Thursday, August 31, 2006
My new favorite song by the group "Death cab for Cutie." This is a fan's animated version of the song.
I banish to terminal "un-coolness" all who do not immediately love this video and song.
As I plan for how we will "kick-off" our new youth year in a few weeks, I've been flashing back to my very first fall as a youth minister. All the youth ministry books I had read seemed to scream that a good youth year starts off with a big, splashy event, designed to bring back the "old" group and hook a new bunch of kids. The event should be designed to show that church can be fun and exciting and wacky! So we hosted a beach party on our parking lot, complete with a huge pile of sand dumped by a local construction company. The youth really seemed to enjoy the food, balloon fights, slip-n-slide, and making sand castles, but I'm not sure if they had any idea at all that they were at a church or participating in a Christian ministry. And one little item I had forgotten to plan for was how we were going to get rid of this ton of sand we had dumped on our church parking lot (Final solution: picture me with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. Thank goodness I had the back of a 23-year-old in those days!).
I contrast that first experience with what our group did last fall. We started off the youth year with a prayer, a meal, and sharing our summer experiences with each other. Then we moved to the side yard of the church to put our artistic skills to use creating tie-dye shirts and fabric squares. The shirts were for the teens to wear as a way of developing a sense of community identity for our youth ministry program. We had other plans for the squares. Youth were asked to take their tie-dyed squares home, rinse and dry them and bring them to the next meeting. The squares were then used the following Sunday as part of a long worship experience in which each person helped to attach their square to the others to create a group quilt. We then invited the teens to reflect on the symbolism of this multi-colored creation, patched together from unique works of art created by each member of the group. Never let it be said that young people cannot verbalize their understanding of community, grace, forgiveness, peace, love, and the movement of the spirit. The quilt was the perfect catalyst for giving our youth a "voice" to talk about their understanding of Christian community where each person is loved and accepted for their own particular uniqueness. Through the year we continued to add additional squares to the quilt as new students joined the group. The quilt hangs on the wall of our youth room still today as a reminder that we called to be ever-widening the circle of our Christian family.
The contrast between that first "beach party" experience and the "quilt" project I think are significant. One focused on entertainment and distraction while the other focused on creativity, community, worship, and contemplative reflection on what it means to be children of God in relationship with one another.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Eric Elnes, pastor and founder of CrossWalk America (a progressive Christian movement literally sweeping across the country this summer) has some interesting insights into how we might use music to engage youth in exploring the Bible more thoughtfully. Eric's "The World's Most Dangerous Bible Studies" pair biblical exploration with contemporary music that speaks to the hearts and heads of teenagers. I tried his approach and have had some success. The challenge is that it works best with teenagers who already have a pretty good handle on the basics of the Christian faith. If they do not have this foundation, you end up with a Bible study focused more on Justin Timberlake as an artist than on the biblical passage you are studying (Note: Timberlake's new single, "Sexy Back," is at the top of the charts and our youth are listening to it. He's not quite the innocent boyband-er anymore). The linked article above also includes Elnes' interesting thoughts on the use of popular contemporary music in worship (this does not include "Kum Ba Yah"!) as a way to draw in not only youth but all of us who spend more time listening to rock music on our car radios than organ interludes!
On a related note, check out Pandora, a sort of on-line dj (and an outgrowth of the Music Genome Project). This "smart" website invites you to suggest a song or group that you enjoy and then it streams music from a variety of artists that are similar in musical style. The more feedback you provide the site, the better it is able to tailor your music stream. I find it very helpful for discovering new songs and groups that play the kind of music I'm seeking.
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
This past school year, the issue was raised again and I gave it some real thought. Could we put such a project together in time? Could we afford it? Was it a good use of the church's mission funds? Would it be a good experience for our youth and those they might serve? As all these questions swirled about, I happened to attend the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry in Seattle. While there I had the opportunity to serve one afternoon at a local church that provides a hot meal ministry to homeless teens. The ministry began some ten years ago when the church's junior high youth decided to use their mission trip money to stay in their "own backyard" rather than take a trip and open a summer soup kitchen for young people their own age who were on the street. Amazingly, this ministry that was to only last a summer is still going strong today, serving meals seven days a week.
Inspired by this story, I returned to my church and presented the youth with a challenge: "If we want to go to Mexico next summer, what if we stay right here in St. Louis, our hometown, this summer and help with the ministries that are going on at our doorstep." With the idea out on the table, I waited for the inevitable protests...but they didn't come. The first question one of the teens asked was "How would it work?" and the second was "What would we do?" With that, we got going planning a summer mission experience that helped our youth see the needs of the very city in which they live and for one week this summer we lived, worked, ate, played, and prayed together while helping out with the elderly, in soup kitchens, at an inner city school, and homeless shelters and I was reminded once again why I'm still a youth minister at age 40 and how lucky I am to be working with such great young people.
Tuesday, August 08, 2006
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on the Markan passages related to the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water -- an interesting challenge for someone who reads much of the Bible as metaphor. My sermon primarily focused on the walking on water episode and the Markan theme of "fear." In the passage, the disciples see Jesus coming across the water, but they don't recognize him. They think they are seeing a ghost and freak out! Of course, the Markan disciples are always having trouble understanding who Jesus is -- they just don't get him. In the end of the gospel, their fear wins out over their trust and they run off to hide.
My time in youth ministry has taught me that many of us who minister to young people are constantly operating under this sort of "fear factor." We are often paralyzed in our effort to offer an authentic faith experience to our youth because we fear that if we do 1) it'll bore the teens and our group won't grow and, consequently, 2) the kids will stop coming and the group will shrink, 3) we fear the church won't think we are successful in terms of numbers and activity, 4) we fear everyone will find out that we don't exactly have this youth ministry-thing down to a science, 5) we fear we will fail.
So, we play it safe. We play to to our comforts and to the comforts of our youth: movie nights and pizza parties and Christian concerts and trips to Six Flags when what are youth really need is quiet, rest, time alone with God, authentic relationship, and a chance to see the true reality that exists just beyond the veil of our consumer culture. The challenge, as I see it, is for those of us in youth ministry is to get beyond our fears (or "anxieties," as others might label the problem) and trust that God is already working in the lives of these young people. Our task, perhaps, is simply to provide the quiet spaces where they can hear God's call on their hearts.