Category Archives: thinking…

FRIDAY NUGGET: Courage for Leading Change

Anyone with healthy or unhealthy resistance to change (most of us have this) need a dose of courage from time to time to push us in the direction of innovation. Here’s what I have learned: I cannot make myself have courage anymore than I can make myself have the fruit of the Spirit. Spiritual courage comes from the Holy Spirit.

The etymology of the word itself tells us this. The root of courage (“cour”) means “heart”; and courage literally means “to have a full heart.” Excitement and praise and rewards and potential can partially fill my heart. But they’re not sustainable. My heart can only be truly topped off in the face of significant risk by the fuel of the Holy Spirit.

FRIDAY NUGGET: dependence and assurance

Confidence misplaced is arrogance and a complete lack of dependence on God. We’ve all seen that kind of leader. Nope, don’t want to be that guy.

But the ragingly insecure leader, whose every word and action is colored by his or her lack of confidence is equally undesirable. I’ve been around those leaders plenty, and I can’t trust them. I never know if what they’re saying is actually true.

So this must be one of those tensions to be nurtured, rather than problems to be solved. I need to bring my insecurity to God, as well as my confidence. I have to cultivate dependence and assurance.

two overlaid planes of ministry

Dream about this with me. What would it look like for you to live into a ministry that takes place on two overlaid planes: organic, contextualized youth work within the existing social networks your teenagers are living in; AND, a Kingdom-of-God gathering of the tribes–a place where our “preferences” (our sub-cultural norms) aren’t ignored, and aren’t diminished, but melt away in the context of a greater unity of the Spirit?

it’s a parallel mindset to the thinking behind the mash-up word GLOCAL (global AND local).

my bucket list, end o’ 2014 edition

i am a person not short of longings and daydreams. and i collect experiences like others collect trinkets. so it should not be a surprise that i think ‘bucket lists’ are fun. in fact, at the first meeting of each new cohort of the Cartel’s Youth Ministry Coaching Program, i have participants give us a little glimpse into who they are by sharing 3 bucket list items: one they have done in the last few years, one they’d like to do and probably will, and one they’d like to do but probably never will.

so, i’m gonna put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as it were) to list some of my own. some of these were already in place; but others i’m making up on the spot.

in no particular order:

  1. continue to visit one new country, at least every other year. i’d love to visit one new country per year, but that’s not always reasonable. however, i have 2 (and maybe 3) on deck for 2015 already (Italy, Spain, and maybe Jamaica). i’m at about 41 or 43 countries visited so far, and i’d certainly like that to cross 50. 75 would be nice.
  2. visit the two remaining states i have not been to (Vermont and Idaho), merely to complete the 50.
  3. vacation with my wife in Italy for our 30th anniversary for 3 full weeks (this one is likely, for 2016).
  4. write a handful of books for the broader christian market (meaning: not youth ministry or teens or parents). i have my first–Hopecasting–releasing in march. how it does will greatly determine whether this is a one-and-done item, or a broader impact and new area of growth for me.
  5. grow The Youth Cartel to a sustainable place where i’m less necessary. i imagine about 5 or 7 staff, a fun office, ongoing creativity and impact, and the ability for me to play an active role without being so busy.
  6. bucket list

  7. be involved in raising up a couple UH-MAZE-ING next leaders for The Youth Cartel–people who are WAY more talented than me and WAY more likely to instigate a revolution in youth ministry.
  8. be an 80 year-old middle school ministry volunteer, if i make it that long (in life, that is, not in ministry).
  9. speaking of being less busy, i would love to scale back but still be meaningfully involved in youth ministry and Cartel-y things, post 60.
  10. move to a house with an ocean view.
  11. have a cabin in the mountains where i can retreat whenever the heck i feel like it.
  12. a harley. or a vespa. (yeah, i know those couldn’t be more different; but i’d love them both and realize that’s absurd.)
  13. get asked to speak in chapel at my alma mater.
  14. paint. (i loved this back in college, and would love to revive it when i reach that partial retirement mentioned above.)

and then, all the more noble things that don’t quite qualify as bucket list items, like launching two independent and passionate adults (who are currently teenage and young adult), loving my wife better, and stuff like that. but, yeah, those aren’t really bucket list items.

how about you? what’s the item on your list that you might actually do, one day?

my (youth) ministry language pet peeves

everyone has pet peeves, right? i know i do. by their nature and name, ‘pet’ peeves are subjective and personal. so i fully admit that while there are four terms/phrases i’m quite confident we should do away with in ministry circles, i realize these are my issue. in other words, you are more than welcome to disagree and be wrong!

Slide1students

several years ago now, i was hosting a group of 20 junior high pastors for a few days of interaction and thinking. and christian smith, the noted sociologist responsible for the National Study of Youth and Religion was our guest for a half day. at the end of our time with him, i asked, “if you could get all youth workers to stop doing one thing, what would it be?” i expected his response to have something to do with how we talk about or lead teenagers in faith formation. but he surprised me with, “I wish all youth workers would stop using the word ‘students’ when referring to teenagers.” (or he may have said ‘young people,’ or some other term.) he went on, “‘student’ is a role, not an identity.”

Smith’s little statement had a big impact on my thinking, and i’ve come around to completely agree. when i’m speaking about teenagers these days, i usually use that word (teenagers); and when i’m speaking to them, i usually use something aspirational, like ‘young men’ and ‘young women,’ or something similar. i agree (i’m projecting that some of you are thinking this) that we don’t have a perfect term. but i try hard not to use ‘students’ unless i’m specifically talking about that role.

kids

along the same lines, i try very hard not to use the term ‘kids’ when referring to (or even more so when talking to) teenagers. really, i feel MUCH more strongly about this one than i do ‘students.’ i think it’s demeaning and diminishing. i know it’s easy, and a natural part of our language. but language communicates all sorts of meaning. language teaches.

ladies

this one isn’t so much a ‘youth ministry’ term; but i see and hear it used all the time in youth ministry circles when referring to female youth workers, female volunteers, and teenage girls. the term ‘lady’ refers to behavior. a woman is (in the true sense of the word) considered to be a lady if she is ‘behaving’ properly, meeting the imposed expectations of ladylike behavior. in the same sense that ‘students’ refers to role, not identity, ‘ladies’ refers to behavior, not identity. you might think i’m overstating this, but the use of this word does harm to women, implying that their value and worth is based on their behavior.

‘love on’

and finally, a phrase. youth workers seem to think it’s great to say that they want to ‘love on students’ or ‘love on teenagers.’ i understand (and very support) the sentiment behind this. but it is simply creepy language usage. find another way to explain your good and worthy intentions. ‘show love’ or simply ‘love’ are both much better.

so: what ministry language pet peeves do you have?

my new working metaphor for young teens and doubt

for years, as i’ve talked about the spiritual development of young teens and their brain development, i’ve said something along these lines:

abstract thinking is a beautiful gift from god that comes with the onset of puberty. abstract thinking is, in a nutshell, thinking about thinking. there are tons of implications, but the primary biggies are speculation (asking ‘what if’ and ‘why’ questions), and third person perspective (seeing myself from someone else’s point of view, or seeing someone else from someone else’s point of view, or even considering an idea from someone else’s point of view). these two results of abstract thinking are revolutionary to the spiritual development of teenagers (as well as for their emotional development, relational growth, and identity formation). preteens are some of the most concluded people on the planet. they have a completely worked out (albeit naive) worldview and systematic theology — concrete, but functional. then puberty comes along like a tsunami and obliterates all that conclusiveness, creating a space for questions and doubts and a move toward either rejecting childhood faith or growing into a more robust, complex, adult faith.

i think i’d picked up that ‘tsunami’ metaphorical language years and years ago from one of my own junior high ministry mentors. it’s dramatic, and sounds nice.

but it’s not accurate.

and i’ve replaced that metaphor recently in how i talk about this shift.

the reason it’s not accurate is that young teens don’t suddenly acquire fully-functioning abstract thinking. they get the capacity; but it’s like an underdeveloped super-wimpy muscle that has to be exercised for a number of years in order to gain strength. so, yes, young teens (post-puberty) have the capacity for abstract thinking; and it DOES have huge implications for all those developmental realities (including spiritual). but it doesn’t happen overnight. it’s not a light switch. and the ‘elimination’ of concrete childhood beliefs does NOT take place like the arrival of tsunami.

picture a giant cliff at the edge of a sea. but this cliff is made of something soft and easy to erode — like dirt, or sandstone, or chalk (think: cliffs of dover). when the capacity for abstract thinking kicks in, nothing changes immediately. those concluded faith bits still stand like a proud sea cliff as long as the sea below is calm.

but then something happens that creates a gap or tension between experience and belief. like: a 12 year-old who has always had a beautiful and confident belief that god answers my prayers, that if i really pray and it’s not selfish, i can throw a mountain into a sea. and that kid’s favorite grandpa gets inoperable cancer. the kid is confident (full of faith) that prayer will heal his grandpa; but grandpa dies. now, suddenly, there are stormy seas below the cliff. waves crash against that edifice, and erosion happens. the concrete beliefs of the preteen years can’t stand against the barrage of powerful storm waves.

btw: at this point, a young teen almost always needs an adult who can come alongside and help them move all this erosion/storm waves/doubts stuff out of the murky world of subconscious if they hope to do anything other than reject that previous faith bit (if they hope to consider alternatives and new, more abstract, ways of thinking and believing).

so there you have it: doubt comes to young teen faith not like a tsunami of change, but like a storm wave crashing into a sea cliff made of easily-erodible stuff.

let’s get in there, storm chasers.

cliffs of dover.erosion

Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development? (part 2)

with youthworker journal focusing an issue recently on adolescent brain development, tim baker (the editor) asked if i would write a feature article on the implications. he said he had a few articles focusing on theory and research, but wanted something of a “so what?” and i realized, in all my writing on this topic, i’d written very little in response to that pragmatic question. so i agreed, and this was the result. yesterday, in part 1, i laid out a summary and basis for pragmatic response. today, the list of how i’m responding:

Neuron, Shmeuron or,
Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development?

How I’m Responding

ywj coverI hope you’ll join me in this handful of “living in the tension” implications (some completely unresolved):

• Read about teenage brains!
I wasn’t kidding when I said that my growing understanding of neurology shapes everything I do in youth ministry. What I teach and how I teach; how I interact with students; the sorts of questions I ask; what and how I communicate with parents; How I plan my youth ministry calendar; what’s most important and emphasized in our youth ministry.

What to read? Read The Primal Teen (Strauch), because it gives a great perspective on what we were learning about teen brains 10 years ago. You could read my little book, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains. Please read the National Geographic article on teenage brains, as it’s a great glimpse at a turn toward a more positive look at teenage brains. On my stack right now are Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (Satel and Lilienfeld), and Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Siegel).

• Ask speculative questions
I’m not a scientist or a researcher, but I’m sure passionate about my hypothesis that we can help teenagers grow in their ability to make good decisions. Speculative questions are “What if?” and “Why?” questions. Even if we can’t increase frontal lobe growth, I know we can help teenagers step into the use of the abstract thinking they’ve had since the onset of puberty. They have the capability, that is; but they haven’t used it much and tend to be lousy with it. So when we “take them to the shores of speculation,” we help them test out the waters they’ll return to on their own. And since SO MUCH of spiritual growth in the teen and young adult years requires speculation, I’m 100% convinced that helping teenagers develop the ability to speculate will help them build a sustainable faith.

• Become a competency facilitator
Epstein once suggested to me that good parenting (and, by extension, I’ve come to see this as a framing for great youth ministry) is about moving from control to facilitation, where facilitation means identifying and nurturing competencies. If you, like me, don’t buy into the increasingly popular notion that teenagers are incapable, and should therefore be protected and treated like children, then we need to every teenager’s competency champion.

• Allow for failure
Their frontal lobes are underdeveloped; and they do struggle with decision-making. Don’t respond, in the way our culture (and educational approaches and legal systems) is by removing decisions. Instead, create safe places for decision making, assuming a healthy percentage of failure and mistakes. Really, we all learn more from our bad decisions than from our good decisions, right?

• Make way for passion
If teenagers are a wonder to behold, than the kernel of awesomeness at the center of that wonder is their potential for passion. Maybe that’s why they’re not great at impulse control and measuring risk. Maybe they need to be limited (think: God’s creation intent) in those areas in order to learn about the world in ways that us risk-averse adults have long ceased learning. And what if teenagers’ passion could be invited as a great gift to your church? (While she doesn’t directly tie this to brain research, this is the core proposal of Kenda Creasy Dean’s excellent youth ministry book, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church.)

• Act as a surrogate temporal lobe
The frontal lobes aren’t the only underdeveloped parts of the teenage brain: the temporal lobes are also. Those are responsible for emotional understanding and interpretation. Ben was sharing in my small group about how he was nervous about going home that evening, because his brother was returning from drug rehab. He was visibly emotional while explaining this. But Mitch piped in with “You should tell your brother than drugs are stupid!” Rather than shaming Mitch, who wasn’t being mean or rude and was merely missing the emotional clues that would have been so obvious to an adult, my role became that of simultaneously redirecting the focus back to Ben’s sharing while gently pointing out to Mitch the emotion that Ben was feeling. In that moment, I was helping Mitch see the emotion and learn to spot it in a way that he could help his friend.

• Be patient
Patience with teenagers is a pre-requisite for a good youth worker, and always has been. But with our growing understanding of teenage brain development, we have that much more reason to be patient. Great youth workers, those who will be used by God in the lives of real teenagers, will always be gracious and loving, ready to listen, full of encouragement, and abounding in patience.

• Be thoughtful about the use of young adults as youth ministry volunteers.
This is a sensitive one; and please don’t think I’m suggesting young adults are inferior youth workers. I love having young adults as equal members of the youth ministry team I’m a part of. Just like teenagers, they bring a level of passion that’s a wonder to behold. But…remember that their brains are still developing, and they will occasionally struggle with wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, and decision-making. Our ministry effectively (I’d like to think) addresses this by pairing young adult leaders with more mature leaders for small group leadership. Aaron, my 20 year-old small group co-leader, brings things to the group that I couldn’t bring; and hopefully, I bring things he couldn’t (or struggles to) bring.

All of these new discoveries about teenage brains are fascinating. I welcome anything that can help me know and understand better the teenagers I’m called to. But I’m committed to doing ministry in the tension of reality and skepticism. Living in that tension keeps me on my toes, reminds me to be dependent on God and drives me toward curiosity rather than blind assumption.

Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development? (part 1)

with youthworker journal focusing an issue recently on adolescent brain development, tim baker (the editor) asked if i would write a feature article on the implications. he said he had a few articles focusing on theory and research, but wanted something of a “so what?” and i realized, in all my writing on this topic, i’d written very little in response to that pragmatic question. so i agreed, and this was the result:

Neuron, Shmeuron or,
Why Should We Care About Adolescent Brain Development?

ywj coverWe are living in amazing times. The fact is, we’ve learned more about teenagers in the last 10 years than in the previous decades combined. We’ve been exposed to challenging and solid research about youth ministry and adolescent faith. Even if it hasn’t all been good news, this research is shaping our thinking and practice in long-overdue ways.

The knowledge we have about teenage brains is similar. There are new findings almost every month, it seems. It’s fascinating stuff that constantly reminds me of God’s creativity and intentionality. And—this is important—I find over and over again that my knowledge about what’s going on in teenage brains informs everything I do in youth ministry.

But there’s a problem that needs to be undressed: Most of what you’ve read or heard about teenage brain development is wrong. Or, at least, most of it has been skewed to infer conclusions that the research is just not saying.

Teenagers Are Not Broken

A decade ago, early research into teenage brains revealed the previously unknown reality that brains aren’t fully developed well into the 20s. Researchers identified areas of the brain that were significantly underdeveloped, specifically focusing on the frontal lobes. Those areas are often referred to as the brain’s CEO or Executive Office, since they’re the decision-making center (as well as the place for impulse control, prioritization, focus, wisdom, and a bunch of other higher-order thought processes).

Slowly, books like The Primal Teen, and dozens of magazine articles and news reports starting reporting news about teenage brains. But they usually did so with a spin that the actual researchers might not have been saying: that teenage brains are inferior. Or broken. Or incapable.

I’m preaching to the choir here: you know in your gut that this isn’t true. The focus of research has shifted, by the way, to a question of capabilities and strengths; but at a popular level, the idea that teenagers are broken (and that science says so) continues to be pervasive.

There’s also been a subtle inference, or assumption, that teenage brains have always been this way, and we’re just now discovering it. In other words, the widespread pop understanding of this stuff is that it’s a nature issue, not a nurture issue.

Do teenagers act the way they do because of the limitations of their brains? Or, are teenage brains the way they are because our culture does not expect (or allow) them to use their brains like adults? It’s a chicken-versus-egg question. And, it’s an age-old nature-versus-nurture question; and while research hasn’t or can’t answer it, popular reporting misleadingly assumes the position that paints teenagers in a brushstroke of incapability.

One author who pushed back, Dr. Robert Epstein, suggests that the nature assumption that teenage brains have always been this way results in the worst kind of profiling, deciding that a certain grouping of people are inferior based on their physiology, rather than their competence. He draws parallels to the once normal but now abhorrent assumptions about Jews, people of African descent and women.

In all three cases, the physiology of a group of people was presumed to make them inherently inferior (for example: the average smaller brain size of women was used as a basis for the presumption that women were inferior to men and less intelligent; but we now know this is simply not the case). He contends that we’re already seeing findings of teenage-brain development resulting in more isolation of teenagers from the adult world, more limitations on their freedoms and more infantilization (treating them like children).

My two cents: I’m interested in pushing back. While I have no interest in living with my head in the sand, I want to see teenagers live into their capabilities, and I want to see young adults move into adulthood.

And I’m embracing the idea embedded in a question that Dr. Dean Blevins asked during a panel he and I shared recently: Are teenagers a problem to be fixed, or a wonder to behold? I’m siding with the latter. And—hear me on this—the weight of most adolescent brain research has shifted in this direction also.

Living in the Tension without Ignoring the Implications

So where does all of this leave us, as youth workers who are trying to be responsive to the needs and lives of real teenagers?

A few years ago, I heard Andy Stanley give a talk on leadership in which he proposed that leaders need to know the difference between problems to be solved and tensions to be protected. I don’t know that the tension we’re addressing here needs to be nurtured, per se; but I do think we need to live in the tension. I want to be paradoxically committed both to being countercultural and to doing ministry in the real world that teenagers are living in.

Redwoods & Lighthouses

my “epilogue” column in Youthwork Magazine (UK) came out recently. i wrote it while on vacation in big sur, california, in july. here’s where my mind went…

I’m on holiday in Big Sur, California as I write. It’s on the central California coast, and is known for it’s massive sea cliffs and stunning vistas of the Pacific Ocean. But it’s also known for its California redwood trees. Redwoods, in case you don’t know, are massive trees. They can be up to 350 feet tall and 20 feet wide. And the older trees around here are 2000 years old.

IMG_4586The place we’re staying on holiday is in a deep canyon; our cabin is pressed in on all sides by redwoods. Yesterday, I sat outside for a while just enjoying the majesty of these colossal sentinels. And, as is common for me, my mind started wandering to how what I was viewing had connections to my life.

First, one can’t stare at a Rrdwood tree (or a sunset, or any number of other natural wonders) without having a sense of God. Majestic beckons our hearts and minds to reflect on God. Atheists struggle to find words for transcendent moments like this, compelled by a sense of something good outside of themselves, but not having language for it.

People default to faulty-but-aspirational language about “the universe,” ascribing volition and moral will to the earth or all that is. It clearly has an otherness, this sort of beauty. But so many of our attempts to describe it fall short, because, sitting in the dappled sunlight at the bottom of a stand of redwoods, I feel something personal in their presence.

I’m not suggesting that the trees are God. I’m suggesting that I am experiencing, as you would if you were sitting next to me, a liminal space that naturally carries so many of the characteristics of the Creator that I can’t help but sense the Creator.

As a youth worker, it’s critical that I put myself in these spaces on a regular basis, that I am reminded of this sense. I’d even go as far as to say that right now, looking at and contemplating the redwood trees, a full 9 hour drive from the teenagers I work with, I’m actively doing youth work. In fact, this is important youth work. Cultivating my spiritual vitality is some of the most important youth work I ever do.

But there’s another level of reflection I’m drawn to, one that’s more metaphorical and less literal: in youth work, I’m called to be the redwood tree.

I’m reminded of my horrible youth work failure, at about 20 years old. I’d just come from almost-and-accidentally breaking a girl’s neck while attempting an attention-getting pied piper move, when an older youth worker sat me down. He said something very close to this (he said this in love, but he was blunt):

You’re really failing at this so far! You’re trying to be a lighthouse on wheels, following the teenagers around and constantly beaming out “notice me!” But they don’t need or want that from you. They need you to be a lighthouse on a promontory, stationary and dependable. The light from a lighthouse isn’t used for prying or invading or exposing; it’s a faithful reference point.

So, lighthouses and redwood trees–sorry for all the metaphors there. But looking at these redwood trees, words like faithful and dependable and steady and constant take on bark-covered life. These trees show the scars of abuse and fires; but they remain steadfast. Storms have raged and glorious days have passed by. But these trees, they are persistent and relentless.

I’d like to be that kind of youth worker. I’m not interested, anymore, in putting on a good show. And, frankly, I’m not interested in trying to replace the Holy Spirit, bringing conviction, exposing faults. But I dream of being a youth worker–an agent of Christ in the lives of teenagers–who could be described as I’ve described these Redwood trees: dependable, faithful, persistent and relentless.

And just as these California redwoods are a reminder to me of a personal Creator, providing a transcendent sense of God’s majesty, I pray that I will be a youth worker whose steadfast reliability reminds teenagers of the One who created them and loves them, the One my life points toward.

18 things highly creative people do differently

i recently found a link to an article that i’d sent myself via email 6 months ago. yeah, i have some strange ways of keeping track of things. deal with it.

really insightful and challenging article in huffpo about the 18 things highly creative people do differently. i think i’m somewhat creative; and i do some of the things on this list pretty regularly. but i would be exponentially more creative if i leaned into these babies a bit more. click through to read the whole article (it’s really worth it, and an easy read); but here’s a list of the 18 habits:

  1. They daydream.
  2. They observe everything.
  3. They work the hours that work for them.
  4. They take time for solitude.
  5. They turn life’s obstacles around.
  6. They seek out new experiences.
  7. They “fail up.”
  8. They ask the big questions.
  9. They people-watch.
  10. They take risks.
  11. They view all of life as an opportunity for self-expression.
  12. They follow their true passions.
  13. They get out of their own heads.
  14. They lose track of the time.
  15. They surround themselves with beauty.
  16. They connect the dots.
  17. They constantly shake things up.
  18. They make time for mindfulness.