What is our role as youth workers?

My role as a youth worker is to live, honestly, my own journey toward Christlikeness with and in front of the teenagers in my midst. I can’t change teenagers—that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. I’m not directly in the transformation business; I’m in the transformation hosting business.

Hosting is a metaphor that brings up sub-metaphors like stewarding (“How do I steward the time I have with teenagers in a way that best exposes them to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit?”), curation (“How can I highlight and bring attention to the good stuff God is already doing in the world and in the lives of teenagers?”), and evangelist.

Wait—did I just write evangelist?

Yup—but I don’t mean it in the way you might think. I mean it in the same way that Apple might have an evangelist on staff. My role as a youth worker is to be the evangelist for teenagers in my church. I am the lead banner-waver for teenagers in my congregation (or one of them, since I’m on a team), reminding people in the congregation of their responsibility to collectively engage with the teenagers in their midst.

vulnerability vs. authenticity

we talk a lot about the need for ministry leaders and speakers to be vulnerable and authentic these days. i’m all for that — 100%.

but some time ago i heard a speaker that caused me to reflect on this a bit, and particularly the fact that the two are not synonymous.

i was sitting in a congregation, listening to a guy preaching. he was a guest speaker, but is apparently someone who speaks once or twice a year at this church. and people seem to love, love, love him. the congregation was amped.

there’s no question the guy was vulnerable. he shared openly about struggles and wrestling. that approach itself can sometimes be a mess — more about the speaker experiencing catharsis (at best) or exhibitionism (at worst). but i didn’t sense this preacher was doing that.

but there was something that was really, deeply bugging me about the sermon (and it wasn’t the content, per se). the preacher occasionally slipped into a funny accent (at least he thought it was funny), used quite a few words pronounced in an strange, super-spritual manner, and utilized other speaking ‘tricks’ to–ultimately–manipulate the listeners to an intended feeling. he told self-revealing stories with an affected performance.

and i realized: i found this completely inauthentic.

i came to a sense that i could barely listen, as the speaker was vulnerable, but inauthentic.

authenticity trumps vulnerability in preaching, imho (and for leadership in general). i’d rather listen to an authentic speaker (or follow an authentic leader) without a ton of vulnerability than the other way around any day. both are great; but vulnerability only helps when it’s a subset of authenticity.

youth ministry as a NOTHING PREVENTS YOU reality

i was challenged by a sermon given this past weekend by a retired methodist bishop, based on the biblical story of the ethiopian eunuch. and it got me thinking about the message and the message our youth ministries should embrace and project.

you probably know the story: the ethiopian eunuch was rich, powerful and elite (traveling by chariot was the equivalent of today’s private-jet-and-limo set). he was, after all, in charge of the ethiopian queen’s treasury. clearly, a very smart man, also, as we first encounter him as he’s reading isaiah (not his native language!) in the back of a chariot.

philip, after hearing from an angel that he’s supposed to head down to gaza from jerusalem, camps out alongside a road. and there he encounters the eunuch who is heading home from jerusalem (the direction is important — and it’s fascinating that the angel didn’t direct philip to the eunuch when they were both in jerusalem).

deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” (the junior high boy in me likes the old KVJ version, though — “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”)

the eunuch went to jerusalem to worship; but would have been prevented from doing so.

after philip explains the prophetic passage the eunuch is reading, about jesus, the eunuch asks an important question: here’s some water — what would prevent me from being baptized?” of course, phil baptizes him, and we have one of the most important conversion stories of the new testament.

there are (and have been) a hundred ways this passage can be projected to our current day. but i’m a youth worker, and i got thinking about how PREVENTED teenagers are today–maybe more than at any time in human history.

  • Massive, culturally-endorsed isolation
  • Kept from the world of adults
  • Viewed as incapable and broken
  • Infantilized – treated as children

To those who are prevented, the gospel says, “NOTHING PREVENTS YOU.” You are welcome as an equal.

Our youth ministries should not exist as well-meaning holding tanks, waiting for maturity and adulthood.

Our youth ministries should not isolate teenagers from the world of adults.

Our youth ministries should not treat teenagers as children, incapable and broken.

Our ministries, instead, should be loudspeakers and labs of a Nothing Prevents You reality.

FRIDAY NUGGET: myths of belonging

Myths of belonging

  1. more time = more belonging
  2. more commitment = more belonging
  3. more purpose = more belonging
  4. more personality = more belonging
  5. more proximity = more belonging

“Belonging happens when you identify with another entity – a person or organization, or perhaps a species, culture, or ethnic group.”

 

(all from The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups, by Joseph Myers)

Seven Sins of Re-Inventing Your Youth Ministry

my latest column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) is in print.  some thoughts about ministry change…


I’m a big fan of change. In fact, one of the personal values I try to live out in every area of my life is:
Change is non-negotiable. Upheaval, starting new things, risk and failure are all necessary and good, both for the organization I’m a part of and for my own level of thriving.

Given the fact that we’re all doing youth work in a constantly changing culture, with teenagers whose needs are constantly changing, and with teenagers whose very lives are marked by constant change, we’d be idiots to just keep doing the same thing in the same way.

Experimentation and noble failure are the spark plugs of great youth ministry (well, I suppose Jesus is the spark plug; but you get the picture). Coasting, gliding, and staying the same are resounding gongs on the death bell.

So with that in mind, I’d like to suggest Seven Sins of Ministry Re-Invention. They are all phrased as assumptions; because our assumptions provide mental maps that lead to action (good or misguided) or inaction. Some of these assumptions keep us from change; but I’m assuming that you’ll get the gist of those quickly. So I’m focusing more on assumptive sins that mask as progress. Here we go!

Assuming everything is fine as is. In a column on the importance of change, this one sort of goes without saying. But here’s the reason I list it (even first): most of us know we need to consider change when things aren’t going well; but most youth workers I work with have a working paradigm that says the goal is to reach stability.

Here’s the problem: stability means you’ve already begun the inclination toward decline (of heath, vibrancy, impact – and attendance, sometimes). Great leaders must be courageous and initiate change prior to arrival at stability. This is counter-intuitive, as it means instigating change when things are seemingly at the best they’ve ever been.

Assuming youth culture is what it always was. Bob Dylan famously sang, “The times, they are a-changing.” And—wow—have the times ever changed since ol’ Bob sang that! Youth work might focus on timeless and unchanging truths (like the consistency of God’s unswerving love); but ministry is always set in a context, and great ministry is responsive to that context.

Sure, some aspects of youth culture or the experience of teenagers isn’t all that different. But there is no denying that all sorts of variables, values, pressures and cultural norms have shifted. Being a teenager in 2016 is simultaneously the same as it ever was, and new every morning.

Assuming you have all the answers to what needs to change. If you’re a leader, you have a responsibility to instigate, promote, provoke, and explore change. But change you envision and activate completely on your own will never be as good as change you collaboratively discern with others. I’m sure you’re smart and super-spiritual; but you’re not that smart and super-spiritual. You need sounding boards and anchors and fire-starters and push-backers and people who say, “Yes, and…”.

Assuming change should be a democratic process. I’m a fan of democracy when it comes to government. But when leading change in a youth ministry, democracy can quickly lower the bar, achieving agreement over excellence. Dissent can be healthy. And while ideas birthed and decisions made in community will always be stronger than those without any input, choosing your change collaborators is essential. Choose wisely, grasshopper. Collaborate with creative and hopeful people who don’t have a personal agenda. But don’t pass around a ballot.

Assuming everyone will easily be on board with change. It’s tough not to have the wind taken out of your sails when you’re excited about some intentional and thoughtful change, only to be met with naysayers and criticism and whining. Remember: people tend to resist change. This is almost always due to fear that they’ll lose something they value—something the current reality or program is providing for them. Expect opposition, not so you can be armed to blow people away, but so that you can adopt a curious perspective about what people need to move past their fears.

Assuming more is better. Short and sweet: adding stuff on—more programs—is not the pathway to vibrancy in your ministry. If you’re going to add something, you have to be ready to cut something also.

Assuming teenagers really dig cool programs and nifty youth facilities. What teenagers really want is a safe and encouraging place to belong. They want to be wanted. You might assume that a super-cool youth room or mind-blowing entertainment will deliver, but these are not the droids you’re looking for.

Step into change, with courage (which comes from God). But do so with wisdom (which comes from the Holy Spirit).

2 sentence book reviews: Christian Nonfiction and Parenting

30 book reviews this time around, over five days of posts. as always, i allow myself two sentences (unless otherwise noted):
– the first sentence is a summary of the book.
– the second sentence is my opinion of the book (complimented by the star rating).

my opinion:
– just because “Leaders are Readers” is a cliche doesn’t make it untrue.
– and, people who want to grow choose to read widely.

in this current series:
YA Fiction and Fiction (6 books, monday)
Illustrated Books and Graphic Novels (7 books, tuesday)
General Nonfiction (6 books, wednesday)
Ministry and Theology (7 books, thursday)
Christian Nonfiction and Parenting (4 books, today)

Christian Nonfiction

the wired soulThe Wired Soul: Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age, by Tricia Rhodes)
4 stars
[note: this book releases July 1. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

Like so many others, I long for a more contemplative life. I know it’s in my best interest. Yet my desire and my experience, born out of my choices, don’t often seem to be on the friendliest of terms. Rhodes offers a practical (yes!), fascinating and insightful set of explanations, encouragement, and tools. This is a useful book, very much worth digesting.

broken hallelujahsBroken Hallelujahs: Learning to Grieve the Big and Small Losses of Life, by Beth Allen Slevcove
5 stars
[note: this book releases April 4. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

I don’t normally think of Grief and Beauty cozying up with one another. But that’s the indelible impression this gorgeous book imprinted on my heart and mind. Slevcove–with sometimes startling vulnerability and relentless authenticity–opens up her journey into and through grief, shining a light on something far, far better than simple platitudes or greeting card perk pills: this book reveals truth. And it’s the best kind of truth, messy and heart-wrenching and full of the potency of new life.

Parenting

pass it onPass It On: Building a Legacy of Faith for Your Children through Practical and Memorable Experiences, by Jim Burns and Jeremy Lee
4 stars
[note: this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

I’ve always been a huge fan of intentional Rites of Passage (as opposed to the non-intentional cultural rites that most of our children and teens stumble through). This book, like none I’ve ever seen, provides practical and actionable Rites, along with amazing insight, for every year of elementary, middle school, and high school. It’s an absolute wealth, a treasure trove, of hope and spiritual parenting. I will be recommending this books to lots of parents!

your teenagers not crazyYour Teenager’s Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent, by Jerusha and Jeramy Clark
5 stars
[note: this book releases April 4. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

The depth of insight and reams of practical ideas in this book are the second best things about it. The best thing–what really sets this book apart from other parenting books–is this: the vast majority of parenting books use fear, guilt, and hyperbole to promote a “teenagers are broken, and a problem to be solved” perspective. I find this perspective theologically unsound, destructive, and unhelpful. But the Clarks offer us, instead, a book that embraces a “teenagers are a wonder to behold” viewpoint. And that makes all the difference in the world, and is–i would suggest–the most important perspective needed for effective parenting.

2 sentence book reviews: Ministry and Theology

30 book reviews this time around, over five days of posts. as always, i allow myself two sentences (unless otherwise noted):
– the first sentence is a summary of the book.
– the second sentence is my opinion of the book (complimented by the star rating).

my opinion:
– just because “Leaders are Readers” is a cliche doesn’t make it untrue.
– and, people who want to grow choose to read widely.

in this current series:
YA Fiction and Fiction (6 books, monday)
Illustrated Books and Graphic Novels (7 books, tuesday)
General Nonfiction (6 books, wednesday)
Ministry and Theology (7 books, today)
Christian Nonfiction and Parenting (4 books, friday)

Ministry and Theology

saying is believingSaying is Believing: The Necessity of Testimony in Adolescent Spiritual Development, by Amanda Hontz Drury
5 stars
[note: this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

Amanda Drury’s book winsomely confronted me and conclusively helped me rediscover a critically important aspect of adolescent spiritual formation that I–along with thousands of my youth ministry peers–had gradually relegated to the youth ministry storage closet in the basement of the church. Time for a course correction; time for growth; time for testimony.

tornTorn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, by Justin Lee
5 stars
autobiography (with lots of biblical and theological digging) of a gay christian man sincerely seeking god’s will for his life and sexuality. whether a reader fully agrees with the author’s conclusions or not takes nothing away from the fact that this is an exceptional book, and should be required reading for all christians (particularly those in ministry) who want a more informed and nuanced understanding of LGB (not really T) people and the christian faith.

sticky faith service guideSticky Faith Service Guide: Moving Students from Mission Trips to Missional Living, and Sticky Faith Service Guide, Student Journal: How Serving Others Changes You, by Kara E. Powell and Brad M. Griffin
4.5 stars
sticky faith service guide student[note: these books release February 2. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher:]

I find that missions are consistently the best and the worst programs we offer in youth ministry. The potential for transformation and Kingdom impact is palpably real; but the hidden curriculums of self-actualization, pity and judgment, and tourism too often turn what could be beautiful and good into a narcissistic mush. How wonderful to have a research-based guide to avoiding the worst of what short-term missions can be, and leaning into the best.

moving messagesMoving Messages: Ideas That Will Revolutionize the Sunday Experience, by Rick Bundschuh
5 stars
[note: this book releases January 11. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

Wait: a book about preaching that’s actually fun to read and thoroughly engaging, in addition to being chock-full of fantastic disruptive ideas? Bundschuh actually models, with his writing, what he’s proposing we consider. And if you care about connecting 21st century church people with the transformative truth of scripture, you will certainly want to consider this master class on creative preaching.

heaven promiseThe Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible’s Truth About Life to Come, by Scot McKnight
4.5 stars
an extremely accessible and readable exploration of what the bible actually teaches about heaven. this isn’t mcknight’s best book (he’s my favorite theological author, who has greatly shaped my thinking and ministry with favorite books like The Blue Parakeet, Embracing Grace, Junia Is Not Alone, and A Community Called Atonement), but it is absolutely helpful and worth reading.

us verses usUs versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community
5 stars
[note: this book releases June 1. this is my official endorsement provided to the publisher.]

Almost all discourse and writing about LGBTs and faith ebbs to theology and biblical interpretation. What’s been sorely missing are sociological insights–anchored to research rather than opinion–of the current landscape. Marin offers a profound gift to us (however you define “us”) that will, I’m confident, lead to more understanding, more inquiry, more grace, and more love.

2 sentence book reviews: General Nonfiction

30 book reviews this time around, over five days of posts. as always, i allow myself two sentences (unless otherwise noted):
– the first sentence is a summary of the book.
– the second sentence is my opinion of the book (complimented by the star rating).

my opinion:
– just because “Leaders are Readers” is a cliche doesn’t make it untrue.
– and, people who want to grow choose to read widely.

in this current series:
YA Fiction and Fiction (6 books, monday)
Illustrated Books and Graphic Novels (7 books, tuesday)
General Nonfiction (6 books, today)
Ministry and Theology (7 books, thursday)
Christian Nonfiction and Parenting (4 books, friday)

General Nonfiction

yes pleaseYes Please, by Amy Poehler
3 stars
mostly autobiography, with some rabbit trails into commentary. i wanted this book to be better than it was, and found the laughs–which are certainly in there–not nearly as frequent as other books in this genre.
[additional note: the choice to print this on dense, glossy paper made the book uncomfortable to hold while reading, and occasionally requiring awkward angles to decrease glare!]

modern romanceModern Romance, by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
5 stars
hilariously written, research-driven exploration of shifts in dating and marriage. this book surpassed my expectations on every possible front.

jv superstarJV Superstar: A Christian College Odyssey, by Matthew Pierce
3.5 stars
a collection of autobiographical stories from the naive and quirky experiences of a conservative christian college kid. too short to be satisfying (and not as funny as the author’s first ebook, Homeschool Sex Machine), but still fun and worth the hour it takes to read, particularly if you can connect with the weirdness of a christian college experience.

transgender 101Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue, by Nicholas M Teich
4 stars
a non-emotive, non-story-based overview of the increasingly complex subject of transgender people. while not intended to shape your theology (it’s not a christian book), i found this quick and easy read very helpful in understanding both terminology and how trans* people want to be understood.

collapseCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition, by Jared Diamond
4 stars
a deep dive into dozens of societies that no longer exist and the reasons for their collapse. i deeply enjoyed gaining the insight in this book, but just… wanted… it… to… end (apparently, i simply do not have the attention span for a 600-page work of non-fiction).

mo meta bluesMo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove, by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman
5 stars
autobiography from The Roots’ drummer, with a history of hip-hop on the side. even though i’m not a big fan of hip-hop, i found this interesting and fun, both as an insight into the shaping of a genius, and the history of a movement/musical genre.

2 sentence book reviews: Illustrated Books and Graphic Novels

30 book reviews this time around, over five days of posts. as always, i allow myself two sentences (unless otherwise noted):
– the first sentence is a summary of the book.
– the second sentence is my opinion of the book (complimented by the star rating).

my opinion:
– just because “Leaders are Readers” is a cliche doesn’t make it untrue.
– and, people who want to grow choose to read widely.

in this current series:
YA Fiction and Fiction (6 books, monday)
Illustrated Books and Graphic Novels (7 books, today)
General Nonfiction (6 books, wednesday)
Ministry and Theology (7 books, thursday)
Christian Nonfiction and Parenting (4 books, friday)

Illustrated Books and Graphic Novels

secondsSeconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
4.5 stars
a young chef with a propensity for bad choices that undermine her long range goals gets the opportunity for do-overs, which lead to complex and unintended results (as well as growth and learning). this full-length (336 pages!) graphic novel offers the things i hope for in this literary form: engaging story and character, great drawing, with a dose of insight.

masterful marksMasterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World, by Monte Beauchamp
4.5 stars
short graphic biographies of influential cartoonists, drawn in their own style. i like graphic novels, but didn’t know much about influential cartoonists; so this creative and brilliantly executed approach to a history book was a blast to read.

what ifWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe
4 stars
just what the subtitle says it is: an application of math and science to offer reasoned answers to ridiculous question (example: What would happen if the earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity?). from the creator of the popular web comic xkcd, this collection of weird questions and serious answers–with lots of fun illustrations–totally kept my attention for about 80% of my time with it.

gigantic beardThe Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, by Stephen Collins
5 stars
a man in an isolated, fear-based island kingdom suddenly grows a beard that won’t stop growing, creating pandemonium, absurd attempts at problem solving, and isolation. in addition to my beardy connection on this one, i loved the illustration style, and was pleasantly surprised by the level of implied social and political commentary about how we treat those considered other.

awkward moments 1Awkward Moments Children’s Bible, Vol. 1, and Awkward Moments (Not Found In Your Average) Children’s Bible – Vol. 2: Don’t blame us – it’s in the Bible!, by Horus Gilgamesh (Author) and Agnes Tickheathen (Illustrator)
2 stars
awkward moments 2illustrated plates of awkward bible scenes, with back-of-the-book commentary. i really, really wanted to love these books, but ultimately found them way too cynical, mean-spirited and dismissive.

wilsonWilson, by Daniel Clowes
3.5 stars
a narcissistic and lonely middle aged man seeks human connection. i love clowes’s illustrations (really, about as good as it gets), but found wilson so hopeless, in every sense, that i struggled to fully enjoy the story.

2 sentence book reviews: YA Fiction and Fiction

30 book reviews this time around, over five days of posts. as always, i allow myself two sentences (unless otherwise noted):
– the first sentence is a summary of the book.
– the second sentence is my opinion of the book (complimented by the star rating).

my opinion:
– just because “Leaders are Readers” is a cliche doesn’t make it untrue.
– and, people who want to grow choose to read widely.

in this current series:
YA Fiction and Fiction (6 books, today)
Illustrated Books and Graphic Novels (7 books, tuesday)
General Nonfiction (6 books, wednesday)
Ministry and Theology (7 books, thursday)
Christian Nonfiction and Parenting (4 books, friday)

Young Adult Fiction

king dorkKing Dork and King Dork Approximately, by Frank Portman
4 stars each
king dork approximatelya high school outsider wrestles with identity, connecting with his dead father, weird parents, friendship, and girls, through his witty and skewed lens, fueled by literature and rock-and-roll. fantastic writing and character development, though seemingly embracing anarchy over hope.

Fiction

the fifth gospelThe Fifth Gospel: A Novel, by Ian Caldwell
5 stars
a vatican priest must unravel a complex threat to the church in order to save his own life (and maybe his faith). ten years after caldwell’s The Rule of Four, this brilliant thriller is part gripping (fictional) story, and part glimpse into life in the vatican.

beautiful youBeautiful You: A Novel, by Chuck Palahniuk
2 stars
an average young woman gets caught up in a billionaire inventor’s pain-filled pursuit of world domination and revenge. as is always true of palahniuk books, this is filled with biting social commentary (this time about control and sexual obsession), but is so over-the-top that it dramatically decreased my engagement (i almost stopped reading it multiple times).

secondhand soulsSecondhand Souls: A Novel, by Christopher Moore
4.5 stars
in this sequel to moore’s A Dirty Job, a major shift seems to be underway in how souls are dealt with after death, and the unlikely team of san franciscans in on the transition must once again save the world. pure, weird fun: nothing more and nothing less.

bream gives me hiccupsBream Gives Me Hiccups: & Other Stories, by Jesse Eisenberg
5 stars
a wide variety of fictional short stories with deep wit (more than LOL humor). i was blown away by eisenberg’s writing and insight, and loved this book.