Monday, December 24, 2007

    Christmas Eve Fun

    Wishing you a Merry Christmas!

    Brian and Jacob

    Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Image of the Day: Advent Waiting

    advent 06 v1, originally uploaded by ben bell.

    What are you waiting for this Advent?

    Are Teens Too Rational?

    That is the conclusion of one recent study on the teenage brain, claiming that teens overestimate the negative consequences of some behaviors but choose to engage in them anyway:
    “We found that teenagers quite rationally weigh benefits and risks,” Dr. Reyna said in a recent interview. “But when they do that, the equation delivers the message to go ahead and do that, because to the teen the benefits outweigh the risks.”
    The problem, argue the researchers, isn't that teens don't recognize the risks. It's just that they focus more on the perceived benefits:
    For example, while an adolescent might consider playing Russian roulette for a $1 million payoff, a normal adult would not give it a moment’s thought. Cutting directly to the chase, the adult would be more inclined to think: “No way! No amount of money is worth a one in six chance of dying.”
    Author Jonah Lehrer disagrees with the interpretation of the findings:

    ...I think the "teens are too rational" theory contradicts recent findings about the teenage brain. The problem for teens is that the rational circuits of the frontal cortex are actually the last to develop. (The development of the brain recapitulates its evolution, so that, in general, the brain areas that were last to evolve are the also the last to develop.) While the have fully functional emotional brains, adolescents often lack the mental muscles to hold these emotions in check. A 2006 fMRI study by neuroscientists at Cornell, for example, demonstrated that the nucleus accumbens, a brain area associated with the processing of rewards (like sex, drugs and rock n' roll), was significantly more active and mature than the prefrontal cortex, which helps us resist such temptations. In other words, teens have reckless sex and drink too much and drive dangerously because their rational brain is at a literal disadvantage. It can't argue back against their impulses.

    There is no doubt that knowledge of teen brain development can be of immense help in youth ministry, both in understanding how to nurture teens intellectually and spiritually. Conversely, those who choose not to educate themselves on this issue may be unaware that they are using programs and approaches that manipulate the still developing teenage brain. I'm convinced that this is often what is happening with youth who go to camps and large Christian teen gatherings, get whipped up into a spiritual frenzy, and then are back to their "old selves" a week later. PBS's "Frontline" recently aired an excellent documentary on the teenage brain. You can view it online here.

    Jesus and Santa

    This image comes from a great ad campaign from the United Church of Canada and their provocative website WonderCafe. The tag line reads, "Would you still take your kids?"
    Well....would you?

    This seems to have been the season for me to encounter Jesus and Santa hanging out together. A few weeks ago, on St. Nicholas Day, I had the opportunity to lead a program for a Christian women's group on the history of St. Nicholas. If you've never learned the story behind the guy we call Santa, it's worth a peek. Though likely more legend than fact, St. Nicholas is remembered as Catholic bishop known for his outreach to the poor and needy. The famous story of Nicholas tossing gold into the home of three poor, dowerless girls, is the basis for our modern-day image of Santa sneaking into our homes on Christmas Eve to deliver toys. Nicholas is also known for his resistance against Roman rule which eventually landed him in prison. How interesting then that we would take this symbol of true charity and persistent faith and turn him into a huckster for mall shopping. Why is it that we often take something radical and make it tame? We turn St. Nicholas into a department store Santa. We take a radical Jesus and turn him into just a good-deed-doer.
    Last Sunday I returned to this theme in a sermon based on Matthew 11: 2-11. In this passage, John sends word from prison to Jesus, asking him: Are you the messiah, or should we wait for another?" John's concern is not so much what Jesus is doing (healing, preaching the good news) but what he is NOT doing: bringing down the eternal fire on the wicked and oppressors! John expects Jesus to lift up the poor and destroy the unrighteous. But even John has something to learn about just how radical Jesus' ministry will be. Jesus will make it clear that he has a much bolder mission. He has come to bring the good news of God's love and grace to ALL people.
    Perhaps we are all guilty, like John, of trying to force God/Christ to meet our expectations. How many of us follow a Christ who thinks like we think, votes like we vote, loves all the people we love, and hates everyone we hate? How often do we expect Jesus to conform to our needs and expectations. As part of the sermon on Matthew 11, I shared the image above and asked the congregation to consider: "If you'd had gone to see Jesus instead of Santa in the mall as a child, would your wish list have been different? What would your wish list to Jesus look like today? What are your expectations of how Jesus would respond to your list?
    It seems to me that we have to do a better job in youth ministry of helping youth to encounter the radical Christ -- one that goes beyond our pedestrian and often selfish and self-serving expectations. Youth need to encounter the Christ that pops into our lives when we least expect it ("Jesus? What are you doing at the mall?!"). The one who demands of us more than just being nice and occasionally helping someone less fortunate. I'm convinced that it is only the radical Christ, the one who turns our present world upside down and shouts "This is not all there is! You can do so much better! You must do better!" -- it is only this Christ who will slow the exodus of young adults who are leaving the Church in search of a faith that demands something of their lives.

    Friday, December 14, 2007

    "What Would Jesus Buy?"

    A new documentary from Morgan Spurlock, the guy who brought us "Super Size Me." Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a cross-country mission to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse (the end of humankind from consumerism, over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt).

    Thursday, December 13, 2007

    Safety in the Church: Revisited

    These past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about safety in the church. As Brian noted, this article is excellent. And, there is no doubt that anyone working with youth and/or children must do a criminal background check. But, what is the process for conducting a background check? For example, who reads the results? Who is in charge of all the administration that is required with a background check? Is it a retired social worker, the ministers, the children’s director? What is done with the results? What happens if someone comes back with sexual abuse convictions? What happens if someone comes back with a past history of criminal activity or driving while intoxicated?

    I think these are all questions that need to be answered ahead of time. It is always better to be proactive instead of reactive. The church I serve has answered some, but not all, of these questions. Overall, I think we have a good process—if anyone is interested, I would be happy to share how we formed our youth protection committee and what all of this entails. But, I’m interested in hearing what others have done.

    How about you? What steps do you take at your church to make it as safe and welcoming as possible?


    Special Holiday Poll Results

    We asked: Which Christmas special best describes your experiences in youth ministry recently. Looks like Clark Griswold wins it! Vote on our new holiday poll at the top of the page!

    Wednesday, December 12, 2007

    Buy Nothing Christmas

    Most years my youth group has a party just before Christmas and we exchange gag gifts -- stuff that only costs a few bucks and is usually meant to provoke a laugh from the receiver. One year we collected up all the gifts after the party(most were toys from the dollar store) and gave them to the ministry for homeless families that we support. This year I'm going to encourage my group to try something a little different based on an idea I found at the Buy Nothing Christmas website. It works like this:

    Invite your youth to collect personal items from home that are in good condition but that they no longer want. These items could include clothes, books, games, dvds, toys, or anything else spilling out of their packed closets or from under their beds. Gather together and place the items out on tables or on the floor where every one can see them. Invite group members to take turns selecting a used item that they would like to keep. You might even go around twice or even let group members exchange something they picked for something someone else picks. Youth may even want to select items that they can give as a gift to someone else in their family. Since there will likely be left over items, collect all these up and arrange to drop them off to a local charity organization such as Goodwill. This way you are recycling items that might have ended up in the trash and also donating to a worthwhile charity. Plus, you are helping your youth to see that not everything you give at this time of year needs to come prewrapped from a store.

    The Buy Nothing Christmas site also has a series of thoughtful Bible study guides for Advent that focus on encouraging youth to reflect on their consumption and look for alternative ways to celebrate Christmas. Each study includes " a scripture text, a written reflection, several discussion questions and some action suggestions called "changing tracks."

    Self-Serve Youth Ministry Blog Dispenser

    Blogging the Yule: Still need some creative ways to engage your youth with the true meaning of the season? Grahame at the Insight blog has a whole series of excellent (and free!) Christmas youth talks including icebreakers, games, quizzes and role play, each designed to help young people look afresh at the Christmas story and reflect on the real meaning of Christmas. Here is part six.

    Golden Compass Controversy: What do John Lennon and Nietzsche have to do with the recent minor Christian karfuffle over the "Golden Compass" movie? Find out at the Experiential Youth Ministry blog.

    12 Days of Kitchmas: Ship of Fools is offering up their annual roundup of "truly covetable gifts for Kitschmas. Twelve righteous and deserving products..." I especially like the Christ on motorcycle figurine. Hat tip to the Youthblog.

    Mary Christmas: Ben Bell is offering up an image of Mary as you have likely never seen her. Might help jumpstart a great discussion with your youth.
    Just for You: By now you may be feeling the stress of the season and need to relax. Check out these beautiful and soothing Christmas carols and hymns by pianist Barbara Gallagher available for free download.

    Tuesday, December 11, 2007

    Violence in Churches

    In the wake of the church shootings in Colorado this past weekend, the issue of safety in churches is front and center in the media. To be honest, I'm vigilant about safety when I'm travelling with my youth, but I never gave as much thought to keeping them safe in the church building itself until I read this essay over at the excellent Faith'd blog. It's entitled Violence in Churches, Safety in Youth Ministry: 10 Quick-and-Dirty Tips" and in it Andrew lays out a list of very helpful steps for ensuring safety when youth are in your care, many based on his own experiences when things in his ministry weren't so safe:

    Be safer than you have to be: As good as professionals are, don’t be complacent about safety. Go above and beyond when you can. Once we hired an inflatable climbing mountain for an event. Students climbed to the top of a pyramid shaped “mountain” and then slid back down. It looked safe, and they were harnessed in, but halfway through the event a freshman thought it would be fun to jump from the top onto the inflatable mat below. His harness ripped out, he did a free-fall onto the mat, and the impact shot him back into the air. He landed on his head, without a helmet, on a concrete floor. He instantly went into a grand mal seizure, and by the time I arrived he’d been seizing for nearly two minutes. We dialed 911, and when the seizure finally stopped, he looked straight up into my eyes and was unable to move any part of his body and could only mutter nonsense to me. I was afraid he’d been paralyzed. Luckily, he wasn’t, but it took several hours for him to regain full control of his body at the hospital. But the whole incident could have been averted by simply requiring kids to wear helmets. The company I hired said they weren’t necessary, but they were extra protection that would have cost us little and prevented serious injury. Taking kids skiing? Require them to wear helmets. Taking them boating? Local law may only require you to have lifejackets in the boats, but go a step further and require teens to wear them. Small safety precautions make a big difference and are minimally intrusive. Take them.

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    Make-a-Santa-Game: Revisited

    The youth had a blast with this one! You can find a full description of this messy but fun activity here (though the photo pretty much says it all). Sunday night we started with this yuletide community-builder and then watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and finished with a thoughtful discussion on the commercialization and secularization of Advent/Christmas. It was a very well-rounded evening.

    Friday, December 07, 2007

    Interactive Advent Calendar

    Here is an interactive on-line Advent calendar you might want to pass on to your youth (This is just the sort of thing for which they invented the "share" function on your Facebook page). It comes courtesy of Youth Roots, "a faith-based social networking site where religious leaders and their youth members can co-coordinate activities, have discussions and communicate with one another." The calendar has been designed for both youth and youth leaders and includes links to thoughtful articles, scripture texts, ideas for service, music, and video.

    This Baby - Steven Curtis Chapman

    This is the time of year I dig out my Christmas cds and start listening to them 24/7. One of my favorites is Steven Curtis Chapman's album "The Music of Christmas." Often, I will share his song "This Baby" with youth because it reminds us of the human side of Christmas and of Jesus. Young people have too long been taught to romanticize the life of Jesus. We've burned images into their brains of this perfect little baby ("no crying he makes") born into a cozy, brightly lit stable with smiling cows and sheep nearby for company and the cheery drummer boy lulling him to sleep with a sweet rum-pum-pum-pum. This "precious moments" stuff just doesn't cut it with teens. They are ready for a more visceral and real-world faith and we can help them by opening their eyes to a Jesus who struggled with life just as they do. Steven Curtis' Chapman's song is a good jumping off point to start this discussion.

    You can listen to the song here or watch a visual interpretation of it here. Below is the basic outline of a program that invites youth to engage both the song's lyrics and the nativity story from Luke:

    Opening: Challenge the group's “punning” skills with this quick quiz:

    Q: On December 24th, what was Adam’s wife known as?
    A: Christmas Eve
    Q: What do you call an opinion survey in Alaska?
    A: North Poll
    Q: When the salt and pepper say, “Hi” to each other, what are they passing on?
    A: Season’s Greetings
    Q: What do you call a holy man with no change in his pockets?
    A: St. Nickleless

    Some people really love puns because to “get’ them, you have to pay close attention to the words and the language. It might help us to pay close attention to the language and imagery we use when talking about Jesus, especially this time of year. We talk about Jesus as “God’s son.” Some would say that we are all God’s children -- all of us a son or daughter of God. What can you share about the story of your own birth? What stories have your families shared with you about what you were like as babies?

    Digging In: Read aloud the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2: 1-20).
    Ask: When you picture the story of Jesus’ birth, how do you imagine it? If you were there as character in the story, what do you think you would see? What would you smell? What would you hear? What would it be like for Mary to give birth in that place? What do you suppose Joseph is thinking/doing? What is the baby feeling or doing?

    Reflecting: In his song “This Baby," Steven Curtis Chapman (a father of several children) paints a more realistic view of the baby Jesus than we usually see in paintings or in manger scenes. Read the lyrics silently as the song plays and notice the ways the child Jesus in the song is like any other child. After hearing the song, what are your first reactions. What did you like/dislike about it? What caught your attention in the lyrics?

    Ask: The song says Jesus was unique but it also describes him as a regular kid. Often we think of Jesus as this perfect guy, with a halo around his head, walking on water. Why do you think it might be helpful for us to remember that he was a person just like us -- that he cried when he got his baby teeth, that he got hungry, that he played as a child, that he had to go through all the growing pains of the teenage years? What other regular human challenges do you think Jesus faced as he grew up? How might his life as a teenager been similar to yours?

    The song says that Jesus changed the world. What do you think about that? How is a baby born as a peasant into a violent culture able to change the world? In what ways do you think the world is different because Jesus was born? In what ways are your lives different? What do the lyrics “He showed us heaven with his hands and his heart” mean to you?

    Closing: Take time as a group to name and pray for "children" of all ages in your knowing around the world in need of the good news of God's love that Jesus shared with his life and ministry.


    Golden Compass Controversy

    I haven't read the Golden Compass books and don't intend to -- too many other books sitting by my bed right now. But it's been hard to avoid the controversy stirring over the new film adaptation that opens today. It seems that some Christian critics are afraid that this film, based on a series of fantasy novels by an avowed atheist and critic of Christianity, will turn some young viewers into atheists. I wasn't paying that close of attention, but did a lot of kids convert to Christianity after watching the Narnia movie?

    The Christian Science Monitor offers a thoughtful analysis of the controversy here. It seems, according to their critic, that the worst influence the books and movie might have on youth is that they encourage young people to actually THINK:

    What Pullman encourages is unmediated, critical thinking – the only antidote to the mental stupor that today's culture cultivates in young people. And Pullman does so in multiple ways. For example, by turning the familiar story lines of Genesis, Narnia, and the like, on their heads – thereby prompting the reader to reimagine those stories for him- or herself. In short, Pullman doesn't tell his readers what to think, but how to think. And to think, period. This, I suspect, is what Pullman's critics really find unnerving.

    Thursday, December 06, 2007

    Romney Religion Speech

    Mitt Romney has given his anticipated speech that he hopes will, once and for all, answer the religious questions that have been dogging his candidacy. Having listened to and read the speech, I can't get over the thought that he's trying to have it both ways. He wants to assert his identity as a person of faith, but at the same time downplay the influence that faith will have on his actions as president:
    "As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as President. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law."
    In addition, he said this:
    "If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause and no one interest," he said. "A president must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States."
    I guess I'm a little torn here. I certainly do not want a Christianist president who forces her/his personal religious dogma on the nation. On the other hand, I teach my youth that their faith doesn't stop and start at the doors of the church. Their faith, ideally, influences their whole life: school, work, relationships, and play. How can a president who is a person of faith assert that law of the land takes precedent over her/his religious beliefs? I suppose that this might be the only way you could be president (how else could you make some of the terrible decisions a president must make?). Which raises the question: Should a Christian be president? What if your faith conflicts with the demands of the office? When our youth are thinking ahead to their future careers, do we urge them to consider how their faith and that possible career might collide?

    Wednesday, December 05, 2007

    A Charlie Brown Christmas

    So who doesn't like the original Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon. What other network Christmas special quotes the very Christmas story itself from the gospel of Luke!?

    If you are looking to use this cartoon with your youth, check out the Youth Specialties bible study currently available for download (just $0.99) based on that classic Peanuts yuletide special. The study suggests activities for a complete program (which includes watching the cartoon or not, depending on your groups' familiarity with it) and provides a whole list of good questions for stimulating conversation on what Christmas is all about.

    (As an aside, did you know that this is but one of a ton of resources you can download for next to nothing at YS Underground, including a few freebies. These resources are great for the week you have hit a wall on your planning and need something quick.)

    Image of the Day: Advent Peace

    Christmas morning, originally uploaded by intransit.

    Got a minute? Take time out of the rush of the day and "enter" the scene above. Take a walk in the silent snow of this image, captured on a Christmas morning.

    Make-A-Santa Game

    This is purely a game to invoke laughter, teamwork, and to start your meeting off on a note of fun. You will only need some red construction paper, shaving cream or whipped cream in a can, tape, and few towels. Split the group into small teams and have each team pick someone to be their "Santa." Have the Santas sit in chairs, cover their shoulders with a towel (this is going to get a little messy), and distribute the paper, tape, and one can of cream to each group. When you say "Go!" each team is to work as fast as they can to transform their team member into the likeness of Santa, using the paper to form a hat, and the shaving cream to make the beard, trim for the hat or whatever else they can think of to add. Make sure you have a camera on hand as this will make for some great photos for the website or for the kids to use for a new FaceBook profile pic! (Note: if you choose to use shaving cream, it's a good idea to give all the Santas cheap plastic googles to protect their eyes).

    Advent Musings: Part 2

    I had this friend in high school who was so popular (in the band, in theater, in choir, good grades) that during our senior year he was voted Most Scholarly, Most Humorous, and Most Dramatic. Talk about overkill! As is turned out, our school only allowed him to accept one of these distinctions, with others going to the runners-up. And so it was that I was given the secondhand honor of being declared "Most Dramatic." Lucky me. It does often seem like some people are given an abundance of gifts while others can think of literally nothing to say when asked "And what are you good at?" How many of us have secretly wished we were as gifted as that other youth minister across town? Perhaps our understanding of gifts is too narrow.

    In this season of shopping madness and gift-getting and giving, consider discussing with your youth an understanding of "gifts" that goes beyond the demonstrative talents or material goods our culture prizes so well and open their eyes to the gifts of the Spirit. Ask your youth to consider:
    • Who among you has the gift of hospitality -- the gift of welcoming in "the stranger" and helping them feel comfortable and valued.

    • Who among you has the gift of listening -- the gift to let another person pour out their heart and then offering them a word of comfort or wisdom?

    • Who among you has the gift of healing -- the ability to reach out to others in a time of crisis and need and make the touch of God real and tangible?

    • Who among you has the gift of leadership--the ability to energize others to put their faith into action in places where others are hurting and in need?

    The Advent season is the perfect time to focus on these gifts of the Spirit that really matter -- the kind of gifts that won't end up collecting dust on some shelf or find their way into our next garage sale. They are the gifts that draw us together and nurture us as a community on the journey of faith.


    Tuesday, December 04, 2007

    Creative Youth Ministry

    Need some ideas on how to recharge your creativity batteries for youth ministry? Check out this excellent post by Tammie at the Living 33:6:8 blog. I particularly appreciate this suggestion:

    Another way to unleash your creativity is to see what others are doing and head in the completely opposite direction. Powerpoints and videos all the rage? Break out the whiteboard and dry erase markers. Draw diagrams. Make arrows pointing here there and everywhere. It’s fun, really. Of course, since I have started doing this very thing I discover that others are doing a similar thing (i.e. Rob Bell’s everything is spiritual tour). My next idea? Bust out the flannelgraphs. I’m thinking life-size so the whole congregation can see it. Younger youth pastors, go ask someone in their 30s or older.

    Advent Musings Part 1

    "Follow Your bliss." These words of Joseph Campbell, world renowned scholar of mythology and professor of comparative religion, had a profound influence on me when I first came across them in college. At the time, I sensed there was a great truth buried within that simple notion that somewhere, out there, was that "thing" that would bring true happiness, true joy, fulfillment, and purpose. I imaged it wold eventually be found in that perfect career, the most prestigious accomplishments, the hard-earned reputation, the envied lifestyle.

    It took many years for me to understand that the goal was not to "FIND your bliss." Bliss was not some prize to be discovered at the end of the journey. Rather, following one's bliss is the journey itself. It is the "way" that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of John. It is the path that we make straight for the coming of Christ into our lives each Advent. It is the journey that takes us to surprising places and encounters with surprising people. It is a journey in which one must travel lightly and leave much behind: self-centeredness, lusts for material possessions, the need for prestige, our contempt for others, and our own sense of self-importance. When we do lighten our pack, we open ourselves to true life and we find that we are already on the journey toward bliss -- toward that life-affirming and transforming experience of God's love.

    This Advent, why not encourage your youth to prepare their hearts in this time of waiting by challenging them to discover their bliss and follow it wherever it might take them.


    Friday, November 30, 2007

    The Blasphemy Challenge on NIGHTLINE

    Thursday, November 29, 2007

    Image of the Day: Advent, Advent

    Advent, Advent, originally uploaded by chipmonk.

    The Blasphemy Challenge

    Several days ago, I came across The Blasphemy Challenge. Basically, this is a group of atheists, led by a thirty-year-old (who, by the way, is unwilling to give his real name), that challenges individuals, specifically youth, to deny, on camera, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit (they never say trinity). Usually, I try not to get too worked up by these claims. Often, I feel that responsive anger is exactly what these individuals seek. But, some of these claims are just ludicrous. The founder of the Blasphemy Challenge claims he created this organization so that people could embrace reason when attempting to understand religion. Ironically, I couldn’t agree more. I also believe reason and faith go together.

    As I thought about how I would respond, I remembered this quote from Ronald Osborn—a 20th Century Disciples theologian:

    What do we mean by the Disciples mind? It is a way of approaching the Scriptures with a reverent intelligence. This style of professing Christian faith has accepted the reproach of advocating a “head religion” hurled by those who profess a “heart religion.” Emphasizing faith with understanding, the Disciples mind puts the highest premium on rationality and faithfulness in action.
    How about you? How would your respond? Or, how will you respond when a youth asks you about the blasphemy challenge?



    “But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother.” (Ps. 131:2)
    With Advent beginning this Sunday, Jacob and I have been brainstorming on ways to encourage our youth to focus on this season of waiting. The challenge, I think, is to help youth experience Advent in a way that counters the secular- consumerist approach to this time of year so prevalent within our culture. In past years, we have offered ideas on this blog for creating an interactive worship experience to help youth explore Advent themes, and ideas for offering youth a more radical image of a counter-cultural Jesus through the use of art and music. You also might want to kick things off with this fun Christmas Quiz which highlights the gap between our knowledge of pop culture Christmas and the biblical story of Christmas.

    But when all was said and done, I think we both agreed that the simple approach might be the best approach. Perhaps what our youth really need is help in celebrating Advent as a season of quiet waiting and contemplation. So a great option for this week might be a mini-silent retreat. Here are some ideas you might find useful:
    • Play some quiet instrumental music and allow time for silent meditation and prayer.

    • Show a PowerPoint presentation of images of the nativity story from around the world and allow youth time to sit in silence and just soak it all in.

    • Set up areas for youth to draw or paint on themes related to Advent.

    • Show the NOOMA "Noise" DVD and help students reflect on the "noise" in their own lives and suggest practices that might help them hear God's voice above the din.

    • Designate your youth room or chapel as a "talk free zone." With quiet music or nature sounds playing in the background, invite youth to find someplace to sit where they will be comfortable. Give each participant an envelope. As the Spirit moves them, they are to take one card at a time from the envelope and follow its suggestion. Cards might say such things as "Meditate on the word 'silence'", "Go to the table and make a list of your hopes for the world," "Sit in a different place in the room for awhile," "Lay on the floor and rest," "Silently affirm others in the room with a touch on the shoulder," "Go to the easel and add your image of God's peace to those drawn by others," "Take a walk around the outside of the church in silence, listening for God's presence in the world around you."

    • Project or post Advent related scripture passages (or passages depicting Jesus praying in silence) in the retreat space and encourage youth to reflect on the passages through the use of clay or Play-do or finger paints.

    • As Advent is also a time of making a pathway for God into our lives, consider providing teens with a handout with an image of a road map or path. Invite them to make notes or images that depict the important moments, experiences, and people they have encountered along their journey of faith.

    Finish your time together by allowing youth to share about their experience of silent waiting. Brainstorm ways they might continue this practice on a daily basis throughout Advent.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007

    Image of the Day: HAPPY THANKSGIVING

    Photo of my backyard (including fall leaves, haybale and pumpkin) taken with my lomo camera that captures 8 exposures per frame.


    Authenticity and Youth Ministry

    Earlier this week, Barack Obama was speaking to a group of high school students and shared that he had tried drugs and alcohol as a teenager:

    “I made some bad decisions that I’ve written about, there were times when I got into drinking and experimented with drugs.. there was a whole stretch of time when I didn’t really apply myself a lot.”
    Mitt Romney has since criticized Obama's admission to the youth, saying:
    It’s just not a good idea for people running for President of the United States who potentially could be the role model for a lot of people to talk about their personal failings while they were kids because it opens the doorway to other kids thinking, ‘well I can do that too and become President of the United States,’” Romney told an Iowa audience today. “I think that was a huge error by Barack Obama…it is just the wrong way for people who want to be the leader of the free world.”
    I read that statement and imagined for a moment if what Romney had said instead was:

    It’s just not a good idea for someone leading a youth ministry who potentially could be the role model for a lot of people to talk about their personal failings while they were kids because it opens the doorway to other kids thinking, ‘well I can do that too and become a Christian.’”

    In either context, Romney's statement is ridiculous. God forbid our politicians should be honest with us, but God help you if you are trying to lead a youth ministry program and you can't be authentic with the young people you serve. Teens don't need perfect adults with perfect manners teaching them how to be perfect people. They need to know that we struggle with the same things they do. They need to know that have, do, and will make mistakes. They need to know that we on a occasion (or even more often) let an expletive slip our lips, curse bad drivers under our breath (or out the car window!), fail to tell the truth sometimes, and not to put to fine a point on it: sin!

    I'm not saying, as Romney seems to be implying, that we should revel in such behavior or dismiss it or encourage it in our youth. But I do think we need to be honest about it and acknowledge it. And I do think we need to stop acting like the point of youth ministry is to teach teens how to be nice, and polite, and to have good manners and how to be the "good kids." Because if youth ministry becomes the place where the "good kids" hang out, then when they do slip up (and they will) and do something they feel is wrong, or immoral, or unforgivable, the last place they will come for help is the Church! We are not a "nice people club." We are a community of people who trust that, in spite of our mistakes and our destructive decisions and behavior, we are loved beyond measure.

    Giving Thanks

    I believe that one of the defining aspects of Jesus' ministry was table fellowship. So, each Sunday night, our youth share a meal prepared by a member of our congregation. But last Sunday, we decided to do something a little different. Instead of sharing a meal that has already been prepared, we cooked our own Thanksgiving feast. Sharing cooking responsibilities with sixty youth can be quite an adventure. But, we had some awesome adult volunteers who did a wonderful job! The meal was delicious.

    The highlight of the evening, at least for me, was watching the interactions between our youth and guests. For our meal, we decided that it was important we share the table with others. So, this year, we invited guests from Woodhaven--a DOC based organization that provides care for individuals with developmental disabilities. When I look at this picture, I envision the kingdom of God. Last Sunday, we had individuals from all walks of life sharing a meal, giving thanks, and rejoicing in faith and fellowship. Surely, this is the true meaning of the gospel.


    Tuesday, November 20, 2007

    Matchbox 20 Update

    After posting the new song from Matchbox 20 below, I decided to use it as a focus for a discussion at youth group this past Sunday. Several of our youth had been having a conversation on FaceBook about the St. Louis-based (now national) story of the teen that committed suicide after being harassed on MySpace by a "boy" that turned out to be parents of her ex-friend. One response posted by a youth after hearing the story read "I have lost my faith in humanity."

    Teenagers, for many developmental reasons, are very sensitive to issues of injustice, and the fact that in this case it seems to be adults that are the culprits made the situation seem all the more intolerable to them. For some, it was just one more example of how messed up the world is. This, of course, is the theme of Matchbox 20's song "How Far We've Come." So, after listening to the song, we delved into some pretty deep questions about life, the universe and everything ("Do you think the world is headed for 'hell'?" "What is the meaning of life in a world torn apart by violence and injustice?" "Where do you turn to when your own world seems to be coming to an end?" "Where is hope?"

    We then looked at some scriptures that speak to the hope we find in God's promise to be with us in times of struggle (Psalm 46, Romans 8:38-39, Philippians 4:8,9, Matthew 6:25-26, 30b, 33b-34). We considered the gospel promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God and what that means for how we might live our lives. And we considered where we might experience God's presence in times of trouble (One student remarked that he regrettably doesn't go to God when he struggling. He goes to his friends. Another student responded "But maybe that is God, connecting with you through your friends." Others said they seek out comfort in their music.)

    Noticeably absent was any discussion of our hope being grounded in a better life after this one. What I challenged my youth to consider are the ways in which we can open ourselves to live in the "kindom" of God here-and-now through the ways we love ourselves and others. In the end, more questions were asked than answers given, but I put great faith in the brain to take those questions, to ponder them, and perhaps to begin to see the world with new eyes.


    Friday, November 16, 2007

    Matchbox Twenty - How Far We've come

    But I believe the world is burning to the ground
    oh well I guess we're gonna find out
    let's see how far we've come
    let's see how far we've come
    Well I, believe, it all, is coming to an end
    oh well, I guess, we're gonna pretend,
    let's see how far we've come
    let's see how far we've come

    Thursday, November 15, 2007

    Image of the Day: Trust Jesus

    IMG_9420.jpg, originally uploaded by ntisocl.

    I often tell the young people I serve to trust in the WAY of Jesus, but I always follow up that statement by asking "But just exactly what WAY is that?" Beyond all the identity statements we make for Jesus (messiah, son of God, savior), what is it about Jesus we are inviting young people to trust in? What do you understand the way of Jesus to be? What does it look like? How is it manifest in real life?

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    Rethinking Youth Poll Results

    We recently asked: How do you go about developing curriculum/activities for your youth ministry?

    Your response:

    • I use materials from Group/YS/Simply Youth Ministry. 13%

    • I use materials from Group/YS/SYM but I have to adapt them theologically to fit my group. 15%

    • I get ideas from youth ministry blogs/websites. 28%

    • I write my own curriculum materials. 34%

    I was not surprised that many of us get ideas from the web and write our own curriculum, but I now would be interested in knowing why you do this? For Jacob and I, it is often because we find much of the published curriculum out there does not fit our churches or youth theologically. After awhile, it gets tedious having to adapt everything and just easier to write our own materials. The challenge with this, of course, is that there is good curriculum writing and poor curriculum writing (more on this soon).
    On another note, I wonder what all of us are doing with this curriculum we are writing. Are we sharing it with others? Are we willing to make it available online like the folks do at DiscipleDocs?

    Lectio Divina 2.0

    I continue to try to introduce the spiritual practice of lectio divina to our youth in ways that might hook their attention. This past weekend, while on our mission trip to Nashville, we had a short time of worship and meditation on Saturday morning before heading out to work. I invited the youth to sit together around a table and gave each of them pen and paper. I told them I would read through the scripture passage, the story of Zacchaeus, several times. The first time they were just to listen to the text and absorb it. But during the next repeated readings, I invited them to use the paper to jot down or draw words, ideas, or images that jumped out to them from the text.
    Some chose to do nothing, but others sketched pictures, wrote reflections, or made lists of words. One youth created the image you see to the right (click to see larger image), a pseudo-example of "concrete poetry" in which the poem takes the shape of its theme (can you see Zacchaeus hanging out in his tree?). At the end of the process, we invited youth to share what they had written or drawn or thought about during the readings.

    This approach to lectio divina would be particularly useful with youth who are not audio learners and need visual or tactile stimuli.

    Wednesday, November 07, 2007

    Urban Mission Trip Idea

    This weekend I'll be heading off to Nashville with our senior high youth and a few of our college students to participate in an inner-city mission experience. While in Nashville, our group will be hosted by the Center for Student Missions (CSM). Located in major inner city areas (including Chicago, LA, NY, Washington DC and Toronto), CSM offers everything you need to provide your youth with a meaningful urban mission experience.

    I've worked with CSM on about 10 mission trips and I've always appreciated their organization and attention to the needs of my group. While in the inner city, CSM provides you with housing, meals (including the chance to sample the local ethnic cuisine), and a college/grad school aged host that travels with you and helps you get to your work sites, acts as liaison, and functions as navigator through city traffic. Mission opportunities which they can provide range from work with homeless shelters and soup kitchens to programs that serve children and the elderly. They can set up weekend long trips like we'll be doing, or week-long trips. I'd particularly recommend CSM to youth groups with limited budgets for mission trips or who are run by volunteers with limited time to plan mission projects.
    The only hitch I've ever really run into with CSM is that they tend to be more conservative theologically/socially/politically than myself or most of the youth I serve. Fortunately, their goal is not to push an agenda other than the love of God through Christ for the needy folks of the inner-city and that is surely a foundation on which all Christians can stand.


    CSM Banner

    Mark Yaconelli: Growing Souls

    Last year I read Mark Yaconelli's text Contemplative Youth Ministry and breathed a sigh of relief. At last, a youth ministry tome that was giving us all permission to slow down, to introduce silence into our time with teenagers, and to focus on relationship over entertainment. I was impressed enough with that text to share many of its general themes with my adult youth ministry team and encourage them to join me in introducing more worship, more prayer, and more relaxation into our youth ministry gatherings.

    Now Mark has come along with, I think, an even more important text: Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry. This book is really a companion to the previous text. It is a practical theology growing out of the other book's theory. Mark shares the history of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP) and then provides a great deal of anecdotal information on how the project was put into practice in a variety of youth ministry settings. In some churches, the introduction of contemplative practices brought transformation. In others it brought frustration. What has really resonated with me most in my reading so far is that the YMSP is not first-and-foremost suggesting that we turn youth into junior monks, forcing them to sit around chanting and taking a vow of silence. Rather, the first step is to attend to the spiritual life of the adult leaders:

    [A] Contemplative approach to youth ministry does not entail teaching youth to become contemplatives. It entails a leadership team committed to a contemplative process of its own that enables its members to see ways of crafting programmatic action that authentically participates with God in nurturing life and faith in young

    This sort of thing gets the gears in my head going. Imagine a group of diverse adults from your church who gather periodically, not to plan scavenger hunts and ski trips, but to pray, study scripture, and discern together the movement of the Spirit within your particular youth ministry setting. I'm not suggesting here the typical "youth council" model which tends to be primarily a calendaring/programming body (as well as the group that gives a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down"to the youth minister's wackier ideas). Rather, the idea here is to develop a team that will focus on the spiritual health of the youth, the youth ministry and the way in which that ministry fits into the spiritual life of the whole church. I'm anxious to see how this idea is developed in the rest of the book.

    God's Gift of Sexuality Revisited

    Last weekend, I attended the Youth Specialities Conference. Hopefully, in the next couple of days, I’ll be able to provide a review of the event. But, I’m happy to say now, overall, that I really enjoyed the weekend. I thought the worship was good, the speakers were insightful, and there was a true sense of community.

    I spent one afternoon listening to the teachings of Chap Clark, a professor from Fuller University. I was impressed with Chap’s insights regarding junior high students. He claimed, and I agree, that the number one question junior high students want to know is: Do you like me? It’s almost as if our younger students have these little tentacles protruding from their head, sensing out whether or not they feel liked. And, unfortunately, these tentacles do not allow for cognitive responses or reasoning, only emotional responses.

    So, I wasn’t too surprised this morning when I came across
    this article. Research shows that abstinence programs are not working. Big surprise. Our youth are so intent, in my opinion, on being liked that they will do anything, including sex, to be accepted. We’ve mentioned before that sexuality is a gift from God that needs to be treated appropriately. But maybe we haven’t spent enough time reflecting on why youth are so sexually active. If there’s such a strong desire to be accepted, which there obviously is, how can we encourage our youth to find other ways to be liked? And, what is the role of parents and the church? I’m thinking of hosting a one hour session for parents on the realities of adolescence and sexuality. It’s an issue that cannot be ignored, but must be openly discussed, both in the church and at home.

    I was especially shocked this weekend when Chap showed a documentary from HBO entitled: Middle School Confessions. Has anyone seen this? I think I may show it to the parents of my youth. We have to understand that our youth are driven by affect. Their only concern is how they feel in the moment, there is no logical thinking. But, I’m convinced that cumulative messages, through youth ministers and parents, regarding the gift of sexuality, can help youth make wiser choices.


    Friday, November 02, 2007

    Self-Serve Youth Ministry Blog Dispenser

    Are You Saved? Youth Minister Jeremy takes at look at the "salvation" of youth from a post-modern and progressive point of view (and includes a hilarious clip from one of the funniest movies on the subject).

    It's All About Me! Our colleague at the Over-Educated Youth Pastor blog is looking at the issue of narcissism and youth ministers. And if you think he's not talking about you, you probably are the one who needs to read it!

    Don't Worry! Be happy! Youth pastor Stuart takes on the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen.

    Is God a Republican? HMB, a self-described "woman in ministry," offers up a a great suggestion for a political experiment: read and listen to the people who don't agree with you (exactly the reason I listen to conservative talk radio)!

    Rookie Recollections: Steve at the Youth Ministry Ideas blog has some good words of advice for those just starting in youth ministry (and for us old timers, too).

    But does she know The Lord's Prayer?! Darren at Planet Telex joins the debate over whether or not to use non-Christian adults/parents as leaders in your youth ministry.
    The Dark Side of Youth Ministry - A youth minister's honest post on the challenge of dealing pastorally with a death in a teen's family.

    Thursday, November 01, 2007

    Another Photo Scavenger Hunt

    Reverse the old photo scavenger hunt approach of sending your group out to take pictures of themselves. Instead, this time YOU get to be the photographer. Prior to the event, go out and take a series of close-up photos (digital or Polaroid) in and around your church, in your neighborhood or community, or even in your city, depending on how widespread you want the scavenging to be.

    The images should be close-up enough that the youth have to really use their brains to figure out where you took them (e.g the foot of a famous local statue, the cornerstone of a well-known building, a piece of the image of the mascot on the outside of their school, a youth leader's nose, the steps going into the church baptistry, an unusual object that sits on your senior minister's desk). Provide copies of all the images to each team and challenge them to seek out and identify the location of each photo (check here for some ideas of what these photos might look like).

    A great follow-up to this activity might be a discussion or worship experience centered on being attentive to God's presence in the world all around us. Invite youth to spend a day noticing the little things they might miss in their regular flurry of activity that can draw their attention to God: the beauty of a fall leaf, the sound of children playing, the person in the school cafeteria who is eating alone, the taste of food, the gift of a moment of silence. Challenge them to take a moment each time they find themselves being attentive to God's presence to stop and offer a simple prayer of thanks.

    Here's a warm-up for you if you are planning this activity: Can you guess the identity of the extreme close-up image above?

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007

    Christ and Culture

    The results from our Halloween poll are in! We asked if Christian youth should participate in Halloween. You said:
    • Why not? I do! 66% (25 votes)
    • Pobably not, because it celebrates the occult. 21% (8 votes)
    • No Way! And while we are at it, get rid of that pagan holiday of Christmas, too! 11% (4 votes)
    • Only if they go dressed as Bible characters (and Satan doesn't count!) 3% (1 votes)

    I was the single vote on that last one. Though this was meant in fun, I think there is the issue inherent here of whether or not we are going to be separate from the culture. In his famous work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested five historical viewpoints of the interaction of faith and the surrounding culture: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and Culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. It has often been argued that Niebuhr's liberal bias led him to favor the final option, seeing Christ as transformer of a broken, sinful culture (this is sometimes referred to as the social gospel). What to make of this? Do we teach our youth that if they follow the way of Christ the world will be transformed? I hope we strive for this as Christians, but do we expect it to actually happen? Do we expect in our lifetime to see the end of war, starvation, cruelty? Or perhaps that is too selfish. Do we at least project some possible distant future when these things are possible? I imagine there are plenty of Christians who would say "No." Perhaps on a personal level or community level there will be transformation through Christ, but on a global scale the world will keep on much as it always have.

    But one wonders how we can be transformative at all if we are not part of the culture itself. If God is ubiquitous, then God is to be found in all aspects of the world, the community, the culture in which we live. Thus, if we engage the culture we are engaging some part of God's presence. The question is the degree to which we are "in" the culture without being "of" the culture. Do we tell youth it's okay to go to see a concert at a bar as long as they don't drink? Do we tell youth it's okay to be in the military as long as they don't fire a shot? Do we tell youth it's okay to have friends that do drugs or have sex as long as they themselves do not? Is it possible to be immersed in a culture and not be in some way shaped and influenced by it?

    Some time back on this blog I wrote: Does the Church not have an identity distinct from secular culture? One of my favorite texts in seminary, perhaps surprisingly 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)

    Ultimately, I don't think this is an "either/or" proposition. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the culture. Our language, or behavior, our customs, our values are all shaped by culture from birth. The question is to what degree to do we encourage our youth to resist culture, to push against culture, to maintain a certain distance from or tension with the surrounding culture? To what degree do we encourage them to work for the transformation of culture, to work for the coming Kingdom of God? I know. I know. Lots of questions. I'm still working on the answers.
    Update: In a great mixture of faith and culture, I practiced hospitality last night by giving out candy, spider rings, and halloween pencils to all the ghosts and goblins who came to my door trick-or-treating. Then I met up with my church's young adult group at a local bar to watch a member of our group play with his band and didn't get home until after midnight!