Friday, December 19, 2008

    What's Wrong with Wall-E

    As the year draws quickly to a close, I thought one 2008 post that was worth revisiting was my review of the film "Wall-E" which generated more responses than any other post in the history of this blog. Needless to say, I had some real problems with this film and when my review here was linked to a national political blog, the comments starting rolling in (mostly from a lot of people who thought I was crazy). I loved the first 40 minutes of the film. It was the rest of the film that I, sadly, found offensive:
    Unfortunately, the second half of the film finds us and Wall-E on a floating ark in space, the home of the human race for the past 700 years while they wait for creation to reclaim itself on their garbage-strewn home planet. While the humans wait for the little white robot Eve (the "dove" in this version of Noah's ark) to find an olive branch and bring it back to the ship to show them the earth is inhabitable again, the people have nothing to do but wait. It is here that the Pixar folks demonstrate an amazing amount of insensitivity in portraying all the humans as shockingly obese "do-nothings" who spend their days laying on hovering lounge chairs, sucking on sugary slurpy drinks while watching TV and being waited on hand-and-foot by robots. As soon as this part of the story began playing out, I immediately wondered how any heavy-set people in the theater must be feeling. Even worse, how might any overweight children in the theater be feeling about this obviously negative portrayal.
    You can read the rest of the review (and subsequent comments) here. And just for the record: I stand by my original critique of the film and I have to imagine that Disney is also concerned about the perceived bigotry in the film. Why do I think this? Well, just as with the ad campaign for the theatrical release, there is no sign of the overweight characters in any of the ads for the DVD version.

    Now, if I could just find a home video copy with only the first half of the movie....


    Thursday, December 18, 2008


    With Christmas just a week away, this will likely be the last Advent discussion outline we offer for this season, but it's a fun one. I used this last Sunday with my youth and it generated some great conversation. This discussion invites youth to look at St. Nicholas, the origin of the Santa legend, and to understand how he is a model for following Christ's radical way of peace and care for others (as opposed to the commercialism of the mall Santa).

    OPENING UP: Play "Who is Santa?" This is simply just a holiday (and more youth ministry-friendly) version of the game "murder." Sit in a circle. Choose someone to be Rudolph and send him or her out of the room. Select someone in the circle to be Santa. When Rudolph returns, he or she is tasked with figuring out who is Santa. Meanwhile, Santa discretely winks at people in the circle. If you are winked at, you respond by saying "Ho, Ho, Ho!" The round ends when Rudolph catches Santa in the act of winking.

    REFLECTING: Next, as a larger group or in smaller groups of 2 or 3, invite the youth to each share their memories of Santa Claus from when they were kids. Where did you see him? What did he look like? What traditions did their families have about Santa Claus?

    DIGGING IN: Pass out the “Santa vs. St. Nicholas” handout. Have someone read the description of Santa and invite reflection on the role of Santa in our culture. Have someone read the description of St. Nicholas. Ask: From these descriptions, how would you say our modern-day version of Santa differs from his real-life inspiration? Perhaps create a list of descriptors for the two on a dry erase board or large pad of paper to show a comparison. Ask:
    • How do you think the story of St. Nicholas got twisted in “Santa?”
    • Who is in control of the “Santa” image today?
    • How would you change the Santa image to better make it fit the true life Nicholas and the Christian message?
    • What would you have him look like? What would have him doing?

    TAKING ACTION: Read together Luke 4:16-22. In this passage, Jesus declares his mission to the poor and the vulnerable through the words of the Hebrew scriptures. How do you see St. Nicholas taking up some of this radical call of the gospel? What is the challenge in this passage for us in the coming new year? Discuss: Jesus had a radical message about God's love for all people -- a love demonstrated not through "getting" but through "giving, not through power but through weakness: the weakness of a baby, of being a servant to others, of loving others, of turning the other cheek. If the mall Santa "preached" this message, how do you think people would react to him. If you preached this message at school, how would would your peers react to you?

    St. Nicholas followed in Jesus’ footsteps, serving others, caring for the poor, welcoming children, working for justice for all people. And he was put in prison for doing so. The world always wants to take the radical and make it tame. To make a St. Nicholas into “Santa Claus” and use him to help sell toys. To make a radical Jesus into a “goody two shoes” who just wants us to be nice people. It’s at Christmas time that we need to work harder than ever to reclaim our radical Jesus.

    Note: You can find out even more about St. Nicholas here, read an interesting comparison between Santa and Nicholas here, and see some helpful images here. Check out our other Advent/Christmas ideas here.

    Video: Someday at Christmas

    "Someday at Christmas" performed by Remy Zero.

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    Make-A-Christmas Tree Game: REVISITED!

    Responding to our recent idea for a wacky youth group activity called the "Make-A-Christmas Tree Game," Chad McDaniel shared that his group has been playing this game for several years now and he has provided photographic proof for your enjoyment. Thanks Chad! Anyone else try this yet? If so, send us your pics.

    It's the tinsel that really does it, don't you think!

    Monday, December 15, 2008

    Video: A Christmas Carol by Tom Lehrer

    Saturday, December 13, 2008


    Check out these useful Advent ideas and resources from around the web:

    Advent Study Guide - A nice set of Advent Bible studies complete with discussion questions, suggested activities and worship resources. Created by the Disciples of Christ Youth Commission.

    Christmas Worship Stations: Change the World - a series of creative suggestions for setting up a series of interactive worship stations with a Christmas theme, courtesy of Nailscars.

    Advent Worship Tricks - Johnny Baker provides a host of creative Advent ideas for worship and reflection. (HT to Digital Orthodoxy for pointing out these resources and others here.) 

    Encountering Advent - Some nice thoughts on leading students through a quiet evening of interactive reflection on the birth of Jesus. 

    Advent Icons - The ReJesus site, in an effort to counteract the sickly sweetness of the cultural Christmas observance, offers a series of images of the Nativity based on an an ancient Christian iconic painting.  Includes suggestions for meditation on each image. Could easily be turned into a cool set of worship stations. 

    Wednesday, December 10, 2008

    Make-a-Christmas Tree Game!

    So, last year we brought you the now infamous (and messy) "Make-a-Santa" game. Now we unveil this year's twist: "Make-a-Christmas-Tree!" Simply break into groups of 3 or 4 and have each group choose an "It" to be the tree. Provide groups with various decorations: lots of tinsel, bows (with sticky backs), garland, plastic ornaments, electric lights (Hmmm? Is that safe?), candy canes, and so on.

    Challenge each team to decorate their "it" person as a live Christmas Tree. You might even borrow the idea from the photo and have them wrap the person's feet to represent the gifts. How about flocking the "tree" with a little fake snow made of shaving cream! Just be sure to have goggles and a towel on hand. Finish with a fashion show of the decorated youth and a singing of "O Christmas Tree." (What's that you say? You've been playing this game for years? Then send us your photographic proof. We'd love to show the world!)


    I've written in the past about my fondness for the Christmas song "The Rebel Jesus" by Jackson Browne. Back in 2006 I wrote: "The song was originally recorded for Browne's 1991 holiday album with The Chieftains entitled 'The Bells of Dublin.' In many ways, it offers an antidote to the sickly-sweet portrait of Jesus that we often foist onto our children as they are growing up and counteracts the way commercial culture uses Jesus this time of year as a shill for holiday shopping excess."

    The following discussion guide uses the song "The Rebel Jesus" as a backdrop for inviting youth to consider the images of Jesus that confront us in this Advent season and the images of Jesus that have real meaning for us.

    On a large sheet of paper, write "JESUS" in large block letters. Pass out Post-it Notes to participants and invite them to write down titles or names they would give to Jesus that explain how people think about him, such as "Messiah," "Son of God," and "King" (one name per Post-it). Have each person stick their Post-its on the block letters. When all have posted, read some of the responses to the group. Another Option: Lay out a long sheet of butcher paper and have the group trace the outline of some one's body on the paper. Now, have the group work together to transform the outline into a portrait of Jesus, each teen adding his or her own personal touch. Afterward, discuss how the portrait represents many different ideas about how we see Jesus.

    REFLECTING: Invite youth to turn to someone around them and share which titles for Jesus are most meaningful to them. Ask: Where do we get our ideas about who Jesus was/is? (e.g. Bible, parents, media, experiences). Invite youth to consider that some people get their ideas about Jesus from their interactions with Christians and Christianity, and that these experiences are not always positive.

    DIGGING IN: Play the song "The Rebel Jesus" by Jackson Browne. It might be helpful to pass out copies of the lyrics to read as the song plays. In small groups discuss:
    • What words does the songwriter use to describe Jesus? Which of these images/words resonate with you?
    • What criticisms does the song writer have of Christianity? Culture?
    • How do you think he feels about Jesus as a person?
    • Where do you think the song writer has developed his thoughts about Jesus/Christianity?
    • What do you think of the song's observation that we have filled our churches with "pride and gold?"
    • Do you see any signs of the "rebel" Jesus in our typical celebration of the Advent season (in the malls, at Wal-Mart, in our decorations, or festivities)?

    REFLECTING: Just as we partially create an understanding of Jesus from our experiences, so too did the gospel writers create an understanding of Jesus from their experiences of being with other believers. Read together one witness to how they understood Jesus: Luke 2: 8-20. Considering Luke penned these words decades after Jesus’ death and possibly did not know Jesus personally, what do you think Luke might be trying to say to us about who he thought Jesus was? What could it mean that Jesus is first described as a tiny baby? Why include that as part of the story? What could it mean that Luke chooses to describe angels announcing the birth? Why use shepherds in the story (persons of low standing in that culture)? How do the characters react to the baby’s birth? What do people expect now that Jesus is born? Is this the way you would tell the "origin story" of a rebel?

    TAKING ACTION: What would it mean to say that we follow a "rebel" Jesus? Are the things he taught still radical in the world we live in today? Why not covenant as a group to do something rebellious in the name of Jesus this Advent? Something that will get the attention of others. Many years ago I worked with a youth group to hang a huge banner on the front of our church that read "How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore the homeless the rest of the week?" Cars and people passing by the church couldn't help but see it and it generated several complaints! What can your group do to challenge the status quo thinking about Jesus? What image of Jesus can your group offer your community that speaks to the truth of the Gospel? Perhaps the lyrics to the song can inspire you.
    See our other Advent ideas here.

    World Hunger...the Video Game

    The World Food Programme of the United Nations now has an online "SIMS"-like video game that helps educate players on the crisis in Darfur. The game can be downloaded or played online and "each mission represents a part of the process of delivering food aid to an area in crisis. The final mission shows you how food aid can help people rebuild their lives in the years following a disaster." Check it out here.

    Tuesday, December 09, 2008

    Claymation Christmas: Joy to the World!

    A great animated version of a traditional Christmas carol from the classic "Claymation Christmas" tv special.

    Thursday, December 04, 2008


    Here are a few more Advent-related links you might find useful:

    Online Advent Calendars- Pass this one on to your youth and use it yourself. This online advent calendar would be easy to adapt to hardcopy and given to your students. And this 2007 calendar has it all! More ideas than you can shake a stick at!

    Advent Retreats - Here is not just one but two complete outlines for Advent spiritual/scriptural retreats which can be done personally or in a group and can be explored as a one-day retreat or over several days during the season. Find related resources here.

    Start a New Tradition - Get a new Advent tradition started with your group that they can look forward to for years to come. Some good ideas here.

    Youth Minister Hotline!

    Responding to a recent post by Jacob on youth ministry and "the numbers game," one of our blogger friends, Dan, has asked for our collective wisdom on some struggles he's having. Read below and please consider sharing from your own experiences:

    Last night I had the opportunity to evaluate the success of my current ministry against what I know of the new church I am going to starting in January. I am scared. Currently I am on staff with an amazing team of 3 youth pastors and we reach a-ton of kids every-week through a variety of ministries. Now as I am getting ready to leave this ministry and move on to another I am frightened of the numbers game for three reasons.

    1. Going from team to Me

    2. A Significant decrease in budget

    3. Expectations of the hiring committee.

    Granted, I know these people are seriously growth oriented, especially within the last 2 years, but as I look at what I am leaving to where I am going, the numbers are keeping me from experiencing the joy I feel like I should have. I know in my heart numbers are silly, but trying telling that to the elder who runs a business, or lay-man who owns his own company. Sometimes i feel like all it comes down too is butts in chairs equals more money in the coffers, and more money means more programs, and more programs means more people and more people, means more success....Sigh. I need some encouragement.

    Your thoughts? Suggestions? Words of advice?


    Several weeks ago, we posted a video of the new (secular) song "How the Day Sounds" by Greg Laswell and challenged someone to come up with an outline for and Advent-themed discussion based on the song. Music teacher and seminarian Travis McKee picked up that mantle and offered up a thoughtful suggestion for engaging this hopeful song with youth. Travis describes how he leads others through the dicussion:

    It starts out simple. We comment on the weather. “I hate the cold.” It isn’t a shout, it isn’t a call to arms, it is just a statement. Then you start to see it spread. Other people start to hate the cold too. That one person in your class says, “This is stupid.” Again, it is just a statement. But, sure enough, we see many in the class start to agree. People do studies on the effects of violent TV on youth, but we are ignoring a greater influence: Complaining.

    When I was in high school and college, I noticed that what the majority of conversations got started with was a complaint about something happening. “I hate how hot it gets,” was a common complaint while practicing for marching band in July. The person standing next to you thought so too and spoke up with you. Then you got to talking about air conditioners and cool water. The next day, you spoke again about the heat. Eventually you start to talk about other things, but your relationship started over complaining. And once you ran out of things to complain about, you could stop talking or find something else to complain about.

    This was so odd to me, but maybe it was simple. If you are in Marching Band then you must love making music, but it is not a given that you hate the heat. Yet that friendship was formed not on the positive thing, but on the negative. Could it have happened if you turned and said, “I love marching band!”? That person next to you might have given you an odd look, but you could have sparked up a conversation about why you love it. Then when you ran out of things you loved about marching band, you could have found other things you loved. Notice the difference.

    How do we want to see the world? Do we want it to be a place of complaining and hate, or of loving and sharing? That window you see the world through has a lot to do with your perspective. You can look out a window with the shades closed and say, “All I see is these blinds. I wish I could see more.” Or do you look out the open window and say, “Isn’t the sun great? I love the things I can see.” And it all starts with your decision to see gloom or greatness.

    Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation. “When does Christmas get over?” “Do I have enough to buy that gift?” “Another Christmas party to go to? Gosh!” These are the things we hear from so many. But the church offers a different message: Peace, Hope, Love, Joy. It isn’t a shout, it isn’t a call to arms, it is just a statement. And what happens when this statement is spread around? We start to see why we get ready so early. We start to see these statements stick in our heads. We start to see how we can spread Peace, Hope, Love, and Joy. It all starts with a whisper. And then God’s spirit spreads it around.


    Darren Wright, of the excellent Digital Orthodoxy, has also offered up an insightful commentary linking the theme of this song to a reflection on Advent. He's posted it as part of his Alternative Hymnal.

    ADVENT VIDEO: "Joyeux Noel"

    This clip is from the award-winning French film "Joyeux Noel" which tells the true story of the remarkable (and unofficial) 1914 Christmas truce during WWI. In this scene, based on true accounts, German, Scottish, and French soliders are all barricaded in their trenches on Christmas Eve. A German soldier begins to sing a Christmas carol and eventually the enemy soliders of the other trenches join in. This eventually prompts them all to come up out of their hiding places, call a truce, and celebrate Christmas together. It's an excellent film, dramatizing both the darkness we acknowledge in Advent and the possiblity of the light to come. Show this film to your youth, or just enjoy it yourself.

    IMAGE OF THE DAY: Advent Peace

    Photo courtsey of my colleague Ron. You can find more of his inspiring images at his photoblog. --Brian

    Wednesday, December 03, 2008


    Technically, Jacob's previous entry is "Advent Ideas for Youth Ministry#3" so here comes #4. Despite what the surrounding culture might be telling us these days, it is not Christmas just yet! The word “advent” is derived from the Latin word for “coming.” It is this time of the year that we contemplate what it means that Christ comes into the world, into our lives, again and again. It is a time to focus our attention on Christ in new ways and in new places. To enrich your experience of Advent ,we offer up the following ideas to help you and/or your youth wait in expectation for the peace, hope, light, and love of Christ which is coming into the world once more.

    Give Globally– Honor a loved one by giving a monetary gift in their name to a global missionary through your church or denomination. Or, instead of lots of bought gifts (that will be forgotten a year from now) consider giving to organizations such as Heifer International.

    Organize a Canned Food Drive – Instead of focusing your entire Advent on shopping and decorating, gather together and sponsor a canned food drive for the local food depository or pantry.

    Attend/Host a Taize Service – The Taize experience is quite unlike traditional worship services. The music is simple and meditative, the sacred space is filled with candlelight, and in place of spoken liturgy there is silence and time for rest and contemplation. Scripture read aloud opens one’s thoughts. The practice of individuals lighting candles through out the service as an act of prayer keeps the focus on the needs of God’s world in this season of expectation.

    Watch a Film – Take time to just sit an enjoy a holiday-themed film and REALLY watch it. See it as an act of meditation. I would recommend "It's a Wonderful Life," any version of "A Christmas Carol," "One Magic Christmas," or "The Bishop's Wife" (the Cary Grant version!).

    Visit Goodwill – While everyone else is fixated on what they are getting for Christmas, put yourself in the giving spirit with some winter cleaning. Go through your closets and clothes and gather up all the usable items that you no longer need or want. Then deliver them to your local Goodwill or resell-it shop where they can be of use to others at a low price.

    Notice God’s Creation – Give thanks for the created world around you and get into the fun of decorating by creating special treats for the animals that live outside. Hang seed balls on the branches of your trees for the birds. Make festive garlands of cranberries, popcorn, raisins and nuts on heavy string and drape them on trees and bushes for the squirrels.

    Visit a Shut-in – Drop-in on a home bound person or invite him or her on a field trip to look at outdoor light displays or to enjoy to a yuletide concert or play. Gather together to carol at a local retirement community or nursing home.

    Celebrate St. Nicholas Day – December 6 is St. Nicholas Day. The story of Santa pales in comparison to the way this priest, later to become Bishop of Myra, lived a life of radical devotion to the gospel of Jesus. Take some time to learn more about Nicholas and consider the example he offers for living a life of Christian simplicity, compassion, and charity. A good place to start is here.

    Practice Fasting – Commit to fasting as a spiritual practice for a certain number of meals just one day each week in Advent. Allow this time to help you focus on the needs of others around the world who lack adequate nutrition. Consider using some of your fasting time for volunteering at local soup kitchen or food depository. Determine how much money you saved by skipping meals and donate the funds to a local hunger relief charity.

    Take it Slow - The stores were rushing headlong into Christmas even before Halloween, but we can adopt a practice of slowing down during Advent. Ease into the Christmas carols, the decorating, the baking. Savor the season. Have an Advent party instead of a Christmas party and create an event centered on lots of candlelight, quiet music, simple foods, storytelling, and rest. Adopt a craft and spend time making gifts for loved ones. Have a board game night. Limit the gift list and the parties you think you just "have to attend." Enjoy some silence and rest during this season.

    Celebrating Advent

    Here’s what we plan to do this Sunday night:

    1) begin with the Christmas Quiz

    2) Spend some time talking about how the birth of Christ is depicted, or not, in the gospels

    3) Spend thirty minutes in contemplative worship. This will include:

    A meditation room playing soft music. The room will have pictures of newborn babies. In addition, there will be six different signs posted on the wall saying:

    His birth…foretold in ancient writings.
    His birth…a miracle that would threaten an empire.
    His birth…would bring forth a revolution of new life and shine light into a world filled with darkness.
    His birth…would change the world forever
    His birth…would be the greatest gift God has ever given
    May the miraculous gift of Christ fill your home with faith, your heart with hope, and your life with love.

    A prayer room with a prayer banner on the wall. Youth are encouraged to write down their prayers. We’ll always have votive candles that may be lit for each prayer.

    A media room playing the Nooma video Noise.

    How about you? What are you planning?


    Tuesday, December 02, 2008


    The Edge! The Blaze! The Surge! The Core! Remember the good old days when we just called it "youth group?" Seems like every youth ministry now has to have some name that assures interested teens that "our group isn't boring!" (e.g. We're "On Fire!" We are living on "The Edge!") And often these names are clever acronyms for an even longer name (S.T.I.N.C. - Soulful Teens In Christ...or something like that). And having a cool name generally leads to having a cool logo, which leads to having cool shirts emblazoned with the logo and a cool website...and maybe even mugs, hats, boxers, and mouse pads. All in an effort to brand the youth ministry and to give it a distinctive identity. Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, I guess. It's certainly very in keeping with the corporate world we live in where teens can you tell you by heart the slogan for just about every product out there (Just do it! Have it your way! Think Outside the Bun!)

    But it makes me wonder....With the growing consensus amongst youth ministers that we've done a pretty good job of isolating youth from the wider church, doesn't branding of a youth ministry just add to this problem? Why create an identity for your ministry that is separate and distinct from the identity of your church? What is wrong with calling yourselves "the youth ministry of First Church" (or whatever your church's name happens to be)? Why not spend more time helping youth feel a part of the wider church community of which you are a part, rather than creating a niche identity that the teens may not even associate with the sponsoring congregation?

    Monday, December 01, 2008

    A Different Image of Mary

    Share this image of Mary with your youth. Invite them to share what thoughts and feelings it conjures up for them in light of the nativity story and the typical depictions we see of Mary in art and media. This image produced by Ben Bell.


    As we continue to share with you new ideas for observing the season of Advent with your youth ministry, don't miss these past posts related to Advent and Christmas:

    Putting the focus on something besides consumption (includes links to Advent Bible study guides).

    This Baby
    - A discussion guide centered on the Christmas song by Steven Curtis Chapman.

    Make-A-Santa Game
    - Fun with shaving cream!

    Silent Advent
    - Ideas for an Advent mini-silent retreat.

    Advent Worship Nite
    - Ideas for setting up a prayer center-based worship experience during Advent.
    See Advent Ideas #1 here.