Tuesday, April 27, 2010

    "Double-Downing" of Youth Ministry

    How is youth ministry today like the latest menu item at KFC? You might be surprised.

    Have you heard about the new "Double Down" sandwich at KFC?  This is the fast food item for all of you who ever asked "Why is the bun always made out of bread?" The Double Down consists of bacon, cheese, and special sauce pressed between two deep-fried chicken fillets, delivering 540 calories (290 from fat) and a whopping 1,380 milligrams of sodium.  Whereas Pizza Hut is always asking "Where else can we hide more cheese?" perhaps KFC will now eternally pursue the question "What else can we fashion into a bun?" Though the Double Down does not have the honor of being the unhealthiest item on the menu, it could well win the prize for best response to the customers' cries for more, more, more!  Give us more of what we want!  In this case, why bother with bread when we can have double the fried meat!

    How often is this the same approach we are encouraged to take in ministry with youth?  Double up on the entertainment value, double up on the marketing hype, double up on the "cool" factor and the customers youth will surely come. Of course, the truth of it is: KFC knows exactly what it's doing. And youth ministries which pile on the cheese, bacon and special sauce games, entertainment, trips to exotic locations likely do attract a great number of young people. The trouble is, the consumers of our double-down youth ministries will eventually want more.  Then we're forced to do the ministry equivalent of a "Luther Double Down" which consists of KFC's new item sandwiched in between two Krispy Kreme donuts (No Kidding. See it for yourself here).  Where does it stop?

    Perhaps more importantly, we have to wonder if we are setting our youth up for their eventual departure from the Church itself. When they graduate from our youth programs and find no equivalent to our double-down style ministries elsewhere in our congregations, they may "graduate" from Church altogether (and, in fact, the lastest research from Barna and Pew show this to be true). Conversely, as they grow older and begin searching for something more substantive and meaningful in their spiritual life, they may decide to leave behind the consumerist-styled Church for something of more depth.  Lastly, for those of us with the resources and finances to lead "double down" youth ministries piled high with video game systems, huge Christian concerts, trips to Africa, and on and on, what happens when the youth in our ministries move to a new town and discover the youth ministry there can't afford a TV/VCR, let alone an Xbox with all the latest games and the mission trip is to the nursing home across town instead of Haiti.  Have we set them up to believe that real faith can only be found in double down ministries?

    A point of clarification:  I'm not suggesting that doing activities that are purely for fun and fellowship is wrong.  Play is an important part of creating community. The danger comes when we get caught in the trap of making such activities the center and focus of our ministries together because we want to keep youth coming (and this can and does happen.).  Additionally, I'm not suggesting that going on overseas mission trips is a poor idea. In fact, such trips might be exactly what your group is gifted to do.  But hopefully groups who take such trips do so because they feel  particularly called to such mission and not because of the attraction of the exotic locale.  I would also hope that groups who travel overseas also seek amazing ways to commit to "mission trips" right in their own backyard.

    Much of this comes down to: Why are you doing what you are doing in your ministry?  Are you focused on attracting teens or discipling youth? 

    Coming Next:  An Alternative to Double Down Youth Ministry 

    Social Justice Scavenger Hunt for Youth Ministry

    Does the Bible say anything about social justice?  Invite your youth to explore that question with a photo scavenger hunt.

    Political pundits on TV and religious leaders in the U.S. have recently taken to debating the notion of "social justice" and the practices of some churches in our country. 
    Why let the pundits and big-wigs have all the fun?  Engage your youth in a conversation about social justice by presenting them with any of the hundreds of passages in scripture that speak to the care of those in need.  We recently provided our youth with a sampling of texts (such as the ones you see below), divided them into groups, and challenged them to go out into public and take digital images of signs, symbols, events, people, etc. that helped to illustrate their understanding of the passages. Upon their return, each group shared their photos (uploading them to a laptop) and we talked about how they chose to interpret the various scripture texts.

    In most cases, it was necessary to help the groups by putting the passages in context (biblically and historically) or to help them understand basic terms.  For example, most of the youth assumed the word "justice" had to do with crime and punishment.  We spent a good deal of time considering how Biblical justice particularly as taught by Jesus differs from our cultural understanding of the word. 

    Approached as an open-ended activity, this scavenger hunt can provide a way for your group to wrestle with what social justice means to your church and how you are called to respond to the challenging ideas in scripture about the poor, about war, about sharing what we have with others.  At its best, this activity could create space for those of different political ideologies in your group to listen to one another (e.g. can advocacy relate both to those who favor reproductive choice and those who oppose abortion?) and to at least ponder the complexity of issues facing the Church today when it comes to bringing systemic change.

    1) SHARING: He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise. - Luke 3:1

    2) JUSTICE: ...but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove." - Ex. 23:11

    3) FAIRNESS: ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Matthew 5: 38-41

    4) GOOD NEWS: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." - Luke 4:18-19

    5) POSSESSIONS: Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me... How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!" - Luke 18:22-24

    6) WELCOME: "Then Jesus said to his host, 'When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.'” - Lk. 14:12-14

    7) PEACE: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Matthew 5:9

    8) MEEKNESS: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

    9) SERVANTHOOD: Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty. Matthew 23: 11-12

    10) ADVOCACY: Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9

    11) HELP: When you happen on someone who's in trouble or needs help among your people with whom you live in this land that GOD, your God, is giving you, don't look the other way pretending you don't see him. Don't keep a tight grip on your purse. No. Look at him, open your purse, lend whatever and as much as he needs. Don't count the cost. Deut. 15:7-9

    12) HOMELESS & HUNGRY: Is not this the fast that I choose . . . Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; Isaiah 58:6-7

    For more creative scavenger hunt ideas, use the "search this blog" box at the top right of our homepage.

    -- Brian

    Thursday, April 15, 2010

    CULTURE WATCH: The Dayof Silence

    April 16, 2010 will be a day of silence in many high schools across the United States as students make a silent witness against the oppression of teens whose orientation is not heterosexual. 

     It is not unusual to hear Christians speak out against this silent demonstration of solidarity, claiming it to be some attempt to force an agenda or make a political statement. And I suppose this is as should be expected. In most cultures, those with the most power often try to silence minorities who dare to demand simple dignity and respect.  In our heterocentrist culture, it is perhaps difficult for many to even understand what GLBT youth endure on a daily basis in schools where intolerance is often given a pass by school administrators and teachers (and I say this as a former public school teacher). 

    We cannot ignore, however, the sinful way in which the Church has treated these individuals. Proof of this has been reflected in several recent national surveys which show that the exodus of most young adults from our churches is due in part to what they perceive as the abject intolerance of Christianity as it is practiced today.  While the Church often argues against homosexuality by noting how many GLBT persons are depressed and conflicted, they fail to see that it is their own oppression of these individuals which adds fuel to the fire of their mistreatment.  What would happen tomorrow if the Church repented of its sin of marginalizing these teens and instead embraced them as fellow children of God?  Perhaps you read recently that Christian singer Jennifer Knapp is gay. In an interview with Christianity Today she states: 

    It never occurred to me that I was in something that should be labeled as a "struggle." The struggle I've had has been with the church, acknowledging me as a human being, trying to live the spiritual life that I've been called to, in whatever ramshackled, broken, frustrated way that I've always approached my faith. I still consider my hope to be a whole human being, to be a person of love and grace. So it's difficult for me to say that I've struggled within myself, because I haven't. I've struggled with other people. I've struggled with what that means in my own faith. I have struggled with how that perception of me will affect the way I feel about myself.

    Ultimately, the Day of Silence is not about what you or I as Christains think about sexual orientation or sin. It is about standing with the marginalized and oppressed and demanding simply dignity and care for all young people.

    If you and I were to walk onto a high school campus tomorrow and see one group standing on the sidewalk with signs protesting against homosexuality and perversion and another group sitting in silence, hand-in-hand as GLBT youth and straight allies, which group do you think Jesus would go and join? I have no doubt in my mind.


    Creative Project for Youth Ministry: (Re)Claiming the Cross

    As we continue to move through the season of Easter, encourage your youth discover the real power of the cross through this creative activity.

    Last Sunday night I invited our youth to take some time to consider the importance of the cross to how we live out our faith today.  This symbol is ubiquitous in Christianity but it's meaning can be complex and challenging.  How can a symbol of Roman imperial torture and oppression also be a symbol of the new life and freedom we find in God's love?

    We began by looking at Paul's message to the Church in Corinth:

    The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written, I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots.

    While some clamor for miraculous demonstrations and others go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Some treat this like an anti-miracle—and others pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's "weakness."

    Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don't see many of "the brightest and the best" among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"?  (1 Cor 1: 18-31 adapted from The Message Bible)
    We discussed why the idea of the cross, the idea of the Christian story ending with Jesus dying instead of defeating his enemies, is foolishness to the world yet also declares the wisdom of God's way.  I asked the youth to consider what ultimately became of the "wisdom" of the Roman Empire and it's way of oppression and violence.  One student replied "They only exist in history books now."  And yet Christ's message of peace and love continues on.  In fact, every oppressive empire in the history of the world has eventually fallen away while the foolishness of the cross -- sacrifice, mercy, compassion -- lives on. 

    I then asked the youth to work in small groups to make two lists:  things the world values and things God values.  I asked them to consider that the cross, once a symbol of tyranny and terror, now represents the things God values. In essence, we as Christians have adopted this symbol of violence and reclaimed it as a symbol of God's peace.  In fact, many artists have done just that (see right).

    Then came the challenge: using various art supplies, reclaim the cross by creating your own design for the cross that somehow communicates those things you believe that God values. 

    This is a really great open-ended project as youth can approach it however they want. Some groups might want to draw an image while others may create a sculpture. Some might use words while others use only symbols. We gave the youth time to create in their groups and then invited them to share their efforts with everyone. Most importantly, we reminded them that for most of the world, we are the "living cross." We tell the real story of the cross each day in the way that they live in the world and in the way they care for others.


    Wednesday, April 14, 2010

    Youth Leaders: Give Yourselves a Break!

    Let's face it.  While working with youth is a great calling and blessing,  it is also one of the most taxing ministries in the congregational church.   

    You are challenged week in and week out to come up with thoughtful, engaging studies and activities, to stay connected with the busy lives of your teens, to serve as Christian role model, to endure lock-ins and give up whole chunks of your summer to go on mission trips and counsel summer camp, all while meeting the expectations of the church you serve and the youth themselves. Sometimes we just need to give ourselves permission . . .

    . . . to not be all things to all people. (Despite what the apostle Paul might say, you can't always connect with every teen in your group. It's a simple matter of chemistry. Some will think you are the next best thing to sliced bread and others will never quite warm up to you. This is why it's so important to have a variety of adults in your ministry serving as spiritual mentors to youth).

     . . . to not feel like we are in competition with every other church in town. (Especially those with bigger and better youth facilities, flashier programs, or...fill in the blank).

     . . . to not play the numbers game. (Sometimes quality is a lot better than quantity -- It's not so important how many youth you have but rather what impact your ministry is having on their lives). 

    . . . to let the other leaders lead. (Spread the tasks around. Let other adults take on the Bible study, the game-leading, the planning of the lock-in.)

    . . .  to not run the most exciting youth program in town. (Is it a crime to bore teens? Some think so...but our calling is not to entertain but to lead youth closer to the heart of God. Sometimes that journey takes patience, attentiveness, hard work, sweat, and challenge. Should we short-change our ministries by feeling like everything has to be "fun" or "exciting?")

    . . . to observe some Sabbath. (Even the best leaders run out of energy, ideas, and motivation after awhile. If you are in ministry for the long-haul, be sure to take some time to reconnect with your spiritual center. This may mean skipping a youth group meeting, or simply sitting back one night and being a participant instead of a leader. You could get away to a training event where you can gather with others in youth ministry who can offer support and some new perspectives.  Or, it may just mean a walk in the woods and some time in prayer.)

    What else would you add to this list?