Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris

The disciples, (as Rob Bell points out in this NOOMA video) at least some of them, were young, maybe 15, 16 years old. And yet God used teenagers to change the world.

The Harris brothers are rebelling against low expectations set for teens and encourage others as well. The book breaks down the myth of teenagers and what they can do to challenge themselves and to really undertake difficult circumstances that will help them to grow and mature.

Read the first chapter here. Read a review here and here. Download the book’s study guide here.  Check out their popular website and blog here. Listen, read, and/or watch a sermon by John Piper on the subject of teenagers here. Buy the book here.

Dancing Jesus: Why The Church Has Failed The Youth — Part III

(Read Part I and Part II)

Youth Ministry is Done in Families

It’s difficult showing churches and ministries the benefits of shifting the focus from a segmented community to a Family that fosters numerous mature adult relationships.

As Chap Clark, author of Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers expresses, “Young people are desperate for an adult who cares.” He explains that “the foundational reason behind separation between the adult world and the world of adolescents is that society has abdicated its responsibility to nurture the young into adulthood.”

Unfortunately churches do the same thing.

“This generation feels separated,” says Clark Blakeman, Pastor of Community Relations at Imago Dei Community Church in Portland, Or. Blakeman was asked by senior pastor Rick McKinley to help with the vision for the youth ministry at Imago Dei. Blakeman had served as a youth pastor for the past 8 years in the Portland area.

“One of the things that would be a distinctive of the youth ministry here,” says Blakeman, “was to integrate it into the life of the whole. Without letting go of the fact that teens are in a special place in their life and do need special attention.”

“The teens have their own thing, but they’re also invited into the other things in the church. We are constantly inviting the youth to participate in those.”

Blakeman admits, “It take a little bit to change people’s thinking or approach about it. We’re trying to bring them in, but it’s a little bit slow.”

The idea of youth involved with the larger story of the ministry is foreign to many churches. But we can’t expect our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow if a family or community isn’t leading them.

“Instead of one adult relationship for every five teenagers we should be thinking in terms of five positive adult relationships for one teenager,” said Blakeman. “I think that’s key.”

Blakeman said when he began his first youth ministry position he saw that there was “definite segregation” among the youth and the larger church body.

“We made one shift [in the ministry] that was real significant.” said Blakeman, “And that was including parents.”

It isn’t easy shifting a youth ministry to a family focus. I met a young youth pastor at a northwest church who wanted to start a father-son bible study. When he brought the idea before the parents the idea was met with enthusiasm. But when no fathers showed up to the first study he realized that the father’s were too busy to participate. When he approached about the matter they had work and other family obligations and didn’t have time. The young man was exasperated.

Another youth pastor was amazed at the involvement of the mother’s in the youth ministry, but when he saw the rebellious behavior of the young women he began to ask questions. He realized the mother’s were too involved with the ministry, in organizing events and planning, they didn’t take time for the relationships with their daughters.

Frank Brown’s approach to ministering to the youth in his church began with the parents.

“I went to the parents,” said Frank Brown. “And told them if they wanted youth group then they need to be involved.”

When parents are involved the dynamics change. When godly older men lead younger men and when godly older women lead younger women it creates a stronger family. It creates a grounded and supported youth, marked for long-term success on the basis that their faith is firm and they don’t walk alone with only their friends, maybe a parent, or a youth pastor if he can fit you in for coffee on Tuesday (“How about a rain check?”).

According to Phil Schwadel and Christian Smith in Portraits of Protestant Teens: A Report on Teenagers in Major U.S. Denominations:

“Almost three-quarters of Protestant parents who attend church at least a few times a year (73 percent) say that ministry to teens is a very important priority in their churches, suggesting that over a quarter of Protestant parents feel that their churches are not placing a high priority on ministry to teens.”

This study doesn’t mention the amount of involvement by the parents, but it does show that families are interested in the well being of their children and do hope that the church is a part of the faith formation and growth in their lives.

A study by the University of Illinois, in the September 07 issue of Development Psychology reported 40 percent of students in faith-based groups said they “got to know people in the community,” compared to 20 percent of students in other organized activities. And 46 percent of teens in faith-based groups reported “This activity improved my relationship with my parents” versus 21 percent of students in other activities.

Giving Hope

A seven-year-old boy sits next to me flipping through his Pokeman cards.

“Which one is your favorite?” he asks me.

I point to a cool piranha looking one.

“Here you can have it.” He starts pulling it out of the plastic.

His parents don’t live together anymore. He only comes to church when it’s his mother’s week to have him. He is rambunctious and wild with a high probability of becoming a troubled child, the product of an unsupported and fragmented home life.

“Here,” he says. “You can have it.” He puts the card in my hand and smiles and jumps off his seat.

What if he becomes like the lonely young man at the church youth event, wishing he had someone in his life to care enough about his problems, someone who would listen.

Maybe the church, our families, leaders, communities need to be more like the little boy. Placing in our youth’s hands the hope and faithfulness, trust and support, love and encouragement God offers us all.

“Here,” we can say, “You can have it.”

Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part 3 here.

Dancing Jesus: Why The Church Has Failed The Youth — Part II

(Read Part I here)

Part II

Mature Leadership Within the Church Family

It’s scary to think of the corporations that we rely on in our daily lives as money hungry monsters and it’s even scarier when we can relate them to the institution of our church. 

One of the major flaws of institutions (take for example McDonalds) is that the weakest link is where the business meets the customer. CEO’s and managers, with years of education and experience, make major decisions on marketing strategy and where to build buildings, and they go into painstaking detail on the concept and execution, but when the consumer and business actually meet it’s with the most inexperienced and uneducated employee of the corporation. For McDonalds it’s the teenage high school drop out that interacts with the customers and performs the transactions.

As the body of Christ, where the individual meets Jesus and the Church, that point of contact needs to be the strongest, deepest, most mature devout Christians (plural emphasized) to meet and walk with that person.

“We’ve used the business model for the church, instead of the extended family model,” said Frank Brown.

Then why are so many new or young pastors beginning in youth ministry? Why give the most inexperienced leaders to the most inexperienced Christians? Where are the elders, the parents, the mature adults? Many churches give the youth ministry to young pastors as a sort of starting ground, a way to work up the ladder. Yet very rarely are wisdom and youth contained in the same person. Why give the gems of our young leaders to the most inexperienced?

This is also a problem of many youth ministries. They are isolated from the church family and many are lead by inexperienced and/or immature Christians. In Bible college I could walk through campus and immediately point out the individuals majoring in youth ministry based on personality and clothing style. It was an unfair stereotype. But unfortunately it was often true.

Success Not in Numbers

Entertainment is our attempt to appeal to culture. It’s a tool to increase numbers. The problem with numbers is that it’s short-term success. Success shouldn’t be measured in growth or numbers. Success shouldn’t even be measured. Our Western mindset entices us to make the youth a product. We’re not willing to develop theological thinkers for fear it won’t keep numbers up.

Parents carry a baby for the first few years of their life but the baby doesn’t produce anything. And yet we look for performance from our youth to rate the successes of our ministries instead of developing, nurturing, leading, and growing them within the family.

Real success is long-term. When the young man or woman that a youth pastor spent hours praying for and teaching and leading returns 10, 20, 30 years later with his or her family and their spouse affirms youth ministries impact in their life. That’s success. That beats out large numbers any Sunday.

Our consumer driven culture can perceive the church as a product. What can it give me? And too often we bow to the demand with entertainment. Youth ministry should be fun and creative, but novelty is being taken to the extreme when entertainment is the focus. Every youth leader can attest to searching the web for new games, or icebreakers, or ideas, or anything to keep kid’s attention. Then when real life hits and the “cool entertaining Jesus” they met in their youth group doesn’t take care of life’s problems then Jesus, God, and the Bible are no longer relevant.

The difficulty is convincing churches and ministries to shift the focus from a segmented one to a family oriented one that fosters numerous mature adult relationships.

Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part 3 here.

Dancing Jesus: Why the Church Has Failed the Youth — Part I

Part I

“I want someone I can tell my problems to.”

When I heard this from a sophomore male during a group prayer at a recent youth event I was shocked for a number of reasons. One, I could relate. Two, he shouldn’t be alone. Here in this moment he shared a deep longing in his heart neither I (only a helper for the weekend), nor the youth pastor, nor his father, nor any other mature Christians in the church were filling. He had very little sense of belonging, of support, and of direction.

Why? Why was he so alone yet so surrounded? What are we surrounding our youth with these days that they still feel alone even among friends, activities, games, and youth events? This young man epitomizes an unfortunate trend in today’s youth ministry, where the youth feel isolated, alone, and in need of something more.

Patricia Hersch in her book A Tribe Apart describes the scene of kids going to school in her town,

“Out there on the corner, even my own children fall into the shadows as they join their peers in another world before my eyes. They have stepped inside the adolescent community, a perplexing place where kids these days are growing up among themselves, out of the range of adult vision. I run past the bus several times as it goes from stop to stop, and I am aware of how distant they seem, how separate. I wonder why and whether anybody else cares.”

My heart turned when I read this. And I wanted to say I care, Christians care, the Church cares. But then I wondered if I, they, we really do.

Starving for Something More

Youth ministry has become the equivalent of the kiddy-table at Thanksgiving dinner. The miniature plastic picnic table with plastic cups and forks and knives and if she bats her eyes at grandma and insists then the Cinderella teapot also. Towards the end of the meal heaps of red Jell-O and cranberry sauce are cuddling with the carpet, and mounds of mashed potatoes and yams and steamy gravy are here, there, and everywhere. It’s a mess. So the adults send over young cousin Bobby or Sarah to keep them under control. And the same mess happens only instead of the adults cleaning it up it’s Bobby and Sarah’s responsibility.

“The form of the church is cockeyed,” says Frank Brown, a pastor in Dallas, Oregon for the past 25 years. “A lot of things [in youth ministry] are just entertainment. We have fragmented our youth from the extended family and created a sub-family.” Brown began his ministry as a youth pastor in the San Francisco area.

“I preached straight Bible doctrine,” says Brown about his first youth ministry position. “It was about the word of God. When you can create appetites in your kids it becomes a runaway train.” By the time Brown left his first youth ministry a year later he was drawing more numbers then the actual church. “It was kind of embarrassing,” Brown admits.

Brown said he taught the kids to serve. They would visit drug rehab centers, and group homes (the ones with the least visitors), and they would send letters to the elderly in the church.

“Teaching of life skills and service is important,” says Brown. “That’s an important part of what youth ministry should be about.”

Youth ministries today are entertainment driven, a higher-level daycare of rafting trips, water balloon nights, lock-ins, pizza, movies, candy, and games. But churches end up competing for kid’s time against school activities like sports or band and all the other activities where parents rush to and fro to drop off and pick up and rush off again.

Churches are isolating the youth. Instead of adopting them and leading them into the church family. Youth ministries have their own pastor, sometimes their own building, and even their own services. It’s the youth here, and the “big people” over there.

“Without a proper view of God, you can’t meet people’s needs,” says Dr. Marty Trammell. “I think if you’re going to meet kids’ needs you have to teach theology. [Youth ministry] is put your arm around the person and let them know you’ve been there.”

Trammell is known as the “Love Doctor” on campus of Corban College in Salem, Ore. where he is a Humanities Professor and author of Redeeming Relationships. Trammell, also the Family and Youth Pastor of Valley Baptist of Perrydale, Or. began his ministry as a youth pastor. Trammell said he incorporated early, a family-oriented approach to youth ministry.

“By the time they’re 13 they’re apart of the adult community,” says Trammell. “They’re an adult now, we want them to be thinking like that. The older men and women sit down and talk with the teenagers. They don’t come to me and say this young person is having a problem. They first go to them. There is a lot of encouragement.”

Trammell also emphasizes parental involvement in the youth activities. Asking the father’s to speak at least once to the youth group.

“I think if you spend more time with the youth group you find your kids are easier to live with. You see dad’s and mom’s grow. The dad’s can [grow to] teach because they learned to teach in the youth ministry.”

Trammell unveiled to me the cover for his book before it was released, asking me if I understood the images’ symbolism: a zipper. It was fitting for the subject of his book as well as fitting for the subject of re-integrating youth into the family and community of our churches, especially their own families.
Families are designed to be a heaven on earth and when youth’s families don’t provide that then the church must.

A high school girl called me crying recently. We met for coffee and sat outside of the 24 hour Starbucks in the cold weather. I listened as she told me under tears and sobs about her mother’s second divorce, about her friend in prison, and the guy she just broke up for the second time.

I say this only to set up what she told me about her church. She said she would go to her church’s meetings and push for more effort to be put into the youth group. She made suggestions and gave advice. The pastors and the elders of the church told her she should lead it then.

This is often our church’s attitude to the youth. Go and do your own thing, they say. And so the youth do, creating a fragmented sub-culture.

When I was in high school I helped run the weekly outreach program at my youth group. I came with the idea of Club X. We turned the building into a club scene with loud music and spiraling lights and a juice bar. We did our own thing. We entertained ourselves. And it was pointless without the rest of the family. It was empty entertainment, if that. As our youth entertain themselves they are hurting, lonely, and isolated. Broken off from the rest of the church.

“I just want someone I can tell my problems to.” What does entertainment do when our youth are eager for something more?

Read Part I here. Read Part II here. Read Part 3 here.

Dancing Jesus

I linked my way through to an interesting blog called Once a Youth Pastor… and I found that I shared many of the same sentiments towards youth ministry. I’ve been a youth minister for about a year and a half and my views and philosophy about youth ministry, in general, haven’t changed. I think they’ve actually been reinforced by my experience. I mention this to prepare for my upcoming series about youth ministry entitled “Dancing Jesus: Why the Church Has Failed the Youth”. In the mean time read this post and then come back for the series.