Tuesday, March 31, 2009

    IDEAS FOR LENT '09 #9: Noisy Silence

    With Holy Week approaching, now is a the perfect time in your youth ministry to illustrate the need for youth to intentionally seek out opportunities for quiet reflection and prayer in the midst of their busy lives. Invite all youth to turn on their cell phones and to activate the nosiest and most obnoxious ring tone or message alert they have. Then, ask them to text some question to one or more friends who they know are pretty likely to respond back quickly. With all that in place, begin a study of the story of Jesus going into the garden to pray near the end of his life (Luke 22: 39-46 or Mark 14: 32-42). Focus on this example of his prayer practice of getting away from the noise of life to listen for the call of God.

    If all goes as planned, your study will be regularly (and perhaps humorously) interrupted by the constant noise of cell phones ringing and buzzing. Continue with the study, allowing the noise to disrupt your thoughtful conversation. When you think everybody gets the point, ask the teens to shut off their phones and invite them to reflect on their experience: What distractions might Jesus have been trying to get away from by going into the garden? What distractions get in our way of spending time focused on God? Why do you think we are so willing to allow phone calls/emails/text messages to invade our time? What can we do during Holy Week to take up a version of Jesus' "get away from it all" prayer practice?

    See more Lent ideas: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8.

    Friday, March 27, 2009

    Taking on Fred Phelps

    Check out this open letter to Fred Phelps by Ethan Bryan and other youth ministers in Lee, Summit, Missouri. Phelps is coming to their area to protest a production of "The Laramie Project," a play that dramatizes reactions to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shephard. I think the letter takes just the right approach and the right tone. It doesn't engage in reciprocal name-calling or anger with Phelps but instead offers an alternate and more transforming understanding of the gospel:

    The youth ministries of Lee’s Summit emphasize that each person is wonderfully created, incredibly unique, inimitable, matchless, and irreplaceable. In the words of Paul, “We will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original” (Galatians 5.25).

    See the rest of the letter here. We need many more Christian messages like this out there. (And what does the image above have to do with any of this? Oh....just think about it!). -- Brian

    FRIDAY FUN: The Breakfast Song

    A reader of this blog pointed us toward this great song! A warning: the more you listen to it, the harder it will be to get it out of your head. A local radio station here in St. Louis plays this about once a day because a local pastor keeps requesting it. I think it would make a great song to sing at church camp each morning before breakfast! Ok, maybe not. --Brian

    Tuesday, March 24, 2009

    Rethink YOUR Youth Ministry

    Maybe your youth ministry program is going great and is exactly as you hoped it would be. Or -- perhaps your youth ministry is on the edge of disaster and you fear one more problem might send it off the cliff. In either case, do you dare to RETHINK what you are doing and open your group to a new movement of God's Spirit?

    Not too many years ago, in my previous life, I spent my days in classrooms with gifted students teaching them how to think creatively -- teaching them that there is always more than one solution to a problem, more than one way to look at a challenge, more than one answer to a question. Our ministries could benefit from this sort of attitude, keeping us from getting stuck in ruts and routines and allowing us to hear a new word from God, a new call to action, a new experience of the Spirit. So, whether you are the most successful youth ministry in town or your group is on the verge of implosion, why not take the challenge to gather your group together and have some fun RETHINKING who, what, where, and how you are called to be as a ministry?

    Below you will find one of the most powerful brainstorming tools for helping you to do just that. S.C.A.M.P.E.R. is an easy-to-remember acronym where each letter represents a creative-thinking approach that can lead your group through a process of dreaming, imagining, looking for new ideas and accessing solutions to current challenges.

    • SUBSTITUTE - Can you replace part of your problem or process? Can you substitute one person or activity for another? Can you change a procedure, practice, attitude, or even emotion? Ex: What if we switch our middle school and high school leaders? What if we replace game time with prayer time? What if we took a mission trip instead of a ski trip?

    • COMBINE - Can you combine two or more parts of your group/schedule/activities to form something new? Can your resources be combined to reduce your time or required person-power? What can you fuse, link together, join? Ex: What if we joined forces with other churches? What if we teamed up with the outreach committee of our church to plan the next mission trip? Can we meet at a time other groups are using the building and share resources? What if dinner and Bible study happened together? What if we combined our choir trip and our mission trip?
    • ADAPT - Is there already a solution out there that you can use? Who else is doing something similar? What good ideas can you borrow? Ex: What good ideas can we incorporate from other youth ministries? From sports teams? From businesses? From the Bible?
    • MAGNIFY - How could you do things bigger? What can you expand? How could you multiply your group size, activities, or attitudes? Ex: What if we met more often? What would happen if our meetings ran longer? What would we do if we had an unlimited budget? What if we had twice as many small groups?
    • PUT TO OTHER USES - What if you used your current resources for something new or different? Ex: What if we focused our youth ministry entirely on mission and service work rather than games and lock-ins? What if we turned our youth room into a place to house the homeless one night a week? What if we held a sleep-over on the church lawn? What if parents took on active roles in the youth ministry beyond just dropping teens off and picking them up?
    • ELIMINATE (or MINIFY) - What if you reduced or eliminated some part of our program/activities/problem? What stresses could you do away with? What can you remove without altering your quality and purpose? Ex: What would happen if we eliminated game time from our gatherings? What if it didn't cost youth anything to go to camp or on the mission trip? What if we didn't serve junk food anymore? What if we divided the teens into even smaller groups (e.g. Grades 6-8, Grades 9-10, Grades 11-12)? What if our meeting time was shorter?
    • REARRANGE - How might you reverse or rearrange the problem, schedule, process? How can you turn a negative into a positive? Ex: What if we completely reversed our regular youth group meeting schedule? What would happen? What if youth group met right after Sunday morning worship instead of Sunday night, or vice versa? What if we had "Guys only" and "Girls only" meetings sometimes?

    Does this SCAMPER stuff really work? Yes. I've used it many times on my own or with groups and it always leads to solutions and ideas we would otherwise likely never have uncovered. Remember - in a good brainstorm you are going for quantity, not quality! Just have fun generating as many ideas as you can and worry about evaluating and sifting through them later. "Later" is the best time to look at the possible ideas and solutions and ask "Do these fit who we are as a ministry? Do these help us follow Christ more fully?" Who knows where this process might lead you. Give it a try. --Brian

    Friday, March 20, 2009

    Ideas for Lent '09 #8: Prayer Flags

    Try this creative project to tap your teens' artistic gifts while encouraging a new approach to prayer.

    Prayer flags date back to the ancient Buddhist tradition of writing sutras on banners or cloths that were then taken to be shared with foreign lands. As the tradition developed, it became common to hang a series of prayer flags outside temples or monasteries with each color symbolizing some natural element:

    • Red (fire)
    • White (air/wind)
    • Green (water)
    • Yellow (earth)
    • Blue (sky/space)
    These flags were intended to be public symbols of prayers for peace, compassion, and goodwill, to inspire any who might see them. Today, prayer flags have been incorporated by a wide variety of faiths including Christianity.

    To create prayer flags with your group: Try the process called “faux batik.” In real batik, artists create images on cloth using melted wax and dyes, but that method takes time to learn and can be a slow process. You can achieve a very similar and striking effect using a liquid mixture of flour, alum, and water, to “draw” a design onto muslin. The recipe for the mixture is as follows:

    • Mix in a bowl or blender 1/2 cup water
    • 2 teaspoons alum (available in spice section at any grocery store)
    • 1/2 cup flour
    • Mix thoroughly to remove any lumps
    • Pour contents into a plastic squeeze bottle (such as a traditional plastic ketchup bottle you might find in a restaurant, easily available at Wal-Mart). It's helpful to have one bottle of mixture for each participant.
    Lay out newspaper on your workspace and provide each participant with a square of cloth, which can usually be purchased pre-cut and prepackaged at hobby stores. Invite youth to consider:

    • What images or designs might you include in your prayer flag?
    • What message of prayer do you want to send out into the world?
    • What colors might represent the prayers you feel called to express at this time in your life?
    • What message or values might you want to express in a prayer flag to inspire or challenge others?

    Their finished designs might be quite literal (images of the world, people, the cross) or more abstract, evoking a feeling or mood. Youth "draw" their designs by squeezing the alum mixture onto the cloth in thick lines. You may want to use hair dryers to help speed up the drying process of the flour mixture after their drawing is complete. Once dry, invite youth to add paint to their flag (using acrylic paint, preferrably), completely coloring the areas not covered by the alum mixture. The richer and deeper the colors, the better the finished look. The alum mixture will resist the paint, leaving those areas the color of the cloth in the finished design.

    Once the paint has had some time to dry: Thoroughly rinse the cloth in a sink, removing the alum substance and the excess paint. Stretch a clothesline in the room and hang the flags to dry. Challenge your group to consider where you will hang your creations so that they might be an inspiration to others during the Lenten season and beyond. --Brian

    See more Lent ideas: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7.

    Thursday, March 19, 2009


    Who in there right mind wants to work with middle-schoolers? That's the question that youth ministry volunteer Bradley answers for himself in this insightful and humorous essay entitled "My Charity Work is More Degrading than Yours."

    How do you answer teens' tough questions? Tim invites several youth leaders to offer their thoughts in a podcast (though some of their responses just might set interfaith dialogue back a decade or two).

    How do I warm up my youth group? How about one of these great icebreakers from Grahame at Insight.

    Is Youth Ministry Manipulative? It definitely can be, Darren convincingly argues here. What do you think?

    Wednesday, March 18, 2009


    Last Sunday night, we made our Lenten pretzels. After some discussion, we moved into a time of worship. The idea was to have relaxing music play in the background, prayer stations set up around the room, and time for silence and meditation. With the younger kids (in grades 6th-7th) everything worked great. I was so impressed. With the older kids (in grades 8th-12th) I quickly became full of frustration. I had a hard time getting the older youth to quit talking and being so loud. Experiences such as these are the joys and challenges of youth ministry.

    After thinking about it, I came up with three conclusions: 1) my younger kids are getting pretty good at silence and contemplation—I wished I had started this style of worship years ago; 2) my older kids were pretty wild, but I still believe the spirit of God was present and speaking to them; and 3) I’m looking forward to seeing how the older youth respond after several more years of intentional time set aside for prayer and meditation.

    All of this is to say that on the drive home, if you’ve had a frustrating evening at youth group, take the time to discern what went on and not discredit the entire evening. In past experiences, I’ve had youth tell me how one particular event really changed their life—an event that I often thought wasn’t a success at all.


    Saturday, March 14, 2009

    COMMUNITY BUILDER: Connectivity

    Think your group knows all there is to know about each other? Find out with this simple ice breaker.

    Set out a line or semi-circle of chairs, one chair for each participant. Invite the first person to sit in one of the chairs and begin telling about him or herself, perhaps sharing things the others in the group may not already know (i.e. favorite classes, places they have travelled, what they like to do in their free time). Once the next person in line hears something that they have in common with person one, person two sits next to them, identifies what they have in common, and begins introducing him or herself. When person three hears something they have in common with person two, they sit and introduce themselves. The game continues until everyone is seated. A simple game to play that is inviting to both regular members and visitors.

    Friday, March 13, 2009

    VIDEO: You Must Teach this Song to Your Youth!

    Ok. I know we've all seen this a million times. But it's Friday! Live a little!

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009

    Ideas for Lent '09 #7: Worship, Prayers, and Fasting

    Here are a few more ideas for Lent:

    1) In the ancient church, it was common for those preparing for baptism to stay up all night and prepare, through prayer and meditation, for Easter morning. Consider doing a prayer vigil with your youth the night before Easter. You could make it a lock-in. Or, you could have the sanctuary available all night long with different youth (and their parents) signed up to make sure someone is praying for an entire twenty-four hours.

    2) Have a Maundy Thursday meal or a Seder meal. This is a great way to teach youth the traditions of the church and involve other members of the congregation.

    3) Sponsor a Taize service. Youth need to take the time to slow down. Taize services are rooted in simplicity and meditation. All you need is someone to either lead songs or music (there are lots of great cd’s available).

    4) Fast from email for a week. Have youth write letters to one another. The kind where you actually use an envelope and stamp. You could start this off at youth group by having your youth spend time in silence writing letters.

    5) Have a Easter sunrise service. This is something we have done for the past four years. Each year, we have more and more parents and youth attend. Make it simple. Sing some songs. Talk about the resurrection. Then, once worship is done, return to the church, or someone’s house, and make a huge Easter breakfast. Activities like these are what youth will remember twenty years from now.

    Any other ideas? See more Lent ideas: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6.

    Blessings, Jacob

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009

    Planning Your Mission Trip #1: Fundraising

    It is the youth ministry season for mission trip fundraisers. Though I think that churches should always support youth mission efforts as part of their annual budgets, it is usually still necessary to raise additional funds in order to make certain that all youth can participate. If done well, fundraisers not only raise money but help to draw the mission group together and build a sense of community prior to going on the trip. They can also be a great opportunity for youth to take ownership of and offer leadership to the project.

    Below you will find a few of the ideas I've used over the years. Please feel free to share your own!

    Dessert Auction & Potato Bar - Food is often the best way to people's hearts and wallets. For this event, you simply bake a ton of potatoes (the large, restaurant size) and offer plenty of toppings, plus salad. You charge for the meal but just enough to cover expenses. The main event is the dessert auction that comes during the meal. Invite church members, family, and friends to donate home baked desserts (no store-bought cookies!). Get a gregarious person to act as auctioneer and generate some friendly competition over who will pay the most for a peach pie or a pan of brownies made by the pastor. Since all the desserts are donated, the proceeds all go directly to the mission project.

    Selling Stock - This idea has benefits that go beyond the fundraising because it helps to give others ownership in the mission trip. Make up a "stock certificate" for your mission project. Decide what to charge for each share of stock ($5, $10, $20, etc). Let folks know that by buying stock they become an investor in the mission work you will do on your trip. In return, besides supporting your ministry, each will receive a postcard from one of the mission participants while you are on the trip (describing the work you are doing and thanking them for their support) and they will be invited to a free stockholders' meeting upon your return. At the stockholders' gathering, offer up donated desserts and coffee while showing pictures or videos of your mission trip and sharing personal stories of your adventures.

    Silent Auction - The best fundraisers are the ones with no cost and plenty of profit. If well-organized, this fundraiser will cost you nothing and can be a fun fellowship event. Solicit whatever donated items people might want to offer: furniture, toys, tickets to events/performances, gift certificates to local establishments, artwork, sporting equipment, etc. Often for this event I encourage youth to offer a service for auction, such as babysitting hours or lawn-mowing. Set all the items out on tables with bid sheets and note a minimum starting bid and bid increase amount for each item. I find it helps to couple this event with a church dinner that is already on the schedule so that people will hang around longer and keep bidding.

    Pledge-a-Mile - Divide the total cost of your trip by the total miles you will travel. This will give you the cost per mile (ex. $3000/600 miles = $5 per mile). Invite people to pay for one or miles of the trip. On a poster or map, color in each mile as it is pledged. This idea works well because the congregation can see just how far along you are in your fundraising and exactly how much you still need to make it to your mission site.

    We Are His Feet/We are His Hands - This is another great way to visualize your fundraising needs. Create a display of work shoes or work gloves, one pair for each member of your mission team. Divide the total cost of the trip by the number of participants. As you raise enough funds to cover one person's cost, remove a pair of shoes or gloves from the display. When all the items are gone, your fundraising is done!

    See more of our fundraising ideas here. --Brian

    Ideas for Lent '09 #6: Prayer Pretzel

    Lent is a time for prayer. Sometimes, youth learn best with object lessons. This Sunday night, we'll begin with a brief discussion on different ways to pray during Lent. Then, we'll make our prayer pretzels: Here's the recipe and history of the pretzels (this can also be done using pre-made biscuit dough). When we return from the kitchen, we'll spend some time in silence and have a prayer wall for the kids to write on.

    See more Lent ideas: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5.

    Friday, March 06, 2009

    FILM REVIEW: Bill Maher's "Religulous"

    Do moderate and mainline religious groups encourage extremist and violent fundamentalist religions? This is just one premise explored by comedian and political commentator Bill Maher in his documentary "Religulous." For those who have a thick skin when it comes to their religious convictions, this film will likely be entertaining and, I have to admit, it is pretty darn funny. At the same time, Maher's ultimate intent is to assert that religion (particularly of the Muslim, Jew, and Christian varieties) has been nothing but bad for the human race.

    Of course, he stacks the deck pretty high, choosing to focus on those who justify their violent actions through the haze of religious piety and on believers who couldn't argue their way out of a wet paper sack when it comes to defending their religious convictions. In particular, Maher interviews Muslims who seem unable to to face the reality of the violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists and Christians at places such as a Holy Land theme park, a chapel for truckers, and even a senator's office who seem lost when it comes to defending the historicity of talking snakes, men living inside whales for three days, and virgin births. Given the folks he talks to, particularly those who think faith is simply accepting a set of beliefs without question or much thought, it is no wonder that Maher reaches the conclusions that he does:
    Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it, are our intellectual slaveholders - keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous, because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do.
    The closest Maher, himself raised Catholic, comes to talking to a progressive or liberal Christian is in his interviews with two priests. One priest asserts that the Church long ago gave up on such nonsense as hell and everybody should know that the stories in the Bible are just stories. The other, an astronomer with the Vatican, reminds us that science did not even come along until two thousand years after the Biblical texts were written, so how in the world could we possibly assert that the Bible contains any science at all? Perhaps if Maher had also talked with some progressive Christians for whom faith is primarily about peace, justice, and radical inclusion, the film might have felt a little more balanced. But in Maher's assessment, all religion is harmful. And those of us who practice the moderate variety, in his opinion, are just giving a cover of mainstream legitimacy to the more extremist individuals hidden within our ranks.

    Were it not for the language and (very) brief nudity in the film, I'd see some real value in using this film in a discussion with high school youth. Even at his most insensitive, Maher raises real questions that deserve to be answered by those of us who follow scriptures that are full of stories of violence, misogyny, tribal warfare, and peculiar sexual morality (fortunately, I've yet to have a student ask me if it's okay to have multiple wives like so many of the guys in the Old Testament). We should be equipping our young people not to wrap themselves in a security blanket of religious dogma but rather to chase after the questions, wrestle with doubt, struggle with different perspectives, and seek a deeper, richer and ever more mature understanding of this faith that calls us to lives centered in the love of God. If that sort of thinking makes me "religulous"...so be it!


    COMMUNITY BUILDER: The Compactor!

    Here is a youth ministry community builder that will initially please your introverts but by the end will be a favorite of your extroverts.

    Begin by making a series of different size loops out of rope, twine, clothesline -- whatever you have handy. Some loops should be small enough that, when laid on the floor or ground, only one person could stand inside of them. Others should be large enough to accommodate 3, 5, 10 people and so on. One rope loop should be big enough that, in some form or fashion, the entire group could be within its circumference, provided the group works together (e.g. some people on other people's backs, standing on each other's feet, holding someone off the ground, etc). Lay out all the loops in an open space.

    Begin play by telling everyone that when you say "Go!" they must find a loop to stand within and noone's feet can be touching the ground outside a loop. Once everyone is in a loop, you call "Go!" again and everyone must move to a different loop. Meanwhile, your task is to covertly remove one of the loops. Repeat this tricky move after each round, leaving fewer and fewer loops for the group to use. Obviously, leave the largest loop for last, challenging the entire team to somehow get themselves inside the big loop at the same time. Be sure to provide spotters
    ! You can find more community builder ideas here.

    Monday, March 02, 2009

    "HAZE" - Must-See Teen Drinking Doc

    From the Snag Films website:

    On the afternoon of September 16, 2004, a joyous 18-year-old, Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr., pledged Chi Psi Fraternity at the University of Colorado. The next morning he was found dead, a victim of an irresponsible hazing ritual involving alcohol. A sad situation, but made even worse because it was so preventable.
    Every year, a staggering 1,700 college students face the same fate. Another 100,000 are victims of sexual assault as a result of heavy drinking. But no one working on a national level to change a culture that puts our young people in peril. Until now.

    HAZE is a feature documentary, created with the intent of placing a focus on the issues of binge drinking, alcohol-laden hazing rituals, and rapid-fire drinking games. Simply stated, the film’s goal is to save lives and prevent harm. Harm that would never have happened if a few crucial steps had been followed by friends, by fraternity brothers and sisters, family members or peers. HAZE won’t end irresponsible drinking but it will be the first chapter in an educational process for parents and young adults--teaching us what to do and what to look out for in order to “save a life.”

    Click the image above to watch this documentary.