it pushed all of my buttons. I finally gave up on that idea and settled for a couple of highlights.The
Summit is a conference. I generally don’t like conferences. They are crowded and noisy, eventually making my nerves push through my skin and strangle people around me. The format of The Summit feels more like TED surfing. Since it’s modeled after the TED style of presenting, it reminds me of when I see one TED talk, and then see another, starting a chain reaction that kills several hours.
I’m not sure how the describe the content for The Summit talks. Surprising and jarring come to mind. Presenters are coached to not preach or give how to or focus on skills. Instead, presentations inspire like Brad Montague‘s hilarious Making Things Simple Without Being Simplistic (what we’ve learned while making kid president), or paradigm shifting like Crystal Kirgiss‘ Changing Views of Youth Throughout History. Ideas that change are the norm for the Summit.
Each talk for The Summit follows a simply format. Each is 12-15 minutes of up front time. There aren’t really workshops. Instead, everyone gets equal opportunity. After a series of presentations, there are intensives where Summiteers can choose which speaker they would like to interact with. This format really works. It’s like watching several great talks and then have the chance to ask questions with the presenter.
Cartel culture runs rampant throughout the time. There are obvious moments of whimsy like passing out Marko’s beard fans or the executive seating (Ikea Poang chairs) in the front, but there are more subtle hints as well. Presenters don’t retreat into a room to isolate themselves. I can’t count how many times I would see presenters or Marko or Adam or Tash in deep conversations. Cartels are based on agreement. The Summit just felt like a tribe united in the agreement to share and listen.
I am so looking forward to next year.