Thursday, December 21, 2006

    Why do teens do stupid things?

    Check out this article and you will know!

    [I]t's not that they don't ponder the the potential consequences. In fact, a new study finds teens spend more time weighing risk than adults and in fact often overestimate the odds of a bad outcome. But the desire for acceptance among peers wins out in the decision-making process of a young mind.

    Numbers, numbers, numbers!

    It's ridiculous how many times in recent memory I've been with folks connected to youth ministry and someone has said "You need to check out what so-and-so is doing. He's got over 100 youth in his program" or "She is doing some great stuff in youth ministry. You should see the tons of kids that are participating." Please stop it, for the love of God! Stop equating success in ministry with how many people you can attract. Stop confusing consumer culture with the mission of the Church. Whether literal or metaphorical, scripture depicts Jesus as focusing most of his time and teaching on just twelve guys! I think there's a lesson in there somewhere.

    Saturday, December 16, 2006

    Radical Carol

    After just posting about Jackson Browne's radical Christmas carol "The Rebel Jesus," I came across some cool background info at Beliefnet on the creation of the traditional tune "O Holy Night." French in origin, the lyrics of "Cantique de Noel" were written in 1847 by a man who eventually left the Church to become a socialist. The music was written by his friend, a Jew. Although initially a popular carol, once Church leaders discovered the unusual origins of the tune, "O Holy Night" was denounced and deemed unfit for use in church services. Fast forward several years, and American writer John Sullivan Dwight translates the tune into English for a new audience:

    Not only did this American writer--John Sullivan Dwight--feel that this wonderful Christmas songs needed to be introduced to America, he saw something else in the song that moved him beyond the story of the birth of Christ. An ardent abolitionist, Dwight strongly identified with the lines of the third verse: "Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease." The text supported Dwight's own view of slavery in the South. Published in his magazine, Dwight's English translation of "O Holy Night" quickly found found favor in America, especially in the North during the Civil War.

    See more background here. Sharing this background story would help others to see this traditional tune in a new light and to understand the radical good news it still offers to the world.

    Even More Creative Worship

    Here is another great idea for creative worship, posted at the intriguing blog A Churchless Faith. It is another example of non-linear worship that encourages deep reflection and exploration. It would work well with my youth.

    The Rebel Jesus

    Every couple of years, I take the opportunity during Advent to share with my youth a song by Jackson Browne entitled "The Rebel Jesus." The song was originally recorded for Browne's 1991 holiday album with The Chieftains entitled The Bells of Dublin. In many ways, it offers an antidote to the sickly-sweet protrait of Jesus that we often foist onto our children as they are growing up and counteracts the way commerical culture uses Jesus this time of year as a shill for holiday shopping excess. I want my students to understand that Jesus was more than just "a nice guy" and more than an excuse to justify and feed our out-of-control consumer culture.

    At a time in their lives when they are questioning everything, particularly authority, a portrait of Jesus as a rebel and radical taps into those emotion centers of the teenage brain that are working full-throttle. Jesus hung out with all the wrong people, had all the wrong politics, threatened the status quo, and wasn't afraid to love wastefully. That's the sort of Jesus I want my youth to follow. Here are the lyrics to this haunting tune (you can listen to it for free here and for some interesting background on the ad campaign that developed the image of Jesus above, go here):

    All the streets are filled with laughter and light
    And the music of the season
    And the merchants' windows are all bright
    With the faces of the children
    And the families hurrying to their homes
    As the sky darkens and freezes
    Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
    Giving thanks for God's graces
    And the birth of the rebel Jesus

    Well they call him by 'the Prince of Peace'
    And they call him by 'the Savior'
    And they pray to him upon the seas
    And in every bold endeavor
    And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
    As their faith in him increases
    But they've turned the nature that I worship in
    From a temple to a robber's den
    In the words of the rebel Jesus

    We guard our world with locks and gun
    And we guard our fine possessions
    And once a year when Christmas comes
    We give to our relations
    And perhaps we give a little to the poor
    If the generosity should seize us
    But if any one of us should interfere
    In the business of why there are poor
    They get the same as the rebel Jesus

    But pardon me if I have seemed
    To take the tone of judgement
    For I've no wish to come between
    This day and your enjoyment
    In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
    We have need for anything that frees us
    So I bid you pleasureAnd I bid you cheer
    From a heathen and a pagan
    On the side of the rebel Jesus

    The Biggest Mistakes I've Made in Youth Ministry - Pt. 2

    What are the worst mistakes you can make in youth ministry? Consider these:

    1) Competing with other ministries - It's hard to resist the temptation to want to see what the church across the street or across town (or across the country) is doing and wondering "Hmmm. Maybe I should be doing that, too." If the other church seems to be attracting more youth or more attention or more praise, I suppose it's human nature to want to emulate their program. I used to be hyper vigilant about trying to discover the latest trend, the latest gimmick, the newest "approach" to youth ministry and then implementing it, figuring that if it worked somewhere else, it would work with my students. This sort of approach assumes all youth and thus all youth ministries are alike and that what works across the street will work just as well on our side of the street. But the truth is - every ministry is particular to the setting and the individuals that we serve. It might be interesting or even helpful to know what others are doing, but ultimately our focus needs to be on the particular youth we serve. These days, I don't even copy my own youth ministry program from one year to the next because over time the group shifts and grows and their needs change.
    2) Doubting my age - When I was a younger man just starting in youth ministry, I feared that I was too young, too close to the age of the youth to make any lasting impression on them. Then, as I grew older (grey hair...less hair...reading glasses), I began to wonder if I was getting too old to be effective with the youth. Was this a job for a younger person? The truth is, if youth ministry is your calling, then age has nothing to do with your effectiveness in ministry. There were advantages to being a twenty-something youth minister: I had lots of free time to give to the youth, I understood their culture because it was similar to mine, I had lots of energy, and the youth could relate to me because I was close to their age. There are, of course, many advantages to being an "older" youth minister: I have much greater experience and a more mature faith, I've made lots of mistakes and learned from them, I've had more time to learn what youth ministry is and can be, and I've reached a much more relaxed time in life that allows me to offer the young'ns a different perspective on the world than the frenetic life they believe they are destined to lead.

    3) The "Family Guy" Error - I can sum this one up in three words: Preview! Preview! Preview! Just to assure you that I still make mistakes: At a recent youth group gathering which we call "free night" (an evening of unstructured fellowship time), one young man offered to bring episodes of "Family Guy" to show for those who wanted to watch TV. I had only seen one short clip of a "Family Guy" episode on YouTube and it seemed funny and fairly innocuous so I figured it was no problem. Wrong! Trust me on this one: "Family Guy" is hilarious and it is also completely inappropriate for a church setting. After about 3 minutes of viewing -- three minutes replete with curse words, sexual references, and an image of the father character in black lingerie, I switched in a Disney movie (and then asked the young man if he'd let me borrow his "Family Guy" DVDs to watch later in the privacy of my own home!).

    Friday, December 15, 2006

    And the Winner Is...

    Youth ministry blogger Stuart, a "youth worker lost in the Pacific northwest," is hosting an end-of-the-year Christian Whore Awards. Who will be the winner? Joel Osteen and his bajillion dollars in book sales, or maybe The Veggie Tales folks who gave up Jesus for a coveted Saturday morning timeslot? You are even invited to add your own nominees. I personally can't imagine that list without at least a mention of the Left Behind guys. With their new video game, you don't have to waste time converting the infidels -- you just blast them out of existence!

    Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.

    Now, doesn't that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? And to think I've been wasting time all these years teaching youth to love thy enemy!

    Thursday, December 14, 2006


    Something our youth should see.

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006

    More Creative Worship

    It's always encouraging to see young people become engaged with the practice of worship. As part of our Advent study, we invited youth to create a worship experience based on an idea I came across in this blog by Chuckk Gerwig.
    Students were divided up into groups and each group was encouraged to create a worship center focused on a particular Advent theme and related scripture. After giving them time to brainstorm and create, the groups met in our chapel and set up their worship centers. Everyone was then invited to visit each center at their leisure, and no particular order, and experience what had been created by the various groups. One center focused on all the food we consume this time of year juxtaposed with the issue of hunger in the world. The center was made up of stacks of food packages and cans. Students were invited to read the accompanying scripture and devotional (written by one of the youth, with photos and world hunger facts) and then use a post-it note to leave behind their thoughts or reactions by sticking them on the food packages. Other centers focused on music, sculpting responses with clay, a giant interactive Advent calendar, and a graffiti-type wall for leaving thoughts and ideas. We concluded the evening with a group prayer. I'd actually love to create an experience like this for our Sunday morning worship, though it would of course require a little more advance planning.

    Facebook is my new best friend!

    So, after months of saying I was going to do it, I've finally set-up my very own FACEBOOK profile page. I suspect I'm one of the oldest persons to use this web service, as it was originally designed as a "my space" clone for high school and college students. Open to any and all interested users now, the site allows you to post pics and messages and stay in contact with other people. When I learned that my youth (and most of the college students in my campus ministry group) spend all their time on this site, and are much more interested in looking at messages posted to their Facebook page than they are to regular ol' emails, I decided it was time to take the plunge. After getting over their initial shock that their semi-elderly youth minister was now privy to everything they were posting on their Facebook pages, the young'ns concluded that it was kind of cool to be able to stay in contact with me this way.
    I have discovered that I can get a response from them about ten times as fast just by posting to their profile page rather than sending them an email they will look at 5 days too late. I can also post photos from youth events and announcements about upcoming activities so it also functions as a youth group website of sorts. I particularly like the confidentiality of the site. You are not allowed to see someone's profile and posted info unless they are willing to add you as a "friend." All in all, it's an effective way to stay in touch with the youth. Now...if I could just get them to come to Sunday school!

    Saturday, December 02, 2006

    Charlie Brown Christmas

    Saturday, November 25, 2006

    Christ the King

    In doing a little background research for this coming Sunday's liturgy, I came across this timely quote from an essay by Barbara Brown Taylor in The Christian Century, referring to Good Friday:
    One of the many things this story tells us is that Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar.

    Wednesday, November 22, 2006

    Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

    The National Survey of Youth and Religion has some fascinating things to say about who these teenagers are that roam the hallways and youth rooms of our mainline churches. One of the most significant findings of their in-depth research is that Christian teens, by in large, seem to subscribe to what the researchers call "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." The MTD creed goes something like this:

    (1) "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth."

    (2) "God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions."

    (3) "The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."

    (4) "God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."

    (5) "Good people go to heaven when they die."

    I think that hits the nail on the head. And this isn't just the viewpoint of many teens. It has permeated into the adult ranks of the Church as well. In the text that summarizes the studies findings, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the authors argue that MTD has replaced a more traditional version of Christian belief and practice:

    We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity's misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith" (page 171).

    This "different religious faith," perhaps not by accident, happens to be a perfect bedfellow with our modern consumer culture that sells happiness as the goal of life and supplies consumer products that promise to satiate our unending appetite for feeling good. The researches argue: "Therapeutic indvidualism's ethos perfectly serves the needs and interests of the U.S. mass-consumer capitalist economy by constituting people as self-fulfillment-oriented consumers subject to advertising's influence on their subjective feelings."

    None of this should be a big surprise. I recall when I started serving at my current church several years ago and early on held a meeting with the adult and teen leaders of the youth group. When asked how they understood the purpose of our youth ministry program, the general response was something along the lines of "We come together to be nice to each other and have fun." In essence, youth group as "The Nice People's Club." Here's the problem: there are lots of "Nice People's Clubs" out there in the secular world. Does the Church not have an identity distinct from secular culture? One of my favorite texts in seminary, perhaps suprisingly as it was written by conservative authors, was Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. In it they strongly argue that when the Church ceases to have an identity separate from the secular culture, it ceases to be the Church. The authors write: "...both the conservative and liberal church...are basically accommodationist (that is, Constantinian) in their social ethic. Both assume wrongly that the American church's primary social task is to underwrite American democracy." (p. 32)

    Of course, it goes without saying that if all we want our young people to learn is that God wants them to be good citizens -- to be nice to each other and to live a happy life -- it doesn't take long to teach that message. They pick that up pretty early on. So, once they get it, what use is the Church to them -- unless of course the Church is working to make them happy, too.

    So, here's what I'd suggest. Go to the teens of the church, present them with this notion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and ask them what they think. Is this how they understand God and faith? If so, are they willing to risk going deeper with their faith? And if they don't see themselves reflected in MTD, are they willing to try to articulate what it is they do understand the Christian faith to be about? Maybe it's time to just sit down with kids and start having these conversations -- to ask them what they really think about God, sin, death, salvation, the afterlife, justice, and love. We might be suprised at what they have to tell us.

    Tuesday, November 21, 2006

    The Biggest Mistakes I've Made in Youth Ministry - Part 1

    What are the worst mistakes you can make in youth ministry? Here are a few suggestions:

    1) Posting Youth Group attendance numbers in the church newsletter - This may seem like a good idea when you've got a ton of kids coming. But when the number takes an ocassional dip, as it inevitably will do from time to time, you "got some 'splainin' to do." Not to mention, posting these sorts of numbers just communicates that you think it's the size of the ministry, not the quality, that counts.

    2) Playing "kiddie" versions of college chug-a-lug games - Early in my career, I came across a game in a youth ministry book that looked like fun. The directions said to attach pieces of rubber tubing to the mouth of several 2-liter bottles of soda and then invite several students to compete to see who could be first to drink their entire two-liter through the tube while the bottle is held above their heads (imagine an IV-drip attached to a hospital patient). The time I tried this, one teen realized it was just for fun and let the soda pour out of her mouth and all over her shirt. But the other teen, a boy who was visiting that night, really made an attempt to drink the entire bottle through the tube. He drank about half the bottle when he discovered that all that carbonation was too much and he promptly puked up on the church parking lot. It was not too long after that when I discovered that this game is actually a non-alcoholic version of a fraternity drinking game! Yes, I was naive and innocent. No, we never played that game again. Yes, that boy did actually come back to youth group for another visit! No, I never told his parents about the little "incident" on the parking lot!

    3) Assuming parents won't mind if youth group runs 15 minutes late - They do mind--they mind enough to come and yank their child out right in the middle of closing worship! So much for "Go in Peace." Punctuality goes a long way in fostering good youth minister-parent relations.

    Friday, November 10, 2006

    The Church You Know

    The Church You Know appears to be a relatively new website that takes an honest but humorous look at the traditional church and some of its shortcomings (and God knows it has plenty of those!). I especially appreciate the faux-promo video shorts that deal with the ironic and sometimes hypocritical side of such issues as church attendance, tithing, worship styles, and the ubiquitous WWJD? Oh, and who wouldn't want one of their "Body of Christ" t-shirts (though, in my experience, the youth minister usually ranks even a little lower in the anatomy!).

    From the site:
    We are not really promoting a specific church structure or model (house church, simple church etc.). Our passion is to see people come into the freedom, joy and peace of intimate relationship with Jesus and fellow members of His Body. We realize this can happen within literally any of the structures or systems found under the umbrella of Christendom. At the same time, we believe most of the systems and structures create stumbling blocks to this goal of relationship with Christ and His Body – and these are what we hope to draw attention to.

    Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    The Questions...

    I was talking a week or so ago with Josh, one of the talented and devoted adult leaders of our youth program. It was shortly after seeing "Jesus Camp" and I was commenting that one thing that distinguishes fundamentalist evangelical teens from our teens is that the evangelical youth really know what they "believe." Those "jesus camp" kids can tell you exactly what they think about God, sin, the afterlife, salvation, etc. Our youth, on the other hand, probably couldn't really articulate any definite thinking on those subjects. Josh's response: "I'm not sure a teenager should be able to give you a definite answer about those things." Though a part of me wants to provide youth with a basic set of Christian fundamentals, a greater part of me agrees with Josh. Teenagers don't necessarily need answers about faith. Rather, they need to be shown how to asks lots and lots of questions. And, just as importantly, they need a safe space in which to ask them.

    Monday, November 06, 2006


    Currently the news is full of stories on the sad turn of events for Rev. Ted Haggard who appears in the new documentary "Jesus Camp" making comments in a sermon -- comments which have taken on new meaning due to recent revelations. Haggard has admitted to being involved with a gay prostitute and using drugs, all while preaching to his church members the dangers of temptations and the evils of homosexuality. In a final letter to his church, Haggard states:

    There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark
    that I've been warring against it all of my adult life"

    I can only imagine the pain being felt by his wife and children, not to mention the demons that Haggard is dealing with at this time. I also can't help but wonder what is going through the minds of the young people in his church, and you know there must be some, who themselves have struggled with their sexual identity. How are they to understand this turn of events? Here is a religious leader who preaches that homosexuality is a sin while he himself acts on his sexual orientation in destructive ways.

    I have to wonder how this whole picture might be different if Rev. Haggard lived in a world where his sexual orientation was simply seen as another expression of human life -- if he had felt free to be the person he truly is, rather than living a lie. It is not Haggard's sexual orientation that led to these unfortunate events. It is the "closet" he felt forced to hide in and a religious viewpoint that deems a part of a person's biological makeup to be sinful and immoral. One of the great sins of the Church today is that many so-called Christians still feel perfectly content to condemn faithful young gay people to the the same damnable "closet" that has destroyed Haggard's ministry and damaged his family life.

    Christian fundamentalism ceases to be a "just another variation of the Christian message" when it twists the teachings of the gospel to force people to hate themselves or others for being the person God created them to be. Persons can agree or disagree on what the biblical authors thought about same-sex relationships thousands of years ago. But ultimately we are called to love one another, to invite one another to the table, and to help one another live into a life centered in God's justice and peace.

    I can imagine a fundamentalist eagerly approaching Christ on his "return" and saying "At last, Jesus, you're back. Now, settle this question about the homosexuals once and for all!"
    To which Jesus replies. "The what now? Any way, back to what I was saying about love, peace, justice, grace, and forgiveness. Maybe you'd better start writing this down. You folks seem to have a knack for being easily distracted by trivial matters. By the way, I've only got a few more minutes. I'm having lunch in a half hour with some of my friends at the GLBT church down the street."

    Some more reactions to this story at

    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Time Magazine & Youth Ministry

    Time Magazine has printed a article on the current shift happening in youth ministry away from consumer-culture centered programs to ministries centered in spiritual formation and mission:

    Youth ministers have been on a long and frustrating quest of their own over the past two decades or so. Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination. Their conversion has been sparked by the recognition that sugarcoated Christianity, popular in the 1980s and early '90s, has caused growing numbers of kids to turn away not just from attending youth-fellowship activities but also from practicing their faith at all.

    The shift described in the article is encouraging, but the author seems to equate success in youth ministry with how many youth are attracted to your programs. Is not this focus on numbers a by-product of the consumer-culture we are trying to resist? Is a small country church with a five-member youth group necessarily less effective than a 500-member youth group at a mega-church? Years ago I stopped reporting in the church newsletter the number of youth present at our various activities. I realized that it sent the message that we were judging the value of our ministry by the number of youth who walked in the door.

    MAC Ad Parody

    Monday, October 30, 2006

    Worship...Out of the Box

    Many of our youth either avoid the regular church services like the plauge, worship at other churches with their family, or have no connection to a church at all except our weekly Sunday night meetings. So including worship in our youth gatherings has taken on new importance. The past Sunday, worship was the whole focus. The entire evening was given over to a worship experience centered on the theme "Breaking and Entering: Being Attentive to Moments when God's Presence Breaks in on our Lives." Our focus text was the opening passages of the Gospel of John which speak of "the Word" becoming flesh.

    Students divided into groups depending on what portion of the worship they wanted to develop: music, sharing of scripture, prayers, communion, message. Each of these teams then went off into some space in the church building, with an adult sponsor, and brainstormed ways to tie their part of the worship into our theme. In addition, a group we termed "sacred spaces" was tasked with creating a worship space to enhance our theme. After about 45 minutes, we came together for worship. The "sacred spaces" team had created a candlelit area outdoors for our service. One of our college students, Matt, played his guitar and led the musical selections. One student read the scripture in his own words and another student led an interactive prayer, allowing time for youth to share their joys and concerns. Several students shared artwork they had created to illustrate the theme. We participated in communion, utilizing food left from dinner. One of our seniors delivered a short message on ways to spot God in our everyday lives.

    It was encouraging to see the young people's enthusiasm for creating a worshipful time together. Clearly, we would do well to provide more opportunities for our youth to be given license to share their creativity in our regular Sunday worship experiences.

    Tuesday, October 24, 2006

    Recommended Reading

    So, I'm sitting waiting to get a haircut and happen to pick up a copy of the latest issue of GQ to pass the time. Moments later I find myself glued to the magazine reading an article entitled "The Unbearable Awkwardness of Being" by senior writer Devin Friedman. In the article, Friedman chronicles his experience of spending a month hanging out at his old high school in suburban Cleveland 16 years after graduation.

    The article is really a fascinating look inside a typical high school in the year 2006. What becomes clear is that though the clique names and slang have changed, the angst, the confusion, the desperation, the boredom, the drugs and the sex are all the same as when we went to high school. Friedman shares his awkwardness as a grown man (with a bald spot!) trying to fit in with a bunch of teenagers. At one point, he visits a party and a girl points to him and says "Am I the only person who notices this creepy old guy hanging out at our party?" (Note Friedman standing awkwardly nerd-like in the background of the above photo)

    Most interestingly, Friedman talks about high school life as living "in the bubble." Those in the bubble think that everything of consequence on the planet happens in the bubble and, relatedly, everything that happens in the bubble is of utmost consequence. High school is the last time in life one has the luxury of being this self-obsessed and self-deluded. The article makes me think I need to try to talk my way into hanging out a few days at one of my student's schools, just to remind myself why I both hated and loved high school...and why I'd never want to go back!

    Monday, October 23, 2006

    I Survived "Jesus Camp"

    Paige Ferrari reviews the film and shares a light-hearted perspective on life as a former Jesus Camper:

    Try to sleep well, rattled latte drinkers and Huffington Posters. Sure, evangelism is on the rise and sales of Christian books and music have soared by 700 percent in the last decade. But, if there is a rising army of evangelical zealots, there's an equally large army of ex-Jesus Campers who burned out, rebelled, or simply left the fold because band camp sounded more appealing. We may not be able to lift bans on stem cell research, but we do have inside information. Should the rapture come, we will gladly teach you the words to the "God told Noah to build him an Ark-y Ark-y" song.

    Our youth group went to see the film yesterday and we had a really great conversation about it afterwards. The content generated lots of questions and concerns from the youth, many of whom did not even know that evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity existed. Maybe we need to take a field trip to the local mega-church!

    Friday, October 20, 2006

    Should you choose to accept this Mission...

    The Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP) offers this excellent mission statement for youth ministries:

    To foster Christian communities that are attentive to God's presence, discerning of the spirit, and accompany young people on the Way of Jesus.

    That's so good that I just wish I'd written it first! Thanks to Randy Kuss for passing this on to us at his recent God @ Center retreat.

    Thursday, October 19, 2006

    Are We Failing our Youth?

    Based on the news lately, I've been wondering if all our youth ministry models in this country are in need of a massive and complete overhaul. If one of our primary goals is to help our youth be life long participants in the Christian faith and the mission of the Church in the world, the evidence suggests that what we are doing isn't working. This recent report by the Barna Group suggests that even youth who are highly engaged in church ministry in their teen years are more than likely to disappear from the Church altogether once they reach their early 20's:

    In fact, the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings – 61% of today’s young adults – had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying). Only one-fifth of twentysomethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences. Another one-fifth of teens (19%) were never significantly reached by a Christian community of faith during their teens and have remained disconnected from the Christian faith.

    For those young adults who are no longer active in organized Christianity, Barna reports, many still consider themselves spiritual people. They do not see themselves as leaving the faith. Rather, they have ceased to value connection with the local or wider Church:
    [T]wentysomethings were nearly 70% more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they “cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.” They are also significantly less likely to believe that “a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church.”
    And this is not just a problem within the progressive and liberal churches. Evangelical churches are now beginning to see an exodus of youth as well:
    Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves. At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement. Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.
    So what's to do? Keep going on with the pizza parties and ski trips and once-a-year mission projects to disaster areas? Do we keep segregating youth off into their own isolated space within the church? Do we keep bribing our youth with game nites, movie nites, and lock-ins in exchange for an ocassional Bible study? Lots to ponder here.

    Jesus Camp Review

    I finally had a chance to see the documentary "Jesus Camp" earlier this week with the campus ministry group from one of my churches. I have to say that I found it to be a fairly balanced view of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. By "balanced," I mean that the filmmakers do not try to paint caricatures of their subjects. The children in the film come off as articulate, thoughtful, and likable. Becky, the woman who runs the church camp at the center of the film, seems to genuinely care for the children and is reasonable in expressing her point of view.

    The first portion of the film introduces us to Becky and to several Lee Summit, Missouri children who will eventually make their way to the "jesus camp" in North Dakota toward the middle of the film. The children are homeschooled (the film tells us that 75% of homeschoolers are from evangelical homes) and are a mix of regular childhood interests (music, sports, dance, toys) and a preoccupation with their faith. One boy, when asked when he became a Christian, earnestly responds "I got saved when I was five 'cause I just wanted more out of life." This line might get a laugh except the boy clearly believes what he is saying. The fact that he is likely parroting something he has heard an adult say does not diminish his sincerity.

    The scenes at the camp itself focus on several high-powered worship services in which the children are "indoctrinated" (the camp director's word, not mine) into the agenda of fundamentalist Christianity and, not coincidentally, conservative Republican politics. The children are taught about the sin of abortion, the dangers of liberal judges and permissive government, and the evil temptations of "Harry Potter." As might be expected from fundamentalist Christianity, the children are presented with one point of view which is present at THE TRUTH. There is little "holy rolling" going on here, but a lot of speaking in tongues, crying, and "army of God" imagery. Noticeably absent is any discussion with the children about such bibical ethics as feeding the hungry, helping the poor, caring for the earth, striving for peace, and working for justice. I left the film hoping that, with luck, these children will someday soon be exposed to a different worldview and be allowed the opportunity to make their own faith decisions.

    For those who are curious: Having attended a few charismatic/pentacostal worship services in the past, I can tell you that what you will see in this documentary is rather tame. Perhaps things were purposefully cooled down for the camera crew. It's hard to say. The campers and their adult leaders do not come off as zealots but they do practice a form of Christianity that is so different from mine that the two may as well be different religions.

    One final note: The portion of the film I most enjoyed is a sequence where several of the children visit the mega-church of Pastor Ted Haggard, President of the Evangelical Association. Haggard is shown clowning to the camera during the worship service as if he is an entertainer dying to get a laugh. After the service, he visits with two of the children from the camp and couldn't be more condescending when one of the boys mentions that he is a "preacher", too. His sequence concludes with him smugly suggesting that when evangelicals come out to vote, they decide elections. Haggard has since complained that the filmmakers purposely tried to make him look bad in his cameo. I'd suggest they just managed to capture his true character in an ungaurded moment. Haggard has posted his complaints about the film on his personal website. Strangely, some of his criticism seems to be focused on the camp itself as some sort of sub-group or fringe element within evangelicalism. He suggests that the real fans of the movie are those who look to equate evangelicals with muslim radicals or those who are fans of Michael Moore. Speaking as a liberal/progressive, I did not find the subjects of the film to be fanatacists. I suspect Haggard's complaints have less to do with the image the film projects of evangelicals and more with his own disappointing appearance.

    Extras: Check out DailyKos's expose on the documentary.

    Read camp director Becky Fischer's FAQ on the film and her critics.

    Read Christianity Today's film forum to see how conservatives are responding.

    Wednesday, October 04, 2006

    "Loopy" Youth

    Chuckk Gerwig at the blog Sacred Digital has some interesting things to say about an approach to (youth) ministry that is "loopy" instead of linear:

    The incoming generation is less linear and more LOOPY; I believe ministry gatherings should take this into consideration and allow for more choice and more creativity on the part of the attender. People often get much more out of a service or event when they choose to pray, think, read and express their faith than when they are being “program-ed” from point A to point B in a linear minute by minute fashion.

    Chuckk offers some suggestions for how one might use this "loopy" approach with worship and with fellowship activities. On the face of it, I think he's on to something here. Providing choice encourages participants to take ownership of their spiritual journey and might allow more spontaneity of the Spirit within the gathered community. On the other hand, might this approach just be promoting the cult of the individual consumer that so permeates our culture? Chuckk answers this question by suggesting that even in events that allow individual choice, the community still gathers at the end to name and share their experiences. This loopy approach might push some of us "control freaks" out of our comfort zones and I think that is always a good thing.

    Body of Christ

    My search for an artistic project to open our fall programming finally came together with a decision to make plaster casts of the students' hands, feet, and faces in order to create a sculpture representing their understanding of "the body of Christ." Working from texts in 1 Corinthians, we discussed how this metaphor could be a template for our community: many parts, each with their own unique gifts, but called to serve together as one.

    Students worked in pairs (in most cases, an older youth group member and a new younger student). In order to create a mold for the casting, each person had a partner cover their foot, hand, or face with plaster bandage. Once the bandage hardened, it was pulled off the body and filled with plaster. When the plaster had cured, the bandage was pulled away to reveal a cast of the body part. Students then decorated their casting as they saw fit. Some painted or drew on their creations, some wrote words related to our Bible study, and some just left them plain (see above two of the faces and the tip of a lone finger!).

    The following Sunday we held a closing worship service in which the youth each brought forth their casting as an offering and they worked together to put all the pieces together into one assembled sculpture. We then invited the students to reflect on how the sculpture, and the experience of making the castings represented our group and the idea of the "body of Christ." Youth noted that each piece was part of the whole, yet was unique and different. One student observed that we needed each other in order to make the molds for the castings, representing the way each part of the body needs the other parts. One student observed that some of the finished pieces in the sculpture were resting or sitting on other pieces, representing the way that we rely and lean on each other. It was even observed that one of the pieces was broken, noting that the "body of Christ" is sometimes broken, or at least never perfect.

    This was no fall kick-off skateboard rally, extreme paintball outing, or giant concert on the parking lot. Just a low-key, quiet, somewhat messy art project. I imagine some youth leaders might think such an activity would do little to stimulate interest at the start of the school year. Where is the flash, the excitement, the noise, the hyperactivity that youth seemingly crave? All I can say is that for our group this project helped set the tone for the fall. It helped youth understand that we were about something more than entertainment, something different than the popular culture, something deeper than the cult of individualism that permeates their daily lives.

    This project was another example of the way a creative process can serve to bring a group together around a shared goal, encourage community and cooperation and caring, and stimulate creative thought and reflection on the journey of faith and the way the Spirit moves amongst us.

    Tuesday, October 03, 2006

    Back to Normal?

    The start of a new fall in youth group is always an adjustment. Some faces we'd grown used to seeing each week for years have headed off to college, and new faces have assumed their place. It takes awhile to get a sense of the new group, to help the youth gel as a community, and to determine what direction our ministry will take together. At times I've gone into a new youth year with things planned out for the next six months. There's a certain sense of security in knowing that all the discussion topics, Bible study themes, and major events are on the calendar through Christmas.

    But sometimes, like this fall, it makes more sense to wait and get a sense of the group first. In fact, my youth staff and I met just prior to the first fall meeting just to sit and talk about the group. We held a brainstorming session in which we discussed:

    1) Participants: Who are the youth in our church/in our group? (leaders, followers, musicians, artists, youth from single-parent families, etc.)

    2) Context: Where does our youth ministry take place? (at weekly meetings, Sunday morning worship, at shared meals, in participants' homes, etc)

    3) Content: What do we hope the youth will learn/experience during their time in the program? (the basics of Christian faith, biblical literacy, how to think for themselves, an understanding of baptism/communion, what it means to follow the way of Jesus, etc.).

    Since every year we each really start with a new group, a time of reflection like this is important if we are going to attend to the needs of each unique group and not just do what we want to do or just keep repeating the same old program year after year.

    Monday, September 25, 2006

    "Jesus Camp" in the news...

    Saturday, September 23, 2006


    I just returned from a relaxing weekend at our area campgrounds. I was there for a God @ Center retreat for adults who serve in ministry with youth. It's been awhile since I've had the privilege of gathering with others involved in youth ministry and spend time in conversation and discernment about what ministry with teenagers is all about. The retreat was led by Rev. Randy Kuss. Once upon a time, Randy headed up our DOC denominational office for youth ministry and he has been a part of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP). Randy now devotes his free time to traveling the country and presenting spirituality retreats for youthworkers based on the YMSP findings and his own 30+ years in youth ministry.

    The focus of this particular retreat was being attentive to the presence of God. Our time together included prayer, an art experience, conversation, meditation, singing, worship, shared meals, and an opportunity to try our hand at such ancient Christian practices as the Awarness Examen. I think those at the retreat would agree that we enjoyed the opportunity for sabbath and left with a renewed understanding that we have to be attentive to our own spirituality if we expect to ask youth to be attentive to their connection with God. More on my learnings from this event soon.

    Thursday, September 14, 2006

    Jesus Camp (updated)

    Recently one of the youth at church mentioned seeing this preview for the documentary Jesus Camp and she was clearly disturbed by what she saw and asked if we could go as a group to see the film and talk about its implications.

    A synopsis of "Jesus Camp" from Rotten Tomatoes:
    A growing number of Evangelical Christians believe there is a revival underway in America whereby Christian youth must take up the leadership of the conservative Christian movement. JESUS CAMP, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (The Boys of Baraka), follows Levi, Rachael, Tory and a number of other young children to Pastor Becky Fischer's Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, where kids as young as 6 years-old are taught to become dedicated Christian soldiers in God's army. The film follows these children at camp as they hone their prophetic gifts and are schooled in how to take back America for Christ. The film is a first-ever look into an intense training ground that recruits born-again Christian children to become an active part of America's political future.

    My initial reaction to viewing the trailer was to remember that the first region of a young person's brain to fully develop is the emotions center. This explains much of what I have witnessed at Christian teen events where the adults seem particularly astute at working the young people up into an emotional frenzy ending in tears rolling down their faces and declarations of devotion to Christ. This emotional high, of course, quickly wears off as the youth return to their regular lives and that devotion to Jesus is subsumed by the next thing that grabs their emotional attention.

    One homeschooling site include this unattributed observation about the film:

    The problem liberals encounter with ‘Jesus Camp’ is that it’s a challenge. These kids are smart and motivated and know what they’re fighting for. Liberals, on the other hand, generally aren’t absolutists about their beliefs. They tend to let their children come to their own conclusions.

    I think there is a great deal of truth in that statement. Fundamentalist youth are taught early on what is true and truth and what a Christian believes. Liberal youth, like the ones I tend to work with, are much less likely to be able to articulate Church doctrine, quote supporting scripture for their positions, or say unequivocally what they believe "the" Christian position to be on hot button issues. But is this a problem? What I do notice in liberal Christian youth is that they tend to have a well-developed understanding of justice and what it means to care for the "least of these" and to accept and love those who are different.

    Though I'd be interested in showing "Jesus Camp" to my youth, I'd be more likely in the near feature to watch with them this film from the PBS P.O.V. series: The Education of Shelby Knox. In this documentary, a senior high girl living in the Bible belt goes on a crusade to bring sex-ed to her school where a disproportionate number of teenage pregnancies are occurring. She is met with opposition from every side: the school faculty, board of education, town leaders, local pastors. Yet she persists because for her it is a justice issue. In the second half of the film, Shelby gets caught up in another controversy when she is asked to support the founding of a gay/straight alliance in her school and she finds herself in more ambiguous territory about what she thinks is the right thing to do. This film would provide an excellent spring board for a youth group discussion on issues of justice, left/right politics, the diversity of Christian thought in America, leadership, and what it means to stand up for those you consider to be "the least of these."

    Wednesday, September 13, 2006

    Does God Want You to Be Rich?

    Check out this post and the corresponding comments at the blog Between Two Worlds regarding Time Magazine's lastest cover story on Americanized- Christianity and the prosperity gospel being preached in the mega-churches and by so-called evangelists on TV. I'll have to admit to finding Joel Osteen engaging when I flip by and catch him "preaching" on TV, but after a few viewings you realize he's preaching the same sermon over and over and it's all about self-empowerment and feeling good. The fact that Osteen is now a multi-millionaire and helms a church so large that it has to be held in the Compaq Center, an 18,000-seat arena in Houston, only seems to support his proclamation that God rewards positive thinking.

    Why doesn't he just drop the religious angle and become a self-help speaker? Our young people already have enough trouble prioritizing their faith over the cultural enticements of wealth, popularity, comfort, and success. They don't need pastors watering down the scandal of the gospel from the pulpit.

    Do Something

    Every week AIDS kills more people than all the American casualties in the Viet Nam War. What can be done to stop this pandemic? Check out World Vision's One Life Revolution for tangible ways to involve youth groups in making a difference. Another great outreach event promoted by World Vision is the 30 Hour Famine, an international youth movement to fight world hunger.

    Thursday, September 07, 2006

    Writing "On the Way"...

    Last summer I had an opportunity to be part of the team of writers crafting the Summer 2007 church camp New Earth Outdoors curriculum, put out by New Earth Publishers in cooperation with the Committee on Outdoor Ministry of the National Council of Churches. Our ecumenical team met for several days in St. Louis to walk through the selected scriptural texts, wrestle theologically with the biblical themes (and with each other!), and attempt to begin the process of crafting a summer camp curriculum that would be accessible to churches up and down the theological spectrum. We then went our separate ways to write our portion of the curriculum in time to ship it off to the editors last November. My sections included activities for younger youth and the ideas for mission/outreach. I have to say it was a fun project to work on and it was a blessing to serve with such an engaging writing team. The full curriculum, centered around the theme "On the Way," and the journey of faith, is now out and available and I think it's pretty darn good! You can check out a pdf sample of the text here.

    Wednesday, September 06, 2006

    Winners and Losers in the Kingdom of God?

    I love the Diane Rhem show on NPR and today she featured an interview with Jamie Lee Curtis, actress and now author of children's books. Curtis was promoting her newest work, Is There Really a Human Race ,which explores issues of competition and the global culture. Curtis really got worked up talking about how crazy we are about competition. Elections now are treated like football games between hated rivals, the most-watched programs on TV all feature a weekly "loser" who gets kicked off the show, and have you heard those stories of parents having fist fights at little league games?

    Many years ago I concluded that competition just did not fit into my understanding of Jesus' vision of the Kingdom of God so I phased out competitive activities in my youth group programs. Yes, I kept in some of the silly games, but we played for the sake of fun and we didn't bother to keep score. Of course, some suggested I was being ridiculous since our youth live in the "real world" which is supposedly based in competition. Actually, for most of us cooperation is the main skill needed in our jobs. But if competition is what makes the world go 'round, I see part of my role as pastor is to help youth catch a glimpse of the world not as it is, but as it could be--a world where love and community are the focus rather than self-sufficiency, independence, and competition. (I suppose it's a good thing I don't work at a church with a youth basketball league!)

    Are there winners and losers in the Kingdom of God? Not in my reading of the synoptic gospels (though, admittedly John seems to take a different approach). Now, I know someone could proof-text to me all sorts of scripture to show that some people aren't going to make it into the Kingdom. But, taken as a whole, the teachings of Jesus depicted in the New Testament speak clearly (to me, anyway) that we are all God's beloved, we all live within God, and our task is to open our eyes and realize this amazing truth. The Gospel of Thomas says it nicely: the Kingdom of the Father is already spread out on the earth, and people aren't aware of it.

    And yet some do know the truth that Luke shares: The Kingdom is within you.

    But I can't Draw!

    Do you integrate art into your ministry with youth? I've always felt that the visual arts are given short shrift in ministry. When we do engage the visual arts, it is often as passive observers rather than creative participants. It ocurred to me recently that I've made a habit in recent years of engaging my youth in the process of art-making as a spiritual practice to engage our God-given creativity and explore our faith story. A few projects I've tried with good success:

    1) Mosaic: I take an image/photo that relates to the theme or scripture to be considered. The image is divided into equal squares ("pixels") and each person is given a square and asked to reproduce just their square onto a larger scale, using whatever art medium they choose. The pieces are then all reassembled into a large scale artistic mosaic of the original image. The final image can be quite beautiful and represents the unique efforts of the whole community brought together. Check
    here to see how some folks turned their group photo into a mosiac work of art.

    2) Mask-making: It never fails that when I suggest this project some of the adults involved are always dubious ("It's too messy! The youth won't want to do it!") and then the kids end up loving it. Youth create life-masks of their own faces using plaster bandage (available in most art/craft stores) and then decorate the masks to represent their personalities/spiritual gifts/hopes for the future, etc. The great thing about this project is that it requires teens to work in pairs, each building up the mask on the other's face. This project requires a lot of trust and care on the part of the person building the mask, so it is a great way to build community and develop intimacy within the group. Best of all, the finished products become part of the decor of the youth room.
    Here is a quick and simple description of the whole mask-making process.

    3) Mural: Each year our youth develop a mural theme based on our biblical studies and then work together to paint a holistic work of art on the walls of the youth room. Last fall our focus was on "The Way of Christ" so they created images that represented peace, love, forgiveness, hospitality, and risk.

    4) Personal Shrines: At camp this past summer, a group of the youth created mini-shrines centered around our theme of "Peace Talks." The shrines were an example of assemblage art-- three dimensional art made of found objects and images. Youth chose a shadow box or other container and created within it a 3-D "collage" of natural objects, words, photos, candles, fabric, etc, to create unique portable "sacred spaces" that spoke to their understanding of Christ's way of peace. These shrines were added to our worship space for the week so they could inspire the whole camp. Here are some examples of mini-shrines including some cool travelling shrines made out of old breath mint tins.

    Now...I just have to come up with a good idea for this fall. Any suggestions out there?

    Saturday, September 02, 2006

    Bread and Circuses

    Ingrid Schlueter at the blog Slice of Laodicea reveals the dark underbelly of contemporary youth ministry that seems particularly prevalent in the mega-church mentality of today:

    The old Romans had a Latin phrase, panem et circenses (literally, bread and circuses) that was used to describe a decadent citizenry that could be pacified with free food and circuses. Today, much of youth ministry consists of bread and circuses handed out by youth leaders eager for
    large numbers.

    Schlueter goes on to describe a literal "traveling circus" extreme sports youth event dubbed
    The Freedom Experience that promises "freedom from sin, freedom from darkness, and freedom in Jesus." Here is a consumer culture-driven orgy of distraction that will supposedly bring kids to Christ through a 2-3 day event of "dramatic stunts, amazing illusions, loud music, exciting school assemblies, and death-defying escapes"! Check out the promo videos here and here if you don't believe me. Pay particular attention to what the teens say as opposed to the adults interviewed.

    Schlueter goes on to lament that:

    The bread and circuses will only have to get bigger and better to draw the kids. You can hear the youth leader [in the video] say that pizza at church doesn't cut it any more. I have news for him. Pizza at church never did cut it when it came to the teaching and preaching of the Word, which is the only thing God has ever promised to bless.

    (Bonus points if you have any idea what the above photo has to do with this entry!)

    Post-Colonial Youth Ministry

    I just stumbled upon this post on the notion of "post-colonial" youth ministry by a blogger in Australia. Interesting stuff, and follows right along the thread of thought that our work in youth ministry is not to "make teens into Christians" or convert them to Christianity. We can leave the transformation up to the holy spirit, which I admittedly believe is found only within community with others. Like the missionaries of olden times hubristicly believing they were "bringing God" to places where God surely had already been present since the beginning of time, so likewise who are we to think that because we are older or "wiser," we are in a position to bring Jesus to teenagers. Does age have something to do with the depth of one's spirituality? Not in my experience. I've met children more in tune with the Spirit than many adults I know and I've certainly encountered young people who had a deeper sense of God's call on their lives than I felt at the time. This gets back to my thinking that my work in youth ministry is less to teach kids that "Jesus is the way" than it is to help them learn more about how they can live out "the way of Jesus" in their lives.

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    What Would Jesus Say?

    Mike Yaconelli was one of the great voices in youth ministry and his legacy lives on despite his untimely death in 2003. He was co-founder of Youth Specialities and served as editor of "The Door," an irreverent magazine that took on religion and culture. Mike used to joke that he pastored the slowest-growing church in the U.S. because it had few members now than when he started. When Mike wrote or spoke about ministry with young people, he was always completely candid and honest and spoke from the heart in no uncertain language. There was no "B.S." in his theology, and here is great example of why his teachings still continue to guide my own ministry.

    Thursday, August 31, 2006

    I'll Follow You Into the Dark

    My new favorite song by the group "Death cab for Cutie." This is a fan's animated version of the song.


    In earlier posts, I used the term "progressive" Christians as a way of distinguishing my little corner of Christianity from the wider circles of fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals, and neo-orthodox folk. Lately, though, I've been wondering if "progressive Christian" is just too pejorative a term that really doesn't mean much and may even be insulting to some. "Progressive" suggests progress/growth/enlightenment, and thus assumes that anyone who is not a progressive is somehow living in the past or is not as enlightened. The "progressive" label also seems to suggest that the faith journey stretches out like a line, with some of us further along the path (the progressives) and others still lingering back down toward the beginning of the road (the fundamentalists). I just don't see the faith this way. Ideally, we would understand that we all march together on the path of faith, shoulder-to-shoulder, each bringing our own unique understandings and vision of God based on our own life experiences. I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the conservative and we can be spiritual partners, as long as each is willing to hear the other, learn from the other, respect the other as God's beloved. Now, encounters with some fundamentalists have taught me that dialogue isn't always possible, but Christ's vision of the Kingdom of God calls us to always hope for a better possible tomorrow. A good read that looks at how such a dialogue might happen is Marcus Borg's latest text The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith.
    OK Go - Here It Goes Again

    I banish to terminal "un-coolness" all who do not immediately love this video and song.