lonely boy.2

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 9

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content
and part 7: self-centered and perpetual now
and part 8: when to “back off” on parenting
(btw: this is the last installment. enough already, right?)

lonely boyQuestion: Our middle school grade son seems to have no real friendships. And I’m not even sure he wants them. Is this normal? Are there things my husband and I should be doing?

First, it’s important to know that this is a very normal situation for a young teen boy. In fact, it has become substantially more common over the past decade or so. So, your son isn’t “abnormal” on this one. It’s normal and natural for a young teen, even one who had friends as a child, to struggle as they move (a developmentally normal and good move) from forming friendships based on proximity (“You and I are friends because we live near each other or spend a lot of time in the same place”) to forming friendships based on affinity (“You and I are friends because we like the same things, or have the same values”).

But, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy situation. As a youth worker, it’s been one of greatest new concerns I’ve had for my students in the last ten years. Boys, particularly (girls also, but to a lesser degree), are not learning the skills of friendship. Historically, I don’t think we thought of children and teenagers as needing these skills–friendship just came naturally to them! But today’s 10 – 14 year old is so often isolated, they’ve not learned the skills of friendship in their day-to-day lives.

Boys are naturally less expressive than girls (especially at this age). And our culture has told them “the strong, silent type” is a great male archetype. Even the U.S. Army, which, ironically has learned – out in the field – that soldiers can only succeed in teams, has been advertising this notion like crazy for a several years with their “Army of One” campaign.

Add to these cultural notions the fact that today’s young teens have reaped most parents’ desire to “cocoon”, by having a house-full (or more likely these days, a bedroom-full) of toys intended for solo use: television or laptop, video-gaming systems, music players. Not that these things are all bad. But the fairly normal overuse of them has greatly contributed to this “loner” trend.

So, what can you do? Here are a few ideas:

• Encourage friendship groups. Often, the safest place for a boy to learn about friendship is in a group, not in a one-on-one friendship. Hopefully, one of the best places for this is in a healthy and active middle school program at your church. I know many parents who have chosen their church based on this factor alone!

• Service potential friendships. When you see any spark of potential friendship for your son, find ways to subtely encourage that spark. This doesn’t mean talking about it like crazy! (that will only lead to retreat for most boys.) Instead, offer to drive them somewhere; suggest fun ideas for excursions and make them possible. Also, make sure you home is a “safe” place for your son to have a friend over: a place where he won’t be embarrassed or treated like a little kid in front of his friends.

• Encourage your son, but don’t nag. When your son spends time with a friend (or potential friend), say something positive–but keep it short and sweet. Lengthy speeches will feel like pressure or nagging, and will backfire on you.

• Pray like crazy!

old marko

how to become a veteran youth worker

old markorecently, a youth worker messaged me, asking for insight in how to last in youth ministry. i think the actual question was, “how does one survive in youth ministry and become a veteran youth worker?”

my response. your thoughts? additions?

After 33 years in youth ministry, there are a few things i’m seeing about survival and thriving as a veteran:

  1. My passion and calling hasn’t changed, but my role and relationships have to grow and change with age. As a young youth worker, I was in an “older brother” relationship with teenagers. In my 30s, my relationship with them was like that of an uncle. These days, I really am a sort of surrogate parent. I need to exercise wisdom about how to maximize the opportunities that provides and be cautious of the limitations. Nothing is more lame than a 50 year-old youth worker trying to pretend that he’s 23 years old.
  2. I have also needed to see my vision and role shift in relationship to other workers. As I got more experience (and years!), I find that some of my best ministry is equipping and empowering younger youth workers. Veteran youth workers often move into a role of multiplication, seeing my ministry calling mostly lived out through youth ministry volunteers who are half my age. I don’t want to lose touch with actual teenagers, so I stay in relationship with teens also; but my greatest impact is through others.
  3. I’ve had to learn to say “no.” At my age, there are simply aspects of youth ministry that I am not best equipped for, or not interested in doing.
  4. Finally–and this is true for youth workers of all ages, but no one will become a veteran youth worker without learning this–I have to realize that being in youth ministry does not mean that my soul will be taken care of. If i’m not intentional about continued spiritual growth in my life, I’ll either burn out or have nothing meaningful and authentic to offer.
young teen and parent

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 8

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content
and part 7: self-centered and perpetual now

young teen and parentQuestion: When should I start to back off and be less engaged in actively parenting my young teen?

In one sense (and you all know this), you’re never done being a parent. I still seek out advice from my parents, and I’m 51. And of course, parenting teenagers has stretched well into (and sometimes through) the 20something years in most cases. Adolescence has extended on both ends of its age delineators.

But I have a couple theories I’d like to suggest you consider reality…

First, you should make this assumption: by the time your child is in high school, most of your parenting is done. That’s not to say that you still don’t have a very important role in her life–you do! But it’s normally a bit late to “change course.” Parenting an older teen (or young 20something) is more about “staying the course.” It’s more about continuing to model what you’ve already set in place.

You might be thinking, I’m can barely catch my breath, and I’m supposed to start thinking about the high school years? Fair enough. But the reality I just proposed adds significant weight to this next reality:

You’re on the last lap. Or, maybe the second-to-last lap.

These tender years of 9 – 11 (pre-teen) and 11 – 14 (young teen) are some of the most formative years of life. Kids are still extremely moldable, changeable, open. But as they settle into their mid-teen, change come less and less often. This is why I always joke with middle school ministry workers that we are still in “preventive ministry”, while high school work is often “corrective ministry.”

What does a long-distance runner do in the final lap or two? Think of the finish line. Calibrate what needs to take place in this diminishing space. Then recalibrate. Continue to pace yourself and recalibrate again.

Don’t forget these two extremely important facts:

  1. You are still the #1 influence in the life of your child at this age.
  2. The almost-absurd amount of change going on in the life of your young teen places them at a small timeframe of massive malleability (yes, I realize it doesn’t always seem that way – but it’s true).

These two facts combine to make these final laps of the parenting race some of the most important of your God-given role.

So don’t throw in the towel. Don’t concede. Don’t abdicate your role to the church or culture or your young teen’s peer group. Let God fill your lungs with a fresh air of strength and courage. And take another step. And another.

18 UG9ydHJhaXQgb2YgYm95XzMyLmpwZw==

childlike

“I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
as the boys who made the hallowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
when I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
and I want to be everything sometimes too:

childlikebut I don’t tell the grown-ups; because it is sad,
and I want them to laugh just like I do
because they grew up and forgot what they knew
and they are sure I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong. When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold, I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me, I will always be new!”

–Delmore Schwartz (quoted in exuberance, by Kay Redfield Jamison)


hey, youth workers: don’t get so caught up in the frenzy of summer programs that you forget to be childlike.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

jesus-walking-on-water-kinda

the real jesus

Yeezus or Sheezus, whatevs. My own images of Jesus haven’t been much better. Here’s my latest column from Youthwork Magazine (UK), where I unpack that a bit:

The Real Jesus

I grew up in church, a mostly-good kid and all. Sunday School every week from the day I left the nursery. So I heard my share of Bible stories; I heard my share of Jesus stories.

One of my favorites was always the story of Jesus walking on the water. I can still picture—I mean, really, I have the picture in my mind right now—the flannel graph images of Jesus hovercrafting in his pretty blue robe across a glassy bit o’ blue. (Flannel graph, by the way, was the archetypal Sunday school teaching technology back in the day: little die-cut foreground figures—people, boats, the occasional tree—with a felt backing that quickly and neatly stuck to flannel backgrounds with various nondescript Bibleland topographies. My mother-in-law still possesses one of the world’s most complete collections of mint-condition flannel graph paraphernalia. Seriously, her stuff should become the main attraction in a Sunday school museum someday.)

jesus on the water, croppedBack to the hovercrafting Jesus…

In my frozen mental image, Jesus is white and nicely coiffed (seriously, when we reinvented Jesus as white, I’m surprised no one thought to reinvent his hair into a more church-y level of appropriateness—maybe a nice TV-evangelist-combover). And he’s scooching (seriously, “hovercrafting” is the best word I can think of) in the middle of day, across an idyllically calm body of water. Sometimes, in my childhood image, he has one hand raised halfway, about chest-high, in either a sort of blessing, or a casual wave (“Hey, dudes, relax, it’s me.”).

I’m sure that by the time I reached my teens, I knew this flannel-backed image of Jesus walking on the water wasn’t quite accurate. But there it simmered, percolating in my spiritual subconscious.

I’m sure that, during my time at a Christian college and graduate school, I at least knew that Jesus wasn’t white, would have walked rather than hovercrafting, and a few other tweaks. But I didn’t let that spoil my childhood picture.

I’m even sure that after years of being a youth worker and telling this story, I knew that there were more inaccuracies—like the status of the water (I clearly remember a retreat speaker I’d hired doing the single worst rap I’d ever heard in my life about how the boat was buffeted by the ways: b-b-b-buffeted… b-b-b-buffeted.).

But I allowed my childhood image to exist, encased behind psychic Plexiglas in the museum of my mind.

I remember—the experience more than the time and place—finally realizing, well into adulthood and professional Christianing, that the text clearly says the whole water-walking thing took place in the middle of the night (on a stormy night, at that). Of course, that would make a boring flannel graph, since you wouldn’t be able to see anything. And the water: it wasn’t smooth and flat. These expert sailors, the disciples, couldn’t get the boat back into land because a massive wind storm had come up, and the waves were so big they were smashing the boat away from shore (b-b-b-buffeted). This is the water Jesus walked on.

So much for hovercrafting. Now I have to picture the real, dark-skinned, Middle Eastern Jesus, climbing his way through the peaks and troughs of a wild sea storm. His clothing would have been drenched from spray. His hair would have been blown all over the place (where’s a good hair-tie when you need one?). Now the scene looks more like a pitch-black episode of extreme bouldering (on water!), or, like an X Games-at-night rollerblade competition, with Jesus grinding down the “rail” of one wave, hopping to the next, and dropping down into a trough to set up for his next trick.

Crash! The psychic Plexiglas around my childhood image is finally smashed. And now I can begin the reconstructive task of observing the real Jesus.

On a much bigger scale, and with lots more stories, this is part of our youth work task: smashing the psychic Plexiglas encasing teenagers’ false images and ideas of Jesus, whether they grew up hearing Jesus stories in church or not. It’s a noble work of deconstruction and reconstruction. Some might even say “re-imagining”.

While teenagers’ thoughts and pictures of Jesus are from childhood, or from some other phase of their lives, whether they have lots of ideas about Jesus, or only what they’ve heard through hearsay, most of them have some seriously jacked-up ideas about who Jesus was and is, and what he did and does.

Let’s pull the hammers out of our leather youth work tool belts and engage in a bit of museum-image smashing. Let’s lead teenagers on an honest, blunt, even surprising expedition toward meeting the real Jesus.

self centered

thoughts for parents of young teens, part 7

youth workers, feel free to copy and paste (or email) this series in a parent newsletter or email. i’d appreciate a credit line, but otherwise, go for it. oh, and by the way, this totally has implications for youth ministry also.

see part 1: doubts
and part 2: transition
and part 3: bored with church and god
and part 4: boundaries and decisions
and part 5: a world of paradoxes
and part 6: process trumps content

Question: Why is my middle schooler suddenly so self-centered? It seems like she thinks the whole world revolves around her!

This is an almost universal issue with preteens and young teens. Consequently, the frustration parents and youth workers experience is also almost universal! Young teens who were, just months ago, generous and outward-focused turn into themselves and become seemingly obsessed with themselves and incapable of noticing others.

kind of a big dealEverything’s about me!

Self-centeredness is a natural fungus on the tree of development. Your preteen might still have a shred of others-focus; but it will disappear soon! The almost-crazy amount of change going on in the lives of young teens (11 – 14 year olds), draws every remaining bit of noticing others in on itself. Almost all young teens (and older preteens) see themselves at the center of the universe.

For example: if you walk across the back of a crowded classroom (or, say, church service), you will try to be quiet as to not distract–but you won’t assume people paying attention and facing the opposite direction are noticing you. Not so with young teens. In the same situation, they’ll assume that everyone in the room is watching them (apparently through the back of their heads!) and evaluating their every move.

This self-centeredness is natural, but that doesn’t mean parents should just ignore it. There are many ways to counter this; but I’ve found that the absolute best antidote is experience–experience that forces their attention off of themselves. Give them experiences serving others in need (through a day helping at a soup-kitchen, or a family mission trip, or other service projects). For a preteen, this establishes a pattern of noticing others’ needs. For a young teen, it can create a small opportunity for noticing that the world is more than themselves (and that will work like yeast, spreading into their worldview).

straightawayEverything’s now!

A related issue is how “in the moment” preteens and young teens seem to live. If you ask their favorite movie of all time, they’ll answer the one they saw last week. They don’t have a sense of the past (and I’m talking about their own past, not anything grander than that!), and often don’t have a sense of the future either.

Think of it this way: as an adult, you’re making decisions on the road of life. And you can look in the rearview mirror and see the long straightaway behind you, including the choices of life. You can also look at the long straightaway ahead of you, and get a sense of what’s to come. But preteens and young teens are on a sharp curve in the road of life (the curve of transition and developmental change). The rearview mirror doesn’t show much; and the front view is a blind curve.

This can be maddening for parents. Ask speculation questions about the future to help your child begin to see more of the road (he won’t naturally do this on his own). Share your own thoughts about the future (as well as the past).

And remember, the curve in the road–with its self-centeredness and “all is now” perspectives–will pass. This is the normal stuff of young teen development; and it’s the plan God designed for your child to go through at this time of life!


By the way, I unpack this more (and a bunch of other stuff about early adolescent development) in my book Understanding Your Young Teen.

lost and found 2

book now for the Lost And Found farewell tour!

for their 30th year of performing together (2015), the wonderful and unique band Lost And Found are doing something… interesting: a farewell tour. in other words, they’ve decided to make 2015 the last year of touring for the band.

lost and foundif you’ve ever seen Lost And Found live, you know: the music and is good and fun and meaningful; but the real magic of this band–the reason people love seeing them over and over again–is their live shows. they are one of the only bands i know that can be, and are, equally loved by people in any stage of life (children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged peeps and older folk). their lyrics have the spiritual depth one might expect from two lutheran boys; their songs swing from beautiful and sparse to quirky and riotous. and they engage an audience like no band i’ve ever seen (really, i’m not exaggerating).

so, i could not encourage you strongly enough–if you’re running a youth event in 2015, or want to host a multi-generational event at your church–Lost And Found will be a win for you.

website (speedwood.com)
email ‘em here.
phone number: 419.897-9792

and check out this video:

12 things i love about middle school ministry

a number of years ago i wrote a post listing reasons why i love middle school ministry. and recently, i re-wrote that post as a column for youthwork magazine (in the UK). here’s my list (realize that “middle school ministry” doesn’t mean anything in the UK, so i use their term “11 – 14s” or young teens instead):

IMG_386712 Things to Love About Young Teen Ministry

  1. Young teen ministry is about shaping. What an opportunity! Everything I learn about young teens continues to affirm and re-affirm that this is not merely a holding period until the good stuff of older teen work.
  2. 11 – 14s are easy to connect with. Years ago, a youth ministry mentor shared this simple observation: 11 – 14s, in their decision as to whether they’ll allow you into their lives, are only asking the question, “Do you like me?” Older teens complicate it more by adding, “Do I like you?” And university students ramp up the complexity by layering on the additional question, “Do I like what you stand for?”
  3. They’re willing to try anything. The young teen years (in a post-puberty parallel to the first few years of life) are all about discovery, or sampling. Young teens, in the earliest stages of self-conscious identity formation, want to try everything. They don’t start testing conclusions until the middle teen years. This is a wild ride of unpredictability, of course, and can feel very scattered and capricious. But there’s willingness—even desire—to try things that makes young teens prime for creative and participatory youth work.
  4. The wonder of abstract thinking. 11 – 14s are far from experienced with abstract thought. But the capacity is there (I like to think of it as God’s puberty gift). And they’re dipping their toes in the water, checking it out.
  5. The process of doubts and faith development. Tied to the development of abstract thinking, young teens are on the leading edge of stumbling onto doubts about their faith. This is a critical aspect of faith development, and should never be shamed or shut down. Wrestling with complexities is the necessary detour from childlike, inherited faith to a more robust, owned faith.
  6. They’re unpredictable. Maybe you find this frustrating, but I love it. Young teens regularly and consistently surprise me. They surprise me with their random questions. They surprise me with their hidden talents. They surprise me with their insight. They surprise me with their interpretations (often different than I expect). The unpredictability of 11 – 14s keeps young teen ministry fresh and untamed.
  7. Parents are still involved. Sure, there are plenty of older teens with involved parents. But there’s a drop-off in parent involvement throughout the teen years, as many parents retreat out of fear, exasperation, or a misguided understanding of what it means to give their teenagers independence. We know that parents have a significantly larger shaping role in the lives and faith of their teenagers than we do; so this higher level of parent involvement creates an easier path to coming alongside parents, partnering for greater impact.
  8. They have more time than older teenagers. Yes, young teens are busier than ever; but they still have more time and availability than their older peers. Mix this in with their #3 above (their willingness to try anything), and you’ve got a potent pot of “let’s do stuff!”
  9. Most are not yet jaded. 14 year-olds can start to get a little jaded (some of ‘em). Older teenagers—holy cow—can wear cynicism and “been there, done that” as comfortably as Lady Gaga wears a meat suit. But most young teens possess wonderfully low levels of cynicism, and a naiveté that looks a lot like hope.
  10. They’re passionate. I love the “all in” attitude of most 11 – 14s. It’s not only their willingness to try things (mentioned in #3 above); they’re also passionate about the things they try, the opinions they voice, the beliefs they hold. The funny thing is: they’re passionate about things that, often, they won’t be passionate about in two months or two years.
  11. They’re forgiving. When you mess up, or have an off night in your teaching, or plan a lame event, or say something dumb, young teens are quick to forgive (particularly if you ask for it). The travel time back to normal (whatever that is!) is extremely short.
  12. They’re fun! Young teens keep me feeling young (not so easy at 50 years-old). They’re playful and hilarious, goofy and unselfconscious. Young teens remind me, regularly, of what a joy-filled life should look like.

if you agree with me on at least most of these, then you need to join us at the third annual Middle School Ministry Campference. the earlybird registration price (and $50 bonus back of free stuff and campference munchies) runs out in two weeks, on june 30!

my-tribe-square

golf club

being a middle school guys small group leader is like being a mediocre golfer

last night, all the small group leaders from my church’s youth ministry had an end-of-the-school-year thank you dinner and wrap up. the high school and middle school leaders ate together; but then we slit off into separate ministry groupings to debrief the year a bit. here’s a little pano of our middle school small group leaders, minus about 5 or so who couldn’t be there last night (you can click on it to see it bigger, if you’re so inclined):

IMG_4421

the main thing we did was share stories (i’m a BIG fan of this, btw, as stories communicate all sorts of embodied truth). once the ball got rolling, everyone had something to share, and there was a beautiful sense of “i am not alone.”

i was, by far, the oldest one there (there are a couple other leaders my age, but they weren’t at the meeting). and i was also one of the only leaders there with more than a few years of experience. but, honestly, this was one of the hardest years of middle school ministry for me in a long time. i shared with our team that i really struggled, second guessed myself, and wondered what was going wrong. i vacillated between being completely stoked about my guys and being completely annoyed by them. my group was too big, and too impossible to focus, and too easily distracted (yes, more than normal for middle school guys!), and too quick to speak on top of each other (almost constantly).

as i was about to share with the other leaders last night, a metaphor for my experience of being a middle school ministry volunteer this year jumped into my mind:

i used to be a golfer. like, i used to golf about 2 or 3 times a month. i read articles about golfing. i bought golf clubs. i tried out new courses. and, yes, i even watched golf on TV (and played a lot of tiger woods golf on my xbox).

but i was never a good golfer. at my best, i was a mediocre golfer. i probably would have had to triple-down on the number of times i played in order to see a difference in my game, and i wasn’t willing (or able) to do that. so, consistently, my golf games looked like this:

approximately 10 – 20 shots in a row would totally suck. i hit the ball too short. i shanked it. i putted past the hole and right off the green. i lost it in the woods or the lake. i topped it, hard, and the ball dribbled forward about 10 feet. occasionally i even completely whiffed–swinging my club with focus, intention and expectation, but not actually connecting with the ball. somewhere between the 7th and 12th bad shot in a row, i fairly consistently had the same sorts of thoughts enter my head or exit my mouth:

this game sucks.

why would anyone subject themselves to this? and i’m paying for this! what is wrong with me?

this game is impossible. or at least, this game is impossible for me.

there is absolutely no enjoyment in golf beyond the cigar in my mouth and the beer waiting for me in the clubhouse.

but, then: deep into my discouragement and disillusionment and fatalism and plans to quit, i’d hit a chip shot onto the green and it would drop in the hole. or i’d somehow hit a fairway wood just right, and by some miracle, it would perfectly curve around that tree in the middle of the fairway and catch the leading edge of a downward slope, adding 50 feet to my shot.

and when i hit one of those shots, well, i couldn’t stop then! i either had to take another shot to see if i might be on some sort of streak of brilliance (or i’d suddenly become a fantastic golfer, somehow), or i took another shot because i just didn’t care, since i was basking in the joy of what had just occurred.

THAT, my middle school ministry friends, is what this past year of leading an 8th grade guys small group felt like for me, a 33 year veteran of middle school ministry. there were absolutely stunning moments of beauty. flashes of insight. spaces of deep honesty and vulnerability. DMZs of listening to each other. absolute god moments.

there were less moments of awesomeness than there were moments of annoyance; but there were just enough to keep me from quitting.

and here’s the litmus test for me: i stop and think of each guy’s face, picturing him in my mind’s eye. and i pay attention to what i’m feeling. and i can honestly say that for each one of them, my internal response is “oh, man, i love that kid! he is so awesome. i have so much HOPE for his future.”

so, yeah, i’ll take another small group next fall.