Tuesday, September 29, 2009

    Are We Playing It Safe in Youth Ministry? Pt. 2

    In a recent post, I argued that we need to stop playing it safe in youth ministry and encourage our youth to follow a more radical Jesus. Several of you offered some helpful comments on this post and I didn't want them to go unnoticed. Here is a sampling:

    It is more dangerous inside the church than it is outside. It is like being trapped in a garage with the car running and breathing spiritual carbon monoxide, until you pass out and then die spiritually. The toxic fumes of religion are no match for following Christ in the open air of a hurting world.

    So much of youth ministry have been tuned to "protect" teens from the "evil world". The church turns missional, but strangely enough youth ministry seems to be the last to change. In youth ministry we still do the contra-world type ministry where we simply duplicate what happens in the local culture and so it in a "safe Christian environment". Dangerous Youth Ministry might be not have youth group, but to send our teens back to where they come from... that is where they should be living, not true?

    To make a Church dangerous, we as Youth pastors must first be dangerous. When Jesus is being made known and people see the fruit in our ministry they will either: fire us, or follow us.

    Our blogger friend Jason shared a sort of companion post he wrote for his blog that echoes the sentiment that perhaps we've been playing too safe with our youth. Jason comments:

    After reading your post Brian I couldn't help but think of Lenore Skenazy in New York who wrote a book called "Free Range Kids." As a reporter she found that the HYPE about danger was always WAY out of proportion to the reality. She was voted worst mom for letting her 9 year old ride by himself on the New York Subway system. Churches could probably do months of lessons on just statistics alone showing how the things we think are dangerous in reality are not the things we
    should be worried about.

    And finally one reader was helpfully honest:

    I'm living that "safe" youth group (note - I can't even call it ministry) and it's killing me! Oh, to be dangerous...that's what I want. How can I get my church to become dangerous?

    This is the real question, of course. How do we get our ministries to be more "dangerous" when it comes to following the radical way of Jesus? I have suggested some broad approaches: radically reinvisioning the world in which we live, opposing violence and working for peace, speaking out against intolerance and injustice, leaving the comfort of our youth rooms, and deciding that sharing our faith means more than convincing other people of our religious point of view. Those are the big ideas, but how about some practical suggestions to get us started living more dangerously. One reader, Jay, shared what his group is trying to do:

    We started 2 years ago doing what we call eVANgelism, where we pile into vans loaded with press pots of coffee and hot cocoa and head to downtown Toledo Ohio on winter evenings (typically thursday) and give everyone we can find coffee and cocoa, sometimes praying with people, sometimes sharing the Gospel, sometimes just having conversations.

    This evolved into a summer ministry where we take our bikes downtown split up and just meet people on their lunch breaks, or general pedestrians and talk about life, pray, and share the gospel. The response has been tremendous for the most part. The one piece of advice everyone gives us is this "Be careful". I understand the concern, I really do, but that advice is an indictment on where we are as a church in america... too much caution, too much fear.

    Read the rest of Jay's comments here. Jay's eVANgelism effort started small, with intermittent success. But this is the way to move into more dangerous ministry. Dip your toes in the water. Be a careful observer of your youth and see what they are ready for and what challenges will excite them. Take small but brave steps and see where they take you. Those steps might include:

    • Challenging your youth to round up all the stuff in their rooms at home that they hardly ever use, even though it is perfectly good "stuff." This might include clothes, cds, books, electronics. If they haven't used it in the last year, have them bring it to the church, hold a rummage sale, and decide on a worthy cause that could use the funds. Follow-up on a study or radical stewardship.

    • Experiencing a homeless simulation by creating a shanty town on your church parking lot from cardboard boxes and then you and your youth sleep in them overnight, your only food being some sandwiches and water served to you from the trunk of a church member's car. Debrief the experience as a way to talk more honestly about the problems of homelessness.

    • Taking a stand on an issue involving justice, peace, prejudice or oppression in your community by creating signs with positive messages about the issue and then displaying them as your group stands on a busy street corner on a silent vigil.

    • Partnering with local interfaith youth groups to do a mission project together, taking time in the experience to learn about each other's values and belief systems.
    Other suggestions? --Brian

    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    CREATIVE WORSHIP: Think Globally

    Here is an unfinished worship idea but one I imagine some of you could run with and expand.

    Last Sunday we focused on global missions with our morning youth class and talked with them about the missionaries we are supporting in Haiti, a husband and wife pastor/doctor team. We set up several learning centers for the youth to explore but many of them gravitated to the one you see below. Their task was to create a collage of the globe using photographic images of people and places from around the world (we utilized National Geographic magazines). They started out by roughly outlining the continents and them went to work filling in the spaces with images torn from the magazines and glued to the paper. This could certainly been done as a meditative prayer station, inviting participants to focus their prayers on the needs of the world as they work. It could also become a permanent prayer center in your youth room - a place to post news items about needs around the world or to gather around when remembering those dealing with war, drought or natural disaster. Plus, it looks pretty cool.

    See more creative worship ideas here. --Brian

    Monday, September 21, 2009

    From the "You Gotta Be Kidding Me" Dept.

    What's that tank doing up above? Hanging out in some church's youth room. A church in Ohio has giant models of war craft and military symbols installed in their children/youth space to attract kids and perhaps play on the theme of "spiritual warfare." Setting aside the unlikelihood of children making the metaphorical leap from real tanks and guns to "spiritual warfare," do I even need to say why theologically this is so very, very wrong? I'll let this commenter from the Church Relevance blog do it for me:

    This sickens and saddens me that weapons and the military (things that control and kill) are being turned into things of worship. Sorry to be the one that thinks this is wrong after all the “gee isn’t this cool” comments, but please really, what message is this sending to the kids and the community? Not the same as the one Jesus asked [us] to share.
    Then there's this one:

    Maybe one of the tremendous things that has gotten lost in the push for relevancy and “cool media” has been the theological reflection that goes into our structures and presentations. It is highly dangerous, theologically, to push out such a strong militaristic theme…especially to deeply impressionable children. We are left to wonder about how long the conversation was about the theological implications of creating this kind of space. Now I’m not suggesting we need to go back to the medieval times of gothic architecture, but I do believe our church spaces deserve honest, and careful reflection. I think we’ve lost that in our push for capturing the cool.

    See more images and discussion here. Your thoughts?
    -- Brian

    VIDEO: Helen Prejean on Following a Radical Jesus

    HT to Matt Stone.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009

    Are We Playing It Safe in Youth Ministry?

    My old ritual, as youth group would wrap-up on Sunday evenings and the young'ns were heading home, was to say to them "Be Safe." Isn't that a strange way to say goodbye? Of course, all I meant was "Have a good week and come back in one piece" but is that really the best advice we have to give to our youth? They live in a wold of school violence, AIDS, drugs, computer predators, terrorism. Is being safe all it's cracked up to be? What about when it comes to our faith? Is teaching our youth to "play it safe" our best option? Probably not, but are we willing to lead youth ministries that encourage real risk?

    One of my favorite passages in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe finds the young protagonists chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. The Beavers are trying to describe Aslan, the Lion (a metaphorical stand-in for Christ in the story). Lucy, taken aback by the notion of meeting a lion, asks, "But is he safe?" Mr. Beaver replies. "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't. But he's good."

    Do our youth ministries too often offer a Jesus who is "safe?" A Jesus who asks little of us beyond giving intellectual assent to a list of religious beliefs? A Jesus who says, "Just agree that I'm your Lord and Savior and then I'll leave you alone to your video game nights and your road trips and your skateboard parks?" We know that for the early church, following Jesus was not just about committing to a list of do's and dont's or pledging allegiance to religious dogma. For them following Jesus meant walking through life the way he walked, living and loving as he lived and loved. Theologian Paul Tillich describes this as making the spirit of Christ a reality by "participating in his very being." In other words, following Christ is not primarily about abstract belief but about a way of being in the world.

    And if we dared to do this in our youth ministry, we'd better be prepared for trouble. Because following Jesus with our youth -- really following Jesus -- will be anything but safe. Because here is what it would look like:

    • Radically reinvisioning the world in which we live -- even though it's a world in which we are pretty comfortable (Do our youth rooms really need a mini-fridge and an Xbox or should our priorities be elsewhere?).

    • Letting go of all our old distinctions of rich/poor, male/female, gay/straight, young/old, powerful/powerless, respected/shamed, cool/uncool, popular/unpopular (Who is not in your youth group because they don't think they'd be welcome in the church? What are you doing to extend to them the hand of Christian hospitality?)

    • Opposing violence and working for peace (Is it time for a protest march?)

    • Speaking out against intolerance and injustice and calling on the Church to do the same. (How do your youth see the intersection of their faith and their attitudes about healthcare, poverty, AIDS, abortion, the death penalty, racism, etc.?)

    • Leaving the comfort of our youth rooms to go out and literally feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the lonely, heal the sick. (Can we do this every Sunday and not just on the yearly mission trip?)

    • Deciding that sharing our faith means more than convincing other people of our religious point of view or showing publicly that we are more pious than the next person. It's about how we live and love in this world. ("Preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words.")

    Of course, none of this stuff is safe. Some of it may even be dangerous. Some of your teens will jump at the chance to be world-changers. Some will leave and find a youth group that is more entertaining and less challenging. And know that when you start messing with the present order of things, those who benefit from that order will always see what you are doing as a threat. Perhaps this is why churches work so hard to keep youth pacified with video games and big screen TVs and trips to Six Flags and their own rooms far, far away from everyone else. We figure if we keep them distracted enough, they might not notice that this Jesus guy really is a radical, dangerous troublemaker calling us to overturn the tables of the world and work for something completely different.

    So, how do you know if your group is following the radical Jesus or just playing it safe? Ask yourself: Is our ministry meeting any resistance from those, youth and adults alike, who are happy with the cultural status quo? Have we confused the gospel with our culture’s recipe for respectability, comfortableness, safety? Does the Jesus we follow demand anything of our youth other than being members in the "nice people" club? Is the Jesus we share with our youth more like a kitty cat or Aslan the Lion?

    I know many of you out there are leading "dangerous" youth ministries. We'd like to hear from you and know what you're doing. You may just inspire the rest of us to stop playing it safe.


    Monday, September 14, 2009

    BACK TO SCHOOL: The Body of Christ

    In this short discussion starter, written for middle school youth but adaptable for other ages, the participants explore the idea that the church as the Body of Christ only exists as we come together in community, each sharing our own unique gifts for ministry.
    • Youth will discuss the body of Christ metaphor in 1st Corinthians.
    • Youth will identify particular gifts they can use for ministry.
    • Youth will create a body mural identifying ways they can work together as “the body of Christ” in the coming school year.

    Getting Ready – Using a set of post-it notes on which are written different parts of the body, place a post-it on the back of each person. Explain that they will have three minutes to figure out which body part they are by asking anyone else a Yes or No question. A few quick rules: You may not directly ask if you are _____ body part. You may not ask more than one question of the same person in a row.
    Alternative: Get a used Jenga-style game. Write words on each block representing different gifts, ministries, activities within the church (e.g. pastor, teacher, communion, mission, choir, singing, praying, etc.). Invite the youth to help you brainstorm other examples and write those on other blocks. Proceed to play the game, removing one block at a time from the tower of blocks, inviting youth to see this as symbolic of what it would be like if we removed any of these gifts or ministries from the life of the church. What happens when we are missing different gifts?

    Digging In – Explain that today you’re going to consider what Paul, a writer in the New Testament and leader of the early Church, meant when he described the Church as being like the body of Christ. Brainstorm with the class first by asking them to consider in what ways we might see the Church as being like a human body.

    Next, invite youth to read with you the passage from 1 Corinthians 12 (consider using the version from “The Message” – a Bible in contemporary language) and consider what this tells us about what the church should be like.

    Ask: What if your eyes decided to take a vacation and not work for awhile? How would that change the way you do things? What if your feet decided to stop working? How would that change the way you live? How are we different as a Church or as a youth group if someone is missing? What sorts of things can we do as a whole group, that we couldn't’t do (or at least not as well) by ourselves? How does the Church benefit from having all sorts of people with different gifts and talents?

    Applying it! Ask for a volunteer to lay down on a large sheet of paper and trace their outline. Write at the top of the sheet “The Body of Christ.” Pass out markers and invite the group to work together labeling how they might use different parts of the body to be in ministry to each other, the Church, or the world in the coming year together. For example, next to the ears they might write “Listen to each other.” Next to the hand they might write “Serve food in a homeless shelter.” Next to the mouth they might write “Invite people to youth group.” Next to the feet they might write “Go and help in the community garden.”

    When they finish, invite each person to consider their own gifts/talents/abilities for ministry and to write their name on or next to the body parts that represent ways they can be involved in ministry. For example, they might put their name next to the mouth if they would be comfortable calling people to remind them to come to youth group. Or they might put their name by the knees if they are open to praying for the group.

    Heading Out! Affirm the importance of each person in the group as part of the Body of Christ and part of this fellowship where they come to learn from each other. Offer a prayer of thanks for the chance to be part of the body of Christ and asking God to help each person understand their particular gifts for ministry.


    Thursday, September 03, 2009

    CREATIVE WORSHIP: Staying Connected!

    Fall is a great time of the year to emphasize the connectedness of the faith community and to encourage your youth to see themselves as "one" even when they aren't together at church. Try this creative worship experience to help encourage the group to stay connected all week long.

    Set out markers, crayons, and "leaves" for each participant that you have cut out of green construction paper (see template here). Each leaf should be about the size of one half piece of construction paper. Have one or more youth read aloud John 15: 1-11. This is the well-known text in which Jesus shares with his friends "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit...." Invite the group to consider that one way we make this text real is in the way we stay connected to one another as the body of Christ.

    Pass out the leaves and invite participants to choose a variety of crayons or markers. Begin by having each person place his or her name on one side of the leaf. Next, ask them to draw a symbol on the front of the leaf that reminds them of the group (it might be a heart or stick figure people or a cross, etc). When everyone is ready, have each person pass their leaf clockwise to the person next to them. This person should first add her or his name to same side of the leaf where the owner wrote his or her name. Now, invite everyone to write on the leaf something they are looking forward to about the new youth group year. Continue this process, passing the leaves, having each person add their name to each leaf and responding to prompts like these below:

    • Write a "feeling" word to describe how you are feeling about your life right now.

    • Draw a symbol or write a word/phrase describing how you feel about your relationship with God right now.

    • List three things you are thankful for about this group.

    • Write the name of at least one adult who has helped you experience the love of God.

    • List at least one thing you hope we do in youth group this school year.

    • List one class at school you are excited about.

    • List one class at school you are dreading.

    • Draw a symbol/write a word or phrase for something in your own life for which you'd like others to pray about

    • Write the name of person/place in the world you hope others will pray for

    • List one or more gifts you have to share with the group this year
    You are finished when the leaves make their way back to their original owners (if your ministry is big, you will likely want to do this worship experience sitting in smaller groups). Encourage the youth to take a few moments of silence to meditate on all the responses on their leaf and to pray for the group. Then invite the teens to take their leaves home with them, post them in a visible place, and use them as a "touchstone" for keeping mindful about their connection to their fellow brothers and sisters in faith. When they see the leaf each day, perhaps they can stop for a moment to offer a prayer for those in the group.

    Wednesday, September 02, 2009

    Teaching Teenagers?

    For the past several days, I have been searching for curriculum. I’m trying to find some sort of DVD, or book series, for our new Parents Small Group. But overall, I’ve been pretty discouraged by the search process. This is what I have discovered: Most of the “Parenting Series” focus on 1) how destructive and stressful teenagers are; and 2) what we need to do in order to not let the “world out there” ruin them. Ummm…

    I’m involved with youth ministry because I think teenagers are alive and full of energy. Teenagers are authentic, genuine, and willing to say what they really think. Teenagers are openly seeking ways to connect with God and Christ—to have a relationship with the one who created him.

    We don’t need to be afraid of teenagers. What if there was a parents’ book that focused on how we could learn from teenagers instead of the other way around? What if there was a series that focused on how to engage in contemplative ministry with your children at home? What if there was a series that focused on how today’s youth can interact with the world in which we live, seeing the beauty of God’s creation—not as a place to be feared?

    Just some thoughts. And, if you know of any great curriculum please let me know.

    Update: See a follow-up to this post at Digital Orthodoxy.