Tag Archives: youth ministry

what i’m really doing (youth worker version)

in case you didn’t see this on my facebook a few days ago… after seeing a similar grouping of pics based on pastors, my buddy george baum (of the band lost and found) created one for priests (since he is also an episcopal priest). then, he sent me this… (fantastic!)

innovations i’m convinced are needed in youth ministry

here are a handful of innovative movements I long to see in youth ministry, and am committing myself to.

go organic, buy local
youth ministry simply must become more organic and local. of course, your practice of youth ministry is local. but i’m addressing the whole engorged body of thinking and resourcing and modeling in the world of youth ministry. sure, national events can be great (heck, the youth cartel hosts some of them!). but remember that model church isn’t in your neighborhood, and isn’t populated by your teenagers and parents, and doesn’t necessarily share your values.

do not listen to me (or any other youth ministry “expert”) when we tell you what you should do. we might stir your thinking or imagination (and that’s a good thing); but you and i simply must cultivate an active life of spiritual discernment and organic contextualization when it comes to our approaches, models and methods.

i don’t know how we’re going to do this. and i’m certainly not the only one saying it. but we have to work against the isolation of teenagers, particularly in our churches. this, alone, is the single biggest failure of youth ministry over the past four or five decades.

models and practices for non-professional youth workers
sorry to be the doomsday guy, but the era of professional youth workers is going away, eventually. it might linger longer in certain denominations (like, southern baptist) or geographies (like, the south); but it’s on the decline, and it’s not going to return.

small churches, of course, have long done youth ministry without paid staff. but mid-sized to large white, suburban churches (where the majority of paid youth workers exist) have no idea how to even think about youth ministry without paid staff; and very soon, the money is just not going to be there.

what other innovations do you think are needed in youth ministry?

the featherweightiness of belonging

more than fifteen years ago, i identified three 7th and 8th grade guys in my junior high ministry and started meeting with them, as a group, as guys i wanted to mentor. i saw both a spiritual interest and leadership potential in each of them. i think back on this little group as one of my many fond memories over my 30 years in middle school ministry.

one of those guys was michael. other than one or two facebook connections in recent years, i’d mostly lost touch with michael. until a week ago. all i knew was that michael had, in the years since, seemed to drift away from the church (and maybe his faith?).

last week, while visiting the city michael now lives in, i got to have coffee with him. it was a blast to reconnect and hear his story. he’s a highly committed volunteer youth worker at his church these days, which–of course–brings me great joy.

but hearing michael’s story fascinated me. his freshman year of high school, michael had a traumatic skateboard accident and was incapacitated for three months. even though he’d been extremely involved in the youth ministry, no students called him while he was out, or came by to visit him. a couple leaders reached out, but no students.

the sunday morning he returned, not one person asked him where he’d been or how he was, or expressed that they’d missed him. a switch flipped, and michael suddenly, in that space (remember: he was a 14 year-old 9th grader at the time), saw that he didn’t belong. and he never came back.

a dozen years passed. michael got involved in a bunch of destructive habits, dropped out of high school (even though he was always an extremely intelligent guy), got his G.E.D., moved to another city, and sort of drifted through life. he said he never really dropped his belief in god, but he was very angry with the church. over time, this anger at the church grew to a calcified belief that the church was a joke, and merely a collective of hypocrites.

after a dozen years, michael felt the pull to try out a local church he’d heard about. funny thing is, while it might have been god’s spirit prompting him to return, michael’s entire reason for giving it a shot was to prove, to himself, that he was right about how cold and hypocritical the church was. by this time, michael had tattoos up and down his arms. he purposely wore a sleeveless shirt that morning, as an intentional dare to whoever would look at him funny or say something negative about his tattoos.

michael was walking across the parking lot of this church, steeling himself for the negative response he was confident he would receive. but the first person he encountered said, “great tats, man. who does your work?”

that was it. michael was back.

here’s what i find stunning about this story. the actions that caused michael to leave, and the action that opened the door to his return, were so very, very minor. they weren’t about structures or methodologies or programming or curriculum or buildings or youth rooms. they were both–negative and positive–about expressing (or not expressing), “you belong, and we want you here.”

amazing. seems life a puff of air — something so featherweight. but in negative and, thankfully, redemptive ways, these seemingly minor expressions shaped michael’s story more than anything else over the last 15 years.

how is your youth ministry embodying the value of belonging?

what’s the single objective of youth ministry?

super-smart youth ministry blogger paul martin ran a blog series (that no one read, because he posted them during christmas week) asking a variety of people to reflect on the question, “what’s the single objective of youth ministry?”

there are some really interesting responses, worth reading, from:
joel mayward and adam mclane
benjamin kerns and jeremy zach
mark riddle

here’s my response (click here to see paul’s comments):

yikes. this is a scary question. i like complexity, and abhor easy-answer-theology. so, while i know you, paul, well enough to know you’re not looking for an easy answer or a 3-step process, identifying a “single objective” of anything is tough, because, we always have multiple objectives — always, whether we want to or not. i’d be so much more comfortable with a list of objectives than singling one out.


i’ll play along. and i’m gonna use one word: christlikeness. that’s our singular objective, i suppose. if i were to put it into a sentence, it would be something like, “the single objective of youth ministry is to walk with teenagers on their journey toward christlikeness.”

of course, there’s a ton of secondary objectives implied in my sentence (as is — did i already say this? — always the case). as joel mayward wrote on your first day of this series, one can’t merely say “the objective is discipleship” without addressing what we mean by discipleship. of course, i know that you — paul — have a very different working definition and practice of discipleship than many youth workers. same is true here (and, really, i suppose my “christlikeness” and joel’s “discipleship” are two ways of saying the same thing).

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?”), curator (“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 say 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 (connecting with what adam mclane wrote for you) is to be the evangelist for teenagers in my church. i am the lead banner waver for teenagers in my congregation, reminding them of their responsibility to collectively engage with the teenagers in their midst.

whatcha think? how would you answer that question?

keys to longevity in youth ministry

i received this question from a youth worker yesterday:
I am speaking at a youth ministry event on Longevity in Ministry. I would love to hear back from you on what your top 10 secrets of longevity in ministry are?

here’s what i wrote in response:

in no particular order…
1. embrace humility. ask people to hold you accountable to this.
2. have intentional conversations with youth workers who have stayed in one church for 10 years or more. seek their input.
3. make a list of the reasons why longevity is valuable. pull it out and read it from time to time.
4. get over yourself. you are not god’s secret weapon or only option.
5. ruthlessly develop intimacy with jesus. only when you are deeply connected with jesus will you be able to set aside your ego and weather the temptations to move on.
6. remind yourself regularly that your calling does not come from people, but from god.
7. decide how you will measure your success. bad measures of success = a big program, lots of ego strokes, buzz, impressive numbers. good measures of success = the faith of former teenagers when they’re in their 20s or 30s (and only longevity allows you to really see that).
8. consider the cost to your church, the teenagers you serve, your family, and your own soul of constantly looking over the fence for something “better”.
9. eschew power. power corrupts your calling, and falsely inflates your sense of importance.
10. value faithfulness over influence.

oh, and #11: cultivate a life outside of youth ministry

how about an even dozen? #12: be ruthless about establishing and honoring a sustainable rhythm of silence and solitude.

what do you think? what did i miss?
and, which of these is most difficult for you?

overheard at my 6th grade guys’ small group

not as much this week, but worth passing along…

when asked, “what should be on the list of best christmas gifts?”:
“a box of happiness”
“fruitcake: but only if it’s moist and chunky”
“baked goods”
“a target gift card”
“$100 to The Brigantine” (the brig is a nice seafood restaurant in our area. a very strange answer from a 6th grade guy!)

my co-leader was sharing the story of simeon, the man who, reported in luke 2, was waiting for the messiah, and got to hold baby jesus at the temple. one of the guys threw his hand in the air and started “ooh-ooh-oohing”:
“i wonder if, when he was holding jesus, he held him up and went all ‘Nants ingonyama bagithi baba'” (a lion king reference, from when musafa holds up baby simba at pride rock)

and, the ‘yup, this is why i do this’ reminder, from when we were sharing prayer requests:
“pray that i’ll get more mature. i need god to help me grow up.”

oh, and the two atomic squirrels in the photo? we took the guys out for frozen yogurt, on a very chilly san diego evening. one of them joked that since it was cold, he should eat it outside with his shirt off (yup). i dared him. two of them went for it, and kept their shirts off, while eating frozen yogurt, outside, for 45 minutes.

the role of the holy spirit in youth ministry

i was one of the three contributors on this week’s slant33.com question: what’s the role of the holy spirit in your youth ministry? click here to see the excellent responses from the other two contributors, albert tate and brooklyn lindsey. but here’s my response:

I’ve had a bit of an awakening to the Holy Spirit in the last couple years. As soon as most people read that first sentence, though, they will assume I mean that I’ve awoken to signs and wonders stuff. That’s not what I mean. (Everything on the table: I’m in the middle; I’m not a sensationalist, but I’ve not had much personal experience or desire for signs and wonders experiences.) The awakening to the Holy Spirit that I’ve experienced has played out on two levels: in my own life and faith practice and in my thinking about youth ministry and church leadership.

My last year at Youth Specialties and the pressure I felt to perform were particularly soul deadening for me. By the time I got laid off, I was close to burnout—both professionally and spiritually. But in the two or three months that followed, I experienced a gorgeous re-awakening of my soul. I felt God’s presence for the first time in a long time. My prayer life rekindled, and I started to hear God speaking, nudging, consoling. I knew this was the Holy Spirit, who had never left, of course. Instead, my spiritual eyes were merely opening to the Spirit’s presence.

This ramped up when I launched the Youth Ministry Coaching Program. When my cohorts were in times of personal sharing, I started sensing the Holy Spirit giving me insight that was beyond me, and I even started receiving what could only be called words of truth to be offered to others. I entered into the exercise of this with open hands—not grasping it or claiming it or arrogantly confident about whatever I might think I should say. But I was amazed, over and over again (as I have continued to be over the last eighteen months) that what I was hearing—from the Holy Spirit—was usually accurate. One of the most powerful of these was a time when I had a strong sense that another person in the sharing circle had a word from God for the person talking. Sure enough, when I called that out, the words spoken had a profoundly holy and truthy beauty to them, and we all knew we were on holy ground.

This has changed both my regular, everyday experience of God as well as my youth ministry practice. When I’m leading my middle-school-guys small group, for example, I’m trying to choose (and it is a choice, by the way) to simultaneously listen to my guys and to the Holy Spirit. One of the surprise benefits to me, in a youth ministry setting, is that I feel unburdened and free. That’s because I’m not carrying the absurd responsibility of being smart or insightful enough to know what to say.

This personal awakening and shift in my practice has also shaped my thinking about youth ministry and church leadership. If you ever hear me talk about Youth Ministry 3.0 stuff these days, I hope you hear the difference from what I wrote about in that book. When I wrote that book, about four years ago now, I was not operating with this mindset or experience, and most of my suggestions only tip a hat to the role of the Holy Spirit. But these days, I’m convinced that great youth workers (and great church leaders) need to recover the art of collaborative discernment. Great youth ministry takes all different forms because it has to be contextual. But the path to a wonderfully contextualized youth ministry is not merely an effort of assessment and study. In fact, it is first and foremost an exercise of listening (and I believe that listening needs to be practiced in community, which is why I am passionate about collaborative discernment).

Yes, we need to do assessments and learn about the community we do ministry in; yes, we need to read and study and observe. But more important than all of that is the intentional act of gathering a small group of spiritually minded people to actively listen to the Holy Spirit. Ask, What teenagers have you placed in our midst? (No, just observing them is not enough.) Listen. Ask, What teenagers are you calling us to in our community? Listen. Ask, What would a culturally and contextually appropriate approach be to reach those teenagers? Listen.

Bottom line #1: Without a sense of the Holy Spirit’s role in your life, you will always be limited in your own spiritual growth and practice and, therefore, in your youth ministry efforts. Bottom line #2: A youth ministry that’s not informed by active and intentional listening to the Holy Spirit will miss out on who God is calling it to be.

how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

i’ve really enjoyed being part of creating slant33.com this year. the youth cartel picked the 20 primary contributors, came up with the 52 weekly questions, and worked with the contributors to select three for each question. but i’m also one of the contributors. this week’s slant asks a practical question that has been posed to me many times over the last decade or so: how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

here’s my response:

I moved too often in my first bunch of years of youth ministry. Let’s just get that on the table right up front. I can easily explain or justify each move (the church couldn’t hire me full time; I got fired; there were budget cutbacks, and I was going to lose my job). All legit. All rational.

The problem is, though, I think my mess was too much a part of the decision-making goulash each time. I wanted more power. I wanted to be liked more. I wanted to be respected more. And, man, the grass is so freaking green at the church calling you. It’s like green food coloring green.

I’m not saying those moves were mistakes. But I’m definitely saying my process of deciding was faulty. Well, except maybe the time I got fired. I didn’t have much say in that. But my discernment process for the next job was just as faulty as the ones that offered more volition. It wasn’t until I left my fourth church, to go to Youth Specialties, that my process was patient and thoughtful and anything resembling spiritual discernment.

In church world, we are pretty good at masking this. We are quick with the “God is calling me” language because it just doesn’t sound that good to say, “I just don’t like you people” or, “Sorry, but that other church offered me way more money” or, “I ran out of ideas here and need to go somewhere else where I can repeat them all and have them seem new.”

Over my dozen years at Youth Specialties, and in the couple years since, I’ve had hundreds of youth workers ask me about leaving. I don’t think we have the space to go into a deep response about spiritual discernment. But let me take a swing at a couple other related issues:

Are you worn out? Youth ministry can be one of the more wearying jobs out there. There are plenty of other jobs that are more physically exhausting. But when you add in the emotional, mental, and relational strain, well, it’s easy to get toasty. So we all get worn out. The question is: Is this a worn out that, with some rest, you can come back from? Are you tired, or are you worn out to the point that you’re going to do damage if you stay?

You might need some extended rest or a sabbatical in order to figure this out. (Of course, that feels risky too. My friend asked for and received a three-month sabbatical to discern whether he was supposed to stay at his church. On the day he returned to tell the church he had a renewed sense of calling and was going to stay, they informed him they’d decided the opposite. Ah, churches. That goofy bride o’ Christ.)

The other significant question I think youth workers need to ask themselves is: Can I find something—anything—that I can respect about my senior pastor and leadership? In my experience, most people who are even considering a move at all are, to one extent or another, dissatisfied. Something is not great. And, more often than not, when I dig into these questions with youth workers, I find the core issue circling around an eroded trust in and respect for the senior pastor (or sometimes for the broader church leadership; but that’s tolerable if the youth worker feels like the senior pastor is honest about it).

Here’s what it boils down to for me: If you’re wondering about leaving, even flirting with the idea, there are some steps to take and questions to ask yourself:

    1. Bring a discernment team around for this purpose alone. Obviously, these need to be highly trustworthy people who will understand the confidentiality of the situation. Read up on Quaker Clearness Committees and give the group permission, even a charge, to ask you anything and everything.

    2. Ask yourself, Why am I less than satisfied? Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and journal about it.

    3. If your dissatisfaction is centered around a lack of respect for the leadership of the church, you have three options:

  • Leave. If you are bitter and stay, you will do damage. Hear this: Even if the church leadership really is wrong, it’s wrong for you to be a mini Godzilla.
  • Realize you’ll need to leave but not immediately. Set a deadline. Be optimistic and supportive of the church leadership, knowing there’s a light at the end of your tunnel.
  • Or, find something to respect about your senior leadership and pray for a softened heart and renewed passion.

read responses from adam mclane and lars rood here. and check in on slant33.com every monday afternoon for a new question and three slants (or subscribe via email or rss here).

youth ministry, parents, and logic

i’m writing a short book for barefoot ministries on parents (not for parents, but about parents). it’s one of three short books geared for volunteer youth workers that will be released as ebooks. the other two are on understanding teenagers and leading small groups.

while i don’t agree with the “abolish youth ministry” viewpoint of divided: the movie, i totally think there’s some undergirding truth to the need for ongoing reshaping of our perspectives on parents. to that end, i just wrote these three sentences in the manuscript of the book:

There’s some big picture logic we have to embrace:

If we care about the spiritual formation of teenagers, and know that parents have a bigger impact on their spiritual lives than anything else, we would be foolish not to invest time and energy into parents of teenagers.

If we, ultimately, care about the whole lives of teenagers, and know that their parents have a bigger influence on their whole lives than any other influence (including their peers, and certainly including us), it would be arrogant or myopic to ignore parents in our youth ministry strategies.

If we see in scripture that parents have the primary responsibility for the spiritual shaping of their children, we would be biblical revisionists or showing our ignorance to attempt any youth ministry approach that circumvents parents.

what’s your response?

(as an aside, what’s it say that when i looked at google images with “parent” and “teenager” in the search, the majority of images are of parents and teens in conflict?)

only three days left to order your ‘extended adolescence symposium’ mp3 or ebook

i’m stoked. i wasn’t sure it would happen. but it did, thanks to some very gracious supporters who believe in what we’re doing.

so, yes, it’s official: the extended adolescence symposium is officially on.

i’m still a little in shock.

first, i thought it was such a crazy long shot that we could get our first pick of presenters. dr. robert epstein is a freakin’ grenade launcher. he has messed with my mind over the past year when it comes to thinking about adolescence and youth ministry and parenting. then there’s dr. jeffrey arnett, the dude who literally wrote the book (and came up with the phrase) on emerging adulthood. i think i’m a decent moderator; but when both epstein and arnett said they’d love to be a part of this thing, i knew we needed someone with much more significant mental chops. enter dr. kara powell. yup, her.

seriously, i designed this event for me! i want to learn from these people. i want to understand what’s going on in american adolescence. i want to more deeply think about the questions of why? and so what? i want to be challenge to rethink things. and, to be honest, i’m hoping to see a few sparks fly!

but the second shock was that people rallied to our kickstarter page and we have the majority of the funding we need to make this puppy a reality. i’ll try not to be hurt that no one opted in for the $500 steak dinner with me (sniff). i am a little surprised that no one wanted the $250 ‘lunch with one of the speakers’. heck, i think an hour with epstein or arnett or kara would, literally, be worth 5 times that, easily. but, hey, i’m not complaining. and mucho, mucho thanks to those who have pitched in, especially when getting the swag wasn’t your primary motivation (i know of many who just wanted to play a role in seeing this conversation take place).

next week, adam and i will launch a page on our website with regular ol’ ticket sales for this ain’t-been-done-before-and-might-not-be-again event. but, in order to get this thing approved on kickstarter, we had to come up with a couple non-event thingies. that’s where the mp3 of the event and the abridged ebook of choice quotes came from. but i only asked permission from the speakers to use their stuff for people who paid for it during the fundraising efforts on kickstarter.

in other words: the mp3 of the entire event, and the abridged ebook of selected content from the event will only be available until our kickstarter deadline this saturday, september 17. after that, we hope you’ll attend the event, but there won’t be any other way to get that stuff.

oh, and the regular ticket price will be $100. on the kickstarter site, you can still get ‘pre-sale’ tickets for $75. that price won’t be offered anywhere else.

so i’m just, ya know, givin’ you a heads up. (and, full disclosure, the money we’ve raised still won’t cover our actual costs.)