Category Archives: youth work

Why We Published This: The Amazing Next

when The Youth Cartel first decided to start publishing, my friend brock morgan contacted me about a nonfiction book for teenagers he wanted to write. brock is one of the best youth speakers i’ve ever heard, and is particularly gifted at storytelling (great stories, told very well). in a nutshell, this proposed book was a collection of his best stories with spiritual implications. i was being less picky in those earliest days (we wouldn’t publish this book today, as it doesn’t really fit our publishing direction), and we agreed to move forward with the book. i think we even contracted it; but we didn’t have a timeline, and brock got busy with other stuff, and the book didn’t get written. later that year, brock spoke at the very first Summit on Activating the Hearts of Teenagers Who Don’t See a Need for Jesus; and i immediately knew that talk had to become a book. a year later, that book released as Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World!

fast forward a couple years.

i have always been a little annoyed by graduation gift books. i think the concept is fine; but i’ve felt that most of them feel more like greeting cards. and they tend to either be overly earnest, or too heavy-handed. i wanted the Cartel to publish a grad book that teenagers would actually want to read; one that was honest, encouraging, challenging, and fun to read. i imagined a book with a large scoop of sass, with the silly title This is Your Graduation Gift (that was the working title FAR into the process, until we were in cover design on that title and it came out that no one else–adam, brock, and our managing editor tamara–liked that title at all). i imagined a book with variety — some regular chapters with advice or discipleship stuff, some interviews, some blank pages for interaction, some quotes or poems, some humor, some weird extras.

9781942145097cover-frontso i asked brock if he was up for re-imagining his original book idea into this vision. and he loved it. i knew he was exactly the person to pull this off. and he totally nailed it. The Amazing Next: Waking Up to the Journey Ahead is now real, and i’m super pleased with how youth workers are responding to it.

here’s the official product description:

The new go-to gift for the graduate is not a book of promises or a list of life hacks (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s a collection of stories, interviews, and journaling prompts woven together by veteran youth worker Brock Morgan to wake high school seniors up to the world of imagination and wonder—a life of faith lived to the full—that awaits them once the cap and gown have been put away.

and here’s the back cover copy:

So you’re a graduate. And a lot of people who love you are probably itching to tell you how to get this NEXT stage of your life right, maybe some of them are even hoping this book will do it for them. But there’s something you should know right now. This book is not a list of rules for spiritual growth; instructions on how to claim your best life now; or a formula for success.

Instead, this is a safe place to process your fears; read stories about freedom, imagination, and wonder; and consider a calling to live your life with the fullness God intended. Open it up, put your finger on a chapter (any chapter), and awaken the grace and hope you’ll need in the days ahead.

you can check it out here, and even download a sample. we’re offering fantastic discounts on bulk orders.

My Resistance to Excellence as a Value

my most recent column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) was published in the current issue. here’s what i wrote:

One of the wonderful tasks that make up my work is a yearlong coaching program for youth workers. In the four years since its launch, we’ve had about 200 people go through this program, in cohorts of 10. I currently have five cohorts at various points in their journey, meeting in various locations around the States.

Central to this coaching program is a focus on leading from values. Participants develop both ministry values and personal vocational values during our time together, and I’ve seen the process be revolutionary in helping people be more intentional.

I see values as the ship’s rudder, providing an ability to steer, hopefully in the direction toward becoming the ministry that God has dreamed of for your context. Values should be spiritually discerned (ideally in a collaborative setting), and should flow out of mission. Mission is the answer to the question: Why do we exist? Values, then, are the answers to the question: What are we called to embody in this season? Once values are in place, we can think about strategy and identify goals. But without values, goals are nothing more than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. (For the record, Strategy is the answer to the question: How will we best live into our values? And Goals are simply the measurable action steps toward that end.)

Taking 200 youth workers through the process of developing their ministry values, I’ve regularly seen a particular value pop up that makes me squirm a bit: Excellence. Because I require my coaching group participants to state their values as complete sentences, this value often shows up as something like: We are passionate about doing everything with excellence, or Everything we do will be done with excellence.

I’m not anti-excellence. It’s not that I desire the opposite: everything we do will be done poorly and in the shoddiest manner possible. No, of course I’m not suggesting that. Excellence is a good thing. I’m just not convinced it’s a great thing.

Too often, what I can read between the lines is a commitment to programming excellence. In my mind’s eye, I see a youth worker with that value slaving at her computer to make extra-stunning PowerPoint slides. I imagine a youth worker combing the Internet and spending way too much time assembling the props for games with that extra-special wow-factor. I get a little depressed picturing the youth worker who drools over better technology for a snappier show.

I realize there’s a semantics issue at play here. Sure, we can commit to doing relational ministry with excellence. Of course, we can embody excellence in our listening, and in our encouragement, and in our patience and love. But that’s not usually, from my experience, what those excellence values are meant to imply, if the value-writer is being honest.

I get uncomfortable with excellence as a value because it all-too-often reveals a subtle wrong-headed thinking that our very best programming will change lives. Honestly, the number of teenagers who owned their faith, or deepened their understanding of Jesus, or asked the questions most deeply on their hearts as a direct result of the design quality of a PowerPoint slide has to be pretty close to zero.

I like sharp-looking graphics. And I’m all for technology helping us connect with teenagers. Planning and creativity and thoughtful programming are good things. But as an elevated value–a focus on the excellence of those things–they can quickly become a seductive distraction from our true calling. And at worst, those focuses can supplant the transformative role of the Holy Spirit, working through and around us in the lives of teenagers.

I’m more interested in leaning into a value of being responsive (to the Holy Spirit, to the needs of teenagers) and present. I want to value responsiveness over proactivity, and discernment over planning.

Dream of a ministry approach that lifts up those values, and you just might find yourself on the road to some truly amazing results.

FRIDAY NUGGET: Small Church Youth Ministry

tiny dogsmaller churches have a shorter pathway to excellent youth ministry. the larger you get, the more complex things become, and the greater the temptation to trust in resources, technology, and robust and creative programming to transform lives.

if you’re doing youth ministry in a small(er) church, stop apologizing. and stop envying the resources of larger youth ministries. celebrate the core of great youth ministry: a caring, jesus-y adult spending time with a small-ish group of teenagers.

youth worker story: starting over at 60

i met marvin this past weekend. we chatted after i led a youth leader workshop at a salvation army youth retreat.

IMG_6567marvin is roughly 60 years-old; a handsome african american man with fantastic salt-and-pepper hair, a warm smile, and eyes full of life. i asked him to tell me about the youth ministry he was involved in. he told me this story:

for 30 years, i was involved in different sorts of youth ministry. for 20 years, i worked for the chicago board of education as a disciplinarian. it was tough work, but occasionally very rewarding. so many of the kids i was working with hung out at the same park; so when the park manager position opened up there, i moved over to the parks department and took that role for 10 more years. i spent time with teens from the neighborhood who hung out at the park (they often had less-than-positive activities in mind and motion).

when the salvation army opened up a rehab center in the neighborhood, i decided it was time for a change. they asked me what i wanted to do, and i said, “anything that doesn’t involve teenagers.”

they put me in maintenance. and i hated it.

i didn’t hate it because of the work–maintenance work was just fine with me. i hated it because–as much as i thought i was completely done working with teenagers–i couldn’t escape my calling.

after two years, i shifted jobs again and became the chaplain of the rehab center. and in that role, i’ve also launched a youth ministry. we’re just ninety days into it at this point, and the kids don’t trust me yet. we have about 27 of them coming, but only 2 were willing to join me this weekend. but we’re making progress. and i love it! i’m starting all over again.

as soon as marvin got to the part of his story where he re-engaged his youth ministry calling, he started beaming a massive smile and quite literally radiating energy.

let’s be honest: youth ministry isn’t for everyone. but when you align with your calling–vocationally or avocationally–you are living the best life: a life of congruence. it the glove fits, you must submit.

FRIDAY NUGGET: preventing or navigating conflict with your church leadership

In my coaching groups, I regularly try to help youth workers navigate tension and conflict with their church leadership (senior pastor, or other leadership). Here’s a quick list of practices that can prevent conflict, or help you navigate it if it already exists:

  • Continually clarify and unearth expectations
  • Exercise curiosity; Look for the “positive intent”
  • Be honest with myself about my own motives, desires, and dreams
  • Exercise full disclosure, even when it feels like the wrong move in the short run
  • Look at your contribution to any failure, even if it was only 10% of the problem
  • Hold these two things in tension:
  1. Don’t add drama (don’t make things personal, don’t assume motive)
  2. Enter courageously into places of conflict

FRIDAY NUGGET: Vibrant Youth Ministry in 4 Steps

if i could re-write and re-release my book, Youth Ministry 3.0, i would cut the current 6th (and final) chapter and replace it with a chapter that focuses on four things. embracing these four things, i’m convinced, is the pathway to a vibrant youth ministry in 2015. of course, there are plenty of other issues and practices we should consider; but these four are the common ground:

  1. Embrace change as normative. Lean into it.
  2. Develop a culture of experimentation.
  3. Cultivate the skill and practice of collaborative discernment.
  4. Contextualize.

(i plan on expanding this in one or more blog posts in the future; but i thought i’d toss it out as a Friday Nugget for now.)

Mission, Community, and Word 3.0

one of my coaching program participants is a sharp young woman leading a wonderfully tiny youth ministry. i think it’s something like 8 regular teenagers, or something like that. tons of awesome in that, from my thinking: opportunities to turn on a dime and try new things.

recently, she was rethinking her program structure, particularly in response to reading Youth Ministry 3.0. she was feeling that her ministry was just too program heavy for its size. too much complexity, particularly in a small group, made the teens feel like they had to be at everything; which just wasn’t sustainable.

ashley came up with the idea that she’d like to consider alternating foci/purposes for their weekly meeting, rather than multiple programs for multiple foci/purposes. listening to her description of what she was trying to accomplish–the values of her ministry–we came up with three purpose words: Mission, Community, and Word.

she set out to experiment alternating between those three. a Mission week would get the teenagers doing something for others. a Community week would focus on developing belonging in the group. a Word week would focus on teaching and talking about the Bible. the fourth week in a month would either take a second dose of one of those three (most often, Word), or would be a week off.

i loved this. clean, clear, intentional.

FRIDAY NUGGET: the question is one of values

a former coaching program participant called the other day with frustration about how his regular youth ministry retreats have become program-focused, ends unto themselves (“just offer a programmed retreat and that’s a win”). he was wondering about scrapping them.

but good change rarely involves throwing the baby out with the bathwater. sometimes programs need to be shut down; but often they simply need to be retooled and revisioned.

this youth worker had done major work with a team to discern their ministry values. so my input was: strip away all assumptions about what a retreat is (not easy when you’ve done it the same way for many years). then, with your ministry values in front of you, build a retreat that optimizes the rocket fuel of time away together as a means of fully embodying your ministry values.

programs are just programs, not evil but not the goal. the question is: how can we more fully lean into our values?