Monday, January 31, 2011

    Video: We Like Jesus...but do we really want to be like him?

    Friday, January 28, 2011

    TEEN SUICIDE: What We Need to Know Pt. 2

    After our recent series on bullying, we felt there was a need to follow up with even more specific information on teen suicide. This four part series is authored by Heather Harlan of Phoenix Programs, Inc. Heather's credentials include CRPS, Certified Reciprocal Prevention Specialists, ACRA (Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach) Certified Substance Abuse Therapist/ Supervisor, and GAIN (Global Appraisal of Individual Needs) Certified Administrator/Trainer.

    Part Two: Preventing Suicide
    You cannot predict death by suicide, but you can educate yourself to recognize possible risks; for a list of suicide warning signs go here.


    • Neglecting to take the risky behavior seriously

    • Promising not to tell anyone. (“I can’t agree to that, but I care and I’ll listen.”)

    • Leaving person alone.

    Do ASK the person directly if s/he:

    1) Is having suicidal thought/idea. “Are you thinking about killing or hurting yourself?”
    2) Has a plan. “Do you think you might try to hurt yourself today? How would you do it?"
    3) Has access to lethal means. “Do you have pills/weapons in the house?”

    If we bring up the subject we fear it will increase the person’s thoughts of self-destruction, but experts agree this is not the case. Obtaining this information gives you insight that indicates how strongly the person is thinking of suicide and supplies you with specifics for family/ professionals who are equipped to help.

    More ideas on “Getting to the Practical When in Conversation with Someone Who Is Wanting To Die,” can be found here. You can read part one of this series here.

    Coming in Part 3: Talking with Parents

    Thursday, January 27, 2011

    CULTURE WATCH: What's Right with "American Idol"

    I was not planning to watch the new season of "American Idol." I want to say that upfront.

    With the deluge of reality tv contests that inundate our tv screens (the best of which, I think, is "So You Think You Can Dance" and the worst "America's Got Talent"), I'd just decided I had better ways to spend my time then sit through one more season.  Besides, I'd grown tired of the sort of hyper-criticism these shows thrive on, each with their own version of a Simon Cowell who enjoys making amatuers feel about two inches tall.

    But as it turns out, I did happen to catch the first episodes of the new "Idol" (it's easier than going to the gym) and I was pleasantly surprised. Despite what I had assumed, no effort was made to mold either of the new judges in Cowell's image. This was a "kindler, gentler" show, with no one waiting to pounce with glee on deluded contestants, blanketing them with colorful metaphors to explain just how awful they sang. Who would have guessed that Stephen Tyler would be the sweetest judge, especially with the contestants that clearly cannot sing.  

    Can we hope this is part of the at least temporary turn toward civility in our land?  Perhaps we no longer get such a thrill out of seeing other people torn down for our amusement. I have worked for years to encourage youth in my care to try to end the habit of insulting each other as a form of playfulness. Teens put each other down all the time and then respond "I was only joking," but we can never know how other teens are receiving those words.  This is why I think we need to work to make our youth ministries "put down free zones," where we hug a friend instead of punching them in the arm or tell someone we love them rather than zinging them with an insult. Creating these pockets of positivity in our teens' lives might actually be an opportunity to give them a glimpse into the Kingdom of God where all are welcome and all are loved unconditionally. 

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011

    TEEN SUICIDE: What We Need to Know Pt. 1

    Following our recent series on bullying, we felt there was a need to follow up with even more specific information on teen suicide.  With continuing stories in the news about gay teens and teens who have been bullied ending their own lives, it becomes imperative that those of us involved in youth ministry educate ourselves about the causes of teen suicide and ways in which we might help.

    This four part series will be authored by Heather Harlan of Phoenix Programs, Inc.  Heather's credentials include CRPS, Certified Reciprocal Prevention Specialists, ACRA (Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach) Certified Substance Abuse Therapist/ Supervisor, and GAIN (Global Appraisal of Individual Needs) Certified Administrator/Trainer.

    Part one of this series focuses on causes of suicide:
    Causes of suicide are confounding—we scramble for rational explanations for irrational behavior.   Certain criteria, however, will be present in nearly every suicide situation you ever encounter.  There are two prominent risk factors for suicide for every young person in your church.  The Suicide Prevention Resource Center ( notes over 90% of suicides include one or both of the following:

    #1.  Mental disorders. The National Alliance on Mental Illness ( reminds us mental illnesses are brain disorders.  Sometimes, the individual has been proficient at hiding his/her struggle from family and friends.  Let’s be clear: LBGT issues are NOT mental disorders, but youth working to understand these issues in their lives may be at higher risk for those disorders most closely associated with suicide which include clinical depression and anxiety, bipolar and other mood disorders. 

    #2.  Substance abuse.  When mood altering chemicals such as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs are introduced to the underage brain with stressors present, youth may find the idea of a permanent solution for a temporary problem –suicide—to be a way out of unbearable emotional pain. These choices only further inhibit the brain from working toward positive solutions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ( cites 75% of youth suicide attempts are drug-related.

    Both these factors are better understood in light of our understanding of the immature physical nature of the human brain until about age 25 resulting in higher vulnerability to formation of mental disorders or substance use disorders (what we used to call addictions). 

    Coming in Part 2: Preventing Suicide

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Creative Worship for Youth Ministry: Cellphone Prayers

    Try this simple idea for challenging your youth to be in prayer with one another during the school week.

    Chatting with a youth ministry colleague recently, we shared our admiration for those in the Muslim faith who take time each day to stop whatever they are doing and pray.  We wondered what it might be like if  our teens paused in the middle of their school day and took time to think about their youth ministry brothers and sisters and offered a prayer for them.  How could we help them to do that, we asked ourselves.  

    And here was the idea that came to us:  At each Sunday night youth gathering, choose a random day and time in the upcoming week and invite youth to create a calendar alert on their cell phones for that time, including the simple word "pray" as part of the alert. Then, at the determined day and time, perhaps Tuesday at noon, each students' phone lights up with a calendar alert reminding them to stop for just a moment and pray for their friends.  It doesn't have to be a long prayer and it can be scheduled at a time when it's okay use cellphones, such as study hall or lunch.  If your students are forbidden to use phones at school, arrange the "pray" alerts to happen in the evening or on Saturday.  

    Anyone out there try anything like this already?  Let us know about  your experience with cellphone prayer alerts. 

    What is the Distractional Model of Youth Ministry?

    My latest column at takes aim at a popular model of youth ministry I refer to as the distractional model:

    [D]istraction has been the name of the game in youth ministry now for decades, its history detailed in the recent text Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again) by Wayne Rice. Sometimes labeled the "attractional" model of youth ministry, I think a better term for what we've been using with teens is the "distractional" model. In its simplest form, the "distractional" model implies a strategy for youth ministry that encourages designing activities and events that will get teens in the door of the church and keep them engaged and interested. Most often these activities are entertainment-based and high energy. They need not even be faith-based, as long as they open the possibility of reaching youth with the gospel message at some point during the event.
    The essay makes a connection between this model and current research suggesting that the distracted way we surf the internet is actually rewiring our brains -- and not for the better. Is the distractional model of youth ministry rewiring the spiritual brains of our youth? You can read the complete essay here and let us know what you think.

    Update: Read part two of this post here.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011


    Now here's a youth ministry conference every progressive and mainline youthworker should attend this year: the Evo youth ministry conference (Feb. 24-25 2011 in Dallas), organized by Neil Christopher of the Evolitionist blog :

    "Evo is a gathering FOR youth workers, BY youth workers. If you want to come and dialog with other leaders who are passionate about youth... this is the event for you.  We are denominational and we are non-denominational. We are Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, DOC, C&MA, Catholic, Presbyterian, and none of the above. We are missional, emergent, progressive, orthodox, mainstream and everything in-between. We are those who simply care about youth more than we care about labels."

    And the cost is only $20! (Yes, you read that right).  Find out more and register for the event here.

    Sex Offenders and your Youth Ministry: What Would You Do?

    I had a conversation recently with a colleague who has run into a challenging situation regarding youth and boundaries.  Maybe you can help.

    A young man, whose family attends the pastor's church, has recently begun attending again after a conviction for a sex offense.  He is now a registered sexual offender and has been in counseling with the pastor.  The pastor feels the young man is not a threat to the congregation and the young man has agreed to follow guidelines such as always having a chaperone when he is on church property and having no direct contact with the children or youth of the church.  The congregation has appropriate boundary policies in place to make certain no youth or children are left alone with adults.  

    So here's the question:  How much of this situation does the pastor share with his or her congregation? Who is in a "need to know" position regarding this young man's legal status?  How would you communicate this information to those who will be affected by the young man's presence? Would your own church welcome such an individual? (Feel free to contact me email if you prefer more anonymity.)

    Youth Ministry in the Progressive Church

    Benjer McVeigh at the Jesus and Teenagers blog is hosting a series on youth ministry from different theological perspectives within the Church.  Today's post features  Anglican youth worker Paul Martin. who blogs at Being Ministry.  Yesterday, I was featured and asked to share what youth ministry looks like from a mainline protestant/progressive theological approach.  Here's a quick excerpt:

    The Christian Church (DOC) has a long tradition of encouraging biblical scholarship and resisting a literal reading of scripture. As a result, we are open to multiple (and sometimes contradictory) interpretations of the same biblical texts. We do not codify one understanding of a text and often find that scriptures have multiple meanings. We believe the scriptures to be divine in the sense that those who wrote them were fallible human beings attempting to share in limited human language their personal experiences with God and the Holy Spirit. So, when I invite youth to share in Bible study, I do not present one particular understanding of scripture or one right interpretation.

    You can read the entire interview here and see what Paul has to say here.  

    I welcome a series like this as it reminds us of the diversity of the Church and the complexity of theologies that have grown up around the institution over the centuries.  Anytime I hear someone say "Christians all believe such and such..." I always want to respond "Well, some Christians believe such and such!"  The diversity of thought in the church is, I think, one of its greatest strengths.  I applaud Benjer for helping us to celebrate and come to a better understanding that our differences can help us all to come to a deeper understanding of the faith.

    Seeking an Urban Mission Experience for your Youth Ministry?

    Many of our readers are familiar with the inner city mission trip opportunity provided by the church I serve in St. Louis.  As of now, we are just about full to capacity for the summer. But for groups who are still seeking an urban ministry experience for summer 2011 and are up for traveling to metro St. Louis, I want to encourage you to consider The Urban Mission Experience.  This program, hosted by Epiphany United Church of Christ, offers lodging and help in setting up inner-city mission volunteer projects for youth groups at a reasonable rate.  In addition, the UME offers opportunities for urban ministry education around such issues as poverty, hunger, and homelessness.  Their stated goals are to: 
    • financially support urban churches,
    • introduce mission trip visitors to some of the best mission agencies in the St. Louis area, and
    • live out Micah 6:6-8:  "No, the Lord has told us what is good.  What He requires of us is this:  to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God."

    To learn more about this ministry and how you might partner with them for a summer mission experience, check out their website here

    Monday, January 10, 2011


    Here's a creative approach to keeping your teens focused on their faith all week.

    Maybe you've run into the same problem I have:  You manage to engage your youth in a meaningful study at youth group and send them home, hoping they will ponder the Bible study or discussion the rest of the week.  When you regather the next Sunday and ask "So what other thoughts have you had about last week's topic?" they just look back at you with blank stares as if to say "Oh...yeah.  We were supposed to think about that, weren't we.  Well, see, there was this test I had to study for and basketball practice and drama club and ... I sort of forgot."  

    Youth worker Rob Ham has created a resource for his group called "The Other Six" that just might be an answer to this problem.  His approach involves providing youth with both a take-home devotional guide each week and an interactive blog as a way to help youth stay connected to the current study the "other six" days of the week. You can check out a pdf sample of the devotional guide (image below) and read more about this creative idea at Rob's blog

    Friday, January 07, 2011

    Starting a New Year in Youth Ministry

    How can you start the new year in your ministry with youth with a renewed focus on God's presence?

    I recently began writing a regular youth ministry column for the website which offers comprehensive resources and commentary on spirtuality and faith across many religions. My latest column focuses on how to start on the right foot in the new year by teaching youth the spiritual practice of the Awareness Examen:

    As we leave behind the hectic schedule of the holidays and begin a new year, how might we help teens slow down long enough to sense the sacred in their own lives? Admittedly, this is not an easy task. When youth aren't being distracted by the immediacy of homework, dating, friends, and the latest cultural trends, they have their attention focused on SATs and college and their hoped-for future careers. Challenging them to set all this aside even for a few moments and focus on the sacred certainly requires practice, on our part and theirs. Fortunately, the Christian faith enjoys a rich history of spiritual practices that are designed to help us experience the "now" and to open ourselves to the still-ness of God.
    Check out the full essay here.

    Do You Keep Pushing Youth Ministry Buttons That Don't Work?

    Why do we continue to follow practices and models of youth ministry that have no real impact on the discipling of youth?

    I recently watched a fascinating PBS documentary about elevators.  Yes, you heard that right -- elevators.  The most interesting tidbit I picked up: nine times out of ten the "door close" button on an elevator isn't even connected.  It serves absolutely no function except to make you feel better by pushing it when you get impatient  (I suspect the same is true of buttons we push on the traffic lights at crosswalks!).  

    This had me wondering: what youth ministry "buttons" do we keep pushing even though they don't work and really accomplish very little in our ministries? Not too many years ago, I finally gave up the practice of opening every youth group gathering with a bunch of crazy games which were intended to set a tone of fun and excitement for the youth but which really just sent the message that the Bible study/discussion program to follow was the boring part of the gathering. Letting go of games as the "entertainment" of the evening opened the way for me to see how we could design opening activities (e.g. community builders) that actually facilitated fellowship (rather than competition and distraction) and tied into the theme of the gathering.

    Are there "buttons" you are pushing in your ministry that don't seem to be connected to anything?  Consider the following experiment :

    1) Make a list of all the activites of your youth ministry program over the last week or month or even year.
    2) Ask: which one of these activities actually help to support the mission/vision of our youth ministry? (If you do not already have a mission/vision statement, you may want to make creating one the first item on this list!).
    3) Ask: Which activities/programs do we do just because "we've always done them?" Which activities may actually be working against or are counterproductive to the goals of our ministry?
    4) Brainstorm with your adults and youth ways you might transform those unproductive activities into program components that will support your goals together.
    5) Develop a discipline of asking, each time you plan an activity or event, "How does this connect to our mission?"

    Your thoughts?  Are there youth ministry buttons you keep pushing without results?  How have you transformed distracting or counterproductive elements of your youth ministry into something helpful and edifying for the teens in your care?

    Update: Read how Adam at Pomomusings tried this approach and discovered some interesting things about his own youth ministry.