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Date: Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 11:00

today i’m flying to belize, a small country in central america. for some reason, not fully understood by me, i’ve always been curious about Belize. maybe it’s because it’s the only country in central america that has english as its official language. belize is on the gulf of mexico, with mexico to the north, and guatemala (a country i’ve been to a dozen times) to the west and south.

i’m not going on vacation. i’m going to see the work of Praying Pelican Missions. honestly, even though i’ve been in youth ministry since just after ronald reagan took office, i’d really not heard of PPM until a couple years ago. i mean, there sure are a lot of short term missions groups to choose from these days.

but after adam and i went to haiti with PPM last summer (see my posts from that trip here, here, here, here, and here), they have become my number one recommendation for youth groups doing international missions trips. i’ve seen the impact of short term missions done well. and i’ve seen the impact of short term missions done poorly. and i can truly say that i don’t know how i would improve on PPM’s approach. they form long-term relationships with existing ministries led by indigenous leaders. then they work to serve the vision and needs of those indigenous leaders, careful to not replace local workers, careful not to make the trip about the visiting americans, careful not to manipulate or mislead or run some version of ogling feel-good tourism. really, i was SO completely impressed by their work in haiti (and by the haitian leaders they serve and support).

belize welcomebelize is PPM’s oldest field. and while adam went to guatemala with PPM a month ago to see their newest work, i’m excited to see the work in a place where PPM has had relationships for a very long time. i’ll be meeting many belizian ministry leaders and pastors, and will be joining with a youth group on their own trip for a few days.

at the end of my time, i’m going to spend 24 hours out on caye caulker, by myself, resting, collecting my thoughts, and processing what i’ve experienced (and maybe snorkeling, since caye caulker has the second largest barrier reef in the world).

so, pray for me, primarily that i will really see what god wants me to see (including that i’ll see god at work). i’ll be blogging a few times while i’m there, so you can check back to read my impressions and thoughts and stirrings.

Author: "marko" Tags: "church, youth ministry, youth work, beli..."
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Date: Tuesday, 29 Jul 2014 11:00

i recently found a link to an article that i’d sent myself via email 6 months ago. yeah, i have some strange ways of keeping track of things. deal with it.

really insightful and challenging article in huffpo about the 18 things highly creative people do differently. i think i’m somewhat creative; and i do some of the things on this list pretty regularly. but i would be exponentially more creative if i leaned into these babies a bit more. click through to read the whole article (it’s really worth it, and an easy read); but here’s a list of the 18 habits:

  1. They daydream.
  2. They observe everything.
  3. They work the hours that work for them.
  4. They take time for solitude.
  5. They turn life’s obstacles around.
  6. They seek out new experiences.
  7. They “fail up.”
  8. They ask the big questions.
  9. They people-watch.
  10. They take risks.
  11. They view all of life as an opportunity for self-expression.
  12. They follow their true passions.
  13. They get out of their own heads.
  14. They lose track of the time.
  15. They surround themselves with beauty.
  16. They connect the dots.
  17. They constantly shake things up.
  18. They make time for mindfulness.
Author: "marko" Tags: "leadership, thinking..., creativity"
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Date: Tuesday, 22 Jul 2014 11:00

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content
and part 7: self-centered and perpetual now
and part 8: when to “back off” on parenting
(btw: this is the last installment. enough already, right?)

lonely boyQuestion: Our middle school grade son seems to have no real friendships. And I’m not even sure he wants them. Is this normal? Are there things my husband and I should be doing?

First, it’s important to know that this is a very normal situation for a young teen boy. In fact, it has become substantially more common over the past decade or so. So, your son isn’t “abnormal” on this one. It’s normal and natural for a young teen, even one who had friends as a child, to struggle as they move (a developmentally normal and good move) from forming friendships based on proximity (“You and I are friends because we live near each other or spend a lot of time in the same place”) to forming friendships based on affinity (“You and I are friends because we like the same things, or have the same values”).

But, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy situation. As a youth worker, it’s been one of greatest new concerns I’ve had for my students in the last ten years. Boys, particularly (girls also, but to a lesser degree), are not learning the skills of friendship. Historically, I don’t think we thought of children and teenagers as needing these skills–friendship just came naturally to them! But today’s 10 – 14 year old is so often isolated, they’ve not learned the skills of friendship in their day-to-day lives.

Boys are naturally less expressive than girls (especially at this age). And our culture has told them “the strong, silent type” is a great male archetype. Even the U.S. Army, which, ironically has learned – out in the field – that soldiers can only succeed in teams, has been advertising this notion like crazy for a several years with their “Army of One” campaign.

Add to these cultural notions the fact that today’s young teens have reaped most parents’ desire to “cocoon”, by having a house-full (or more likely these days, a bedroom-full) of toys intended for solo use: television or laptop, video-gaming systems, music players. Not that these things are all bad. But the fairly normal overuse of them has greatly contributed to this “loner” trend.

So, what can you do? Here are a few ideas:

• Encourage friendship groups. Often, the safest place for a boy to learn about friendship is in a group, not in a one-on-one friendship. Hopefully, one of the best places for this is in a healthy and active middle school program at your church. I know many parents who have chosen their church based on this factor alone!

• Service potential friendships. When you see any spark of potential friendship for your son, find ways to subtely encourage that spark. This doesn’t mean talking about it like crazy! (that will only lead to retreat for most boys.) Instead, offer to drive them somewhere; suggest fun ideas for excursions and make them possible. Also, make sure you home is a “safe” place for your son to have a friend over: a place where he won’t be embarrassed or treated like a little kid in front of his friends.

• Encourage your son, but don’t nag. When your son spends time with a friend (or potential friend), say something positive–but keep it short and sweet. Lengthy speeches will feel like pressure or nagging, and will backfire on you.

• Pray like crazy!

Author: "marko" Tags: "family, youth ministry, youth work, pare..."
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Date: Thursday, 17 Jul 2014 11:00

old markorecently, a youth worker messaged me, asking for insight in how to last in youth ministry. i think the actual question was, “how does one survive in youth ministry and become a veteran youth worker?”

my response. your thoughts? additions?

After 33 years in youth ministry, there are a few things i’m seeing about survival and thriving as a veteran:

  1. My passion and calling hasn’t changed, but my role and relationships have to grow and change with age. As a young youth worker, I was in an “older brother” relationship with teenagers. In my 30s, my relationship with them was like that of an uncle. These days, I really am a sort of surrogate parent. I need to exercise wisdom about how to maximize the opportunities that provides and be cautious of the limitations. Nothing is more lame than a 50 year-old youth worker trying to pretend that he’s 23 years old.
  2. I have also needed to see my vision and role shift in relationship to other workers. As I got more experience (and years!), I find that some of my best ministry is equipping and empowering younger youth workers. Veteran youth workers often move into a role of multiplication, seeing my ministry calling mostly lived out through youth ministry volunteers who are half my age. I don’t want to lose touch with actual teenagers, so I stay in relationship with teens also; but my greatest impact is through others.
  3. I’ve had to learn to say “no.” At my age, there are simply aspects of youth ministry that I am not best equipped for, or not interested in doing.
  4. Finally–and this is true for youth workers of all ages, but no one will become a veteran youth worker without learning this–I have to realize that being in youth ministry does not mean that my soul will be taken care of. If i’m not intentional about continued spiritual growth in my life, I’ll either burn out or have nothing meaningful and authentic to offer.
Author: "marko" Tags: "youth ministry, youth work, longevity in..."
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Date: Tuesday, 15 Jul 2014 11:00

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content
and part 7: self-centered and perpetual now

young teen and parentQuestion: When should I start to back off and be less engaged in actively parenting my young teen?

In one sense (and you all know this), you’re never done being a parent. I still seek out advice from my parents, and I’m 51. And of course, parenting teenagers has stretched well into (and sometimes through) the 20something years in most cases. Adolescence has extended on both ends of its age delineators.

But I have a couple theories I’d like to suggest you consider reality…

First, you should make this assumption: by the time your child is in high school, most of your parenting is done. That’s not to say that you still don’t have a very important role in her life–you do! But it’s normally a bit late to “change course.” Parenting an older teen (or young 20something) is more about “staying the course.” It’s more about continuing to model what you’ve already set in place.

You might be thinking, I’m can barely catch my breath, and I’m supposed to start thinking about the high school years? Fair enough. But the reality I just proposed adds significant weight to this next reality:

You’re on the last lap. Or, maybe the second-to-last lap.

These tender years of 9 – 11 (pre-teen) and 11 – 14 (young teen) are some of the most formative years of life. Kids are still extremely moldable, changeable, open. But as they settle into their mid-teen, change come less and less often. This is why I always joke with middle school ministry workers that we are still in “preventive ministry”, while high school work is often “corrective ministry.”

What does a long-distance runner do in the final lap or two? Think of the finish line. Calibrate what needs to take place in this diminishing space. Then recalibrate. Continue to pace yourself and recalibrate again.

Don’t forget these two extremely important facts:

  1. You are still the #1 influence in the life of your child at this age.
  2. The almost-absurd amount of change going on in the life of your young teen places them at a small timeframe of massive malleability (yes, I realize it doesn’t always seem that way – but it’s true).

These two facts combine to make these final laps of the parenting race some of the most important of your God-given role.

So don’t throw in the towel. Don’t concede. Don’t abdicate your role to the church or culture or your young teen’s peer group. Let God fill your lungs with a fresh air of strength and courage. And take another step. And another.

Author: "marko" Tags: "family, youth ministry, youth work"
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childlike   New window
Date: Friday, 11 Jul 2014 11:00

“I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
as the boys who made the hallowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
when I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
and I want to be everything sometimes too:

childlikebut I don’t tell the grown-ups; because it is sad,
and I want them to laugh just like I do
because they grew up and forgot what they knew
and they are sure I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong. When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold, I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me, I will always be new!”

–Delmore Schwartz (quoted in exuberance, by Kay Redfield Jamison)


hey, youth workers: don’t get so caught up in the frenzy of summer programs that you forget to be childlike.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

Author: "marko" Tags: "faith"
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Date: Wednesday, 02 Jul 2014 15:16

i’m pretty stoked about this…

Author: "marko" Tags: "the youth cartel"
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Date: Thursday, 26 Jun 2014 11:00

Yeezus or Sheezus, whatevs. My own images of Jesus haven’t been much better. Here’s my latest column from Youthwork Magazine (UK), where I unpack that a bit:

The Real Jesus

I grew up in church, a mostly-good kid and all. Sunday School every week from the day I left the nursery. So I heard my share of Bible stories; I heard my share of Jesus stories.

One of my favorites was always the story of Jesus walking on the water. I can still picture—I mean, really, I have the picture in my mind right now—the flannel graph images of Jesus hovercrafting in his pretty blue robe across a glassy bit o’ blue. (Flannel graph, by the way, was the archetypal Sunday school teaching technology back in the day: little die-cut foreground figures—people, boats, the occasional tree—with a felt backing that quickly and neatly stuck to flannel backgrounds with various nondescript Bibleland topographies. My mother-in-law still possesses one of the world’s most complete collections of mint-condition flannel graph paraphernalia. Seriously, her stuff should become the main attraction in a Sunday school museum someday.)

jesus on the water, croppedBack to the hovercrafting Jesus…

In my frozen mental image, Jesus is white and nicely coiffed (seriously, when we reinvented Jesus as white, I’m surprised no one thought to reinvent his hair into a more church-y level of appropriateness—maybe a nice TV-evangelist-combover). And he’s scooching (seriously, “hovercrafting” is the best word I can think of) in the middle of day, across an idyllically calm body of water. Sometimes, in my childhood image, he has one hand raised halfway, about chest-high, in either a sort of blessing, or a casual wave (“Hey, dudes, relax, it’s me.”).

I’m sure that by the time I reached my teens, I knew this flannel-backed image of Jesus walking on the water wasn’t quite accurate. But there it simmered, percolating in my spiritual subconscious.

I’m sure that, during my time at a Christian college and graduate school, I at least knew that Jesus wasn’t white, would have walked rather than hovercrafting, and a few other tweaks. But I didn’t let that spoil my childhood picture.

I’m even sure that after years of being a youth worker and telling this story, I knew that there were more inaccuracies—like the status of the water (I clearly remember a retreat speaker I’d hired doing the single worst rap I’d ever heard in my life about how the boat was buffeted by the ways: b-b-b-buffeted… b-b-b-buffeted.).

But I allowed my childhood image to exist, encased behind psychic Plexiglas in the museum of my mind.

I remember—the experience more than the time and place—finally realizing, well into adulthood and professional Christianing, that the text clearly says the whole water-walking thing took place in the middle of the night (on a stormy night, at that). Of course, that would make a boring flannel graph, since you wouldn’t be able to see anything. And the water: it wasn’t smooth and flat. These expert sailors, the disciples, couldn’t get the boat back into land because a massive wind storm had come up, and the waves were so big they were smashing the boat away from shore (b-b-b-buffeted). This is the water Jesus walked on.

So much for hovercrafting. Now I have to picture the real, dark-skinned, Middle Eastern Jesus, climbing his way through the peaks and troughs of a wild sea storm. His clothing would have been drenched from spray. His hair would have been blown all over the place (where’s a good hair-tie when you need one?). Now the scene looks more like a pitch-black episode of extreme bouldering (on water!), or, like an X Games-at-night rollerblade competition, with Jesus grinding down the “rail” of one wave, hopping to the next, and dropping down into a trough to set up for his next trick.

Crash! The psychic Plexiglas around my childhood image is finally smashed. And now I can begin the reconstructive task of observing the real Jesus.

On a much bigger scale, and with lots more stories, this is part of our youth work task: smashing the psychic Plexiglas encasing teenagers’ false images and ideas of Jesus, whether they grew up hearing Jesus stories in church or not. It’s a noble work of deconstruction and reconstruction. Some might even say “re-imagining”.

While teenagers’ thoughts and pictures of Jesus are from childhood, or from some other phase of their lives, whether they have lots of ideas about Jesus, or only what they’ve heard through hearsay, most of them have some seriously jacked-up ideas about who Jesus was and is, and what he did and does.

Let’s pull the hammers out of our leather youth work tool belts and engage in a bit of museum-image smashing. Let’s lead teenagers on an honest, blunt, even surprising expedition toward meeting the real Jesus.

Author: "marko" Tags: "faith, youth ministry, youth work"
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Date: Tuesday, 24 Jun 2014 11:00

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content

Question: Why is my middle schooler suddenly so self-centered? It seems like she thinks the whole world revolves around her!

This is an almost universal issue with preteens and young teens. Consequently, the frustration parents and youth workers experience is also almost universal! Young teens who were, just months ago, generous and outward-focused turn into themselves and become seemingly obsessed with themselves and incapable of noticing others.

kind of a big dealEverything’s about me!

Self-centeredness is a natural fungus on the tree of development. Your preteen might still have a shred of others-focus; but it will disappear soon! The almost-crazy amount of change going on in the lives of young teens (11 – 14 year olds), draws every remaining bit of noticing others in on itself. Almost all young teens (and older preteens) see themselves at the center of the universe.

For example: if you walk across the back of a crowded classroom (or, say, church service), you will try to be quiet as to not distract–but you won’t assume people paying attention and facing the opposite direction are noticing you. Not so with young teens. In the same situation, they’ll assume that everyone in the room is watching them (apparently through the back of their heads!) and evaluating their every move.

This self-centeredness is natural, but that doesn’t mean parents should just ignore it. There are many ways to counter this; but I’ve found that the absolute best antidote is experience–experience that forces their attention off of themselves. Give them experiences serving others in need (through a day helping at a soup-kitchen, or a family mission trip, or other service projects). For a preteen, this establishes a pattern of noticing others’ needs. For a young teen, it can create a small opportunity for noticing that the world is more than themselves (and that will work like yeast, spreading into their worldview).

straightawayEverything’s now!

A related issue is how “in the moment” preteens and young teens seem to live. If you ask their favorite movie of all time, they’ll answer the one they saw last week. They don’t have a sense of the past (and I’m talking about their own past, not anything grander than that!), and often don’t have a sense of the future either.

Think of it this way: as an adult, you’re making decisions on the road of life. And you can look in the rearview mirror and see the long straightaway behind you, including the choices of life. You can also look at the long straightaway ahead of you, and get a sense of what’s to come. But preteens and young teens are on a sharp curve in the road of life (the curve of transition and developmental change). The rearview mirror doesn’t show much; and the front view is a blind curve.

This can be maddening for parents. Ask speculation questions about the future to help your child begin to see more of the road (he won’t naturally do this on his own). Share your own thoughts about the future (as well as the past).

And remember, the curve in the road–with its self-centeredness and “all is now” perspectives–will pass. This is the normal stuff of young teen development; and it’s the plan God designed for your child to go through at this time of life!


By the way, I unpack this more (and a bunch of other stuff about early adolescent development) in my book Understanding Your Young Teen.

Author: "marko" Tags: "family, youth ministry, youth work, juni..."
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Date: Friday, 20 Jun 2014 16:14

for their 30th year of performing together (2015), the wonderful and unique band Lost And Found are doing something… interesting: a farewell tour. in other words, they’ve decided to make 2015 the last year of touring for the band.

lost and foundif you’ve ever seen Lost And Found live, you know: the music and is good and fun and meaningful; but the real magic of this band–the reason people love seeing them over and over again–is their live shows. they are one of the only bands i know that can be, and are, equally loved by people in any stage of life (children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged peeps and older folk). their lyrics have the spiritual depth one might expect from two lutheran boys; their songs swing from beautiful and sparse to quirky and riotous. and they engage an audience like no band i’ve ever seen (really, i’m not exaggerating).

so, i could not encourage you strongly enough–if you’re running a youth event in 2015, or want to host a multi-generational event at your church–Lost And Found will be a win for you.

website (speedwood.com)
email ‘em here.
phone number: 419.897-9792

and check out this video:

Author: "marko" Tags: "church, music, lost and found, Lost And ..."
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Date: Tuesday, 17 Jun 2014 11:00

a number of years ago i wrote a post listing reasons why i love middle school ministry. and recently, i re-wrote that post as a column for youthwork magazine (in the UK). here’s my list (realize that “middle school ministry” doesn’t mean anything in the UK, so i use their term “11 – 14s” or young teens instead):

IMG_386712 Things to Love About Young Teen Ministry

  1. Young teen ministry is about shaping. What an opportunity! Everything I learn about young teens continues to affirm and re-affirm that this is not merely a holding period until the good stuff of older teen work.
  2. 11 – 14s are easy to connect with. Years ago, a youth ministry mentor shared this simple observation: 11 – 14s, in their decision as to whether they’ll allow you into their lives, are only asking the question, “Do you like me?” Older teens complicate it more by adding, “Do I like you?” And university students ramp up the complexity by layering on the additional question, “Do I like what you stand for?”
  3. They’re willing to try anything. The young teen years (in a post-puberty parallel to the first few years of life) are all about discovery, or sampling. Young teens, in the earliest stages of self-conscious identity formation, want to try everything. They don’t start testing conclusions until the middle teen years. This is a wild ride of unpredictability, of course, and can feel very scattered and capricious. But there’s willingness—even desire—to try things that makes young teens prime for creative and participatory youth work.
  4. The wonder of abstract thinking. 11 – 14s are far from experienced with abstract thought. But the capacity is there (I like to think of it as God’s puberty gift). And they’re dipping their toes in the water, checking it out.
  5. The process of doubts and faith development. Tied to the development of abstract thinking, young teens are on the leading edge of stumbling onto doubts about their faith. This is a critical aspect of faith development, and should never be shamed or shut down. Wrestling with complexities is the necessary detour from childlike, inherited faith to a more robust, owned faith.
  6. They’re unpredictable. Maybe you find this frustrating, but I love it. Young teens regularly and consistently surprise me. They surprise me with their random questions. They surprise me with their hidden talents. They surprise me with their insight. They surprise me with their interpretations (often different than I expect). The unpredictability of 11 – 14s keeps young teen ministry fresh and untamed.
  7. Parents are still involved. Sure, there are plenty of older teens with involved parents. But there’s a drop-off in parent involvement throughout the teen years, as many parents retreat out of fear, exasperation, or a misguided understanding of what it means to give their teenagers independence. We know that parents have a significantly larger shaping role in the lives and faith of their teenagers than we do; so this higher level of parent involvement creates an easier path to coming alongside parents, partnering for greater impact.
  8. They have more time than older teenagers. Yes, young teens are busier than ever; but they still have more time and availability than their older peers. Mix this in with their #3 above (their willingness to try anything), and you’ve got a potent pot of “let’s do stuff!”
  9. Most are not yet jaded. 14 year-olds can start to get a little jaded (some of ‘em). Older teenagers—holy cow—can wear cynicism and “been there, done that” as comfortably as Lady Gaga wears a meat suit. But most young teens possess wonderfully low levels of cynicism, and a naiveté that looks a lot like hope.
  10. They’re passionate. I love the “all in” attitude of most 11 – 14s. It’s not only their willingness to try things (mentioned in #3 above); they’re also passionate about the things they try, the opinions they voice, the beliefs they hold. The funny thing is: they’re passionate about things that, often, they won’t be passionate about in two months or two years.
  11. They’re forgiving. When you mess up, or have an off night in your teaching, or plan a lame event, or say something dumb, young teens are quick to forgive (particularly if you ask for it). The travel time back to normal (whatever that is!) is extremely short.
  12. They’re fun! Young teens keep me feeling young (not so easy at 50 years-old). They’re playful and hilarious, goofy and unselfconscious. Young teens remind me, regularly, of what a joy-filled life should look like.

if you agree with me on at least most of these, then you need to join us at the third annual Middle School Ministry Campference. the earlybird registration price (and $50 bonus back of free stuff and campference munchies) runs out in two weeks, on june 30!

my-tribe-square

Author: "marko" Tags: "youth ministry, youth work, campference,..."
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Date: Thursday, 12 Jun 2014 17:00

last night, all the small group leaders from my church’s youth ministry had an end-of-the-school-year thank you dinner and wrap up. the high school and middle school leaders ate together; but then we slit off into separate ministry groupings to debrief the year a bit. here’s a little pano of our middle school small group leaders, minus about 5 or so who couldn’t be there last night (you can click on it to see it bigger, if you’re so inclined):

IMG_4421

the main thing we did was share stories (i’m a BIG fan of this, btw, as stories communicate all sorts of embodied truth). once the ball got rolling, everyone had something to share, and there was a beautiful sense of “i am not alone.”

i was, by far, the oldest one there (there are a couple other leaders my age, but they weren’t at the meeting). and i was also one of the only leaders there with more than a few years of experience. but, honestly, this was one of the hardest years of middle school ministry for me in a long time. i shared with our team that i really struggled, second guessed myself, and wondered what was going wrong. i vacillated between being completely stoked about my guys and being completely annoyed by them. my group was too big, and too impossible to focus, and too easily distracted (yes, more than normal for middle school guys!), and too quick to speak on top of each other (almost constantly).

as i was about to share with the other leaders last night, a metaphor for my experience of being a middle school ministry volunteer this year jumped into my mind:

i used to be a golfer. like, i used to golf about 2 or 3 times a month. i read articles about golfing. i bought golf clubs. i tried out new courses. and, yes, i even watched golf on TV (and played a lot of tiger woods golf on my xbox).

but i was never a good golfer. at my best, i was a mediocre golfer. i probably would have had to triple-down on the number of times i played in order to see a difference in my game, and i wasn’t willing (or able) to do that. so, consistently, my golf games looked like this:

approximately 10 – 20 shots in a row would totally suck. i hit the ball too short. i shanked it. i putted past the hole and right off the green. i lost it in the woods or the lake. i topped it, hard, and the ball dribbled forward about 10 feet. occasionally i even completely whiffed–swinging my club with focus, intention and expectation, but not actually connecting with the ball. somewhere between the 7th and 12th bad shot in a row, i fairly consistently had the same sorts of thoughts enter my head or exit my mouth:

this game sucks.

why would anyone subject themselves to this? and i’m paying for this! what is wrong with me?

this game is impossible. or at least, this game is impossible for me.

there is absolutely no enjoyment in golf beyond the cigar in my mouth and the beer waiting for me in the clubhouse.

but, then: deep into my discouragement and disillusionment and fatalism and plans to quit, i’d hit a chip shot onto the green and it would drop in the hole. or i’d somehow hit a fairway wood just right, and by some miracle, it would perfectly curve around that tree in the middle of the fairway and catch the leading edge of a downward slope, adding 50 feet to my shot.

and when i hit one of those shots, well, i couldn’t stop then! i either had to take another shot to see if i might be on some sort of streak of brilliance (or i’d suddenly become a fantastic golfer, somehow), or i took another shot because i just didn’t care, since i was basking in the joy of what had just occurred.

THAT, my middle school ministry friends, is what this past year of leading an 8th grade guys small group felt like for me, a 33 year veteran of middle school ministry. there were absolutely stunning moments of beauty. flashes of insight. spaces of deep honesty and vulnerability. DMZs of listening to each other. absolute god moments.

there were less moments of awesomeness than there were moments of annoyance; but there were just enough to keep me from quitting.

and here’s the litmus test for me: i stop and think of each guy’s face, picturing him in my mind’s eye. and i pay attention to what i’m feeling. and i can honestly say that for each one of them, my internal response is “oh, man, i love that kid! he is so awesome. i have so much HOPE for his future.”

so, yeah, i’ll take another small group next fall.

Author: "marko" Tags: "youth ministry, youth work, junior high ..."
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Date: Tuesday, 10 Jun 2014 17:30

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes

processProcess Trumps Content

This is a very important issue for parents to consider, especially with the current trend toward a college-prep emphasis in school culture. School curriculum often teaches toward test scores. Even Christian schools, who are rarely involved in state testing, often focus on cramming content with an eye to college acceptance.

Many churches take a similar approach: load young teens with info during this formative age, in hopes that it will “stick” and become a guiding force in their lives.

Unfortunately, this is quite misguided.

Just prior to puberty (around 9 or 10 or 11 years old), your child’s brain does a wonderful thing: it grows an abundance of new connections. Like a massive infiltration of tree roots grasping for earth, these new connections between various parts of the brain open up a world of possibilities.

However, these new connections are only that: possibilities. There is no good way to use them all. So, those connections that get exercised and used end up forming a dominant part of the brain’s function through the rest of life. And those connections that are used less, well, they actually disintegrate during the teenage years!

What does this tell us? It’s essential that the young teen years be about learning how to think. Process, “what if”, and “why?” are critical. Discovery is the best learning mode (for spiritual learning or academic learning). If young teens exercise this part of their developing brains, it will positively impact their lifelong thinking, their spiritual growth (after all, spiritual stuff is abstract), their emotional health, their relational maturity, and their desire to continue growing and learning.

So, make room for “why?” and “what if?” Those are questions of speculation (a brand-new, but wimpy, ability for young teens). Encourage discovery. Don’t be threatened by questioned values and boundary-pushing. This is the best stuff of early adolescent brain development!


By the way, I unpack this more (and a bunch of other stuff about early adolescent development) in my book Understanding Your Young Teen; and go into detail on teenage brain development (not only for young teens, but teenagers in general) in A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains.

Author: "marko" Tags: "family, youth ministry, youth work, juni..."
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Date: Thursday, 05 Jun 2014 11:00

yeah, we need a photo in need of a caption this week, i think. it’s been a while. and you guys (well, those who bother to enter!) make me laugh.

this time around, i’m gonna give away a complete set of The Youth Cartel’s newest downloadable curriculum Viva: Known. these four sessions focus on learning about the character and mission of Jesus through his conversations with those around him.

ok — plenty of youth workers have some responsibility for children’s ministry also. so let’s call this the kidmin edition of photo in need of a caption. whatcha got?

ride the lobster

CONTENDERS (the best of the best!)

Mike
Stop playing with your food.

Scott
Anybody got another quarter?

Chris Wyatt
Ten years before her first pot. Ten minutes before his last.

Kevin I
Tryin’ to catch me ridin Nephropidirty

Diane Jones
Let us pray for the new youth leaders.

Richard C Mobbs
Thanks, mom. Couldn’t pop 25 cents for the ride outside the supermarket.

Chad Inman
The next Sea World controversy…

AND THE WINNER IS…

once again, a tough call and a close race. but the one that actually made me LOL, literally, was Diane Jones’ “Let us pray for the new youth leaders.”

congrats, diane! you win!

Author: "marko" Tags: "humor, children's ministry, photo in nee..."
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Date: Tuesday, 03 Jun 2014 11:00

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions

optical illusion cubeWelcome to the world of paradox!

If you have a preteen or a young teen living in your home, you gain a whole new appreciation for the concept of paradox. These wonderful kids completely embody every meaning of the word. In so many areas, they seem to be both one thing, as well as the polar opposite! (This can be quite maddening, and paradoxically, quite exciting!) It’s all about transition, baby.

Here’s a list of a few you might notice:

Young teens can be incredibly trusting, but will only listen to someone who’s honest and transparent. Young teens (and especially preteens) often don’t have the jaded skepticism of their older teen brothers and sisters. They are very willing to trust–a wonderful characteristic that shouldn’t be missed. This time of life is, in many ways, a last-stop refueling station into the long desert drive of adolescence. Take this opportunity to build on that trust, to show that your word is good.

At the same time, they are beginning to develop a more adult sense of the baloney-detection. If you want to be an example to your young teen, if you want to continue in a role of impacting their lives (in a positive way, that is), it’s essential that you do so through a commitment to honesty and vulnerability. This can be pretty tough, even threatening. When you’re wrong, it’s crucial that you admit it. If they sniff out insincerity or hypocrisy in your or your words, you’ll quickly lose your place of leadership in their lives.

They’ll catch less than you’d think, yet they’re savvier than you’d expect. This is a tricky one, but so true! Because the life of a young teen is all about change (physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, psychological), they have a huge tendency toward “in-one-ear-out-the-other” behavior. You’ve certainly experienced this! You explained to your daughter why a certain behavior is a bad choice, and two weeks later, she seems to have no memory of that discussion. Often that’s because she really doesn’t have a memory of that discussion!

But at the same time, young teens are developing a very savvy ability to see through charades, to understand when they’re being marketed to, and to be aware of consequences. Often what happens with kids this age is that they are savvy enough to understand a situation, but not enough to apply it to their lives.

They want to be treated like adults, but have the opportunity to act like children. This has enormous implications. They’re caught in an in-between world. They know where they want to go: they know they want to be treated like adults, to have more freedom, to make more decisions on their own, to not be treated as if they were 4th graders. It’s important to talk to young teens with an adult voice, and to begin the move to a come-alongside perspective.

But at the same time, they are still very much children, and need the opportunity to act that out, without pressure to grow up too soon. A girl may move out of her childhood music choices, but still love to play with Barbie dolls. Allow her to live in that place. A boy may desire to sit at the adult table at family gatherings, but still keep a childhood stuffed animal on his bed. Don’t rush them into adulthood, but don’t treat them like little kids anymore either.

Some are prototype young adults, while some are really children, and most are both. The reality is this: it’s not that the young teen living in your home is either a child or a young adult (with some magic line being crossed at some point); it’s that she’s both, at the same time. Young teens aren’t just in-between, they’re in an overlap zone–childhood remains, while they’ve already stepped into the young adult world.

Living with paradox isn’t easy! But it’s not only the reality of the young teen years, it’s somehow part of God’s wonderful design for this transition to healthy independence and adulthood. Have fun!

Author: "marko" Tags: "family, youth ministry, youth work, juni..."
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Date: Monday, 26 May 2014 11:00

crowder

thanks to the live streaming on itunes radio (available through today only), and then thanks to the record label who sent me a copy of the album in the mail, i’ve been listening to Crowder’s new album, Neon Steeple, almost nonstop over the past week (a few little breaks to listen to the new Coldplay album and the new Conor Oberst album). the album releases on itunes, and everywhere else, tomorrow (tuesday, may 27).

neon steeplei realize i’m biased, since i’ve loved Crowder’s music for a long time, and even more biased because i like him as a person. but it almost doesn’t matter which new direction david goes with his music: i love it musically, and love it lyrically. this album is, unquestionably, his most eccentric and eclectic, ranging from bluegrass and old-timey church songs that johnny cash could have sung, to alt-pop worship, and even a couple tracks i can only classify as “dance” numbers. neon steeple is the baby that marcus mumford and emmylou harris and johnny cash and hank williams and king david (the psalmist) and someone representing alt-pop (maybe the xx, or–OOH!–the ting-tings) would have, uh, birthed together. that just got weird; but, again, i love eclectic.

if you want the same old vanilla christian easy listening, this is not your music. but if you want honest lyrics, unwaveringly god-focused (as Crowder’s songs have always been), with a wild variety of musicality that leans to the down-homey (lotsa banjo, baby), you’ll be a happy listener.

and, i have two copies of the deluxe edition of the CD (17 tracks!) to give away. in the past when i’ve given these away, i’ve gotten a ton of comments, because i made it easy on you (which made it hard on me); so i’m going to inverse that equation this time around. if you want one of these FREE CDs, you must write a haiku about Crowder. that’s right: three lines, of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, respectively. i’ll pick the best two, email you for your address, and your CD will be mailed to you.

i mean, Crowder put quite a bit of creative energy into creating this baby, so a little creative effort on your part seems warranted, right?

whatcha got?

winner, winner, crowder dinner

hey, nice job, peeps. fun entries.

i’m sad to be forced to not consider a handful that don’t fit the required haiku form (3 lines, of 5 syllables, 7 syllable, and 5 syllables, in order). some of you don’t quite get that, or just didn’t care!

hands down, the winner is absolutely Rob, for his brilliant three word

Virtuosity
Interdisciplinary
Pogonology

(for those not in the know, “pogonology” is “the study of or a treatise to beards”)

the second winner was more difficult; but i’m going with Chuck’s for sheer randomness and absurdity:

I met Crowder once
He smelled like freedom and steak
No wait, that was me

thanks for playin’, everyone!

Author: "marko" Tags: "music, crowder, david crowder, david cro..."
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Date: Wednesday, 21 May 2014 17:10

my 16 year-old son max is going to haiti for a month this summer. he’ll be part of a small team of four people partnering with leaders from my church’s sister church in carrefour to host a two-week music camp for children in the community around the church.

this is a perfect mix of max’s interests and passions: he’s very much into music (he’s a drummer, but plays other instruments, and is fascinated by music theory); he loves serving, and is particularly gifted with children (he volunteers, without any push from his parents, in the children’s ministry at our church); he’s passionate about justice and people in need (again, without any provocation from us, he has regularly, for years, joined a group of people who befriend homeless people in downtown san diego); and he’s had an interest in haiti since he was little (long before the earthquake, he did a massive school report on the country, and knows all about its history).

but all of max’s passions and interests might have sat semi-dormant if it weren’t for adults who cleared a pathway for him to activate, by organizing the trip, including him as an equal, and clarifying the needs.

in response, max has done the following things (TOTALLY on his own — i usually found out about these things he was doing after the fact):

  • max is actively collecting instruments for the music camp. he is unapologetically asking people for donations. he asked on facebook, asked musicians at church, and met with the owner of our local music store to make a big ask. the music store owner came through in a major way, donating this wonderful collection to the cause (which was a neat fit, as the music store owner had just launched a website of unique world music instruments):

instruments

  • max is taking a four-week crash course in creole language and culture, every thursday night:

creole class

  • max is organizing (completely on his own) a benefit concert for the camp. he found a location, volunteers, put together a facebook page, and continues to develop a robust line-up of solo artists and bands of a wide variety of rock, pop and folk genres. the concert is this friday night. if you live in san diego, there are worse ways you could spend a friday evening.

music camp concert

  • max (with help from us — this is one of the only aspects we helped him with) sent out support letters to friends and family around the country. since most of his personal trip costs are being covered by himself and us, the majority of the funds coming in will go directly to the costs of running the camp.

of course, i’m extremely proud of my son; amazed even. but all of this has also been a great reminder to me of what kenda dean wrote about in one of her earliest books, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. instead of merely treating teenagers as consumers (as the vast majority of churches do), or even the step-in-the-right-direction of giving them roles in the church, what would it look like if we tapped into teenagers’ natural interests and passions (this is really what morgan schmidt writes about in her book Woo: Awakening Teenagers Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus), providing rails to run on and then getting out of the way? yup: teenagers will lead. and teenagers will remind us what passionate faith looks like, in action.

by the way, if you’d like to support max’s trip, i’ll let him ask you in his own words (copied from a facebook status):

this is really important! i’m going to haiti this summer for the month of july to put on a music camp for street kids and orphans, and we need money. $35 pays for one child’s tuition to the camp, and $50 pays the salary of one music teacher (although we will accept any amount). this camp will create jobs, create mentorships, and give the kids a sense of purpose. please help us show these kids that someone loves them.

if you’d like to help, you can donate here. all donations through this site in the next few weeks will go directly to camp tuition scholarships and haitian music teachers working the camp.

Author: "marko" Tags: "church, family, youth ministry, youth wo..."
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Date: Monday, 19 May 2014 11:00

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it…

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god

teenage turtleBoundaries and Decisions

This research-proven truth may surprise you: Parents are still the number one influence in the lives of their teenagers. Many parents assume that with adolescence, the peer group takes the top influencer slot; or media; or something or someone else.

Here’s another fact that may surprise you even more: Young teens still want and need boundaries. Maybe you’re not surprised by the thought that they need boundaries; but the fact that they want them seems counter-intuitive to their regular spoken and unspoken demands for independence. Of course, unless uttered in sarcasm, you’ll never actually hear your student say, “Please, Mom, I want less freedom!”

You live this issue every day. Because the primary task of parenting a teenager is to foster healthy independence, the rub of boundary setting is in your face on a constant basis.

And it’s not that kids want (or need) a huge set of restrictions: instead, they want to know–with clarity–where the fences of their decision-making playground are placed.

Two extremes to avoid

The Cage. It’s very common (in fact, it’s increasingly common) for parents to be concerned about the world in which their young teen is growing up. It’s common–and good–for parents to be concerned about the fact that our culture is expecting kids to act older (and be exposed to “older things”) at a younger and younger age.

The good and appropriate motivation to protect your new teen, however, can easily result in an unhealthy restriction on growing up. Parents at this extreme keep the boundaries on decision-making and independence so close that teens never (or rarely) have the opportunity to make any real choices.

This extreme can stunt the emotional and spiritual growth of teens, keeping them from the essential learning that comes with good and bad decision-making. In other words: setting the boundaries too tight works counter-productively, keeping your teen from growing in maturity.

Free-Range. The opposing extreme is also common (though increasingly less so), and is possibly even more destructive. This comes from the often-exasperated parent who says: “I don’t know how much freedom to give my teen. He seems to want complete independence, and his friends seem to have that already. Since I don’t know where to draw the line, I’ll give him what he’s asking for: almost complete independence.”

I’m saddened and occasionally shocked by how many 12 year-olds have complete freedom in every decision other than the basics of life (shelter, food, car rides). These young teens are allowed, or even encouraged, to make every choice when it comes to things like: curfew, bedtime, music and movie intake, friendships, money-spending, clothing and appearance. I’m not suggesting a prudish approach to this list (anyone who knows me can vouch for that!). But remember what I said at the outset of this article: teens want and need boundaries!

The Goal

The challenging goal of parenting teens, then, becomes to provide ever-increasing boundaries, with freedom inside those boundaries to run wild and make decisions.

This is not just about maturation and growing up and becoming healthy whole independent adults (although that’s a pretty good list!). This is a spiritual task! For parents, this is a fulfillment of the spiritual task given to you by God: to raise whole and healthy independent adults (failure as a parent looks like a 28 year-old who is still dependent on his mommy).

It also has spiritual implications for your young teen: as she learns to make healthy decisions, in the semi-protected environment of the boundaries you set, she will gain courage and skill for the task of embracing a faith-system that needs to evolve and grow into her own.

Author: "marko" Tags: "family, youth ministry, youth work, juni..."
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Date: Tuesday, 13 May 2014 17:48

recently, someone in one of my coaching groups asked me to give a list of 10 or so youth ministry books that everyone should read. there are SO many great youth ministry books that it’s tough to make a good list without knowing the reader’s context and what would be most helpful to her. but, i do find that there’s a certain list of books that i end up recommending the most.

what any individual youth worker should read might be a variation on this; but here’s my books i recommend most often:

Click to view slideshow.

Almost Christian, Kenda Dean. difficult and long read, but definitely one of the most important YM books in the last 5 years.

Revisiting Relational Ministry, Andrew Root. calls into question how we’ve “used” relationships as a manipulative tool, and suggests a new way based from a theological framework.

As for Me and My (Crazy) House, Brian Berry. fantastic help for thinking about how to balance family with the demands of youth ministry.

Leading Up, Joel Mayward. about having influence in your church when you’re not in a position of power. allegory from the perspective of a new JH pastor.

Masterpiece: the art of discipling youth, Paul Martin. frames discipleship as a process of helping to uncover teenagers’ unique selves, rather than a program of content.

Woo: Awakening Teenagers’ Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus, Morgan Schmidt. you could call this “desire-based youth ministry.”

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World, Brock Morgan. what YM look like when teenagers are truly postmodern. EXCELLENT and provocative.

Redefining the Role of the Youth Worker: a manifesto of integration, April Diaz. the subtitle says it all. short and to the point.

Sticky Faith, youth leader edition, Kara Powell and Brad Griffin. research-based implications of faith that lasts beyond youth group (and teenage years).

A Tale of Two Youth Workers, Eric Venable. a short allegory about processing teenage doubt.

Hurt 2.0 (the revised edition), Chap Clark. understanding the hurt and pain of today’s teenagers, with a look at their isolation.

Author: "marko" Tags: "books, youth ministry, youth work, best ..."
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Date: Thursday, 08 May 2014 11:00

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it…

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition

bored in churchBored with Church and God

When your kid was 9, he loved going to church, loved his Sunday school class, and seemed to have a real relationship with God.

But now, as a young teen, he seems bored. Maybe he’s even expressed this: “Church is boring; I don’t want to go.”

This is a natural occurrence in the lives of young teens. But the reasoning behind this boredom isn’t the same for every child. Here are a few possibilities:

Not Connected
Children (prior to the teen years) need fewer reasons to find church or Christianity engaging. A few fun moments in Sunday school or the reality of Christ in their parents’ lives can be enough. But young teens start to perceive a disconnect (if one exists) between real life and “church-world.” If they don’t sense a relational connection with people in the church (youth group leaders, other kids, adults in the church), it’s easy for them to make the small leap to boredom.

Young teens have a passionate need to be valued and noticed. Any place that doesn’t validate who they are as individuals, any place where they don’t feel known, can quickly feel awkward or boring to them.

Churchianity
Unless your family happens to attend a church with worship and sermons that connect with your young teen (this isn’t common, and isn’t normally the aim of most churches), attending church can begin to feel like a monumental waste of time to young teens – even if they still have an active faith in God.

The forms most churches use (in song, spoken word and format) are pretty foreign to the world of a teenager. Frankly, they’re often pretty foreign to the world of adults too! But the variance from “church-world” to the world of adults is almost always less than to the world of teens.

Faith System Disconnect
Probably the most common, and most healthy reason for young teens to feel boredom is their developmental need to grow up in faith. Pre-teens and children approach faith issues, obviously, with the mind of a child. But a young teen’s new ability to grasp (or at least entertain) abstract ideas begs all their concrete spiritual conclusions and understandings into question.

This shift in thinking ability has enormous spiritual implications for young teens, because pretty much everything we talk about at church, or in relation to faith in God, is abstract. Its like kids have a backpack of faith system “bits.” And during their young teen years, situations arise that call these bits to the forefront. When it becomes obvious to a teen that their childhood spiritual answer to a given situation or question doesn’t offer a strong enough answer anymore, they are forced to ignore this issue or struggle to allow their beliefs to evolve into a more adult form.

Don’t be freaked out by this process. Don’t be thrown by your teen’s expression of boredom. Instead, find constructive ways to come alongside her during this transition time of life.

Processing Boredom with Your Young Teen
Here are some ideas for coming alongside your young teen and her spiritual boredom:

  • Live it out. If your teen sees a vibrant and real faith being lived out day-to-day in your life (and being verbally expressed also), it will go a long ways toward helping him consider what an adult faith system should look like.
  • Talk about it. Our natural tendency is to lecture our kids about why they’re bored (“you need to do this”). Instead, work to create open lines of communication about faith and church. Process your child’s questions and reservations without jumping to easy answers.
  • Look for relational connections. Help your teen be (or stay) connected to the people of the church, not just the program. Look for creative ways to foster these relationships – with their peers and with other adults who will care about them.
  • Debrief. After a church service or youth group meeting, talk about what went on. Be careful that this doesn’t come across as a test. Helping your teen see the life-connection between what’s talked about at church and their world is a wonderful way to encourage the growth of their faith.
Author: "marko" Tags: "family, youth ministry, youth work, earl..."
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