Thursday, January 28, 2010

    Women in Youth Ministry Profile

    As part of our continuing series of profiles of women serving in youth ministry, we visit with Reverend Jenn Simmons.  Jenn serves as asssociate minister with a Disciples of Christ congregation in St. Louis.  Jenn graduated from Eden Theological Seminary where she received a Masters of Divinity and from Texas Christian University where she received a B.A. in religious studies. She has served in youth ministry positions in Texas, Illinois, and Missouri.

    What do you find most enjoyable about your ministry with youth in the Church?  Time and time again I am amazed by the creativity, honesty, and openness of the youth. Their ability to freely intermingle their lives with scripture texts creates spirit-filled moments in ministry. Moments that fill me with hope, assurance, and joy for our community.

    I have the wonderful privilege to work with a team of gifted and passionate leaders. I serve with five other adults as part of a team of spiritual guides. These leaders share their faith and nurture and encourage the faith of our youth. They are companions on the journey with the youth. Working with a group of leaders who deeply care about their ministry with youth and serving with youth who are willing to be open and honest with one another is a wonderful gift.

    What do you find most challenging about your ministry with youth in the Church?  I have discovered that it is, at times, hard to get a firm commitment from youth and families. Youth are often busy with other family commitments, sports games, drama rehearsals, social obligations, and stuff comes up. This can be a challenge to prepare set numbers for events, lock-ins, and other activities that require advance sign-ups.

    Another challenge in ministry with the youth can be the congregations’ engagement with the youth. Most congregations want a strong and vibrant youth ministry, but have difficulty connecting with and supporting the youth. I have discovered the importance of intergenerational events and helping the community to get to know one another.

    What shifts or changes would you like to see in youth ministry in the next decade?  While I embrace our technological age of facebook, twitter, and texting, I hope we can still find time to listen deeply to one another. In a world full of quick sound bites and quick texts, I think it will be even more valuable in the coming years to continue to have coffee together and sit down and listen to another. I have seen much hurt and pain over short texts or messages on facebook to one another. Youth need resources to help learn to communicate with one another and navigate difficult conversations in person.

    I have seen an energy and momentum around prayer in youth groups. Youth often seem hungry for quiet moments of contemplation. I hope this shift in youth ministry from lots of activity to prayerful youth ministry continues to deepen.

    What would you say to women who are considering a call to ministry with youth? Are there particular challenges or advantages to being a woman in this area of ministry?  After a few months at one the churches I served, one member noted that she was glad to see someone mothering the youth. Men and women are often stereotyped. I doubt anyone ever said, “I am glad to see someone fathering the youth,” of my predecessors.

    Women have often been typecast to work with children and youth. It is important to have both men and women who can help the youth see and understand different roles in the church working alongside the youth. Understanding the different roles of gender is important as it helps youth discover their own giftedness. May we be open to the different expressions of our gender and not be hindered by our cultures, at times, narrow boxes.

    See previous installments of this series here and here.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    Syncretizing Youth Ministry?

    "Syncretizing youth ministry." If that phrase doesn't get your heart racing, I don't know what will. So, what does it mean? The word syncretism implies "the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion." What could it mean to apply this term to youth ministry?

    Let me give you an example. I help lead a discussion group of students at a seminary here in St. Louis. Occasionally we go on outings to local churches to hear about their ministries and to analyze what they do and why. Recently, we attended a large, affluent suburban congregation. When we entered the front doors of the church, my immediate reaction was "I think I've been here before," even though I knew that I hadn't.

    The main room was a wide open space which led into the sanctuary. Off to one side was a "bookstore" and off to the other side was a mini version of a food court and a coffeehouse. On the tour, we were taken through the children's wing. On the walls were murals that carried along the aquatic theme of the Sunday school program. These were clearly not murals painted by children or any ol' church member. They were professionally done. In fact, they were so well done, along with some well-placed plastic palm trees and life preservers that it looked just like the children's areas of Disneyland.

    Next, we were taken down a long hallway, the entire length of which was lined with what appeared to be framed "coming attractions" movie posters, just like you would see in a movie theater. Sure enough, they were movie posters -- or at least, faux movie posters of Bible stories made up to look like real movie posters. Very slick.

    Finally, we were taken into the youth area which opened into a large "garage grunge" themed space with faux spray-painted graffiti on the metallic walls, a stage for a band, theatrical lighting, and a DJ booth up in a balcony. Branching off from this main space was a coffee lounge, a video game lounge and a small movie theater.

    Had you knocked me unconscious, dragged me to this space, and woken me up by throwing cold water on face, I would have had no idea I hadn't been kidnapped and taken to the local mall. In fact, that is why I had the sensation that I'd been there before. In a sense, I had -- because it looked like every big city mall I've ever been in before.

    Which makes me stop and wonder:
    • What are the implications of trying to attract youth into the Church using the exact same methods our culture employs to sell them sex, violence, video games, and junk food?
    • Are youth able to discern a distinct difference between our values/identity as Christians and those of advertisers trying to sell them a product as consumers?
    • Does ministry with youth cease to have a distinct identity if it is too immersed in the symbols and practices of corporate/entertainment/capitalist culture?
    • Which is the more radical move in youth ministry: to make our ministries fit seamlessly into secular culture or to lead ministries which offer alternatives alongside (not necessarily over and against) secular culture?
    While you ponder all that, check out this either amazingly clever and relevant or particularly distressing example of attractional youth ministry, depending on your point of view.  HT to Stuart for finding the above image. 

    Update: Here is an interesting and related post from the Methobaptist Musings blog on the plusses of developing a minimalist youth ministry.


    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Volunteers No Longer Needed

    Each year, the church I currently serve has both baby dedications and baptisms (for teenagers). Over time, I have started to view these events as a rite of passage—both for the participant and the congregation. The congregation is asked if they will help raise this child and guide them in the Christian faith. Such questions take seriously the notion that as a community of faith we are all required to help raise disciples of Christ.

    But all too often it is only a small group of individuals who work with our children and youth. For the past several weeks, I’ve been rethinking the notion of what it means to have volunteers in youth ministry.

    What if we no longer had volunteers, but instead focused on spiritual mentors. Spiritual mentors, from all ages and spectrums of life, could be with our youth through all of the years that they are growing up in church. What would it look like to have a spiritual mentor as someone who participated in the entire spiritual formation and Christian education of our youth?

    Spiritual mentors could: be present at rites of passage in the church, pray for our youth on a regular basis, accompany and be present on mission trips, summer camps, and retreats, and even just be present in Sunday School or youth group.

    How would your church respond if you put this headline in the church newsletter with an accompanying article: Volunteers No Longer Needed

    Thursday, January 14, 2010

    Youth Ministers: Drop Everything this Sunday!

    This weekend, Let go of your carefully-planned Bible studies, game nights, Wii tournaments, and study programs and just sit with your youth and talk about what is happening in Haiti. Print out some of the news photos of the devastation and place them in the center of the group. Give the youth a chance to share what they've heard and seen about the crisis.  Tell about what your church or denomination is already doing and talk about what you can do together to help.  Spend time in group or silent prayer.

    Some possible discussion questions:

    • Where do you think God is in this disaster?
    • How would you respond to televangelist Pat Robertson's comments that the earthquake happened because the Haitian people are cursed for making a pact with the Devil? Is this disaster the result of sin or the shifting of a fault line?
    • Read Psalm 60, a psalm of lament. What do you make of this passage? Does it truly reflect God's character or does it reflect the feelings of the psalmist? Or both?
    • Read Psalm 143, a cry for help.  When we ask God for help, how do you think the prayer is answered? In what ways do you think prayers for help are being answered in Haiti right now?
    Consider setting out a world map and indicate the location of Haiti.  Surround the map with votive candles and sit around it in a circle. Share a little about life and culture in Haiti.  In silence, pass a candlelighter around the circle and invite each youth to offer up a silent prayer for the people of Haiti, light a candle, and pass the lighter to the next person.  Close by sharing all or a portion of Psalm 27.

    CULTURE WATCH: The Problem with "Avatar"

    The new film "Avatar" would make for a great youth ministry discussion.  But what exactly is the film teaching?

    Like any good science-fiction, Avatar is at least in part a commentary on the culture and world we live in today.  The story focuses on the plight of the Na'vi, the tall blue-skinned inhabitants of the moon Pandora. The Na'vi seem to live a very peaceful and nature-centered existence.  At least, they do until ex-military mercenaries from Earth, hired and directed by some greedy corporate no-gooders, arrive on Pandora to steal its natural resources. To do so, they conclude the only solution is to uproot the Na'vi and take away their land, even if it means destroying their culture and way of life. 

    I can see this plot being a great basis for a thoughtful conversation with teens about justice, compassion, the sacredness of creation, and the world as it "is" as opposed to the world as it "could be."  It also opens up the possibility for a critique of history. The plot of Avatar carries echoes of the Exile in Hebrew history, the plight of Africans torn from their countries and sold into slavery, the attempt to destroy the culture of the indigenous peoples in the history of the United States, the Holocaust, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the list could go on and on.  

    Where I would actually argue against the film is in its violence.  If you've seen the trailers, it's not giving much away to say that the film eventually winds up being a hardcore and bloody battle between the humans and the Na'vi. In fact, the video game based on the movie is completely focused, not on the beautiful world and peaceful life of the Na'vi, but on the battle with the humans.  Even as this seems inevitable, I wondered why the filmmakers couldn't have been more creative.  Is the only answer to violence more violence?  Couldn't the Na'vi's spiritual life have offered them another choice? What should be the Christain perspective on this?  Is there another way to respond to violence or is the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus offers simply an unattainable dream?  Now, there is fodder for a great conversation with your youth!

    Update: Check out this interesting post on Avatar and other recent films by fellow blogger Jason Fisher.

    -- Brian