Friday, September 28, 2007

    Image of the Day: Cross Upright

    Cross Upright, originally uploaded by Greybolt.

    The photographer says this about the photo: "This has become one my favorite pieces. It is telling to me as I work through my religious ponderings. Christian symbology is powerful, espically when placed against the juxtaposition of decay like this.

    Can the symbols be reborn? or should they be allowed to decay and new symbols be found? Can something so old, neglected, and abused still inspire? These are questions Christians must ask, what with the state of modern Christianity, espically when viewed from the outside."

    Thursday, September 27, 2007

    11 Million Take Over Day

    Here's a great idea passed on by overseas youth ministry blogger Ian -- 11 Million Takeover Day:
    In a nutshell, November 23rd is a day when as many adults as possible are encouraged to let young people take over some or all of their role. Being a school day some of the events we'll be promoting will be over the weekend BUT all our Bishops (and we've got loads of them) are on board...
    How about setting aside the whole week and inviting youth to take over leadership of parts of the church where they rarely have a voice? How about letting them help with hospital visitations? How about inviting youth to pick the sermon topic and hymns for worship? Or better yet, how about letting a youth preach on that weekend? How about, as Ian suggests, letting youth post the entries to your blog?

    AAUGH! Youth Ministry Frustrations!

    Charlie Brown got it right! Life can be really frustrating sometimes. And so can youth ministry. It's so easy in a blog like this to focus all our attention on the bright spots of working with teens, the fun ideas, the creative lessons, the life-changing mission trips. But let's get real. Those of us who do this as a calling are gluttons for punishment. No kid in their right mind every said "I want to be a youth minister when I'm growed up!" And yet, that's exactly what I've been doing for the past 17 years: being a youth minister and (some might argue) waiting to grow up! So, given all that, here's my top list of youth ministry frustrations, in no particular order:

    1) Having to constantly balance keeping youth entertained while slipping in Bible study and worship when they aren't paying attention.
    2) Parents who see youth group as a privilege to be granted only if homework is already done on Sunday night.
    3) Youth who wait until Sunday night to do their homework and use that as an excuse not to go to youth group!
    4) Churches that want youth in long as they sit on the back row and keep quiet!
    5) Schools/coaches/piano teachers/dance teachers etc. who schedule practices and events on Sunday morning and Sunday evenings.
    6) Families that take youth out of church on Sundays in order to participate in school or sporting events.
    7) Youth who let you know at the last minute that they can't participate in the long-planned retreat/mission trip/youth Sunday/(fill in the blank).
    8) People who always ask you "How many youth do you have coming to youth group?" as if this was the most important indicator of a quality youth ministry.
    9) When you order pizza on Sunday night for 20 hungry kids and the delivery driver shows up an hour late....right in the middle of the Bible study!
    10) The oft-asked question "When are you going to get a real ministry job?"
    11) Teens who feel completely free to share, in the midst of your well-planned program, "I'm bored" or "When are we going to do something fun?"
    12) Teens who show up at youth group and ask "What are we doing tonight?" despite the fact that you sent them an amazing flyer, posted the activity on their Facebook and MySpace pages, and texted them on Sunday afternoon with all the info!
    13) Finding out that the church has planned a congregational event during youth group time and no one bothered to tell you.
    14) A culture that encourages youth to split their time and energy between 20 different activities at once so that, at best, church receives about 5% of their focus, along with sports, band, school, music lessons, jobs, etc.
    15) When you plan an activity for the 5 teens that attended last week...and 25 teens show up. Or, when you plan an activity for the 25 who came last week, and you walk into a room with only 5 quiet faces staring up at you.

    Oh, I could go on and on, but I know you may have some good ones to add to the list as well (and please do!). It's fun to list the frustrations, partly as a catharsis. In reality, the positive experiences working with youth eventually outweigh the frustrations, if you stick with it long enough! No one ever said ministry was easy, or lucrative, or glamorous. But it can be life-changing -- for you and your youth!

    Hat Tip to Tim for suggesting this topic (see item #45 on the list).


    Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    The Awareness Examen

    The Awareness Examen is an ancient Christian prayer practice that invites reflection upon the day, the way in which God was present to you, and how you responded to that presence. 

    This particular prayer practice was developed by Ignatius of Loyola as a daily discipline of reflection on God's activity in our lives. I use a form of this prayer following each youth group event or meeting as a way to avoid the trap of always reflecting on just the positives or just the negatives of a particular gathering. If a Bible study goes particularly well, it's easy to pat ourselves on the back and take all the credit for what talented youth leaders we are. If the youth group meeting bombs, it's just as easy to beat ourselves up about it all the way home and wonder if it's time to find a real job! Use of the Awareness Examen invites a more thoughtful reflection upon our ministry and the movement of God's spirit. Here is a brief suggestion for how you might try this prayer practice yourself:

    • Find a quiet place and take some time to center yourself.

    • Think back over the meeting/event/gathering as if you were watching a movie of all that happened. Ask yourself: What did you notice? What feelings or thoughts do you associate with the meeting?

    • Think about where you saw God at work during the time together? Give thanks for these moments.

    • Think about where it seemed you/others were unaware of God's presence.

    • Think about where you/others were resisting God's presence. Ask forgiveness for this shortsightedness.

    • Consider where God may be calling you to a new awareness. What new places might God be calling you to in your ministry?

    • Give thanks for the time together with your youth and for God's presence within each of them.

    Monday, September 24, 2007

    Shoplifting seagull

    I think there may be a sermon idea here. This story of the seagull from Aberdeen, Scotland that shoplifts Doritos from a convenience store
    everyday was passed on to me by one of my youth. What makes it particularly funny to me is that I can imagine my little black dachshund doing exactly the same thing! The folks in the town like to watch the little guy do this so much that they acutally pay the shopkeeper for the purloined chips each day!

    Saturday, September 22, 2007

    The Jena Six

    As one of my former youth group members headed down to Louisiana this week to cover the Jena Six protest for his college newspaper, I was reminded once again how far removed human nature is from "God nature." For those who believe we now live in a liberated, color-blind country, the racial tensions in the small community of Jena should be a reminder of how deep the sin of racism runs in the United States. It is perhaps buried a little deeper now than it was 50 years ago, but it is still alive and well. The real shame of this story is that that the primary conflict is not among adults, but among youth.

    The conservative radio talk show folks here in St. Louis have shamelessly painted this story as a simple incident of black thugs ganging up on a single white student. The truth is, as you might expect, much more complex, with wrongdoing on both sides of the racial divide and failure by adults to do the right thing before matters got out of hand. For a more thorough timeline of the events that led up to the Jena 6 incident, see here. Read college student Robby Lewis' article on the protest here.

    Monday, September 17, 2007

    What Does Your Group Do?

    Our recent poll asked which elements you include as part of your regular youth ministry programming. Here are the results in descending order:
    1. Bible study
    2. Topical Discussions
    3. Music/Singing
    4. Social Action/Mission Projects
    5. Competitive Activities
    6. Art Projects
    7. Sexuality Education
    8. Contemplative Practices
    9. Quiet Time

    Some surprises: I would have expected "competitive activities" to be higher on the list but relatively few of you reported including these in your regular program (which I applaud! In many ways I find competition anathema to my understanding of the Kingdom of God). Relatively few of you reported providing sexuality education. Is this perhaps because we think the schools are doing the job for us, or because it's hard to find good curriculum on the subject? (See Jacob's related post on this issue here) And the bottom two, "contemplative practices" and "quiet time" barely registered in the poll. Hmmm. I wonder that those two might actually need to be at the top of our lists, not the bottom! (Need some ideas on how to do this? See here.)

    Friday, September 14, 2007

    Standing Up

    Have you heard that story, which has been passed around for years, about the boy going through chemo who loses all his hair? Embarrassed to return to school, he rides home from the hospital dreading the next day until he reaches home and is surprised to see all his friends -- and every single one of them has shaved their head! I'm fairly certain this story is apocryphal but now there comes a true-life version of this story: a high school boy is bullied by some homophobic students for wearing a pink t-shirt at school until other student's take action to show their solidarity. This story is a reminder of how Jesus did not just advocate for the outcasts but he became one of them. He ate with the tax collector, he touched the leper, he blessed children, he welcomed women into his midst. He hung out with all the wrong crowds and encourages us to do the same.

    Creative Community-Building

    Last Sunday we invited the youth to create together a mural highlighting some of the foundational elements of youth group: friends, family, fellowship, and faith. With no prior planning, they were to begin painting the mural on a large canvas we had spread on the floor. The art was to be free-form: symbols, words, abstract images, color -- whatever came to mind that might help illustrate the themes. They were encouraged to add on to, or even paint on top of, each other's efforts as the mural took shape organically.
    Oh, and to add one more little wrinkle: we explained that to illustrate the way we each bring unique and special gifts to our ministry, each person was given something different to "paint" with on the mural. Some youth received brushes of all sizes, while others were given ladles, sponges, toothbrushes, or even used their hands or feet. The final product was quite "abstract," but most important was the process of working together as a community to dream about a shared vision of ministry together. This Sunday we'll spend a little time debriefing their efforts and then find a place of honor to hang the new mural in our youth room.

    Wednesday, September 12, 2007

    Why Are Young Adults Leaving the Church?

    From a column I wrote recently for the church newsletter:

    Perhaps you’ve heard the rumblings from several recent national studies on the exodus of young adults from protestant churches. According to the surveys, seven in 10 youth (ages 18-30) who attended church regularly in high school reported that they stopped attending by age 23. Of that group, 34 percent said they never returned to church, even occasionally, by the age of 30.Translation: One in four protestant youth have left the Church for good. Those who leave were more likely to describe church members as hypocritical, insincere or judgmental. Almost all of them reported leaving church either due to major life changes, dissatisfaction with the pastor or church or over religious, ethical or political concerns.

    But buried within these sobering statistics is information that might help us reverse this trend, if we take it to heart. The young people who did stay in church or who eventually returned were more likely to have been raised in families where both parents were committed to regular participation. They were also more likely to have been nurtured in churches where the pastors offered challenging and relevant sermons and the church members themselves were committed to spiritual development.The data seems to suggest that the teen years are a crucial time for youth trying to find a spiritual home. Of course, if they do not find such a home in church, they don’t give up being spiritual persons. They simply look elsewhere for their spiritual center. So middle school and high school is not the time to shuffle kids off to a secret room for pizza parties and game nights, hidden away from the rest of the congregation.

    Rather, it’s the prime time to engage youth in the total life of the church, allowing them to take leadership in worship, helping them build relationships with as many mature Christian adults as possible and guiding them to find their spiritual center in Christian fellowship. Such efforts are not only part of our calling as Christians – the very life of the Church may depend on them.”


    The War Over There....The War at Home

    This video from CNN of a group of soldiers in Iraq sharing their thoughts on the war features my nephew, Tyler, towards the end. I'm surprised how candid the soldiers are about the situation over there. It's easy to think of the war as an "issue" rather than a reality when it's happening on the other side of the globe to somebody else. This war became more real for me when Tyler enlisted and was sent over to Baghdad to serve as a paramedic.

    With so much discussion on Capitol Hill this week about the costs, rationale, and failure of the surge to buy time for political reconciliation, it's a good time I think to raise this issue of war again with our youth. Is there any such thing as a Christian approach to war? Does all that "love your enemies" stuff only apply to personal relationships or does it also encompass global conflict? How might we expect Jesus to ask us to think about armed combat? Is there a way to peace in all of this?


    Monday, September 10, 2007

    COOL IDEA: Connected Prayers

    Here's a cool idea we used at youth group this week after we were inspired by this. Invite youth to think of a word that represents a joy or concern they want to lift up in prayer. The word could be a feeling, a person's name, a place, etc. Have them write that word out (as creatively as they like) on a series of notecards, writing just one letter on each card. When ready, ask the youth to begin laying their words out on the floor "Scrabble-style," connecting their words, where possible, by using the letters of other people's words. Invite youth to explain the word they chose. Follow-up with a discussion of how we become connected spiritually as we lift up and share our prayers with one another.

    Nate Sallie - "Breakthrough"

    Saturday, September 08, 2007

    Image of the Day: Creative Worship

    Worship Through Art, originally uploaded by Tim Morgan.

    Messy Planning

    Our recent poll asked how you go about planning for fall programming. 60% of you said that you do all the planning yourselves. The second highest response was "We don't do a lot of long-range planning. We like to be spontaneous!" Only a few folks said they work with others to do the planning.

    I have to admit that it's easy for me to get into the habit of doing it all myself. One one level, this makes sense. I'm the one who has time during the week to sit in my office and contemplate the best Bible studies, the right mixture of fellowship activities, the most effective schedule of lock-ins and retreats, the most interesting mission projects. Yes, it's always easier and more efficient to just do it all myself. But imagine the benefits to the youth if they are brought into the process:

    • As part of the planning process, youth get the opportunity to think intentionally about ministry. They learn to be thoughtful about why you do what you do in your program. They develop the skill of discernment regarding the church as they ask "Is this the right activity/study/trip for us? Does it fit with who we are and what we are about as a youth group?"
    • As part of the planning process, youth get to see first-hand the amount of work that goes into keeping the ministries of a church moving ahead. In this way, they are not insulated from the nuts & bolts and this will help to develop them as more thoughtful and effective church leaders when they reach adulthood. Translation: they will understand that great programs and ministries don't happen by themselves!
    • As part of the planning process, youth develop ownership of their ministry and are better able to see their "calling" within that ministry. With luck, this approach helps to diminish the "service station" approach many people (teens and adults) have toward church where they just show up and expect everything to be done for them.

    Now, admittedly, allowing youth into the planning process makes things a lot messier. They may come up with ideas you aren't too crazy about and they may fail to follow-through. And you may have to give up an idea you're in love with because the youth just don't get it. But in the end, you will have a group of youth much more engaged and excited about their ministry within the Church.


    Friday, September 07, 2007

    Investing in Your Youth Ministry

    Here is a quick article from Life Hack called "18 Ways to Invest in Your Life" which could just as easily be titled "18 Ways to Invest in Your Youth Ministry." When was the last time you invested in organization, rest, communication skills, or networking? There's something for everybody in this list.

    Blogging Toolbox

    Greetings fellow youth ministry bloggers. Just thought we'd share with you this treasure trove of blogging resources that should be useful to beginners and experts alike. The list includes links to widgets, ways to increase traffic to your site, stat tools, search engines, and lots of other cool stuff.

    Self-Serve Youth Ministry Blog Dispenser

    You showed THAT? Stuart has started an interesting discussion on just which movies are appropriate to show at youth group. Go add your suggestions.

    Why does he act that way? Dan is thinking outloud about the challenge of working with children diagnosed with AD/HD -- something every youthworker faces.

    Picture Perfect: Steve shares a fun activity using wacky photos of your youth that also offers an important teaching on God's love.

    Creative Worship: Looking for some ideas for simple hands-on experiences for use in youth worship or as prayer stations? Check out this creative list. Hattip to Calvin for highlighting these great suggestions.

    Help! The bloggers over at Rev Gal Blog (focusing on women in ministry) serve up some great advice and creative suggestions to a pastor struggling with keeping a youth program together with little help.

    Thursday, September 06, 2007

    Marshmallow Shooter

    Just don't shoot them at people! You could put an eye out!

    Wednesday, September 05, 2007

    The Long Road There

    I was at a writer's conference a week or so ago, working with a team I'm on to produce the 2009 outdoor ministry curriculum published by the National Council of Churches. We spent several days exegeting scripture passages and after awhile my head was swimming. When we got a break one afternoon, I took time to roam the grounds of the Catholic retreat center where we were cloistered for the conference.

    Off on one hill, in a secluded spot, was an amazing labyrinth, the path lined with white stones. It was a very hot day, but I was determined to allow myself the time to walk the twisting path and just let the moment come to me. The best part of any labyrinth experience for me is when I become unaware that I've slipped into a focused intention of reaching the center, no matter what. And just when I think the path is about to bring me to that destination, suddenly, I find myself routed all the way back out to the outer ring of the labyrinth, the center no closer than it was when I started. For many reasons, this is always a freeing moment for me, particularly for how it speaks to me as a pastor of youth.

    Youth ministry is tough. Like any work with children and teens, it's unpredictable, often unrewarding, and just when we think we've got things figured out and going how we want them, the path shoots us back out where we started. The trick, I think, is to stop forcing our way to the center and just trust the path.

    You Know Who You Sound Like?

    Apparently, I sound a lot like Paul Tillich. That's pretty good theological company, in my estimation. Tillich comes closest to expressing with words my understanding of God. I'm also glad to see good ol' Schleiermacher near the top. So, which theologian do you sound like? Take the quiz.
    You scored as Paul Tillich, Paul Tillich sought to express Christian truth in an existentialist way. Our primary problem is alienation from the ground of our being, so that our life is meaningless. Great for psychotherapy, but no longer very influential.

    Paul Tillich


    J├╝rgen Moltmann


    Friedrich Schleiermacher


    John Calvin


    Karl Barth


    Martin Luther


    Charles Finney


    Jonathan Edwards






    Which theologian are you?
    created with

    Tuesday, September 04, 2007

    Fall Scheduling: How does it work?

    Our current poll (which changes weekly and can be found at the top our homepage) looks at how we go about planning "programming" for the start of the fall. It occured to me that many of us likely go at this in very different ways. Some of us, out of necessity, do all the major planning ourselves, setting up a calendar of events for each month. Others work with adult volunteers and youth to jointly lay out a schedule of activities. Certainly, one size does not fit all. Each ministry does what works best given its size and make-up of youth and adults. I thought I'd share the basics of how we lay out the schedule in my program.

    We strive to have a rotation of meetings each month that looks like this:

    Week one: Fellowship activity

    Week two: Study/Discussion

    Week three: Mission Project

    Week four: Creative Worship

    With good planning, and a little help from the Spirit, these activities each month are connected by a theme and each helps the youth to experience and think through the theme. Thus, if we are doing a study on "Where is God in your world?" we might start with a Polaroid scavenger hunt for fun, inviting the youth to find images of God out in the community. The next week we dig into scripture, studying images of God in the various texts. The next week, we share in a mission project which helps us to be part of God's work in the world. And the final week we plan and lead a creative worship experience that draws together our month-long focus.

    Now, I know that some youth ministers already have their entire school year planned out. They know what they are doing on the second Sunday of January 2008 and they already have a deposit down on a campgrounds for the spring retreat and they know where they are going for a mission trip next summer! We tend to be a little more spontaneous. I used to do a lot more advance planning, but I now take a more laid-back approach. I know where I think the group is heading between now and Christmas, but we allow a lot of space to change and adapt based on what happens with the "new" group that comes together each fall. We really take a less "programmatic" approach and allow the group to be "organic," letting the focus be less on activities and more on the growing of a caring community.
    I'd be interested to know how others pastors promote the planning process in their programs (how's that for alliteration!).

    Saturday, September 01, 2007

    grace dreams take flight

    grace dreams take flight, originally uploaded by jonnybaker.

    Nice Idea for a fall youth worship experience from an alt/emerging church in England: "a new season of grace got under way last night. a very chilled service concluded with writing hopes and dreams for the new season on pieces of paper and making origami birds that then flew. a nice touch was the projection behind them of moving skies and scenes of london."