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.