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.