Earlier this month I was taking a seminary class at Luther Seminary with John Roberto of Lifelong Faith Associates. During one of the classes, he showed us what may be the best TED video I’ve ever seen. It could be titled, “The Gospel According to Chopin” (by the way, I am in no way a classical music person, which illustrates the point even better). Watch it below… my thoughts follow.
Some intersections with the gospel & theology:
Discipleship is more like teaching the piano than passing on information en masse. Think about how kids learn to play the piano: a parent or a teacher sits down on the bench next to them one-on-one. They aren’t invited into a class when they hit a certain age and are expected to learn to play the piano.
We can “live into” realities that are not present.
Vision must be big & not incremental. Moving from 3% to 4% is not visionary. We should strive for 100%.
Stop emphasizing every note, but think about the long line from b to e
When other people’s eyes are not shining, who am I being to cause that? Not, what is wrong with them?
Our job is to awaken the possibilities in others
The conductor never speaks but engages all
We must believe in the outcome
One-buttock playing = passionate, consuming, internalized
Five years ago today I officially began my job as the Youth Director at Hope Lutheran Church, my first job after graduating from John Brown University in May 2006. I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what I learned over the past five years about myself, ministry, and my context. I reserve the right to add to this list.
Theology still matters. While still an undergraduate I had a hunch that if I took youth ministry seriously as an act of practical theology I would be able to live with myself and still be “successful.” Others will have to judge me on my success, but after five years of trying to do theologically-grounded youth ministry I have no regrets. Youth ministry shapes the theological imaginations of our young people, whether we like it or not, so we might as well take that particular task seriously and embrace our roles as theologians.
Being a good listener is better than being culture-savvy. Some people tend to think that in order to relate to teens you need to watch the TV shows the kids are watching, read their books, go to their movies, visit their websites, and on and on. I’ve found that simply listening to the youth in my midst makes me a teen expert.
Listen to the wise sages. As I read books, blogs and magazines and watch interviews and listen to lectures, there are some voices that can only be described as having “weight.” The weightiest voices in my life have been those who seem to be filled with the most wisdom. There are often loud experts touting their methods (with acronyms) but before long their voices are drowned out by the next. Someone who speaks with wisdom stands the test of time. Three of my favorite wise sages to read and reflect on for ministry: Eugene Peterson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Parker Palmer.
In faith formation, the local and particular trumps large, one-size-fits-all events. Since coming to Hope, we have never gone to a youth event with more than 300 people. On a rare occasion we will go on a retreat with a couple hundred other youth from the area, and even then I sometimes wonder about the effectiveness. More regularly, we have our own retreats planned and executed in-house. I can make sure the material fits into a comprehensive plan, I can make sure that my kids are interacting (instead of staring at a stage), and I can tailor each specific event to my kids. I haven’t seen any ill-effects from not attending huge stadium-style events and so I’ll probably continue to do without them.
Good teaching comes from depth, not gimmicks. I have been told by different youth over the years that I am a “good teacher.” I seldom use curriculum and more times than not my “lesson” gets thrown out the window as the discussion develops around the topic or passage at hand. One unforeseen question can move things off track for the rest of the session. In order to mold a lesson on-the-fly, there has to be a deep well to draw from. I need to know scripture well, to be grounded theologically, ethically, and pastoral-ly in order to bob and weave through where God is leading us as we are studying the scriptures.
I have to teach cyclically. I am just now beginning to really catch on that as new people join the youth ministry, usually as they get older, that I need to go back and re-lay some foundational teaching that I have covered in the past. My mind naturally keeps wanting to build on what I’ve done before, but as seniors graduate and new kids come in, I have to start over again.
I have to read. This is a personal observation that helps me gauge my level of creativity, initiative, and depth. When I am not reading something, my whole ministry seems to suffer. There is something that is prodded within my mind and soul when I read that permeates everything I do. If I do not take time out to enter into learning and personal growth through reading I am almost certainly in a ministry “lull” within a few months.
The dynamics of the youth ministry are constantly changing. As certain fads wear out, technology moves forward, and the actual students in the youth ministry change, the dynamics are always in flux. Certain things that worked with one group may not work with another. Just about every summer I have to rethink what the next year will look like given the teens that are in my midst.
Denominations are dying. I have never been a part of a church that was a member in a large denomination until I came to Hope. I have learned much about denominations, especially the ELCA since I have been here, but it is obvious that denominations are dying. The world has changed, and future generations will not be nurtured in faith through massive bureaucracies.
I’m a thinker, not a doer. I like to analyze, hypothesize, and dream, but I’m not so good at implementation. I need to work on this.
My last post on 10 Things Youth Ministry Needs Less generated a lot more discussion than I expected. The comments left on that post were quite insightful, so make sure to go back and read the 43 comments if you haven’t yet.
But the point of my last post wasn’t to simply be a critic, but to make space for things that I think are really important. For example, if your youth ministry currently puts on a midweek worship service, how much time and energy would you free up for yourself and the other leaders in your ministry if you canceled it? I would expect quite a lot. So, if we’re going to be doing less of certain things, what kinds of things do we need more?
Adults – Our students don’t need adults to teach them, they need adults who know them. And the only way they can be truly known is by making sure there are plenty of adults around who care about them and listen to them. Unless your adult to student ratio is 10:1, you could use more.
Intimacy – I think we need to quit using the word relationships (“It’s all about the relationships”) and instead start talking about intimacy. We don’t need to do more activities to build relationships, we need to build more intimacy within our relationships. Intimacy tells what kinds of relationships we are trying to develop. If we are going to truly know the young people in our congregations, we are going to have to talk about things that matter, not just what happened at school this week. Having a 20 minute breakout group after a sermon isn’t enough time for our students to develop intimacy with other adults or students. You need extended blocks of time over the long-term to truly develop intimacy.
Prayer – Prayer is a naturally intimate pattern of speech, so to develop intimacy with our students, we need to be praying with and for them on a regular basis. Again, time will be a necessary ingredient for prayers to develop beyond shallowness. (For more thoughts on prayer and intimacy, see Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson)
Scripture – Scripture teaches us how to pray, how to relate to one another, and how to relate to God. Research shows that our students are typically very biblically illiterate, so we need to do our best to weave scripture in with whatever we are doing. I would caution against adding and adding Bible studies, because that could have issues of it’s own.
Passion – Are we calling students to something worth giving their life for? Just a few days ago a 14 year old boy thought something was worth giving his life for when he blew himself up and killed 27 army recruits in Pakistan. Teenagers are naturally passionate people (i.e. your middle school girls & Justin Bieber) if they find something they think is worth their time. Somehow we must recover the passion in our faith. (See Practicing Passion by Kenda Dean for more.)
Life Coaching – It seems to me that we assume that every student needs to do well in all their classes and then go to college and do well in all their college classes and then go get a job. What about the kids who is struggling in english, math and science but is a brilliant artist? Or what about the student who always struggles in school but who came into his own when you were building houses on a mission trip? Should we harp on them to get their grades up (and to concentrate less on the things they are actually good at) so they can go to college or should we encourage them to develop and express their natural gifts and abilities? I think we need to pay attention to the uniqueness of each student in our church and help them grow and mature individually, not encourage them to conform to our assumptions about the path everyone needs to take. (I’m not sure if “life coaching” is the best label for what I’m thinking about, but it’s all that came to mind. Suggest something better in the comments.)
Integration – Youth ministry needs to think of itself less as a separate program of the church and more as a network of relationships helping teenagers grow in faith. As such, youth ministry needs to be better integrated with other areas of the church. When you encourage a girl to join the adult choir (or praise team) at the church and then you go and tell one of the ladies to make sure and take her under her wing, that is youth ministry. When you send a guy who is good with his hands with the men’s group to go build houses for a week instead of taking him with you to camp, that is youth ministry. When you cancel your normal youth group activities for a week to allow your students to lead VBS, that is youth ministry. The goal is to see people growing in Christ, not to see them come to your events & programs. We need to seek out ways to integrate students in ways that fit their unique gifts.
Practical Theology – Since I said in the last post that we could probably do with less youth ministers, what role do we have in the meantime? I think one of the most important roles for a youth minister to play is that of the ministry’s practical theologian. Practical theologians make sure that the way we do things is congruent with theological convictions we hold. I have written about this before, and there’s a good article by Tony Jones on this subject in the January/February issue of Immerse Journal (at this moment, you can read it online).
Originality – If all of the above things are happening–adults who intimately know students, prayer, integration, practical theology–then your youth ministry should look unique and be a fluid organism. Simply look around you and figure out what to do given who is there. Don’t try to conform who is there to what you do. Not every students needs a game/icebreaker, 2 upbeat songs, a serious song, a 15-20 minute sermon, and breakout groups to grow.
Parents – You already knew this, though, right?
What else do we need more? Add to the list in the comments.
Youth Ministers – Adam McLane has pointed out that there is an inverse relationships between the increasing number of staff and the decreasing attendance in churches over the last three decades. I’m not so sure adding more youth ministry staff will solve our youth ministry problems. As someone who is youth ministry staff at a church, I’m not so sure what to do with this. [Update: I did something about this and voluntarily reduced my hours at church]
Worship Services – Many youth ministries have their own worship services on Sunday or Wednesday night. How many other people in your church, outside of the youth ministry, go to two worship services a week (Sunday morning and the youth ministry service)? If we don’t expect adults to go to two worship services a week, why do we expect youth to do that? Do we really need to do the same thing twice in one week? At a time when people are so busy, I think ministry would be better served by doing something different than Sunday morning. Let students get their corporate worship in on Sunday morning.
Preaching – This is related to the worship services, since preaching is usually a main component in worship services. But more importantly, students need meaningful space to speak and space for authentic relationships to be developed. Neither happens during preaching. Again, leave the preaching to Sunday morning.
Money – I know it is common practice to judge how much a church values its youth by how much money it spends on them. Why is that? Does an increase in financial resources translate into discipleship and evangelism? Is the spread of the gospel dependent on money? China, Africa, and South America seem to say, “no.” Also, see #1. Try cutting your budget by 10% every year and see what happens.
Calendars – I had an interesting experience the other week. I was having a heck of a time getting students to show up to an event that was on the calendar. I gave out notice, told people about it, the usual. But due to extracurricular activities or something, I can’t remember exactly what happened, I think I ended up canceling the event. Then I found out that a group of students self-organized a Bible study with their peers through texting and Facebook in a matter of days. And a lot of people showed up. In addition to reinforcing #1 (they didn’t need an adult to coordinate or lead this), it also made me try and figure out a way to be more spontaneous with discipleship. I’m not sure how to go about this quite yet, but putting things on calendars isn’t working very well for me anymore.
Programs – This goes together with less money and less calendars, but it also has to do with people’s (legitimate) continuing skepticism towards institutions. And what are programs other than institutionalized forms of discipleship? Discipleship is a personal and communal process, not an institutional program.
Hype – Maybe I’m biased because I’m a horrible cheerleader, but I’m pretty sure that the gospel isn’t well-served by hype. To me, hype is irreverent. Hype wants to mask reality. Hype is afraid of the truth. Hype is good for getting people elected but tends to be short on results. Let’s jettison trying to drum up any hype surrounding our ministries or youth ministry trends in general.
Games – Surely we don’t need more of them. So we could probably do with less.
T-Shirts – In case you missed my previous thoughts on this, read them here. I’m kind of serious.
Lock-Ins – Come on, we can all agree on this one, can’t we?
What am I leaving out? What else could we stand to use less?
If you are reading this post, I’m assuming you are one of the people who subscribes to my RSS feed, a loyal reader. As I am in the process of resurrecting the blog, I’m curious:
Why do you read my blog?
(After the last six months of non-blogging, it might be more appropriate to ask, “Why did you read my blog?”)
This whole process of getting back into blogging has not been something I have done spontaneously; I’ve thought about it quite a bit. As I’m trying to be thoughtful about launching back into the blog world I’m curious about what draws my readers back for more.
Basically, I’m trying to narrow down what is most beneficial to the people who read my blog and then focus on that.
So, what is it for you? What keeps drawing you back? Or, what would you like to see more of?
(If you don’t want to drop a comment to answer, email me.)
This will, hopefully, be the last “status update” post. I decided it was time to update the look of the blog a bit. If you read my blog on your RSS reader, you might want to visit the website proper and see the visual changes that have been made. It’s still a clean, simple layout, but it looks a bit more fresh than the old theme. There’s still some tweaks here and there to be made, but the site should work just fine for everyone.
And, an invisible change I made was changing website hosts. I used to be with BlueHost and decided it was time to move away from them after what seemed to be a lot of downtime on my site. I had started an account with HostGator a little while ago to work on some web projects and have been pleased with the switch. So, in trying to resurrect the blog, it seemed like the right time to move my personal blog over to HostGator as well. If you want to know why I switched, email me and I’ll give you all the nerdy details. I will spare the rest of you from that.
So, this weekend I will work on cleaning up and tweaking the site, and then blogging should begin Monday morning.
Most animals go into hibernation during the winter, but I guess I am a different breed, blog-wise at least. The cold weather and dead grass keeps outdoor activities to a minimum, and the new year brings fresh perspective. So I think it is time to awaken (resurrect?) the blog for a season.
Since this spring, when I found out that my wife’s job was going to keep us in the area for another 4 years, I’ve been thinking about what I want the next 4 years of ministry to look like. A little while back I put together a tentative scope and sequence chart that outlines the major topics we’ll cover in our various aspects of ministry. I think it’s a pretty swell plan.
One of my goals is to read at least something from every book in the Bible during high school Sunday school over the next four years. I found myself torn because that meant a lot of good material had to be left out. And then I thought about the kids who were juniors and seniors and who wouldn’t get to experience the “full effect” of this comprehensive plan. I really wanted everyone to be able to experience the whole four years.
And then I realized that in order for anyone to be able to be a part of a plan like this, they have to be here at the beginning and see it through to the end. If they are not freshman, then they miss out. It seemed to me that planning this out made me take an anti-missional stance. The whole idea is predicated on people being here their freshman year. I was working under the assumption that if our group grows and people get involved as sophomores, juniors, or seniors that they won’t get the full benefit of the program. And I didn’t much like thinking that way.
I’m going to probably stick to the rough plan that’s been laid out simply to provide some balance and to make sure that we don’t cover the same things over and over. But what is important is to realize that it’s not the planning or the programs that make our break someone’s faith development. If someone connects with our church and ministry in their senior year, we have to continue to put the impetus of growth and maturity on sustainable relationships that will last beyond and outside of these programs. These structures only serve as a container within which to house and develop some of these relationships.
Or, at least, that’s where I’m at on this whole deal right now.
Does anyone else do comprehensive long-range planning and have the same struggles?