Category Archives: youth ministry

Stacks of Money

teenagers and materialism, part 1

here’s an article i wrote a few years ago on teenagers and materialism. i thought it was worth a revisit.

A Different Spin on the Problem of Materialism

I have a friend who’s on welfare. He’s brilliant and creative and funny. He’s a fantastic writer, and has dreams of getting published. As employment, he’s waiting for that dream to come true. His wife had a minor injury at work a few years ago and went on disability. Now, if she gets a job, the disability will be cut off. So they have absolutely no money. And they have three teenage kids (all of whom, by the way, are fully capable of getting a job and helping the family, but don’t).

My friend’s teenage kids, who have an nice gaming system, feel completely ripped off that they can’t get the newest gaming system. They lounge around the house complaining about how much it sucks that their parents can’t get them the new system, while dozens of games for the fully functional gaming system at their feet retire to the land of forgotten toys.

Why does this bug me so much? Well, a few reasons. But the reality is, the whole thing bugs me because it exposes everyone’s materialism–certainly my friend’s teenage kids, but also my friend and his wife, and yes, even mine. See, while I really enjoy this friend, and like hanging out with him, I’ve not yet had him over to my own home. I’m concerned that he will only see me as a source for money or other stuff. I don’t have that newest gaming system, but I have a lot of stuff. And the potential that my friend could view me as a potential lava-flow of cash only exposes me! If I weren’t materialistic, and a champion-level collector of new gadgetry, my friend’s potential perspective wouldn’t be an issue.

Let’s face it: we’re all materialistic (at least most of us). Trying to say that this generation of teenagers is so different, so much worse–I’m not sure I buy it (ha, get it? “Buy” it!). Anyone young enough to have completely missed World War II (that would be most of us) has no real sense of limitations on spending. So what is different about today’s teenagers and materialism?

Well, first of all, they are materialistic. They want stuff. They have massive spending power, and Madison Avenue spend millions of dollars to open the pocketbooks of teenagers. This is overly simplistic, but there are a couple key factors in play here:
- There have always been materialistic stuff-hoarding people. But materialism was never embraced as a cultural norm–as something to be proud of–until the 1980s.
- Connected to that reality, teenagers today embrace the materialism they see exhibited in their homes and the world around them. They have lived with a heightened materialism their entire lives.

This is one of the reasons we tend to notice the materialism of teenagers. Especially for those of us who were teenagers prior to the 90s (for me, WAY-prior to the 90s!), there is a new embracing of stuff that wasn’t present to the same degree when we were teenagers.

tomorrow: “talking about the evils of materialism is like talking about the evils of water to fish–it just doesn’t compute.”

teenage brain

teenage brains wired for awesome stuff

brainstormreading Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel. it’s been on my ‘to read’ stack for more than six months.

it reminds me of the wonderful quote that dean blevins tossed out during our panel on teenage brains at the nywc last fall:

do we view teenagers as a problem to be solved, or a wonder to behold?

view this quote from the book through a “wonder to behold” lens:

Brain changes during the early teen years set up four qualities of our minds during adolescence: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration.

yeah, i think i’ll have to blog about this more. but this is worth a mini-post by itself.

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in defense of short term missions (with pictures!)

short term missions in youth ministry has been taking quite a bit of hits recently. and, honestly, i agree with a good bit of the criticism. but i think much of the criticism misses a few extremely important points and throws the baby out with the bathwater.

take, for instance, this huffpo blog post i read last week (but was posted earlier this year), called The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism. the author recalls the savior complex she brought to her orphanage visit, and the horrendous construction work done by her group of teenage girls that required local men to come during the night and completely undo and redo the work. based on her experience with a poorly executed trip, the author suggests:

It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.

I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.

and her “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” final conclusion:

Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip.

this, i believe, is unfortunately misinformed. i completely agree that there are some missions trip that are ill-conceived, poorly executed, and focused almost exclusively on giving the american participants a warm fuzzy feeling. i completely agree that you shouldn’t take your youth group on a trip like this.

but the correction doesn’t have to have only the two options the author (and so many others) suggest: either have a useful skill, or don’t go. instead, there are other very helpful (essential!) ways to ensure that your trip isn’t voluntourism. they boil down to these issues:

  1. work with an organization that is imbedded in the local culture.
  2. work with an organization that ruthlessly cultivates long term local relationships of trust from an unflinching commitment to serving the vision of local, indigenous leaders.
  3. prep your team effectively, so they come to serve, rather than to be either “saviors” or tourists.

here’s what i saw again this past week in belize, during my time here with Praying Pelican Missions:

people like this decide what needs to get done (the guy on the left, that is). that’s pastor henry, pastor of sand hill baptist church and a national leader in the belize baptist church. HE decides, not the visiting groups or PPM.
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skilled laborers are employed for construction projects, like this construction worker on a site i visited this week:
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but no particular skill is needed to mix cement and do other grunt work. in this case, the visiting group of teenagers and some teens from the church worked side-by-side on the non-skilled grunt work.
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kids min doesn’t focus on conversions. in this fantastic case, belizians led parts of the kids min (they’re the up front people during this time of singing), and visiting americans help where they’re helpful (running games, doing crafts).
kids min

and when an orphanage with wonderful leadership says “we’re short-staffed, and the children don’t get as much touch and play as we would like them to have,” well, it doesn’t take much skill to be present to a child who’s not experiencing much of childhood.
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so, yes, let’s absolutely be thoughtful and super cautious. let’s stay away from voluntourism and colonialism and savior complexes and helping that hurts. if your trips include any shade of those mindsets, repent, and find a new missions trip provider. but even if you wouldn’t think of knowingly taking your youth group on “bad” trip, don’t allow your good and healthy aversion to those sins keep you from helping teenagers participate in kingdom work in the world. just make sure you and the organization you work with or through is ruthlessly committed to (and has a track record of living out) the values i’ve suggested here.

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Aaron and Hur were onto something

I spent the day Saturday with Pastor Ed and Pastor Rosaura, both passionate and visionary church leaders in Belize. No question about it, they stirred up my faith, challenged my half-hearted commitment, and embodied the true definition of the word “pastor” in ways most of us rarely encounter.

Pastor Ed was the leader of a small, struggling church. He and his wife felt called to intentionally and proactively launch a community children’s ministry. But when they sought the input of their church leadership, the vision was voted down. They took it to their denominational leadership and received the same negative response. Not able to shake their sense of calling, they stepped down from their church and launched a children’s ministry with no safety net, no support systems.

Now, a few years later, Pastor Ed and his wife lead Koinonia ministries–a revolutionary children’s ministry in their town of Orange Walk, Belize. Ed told me that in Belize, children begin taking on significant responsibilities at about age 5, and rarely get a chance to be children. So a big part of their ministries is just to allow kids to be kids. Their ministry might not look revolutionary to American church leaders who see robust and well-financed children’s ministry all the time; but in Belize, hardly anyone is doing stuff like this.

I happened to be in Orange Walk on one of three Saturdays in the year when Koinonia holds their “children’s fair.” At the fair, kids brought in little play money they had “earned” in a variety of ways over the last few months. Then they used the “money” to play carnival games where they won school supplies (there are no free schools in Belize, and both the cost of school and the cost of school supplies is a significant hurdle for many families).

Check out the joy on these kids’ faces:

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Oh, and as the parents of these hundreds of kids started to hang around, many of them began asking for a church. Koinonia church now has about 80 people (large for a Belizian church) meeting under an awning on the side of Ed’s house.

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And Ed has a vision for training children’s workers all over Belize and Central America. He now has about 200 children’s ministry leaders from all denominations (ministries across denominational lines is extremely rare in Belize), including Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and even Old Order Mennonite, coming to Koinonia three times a year for training. Next week, Ed and some of his young leaders are traveling to Guatemala and Honduras to lead children’s ministry training sessions.

Ed and his wife have basically given up everything to follow this calling; but he is clearly living the fullness of life in a way that most people never realize.

Then Ed took me to meet Pastor Rosaura. Honestly, I found her little village of Caledonia a bit depressing. Or, at least, let’s say it would be a tough place to minister. Isolated and small (2000 people), with all the societal challenges that come with being a poor, isolated village. Rosaura and her church leadership team greeted us warmly and shared with passion about their very, very local commitment. This woman has a love for her village that is palpable.

Two years ago, she was deeply discouraged. Her tiny church was struggling, and none of her vision for her village was being realized. But through an introduction from Pastor Ed, Praying Pelican Missions showed up and asked if they could bring groups to help her. Hearing her tell the story of these past few years, and how things have very much turned around for this little (but growing) church, she was full of hope. And what was clear to me was that it wasn’t really about the projects that the visiting PPM groups did; it was that someone saw them, that the groups who were willing to come to Caledonia were a clear indicator to Rosaura that God had not forgotten them.

One of the best stories Rosaura told me was how she and her church leaders felt called to “anoint” their village. But they weren’t sure how to do it in a way that didn’t create friction or alienation. So after praying about it for a while, they collected hundreds of pebbles. They put the pebbles in a large bag and coated them with oil, praying over them. Then, in the middle of the night, they prayer-walked through the entire village and dropped a pebble in each yard.

Here’s what struck me about Pastor Ed and Pastor Rosaura: they need Aarons and Hurs to hold up their arms (just like Aaron and Hur did for Moses when his arms grew tired while the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea on their way out of captivity). Sure, they could use funding and resources. And, yes, the PPM teams that come and work with them are absolutely helpful. But these two leaders are not short of vision, not short of passion, and deeply know a God who is not short of meeting any need. What they DO need is people who say, “We believe in you, and we believe in your vision; and however we can help you, we’re committed to encouraging you with our presence.”

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“You think the gospel is boring? Come live with me for a week.”

Yesterday my Praying Pelican Missions (PPM) host drove me an hour west of Belize City to spend a few hours in the town of San Ignacio. I couldn’t help but think of Ignatius (the town’s namesake), the saint who instituted the Prayer of Examen, which calls us to reflect on where we saw God in both the life-giving and life-draining moments of our day. My middle school guys small group practices our own little version of this each week called “happy/crappy.”

And although life in San Ignacio is “crappy” by most American standards, I was almost overwhelmed by the quantity of “happy.” And I’m not just talking about a smiley feeling; I’m referring to the abundance of truly life-giving activity happening in and around San Ignacio. Much of this is due to a larger-than-life dynamo named Pastor Elizabeth and her family.

Pastor Elizabeth is exactly the sort of local church leader that PPM is laser focused on finding, then serving.

We drove to San Ignacio with Paula, Pastor Elizabeth’s 19 year-old daughter. This young woman has more maturity, drive and skill than most people a decade her senior. She leads trips for PPM, leads leadership development for Pastor Elizabeth’s church, and is responsible in one way or another for a myriad of creative outreach, community development, and leadership development initiatives.

IMG_4726We started with lunch at Pastor Elizabeth’s home (then ventured out to see many of their ministry initiatives). There were an extra half dozen people living in her very small and humble home at the time (not an uncommon occurrence, i came to discover), as people had need and she took them in. She served us a tasty meal and gushed energy and stories and life and Kingdom theology and embodied gospel like a freakin’ firehose for an hour, non-stop. Rarely in my life have I met an embodiment of living the gospel to the extent that I saw in Elizabeth.

Just a few of their ministries (most of which, visiting PPM groups sometimes help with, at Elizabeth’s request):

  • They found that many of the children coming to Sunday school on Sunday mornings were critically hungry (food scarcity is a significant problem in Belize). And even when the children do get meals, they are mostly starches and sugars. Elizabeth said to me, “When a child walks to church four miles for Sunday school and says “I’m hungry,” you can’t just say “Here’s a banana, I’ll pray for you.” So they started a feeding program for the children, which has grown to feeding 120 – 150 children each week. Elizabeth said she usually doesn’t know where the food will come from, but it’s always there, somehow.
  • At some point, they felt they needed a more dependable influx of protein. So they began a brilliant community development initiative. They build chicken coops for people (PPM teams often do this work), and stock them with 50 baby chicks (a particular chicken bred for meat), and give the family enough chicken feed for 6 weeks. At the end of the 6 weeks, the chickens are ready to be eaten. 10 of the chickens go to the family who raised them; 10 of the chickens go to the church’s feeding program; and the remaining 30 chickens are sold to provide funding for additional coops and starter-chickens. All of this is slowly building to the goal of providing financial resources to families in need, and food provisions for the feeding program (which they’re hoping to expand to a daily meal).
  • Similarly, they’ve started community gardens to grow vegetables (there is a surprising shortage of vegetables in Belize).
  • A nearby community was desperately in need of clean water. Women and children were walking miles to get water from other sources, often not clean. So Elizabeth’s church (with the help of a PPM team) designed and installed a rainwater collection system in multiple locations with an expectation that the water would be shared with anyone who needed it.
  • Paula leads an outreach and discipleship ministry that might seem interesting in the American church, but is unheard of here in Belize. They start cell groups around affinities of people in the community: sewing (which is actually a skill-training cell group, leading to work options for the women), sports, music, and others. They find that people are very willing to join one of these cell groups, even if they would never step into church. These groups become leadership development for the young adults who lead them, and outreach and discipleship for those who attend.

Elizabeth told me a story: “I was preparing a meal for a group of people from our neighborhood. There were 20 people, and I only had 2 small chickens. I had no idea how the food was going to be enough; but I prepared it and served it, praying that Jesus would do something amazing. I don’t know why everyone seemed to want drumsticks that day, but way too many of them specifically asked for a drumstick. And I kept serving them drumsticks. At the end of the meal, I said, ‘Now, wait a minute. How many of you ate a drumstick?’ And too many hands went up. I said, ‘Leave the drumstick bones–I want to see them.’ I went around and counted 13 drumsticks. And these were not some sort of weird chickens!”

She hit me with “Miracles don’t happen if we just sit there. We have to step out.” And she drove home the point with, “I tell people, ‘You think the gospel is boring? Come live with me for a week.’”

belizemap

Belize in the Lord with all your heart

today i’m flying to belize, a small country in central america. for some reason, not fully understood by me, i’ve always been curious about Belize. maybe it’s because it’s the only country in central america that has english as its official language. belize is on the gulf of mexico, with mexico to the north, and guatemala (a country i’ve been to a dozen times) to the west and south.

i’m not going on vacation. i’m going to see the work of Praying Pelican Missions. honestly, even though i’ve been in youth ministry since just after ronald reagan took office, i’d really not heard of PPM until a couple years ago. i mean, there sure are a lot of short term missions groups to choose from these days.

but after adam and i went to haiti with PPM last summer (see my posts from that trip here, here, here, here, and here), they have become my number one recommendation for youth groups doing international missions trips. i’ve seen the impact of short term missions done well. and i’ve seen the impact of short term missions done poorly. and i can truly say that i don’t know how i would improve on PPM’s approach. they form long-term relationships with existing ministries led by indigenous leaders. then they work to serve the vision and needs of those indigenous leaders, careful to not replace local workers, careful not to make the trip about the visiting americans, careful not to manipulate or mislead or run some version of ogling feel-good tourism. really, i was SO completely impressed by their work in haiti (and by the haitian leaders they serve and support).

belize welcomebelize is PPM’s oldest field. and while adam went to guatemala with PPM a month ago to see their newest work, i’m excited to see the work in a place where PPM has had relationships for a very long time. i’ll be meeting many belizian ministry leaders and pastors, and will be joining with a youth group on their own trip for a few days.

at the end of my time, i’m going to spend 24 hours out on caye caulker, by myself, resting, collecting my thoughts, and processing what i’ve experienced (and maybe snorkeling, since caye caulker has the second largest barrier reef in the world).

so, pray for me, primarily that i will really see what god wants me to see (including that i’ll see god at work). i’ll be blogging a few times while i’m there, so you can check back to read my impressions and thoughts and stirrings.

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.

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.