Category Archives: youth ministry

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.

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).

Six Practices Growing Leaders Embrace (longer version)

some time ago, i posted a short FRIDAY NUGGET on six practices that growing leaders embrace. some time later, i expanded that into a column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK). thought it would be worth sharing here:


Over and over again, I see Christian leaders holding up balance as a biblical value, a goal by which we can live in a Christian way. And, honestly, it angers me. Let me be clear: balance is not a biblical value: it’s a western value born of the enlightenment and modernity.

I’m much more interested in sustainability and thriving. When I read Jesus’ words, “I have come that they might have life, and life to the full,” I don’t hear balance; but I do hear sustainability and thriving.

This issue comes up often in the coaching groups I run with youth workers, people who’s lives are often—because of the never-ending nature of our roles—completely out of balance. Together, we explore what it might look like, for each individual, to practices and commitments that will move them toward a life of sustainability and thriving.

Recently, during an open time of questions at one of these coaching groups, one youth worker asked the group for suggested practices for ongoing growth as a leader. I loved the question (even the question itself is fantastic). And as others in the group suggested ideas, I started scribbling ideas on a piece of paper. I’m not normally one prone to alliteration; but six words starting with R revealed themselves on my page.

If you want to grow as a leader, moving toward greater impact and the sort of life that God has always dreamed of for you, I think you could do a whole lot worse than to lean into these six practices:

marko growth croppedRhythm. If you desire to experience the fullness of life that Jesus offers, you’ve got to be intentional about finding a rhythm of life that works for you (and the significant people in your life). If your beautiful and wonderful calling to youth work gets played out with you being out five evenings a week, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm. If you don’t have downtime, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm. If you don’t have times when you’re not thinking about ministry, you haven’t found a healthy rhythm.

Consider a rhythm that leads to vibrancy at a weekly level, a seasonal level, and an annual level.

Healthy, growing, vibrant leaders are both proactive and reactive about rhythm. They plan and ruthlessly schedule rhythm; and they pay attention to three things: their energy levels, the fruit of the Spirit in their daily lives, and their levels of intimacy with core relationships. And, when they discern any of those things are out of whack, they make adjustments.

Read. Surely you’ve heard the saying “Leaders are Readers.” It’s tough to grow without reading. Put yourself on a reading diet.

Make sure you don’t only read books you expect you’ll agree with. Often our best growth comes from being challenged to think in different ways.

And don’t only read ministry books (though include those also). Read widely, from many genres. I often find that fiction, and nonfiction from bodies of knowledge that are foreign to me, spark my most creative thinking.

Risk. Just yesterday I was coaching a youth worker, and asked him, “Where are you taking a risk in your ministry this season; and where you are taking a risk in your personal life?” He struggled to find a good answer, and we both knew he was coasting. Coasting = no growth.

Bluntly: there is no growth without risk.

Renew. If you’re in full-tilt mode at all times, you’ll soon be headed for a crash, or burnout. Check this: even Jesus was intentional about withdrawing from his work and the crowds. Jesus left people unhealed, potential sermons unpreached, and miracles unmiracled! And remember (duh!) that Jesus is God, with limitless power. Clearly Jesus wasn’t a slacker; and clearly, you need renewal if you’re going to serve in youth work for more than a few weeks.

Bottom line: healthy leaders find meaningful pursuits that provide recalibration, refreshment and renewal. (Ooh! Three more R words!)

Reflect. Great youth work requires adjustments that most often come from careful, contemplative, strategic thinking. And that sort of thinking rarely happens on the fly, while grabbing another large coffee in a drive-thru.

Instead: great leaders make intentional time to reflect. This requires a discipline of slowing down (at times).

Retreat. This last practice overlaps with some of the other practices on this list (particularly rhythm, renewal and reflection). Growing leaders pull away for extended times on a regular basis. Short bursts of renewal and reflection are great; but real growth also requires more extended retreat.

Are you growing? Are you thriving? Does your entire life (ministry and not) feel gorgeously sustainable? If not: take a moment to prayerfully consider which of these practices you need to ramp up.

FRIDAY NUGGET: The Role of Trust in Youth Ministry

sorry for the unplanned month off of blogging there. just had too much on my plate for a bit. i’m back.


trust

possible to build. but it requires time and intention.
easy to lose, in a second.
possible to re-build. but it takes twice as long as the first time.

without trust and safety, your ministry will not experience communion. and without communion, the ministry will be clubbish and wimpy.

youth worker story: 10 church youth ministry

meredith hinton is a youth worker in one of my current north carolina YMCP cohorts. and she’s a freaking rockstar.

(disclaimer: it’s very possible i have some minor details off on this; but the basics, i’m quite sure, are accurate; and any minor discrepancies in no way diminish the large servings of awesome.)

so: meredith was a youth intern, and then, while in seminary, was involved in some sort of ministry effort that involved multiple small churches. and in that context, a vision was birthed. when meredith’s freshly minted husband (also a minister, but of the ‘one in charge’ variety) got placed in a small church in far-western north carolina, meredith started to dream and scheme, plan and pray. she knew the methodist churches in appalachia were all tiny, and that few–if any–could support a youth ministry.

meredithmeredith and four local pastors (including her husband) put together a grant proposal and got funding for a few years of start-up. she met with 10 small churches in her district and shared a vision for a shared youth ministry. all 10 jumped in. and now, a year later, this beautiful thing is unique and quirky and powerful.

get these realities that are so contextualized and amazing:

  • the 10 churches have something like 5 pastors between them (more than one of the pastors have a ‘multi-point charge,’ meaning they preach at multiple churches)
  • most of these churches have between 6 and 50 people in them
  • 5 of the churches do not even have a single child or teenager, yet they’re on board and fully supportive (and involved)
  • the youth group meetings rotate to a different church occasionally (i think it’s every three months)
  • meredith has about 15 teenagers coming regularly; and get this: she had so many adults (mostly parents) showing up to help (too many for the youth ministry), so she started an adult small group that meets concurrently with the overflow of parents.

meredith’s context is certainly unique. and what’s next, when the grant runs out, is still unclear. but meredith has developed a deep love for–and localized understanding of–the ‘mountain people’ (as she calls the people in her community). as readers of this blog will know, i’m deeply convinced that the very best youth ministries will always be highly contextualized and borne out of discernment from the spirit’s leading. meredith hinton, and her one-of-a-kind youth ministry are embodiments of those two realities.

here’s a little video of meredith put together by the duke endowment (her grant provider). well worth the few minutes to watch — you’ll be inspired!

FRIDAY NUGGET: Stop Wrecking It for the Rest of Us!

a few years ago now, i lead a discussion at a convention about ‘the future of youth ministry.’ in prep for that, i’d asked for quotes from a variety of youth ministry thinkers. steve argue, the brilliant pot-stirrer who was just hired as a youth min prof at fuller, sent me the following e-grenade (put your kevlar vest on before reading!):

Hey church, adolescents are NOT leaving you. You are perpetually leaving them. Stop using statistical bullsh*t to project blame. Repent.

Unless you’re willing to let adolescents mess with your own life, you have no business messing with their lives.

Most churches are not worthy of youth pastors. Youth pastors, stop giving yourself to organizations that use you to better “market” their church to families; that expect you to “produce” programs; and that exploit you because they know it’s hard to leave the kids you love. Walk away. Don’t take the job, because if you do, you’re wrecking it for all of us. Raise the bar. Boycott churches unworthy of youth pastors. Amen.

FRIDAY NUGGET: let’s re-weird-ify youth ministry

a couple weeks ago, i posted (on twitter and facebook) this quote, in a graphic form:

uniquness

reading the responses (mostly positive), reminded me of an amazing quote from kenda creasy dean. a few years ago now, i lead a discussion at a convention about ‘the future of youth ministry.’ in prep for that, i’d asked for quotes from a variety of youth ministry thinkers. kenda sent me a mic-drop. i love, love, love this:

Teenagers know, better than we do, that when we ask them to be Christians, we are asking them to do a very dangerous thing. The only way out is to adopt a “safe” version of Christianity (which might not be Christian at all) that helps them become good, nice people instead of people who love others sacrificially. But as we know, good and nice “Christianity” seldom lasts past high school, since teenagers quickly learn that people can be perfectly good and nice without Jesus anywhere in the picture.

So I think in the future, youth ministry will try to re-weird-ify Christianity, highlighting Jesus’ radical actions and peculiar self-giving love, in an effort to resist the American church’s habit of trying to tame the gospel into a middle class bedtime story. If Christianity is dangerous, then we need to act like it. Teenagers aren’t afraid of risk, but they want to know that Jesus is worth it. Young people are going to demand that we, the church, be who we say we are–people who obviously follow Jesus, which makes us “weird” in a culture based on self-actualization and self-fulfillment–or they’re just not going to bother with us at all.

bam. stew on that one a bit.

The Life Book and National Evangelism Week

thelifebook-book-coverhey youth workers: have you heard of The Life Book? it’s a nicely designed gospel of john with additional comments and interaction bits, aimed at teenagers. it’s designed as a simple, non-coercive ‘gift’ for teenagers to give out to their friends and classmates. and thanks to support from the Gideons, it’s completely free. in fact, more than 1.3 million teenagers have given out more than 19 million copies of The Life Book since 2010.

there are certainly a couple levels of benefit surrounding this. first, it gets the gospel of john into the hands of teenagers who would never step into your church or youth group. but it’s also a pretty cool discipleship step for christian teenagers, an onramp to having spiritual conversations with friends. this sort of verbal articulation of faith, we’re finding (most notably in mandy drury’s research on the importance of ‘testimony’ in adolescent faith formation) is critically important to developing a faith that last beyond youth group attendance.

i like the people at The Life Book also. they’re not weird. they’re good hearted, genuine people who really care about teenagers. so i feel good about telling you about them. we’re doing some stuff with them at our event, The Summit, this year also. and for those of you who order anything from The Youth Cartel store in august and september (and as long as our supply lasts), you’ll find you get a copy of The Life Book with your order.

so i’d totally encourage you to do a couple things:

  1. order copies of The Life Book for your group to give out.
  2. consider linking your distribution week with others during National Evangelism Week (NEW), september 20 – 26.

for more info, or to place an order, click here.

here’s some info straight from the peeps at The Life Book:

For National Evangelism Week:

  • We just made it up. Why? We thought it would be awesome if we all focused on both Evangelism and Prayer during the week of See You at the Pole.
  • Imagine one week focused on Evangelism and Prayer. September 20th- 26th, 2015
  • Make your request for Free Life Books by August 31st (that’s next monday!) to get them in time for this week.

FAQs

  • What is The Life Book? The Life Book contains the Gospel of John (ESV) and includes interactive student comments and scripture helps for issues students face. Over 1.3
    Million students have handed out over 19 Million Life Books since 2010.
  • Can students give them out beyond National Evangelism Week? Yes. Feel free to request 2500 Free Life Books and have your students hand them out all throughout the
    school year. This is a great way to foster an evangelistic mindset in students. (Our experience recommends you request 25 Life Books per student in your youth group to
    hand out.)
  • Is it really free? Absolutely. No strings attached. We are wholly funded by The Gideons International.
  • Is this only for churches? Yes. We can only provide free Life Books to Church pastors and youth leaders.