Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    Guest Post: Emotionalism, Youth Ministry & Other Things I Hate About Acquire the Fire

    In our efforts to try to tap into those things teens care most about, how often do we risk stepping over the line into emotional manipulation. Guest blogger and youth pastor Jason McPherson shares his thoughts on this issue and offers a challenge to those of use serving youth in the Church.

    There are some youth ministries (and churches) out there who believe that the level of emotion that one experiences in their worship, prayer times, testimonies, etc, is an accurate gauge of one’s discipleship and growth as a believer.  The equation is pretty simple: the greater/deeper emotional response = the greater/deeper encounter with Christ.  And while emotion should definitely not be suppressed or avoided, we must be careful not to blindly adopt this equation of ‘emotion = discipleship.’ 

    Fast forward several years and I find myself as a youth minister. My first year at the church we attended Acquire the Fire' because, as one student informed me, "that is what our youth group did every year before you became... It’s the best event that we go on."  With the help of smoke machines, loud bands, and youth speakers who can tell gripping stories filled with well-placed tears and effective pauses, ATF has mastered the skill of evoking an emotional response from teenagers... And just like all highs, it is, and was, just a matter of time until the crash.  How can we expect anything else?  How are the teens supposed to get as excited back at their local church when our ‘worship band’ consists of just Bob… a balding middle-aged man who is still learning to play guitar?  All that to say: I no longer attend ATF.  Every once in awhile a parent or student will come up to me and ask why we don't go to ATF anymore.  While my response varies depending on who is the one asking me, my most common response goes something like this, "Because discipleship is a marathon... It is a daily decision and a daily directing of our paths toward Christ. We don’t go to Acquire the Fire because I don’t want to teach our teens that their ‘level of emotion’ determines the truth of the gospel and the necessity to pursue a deeper walk with Christ, even when we don’t feel like it… Something along those lines.


    I speak as one who was quite susceptible to emotionalism as a teenager in the youth ministry I was a part of growing up.  Discipleship and spiritual maturity was all about who generated the greatest emotional response to a sermon, music set, at a retreat, an alter call, and so on.  One particular night I remember my youth pastor challenging us during a time of corporate confession (around a bonfire of course) to "not hold back and be real before Jesus."  As students began to share, I was well aware of my sin and didn't want to leave that night still 'hiding my sins from Jesus.' So, as a 17 year old teenager, I confessed everything in front of the group... Everything I could possibly think of.  The mood had definitely been set by my youth leader and he later commended me for how open and honest I was.  While I believed I was being obedient to God at the time by airing out all of my garbage, I look back at the whole experience and cringe at how honest I was before them... Not because confession is wrong but because of the young ears who heard all of those confessions.  I lacked the discernment that 'confessing everything' might not have been the best thing to do.

    Up until just a year or so ago, I experienced quite a bit of guilt and shame when I would compare the current student ministry I find myself in with that of the one I was a part of growing up in my teenage years.  I remember the emotion filled testimonies... I remember worshiping with my fellow teenage peers... I remember some great retreats that we went on together.  And quite honestly, I don't see that as much with the youth ministry that I am currently leading.  At times I wonder if I am in the wrong.  I wonder if I have become so cautious about not being manipulative that I have actually robbed them of something deeper.  However, what I have begun to see is something that has less highs and lows and something that appears to be more true and lasting.  

    My conclusion is a very predictable one.  Emotions are some of the very fabrics that make us human.  As youth pastors/leaders, we must seek the healthy balance of not suppressing and avoiding a Christian faith that is void of emotions, which would be unhealthy and lacking.  Also,  we must make sure that our chief aim is not to simply seek out an 'emotional response' from our students because that has little to do with the gospel and more to do with adolescent development.  

    May we all seek to honestly and faithfully preach, teach, and present the gospel in a manner that is accessible and understandable to our students.

    Jason McPherson is an Associate/Youth Pastor in Independence, Missouri. Originally from Nashua, NH, he is a diehard Red Sox fan and has since also grown a liking for the Royals as well.  Along with his love for the BoSox, Jason enjoys all things active, including disc golf, ultimate frisbee, biking, and whiffle ball.  Jason received his M.Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2009.  He has been married to his wife Rachel, a fellow New England native, for four years.  The two have one child, ‘Dunkin’, who is a 6lb long haired Chihuahua.  You can read more of his thoughts on his personal blog here.   

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    What's Wrong with A Busy Youth Ministry Summer?

    What's on your youth ministry's calendar for this summer?  Camps, camps, and more camps? Mission trips?  Retreats?  Lock-ins? Road trips to amusement parks? 

    In my early days in youth ministry, summertime was always a chance to amp up the activity level of our youth program. Everybody was out of school. None of the younger youth had jobs. We all had lots of free time on our hands. So we created summer calendars packed with trips and events and theme nights at the church.  Maybe in those days that all made sense.

    But what is the reality for the teens you serve today?  If they are like mine, most of them are attending at least a few weeks if not months of summer school. Most of them have jobs (why, I'm not exactly certain).  Most of them have band camp, sports camp, theater camp that is required if they want to participate in fall events at school.  On top of that, there are family trips and activities.  What time is left for church?  Or more to the point: what time is left for sabbath? Our scriptures are ripe with calls for sabbath, both as a way to remember God and as a way to respect that all people (all of creation, in fact) needs rest. Sabbath is also a reminder that, in our tradition, even God rests: 

    Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don't do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day. (Exodus 20: 8-11, The Message Bible)

    This summer why not give yourself and your teens a break?  Slow things down.  Get rid of the over-scheduled calendar.  Provide opportunities for your teens to simply catch their breath, rest, appreciate a time of quiet reflection, and perhaps even silence.  Some possibilites include:

    • Meet regularly at a coffee shop for no other reason than to just sit and talk and catch up on each other's weeks.
    • Cut-back your schedule of activities and encourage your youth to use the extra time for rest.
    • Have a Sabbath lock-in. This one definitely won't be an all-nighter! Design the evening around restful, quiet experiences where teens can read, play cards, or just lie out on a couch and nap.  Set an early bedtime and talk about the scriptural understanding of sabbath and why it's important.
    • Schedule opportunities for your youth to get together and just play...simply. Invite them to bring a frisbee, a football, and so on and just enjoy an evening together hanging out on the church lawn (No Bible study!)
    • Covenant to rest together.  Pick a time each day that you all agree, whenever possible, to stop whatever you are doing wherever you are and simply rest and enjoy a time of silence.  
    I'd just offer one warning:  the more rest you build into your summer youth ministry, the more likely you will be to never go back to the old ways of over-programming your time with teens.  Sabbath is habit-forming!

    What other suggestions can you think of to help teens experience Sabbath this summer?

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011

    Creative Idea for Youth Ministry: The Gospel in One Word

    How do you sum up the gospel in a single word?  Challenge your teens to do just that with this creative activity.

    I often stumble upon great ideas on the Soul Pancake website that seem perfect for adapting to a youth ministry setting. This recent post is a good example. Readers were challenged to represent a single word that held importance for them by using everyday objects.  You can see some of the examples posted here.  I would take this a step further and challenge youth to try to sum up their understanding of the gospel in a single word (or phrase) and use everyday objects related to the word to create their image. For example, if the word is love, they might create it out of candy hearts. If the word is joy, they might use something that makes them cupcakes!  They might create "peace" out of pieces of dismantled toy guns.

    You could either do this as a group activity or have teens work on this independently and upload their photos to the web.   The photos could be use to open up a conversation that might give you helpful insights into how your teens understand the core of the gospel message.

    If you need more inspiration, here is another whole blog with these sorts of images.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011

    The Killing of Bin Laden & Youth Ministry: Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?

    In our rush to judgment as Christians regarding whether the faithful can celebrate the death of an enemy, have we missed the most important issue of all?

    Yes, I know. I'm very late to the game on this whole Bin Laden issue.  That was last week's news, right?  What more could there be to say about it all?  In my latest column at the Patheos interfaith website, I wrestle with that question and wonder if, now that the air has had a little chance to clear, there might be something more important to talk about than whether or not it's okay for the faithful to cheer on the murder of an evildoer:

    This week I invited the youth in my church to respond to this debate. I was pleasantly surprised to find that none of them were eager to charge up the hill of faith with either the banner of pacifist peace or the banner of righteous judgment. Instead they clearly felt the whole situation was too complex for quick and easy answers. The questions they offered suggested they were struggling with some ambiguities: Was bin Laden actually still a threat to us or was he just a figurehead? And if it was he was just a figurehead, were we justified in assassinating him? Did killing him actually solve anything? What might the other side do now in retaliation? Can our government get in trouble for murdering a foreign citizen? What happens next in this seemingly unending war on terror? 
    You can read the rest of the column here and share your thoughts on what I think the real issue is at hand for Christians (and Christian teens) in this debate. We'd also welcome your responses to this post from awhile back in which we take a look at how often youth ministries use the lure of violence to attract teens.

    A Youth Ministry Parable

    Why are we in youth ministry?  What is it really all about?

    A colleague of mine from seminary recently shared a thoughtful parable he wrote in which he finds himself on the front steps of his church on Easter morning after the worship service and everyone else has gone home. To his surprise, as he is sitting there eating leftover Easter candy, up walks Jesus:

    "So," he says, "how'd it go today?"
    I shrug. "They played tic tac toe."
    "The high schoolers. They were playing tic tac toe or something during my sermon. I saw them. One of them even looked up to see if I'd noticed, like they were getting away with something; like I'm a moron." I pop another egg into my mouth before I get too carried away.
    He helps himself to another handful as well. "That's the first thing you respond with? A couple kids drawing on the bulletin?
    The rest of the parable spins out this conversation and really asks why we even bother with this whole ministry thing at all.  What motivates us to keep going even when we are unsure anyone is paying attention?  It is a parable written from the viewpoint of a senior pastor but it speaks just as profoundly to anyone in youth ministry who has every asked, "Am I making a difference with these young people?"  You can read the entire parable here.