for years, as i’ve talked about the spiritual development of young teens and their brain development, i’ve said something along these lines:
abstract thinking is a beautiful gift from god that comes with the onset of puberty. abstract thinking is, in a nutshell, thinking about thinking. there are tons of implications, but the primary biggies are speculation (asking ‘what if’ and ‘why’ questions), and third person perspective (seeing myself from someone else’s point of view, or seeing someone else from someone else’s point of view, or even considering an idea from someone else’s point of view). these two results of abstract thinking are revolutionary to the spiritual development of teenagers (as well as for their emotional development, relational growth, and identity formation). preteens are some of the most concluded people on the planet. they have a completely worked out (albeit naive) worldview and systematic theology — concrete, but functional. then puberty comes along like a tsunami and obliterates all that conclusiveness, creating a space for questions and doubts and a move toward either rejecting childhood faith or growing into a more robust, complex, adult faith.
i think i’d picked up that ‘tsunami’ metaphorical language years and years ago from one of my own junior high ministry mentors. it’s dramatic, and sounds nice.
but it’s not accurate.
and i’ve replaced that metaphor recently in how i talk about this shift.
the reason it’s not accurate is that young teens don’t suddenly acquire fully-functioning abstract thinking. they get the capacity; but it’s like an underdeveloped super-wimpy muscle that has to be exercised for a number of years in order to gain strength. so, yes, young teens (post-puberty) have the capacity for abstract thinking; and it DOES have huge implications for all those developmental realities (including spiritual). but it doesn’t happen overnight. it’s not a light switch. and the ‘elimination’ of concrete childhood beliefs does NOT take place like the arrival of tsunami.
picture a giant cliff at the edge of a sea. but this cliff is made of something soft and easy to erode — like dirt, or sandstone, or chalk (think: cliffs of dover). when the capacity for abstract thinking kicks in, nothing changes immediately. those concluded faith bits still stand like a proud sea cliff as long as the sea below is calm.
but then something happens that creates a gap or tension between experience and belief. like: a 12 year-old who has always had a beautiful and confident belief that god answers my prayers, that if i really pray and it’s not selfish, i can throw a mountain into a sea. and that kid’s favorite grandpa gets inoperable cancer. the kid is confident (full of faith) that prayer will heal his grandpa; but grandpa dies. now, suddenly, there are stormy seas below the cliff. waves crash against that edifice, and erosion happens. the concrete beliefs of the preteen years can’t stand against the barrage of powerful storm waves.
btw: at this point, a young teen almost always needs an adult who can come alongside and help them move all this erosion/storm waves/doubts stuff out of the murky world of subconscious if they hope to do anything other than reject that previous faith bit (if they hope to consider alternatives and new, more abstract, ways of thinking and believing).
so there you have it: doubt comes to young teen faith not like a tsunami of change, but like a storm wave crashing into a sea cliff made of easily-erodible stuff.
let’s get in there, storm chasers.
with youthworker journal focusing an issue recently on adolescent brain development, tim baker (the editor) asked if i would write a feature article on the implications. he said he had a few articles focusing on theory and research, but wanted something of a “so what?” and i realized, in all my writing on this topic, i’d written very little in response to that pragmatic question. so i agreed, and this was the result. yesterday, in part 1, i laid out a summary and basis for pragmatic response. today, the list of how i’m responding:
Neuron, Shmeuron or,
Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development?
How I’m Responding
• Read about teenage brains!
I wasn’t kidding when I said that my growing understanding of neurology shapes everything I do in youth ministry. What I teach and how I teach; how I interact with students; the sorts of questions I ask; what and how I communicate with parents; How I plan my youth ministry calendar; what’s most important and emphasized in our youth ministry.
What to read? Read The Primal Teen (Strauch), because it gives a great perspective on what we were learning about teen brains 10 years ago. You could read my little book, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains. Please read the National Geographic article on teenage brains, as it’s a great glimpse at a turn toward a more positive look at teenage brains. On my stack right now are Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (Satel and Lilienfeld), and Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Siegel).
• Ask speculative questions
I’m not a scientist or a researcher, but I’m sure passionate about my hypothesis that we can help teenagers grow in their ability to make good decisions. Speculative questions are “What if?” and “Why?” questions. Even if we can’t increase frontal lobe growth, I know we can help teenagers step into the use of the abstract thinking they’ve had since the onset of puberty. They have the capability, that is; but they haven’t used it much and tend to be lousy with it. So when we “take them to the shores of speculation,” we help them test out the waters they’ll return to on their own. And since SO MUCH of spiritual growth in the teen and young adult years requires speculation, I’m 100% convinced that helping teenagers develop the ability to speculate will help them build a sustainable faith.
• Become a competency facilitator
Epstein once suggested to me that good parenting (and, by extension, I’ve come to see this as a framing for great youth ministry) is about moving from control to facilitation, where facilitation means identifying and nurturing competencies. If you, like me, don’t buy into the increasingly popular notion that teenagers are incapable, and should therefore be protected and treated like children, then we need to every teenager’s competency champion.
• Allow for failure
Their frontal lobes are underdeveloped; and they do struggle with decision-making. Don’t respond, in the way our culture (and educational approaches and legal systems) is by removing decisions. Instead, create safe places for decision making, assuming a healthy percentage of failure and mistakes. Really, we all learn more from our bad decisions than from our good decisions, right?
• Make way for passion
If teenagers are a wonder to behold, than the kernel of awesomeness at the center of that wonder is their potential for passion. Maybe that’s why they’re not great at impulse control and measuring risk. Maybe they need to be limited (think: God’s creation intent) in those areas in order to learn about the world in ways that us risk-averse adults have long ceased learning. And what if teenagers’ passion could be invited as a great gift to your church? (While she doesn’t directly tie this to brain research, this is the core proposal of Kenda Creasy Dean’s excellent youth ministry book, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church.)
• Act as a surrogate temporal lobe
The frontal lobes aren’t the only underdeveloped parts of the teenage brain: the temporal lobes are also. Those are responsible for emotional understanding and interpretation. Ben was sharing in my small group about how he was nervous about going home that evening, because his brother was returning from drug rehab. He was visibly emotional while explaining this. But Mitch piped in with “You should tell your brother than drugs are stupid!” Rather than shaming Mitch, who wasn’t being mean or rude and was merely missing the emotional clues that would have been so obvious to an adult, my role became that of simultaneously redirecting the focus back to Ben’s sharing while gently pointing out to Mitch the emotion that Ben was feeling. In that moment, I was helping Mitch see the emotion and learn to spot it in a way that he could help his friend.
• Be patient
Patience with teenagers is a pre-requisite for a good youth worker, and always has been. But with our growing understanding of teenage brain development, we have that much more reason to be patient. Great youth workers, those who will be used by God in the lives of real teenagers, will always be gracious and loving, ready to listen, full of encouragement, and abounding in patience.
• Be thoughtful about the use of young adults as youth ministry volunteers.
This is a sensitive one; and please don’t think I’m suggesting young adults are inferior youth workers. I love having young adults as equal members of the youth ministry team I’m a part of. Just like teenagers, they bring a level of passion that’s a wonder to behold. But…remember that their brains are still developing, and they will occasionally struggle with wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, and decision-making. Our ministry effectively (I’d like to think) addresses this by pairing young adult leaders with more mature leaders for small group leadership. Aaron, my 20 year-old small group co-leader, brings things to the group that I couldn’t bring; and hopefully, I bring things he couldn’t (or struggles to) bring.
All of these new discoveries about teenage brains are fascinating. I welcome anything that can help me know and understand better the teenagers I’m called to. But I’m committed to doing ministry in the tension of reality and skepticism. Living in that tension keeps me on my toes, reminds me to be dependent on God and drives me toward curiosity rather than blind assumption.
with youthworker journal focusing an issue recently on adolescent brain development, tim baker (the editor) asked if i would write a feature article on the implications. he said he had a few articles focusing on theory and research, but wanted something of a “so what?” and i realized, in all my writing on this topic, i’d written very little in response to that pragmatic question. so i agreed, and this was the result:
Neuron, Shmeuron or,
Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development?
We are living in amazing times. The fact is, we’ve learned more about teenagers in the last 10 years than in the previous decades combined. We’ve been exposed to challenging and solid research about youth ministry and adolescent faith. Even if it hasn’t all been good news, this research is shaping our thinking and practice in long-overdue ways.
The knowledge we have about teenage brains is similar. There are new findings almost every month, it seems. It’s fascinating stuff that constantly reminds me of God’s creativity and intentionality. And—this is important—I find over and over again that my knowledge about what’s going on in teenage brains informs everything I do in youth ministry.
But there’s a problem that needs to be undressed: Most of what you’ve read or heard about teenage brain development is wrong. Or, at least, most of it has been skewed to infer conclusions that the research is just not saying.
Teenagers Are Not Broken
A decade ago, early research into teenage brains revealed the previously unknown reality that brains aren’t fully developed well into the 20s. Researchers identified areas of the brain that were significantly underdeveloped, specifically focusing on the frontal lobes. Those areas are often referred to as the brain’s CEO or Executive Office, since they’re the decision-making center (as well as the place for impulse control, prioritization, focus, wisdom, and a bunch of other higher-order thought processes).
Slowly, books like The Primal Teen, and dozens of magazine articles and news reports starting reporting news about teenage brains. But they usually did so with a spin that the actual researchers might not have been saying: that teenage brains are inferior. Or broken. Or incapable.
I’m preaching to the choir here: you know in your gut that this isn’t true. The focus of research has shifted, by the way, to a question of capabilities and strengths; but at a popular level, the idea that teenagers are broken (and that science says so) continues to be pervasive.
There’s also been a subtle inference, or assumption, that teenage brains have always been this way, and we’re just now discovering it. In other words, the widespread pop understanding of this stuff is that it’s a nature issue, not a nurture issue.
Do teenagers act the way they do because of the limitations of their brains? Or, are teenage brains the way they are because our culture does not expect (or allow) them to use their brains like adults? It’s a chicken-versus-egg question. And, it’s an age-old nature-versus-nurture question; and while research hasn’t or can’t answer it, popular reporting misleadingly assumes the position that paints teenagers in a brushstroke of incapability.
One author who pushed back, Dr. Robert Epstein, suggests that the nature assumption that teenage brains have always been this way results in the worst kind of profiling, deciding that a certain grouping of people are inferior based on their physiology, rather than their competence. He draws parallels to the once normal but now abhorrent assumptions about Jews, people of African descent and women.
In all three cases, the physiology of a group of people was presumed to make them inherently inferior (for example: the average smaller brain size of women was used as a basis for the presumption that women were inferior to men and less intelligent; but we now know this is simply not the case). He contends that we’re already seeing findings of teenage-brain development resulting in more isolation of teenagers from the adult world, more limitations on their freedoms and more infantilization (treating them like children).
My two cents: I’m interested in pushing back. While I have no interest in living with my head in the sand, I want to see teenagers live into their capabilities, and I want to see young adults move into adulthood.
And I’m embracing the idea embedded in a question that Dr. Dean Blevins asked during a panel he and I shared recently: Are teenagers a problem to be fixed, or a wonder to behold? I’m siding with the latter. And—hear me on this—the weight of most adolescent brain research has shifted in this direction also.
Living in the Tension without Ignoring the Implications
So where does all of this leave us, as youth workers who are trying to be responsive to the needs and lives of real teenagers?
A few years ago, I heard Andy Stanley give a talk on leadership in which he proposed that leaders need to know the difference between problems to be solved and tensions to be protected. I don’t know that the tension we’re addressing here needs to be nurtured, per se; but I do think we need to live in the tension. I want to be paradoxically committed both to being countercultural and to doing ministry in the real world that teenagers are living in.
ok, new group, new rules. after a couple years of occasional “overheard at my 6th grade guys small group” and “overheard at my 7th grade guys small group” posts, i was partway into a fantastic year of “overheard at my 8th grade guys small group” posts last year when the guys asked me to stop. but i ran it past my new 7th grade guys, and they (predictably) loved it.
7th grade guy: I’m a white girl; I need my phone!
me (it was the first week, so i was getting to know them): Do you have any pets?
7th grade guy: I own two parents.
me: Do you have any pets?
different 7th grade guy: We had a fish, but it got stolen.
me: I’m older than most of your dads.
7th grade guy: No, you’re like 40 or something.
me: No, I’m 51.
different 7th grade guy: Omigosh, you’re not quite older than my grandma!
(btw: in the small inset photo above, if you look closely, you’ll notice that i dorkily photobombed my own photo.)
2014 has been a banner year for the Youth Ministry Coaching Program, with 6 full cohorts operating in Nashville, Orange County, CA (Women in YM), South Carolina (UMC), North Carolina (UMC), Pittsburgh (PCUSA), and the new SoCal Presby cohort (PCUSA) kicking off in Pasadena, CA in a couple weeks. But we’re actively working to open up cohorts (a cohort is a word used for “learning group,” in this case, is 10 youth workers) for 2015.
YMCP, in case you don’t know, is a whole-life personal and leadership development program for youth workers. You’ll find a safe group of peers who listen and speak into your life, as well as training and personal application from the lead coach. it’s full of variety and customization. Most cohorts meet six times, for two days each time, with online interaction and coaching phone calls in-between meetings. After the current cohorts wrap up, we’ll have more than 200 grads who unanimously say it was one of the most significant growth experiences they’ve ever been through. Learn more about YMCP, and download an overview document, here.
Here’s what we have open now for 2015, with a few extras that we’re considering…
San Diego cohort
Location: San Diego (duh)
Launch date: Hopefully January 2015
Coach: Marko and April Diaz (two coaches for the price of one!)
Approach: full ‘open’ cohort (anyone can be in it), with 6 meetings of 2 days each (every other month)
(We only have 2 or 3 spots still open in this cohort. Contact April Diaz at email@example.com)
North Carolina cohort
Location: Charlotte area
Launch date: January or February 2015
Coach: Marko (but with the possibility of April Diaz leading a 2nd cohort in the same location, pending interest)
Approach: full cohort, with 6 meetings of 2 days each (every other month). Open ONLY to youth workers from churches in the Western NC Conference of the UMC.
Price: $500 (the Conference graciously covers the rest of the cost)
(This cohort is currently accepting applications. Contact Caroline Wood in the Conference office for details: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Women in Youth Ministry cohort
Location: Orange County, CA, Asheville, NC, and online
Launch date: Hopefully January 2015
Coach: April Diaz
Approach: This is a hybrid cohort. First and last meetings will be 2 days in Orange County, CA. 3rd or 4th meeting will be attached to (and include) the Women in Youth Ministry Campference in Asheville, NC. 3 additional meetings (in between face-to-face meetings) will take place online.
Price: $2250 (includes registration for the Women in Youth Ministry Campference!)
(See more info here. We are currently accepting applications for this cohort. Contact April Diaz at email@example.com)
Middle School Ministry cohort
Location: Orange County, CA
Launch date: Hopefully February 2015
Coach: Kurt Johnston and Katie Edwards (two coaches for the price of one!, plus Marko and April Diaz will lead sessions at some meetings)
Approach: full ‘open’ cohort (anyone can be in it), with 6 meetings of 2 days each (every other month)
(We are currently accepting applications for this cohort. Contact Katie Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org, or April Diaz at email@example.com)
Launch date: First quarter of 2015
Coach: Matt Wilks and Jason Frizzell (two coaches for the price of one!, plus Marko will attend 2 of the 6 meetings)
Approach: full ‘open’ cohort (anyone can be in it), with 6 meetings of 2 days each (every other month)
(We are currently accepting applications for this cohort. Contact Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org)
In addition to all that awesomeness, we’re currently in conversations about a few more cohorts, including:
- New England cohort, led by Jake Kircher and Mark Orr (with Marko and/or April also involved)
- Large Church cohort, led by Marko and April (this cohort would be limited to participants on staff at church of 2500 or more in weekly attendance)
- SC/Holston Conferences cohort, led by Marko (probably) (this cohort would only be open to youth workers in the South Carolina and Holston Conferences of the UMC)
If you have interest in any of these last three, please contact April Diaz (email@example.com)
So: who’s up for some growth in 2015?
my “epilogue” column in Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out recently. i wrote it while on vacation in big sur, california, in july. here’s where my mind went…
I’m on holiday in Big Sur, California as I write. It’s on the central California coast, and is known for it’s massive sea cliffs and stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean. But it’s also known for its California redwood trees. Redwoods, in case you don’t know, are massive trees. They can be up to 350 feet tall and 20 feet wide. And the older trees around here are 2000 years old.
The place we’re staying on holiday is in a deep canyon; our cabin is pressed in on all sides by redwoods. Yesterday, I sat outside for a while just enjoying the majesty of these colossal sentinels. And, as is common for me, my mind started wandering to how what I was viewing had connections to my life.
First, one can’t stare at a Rrdwood tree (or a sunset, or any number of other natural wonders) without having a sense of God. Majestic beckons our hearts and minds to reflect on God. Atheists struggle to find words for transcendent moments like this, compelled by a sense of something good outside of themselves, but not having language for it.
People default to faulty-but-aspirational language about “the universe,” ascribing volition and moral will to the earth or all that is. It clearly has an otherness, this sort of beauty. But so many of our attempts to describe it fall short, because, sitting in the dappled sunlight at the bottom of a stand of redwoods, I feel something personal in their presence.
I’m not suggesting that the trees are God. I’m suggesting that I am experiencing, as you would if you were sitting next to me, a liminal space that naturally carries so many of the characteristics of the Creator that I can’t help but sense the Creator.
As a youth worker, it’s critical that I put myself in these spaces on a regular basis, that I am reminded of this sense. I’d even go as far as to say that right now, looking at and contemplating the redwood trees, a full 9 hour drive from the teenagers I work with, I’m actively doing youth work. In fact, this is important youth work. Cultivating my spiritual vitality is some of the most important youth work I ever do.
But there’s another level of reflection I’m drawn to, one that’s more metaphorical and less literal: in youth work, I’m called to be the redwood tree.
I’m reminded of my horrible youth work failure, at about 20 years old. I’d just come from almost-and-accidentally breaking a girl’s neck while attempting an attention-getting pied piper move, when an older youth worker sat me down. He said something very close to this (he said this in love, but he was blunt):
You’re really failing at this so far! You’re trying to be a lighthouse on wheels, following the teenagers around and constantly beaming out “notice me!” But they don’t need or want that from you. They need you to be a lighthouse on a promontory, stationary and dependable. The light from a lighthouse isn’t used for prying or invading or exposing; it’s a faithful reference point.
So, lighthouses and redwood trees–sorry for all the metaphors there. But looking at these redwood trees, words like faithful and dependable and steady and constant take on bark-covered life. These trees show the scars of abuse and fires; but they remain steadfast. Storms have raged and glorious days have passed by. But these trees, they are persistent and relentless.
I’d like to be that kind of youth worker. I’m not interested, anymore, in putting on a good show. And, frankly, I’m not interested in trying to replace the Holy Spirit, bringing conviction, exposing faults. But I dream of being a youth worker–an agent of Christ in the lives of teenagers–who could be described as I’ve described these Redwood trees: dependable, faithful, persistent and relentless.
And just as these California redwoods are a reminder to me of a personal Creator, providing a transcendent sense of God’s majesty, I pray that I will be a youth worker whose steadfast reliability reminds teenagers of the One who created them and loves them, the One my life points toward.
and finally, this is #5 in a little series explaining why The Youth Cartel chose to publish the five products we’re releasing this week. first up was gina abbas’s amazing new book, A Woman in Youth Ministry. then i wrote about jake kircher’s pot-stirring but pragmatic book, Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World. yesterday i wrote about Sam Halverson’s new book One Body: Integrating Teenagers into the Life of Your Church, a book that is 100% timely and 100% helpful. yesterday, i wrote about the most creative youth ministry resource i’ve seen in a very long time; jake bouma and erik ullestad’s Hypotherables. and today we circle back to jake kircher…
on a long car ride from Open Boston to jake’s church in connecticut, he shared with me how his new england students–unique in how post-christian they are–had completely stopped responding to any sort of traditional curriculum. over time, he’d developed a different approach to teaching times–one that respects teenagers’ ability to consider and process and seek. using something closer to a socratic method held up to scripture, jake had developed lessons that were (as i saw when he sent me samples) very unique–really unlike other curriculum. they aren’t traditional “say this and have students do this” lessons. instead, they are guided discussions, fair in presenting differing opinions and thoughts (and even theologies), while seeking truth in scripture.
i could tell it was an approach that plenty of other youth workers would want to try.
as i wrote a few days ago when i introduced jake’s book Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World, i told him, on that car ride, that i thought the curriculum sounded like it had potential; but that i also felt he should write a short ‘manifesto’ type book that unpacked the theory and approach. so that’s what we did. Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World is both a complementary book to Brock Morgan’s excellent Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World (which is why we chose a similar title), and also an expanded framework and justification for what has become the THINK line of curriculum.
we’re planning on releasing four volumes of THINK, each with an umbrella theme to group the lessons. first up is THINK, volume 1: Culture.
here’s the official product description:
Today’s teenagers won’t accept merely being told information or the party line. They want to wrestle and explore—they want to be contributors and help develop their own set of beliefs. So rather than leave this process of exploration until their young adult years, a time when many of them will have left the Church, what if we purposefully came alongside our teens and helped them explore and own their beliefs while they’re still teenagers? That’s what THINK is all about.
THINK, Volume 1: Culture explores six divisive cultural topics from a biblical perspective: science versus creation, tattoos, alcohol and drugs, media, abortion, and tolerance/absolute truth. THINK is different from other curriculums because the goal is not to teach teens the correct answers. Instead, the intention is to invite your youth into a discussion with Christ, the Bible, and other people (including their peers, leaders, and parents) that will result in the best sort of spiritual wrestling match.
We can’t continue to spoon-feed our youth the answers they “need” to survive college or be a good person. Instead, we have to make the shift toward helping them own biblically informed views and opinions. THINK will deepen and personalize teens’ faith and give them the tools and resources they need to engage issues from a biblical perspective.
THINK, Volume 1: Culture includes:
• A detailed overview of how to use THINK, as well a short leader video to frame your thinking
• 6 lessons that each contain—
• A leader’s guide with a list of resources and Scripture passages you can use to prepare
• Sample emails to parents
• Social media blurbs to promote the topics with your teenagers
• Multiple options to start and end each lesson
• Thorough discussion guides with multiple questions and resources for each Scripture and subtopic
• A handout (which you can revise so it better fits your group) that will help teens continue exploring the topic on their own
• A short video that provides insights and tips for how to facilitate the discussion of each lesson
and here’s what people are saying about it:
I hate it when I read a book that I absolutely love and wish I’d written it myself. This was my experience when I read THINK, Volume 1: Culture. Not only is it full of real-world issues, but at the heart of the teaching is a thoughtfulness that meets a felt need in the lives of today’s students. I highly recommend this book and the whole THINK series. In fact, I’m ordering copies for my team, and we’re going to be using this material with our youth group!
Brock Morgan, Author of Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World
Jake Kircher has done a masterful job of exposing the weakness of a teaching model that relies solely (or primarily) on the presentation of a series of beliefs that are to be taken at face value, rather than discussed, chewed on, and argued about. Jake offers us a better alternative in the THINK curriculum. Granted, the facilitator model of teaching is often more uncomfortable and definitely not as “neat and tidy” as a more traditional style. But, as those of us who’ve been in youth ministry for many decades can attest, teenagers who haven’t been challenged to think deeply about their personal beliefs and struggle with them on some rational level probably won’t hold on to them very tightly—or for very long. THINK will help them do both!
Mark Orr, Founder and Executive Director, REACH Youth New England
THINK is a much-needed resource for working with today’s teens. It gives youth leaders direction in discussing some of the hard questions our students ask, and how to do it in a way that gets them thinking about their faith and why they believe what they believe. Teenagers are grappling to know how to live for Christ when some issues seem hard to discuss. THINK provides ideas for how to show teens what God says in His Word about these tough topics, while providing the space they need to hear Him for themselves.
Leneita Fix, Co-Founder, FrontLine Urban Resources; Coauthor of Urban LIVE Curriculum (Simply Youth Ministry)
i really encourage you to check it out. download a free sample, or buy the whole downloadable volume 1 here. this isn’t your mama’s curriculum!
this, my friends, is #4 in a little series explaining why The Youth Cartel chose to publish the five products we’re releasing this week. first up was gina abbas’s amazing new book, A Woman in Youth Ministry. then i wrote about jake kircher’s pot-stirring but pragmatic book, Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World. yesterday i wrote about Sam Halverson’s new book One Body: Integrating Teenagers into the Life of Your Church, a book that is 100% timely and 100% helpful. today, it’s on to jake bouma and erik ullestad’s…
The questions are hypothetical. The conversations are real.
jake and erik approached me a long time ago about a different product, one that we ended up shelving for reasons that had nothing to do with jake and erik. but i’d seen enough to know: these guys have the ability to offer some truly unique, creative and helpful tools for youth workers. so in a move that’s fairly rare for us, i told them: we want you to write for the Cartel. get back to me with ideas and we’ll pick one.
when they got back to me sometime later, Hypotherables was on the list.
and let me say this: as a old curriculum writer who knows that there’s very little that’s truly unique and inventive in youth ministry curriculum (or any sort of church ministry curriculum for that matter), Hypotherables is like nothing you have ever seen. it’s that creativity, along with their depth, that caused dr. andrew root (author of some of the most insightful and important youth ministry books in the last decade) to say, about Hypotherables: I’m happy to say, of this curriculum, I’m a BIG FAN.
Hypotherable is a made-up mash-up word, combining ‘hypothetical’ and ‘parable.’ this resource is a collection of inventive stories (with multiple means of sharing them) that are specifically designed to get teenagers talking about moral and ethical issues.
here’s the official description:
What if there were a resource that not only made expressing an opinion less intimidating, but actually made it fun for people to explore and expand theological concepts in community?
Hypotherables is a radical new spin on youth ministry curriculum that uses original, compelling stories to stimulate spirited group discussions about a range of spiritual topics. Everyday faith issues like evangelism, honesty, temptation, and grace are reframed in the form of captivating stories culminating in a HYPOTHEtical question for the group to discuss—free from the fear of “wrong” answers. And because each story is an imaginative modern paRABLE—full of twists, turns, drama, and comedy—leaders can easily take the conversation even deeper. The informative sidebar commentary and convenient discussion guides make it nearly effortless to draw out rich biblical truths from the layers of metaphor embedded within each story.
This product is a digital download containing 10 one-of-a-kind hypotherables. Each session comes with:
• A high-definition narrated video of the hypotherable
• A slide presentation (in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats) for leaders who wish to narrate the story in their own voice and style
• A Script + Commentary with the story, slide change cues, and informational remarks
• A Conversation Catalyst with follow–up questions, thematic talking points, relevant Scripture references, and a closing prayer
It’s draining to be constantly creating or seeking out fresh new ways to spark meaningful faith conversations with your group. But it doesn’t have to be. With Hypotherables, the questions are hypothetical, but the conversations are real.
and here’s what a few pretty freaking sharp people are saying about it:
Every teenager is different, and many learn better when they experience something on their own. Hypotherables gives students a chance to interact with hypothetical situations in the real world—with peers and leaders they trust. I love the idea of creating a safe space where there are no wrong answers…of building a space where teens can find the right answers for their unique situations on their own. I can’t wait to use this resource with our students.
The videos, scripts, questions, helps, and fun facts put the students in a unique learning experience where they get to “what if” about “what could be.” They get to use their imaginations and ideas to activate their own faith in the future. With Hypotherables, Jake and Erik are bringing something incredible to the youth ministry world.
Brooklyn Lindsey, Justice Advocate, Nazarene Youth International
With very little exception, I’ve never been a big fan of curricula. As a youth worker I found them restrictive, as a theologian I encountered them as theologically thin. This was true until Hypotherables. I’m happy to say, of this curriculum, I’m a BIG FAN. In this curriculum you’ll discover freedom and depth that promises to leave a lasting impact on your young people. Jake Bouma and Erik Ullestad are two of the most creative young leaders I know, and in Hypotherables you’ll see both their passion and talent in technicolor.
Andrew Root, PhD, Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry, Luther Seminary; Author of Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker Academic, 2014)
In my fifteen years of working with youth, more and more I’ve realized that youth don’t want, or need, to hear any more lectures or youth group talks. Rather, they need opportunities to be engaged in meaningful and creative conversations and discussions that allow them to practice and experiment with their developing faith. With the release of Hypotherables, Jake Bouma and Erik Ullestad have provided youth workers with a tool that will help create space for just those kinds of transformational discussions.
Rev. Adam Walker Cleaveland, PC(USA) Minister and Blogger
Hypotherables is a download-only resource. check out a free sample session here, or get the whole shootin’ match.
this, my friends, is #3 in a little series explaining why The Youth Cartel chose to publish the five products we’re releasing this week. first up was gina abbas’s amazing new book, A Woman in Youth Ministry. and yesterday i wrote about jake kircher’s pot-stirring but pragmatic book, Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World. today, we’re on to Sam Halverson’s…
first, a bit about why i wanted to publish sam. i got to know sam a couple years ago when he participated in the Cartel’s Youth Ministry Coaching Program. sam was already a veteran youth worker with about 20 years of experience. but he’s committed to growth, and YMCP proved to be a significant year for him. one of the many results is that sam made the move to becoming the youth ministry dude (not his official title!) for the north georgia conference of the united methodist church. but during that year, i also saw deeply into sam’s heart and mind. he’s a gifted and insightful youth worker. and we found that we shared a passion for spurring youth workers to consider breaking down their youth ministry ghettos, their silos that keep teenagers isolated from the rest of the church.
about a year ago, april diaz wrote Redefining the Role of the Youth Worker for us. it’s a “manifesto of integration” (which is the subtitle). sam and i started talking about him writing a bit of a “sequel” or expansion of april’s book. while april’s book is a shot across the bow, sam book is deeper and wider, and gets into more pragmatic implications (this was by design–april’s book was intended to be short and go for the jugular).
this is a critically important subject for youth workers. and, really, it’s a bit of an identity crisis for us. we often have this broken-but-symbiotic relationship with our churches: they want to hire pied pipers, and we’re happy to take the money and run a silo’d youth ministry. integration is messy, full of complications and resistances, and feels counter-intuitive as it is–to a small degree–working our way out of parts of our job.
sam does a great job of setting up the problem, unpacking solutions, and providing a raft of ideas.
here’s the back cover copy from the book:
Most youth groups function like a parasite within the body of the church: a separate organism that relies on its host for resources, but isn’t integrated into the whole. Strong language? Sure. But it’s accurate. And if left untreated, this parasitic relationship will lead to unhealthy results for both youth ministries and churches.
One Body addresses how even the most active youth ministries can unknowingly hinder the development of their adolescents by preventing them from being integrated into the body of Christ. It also reveals practices that hinder growth within the body and suggests some exciting ways to connect the stories and lives of the youth and adults in your church.
Let’s get teenagers out of their ministry silos—their youth group ghettos—and start building relationships beyond the youth room. Let’s dream together of moving our congregations toward a better understanding of their biblical call to disciple and be One Body with youth.
and here’s what others are saying about sam’s book:
Our churches have become silos, and in this thought-provoking yet practical book, Sam Halverson calls us to do something about it. One Body is a necessary read for all who believe that people and relationships are more important than programs.
Chanon Ross, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Youth Ministry, Princeton Theological Seminary
It’s now almost universally agreed in the world of youth ministry that we’ve got to stop isolating our teenagers from the rest of the church. Isolation hurts teenagers and hamstrings the church. But up to this point, we’ve had few prototypes for making that seismic shift. With One Body, Sam helps us imagine a church without generational isolation and makes a compelling, practical case that integrating teenagers into our congregations really can happen. I can’t think of a single church that won’t benefit from this book.
Mark DeVries is the author of Family-Based Youth Ministry, the founder of Ministry Architects, and served 28 years as a youth pastor in Nashville, Tennessee.
Sam Halverson offers biblically grounded, theologically rich arguments for why churches must move away from the silo model of ministry that perpetuates the isolation and alienation of youth from the church, while providing compelling examples and ideas to show us how this can be done. Anyone committed to building a church alive with the energy and prophetic insight of young people should read this…and then show it to every leader in their congregation.
Dr. Elizabeth Corrie, Assistant Professor in the Practice of Youth Education and Peacebuilding and Director of the Youth Theological Initiative at Candler School of Theology, Emory University
uh… a week ago i posted a ‘why we published this’ about gina abbas’s amazing new book, A Woman in Youth Ministry. and i said i was going to post every day that week a “why we published this’ about one of our new resources. but then i didn’t post again. my bad. weak internet during my travels conspired with a schedule that was more full than i’d planned to result in a goose egg. so, now, i resume this li’l series with…
last fall, jake kircher drove me from Open Boston to his church in CT, where i spoke to teenagers, then taught a parent seminar. we had a bunch of time on the road; so when he told me he had a product idea for me to consider, i told him to take his time. jake wove a story about the need he’d discovered with his post-christian teenagers for a different approach to curriculum. as he shared what he’d developed, and why, i responded with something like,
“jake, i think this sounds great; but i think there are two separate resources in this: a curriculum line using this approach, and a short ‘manifesto’ book describing the approach in more detail than a curriculum intro allows for.”
jake considered that for a few weeks, and we were off to the races. later this week i’ll post about jake’s THINK curriculum. but here’s the manifesto–an articulate, challenging, pithy-but-practical book about a teaching approach closer to the socratic method than a propositional throw-down. i’d imagined jake’s book as a sister book to brock morgan’s exceptional book Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World, as they’re addressing some similar contextual realities. so we titled jake’s book with a ‘companion’ title to brock’s.
here’s the back cover description:
Youth workers are in a tough spot these days. On the one hand, we’re finding that teenagers who have little to no church background and Bible literacy tend to be hyper tolerant of all religious views except for Christianity. On the other hand, students who grew up in the church and have heard all of the “right answers” are still struggling to articulate their beliefs and live them out day to day.
When these two realities combine in youth ministry, they can make teaching teenagers about spiritual things an infuriating experience. It can feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall.
It’s been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So maybe it’s time we try something different when it comes to teaching theology to our students. That’s the hopeful change that Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World addresses.
As a follow-up to Brock Morgan’s exceptional Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World, this book will help you shift from being a content dispenser to a conversation cultivator. It’s time we stop treating teenagers like consumers—even when we really believe in what we’re selling. Instead, let’s create learning environments that lead to faith exploration and ownership.
and here’s what others are saying about it:
In Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World, Jake Kircher calls us to reset how we communicate the truth of Scripture to teenagers. We need to clear our memories and adapt our approach to their real world. It’s not the world many of us grew up in. Jake’s style is transparent and humble. He advocates an organic style of ministry that acknowledges and draws on the worldviews and learning styles of students. What he says should be carefully considered by youth leaders—especially those of us whose faith was nurtured in the “God said it…I believe it…that settles it” era. It’s a helpful and provocative read.
Doug Clark, Director of Field Ministries, National Network of Youth Ministries
As you read this book, you will hit bottom with Kircher and then begin to see youth ministry from a new perspective. It’s a tough perspective. You can’t just pour the essence of this book into your cup of ministry, add water, and stir. This is a call to leaders to give up all the superficialities, competitions, and idols of our present ministries and accept a radical relationship with Christ, with the intention of showing young people the difficult cost and high value of discipleship—a radical relationship with Jesus. Only this way can young people escape the limitations and bondage of a post-modern, post-Christian age. It is a self-critical approach to ministry—one in which we need to learn and determine our goals through self-reflection and out of deep relationships with youth, discovering with them what life is all about and how true, loving relationships grow. This book might be too searing and personal, a little too radical and honest for you—though I hope not; because it’s also disarmingly practical.
Dean Borgman, Charles E. Culpeper Professor of Youth Ministries, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; Founder and Director, Center for Youth Studies
How refreshing to get advice from someone who’s right in the thick of the challenge of sharing faith with young people. Jake writes from the perspective of an experienced youth pastor who knows that the old methods of teaching teenagers are increasingly ineffective. The goal remains the same: for teenagers to develop a deep commitment to God that will last a lifetime. But standing up front at a youth meeting and telling teens what to believe isn’t working. Instead, Jake gives us inspiration and practical guidance to teach teenagers who are immersed in modern culture and, of course, the digital world. This is a place where having the space to explore and ask questions is a critical element of the journey to truth, and Jake’s advice will ring true to anyone wondering how to help young people find faith in a postmodern world.
Chris Curtis, CEO, Youthscape
Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World is a quick but important read for far too many of us youth workers who declare we have a plan for ministering to youth, but deep down we aren’t really sure that what we’re accomplishing will last. Jake Kircher is not afraid to be honest about his youth ministry past and what he believes today.
Mike King, President, Youthfront, Author of Presence-Centered Youth Ministry
I loved this book and I highly recommend it. Jake Kircher understands today’s culture and gives us wonderful insights on communicating with teenagers. This book is well researched and no doubt will give you many effective tools to speak to this generation.
Jim Burns, Ph.D., President, HomeWord; Author of Teenology and Confident Parenting
Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World is a must-read for youth workers who are in the trenches. Jake Kircher has written an honest and practical book full of thoughtful and deliberate strategies for guiding teenagers’ spiritual formation in today’s very complex, post-Christian world. Kircher can do this so well because he is immersed in this paradigm shift as he ministers to teens in the Northeast. His personal accounts resonate with my own and, most likely, with those of any youth worker who is passionate about leading students into life-giving faith. My recommendation is that you buy a copy of this book for yourself—and then buy six more!
Brock Morgan, Author of Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World
Teaching is often missized in youth ministries. We either give it grandiose value, or we’re entirely too dismissive of the power of the spoken Word. Jake Kircher is clearly a gifted practitioner, and he does a skillful job of right-sizing the importance of teaching in our ministries. This work is a masterful combination of stating the inaccuracies of our theology and practices, while offering creative, practical insights for how to do it better.
April L. Diaz, Author of Redefining the Role of the Youth Worker; The Youth Cartel’s Director of Coaching
Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World is an engaging and compelling journey of ministry transformation with huge kingdom implications. I enjoyed Jake’s personal, even vulnerable, approach as he moved his youth ministry to one characterized by “exploration and ownership.” My favorite chapter is chapter 5, “Why We Discourage Exploration.” We don’t mean to, of course; but we end up, as he aptly describes it, making our students listeners, not livers of the Christian faith. I love how Jake’s book is filled with fresh hope for youth ministry—and the whole church!
Len Kageler, Ph.D., Professor of Youth and Family Studies, Nyack College; Author of Youth Ministry in a Multifaith Society
a few years ago, before The Youth Cartel was publishing stuff ourselves, i had coffee with a local youth worker named Gina Abbas. i’d sorta known of gina–at least i knew her name–but we didn’t actually know each other. but when we met for coffee, i could quickly tell she was a seasoned youth ministry veteran with something to say. she’d been consistently blogging at her “a woman in youth ministry” blog, which was starting to cause a few challenges (everything from raised eyebrows to outright conflict) at her conservative church. we processed a bit, and got to know each other, and that was about it.
not long after that, gina showed me the proposal for a book she’d been thinking of. i signed on as her literary agent, and after we tweaked and polished the proposal, i started shopping it around. but, alas, three factors wonderfully conspired against finding a publisher for her book:
1. the youth ministry publishing world has been wildly unstable and shifting for a number of years, with many publishers not sure what they’re hoping to publish, and others mired down in a quicksand of cumbersome processes.
2. gina’s book was honest. some would call it edgy (which, in this case, was code for “more honest than we’re comfortable with”).
3. and, gina didn’t have a national platform with built-in sales guarantees.
but: that’s exactly the sort of book and author the Cartel decided we needed to publish (look at morgan schmidt’s book for an example). and when we decided to start publishing, i told gina, “enough of this shopping around to publishers who don’t see why this is both an important book and a needed book; let’s publish this ourselves.” and, i am very happy that gina agreed.
now, a couple years later, gina’s book is real, and one of several titles we have releasing just now. it is at times winsome, even funny; and it is at times confrontative and challenging; it is at all times honest and helpful. this is a book that every woman in youth ministry would benefit from. but it’s also a book that male youth workers need to read if they hope to understand some of the unique challenges their female peers face.
here’s the book’s summary, from the back cover:
If you’ve ever been boycotted for being a girl, pumped breast milk on a church bus, gotten fat from eating too much pizza, or wondered if women really can do youth ministry (even when they get old)…
Whether you’re a single or married female in youth ministry, with or without kids…
Whether you’re a part-time, full-time, or volunteer youth worker…
If you’re serving in a tiny church or a ginormous church…
Or even if you’re a guy who wonders how he can better partner with women in youth ministry…
A Woman in Youth Ministry is for you.
This book is full of stories and rants and blessings and cone-of-silence honesty. Gina Abbas is a storyteller, a listening ear, and an honest coach. She pulls no punches and bares her deepest pain and joy. And—over and over again—Gina provides encouragement and practical help for youth ministry leaders who sometimes feel like they’re going it alone.
and here’s what others are saying about it:
“I wish we didn’t need this book. Really, I do. I wish the current Christian culture were such that a book like this would be completely superfluous. But it’s not. It’s needed—desperately needed. As a youth ministry professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, I’m constantly having conversations with young women who want to know, “Could I be a youth pastor, too?” I look forward to handing them a copy of Gina’s book so they can get current, firsthand information about what it’s like to be a woman in the trenches of youth ministry. Gina’s conversational style is full of insightful stories and wise tips to help bolster her readers’ confidence. While it’s true we learn a lot from experience, Gina’s vulnerability allows us to learn from her experiences as well. This is a must-read for any young woman who wonders whether God could use her to minister to his children.”
Dr. Amanda Drury, Assistant Professor in Practical Theology and Ministry , Indiana Wesleyan University
“‘It’s hard to be awesome when you’re too busy.’ This line from Gina’s book rang so true for me. With creativity, honesty, humor, and meaningful advice from her own story, other voices, and God’s Word, Gina weaves together a beautiful addition for women in leadership. May we–as individuals and as the church–slow our busyness so the kingdom can be even more awesome.”
April L. Diaz, Author of Redefining the Role of the Youth Worker; Director of Coaching at The Youth Cartel
“The challenge for women in ministry today is not just confronting the overt ways women experience inequality (still very present), but also naming the latent ways inequality is perpetuated in ministries’ unchecked assumptions, expressed through programs, postures, relationships, language, and theology. Gina’s story is exactly that–a journey packed with encounters, ideas, and questions worth considering. Women and, more importantly, men should read this book and let Gina be another (or maybe their first) female ministry conversation partner.”
Steven Argue, Pastor and Theologian-in-Residence, Mars Hill Bible Church; Adjunct Professor of Youth Ministries, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary; Advisory Council Member, Fuller Youth Institute
“I wish A Woman in Youth Ministry had been available when I began my career in youth ministry. I desperately emulated the male youth pastors I knew because I was unsure how to be a woman in youth ministry. This book would have saved me considerable grief and heartache, and enabled me to feel less alone. Gina’s stories and wisdom will, no doubt, provide many female youth workers with a road map for how to confidently live into their calling as women in youth ministry. But don’t be fooled by the title. This book isn’t just for women. It’s also for male youth workers who want to partner with their female colleagues more effectively in order to do God’s kingdom work.”
Jen Bradbury, Director of Youth Ministry, Faith Lutheran Church; Author of The Jesus Gap
“If you’re a woman in youth ministry, or know a woman in youth ministry, this book is essential reading. Gina’s writing is warm, honest, and encouraging, with a little bit of rear-kicking. I loved how she opened up difficult but essential topics like education, pay, family-life balance, and boundaries. A Woman in Youth Ministry is a great resource for women in all levels of youth ministry leadership, from volunteers to youth pastors. You’ll return to it over and over.”
Emily Maynard, Blogger & Speaker
“I’ve never read another book like this. A Woman in Youth Ministry is a next-level glimpse into the journey of a youth worker—who also happens to be a woman. It’s a raw, heartfelt, practical guide to navigating the ups and downs of the youth ministry world. If you’re looking for a guide to longevity in youth ministry–you’ve found it!”
Katie Edwards, Saddleback Church
The Youth Cartel is unapologetically feminist. while we love our youth ministry friends in complementarian churches, and are committed to serving them, we stand very emphatically in a place of affirming women in youth ministry as equals.
honestly, i am really proud of this book. it’s an important book. and i deeply hope that lots of my youth ministry friends will read it and be both blessed and challenged by it: encouraged and equipped and made uncomfortable.
purchase A Woman in Youth Ministry from The Youth Cartel store, or download a free sample
purchase A Woman in Youth Ministry from Amazon.com
purchase the Kindle version of A Woman in Youth Ministry from Amazon.com
here’s part 4 (the final bit) of an article i wrote a few years ago, that i thought was worthy of a revisit. part 1 set up the topic. part 2 addressed the futility of addressing materialism head-on with teenagers. part 3 suggested that consumerism is the real issue, not materialism (and that many of our churches and ministries compound that identity). and, part 4:
Top 10 signs your youth ministry might be built on consumeristic assumptions:
(Warning: some of these are intentionally overstated, and reveal why a friend in Northern Ireland called me “a sarky git”.)
10. You talk about “my group” (that’s ownership language–the language of consumers).
9. Your mission statement: More teenagers, more often.
8. You constantly pressure your teenagers to bring friends. Those teenagers whose natural outgoing personality makes this easy are considered the most spiritual.
7. Guilt and manipulation are seen as necessary evils, and reframed as “speaking the truth” or as “the gospel.”
6. The biggest buzz you ever had in ministry was the time you were able to report ten “decisions for Christ”–whether those teenagers were ever seen again or not.
5. You’ve pondered how to make Christianity as simple as possible for teenagers.
4. The result of your youth ministry is nice teenagers who are willing to attend church.
3. The ministry “tools” you’re sure will really get things moving: a great sound system, a hip youth room, and truly awe-inspiring media on screens.
2. You daydream about the things you’ll never have: laser lights and a fog machine.
And the #1 sign your youth ministry might be built on consumeristic assumptions… When you talk about “growth”, you’re only referring to numbers.
What’s a good youth worker to do?
Go ahead: teach about materialism. Like I wrote in part 2, talk with your teenagers about how the accumulation of stuff is a dead-end approach to fulfillment, an endless roundabout of temporary satisfaction. Talk about the amazing counter-cultural idea straight out of the Kingdom of God, that stuff will never truly satisfy, and that true and full living will never be found in money, toys, gadgets, cars or clothes. Offer up for consideration the life-giving practices of living-with-less, serving, and giving.
And don’t just talk about these radical ideas: offer them up as the practices and programming of your ministry. I’ve never seen anything confront materialism in a teenager’s life like the hard, in-your-face realities of an effective cross-cultural missions trip or work project (done well).
But always keep in mind that our most effective teaching and programming will never have full impact unless we begin to undo the consumer-driven underpinnings of our ministry thinking and assumptions. Start with assumptions: ask yourself (and your entire ministry team–even students), “What are the assumptions driving our ministry to teenagers? What assumptions do we have that could be a reflection of an unintentional courtship with consumerism?”
Also look at your “measuring sticks.” What do you measure to determine if you’re effective? You might find that some or all of your success metrics are reflective of an underlying approach to treating teenagers as consumers. Of course, that would mean that you need some new measuring sticks! What non-consumer measurements could reframe the assumptions of your ministry? What non-consumer measurements could you begin to use (in the wake of rejecting or diminishing those that are consumer-driven) that would be truly reflective of Kingdom values? How can we measure whether our groups are embracing Grace and Mercy, Justice, and the journey of Discipleship?
At the end of the day, it’s only when we truthfully and courageously confront our own consumerism and our consumer-driven thinking about youth ministry, combined with effective teaching and programming in the area of materialism, that we can hope to see change. If we do these things, and model these values in our own lives, then we can hope to have teenagers see through the materialistic veil placed on them by our cultures (and our churches!).
here’s part 3 (of 4 parts) of an article i wrote a few years ago, that i thought was worthy of a revisit. part 1 set up the topic. part 2 addressed the futility of addressing materialism head-on with teenagers. now, part 3:
Prepping for a different perspective
Sometimes an extreme example can help (although sometimes it’s easy to distance ourselves and say, “well I’m not that bad!”).
Why do so many youth ministries continue–overtly or more subtly–to embrace a Field-of-Dreams mentality (“If you build it, they will come”)? “Attract a bunch of teenagers” could really be the summary job description of a simple majority of youth workers I interact with (even if it’s not what they want their job descriptions to be). Now, “attracting teenagers” to your youth ministry isn’t in-and-of-itself a bad thing. It’s just a misguided priority.
And here’s how this plays out in extreme (not so extreme that it’s not the reality in hundreds of examples all of the U.S.): First, a church with lots of resources hires a youth worker. Already operating with the attractional philosophy, the youth worker makes a logical leap: “if they will come because we built it, then they will come in much larger numbers if we build it really big and flashy!” So they build youth work facilities better than any rec center you’ve ever seen and offer the most kick-butt high-activity and high-volume youth ministry ever conceived. And, confirming their suspicions, lots of teenagers are “attracted” (it’s a good show, so why wouldn’t they come?).
Materialism isn’t really the problem
Why look at a problematic philosophy of youth ministry in the midst of an article on materialism? Well, because I don’t believe that materialism is our root problem. I think materialism is a symptom. Consumerism is the real problem. And our churches have so completely bought into consumerism (at least most churches that aren’t conversely stuck in traditionalism), it’s almost absurd to try to teach our teenagers about the problems of materialism.
This isn’t an article about church history and models of ministry, so I won’t go into too much detail here–but somewhere in the 2nd half of the last century, propelled by our modernistic propensity to view everything as quantifiable, objectifiable and mechanical, our churches fully embraced “growth” as the ultimate goal (sounds nice and organic, doesn’t it?). Again, I’m simplifying here, but stick with me: in order to get more people (or more teenagers), we started making changes, many of them long overdue, in our programming and worship and architecture and everything else about church ministry. Many of these changes “worked” in terms of making church (or youth group) more attractive. While the church is struggling in many quarters, churches who adopted these innovative approaches often experienced significant numerical growth.
Now, please don’t misread me. I believe some of the changes churches have experimented with or implemented have been good and needed changes. The problem is, the church accidentally swallowed something else along with the good changes: noncritical assumptions that treating parishioners (or teenagers) as consumers is just how things have to be done these days.
That’s my point here: it’s rather useless to challenge teenagers on their materialism if our entire ministries are built on treating them as consumers!
next, tomorrow: part 4, wrapping it up
here’s part 2 (of 4 parts) of an article i wrote a few years ago, that i thought was worthy of a revisit. part 1 set up the topic. here’s part 2:
Let’s pretend materialism is the real issue
I’m not denying that materialism is a major issue, a distraction from living fully in the kingdom of God, and that we’d be irresponsible as youth workers not to talk about this with our teenagers. It is, and it does, and we would be if we didn’t (did you follow that?).
Jesus spoke clearly about the love of stuff and how it erodes real life. That gadfly teaching of his about the guy with the perfect pearl is the annoying pea that distracts all of us under our princess-like pile of mattresses.
If we believe that Jesus knew what he was talking about, we have to embrace the fact that the accumulation of “stuff” impedes teenagers’ ability to live the fullness of life Jesus promises in John 10:10. Of course, the problem is, our teenagers are soaking in a culture that constantly tells them the accumulation of stuff is fullness of life. So merely talking about the evils of materialism is like talking about the evils of water to fish–it just doesn’t compute. Our once-in-a-while diatribes about the love of money just come off sounding like antiquated sentimentalism for the good old days; or worse yet, like complete and utter hypocrisy.
Think of it this way: simply telling teenagers “sex before marriage is bad” doesn’t do much to reframe their thinking about a message that is so counter to everything else they hear and experience. To effectively talk about sexuality, we have to offer a counter-story–a better story about goodness and ultimate fulfillment, not just condemnation and consequences.
The same is true with materialism. Our teaching can’t focus on the negative. We have to propose an alternate reality–a better reality, a “more real reality”–of how living fully in the Kingdom of God, without a focus on getting more stuff, is a better way to live. And not just better in its moral value, but better in its fruit. We have to show examples of passionate, highly-fulfilled people who haven’t found their meaning in possessing more. We have to teach about the revolutionary way of Jesus, the upside-down realities of the Kingdom, that promise the greatest meaning and passion and purpose in life through serving others, through selling what we have and giving to the poor.
Don’t forget, all this is highly abstract. And most teenagers are fairly limited in their ability to fully grasp abstract ideas. So we have to work hard to concretize these truths–talking about what it really looks like to live in an affluent culture and still embrace life-giving Kingdom values.
Of course, the best way to teach this is to live it out in front of your teenagers. Ah… that’s part of the rub, isn’t it?
next, in part 3: i don’t think materialism is actually the issue.
here’s an article i wrote a few years ago on teenagers and materialism. i thought it was worth a revisit.
A Different Spin on the Problem of Materialism
I have a friend who’s on welfare. He’s brilliant and creative and funny. He’s a fantastic writer, and has dreams of getting published. As employment, he’s waiting for that dream to come true. His wife had a minor injury at work a few years ago and went on disability. Now, if she gets a job, the disability will be cut off. So they have absolutely no money. And they have three teenage kids (all of whom, by the way, are fully capable of getting a job and helping the family, but don’t).
My friend’s teenage kids, who have an nice gaming system, feel completely ripped off that they can’t get the newest gaming system. They lounge around the house complaining about how much it sucks that their parents can’t get them the new system, while dozens of games for the fully functional gaming system at their feet retire to the land of forgotten toys.
Why does this bug me so much? Well, a few reasons. But the reality is, the whole thing bugs me because it exposes everyone’s materialism–certainly my friend’s teenage kids, but also my friend and his wife, and yes, even mine. See, while I really enjoy this friend, and like hanging out with him, I’ve not yet had him over to my own home. I’m concerned that he will only see me as a source for money or other stuff. I don’t have that newest gaming system, but I have a lot of stuff. And the potential that my friend could view me as a potential lava-flow of cash only exposes me! If I weren’t materialistic, and a champion-level collector of new gadgetry, my friend’s potential perspective wouldn’t be an issue.
Let’s face it: we’re all materialistic (at least most of us). Trying to say that this generation of teenagers is so different, so much worse–I’m not sure I buy it (ha, get it? “Buy” it!). Anyone young enough to have completely missed World War II (that would be most of us) has no real sense of limitations on spending. So what is different about today’s teenagers and materialism?
Well, first of all, they are materialistic. They want stuff. They have massive spending power, and Madison Avenue spend millions of dollars to open the pocketbooks of teenagers. This is overly simplistic, but there are a couple key factors in play here:
– There have always been materialistic stuff-hoarding people. But materialism was never embraced as a cultural norm–as something to be proud of–until the 1980s.
– Connected to that reality, teenagers today embrace the materialism they see exhibited in their homes and the world around them. They have lived with a heightened materialism their entire lives.
This is one of the reasons we tend to notice the materialism of teenagers. Especially for those of us who were teenagers prior to the 90s (for me, WAY-prior to the 90s!), there is a new embracing of stuff that wasn’t present to the same degree when we were teenagers.
tomorrow: “talking about the evils of materialism is like talking about the evils of water to fish–it just doesn’t compute.”
i opened my blog this morning and thought, “today feels like a photo in need of a caption day.” maybe that was a prompting from the holy spirit; or maybe it was the carnitas i had for dinner last night.
either way: this gem is begging for captioning. best caption wins your choice of 6 new products The Youth Cartel is releasing in the next couple weeks:
- A Woman in Youth Ministry: Honest Insight and Leadership Wisdom for Real People
- Teaching Teenagers in a Post-Christian World: Cultivating Exploration and Ownership
- One Body: Integrating Teenagers into the Life of Your Church
- Hypotherables: The questions are hypothetical. The conversations are real.
- THINK, vol. 1: Culture
- Viva: I Am
Jesus Christ Superstar
Cleveland says, “Nevermind, LeBron.”
Jesus’ biggest foe on the court is Peter. Every time he drives to the hole, he gets DENIED!
AND THE WINNER IS…
close call between cash and bethany; but the scales just barely tipped to bethany. nice one, mrs. butterfield. i’ll contact you about your prize!
reading Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel. it’s been on my ‘to read’ stack for more than six months.
it reminds me of the wonderful quote that dean blevins tossed out during our panel on teenage brains at the nywc last fall:
do we view teenagers as a problem to be solved, or a wonder to behold?
view this quote from the book through a “wonder to behold” lens:
Brain changes during the early teen years set up four qualities of our minds during adolescence: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration.
yeah, i think i’ll have to blog about this more. but this is worth a mini-post by itself.
short term missions in youth ministry has been taking quite a bit of hits recently. and, honestly, i agree with a good bit of the criticism. but i think much of the criticism misses a few extremely important points and throws the baby out with the bathwater.
take, for instance, this huffpo blog post i read last week (but was posted earlier this year), called The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism. the author recalls the savior complex she brought to her orphanage visit, and the horrendous construction work done by her group of teenage girls that required local men to come during the night and completely undo and redo the work. based on her experience with a poorly executed trip, the author suggests:
It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.
I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.
and her “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” final conclusion:
Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip.
this, i believe, is unfortunately misinformed. i completely agree that there are some missions trip that are ill-conceived, poorly executed, and focused almost exclusively on giving the american participants a warm fuzzy feeling. i completely agree that you shouldn’t take your youth group on a trip like this.
but the correction doesn’t have to have only the two options the author (and so many others) suggest: either have a useful skill, or don’t go. instead, there are other very helpful (essential!) ways to ensure that your trip isn’t voluntourism. they boil down to these issues:
- work with an organization that is imbedded in the local culture.
- work with an organization that ruthlessly cultivates long term local relationships of trust from an unflinching commitment to serving the vision of local, indigenous leaders.
- prep your team effectively, so they come to serve, rather than to be either “saviors” or tourists.
here’s what i saw again this past week in belize, during my time here with Praying Pelican Missions:
people like this decide what needs to get done (the guy on the left, that is). that’s pastor henry, pastor of sand hill baptist church and a national leader in the belize baptist church. HE decides, not the visiting groups or PPM.
but no particular skill is needed to mix cement and do other grunt work. in this case, the visiting group of teenagers and some teens from the church worked side-by-side on the non-skilled grunt work.
kids min doesn’t focus on conversions. in this fantastic case, belizians led parts of the kids min (they’re the up front people during this time of singing), and visiting americans help where they’re helpful (running games, doing crafts).
and when an orphanage with wonderful leadership says “we’re short-staffed, and the children don’t get as much touch and play as we would like them to have,” well, it doesn’t take much skill to be present to a child who’s not experiencing much of childhood.
so, yes, let’s absolutely be thoughtful and super cautious. let’s stay away from voluntourism and colonialism and savior complexes and helping that hurts. if your trips include any shade of those mindsets, repent, and find a new missions trip provider. but even if you wouldn’t think of knowingly taking your youth group on “bad” trip, don’t allow your good and healthy aversion to those sins keep you from helping teenagers participate in kingdom work in the world. just make sure you and the organization you work with or through is ruthlessly committed to (and has a track record of living out) the values i’ve suggested here.
I spent the day Saturday with Pastor Ed and Pastor Rosaura, both passionate and visionary church leaders in Belize. No question about it, they stirred up my faith, challenged my half-hearted commitment, and embodied the true definition of the word “pastor” in ways most of us rarely encounter.
Pastor Ed was the leader of a small, struggling church. He and his wife felt called to intentionally and proactively launch a community children’s ministry. But when they sought the input of their church leadership, the vision was voted down. They took it to their denominational leadership and received the same negative response. Not able to shake their sense of calling, they stepped down from their church and launched a children’s ministry with no safety net, no support systems.
Now, a few years later, Pastor Ed and his wife lead Koinonia ministries–a revolutionary children’s ministry in their town of Orange Walk, Belize. Ed told me that in Belize, children begin taking on significant responsibilities at about age 5, and rarely get a chance to be children. So a big part of their ministries is just to allow kids to be kids. Their ministry might not look revolutionary to American church leaders who see robust and well-financed children’s ministry all the time; but in Belize, hardly anyone is doing stuff like this.
I happened to be in Orange Walk on one of three Saturdays in the year when Koinonia holds their “children’s fair.” At the fair, kids brought in little play money they had “earned” in a variety of ways over the last few months. Then they used the “money” to play carnival games where they won school supplies (there are no free schools in Belize, and both the cost of school and the cost of school supplies is a significant hurdle for many families).
Check out the joy on these kids’ faces:
Oh, and as the parents of these hundreds of kids started to hang around, many of them began asking for a church. Koinonia church now has about 80 people (large for a Belizian church) meeting under an awning on the side of Ed’s house.
And Ed has a vision for training children’s workers all over Belize and Central America. He now has about 200 children’s ministry leaders from all denominations (ministries across denominational lines is extremely rare in Belize), including Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and even Old Order Mennonite, coming to Koinonia three times a year for training. Next week, Ed and some of his young leaders are traveling to Guatemala and Honduras to lead children’s ministry training sessions.
Ed and his wife have basically given up everything to follow this calling; but he is clearly living the fullness of life in a way that most people never realize.
Then Ed took me to meet Pastor Rosaura. Honestly, I found her little village of Caledonia a bit depressing. Or, at least, let’s say it would be a tough place to minister. Isolated and small (2000 people), with all the societal challenges that come with being a poor, isolated village. Rosaura and her church leadership team greeted us warmly and shared with passion about their very, very local commitment. This woman has a love for her village that is palpable.
Two years ago, she was deeply discouraged. Her tiny church was struggling, and none of her vision for her village was being realized. But through an introduction from Pastor Ed, Praying Pelican Missions showed up and asked if they could bring groups to help her. Hearing her tell the story of these past few years, and how things have very much turned around for this little (but growing) church, she was full of hope. And what was clear to me was that it wasn’t really about the projects that the visiting PPM groups did; it was that someone saw them, that the groups who were willing to come to Caledonia were a clear indicator to Rosaura that God had not forgotten them.
One of the best stories Rosaura told me was how she and her church leaders felt called to “anoint” their village. But they weren’t sure how to do it in a way that didn’t create friction or alienation. So after praying about it for a while, they collected hundreds of pebbles. They put the pebbles in a large bag and coated them with oil, praying over them. Then, in the middle of the night, they prayer-walked through the entire village and dropped a pebble in each yard.
Here’s what struck me about Pastor Ed and Pastor Rosaura: they need Aarons and Hurs to hold up their arms (just like Aaron and Hur did for Moses when his arms grew tired while the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea on their way out of captivity). Sure, they could use funding and resources. And, yes, the PPM teams that come and work with them are absolutely helpful. But these two leaders are not short of vision, not short of passion, and deeply know a God who is not short of meeting any need. What they DO need is people who say, “We believe in you, and we believe in your vision; and however we can help you, we’re committed to encouraging you with our presence.”
Yesterday my Praying Pelican Missions (PPM) host drove me an hour west of Belize City to spend a few hours in the town of San Ignacio. I couldn’t help but think of Ignatius (the town’s namesake), the saint who instituted the Prayer of Examen, which calls us to reflect on where we saw God in both the life-giving and life-draining moments of our day. My middle school guys small group practices our own little version of this each week called “happy/crappy.”
And although life in San Ignacio is “crappy” by most American standards, I was almost overwhelmed by the quantity of “happy.” And I’m not just talking about a smiley feeling; I’m referring to the abundance of truly life-giving activity happening in and around San Ignacio. Much of this is due to a larger-than-life dynamo named Pastor Elizabeth and her family.
Pastor Elizabeth is exactly the sort of local church leader that PPM is laser focused on finding, then serving.
We drove to San Ignacio with Paula, Pastor Elizabeth’s 19 year-old daughter. This young woman has more maturity, drive and skill than most people a decade her senior. She leads trips for PPM, leads leadership development for Pastor Elizabeth’s church, and is responsible in one way or another for a myriad of creative outreach, community development, and leadership development initiatives.
We started with lunch at Pastor Elizabeth’s home (then ventured out to see many of their ministry initiatives). There were an extra half dozen people living in her very small and humble home at the time (not an uncommon occurrence, i came to discover), as people had need and she took them in. She served us a tasty meal and gushed energy and stories and life and Kingdom theology and embodied gospel like a freakin’ firehose for an hour, non-stop. Rarely in my life have I met an embodiment of living the gospel to the extent that I saw in Elizabeth.
Just a few of their ministries (most of which, visiting PPM groups sometimes help with, at Elizabeth’s request):
- They found that many of the children coming to Sunday school on Sunday mornings were critically hungry (food scarcity is a significant problem in Belize). And even when the children do get meals, they are mostly starches and sugars. Elizabeth said to me, “When a child walks to church four miles for Sunday school and says “I’m hungry,” you can’t just say “Here’s a banana, I’ll pray for you.” So they started a feeding program for the children, which has grown to feeding 120 – 150 children each week. Elizabeth said she usually doesn’t know where the food will come from, but it’s always there, somehow.
- At some point, they felt they needed a more dependable influx of protein. So they began a brilliant community development initiative. They build chicken coops for people (PPM teams often do this work), and stock them with 50 baby chicks (a particular chicken bred for meat), and give the family enough chicken feed for 6 weeks. At the end of the 6 weeks, the chickens are ready to be eaten. 10 of the chickens go to the family who raised them; 10 of the chickens go to the church’s feeding program; and the remaining 30 chickens are sold to provide funding for additional coops and starter-chickens. All of this is slowly building to the goal of providing financial resources to families in need, and food provisions for the feeding program (which they’re hoping to expand to a daily meal).
- Similarly, they’ve started community gardens to grow vegetables (there is a surprising shortage of vegetables in Belize).
- A nearby community was desperately in need of clean water. Women and children were walking miles to get water from other sources, often not clean. So Elizabeth’s church (with the help of a PPM team) designed and installed a rainwater collection system in multiple locations with an expectation that the water would be shared with anyone who needed it.
- Paula leads an outreach and discipleship ministry that might seem interesting in the American church, but is unheard of here in Belize. They start cell groups around affinities of people in the community: sewing (which is actually a skill-training cell group, leading to work options for the women), sports, music, and others. They find that people are very willing to join one of these cell groups, even if they would never step into church. These groups become leadership development for the young adults who lead them, and outreach and discipleship for those who attend.
Elizabeth told me a story: “I was preparing a meal for a group of people from our neighborhood. There were 20 people, and I only had 2 small chickens. I had no idea how the food was going to be enough; but I prepared it and served it, praying that Jesus would do something amazing. I don’t know why everyone seemed to want drumsticks that day, but way too many of them specifically asked for a drumstick. And I kept serving them drumsticks. At the end of the meal, I said, ‘Now, wait a minute. How many of you ate a drumstick?’ And too many hands went up. I said, ‘Leave the drumstick bones–I want to see them.’ I went around and counted 13 drumsticks. And these were not some sort of weird chickens!”
She hit me with “Miracles don’t happen if we just sit there. We have to step out.” And she drove home the point with, “I tell people, ‘You think the gospel is boring? Come live with me for a week.’”