Tag Archives: youthworker journal

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.

the value of fun in youth ministry

my latest middle school ministry column for youthworker journal is online. i wrote about the importance and value of fun. and while it’s a middle school ministry column, the application, i believe, is broader than that.


funBecause the theme of this issue of YouthWorker is Best Games, I thought I’d use this space to address the issue of fun. It’s pretty much impossible to stay in young teen ministry for more than a few weeks without having at least some willingness to have fun. The most serious and Bible-focused middle school leader needs to add some fun as a value.

Fun is a God thing. God is the Inventor of fun, the One who designed the sensation of the tickle and created our mouths to turn up into smiles involuntarily. One might say, with some theological accuracy, God invented the “accidentally blowing Cherry Coke through your nostrils when caught off guard by something hilarious” response.

We often unintentionally teach a heresy about fun: that it’s all well and good, but isn’t actually spiritual. Fun is our non-formal curriculum when we say, “OK, we played that game, and it was fun; but now it’s time to get serious and turn to the Word of God.”

Fun is one of the last words most people would use to describe Christ-followers. It’s probably fair to say fun would be a weak ministry value if it were your only one; but let’s all stop apologizing and add fun with theological conviction to the vibe we desire in our youth ministries.

I have to believe Jesus and His boys laughed their heads off at times, especially after Andrew snorted and shot goat’s milk out his nose.

Fun is a cultural value and youth culture value. There’s no question that having fun is a high value to teenagers. We’re called as missionaries to bring a contextualized gospel to the world of teens. Because fun isn’t a value that’s antithetical to the gospel, let’s at least start with the assumption that it’s morally neutral, effectively used for good or evil, and can be experienced in a way that aligns with or diminishes God’s intent for our lives.

Of course, there are plenty of ways fun can be destructive. All lesser-funs are a bastardization of fun, resulting in the diminishment of a person God dearly loves.

When we don’t embrace fun as a value, middle schoolers subconsciously think, “This place doesn’t line up with what is normal and valuable to me; so this place isn’t a good fit for me.”

Fun engages teenagers. We can’t hope to play a role in connecting middle schoolers with the love of Jesus unless we first engage them. You don’t shape a young teen’s life simply by being in the same room.

Great engagement comes in lots of forms: offering genuine belonging, listening, asking questions, connecting with various senses. However, fun is at least one of those engagement tools in our kit. Attempted fun or forced fun can be lame; so there’s clearly a fine line to walk here. Fun can provide an avenue for engagement when the most proactive conversational approach falls flat in a pile of good intent.

Fun lowers defenses. You know you have middle schoolers who are naturally defensive to connecting with you or your middle school ministry program. That’s particularly true if they’re visitors, or for some other reason don’t feel a sense of connection and identification with the group.

Fun, though (particularly laughter) unfolds the arms, relaxes the tensed muscles and helps a defensive posture melt away. This really is a physical issue—defensiveness is a mindset with an accompanying muscle tightening. Fun, when it’s only observed, can cause a mindset change that naturally results in forgetting to hold the muscles clenched.

Fun fosters community. One can have fun when alone, but the best fun is usually a shared experience. That sort of concurrent fun amplifies the fun for all involved and plants seeds of community.

When you boil it down, community begins and is sustained by shared experiences. Allow fun to be a regular aspect of communal life. A word of caution: Community-building fun must be inclusive; carefully guard against exclusive fun that leaves some out.

Fun creates memories. A major part of any community (and the identity formation that comes with it) is shared memories. Those communal remembrances are major fodder for sustained life together.

Of course, it’s great if some of those memories are of tender times, times of overcoming adversity or of an intense shared experience of God. Shared memories of fun can fill in the gaps to create a full portfolio of stories worth retelling, stories that say something about who we are together.

Fun decreases differences. I suppose this reality is complementary to the “fun fosters community” reality, but in our current context, youth culture has splintered into hundreds or thousands of cultures (new in the past 10 to 15 years). That means every youth ministry is a multi-cultural (unless your youth group is three home-schoolers from the same family).

One of our greatest goals in youth ministry should be the creation of a new kingdom culture that supersedes the many cultures represented in the population of your middle school ministry. I’ve found three things that act as kerosene on the fire of decreasing cultural differences: serving together, worshipping together and having fun together. We tend to elevate the first two above the latter as they seem more spiritual, but remember: Fun is a God thing.

stewarding the identity formation of young teens

my most recent middle school ministry column for youthworker journal is online now. the issue was about identity, so it wrote a bit about that:

Put a 9-year-old girl in front of a mirror and ask her to describe herself. Her description most likely will be limited to two categories: physical characteristics she sees (“I have black hair and green eyes. I’m a little bit short.”) and specific characteristics other people have observed about her (“I have a bubbly personality, and I’m really talkative!”).

Place a 16-year-old girl in the same position, and you’ll get a very different response. In addition to the 9-year-old’s concrete responses (what can be seen and what others have observed) are her perceptions—who she perceives herself to be and who she perceives herself to be in other peoples’ eyes.

This shift is directly tied to cognitive development and the new ability to think in third person—to form an opinion or viewpoint of one’s self from a third-person perspective; and all the more abstract, to consider what others must think of me, who others think I am.

That third-person thinking ability (a massive developmental gift from God, a reflection of our Imago Dei, and one of the most significant factors in faith development) is, at its core, the means of identity formation.

Some might say young teens aren’t capable of abstract thinking. Hogwash, I say. It’s true: Young teens hardly focus on abstract thinking the majority of the time, but their ability to switch abstract thinking on and off makes middle school ministry exhilarating and challenging.

Moving from Concrete to Abstract Reasoning

Think of it this way: A seventh grade guy, in a shining moment of abstract reasoning, briefly entertains the notion that he’s not only who people have told him he is. He momentarily considers (probably in a very unarticulated manner) that he’s not only what he does, that there’s more to him and that he can play a role in choosing who he’s becoming.

Then the abstract thinking wires separate and he’s back to thinking concretely. With any luck, his previous abstract idea (“I can become a guy who’s seen as a leader!”) travels with him to the land of black-and-white and turns, for a time, into a concrete thought (“I’m becoming a leader!”).

I saw this one Sunday while chatting with an eighth grade girl from the worship team of our middle school ministry. She had just told me she reads a chapter of the Bible every night. I asked her why. Her response, “Because I’m a worship leader, and I need the Bible to help me with that.”

In some ways, her reasoning was extremely concrete: I am this, so I need to do that. An 18-year-old would have nuanced that response a bit more, but this girl’s response also was drawing from her experience of sparking the hot wires of abstract thinking. At some point, she perceived herself as a budding worship leader, not only because she was playing a role on the worship team, but because it was an aspect of her identity.

That’s why, my middle school ministry friends, I think of our role so often in terms of stewardship.

We Are Our Students Stewards

When I was a young adult, I spent the weekends of one year crewing on a racing sailboat. My job was to fly the spinnaker, that large and colorful sail in front of the boat. The spinnaker is only used when the wind is coming from behind the boat, making the other sails much less useful. The other sails push a sailboat; the spinnaker pulls a sailboat.

The trick of flying a spinnaker is that it doesn’t have a fixed edge as other sails, which are connected to things such as masts. Instead, when flying a spinnaker, I stood on the side of the boat with one line in each hand. I only watched the sail, because I constantly had to make minor adjustments to keep it as full as possible.

That’s a great picture of middle school ministry, particularly as we consider identity formation and early adolescent development. Just as I was the steward of the spinnaker, you and I get to play a role in stewarding those earliest months and years of young teens perceiving themselves.

As our young students unfurl their sails, let’s help them understand they are lovingly created children of God so this abstract concept will become a foundation of their identities.

update on The Youth Cartel

ok, there’s just so much going on in our wee company, it’s hard for me to discipline myself to not post about my excitement over this or that every day.

so, as further prevention from “all cartel posts, all the time,” allow me to update you and remind you on a few things that are just the bomb:


The Youth Cartel is doing three events this year, and two of ’em are brand new:

  • the middle school ministry campference is in its second year. we have a great line-up (including tic long!); but the line-up isn’t really the reason to come. the reason to come is that, if you’re in JH or middle school ministry, this is the one place where you can really spend three days with your tribe. i’ve never been a part of an event where every single person who attends could offer a raving endorsement. the MSMC is in seymour, indiana, october 26 – 28.
  • the summit is the youth cartel’s new flagship event. i’ve been dreaming about this for two years or more, and with adam joining me, we’ve been able to turn the dream into a reality. but, seriously, it’s already surpassed my expectations, and it’s still 6 months away. the presenter line-up blows my mind. this is the event i would attend even if i had nothing to do with creating it. join us in atlanta, november 9 and 10 (btw: the first 100 who register get MAJOR bonus swag).
  • finally, adam has been dreaming of a grassroots, organic youth ministry event where anyone can speak. talk about leveling the playing field and acknowledging that we’re all in this together! that’s what Open is all about. our first Open is Open Seattle, on october 6. the second location is a doosy! (stay tuned)


with 6 cohorts of 10 youth workers each either completed or in progress, i continue to find the youth ministry coaching program to be my most deeply satisfying days, other than time with my family. we’ve opened 5 cohorts for later this year (or whenever they fill), and are deep into conversations with 3 denominational groups about cohorts specific to their tribe. oh, and we’ve just begun conversations about a possible new zealand cohort! ha!

here’s another quote, from current participant sam halverson:

The YMCP is the single most helpful resource I’ve found in over 30 years of professional youth ministry. While conventions, workshops, and seminars are influential and necessary, the Youth Ministry Coaching Program is a much more personal and personable resource for anyone wishing to understand and struggle with the ins and outs of professional ministry. The spiritual direction, values assessments, readings, discussions, personal sharing, and presence-minded shepherding led by Mark Oestreicher encompass all parts of life – not just youth ministry.


we’ve had a blast this year partnering with organizations and ministries as diverse as biblica, dougfields.com, urban youth worker’s institute, tyndale publishers, and about a dozen others.


already in 2012, i’ve been stoked about the release of The Way bible and A Beautiful Mess. I have 6 more books coming out with simply youth ministry over the next year (3 of which i’ve finished), and i’m working on two versions of an ebook that The Youth Cartel will publish.

adam published his first book, with jon huckins, through The Youth Cartel’s own brand: good news in the neighborhood.

i’ve been stoked about working with a few great authors to help them find publishers for their books, finalizing deals for lars rood, jeff goins, and len kageler.

and The Youth Cartel is throwing in hard on publishing through our own brand, with 7 projects signed. you’ll see these start to come out over the remaining months of this year.

oh, and i still love writing regular columns for Youthworker Journal and Youthwork (the UK magazine for youth workers), as well as occasional contributions to Immerse Journal and Group Magazine. Adam and i both write for Slant33.com.


our weekly Cartel Culture and YouTube You Can Use emails have been a great hit. in just 8 short months we have more than 1200 people receiving them.

we launched a free job bank on our website. and our facebook page, blog, and twitter feeds are all gaining traction.


i still love speaking to teenagers and youth workers, and find my schedule regularly full with amazing opportunities (like, i’m leaving for london this morning, to speak at the Youthwork Summit).

yup, we’re busy little beavers, and we’re having the time of our lives. thanks to all of you who have been so supportive of us. we long to serve you well (and push you a little bit). We have three or four more sweet ideas in the hopper, if we can find the bandwidth to get them going!

social networking and middle schoolers

my most recent middle school ministry column in youthworker journal is online. here’s a tease:

Social Networking and Middle Schoolers: Not Necessarily a Good Fit

I’m sure this issue of YouthWorker Journal will be filled with amazing ideas and reflections on the use of social media in youth ministry. As a youth ministry trainer, I’ve often talked about the amazing ministry tools of Facebook and text messaging, the power of social networking and other rah-rah techno-encouragements.

I’ve also cautioned that online contact can supplement effectively, but not fully replace face-to-face contact. Like most of you, I’ve leveraged Facebook and other social networking tools in order to reconnect with scores of former students, lengthening the years of ministry and input I’m able to have in the lives of teenagers and young adults.

However, when it comes to the day-to-day ministry work I do with middle schoolers, I have to face up to something about this hoopla: Most of the techno-wonder pertains to ministry with high school ministry.

read the rest of the column on the youthworker journal site.

be ready for a great small group when you least expect it

my most recent middle school ministry column for youthworker journal is online now. i called it “the fifth week”, based on the rough approximation that 4 out of 5 weeks in my middle school guys small group feel nominally productive at best. but that fifth week…

the point of the article: be ready for a great time of deep discussion to show up when you least expect it.

here’s the first few ‘graphs:

I lead a small group of seventh grade guys in my home each Wednesday night. Four out of five weeks feel like we barely accomplish anything (whatever that means!).

That fifth week, though. Hmm! That’s the one that keeps me coming back week in and week out. It’s like the chip shot that magically drops in the hole—after the stinkiest round of golf in the history of links—and leads me to think, “I can do this!”

I had one of these “fifth weeks” recently. It started out looking like it was going to be the worst small group time of the month. I hadn’t prepared a thing. My co-leader had the DVD curriculum. After an uncommonly unruly 30 minutes of sharing highs and lows of our week, I turned to my co-leader and asked if we could pop in the DVD. “Uh, I think I left it at home,” he said. Time to punt!

click through to read the rest.

social media and missions

my friend lars rood just published a piece on youthworker.com (youthworker journal’s website) about how we leveraged social media on our recent trip to haiti. it offers a somewhat different perspective on our trip than our blog post about stories from haiti. and it certainly brings out some implications for how youth workers might think about using social media for their short-term trips.

here’s a snippet from the end of the article:

Utilizing social media to get more people to team up with the YMATH team has resulted in a huge outpouring of support and a desire within others to go to Haiti. The experiment of using social media to engage people with the stories of Haiti has proven to be an incredible new way of doing missions. No longer will parents drop off students at an airport and have to wonder what they are doing during their trip. Church congregations don’t have to be separated from their ambassadors as they serve in far-away lands. Using all the available technology will help families, churches and friends experience the trip and feel as though they are a part or the experience. This is a new reality for missions.

the feedback void in middle school ministry

ywj_logo_smi write an every-other-issue column on middle school ministry for youthworker journal. the column for the current issue is online now: it’s on the lack of meangingful feedback in middle school ministry, and how that can create problems for us.

here’s the link to the whole column.

here’s a tease:

If you teach a second-grade Sunday School class, you can tell by kids’ participation how you’re doing. If you volunteer in the parking lot ministry of your church, the cars either get parked or they don’t. If you preach sermons in “big church,” people always let you know what they think.

Really, almost every other ministry area in the church provides natural feedback. Not so with middle-school ministry. When feedback is absent, we often look to unhelpful measuring sticks to gauge whether or not we’re on the right track.

youthworker journal column

i write an every-other-issue column on middle school ministry for youthworker journal. the new one just came out, and is on their website also: here.

this one is about the difference between 6th graders and 8th graders, and how it can feel like whiplash to say goodbye to graduating 8th graders and welcome in the new 6th graders.

here’s a snippet:

This is our calling, isn’t it? We’re tour guides for adolescence. We welcome these fresh-faced children, give them the lay of the land (in multiple ways, including—but not limited to—the spiritual landscape they’ll journey through in the decade to come), and walk alongside them. Really, we’re front-lobby tour guides: We welcome; we orient; we affirm and acknowledge; and we get them all the way to their seats in the grand showroom of the find-out-who-you-are convention of youth.