Monday, December 17, 2012

    Is Teen RIght for Questioning Christmas Display?

    Should your local high school be allowed to have a Christmas display, even if some students object?

    I came across this very interesting post at the Friendly Atheist (a column I regularly read at Patheos) which offers a response to a teen concerned that the teachers in her school have set up Christmas trees and are playing Christmas music: 

    "I am a (soon to be)15 year-old high school student in Austin, Texas. I go to a public school. My school exhibits at least two decorated Christmas trees, and several teachers play what they call “Christmas Music” during class. There is no menorah, but there also isn’t a nativity scene. I have talked to my Mom about my thoughts on the subject, asking her whether or not I should raise a fuss and get them taken down. We talked about jockeying for equal representation, but I don’t believe that would resolve the problem. There is no conceivable way to truly exhibit equal representation. After all, what would the majority of parents think if our school had a Wiccan altar, or a Festivus pole? I would really appreciate your help."

    Richard's response, I think, is not only helpful but also spells out the truth that there is, in the United States, both a secular and a religious observance of Christmas and both are a part of the fabric of our culture. For Richard, the important question is: How serious is the religious imposition? That is to say, if the school is just decorating a tree for fun and if the Christmas music tends more the way of Jingle Bells instead of O Come All Ye Faithful, maybe there's no reason for a young atheist to worry about launching a protest.

    I used to be a public school teacher and a youth pastor at the same time.   As a committed Christian, I objected to all the religious symbolism in my school at Christmastime.  Some of my colleagues would say, "But you're a minister.  Why are you bothered by us bringing Christmas into the school?" For two reasons: 

    Sunday, December 16, 2012

    Advent Ideas for Youth Ministry: Subversive Art Revisited

    A youth worker shares images inspired by our post on Subversive Advent Art.

    One of my favorite Advent activities in our church last year was creating together a mosaic image of Mary and infant Jesus out of bits of colored paper torn from Christmas advertisements and catalogs (Target ads came in handy when we needed some red!). The idea was to take the commercialism of the season and subvert its purposes in order to create something representing the sacred. You can see the image we created here and find a link to the original piece of art which inspired it. 

    Several fellow youth workers have shared with me the results of trying this project with their own youth.  I'm grateful to youth worker Tracy Wallace of Coquitlam Presbyterian Church in Coquitlam, BC, Canada who recently contacted me to share these great Advent/Christmas images created as part of her youth group's participation in Advent Conspiracy activities. 

    This project is really versatile. I know one youth minister who adapted it for use in Lent. You could use images of warfare and violence to create a mosaic icon representing peace, transform images of the world's outcasts into a mosaic of the radically welcome table of communion or even take individual photos of your own youth or church members and transform them into an image to represent what you hope to be as the one body of Christ in mission to the world.

    Saturday, December 15, 2012

    Have Yourself A Merry Zombie Apocalypse?

    Why as people of faith do we find TV shows like The Walking Dead so compelling? It turns out that the season of Advent just might hold an answer.

    My latest essay at Patheos takes a serious look at why our culture is so interested in zombies and apocalypse, and what this all might mean for our youth in light of the Advent season:

    For those citizens of the ancient world, living lives of oppression at the hands of the Empire, knowing the end was in sight and that big changes were coming was just about the only message of hope they wanted to hear. In a sense, anything had to be better than the present situation. And what of our teens today? Do they really want to see the world turned upside down? Some do, yes.

    The mass shootings this week are a stark reminder that even as we try to bring light into the world with our holiday festivities this time of year, so much tinsel and evergreen boughs cannot hide the fact that there is still much darkness in the world, and many of our youth are experiencing that darkness in their daily lives. Might Advent be the perfect season for helping them to see how they can be part of bringing light into a world so in need of illumination?

    You can read and share your thoughts on the full essay here.  

    (Note: Image above features a paper craft zombie nativity. Not certain what to do with that theologically but maybe one of you wise readers can suggest an idea.)

    Wednesday, December 12, 2012

    Video: What is Advent? (Gangnam Style)

    (HT to Catholic Youth Ministry Resources.)

    Tuesday, December 04, 2012

    Advent Ideas for Youth Ministry: Free Xmas Devotional

    Take time in Advent to slow down and reflect on the meaning of the season with this free resource. 

    Fellow youth minister Robbie Mackenzie has penned a nice selection of devotionals to use through the Advent season and up to Christmas. Though written to be used at home with the family, they would also be easily adaptable for use with a youth group or for private meditation. 

    Each day includes scripture, reflection, questions, and a prayer exercise. He has based them around weekly themes of waiting, expectation, joy and peace and them work best if you use them along with the lighting of an advent wreath. Read more here for this and additional Christmas resources from Robbie and download the devotional book here

    Amazing Video for Your Next Bible Study

    I'm a huge proponent of reading the Bible in context, recognizing the cultural, racial, moral, ethical, intellectual, colonial, gender, and sexual lenses that color everything we read in the Bible. (Which lenses did I leave out?)

    How often do we name our own biases when reading scripture? How often do we interpret a scriptural text as if it was written for us living in the 21st Century without noting that to those living in the first century the text may likely have meant something completely different? (Incidentally, this is the subject of a very interesting and accessible new book entitled Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien).  

    It seems to me that this video would be a great way to illustrate to students that how we interpret something has everything to do  with the perspective or vantage point from which we view it.  The objects in the video appear to be real three dimensional objects...until you change your vantage point.  Then they transform into an idea, a visual representation, a fake, an interpretation of an object, and so on. (You can download the Rubik's Cube image here, print it on 81/2x11 paper and try it for yourself.)

    Monday, December 03, 2012

    Advent & Christmas Ebook Still Available!

    My ebook Creative Youth Ministry Ideas for Advent and Christmas (2011) is still available if you didn't have a chance to purchase it this time last year. Heck, even I went back to pull ideas from it to use with our youth this December!
    In addition to offering some of the material scattered about this blog, now newly-edited and neatly repackaged into one ebook, you'll also find ideas never before published on the site.  This 66-page ebook includes Bible studies, games, discussion starters, art projects, song studies, and more.  All for the small price of $1.99. You can find out more information here. And keep checking back as new ideas for Advent and Christmas are on the way.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    Creative Project for Youth Ministry: Mandalas

    Try this creative mandala project as a way to help youth explore a variety of topics or as a contemplative prayer experience.

    Mandala is the Sanskrit word for "circle." In some faith traditions, the mandala represents the sacred, wholeness, and unity. The creation of a mandala is often used as a contemplative or prayerful practice with the focus on the process and not the end product. (I have seen video of Buddhist monks who spend hours creating elaborate mandala designs using colored sand, only to wipe them completely away as soon as they are completed).  

    In the activity pictured above, the mandalas were created using cardboard rounds. You can find these in craft stores or get them donated by your local pizza place. Participants were asked to contemplate the themes of brokenness and wholeness related to the practice of communion. In communion, we come to the table in our brokenness, knowing that God welcomes us as we are.  We literally break the bread. And then, we share the bread as one community, one body, and celebrate our wholeness and unity in God's love.  To explore this understanding, participants selected an image from a magazine that represented brokenness to them and glued those images to the center of their mandala. Group members chose images of war, hunger, natural devastation, and so on.  

    We then passed our mandalas to the person next to us and that person responded to our image of brokenness by finding a related image that they felt represented "wholeness" and gluing it to the outer edge of the mandala. We continued this process, passing the mandalas around the circle,  each person adding a wholeness image to everyone else's mandalas, until they came back around to the original creator. For a real challenge, do this entire process in prayerful silence.  Finish by inviting conversation about the original images of brokenness and how each person responded to those images.  Consider how we are called as Christians to both acknowledge our brokenness and work together to bring wholeness to a fragmented world. (Note: It was interesting in this experience to see how participants often had a different interpretation of the "brokenness" images and how this affected the image of wholeness they chose for each mandala. Reflecting on these different interpretations added to the richness of our closing discussion). 

    There are many ways to adapt this activity. Instead of using magazines, youth could draw or paint images or write words on their mandalas.  You could create mandalas that reflect prayer concerns of the group, things for which you are thankful, as a way to reflect on global needs, or as a response to a scriptural passage or story.  Another approach is to have each person complete their mandalas individually and then talk together about the process of praying through this visual and hands-on experience. 

    Guest Post: The God of the Mundane: Finding God in Caves, iPods and the Songs of Sparrows

    For this guest post, we welcome Stephen Ingram, author of the new text Hollow Faith: How Andy Griffith, Facebook and the American Dream Neutered the GospelStephen is the Director of Student Ministries at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL and is a lead consultant with Youth Ministry Architects.
    “When we place precedent on certain times and places to interact, worship and be held accountable to God, we are compartmentalizing God yet again, and now we also compartmentalize God in our understandings of life and social issues, in both time and space.

    It is incredible how the church, unknowingly, has raised so many people with the understanding that God has a cot and a pillow just above the choir loft.”

    From Hollow Faith- Stephen Ingram

    One of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Bible is the story of Moses and the burning bush.  It is an incredible story of God’s impeccable style, power and limitless ability to step into our seemingly mundane existence.  Moses, a wandering shepherd, is doing what he usually does: walking, herding, and probably being bored out of his mind.  The narrative tells us that he was on the far side of the wilderness near Mount Horeb.  Then the most mundane of practices, on the most mundane of days turned into something extraordinary.   I love the phrasing of that moment in the story.  It says that he saw that there was a fire and the bush was not being consumed, and then he looked and a voice began to speak to him. 
    Did you get that? 
    He SAW the fire… then he Looked… and heard the voice of God.
    All around us, every day we see the world, but are we really looking?  In her groundbreaking research, Ellen Langer, an author and Harvard Psychologist, writes about the phenomenon of not truly seeing and living in the world around us.  She coins the answer to this living as “mindfulness” She writes:

    “I think that people need to wake up and realize that basically we're - we've been sealed in unlived lives”

    The idea is that we walk around in an existence where we do not really engage in the world but have turned on auto-pilot in order to get through our seemingly mundane existences.  You have probably seen the videos where people are walking down a busy street on their morning commute and in their everydayness they fail to see the clown riding the unicycle juggling lit torches.  We do the same thing everyday and we have taught our youth to unintentionally do this with God.  
    When we perpetuate the idea that the primary place where God is found is within the walls of the church, we teach students to turn off that “mindfulness” and turn on their spiritual auto-pilot.  It is in the intentional process of mindful looking that we are more able to first see and then, as Moses, really look into the ordinary fire and find our extra-ordinary God. 

    My challenge is this: Stop having students believe that our God is relegated to chancels, pews and choir lofts and help them understand that we serve a God who brings significance to the most mundane and unlikely of places.  Help our students walk with a mindfulness that finds God in the caves, on their iPods and in the songs of sparrows.  Help our students realize that their God is all around them and that God is calling them to not simply see but to look.   

    Monday, November 12, 2012

    What Story Do You Have to Tell?

    With many young people now claiming the identity "spiritual but not religious," how do we help them find themselves within the Christian story?
    Here is a small mystery for you to solve:
    Dunn, North Carolina is a small town south of Raleigh. It has  14,000 residents, mostly blue collar workers.  The town’s latest pride and joy is the fact that it recently got its first Wal-mart.  Just a typical small American town – with one exception.  Almost everyone in town reads the local paper, the Daily Record. To be more accurate, “more than everyone in Dunn reads the paper.”[1] The Daily Record boasts a circulation of 112% -- the highest per capita circulation in the whole country.  For this to be happen, one of two things has to be true: 1) People from outside the town are buying the paper or 2) People in the town are buying more than one copy per household. But what could be so great about this small town paper that people would actually purchase multiple copies?

    The story of Dunn, North Carolina’s “Daily Record” is recounted in the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath.  The sibling co-authors were inspired by Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, which analyzes what it takes for a simple idea to “tip” and become a social or cultural phenomena. (Think about what had to happen to make pet rocks a fad in the 70’s or fanny packs the rage in the 90’s or why vampires and zombies are suddenly now so popular in today’s fiction and movies and you’ll have some notion of those ideas that have “tipped” over into the mainstream.)
    One item that the Heath brothers particularly latched onto in The Tipping Point was Gladwell’s assertion that new innovations are most likely to “tip” if they are sticky – in other words: Unforgettable, compelling – the kind of ideas that latch onto you.  So what does it take to make an idea “sticky?”

    Well, let’s go back to our little town of Dunn, North Carolina and its newspaper “The Daily Record.”  Any thoughts on why this little paper is such a huge success? It’s really pretty simple. 

    Friday, November 09, 2012

    Can "The Hobbit" Lead Teens to The Kingdom?

    How did I miss this obvious opportunity all these years to lead teens to the Kingdom of God by way of Middle Earth?
    In my latest essay at, I review The Christian World of The Hobbit, a new text by Tolkien scholar Devin Brown.  His book explores the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien's Catholic faith on his writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings:

    Brown's text deftly explores how Tolkien, a devout Catholic, deliberately chose not to turn his writing into an overbearing Christian allegory. Unlike his friend and contemporary, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was not interested in creating "Christian" fiction or in simply throwing a fantasy template over the top of otherwise obvious biblical stories. Instead, he sought to craft a tale that, in a sense, absorbed a Christian ethos. So there are no clear one-to-one correlations between the characters in Tolkien's Middle-earth and the Bible. Rather...Tolkien's Middle-earth stories are imbued with elements of grace, forgiveness, redemption, and faith because Tolkien himself lived a faith-saturated life.
    You can read the entire essay here.
    What do you think?  Could The Hobbit be useful in exploring Christian themes with youth?

    Monday, November 05, 2012

    Advent & Christmas Ebook for Youth Ministry

    Our ebook Creative Youth Ministry Ideas for Advent and Christmas (2011) is still available if you didn't have a chance to purchase it this time last year. In addition to offering some of the material scattered about this blog newly edited and neatly repackaged into one ebook, you'll also find  ideas never before published on the site.  This 66-page ebook includes Bible studies, games, discussion starters, art projects, song studies, and more.  All for the small price of $1.99. You can find out more information here. And keep checking back as new ideas for Advent and Christmas are on the way.

    Wednesday, October 31, 2012

    "iPad" Prayer Idea for Youth Ministry

    Try this iPad-inspired idea for offering youth a way to focus on prayer wherever they go.
    I recently shared on our Pinterest page the idea above for creating a "crafty" version of an iPad screen. The site that gives steps for creating this simulated iPad intended it to be used as a greeting card. I think it could be easily adapted into a prayer experience for youth. 
    They could create these together as part of a group meeting, each person making their own. Perhaps talk about the need to take time each day to "unplug" and focus on being present with God in prayer. Under each flap on the simulated iPad screen the teens could write words or ideas to help them focus on people and places to pray for or offer thanks.  Another option might be to cut out images from magazines to glue under the flaps.  Let them be inspired by the icons as they think about what they want to pray for on a daily basis.

    Monday, October 29, 2012

    Question of the Day: Why Church?

    At the recent Rethinking Youth Ministry event I led in Boulder, a question came up that any person leading ministry with youth in mainline and progressive churches probably needs to ask on a regular basis. It's a question we pose in our book Missional Youth Ministry: Moving from Gathering Teenagers to Scattering Disciples:
    "With all the energy we expend trying to attract youth to our churches with flashy and entertainment-centered programming, perhaps we've forgotten to ask why we want all of these teenagers there in the first place. More importantly, perhaps we've failed to offer our young people a strong, compelling reason to be at church beyond lock-ins and weekend retreats. What do we say if they ask us, 'Why come to worship? Why be a Christian? What difference does it make?'" (p. 22)
    What do you think?  For those of us who don't see eternal salvation as the central issue of Christianity, why do we want youth to be part of the Church and the faith? For those who do see salvation as the primary motivator for being a Christian, is there something more to following the faith than simply maintaining one's salvation?

    Should You Take Your Youth to a "Hell House?"

    In recognition that Halloween is almost upon us, I'd like to share one of our more popular posts from a few years back entitled "Top 10 Reasons to Host a Christian Hell House:"

    Hosting a Christian Hell House is all the rage right now with youth ministries across the country so I thought I'd share the top ten reasons you should consider hosting one yourself:

    1) It's the perfect way to scare people into joining your church and youth group!

    2) Can you think of a better vehicle this time of year for spreading Jesus' message of judgment and condemnation?

    3) By hosting your own scary event in your church,  you can show teens that. . .

    Ok. Who am I kidding? I can't come up with ten good reasons for hosting a Hell House. Heck, I can't even come up with three good reasons. More to the point, I could suggest a hundred reasons why this approach to evangelism is harmful not only to Christian youth but to the whole Christian cause of sharing the love of God through Jesus Christ. But don't take my word for it. See below just a smattering of comments from YouTube about the above trailer for a documentary depicting one church's year-round efforts to create their own "Hell House:"

    "These people are the epitome of all that is corrupt, dark and hopeless about the church and its bastardized beliefs"

    "Christianity is indeed all about fear."

    "Ah, the age old technique of terrifying people into submission. It's worked so well over the years and has resulted in so many people finding the kind of peace you can only get by brushing everything under the carpet."

    "ok let me just say im not an atheist, and i discriminate when it comes to personal beliefs. but dont they know that people shouldnt be scared into believing that there is a god? for them to "convert" they should go in willingly, because they feel its right and not out of pressure. this is just sad and disgraceful."

    Is this really the sort of reaction that we believe will open people's hearts to the Christian faith? To paraphrase one of the YouTube commenters, wouldn't it be better to host a "Happy House" where we portray Jesus' teachings about forgiveness, love, charity, peace, and justice? I realize those sorts of things aren't as sexy as screaming demons, bloody deaths, and violent shootings, but was Jesus' ultimate message about love or about a violent damnation that some think awaits the non-believer?

    And just as a final footnote -- I find it ironic/funny/sad that the cost of salvation is a cool $10 for those who want to attend the hell house of the church in the video clip above. All Jesus asked of Zacchaeus was a sandwich.

    UPDATE: To read the viewpoint of a someone who has actually been through a number of these hell houses, check out youth worker Jason Huffman's post here

    Thursday, October 04, 2012

    Great Deal on New Youth Ministry Text: "Hollow Faith"

    "What if we decided, in our churches, to enter into the real world together? What would it look like in our student ministries if we stopped playing the nice and bubbly Christian game and began to ask the difficult questions, to live in the uncertainty and not avoid contentious matters but embrace the complexity of them? from "Hollow Faith" by Stephen Ingram
    I am in the midst of reading the excellent text Hollow Faith: How Andy Griffith, Facebook and the American Dream Neutered the Gospel, a response to the National Study of Youth and Religion.  This brand new text comes from the recently-launched publishing arm of the Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT).  Stephen Ingram, the author, is Director of Student Ministries at Canterbury UMC in Birmingham, Alabama.  I've had the privilege of working with Stephen at one of CYMT's youth ministry think tanks and he is clearly one of the best progressive voices in mainline youth ministry today. Though I will be posting a full review soon, let me just share that this text offers a no-holds barred critique of the sort of cultural Christianity that we have, for too long, allowed to transform the teens in our ministries into luke-warm followers of the faith (at best).  Thankfully, Stephen offers not just a critique but a way forward that calls us to risk engaging in a more radical and, in many ways, ancient form of Christianity with our youth.

    I'd of course love to have others reading this book so we can all join in on the conversation with Stephen. To help you in that endeavor, CYMT is offering readers of Rethinking Youth Ministry the opportunity to purchase Hollow Faith (and other CYMT resources) at a 20% discount by following this link. But wait! There's more! CYMT will also give you a free Kindle Edition of another new resource -- Raising Teens in an Almost Christian World -- if you'll post a review of Hollow Faith on Amazon and email it to

    Wednesday, October 03, 2012

    5 Low-Tech (But Personal) Ways to Connect with Youth

    It this age of social media, staying in touch with our youth via email is now consider archaic.  Facebook is yesterday's news and texting only allows for the simplest of messages.  Want to really be cutting edge?  Go "old school" on your youth and reach out to them with something they probably would never expect: the personal touch.  Rather than hiding behind social media, try making contact with some of your youth each week through one of these low-tech options:

    1) Phone Call - Why not select a few of your youth each week and surprise them with a quick phone call?  You might be able to tell a whole lot more from the tone of their voice than you ever could reading a tweet.  Just take a few minutes to check in on them and let them know you were thinking about them.

    2) Affirmation Letter - Show you really know your teens. On a regular sheet of paper, write a student's name down the left margin of the page in large letters. Use each letter to write out a word or phrase that describes that teen's best gifts and qualities.  Another option is simply to write their name in the center of the page and then surround that name with all sorts of positive words to describe them.  (And, if you like to doodle like me, consider adding a little piece of original art to the page!) Next, just stick it in an envelope and mail it, no message necessary because the affirmation letter will say it all.

    3) Visit - At my last church, I actually took time at the start of my ministry to do home visits with all of the youth.  To be sure, some of the teens (and their families) were shocked and a little suspicious about why the youth pastor was visiting them at home.  No pastor had ever done that before!  But what a difference it made to just drop by for 15 minutes and see those teens in their home environment. If home visits aren't convenient, take some time to meet one-on-one with your youth at a local coffee shop or restaurant. 

    4) Pray - Keep a prayer calendar with different students' names written on each day of the month. Take time each day to stop and pray for a few of your youth, focusing both on why you are grateful for their presence in your ministry and how you might be called to help them in their walk of faith.

    5) Prayer Postcard - When you finish praying, simply write out a quick postcard letting the teen know you prayed for him or her and drop it in the mail.  Trust me -- it will make a difference in their lives to know they are connected to you and God through prayer even during their busy weeks at school.

    Any other low-tech ideas to share? 

    "Take What You Need" Prayer Station

    Just saw this on Pinterest and thought it was a great idea. It could be adapted and used for a prayer station or just something your youth could make and tape up at school, at church, at home...even on a telephone pole. 

    Monday, September 17, 2012

    Rethinking Youth Ministry Goes Live!

    Yes! Rethinking Youth Ministry is going live October 10-11, 2012 for a two day event in Boulder, Colorado. This Wednesday-Thursday retreat, sponsored by First Congregational Church, will be an opportunity to meet with Brian Kirk, co-author of this blog and the text Missional Youth Ministry, along with other youth ministry colleagues for some sabbath rest after the rush of the start of the school year.
    This two day youth ministry event is designed to lead participants through a discernment process, rethinking the basic assumptions of attractional youth ministry programs and offering a new way forward for a ministry with teens centered in mission, prayer, worship, study, and fellowship. You will be challenged to rethink your ministry and we'll offer tools for seeking new opportunities and new expressions of your ministry with teens.
    Registration cost is $179.00. Download a pdf flyer for the event here. You can find out more and register online here or you may contact Rev. Heather Haginduff.

    Thursday, September 06, 2012

    A Growing Youth Ministry is a Dying Youth Ministry

    "A growing church is a dying church.  It has to be.  It cannot be otherwise.  The way to Easter Sunday goes through Good Friday.  The way to the empty tomb goes through Golgotha.  The way to resurrection goes through crucifixion.  When Jesus told you to take up your cross and follow, did you expect it to lead anywhere else?  What Jesus told us about himself is also true of churches: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears no fruit."

    The above quote comes from a challenging essay making its way around the internet this week by J. Barrett Lee, a young pastor in New York. The focus of his essay, entitled "A Growing Church is a Dying Church," argues that churches expecting a pastor to make them grow are only fooling themselves.  Growth doesn't happen unless the people of the church allow God to work through them, and if a church wants to grow it actually has to be ready to die.  As new people come in and change necessarily happens, current members have to be ready to let go of the past, the "we've always done it this way" attitude, and allow the grain of wheat to fall and die so that something new can grow.  As I read this excellent essay, it immediately occurred to me that we need to ebrace the same attitude as we lead youth ministries within the Church.

    Too often I have worked in youth ministries where the same old  "one-size-fits-all" approach and calendar of events were used year after year: Big parking lot party for fall kick-off? Check!  Spirituality retreat in October at local campground? Check. Plan for cool mission trip location for the summer? Check! Bi-monthly lock-ins? Check! Start each meeting with games? Check! Separate groups for the middle schoolers and high schoolers? Check!  

    I've even served in youth ministries where there was a reluctance to invite in outside youth (those with no church home but also no connection to our church) because it was feared that an influx of new members might change the feel of the group or move our focus away from "our kids" to these newcomers.  I've also served in ministries where it was the youth themselves, particularly those who had been in the group for several years, who insisted that certain things had to happen a certain way every year because it was "tradition!" Never mind that those traditions only predated those youth by a year or so. 

    In contrast, imagine a youth ministry where every fall is like starting off with a new group, for indeed that is what happens!  Seniors have perhaps graduated and left, current members have each moved up a grade, adults leaders may have moved in or out of the group, and everyone's lives have moved ahead to new places.  Rather than trying to keep on doing the same old thing, we should be looking to understand the new needs of this current group of youth and how Gods' Spirit might be calling to each of them and your ministry in unique and new ways.  Ultimately, our ministries are about people and our connection with God -- not programs.  We have to be ready to let go of program and traditions that were important last year but which may not speak to the current ministry.  We need to be ready to help our youth participate in death and resurrection in their own lives as they continue to grow and understand who they are as children of God. Perhaps the best way to model this is to be open to death and resurrection within our churches and our youth ministries themselves.

    For more ideas on how to transition with your youth into this new school year (including a thought about actually having a funeral for last year's youth group), go here

    Monday, August 27, 2012

    Quote of the Day: On Short-Term Missions

    Even though summer is just now coming to a close, I know many youth ministry leaders are already thinking about short-term mission trips for next spring and summer. In light of that, I share with you a quote from Tim Ghali's Black Coffee Reflections blog. I noted this quote over a year ago and stumbled upon it again today and thought I'd share it because Tim offers a thoughtful rationale for what short-term mission experiences should be all about:

    To be completely honest though, I join the many who have always been concerned with the virtues of the short-term missions experience. Looking back on the last five years however, I think our response to the concern has been part of what has made these opportunities helpful. We tell students that they need to share their summer with others. We tell them to be faithful with the opportunities provided on the mission trip and to allow their hearts to be broken. We tell them later, that they can’t care for the homeless in New Orleans or the HIV patient in the Bahamas and curse their mother under their breath and ignore the socially marginalized in their school. In leaving our zip code, God has taught us a great deal about the people in it.

    Monday, August 20, 2012

    Free Resource: Peace Videos by Teens for Teens

    Voices of Peace from Hands of Peace on Vimeo.

    Check out this excellent set of videos by the youth organization Hands of Peace:

    "The mission of Hands of Peace is to foster long term peaceful coexistence among Jewish-Israelis, Arab Israelis, and West Bank Palestinians by bringing young people from the Middle East together with American teens in an interfaith setting. It strives to promote this mission by creating opportunities for the participants – young people from the Middle East, local teens, host families, staff, and volunteers – to seek the mutual understanding that comes from face to face encounters...."

    Monday, August 06, 2012

    Women in Youth Ministry Profile

    As part of our continuing series of profiles of women serving in youth ministry, we visit with Youth Director Sami Pfalzgraf of St. Charles, MO.  

    Sami began her work in Youth Ministry in Omaha, Nebraska after she graduated from Luther College in 2003 with a degree in Psychology. She has been at St. John United Church of Christ in St. Charles, MO since 2007. In addition to directing the Youth Ministry, Sami occasionally preaches during the Sunday worship services and supervised the Children Ministry for three years. Sami has a passion for mission trips and has conducted many trips all over the United States for Middle and High School youth.

    Our "Women in Youth Ministry" series highlights the invaluable work women are doing in ordained, licensed, and lay youth ministry even as the majority of the Church worldwide still refuses to allow women to serve in pastoral roles.   You can read previous profiles in this series here.

    What do you find most enjoyable about ministry with youth in the Church?

    The most enjoyable part of youth ministry is the youth. I love watching them grow in their faith; wrestling with the hard questions. My goal is to help youth figure out what they believe and why they believe it. I love encouraging them to get outside their boxes. God doesn’t have to be a white male with a long grey beard up in the clouds. I love challenging their image and character of God so that they get a better understanding of God and then can talk to others about it in an open and loving way. However, it’s hard to find curriculum that doesn’t wrap everything up in a nice package. I want curriculum that asks difficult questions and allows the youth to figure out the answer. That is why I write most of my own curriculum and get feedback from the youth and leaders. I honestly think they are as picky as I am with curriculum. 

    What do you find most challenging about ministry with youth in the Church?
    I think one of the biggest challenges is changing the way churches see youth. They can do more than serve food, clean, and do service work. They can lead worship, be on committees that make major decisions, and they can be in Bible study classes of all ages. I think churches do youth a disservice when the youth room is in the back room where no one can hear them. Youth really don’t want to be separated from adults; they want to feel a part of the group. Youth and children should never be paraded in front of the congregation, letting them know we have youth and children in the church. There are better and more intentional ways of incorporating young people into the life of the church and worship. That should be high on ever youth worker’s priority list.

    What shifts or changes would you like to see in youth ministry in the next decade?
    I would like to see a shift towards a more “missional” youth ministry; if I can borrow from Brian [Kirk], where food, fun and fellowship are partnered with spiritual disciplines and relevant, engaging Christian education. However, first it’s really difficult to figure out what that looks like, and second, it can be hard to actually make that a part of the ministry in a way that doesn’t turn youth and parents off. I would like to see veteran Youth Leaders mentoring less experienced leaders to help them answer these concerns. My pet peeve is when I ask a question and someone gives me a book. Thanks for the suggestion, but I want your answer and to talk to you about it because you have more knowledge and experience than I do. Please talk to me!

    What advice might you give to those just starting in youth ministry? To those who have been at it as long as you?
    I wish I could mentor every new youth worker to not make the mistakes that I did. When you begin your ministry at a church, wait and honor those that have come before you. Don’t go in making huge changes. Be patient, listen, learn the church’s culture and history, create relationships with the church so that they trust you when you do decide to make changes. However, make changes slowly! The only thing that likes change is a wet baby. Also, watch what you say. Words can be used for good or evil and the walls at church have ears. Use your words wisely, even when you think no one is listening. For both new and veteran leaders, balance your time. It’s a never ending battle but Doug Fields was right when he cautioned for every yes you say, you’re saying no to something else. Find that balance between life and work and strive to keep it. One thing to help you balance is a strong volunteer team. You are not alone. Find leaders that are strong in areas you are weak and whom you can work with, well. Then, trust them and let them go to do ministry, after you have trained them, of course. A strong leadership team is vital to the ministry and your sanity.

    Interested in being profiled in our "Women in Youth Ministry" series? We'd love to hear from you.


    Wednesday, August 01, 2012

    Free "Hunger Games" Resource for Youth Ministry

     This fall our church is planning on offering a small group for teens and adults that looks at The Hunger Games from a faith perspective. 

    Fortunately, I just came across this free and very useful resource for helping youth explore faith-related issues in The Hunger Games.  This guide, available as a free download from Seedbed, is promoted as  "a how-to book. It is not about how to physically survive the Hunger Games. It is about how to engage the questions that develop out of reading the books and watching the movies. This is not a study of the movie, or a study of the Bible, but a series of questions and activities designed to challenge students to think more theologically and philosophically about some of the issues of our time." 

    Created by a seminary student with a background in youth ministry, this guide covers such topics as hunger, families, and violence in a format that includes an overview of the story, discussion questions, quotes, biblical texts, and ideas for action.

    It is also available for Kindle.  

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012

    Cool Ideas for Camp 2012: Prayer Loom

    Try this idea to provide your youth with a creative way to share their prayers at camp.

    Camp provides the perfect opportunity to help youth and adults experience prayer in a different way using elements of the outdoor setting.  You can build the prayer loom pictured below by lashing together several branches using twine. More twine is then strung vertically to create the loom surface.  Provide particpants with strips of cloth, paper, and other colorful materials along with some fabric pens or markers. Invite them to write their prayers on the strips and then to work together to weave them across the loom as a symbol of the ways our prayers weave us together within God. (Those wishing to keep their prayers private can weave them into the loom upside down or simply pray over a strip of cloth or paper before adding it to the others).

    A nice adaptation of this idea would be to create a loom by stringing twine between two small trees standing several feet apart.  If you create the loom early in the week, campers can add to it throughout your time time together. Perhaps at the end of the week you could invite campers to each take home a prayer from the loom.

    Thursday, June 14, 2012

    Question of the Day: Should We Force Youth to Go to Church?

    Should we force youth to go to church?

    The professional pastor in me says "Yes, of course! How else will we ever have a chance to teach them about the gospel and Jesus and Church?"  But the former teen in me says "Wait a minute.  That's not how it happened with you.  Nobody made you go to church as a teen."

    It's true.  My parents dutifully took us to church as children. My brothers and I went through confirmation and then decided we hadn't heard enough yet -- we weren't ready to join.  Then a falling out with our youth ministers in middle school ended with my brothers and I dropping youth group and church altogether. For the next four years, my parents never made us go to church...and we didn't, even though my dad was a retired pastor who continued to go every Sunday.  

    Then, a funny thing happened. In my senior year of high school, somewhere around early spring, some friends invited us to visit their Sunday night youth group meeting.  My twin brother and I went, we liked it, and we kept attending.  The group was preparing to go on a mission trip. We had not been around for the fundraising and planning but the youth pastor said "It doesn't matter. You are welcome to join us."  So we went on the trip -- which turned out to be the experience that influenced me to go into teaching and eventually the ministry.  I haven't been out of the church since. While all my friends were dropping out of church during college (some never to reengage), I was returning to the Church ready to get my hands dirty for Jesus.  But my devotion was not a result of my parents pushing or forcing me to attend Sunday services or youth group meetings.  Rather, I attribute my longevity in the Church to a personal decision I made on my own and without coercion at the age of eighteen to choose a life of faith.  

    Does this mean I'd like to see all the youth in my church drop out and wait a few years before deciding whether or not to come back? Well, no, but it does make me wonder: We expect teens to wait until they are older to make lots of important decisions. Why not do the same with the decision to commit to a life of faith?  

    What do you think? 

    Tuesday, June 12, 2012

    Cool Ideas for Camp 2012: Floating Prayers

    Suzy Bower shares a cool idea on her blog that would be great for a worship experience at camp if you have a creek, lake or pond: 

    People write down things they want to let go of. This could be a number of things such as regrets they are holding onto, people or situations they overly worried about, or a goodbye to someone who has died. Once this has been written, make a boat out of the paper. Take it to a river, and voilĂ  - a simple but potentially powerful act to symbolise letting these things go. For a Christian audience, the focus could be on letting them go and trusting God with them. Or the letters could be written to ask for forgiveness from God for things. Perhaps you could read a poem or Bible verses, or say a prayer as the boats float away.

    She gives more details on her site as well as directions for turning the written prayers into floatable origami boats.  (Note: You may want to make plans for retrieving the boats after the worship or be sure to use biodegradable paper and ink.)

    7 Ways to Ruin Your Church Camp

    This is a an update of one of our most popular posts for several years ago on the best things to do if you want to guarantee that some of your teens  (and new staff members) have a really terrible experience at church camp:

    1) Play games the first day that force physical interaction. Nothing will ensure that your shy teens and introverts have a terrible start to camp like making them participate in icebreakers and community builders the first day that force them to do things like getting tied into a human knot with a bunch of strangers or build a human pyramid. Those "repeat everyone's name in order" games are pretty intimidating, too. (Interaction is important, of course, but don't force it and don't introduce too much too fast. Community builders are great but it's important to allow the introverts to opt out as needed...within reason. My suggestion is to start with activities that are low threat -- like the "Would you rather" sort of games where there's not a lot of physical interaction and no single person has to be the focus of attention-- and then you work up to those more elaborate team-building games as the teens get to know each other.)

    2) Do skits/pranks where someone is the butt of the joke. Don't you just love those camp skits where some unsuspecting teen gets a bucket of water dumped on his head (or down his pants) or a whipped cream pie pushed in her face? Don't you just love those pranks where the new kid gets his clothes thrown on the roof of the cabin and shampoo in her sleeping bag? (Well, many people don't. Even if the "victim" laughs and plays along, s/he may quietly resent being ridiculed for everyone else's amusement. I could write a book about the problem with camp pranks, but let's move on...)

    3) Sing songs the first few days to which only alumni campers/staff know the words.
    How much fun is it going to camps where there are those clever gimmick songs ("Star-Trekkin!") that only the teens who have been coming to that camp for 3 years know the words! Enjoy the hilarity as everyone else has to awkwardly stand around and just listen or else prove they are "one of the group" by anxiously memorizing the words by the end of the week! This approach will serve to alienate new members of the camp community and send a loud message: "You don't belong...yet."
    (Of course, shared songs are important. I didn't mean to imply you shouldn't sing old songs. But include everyone by providing written lyrics on paper or powerpoint so everybody can participate from the beginning. ) Which leads us to #4...

    4)Perpetuate inside jokes and "remember when" stories from camps past.
    Nothing is funnier than the counselors reminding everyone about "that wacky thing Phil did in the girl's cabin last year" or "the talent show skit that got Cindy into trouble with the staff," even though none of the younger campers have any idea what everyone is laughing at! (Again, this a great way to send the message "We of the inner circle have a history together. You gotta earn your way into the inner circle here by putting in your time.")

    5) Encourage talent show acts that promote stereotypes and prejudices. What's a talent show without ethnic stereotypes: the napping Mexican in a sombrero, the "swami" with his head wrapped in a towel speaking gibberish. And don't forget the unwritten law that there must be camp talent show acts where guys dress in drag. (Ever stop to consider that for some teens, cross-dressing may be a reality in the life of a parent, relative, or friend...or may even be part of their developing gender identity?). And that leads us to #6...

    6) Make a big deal about "purpling!" You know how it goes: boys are "blue" and girls are "pink" and if they get too close (e.g. amorous hugging, kissing, girls in the boys cabin and vice versa) they make "purple!" Talking about this a lot, particularly making a joke out of it, helps sends a silent message that we all know that everyone at camp is really fixated on hooking up and finding a date for the Friday night dance. (Consider that too much talk about this might alienate the youth who are not sexually mature and just came to camp to have fun. It also may send confusing and often alienating signals to youth at camp who are not heterosexual or who are not certain of their sexual identity yet. Perhaps consider including rules about "double blues," and "double pinks.")

    7) Program every minute of the week. Youth live over-programmed lives. Why shouldn't camp be the same way? (Maybe because one of the ways to make camp unique and special is to provide space for youth to be quiet, to hang out, to experience Sabbath, to just "be" for awhile without any more stimuli than the feel of the breeze and the sounds of bees buzzing.)

    Want to add any others?