Tag Archives: youth ministry

youth ministry as a NOTHING PREVENTS YOU reality

i was challenged by a sermon given this past weekend by a retired methodist bishop, based on the biblical story of the ethiopian eunuch. and it got me thinking about the message and the message our youth ministries should embrace and project.

you probably know the story: the ethiopian eunuch was rich, powerful and elite (traveling by chariot was the equivalent of today’s private-jet-and-limo set). he was, after all, in charge of the ethiopian queen’s treasury. clearly, a very smart man, also, as we first encounter him as he’s reading isaiah (not his native language!) in the back of a chariot.

philip, after hearing from an angel that he’s supposed to head down to gaza from jerusalem, camps out alongside a road. and there he encounters the eunuch who is heading home from jerusalem (the direction is important — and it’s fascinating that the angel didn’t direct philip to the eunuch when they were both in jerusalem).

deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” (the junior high boy in me likes the old KVJ version, though — “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.”)

the eunuch went to jerusalem to worship; but would have been prevented from doing so.

after philip explains the prophetic passage the eunuch is reading, about jesus, the eunuch asks an important question: here’s some water — what would prevent me from being baptized?” of course, phil baptizes him, and we have one of the most important conversion stories of the new testament.

there are (and have been) a hundred ways this passage can be projected to our current day. but i’m a youth worker, and i got thinking about how PREVENTED teenagers are today–maybe more than at any time in human history.

  • Massive, culturally-endorsed isolation
  • Kept from the world of adults
  • Viewed as incapable and broken
  • Infantilized – treated as children

To those who are prevented, the gospel says, “NOTHING PREVENTS YOU.” You are welcome as an equal.

Our youth ministries should not exist as well-meaning holding tanks, waiting for maturity and adulthood.

Our youth ministries should not isolate teenagers from the world of adults.

Our youth ministries should not treat teenagers as children, incapable and broken.

Our ministries, instead, should be loudspeakers and labs of a Nothing Prevents You reality.

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

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


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

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

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

bam. stew on that one a bit.

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?

video from The Summit now available, PLUS Kid President creator Brad Montague on making things simple

we almost didn’t get video from The Summit this year. we had a professional videographer all lined up, and he cancelled the day of the event in a rather not-so-professional-after-all way. luckily, my partner in The Youth Cartel is both a quick thinker and the owner of a very nice camera, and we had a friend there who was willing to “oversee” it.

so here we go, just a month later, with a little editing magic from adam. 18 videos, all in a TED style. our theme this year was ALL, loosely riffing on the shema (love the lord your god with all your heart, soul, mind and strength). seriously, it’s very rare that you can find a collection of short (the shortest is just over 8 minutes, but most are 12 – 15) videos that will challenge you to think in new ways about youth ministry. use them for training and discussion at your church; or just watch them for your own development. as we said at the beginning of the live event, the real intent of The Summit is not to get you to DO what these presenters suggest, per se. the real intent is that the holy spirit would use these to help you dream new dreams.

so, you can buy the whole lot of ’em for fifty bucks. this year they’re on vimeo pro, which gives you the option of downloading (for use with a team or something) or streaming (quicker, for your own viewing). you can also buy one session’s videos for twenty five bucks, or an individual video for ten. click here to buy.

Session 1: Soul

  • Bryan Loritts (The Anchor of Your Soul)
  • Lem Usita (Identity Formation and Youth Workers)
  • Holly Rankin Zaher (Dancing with Faith and Doubt)
  • Paul Martin (What Playing Guitar Taught Me About YM)
  • Nkiru Okafor (The Dark Night of the Soul)
  • Luke MacDonald (Going All In)

Session 2: Mind

  • Bethany Stolle (Design and Co-Creation)
  • Crystal Kirgiss (Changing Views of YM Throughout History)
  • David Crowder (The Process of Creativity)
  • Michelle Benzinger (Beauty Will Save the World)
  • Carlos Cedeño (Giving Your Ministry Away)
  • Annie Lockhart (Imagination as the Starting Point of YM)

Session 3: Strength

  • Brad Montegue (Making Things Simple Without Being Simplistic)
  • Christy Lang (Bible Interpretation: Starting With Teeenagers’ Interpretation)
  • Jeffrey Wallace (Redefining Urban as a Survival Mindset)
  • Theresa Mazza (Re-Imagining Yourself as a Youthworker-at-Large)
  • Mark DeVries (A Modest Response to the Death of YM)

Session 4: Heart

  • Mark Oestreicher (Choosing the Unchosen and Unloved)

and to give you a little taste of these babies, here’s brad montague’s talk on “making things simple without being simplistic.” brad is the creator of the Kid President videos that have been so viral over the last year or two. he gets hundreds (thousands?) of speaking requests from every sector of society, and he accepts very few of them. so we were truly honored to have him join us. watch and enjoy!

and, speaking of The Summit, we’re officially moving to nashville for next fall. dates are november 7 and 8. of course, there are LOTS more details to come, but we have a super-special “use up the dregs of your 2013 youth ministry budget” deal right now: a $25 deposit locks in the lowest rate of $109/person. we’ll invoice you for the balance in late summer of 2014. these deposits are non-refundable, but fully transferable. click here to go for it!

talking about identity

lem usita is a youth ministry name you might not know, but should. lem is a youth pastor at a church, and the youth ministry professor at san diego christian college. he also leads a special leadership program for the college, taking a select group of students through a 4 year leadership development program.

lem is an expert in identity formation (and got his doctorate with that emphasis). he records a podcast called “the identity show.” and recently, we had the opportunity to sit in my back yard after eating plates full of shwarma, and record an episode. here’s lem’s description of our conversation:

Episode 4 features markOESTREICHER. We had a wonderful conversation about identity. He shares some concepts about identity then goes into a personal identity crisis that he experienced a few years ago. Throughout the conversation he just drops some incredible insight and hopefully, I pick up on them enough to highlight them. It was a great conversation, and we will probably have Marko on the show again in the near future.

click here to listen to our conversation, or listen (and subscribe) on itunes.

is youth ministry the cause of the american church’s juvenilization?

like many of you, i read the cover story in the current issue of christianity today with interest. the article, by huntington prof thomas bergler, is called When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity. if you haven’t read it, take a few minutes now — i’ll wait. the article is a synopsis/excerpt of bergler’s new book (which i haven’t read, so these comments are only in connection with the CT article).

anytime CT is willing to address any subject pertaining to teenagers or youth ministry, i’m intrigued (particularly as i find that youth ministry is still considered “junior varsity ministry” in most church leader thought circles).

it’s a very well-written article, with great bits that were new to me. bergler traces the history of youth ministry in the american church alongside the rise of the seeker movement and the dumbing down of worship. on the surface, he’s gracious to youth ministries, saying that the approaches forged in that context were appropriate.

but bergler takes it a HUGE step further: the basic thrust of the article is that youth ministry approaches are responsible (exclusively, since he doesn’t name other factors) for the shift in the american church to a feel-good, dumbed-down, pep rally:

Youth ministries and juvenilization contributed to this surprising outcome by making the Christian life more emotionally satisfying. Passion was in, duty was out. This kind of individualized, emotional connection to God sustained religious interest in a changing society in which custom, tradition, and social pressure would no longer motivate people to care about faith or attend church.

Not surprisingly, in the process of adapting to the new immature adulthood, churches started looking a lot like youth groups. Contemporary churches appeal to thousands of Americans by providing an informal, entertaining, fast-paced worship experience set to upbeat music. Everything done in these churches to reach “unchurched” people was already being done in the YFC rallies of the 1950s. And this parallel is not coincidental.

now, i don’t deny for a second that youth ministries can (and hopefully do) have a shaping influence on their churches, and on the church at large. that reality is one of the primary reasons i have stayed in youth ministry all these years! and i don’t want to be defensive, and ignore the negative ways youth ministry may have inadvertently shaped the church for the worse.

but the further i got into the article, the more i found myself moving from a response of “yeah, i agree!” to a response of, “wait, that’s not a logical conclusion.”

as a more minor point of contention, bringing in worship styles seems to be a weak example to me. i’m with bergler that there’s been a theological shift toward a feel-good gospel, and that has had (and will have) damaging implications for the church. call out the lyrics — that’s fair; but the musical style seems to miss the point.

but my bigger issue is that i just can’t buy it that youth ministry has that much power! (maybe we should all be flattered!) the broader, and much more influential issue, from my perspective, is the juvenilization of american culture in general! expressions of church are far from being the leading case studies of juvenilization. and, at the end of the day, the bigger influence on the church has been an american culture where youth (and the values and norms, styles and preferences, attitudes and behaviors) reign. institutional loyalty is out the window in our culture, and “what works for me” is the primary deciding factor for the average adult decision, whether in the church or outside of it. it’s a stretch to imply that youth ministries were anything more than a response to those broader cultural shifts. and the church just went down the same path, a few years later.

patience and youth ministry

recently, i was one of three respondents to a question on Slant33.com. kara powell and brooklyn lindsey wrote absolutely brilliant (and very different) responses to the question — i’d encourage you to click through and read their posts.

here’s the question, and my response:

Patience is difficult for youth workers. What do you find just unavoidably takes time?

Confession: I wrote this question. And it reveals a bit of my age-bias, I think. I’m turning 49 the week I’m writing this, and have passed the 30-year mark in youth ministry. In other words: I’m old.

And, while I tend to normally be a bit averse to age group stereotypes (I sure don’t want to be stereotyped with other 49-year olds!), I think there’s an age generalization I can fairly make as a precursor to responding to this question.

Older youth workers don’t (usually) struggle with patience. There’s mostly only one reason for this: even though many of us (myself included) were once quite impatient, we couldn’t still be in youth ministry if we didn’t pick a bit of it up along the journey. In other words, youth workers who stay impatient usually move on to other ministries, ones that have a more reliable return on investment, a quicker feedback loop, and something to chalk up as “results” other than “well, no one intentionally farted during prayer tonight” (which, I think we can all agree, doesn’t play to well in your monthly report to your church board).

I’m showing my skirt here; you can already tell how I’m going to answer this question, right?

EVERYTHING in youth ministry unavoidably takes time.

Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. There are a few things that don’t have to take time:

  • Ruining your reputation
  • Destroying trust with a student
  • Making an enemy out of a parent

But most things in youth ministry – at least the really good things – take time and patience. Maybe that’s because God is maddenly patient. I mean, I’m really glad God is patient when it comes to my stuff, my sin, my brokenness, my growth. But if I’m honest, I sometimes wish God cared a bit more about speediness when it comes to transforming teenagers. Sure, there are the occasional overnight 180 change stories we pass around (why does it so often seem that evangelists have these as their own stories, and assume everyone else’s will/should be the same?).

But most change takes time. Most transformation – at least the good God-stuff – takes place as a journey of subtle shifts. Most passion develops gradually. Most insight isn’t acquired in a flash. Most commitment, while they may appear to happen all at once the last night of camp, are a long series of fits and starts that gradually settle into resolve and a deeper knowing.

No question about it: pretty much all the really, deeply good stuff of youth ministry requires patience, because God doesn’t care much about speed. One of my primary prayers for youth workers is “God, give us patience.” God, give me patience.

random learning and observations from uruguay

last weekend, i was in uruguay for especialidades juveniles’ (spanish YS) youth ministry summit. it was my first time in uruguay, and i deeply enjoyed my time with my brothers and sisters. here are a handful of things i noticed and/or learned:

– uruguay is a small country. and, i’ve learned (this was a surprise to me) it’s the most secular of all latin countries. so, tiny church in a small country = small number of youth workers. a missions agency did a comprehensive study of the church in uruguay a couple years ago (i’m told); one of their findings was that there are a total of 700 youth workers in the entire country (remember: youth workers in latin america are rarely paid, so this number includes pretty much all volunteers). yet, the youth worker event i was a part of had 500 youth workers attending. that’s why lucas leys told me it’s especialidades juveniles’ smallest and largest summit.

– traveling alone and not knowing the local language is humbling and isolating. i’ve been to latin america dozens of times, but have often had other gringos with me. on this trip, i was the sole americano. at meals, i would sit with a crew of people who were friendly to me, and occasionally one of them would translate something, or engage me in a bit of english (usually lucas leys); but more often than not, i was in my own little deaf and mute world. i kept having an urge to say something, so people didn’t interpret my silence as stand-off-ish-ness, or a lack of interest. but my attempts to engage were more often than not interruptive.

– you can learn a ton about good and bad communication by watching speakers when you don’t understand the language. rather than sitting in the backstage green room, surrounded by VIPs speaking spanish, i figured i might as well sit in the audience and listen to speakers and bands speaking spanish. but that put me in an interesting space, when the main speakers were on. a 40-minute talk, when you only catch (if you’re really concentrating) about one in twenty words quickly becomes a lab of gibberish, where you can pay attention to vocal tone, volume, body language, eye contact, facial expressions, pauses and audience response. the guy who spoke the opening night was a master communicator, whose variations, whispers, shouts, pacing and crouching, dramatic pauses and character voices was an unintended and natural master class in communication. then, in the closing session, lucas leys offered master class, part 2. in between was a fat old gringo who at least had a beard worth watching.

– drinking uruguayan mate (say that “mah-tay”) is a social behavior, not a solo activity. it’s very strong and tea-like, but tasty. i’d had mate in other countries, but thought i remembered it having sugar in it. i asked my mate pusher if they ever put sugar in it, and he responded, “only argentinians and women put sugar in it.” (yeah, there’s a little rivalry between uruguayans and argentinians – some argentinians told me, “uruguay is really an extension of argentina, but they won’t admit it.”) by the way, doesn’t this pic make me look like i’m smoking a large bavarian pipe?

stop making assumptions and inferences about teenagers based on their brains

i’ve posted about teenage brains more than once. there’s been an good amount of research on teenage brains in the past decade, thanks to the MRI. there’s also been an explosion of more popular articles that infer teenagers are the way they are because of their brains, and we shouldn’t expect them to… (make good decisions, exhibit wisdom, control impulses, set priorities, act responsibly, or any other of a long list of adult-like behaviors).

this has really started to tick me off.

but two articles in the last few months (neither is new) have pushed back a bit:

this article in the huffington post, called “the teenager brain: debunking the 5 biggest myths“.

and, a fascinating article that many of you have probably already seen, published in national geographic, suggesting an alternative (evolutionary) possibility of why teenage brains are weak in certain controls and functions.

the article mentions some of the unhelpful conclusions being drawn by others:

They act that way because their brains aren’t done! You can see it right there in the scans!

This view, as titles from the explosion of scientific papers and popular articles about the “teen brain” put it, presents adolescents as “works in progress” whose “immature brains” lead some to question whether they are in a state “akin to mental retardation.”

but it goes on to suggest an alternate view:

B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College who has spent nearly a decade applying brain and genetic studies to our understanding of adolescence, puts it, “We’re so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It’s exactly what you’d need to do the things you have to do then.”

here’s what rubs me (and i’m borrowing this from dr. robert epstein): there’s a not-so-subtle discrimination against teenagers, MASSIVELY feeding extended adolescence, in this age-old discriminatory equation —

presence of a particular physical characteristic
alongside, the presence of a real or assumed set of behavioral realities (or biases)
means, the first results in the second

let me remind of a few places we’ve seen this before:

  1. women’s brains are smaller, on average, then men’s. for centuries we were sure that women did not have the intelligence for business, voting, public office, and a variety of other intelligent functions. the smaller size of women’s brains were PROOF!
  2. jews and people of african decent were said to have certain character traits (or lack certain character traits) due to physiology (surely, you’ve all seen the nazi drawings of a typical jewish face and head, with an explanation as to how it explains the stereotype).

i think we’re seeing the same equation play out in terms of teenagers today.

the assumption is (and it’s a BIG leap in logic): teenage brains prove what we’ve always assumed, that teenagers are incapable of wisdom, good decisions, and responsibility. the obvious (!) next step is: we should treat teenagers like children (infantilization) and remove all responsibility, keeping them “safe.”


youth workers, don’t tollerate this faulty logic. don’t tollerate this discrimination. let’s be counter-cultural on this stuff — let’s INCREASE responsibility and opportunities for wisdom and choices and prioritization and impulse control.

instead of discriminating against teenagers, let’s give them opportunities to be the apprentice adults they have the full capacity to be.

determination, the great wall of china, and youth ministry

Last year I visited Beijing, China, speaking at a youth event for a collection of teenagers from expat churches. While there, I had the chance to spend a day visiting The Great Wall of China. And, while standing on The Great Wall, I had a couple thoughts about youth ministry. Weird, huh?

You’re likely familiar with the basic, almost incomprehensible facts about The Great Wall. Constructed in various phases over hundreds of years, the massive thing snakes precariously across mountain ridges and through deep valleys for 3900 miles. Add that to sections of trenches, and natural barriers like impassable ridges and rivers, the whole thing stretches 5500 miles. Everyone has seen photos of this beast; but standing on it (and trudging up and down its steep inclines and declines), tends to force one to contemplate the willpower it took to build.

And, somehow, this got me thinking about youth ministry.

Let’s face it: as a breed, we youth workers (myself very much included) tend to be forward-leaning people. We have a collective almost-rabid longing for what’s new and next. To be fair, this may be partially a reflection of the youth culture we serve within. But I think it also betrays a deeper flaw in our thinking: we want a quick fix.

If that church suddenly gets an influx of teenagers, we assume whatever they’re doing must be good and worthy of being copied. If that other church appears to be doing something edgy, we pay attention, wondering if we should label it heresy or brilliance. And if that opinionated speaker/writer uses hyperbole to tell us we’re not being faithful to our calling unless we do “X” (I hope notice i’m pointing at myself here), we rush to beat ourselves up over our lack of compliance to THE NEXT BIG THING.

We hurry to build the biggest, baddest program; then we rush to embrace a small group approach; then we pendulum to candles and contemplation; then throw it all out in exchange for… I don’t know… dubstep-driven youth ministry? And all the while, we wonder what we’re missing, what shiny puff of newness we should try next.

Yes, I’m writing with hyperbole. Plenty of youth workers (mindlessly) stay the course and never change. But – I’ll admit – I’m much more like the leaf on the wind.

I’ll tell ya, though: it’s difficult not to see the value of determination and a ruthless commitment to one’s mission while standing on The Great Wall. I’ll even go so far as to say: there’s something beautiful about the patience of plodding.

I’m regularly the subject of these verses:

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. (Ecclesiastes 11:4)

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. (Ephesians 4:14)

And, of course, the big confrontation to my youth ministry double-mindedness:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:5-8)

I know The Great Wall metaphor isn’t perfect. Surely, power was abused and people were treated like chattel to get that thing built. But there’s something stunning about the singularity of vision, the lack of double-mindedness, the ponderous, tedious, lumbering steadiness that resulted in a hand-built wall more than half the distance of my twelve-hour flight to get to it. And it stands there, impervious to winds, hundreds (and, for some sections, thousands) of years later.

It makes me wonder what a youth ministry with that kind of staying power would look like?