Youth and Culture and Change, Part 1

I read and hear all the time how youth are changing. I also read and hear about how culture is changing. I wonder though if our youth ministry approaches are changing… and if they should.

I feel like there is a tension in the church about what is considered “good” youth ministry. Perhaps these two questions can frame the tension: 1) is good youth ministry focused on addressing the developmental needs of teenagers? Or 2) is good youth ministry focused on the cultural issues of youth?

I wonder if our human development issues during adolescence, no matter our culture, are substantive enough to be the only thing really worth paying attention to in youth ministry? After all, there is so much going on in this stage of life. If we learn how to program a ministry that helps youth work through these adolescent development issues, shouldn’t that kind of ministry be transferable anywhere in anytime? Youth today experience raging hormones, an exploding intellectual capability, and major confusion about identity. So did youth 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and according to some recent research, so did youth 500 years ago.

I also wonder if the cultural issues surrounding youth are substantive enough to be the only thing really worth paying attention to in youth ministry? After all, there is no reality to a young person like their own. If we learn to adapt our message of good news to the cultural context of the youth in our youth group, we are more likely to get that message across in ways that are actually good news. This also means that we are required to continually adapt and change that message – and the programs in our youth ministry – to connect with the rapidly changing youth culture.

Over the next couple of weeks, I would like to take some time here to wrestle with these issues. If anyone is reading along, I would love to hear your thoughts along the way.

Which of these two questions above would most characterize the church you know best and their approach to youth ministry? What questions arise from this introduction?

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Wake Up

What are we doing here anyway? Jesus said to those asleep in the garden, “Wake up!” What if all we are doing is sleep walking? What does it mean to be awake? Perhaps what it means is learning to hear what is really happening in the world around us; actually listening to the cries of the people around us. Is not that what we are called to do in being present and hearing from our brothers and sisters?

What are we doing here as Christians? If we actually woke up, wouldn’t we start making a priority good listening? Wouldn’t we make a priority first and foremost the people that are in front of us today? Too often we as Christians focus on tomorrow (or even after death), or we are too worried about our own problems, sins, situations, complexities, worries, needs, and wants to actually hear those who we bump into on an everyday basis. What if we actually woke up and listened? What are their cries? How can we hear them? How can we join them in those cries? How can we offer hope?

What are we doing here as Pastors? If we actually woke up, wouldn’t we make it a priority to really listen and see our community? Wouldn’t we spend an enormous amount of time just getting to know the people in our neighborhood, hearing their concerns, troubles, and cries? Too often as pastors we let the tyranny of busyness become our master. We allow the “needs” of the people who claim us to become like the demands of God. Perhaps we once asked the questions of our communities. Perhaps we once listened well. But are we creating cultures of listening? Are we creating space for disciples to grow up with us alongside?

What are we doing here as Fathers? If we actually woke up, wouldn’t we make it a point to have “those conversations” with our children about all the hard things in life? Wouldn’t we want to tell them and show them our love and the love of the Father? Wouldn’t we want to own up to our own woundedness and the times we have wounded our children? If we had the courage to turn off the television, to look our children in the eye and to tell the stories of our own struggles, victories, defeats and doubts would not our children then give us our hearts desire and share with us their struggles, victories, defeats and doubts? If we woke up, then we might hear the cries of our children’s hearts.

What are we doing here as Professors? If we actually woke up, wouldn’t we see it as our job to help our students wake up too? Is not the ultimate cry of the heart of the student? To wake up. To be given different lenses to look through that they may better see the world we live in. To be given better language in order to better listen and speak into a world of broken cries. If we were awake would we not see first and foremost our students as priority and not our career, our future, our committee? If we were really awake then the most important things would move well beyond the academic and enter into the transformative movement of life on life.

What are we doing here as Students? If we actually woke up, wouldn’t we see it as our job to learn to listen and to see? To be able to identify the cries of the people around us? The loud screams and the soft whimpers? Wouldn’t we welcome gladly the soft proddings and questions of our professors? Wouldn’t we attempt to do our best and confess where we are weak? Wouldn’t we see professors as more than just vessels of knowledge, but also as people whose stories we must learn?

Obviously these are some of my life areas and this is me preaching to me. But I share this because it might perhaps help you too. I know I need to wake up.

Today I learned that a recent graduate had died. We can’t help but wonder, “what if?” and “buy why?” in times like this. But I often wonder what it is we are doing here in the first place…

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Banked Beliefs Are Killing the Faith of Teenagers

Banked beliefs are “beliefs that do not fit in with other beliefs.  They are remembered or stored away, but do not affect the way a person acts, except perhaps, when there is occasion for those beliefs to be “regurgitated”.”**  In other words, these are beliefs that we learn and only recall when the setting is just right.  For many youth this seems to be the primary type of belief that our youth groups are perpetuating.  Students learn the content of a set of beliefs, and they “bank” them away for use in the next Sunday School lesson or for the next time their parents quiz them on what they are learning at church. What they “learn” does not influence they way they live their everyday life.

This is to be completely contrasted with “actual beliefs”  which are the beliefs that a person holds that influence their behavior and action. Often people do not articulate these out loud, but understanding their culture and observing their life lived out will tell this tale.

Teens carrying around "banked beliefs"

Over the past year this contrast has kept rising to the surface of my conversations with both teenagers and youth workers.  For the youth workers they wonder how a student can so readily and rightly regurgitate information about Scripture, God, church and faith – but yet live as though they know none of it.  For teenagers the conversation is often more complex because they say they like youth group, like their youth workers and like (as one student put it) “the Jesus stuff”, but when pressed about how it changes their behavior or separately asked about the actions of their life, there seems to be no internalization of this faith.

All this to say that it seems to me that the great myth of modern youth ministry (and perhaps modern ecclessiology) has been that “information equals transformation”.  If we simply give the students the right information – in a cool and relevant way I’m sure – then they will be changed and make the right decisions and their behavior will be changed to the way we have prescribed for them.  This operates out of the faulty assumption that we are rational people who are sometimes capable of emotion, when in fact the converse it true – we are emotional people who are occasionally capable of reason.

If we hold to this second claim – that we are primarily emotional people – then the way we do youth ministry simply has to move beyond sharing information.  I would like to briefly propose that youth ministry has to start with engaging the world of the teens and people we are living life with, seeking to understand and reflect on their culture.  In joining them in their place, and joining God where He is already at work, we reveal an intention that is “rooted and grounded in love” and moves well beyond the simple desire of giving students more information so that they can change their behavior. The movement towards really knowing the person and caring for them as for Christ, is a movement toward our emotion. I would also like to propose that we live a faith together that is “caught” as it is being taught.  In this way the students we love will see the lives we live for Christ, the brokenness that we also bring, the healing that Christ has begun in us and all-encompassing actual beliefs we possess. But the information is also important – but only in the lived out life of faith together – because it gives words and expression to the larger things going on in our lives.

I am not arguing here for an emotionalism that capitalizes on students, though many have discovered that this does move people.  I am rather arguing for the deeper level of emotional youth ministry where we actually know the teens we are working with, their struggles, doubts and fears and they know ours.  This type of ministry moves beyond building up the “banked beliefs” that do not affect our daily lives and moves towards a much more messy and wonderful faith that impacts how we actually live our lives.

Anybody else see these “banked beliefs” at work in their youth ministry?  What actions do we take to help move past “banked beliefs” to “actual beliefs”?

** The main ideas behind “actual beliefs” and “banked beliefs” come from Philip Hughes, “The Use of Actual Beliefs in Contextualizing Theology”. East Asian Journal of Theology, 1984.


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Ichthus and Jesus

Had a great time at Ichthus Music Festival this weekend!  I spent most of my time in the Youth Worker Tent (Ground Zero) making new friends, telling stories, giving gifts ($200,000 in scholarships!), and helping throw a party.  I am very tired, but since this hits on my core values it was very rewarding as well. Some highlights:

– I got to meet some incredible people!  I’m going to name drop in a moment, but before I get to that stuff, let me just say that by far the greatest people I met were the youth workers who came in the tent to catch their breath. I love meeting youth workers and love spending time with them because they love Jesus and love teenagers.  It never ceases to bring me joy spending time with this group.  Just awesome people with awesome hearts who encourage me so much with their ministries to teens.  I saw Jesus in them this week.

– I got to tell some stories.  Specifically I lead devotions Thursday and Friday morning with youth workers (Saturday was schedule but thunderstormed out) and I focused on the parable of the Prodigal and Perfectionist sons from Luke 15.  I’ll probably post more on this later as God has had me here for most of the year.

– I got to hear some stories.  Dan Lewis did a great job with our youth worker training times.  His notes are available at his website, including the rained out Saturday morning session.

– I was able to facilitate some great discussions and meet some incredible people on our panels each day.  All of the topics around youth culture(s) were filled with conversations about approaching culture as missionaries.  Good stuff.

Thursday was a panel discussion on Hip-Hop culture and why it matters to all youth ministry.  Great discussion from Efrem Smith, LaCrae, Trip Lee, and Pro.  All of these four guys were so insightful, thoughtful, and very articulate.  This was a real treat.

Friday was a panel discussion on Underground Culture, its many faces/styles/types and why it matters to youth ministry.  Great discussion from Loyal Thurman, Gideon Thurman, and Heather Vaught from Hope for the Rejected; Goth Mom, Donna Sheehy and Stephen Long from GraveRobbers; and TD and Veronica Benton of White Collar Side Show.  These are such missional people and ministries.  I’d highly encourage you to find some time with them and to support them however you can.

Saturday was a panel discussion on Social Networking and the pros/cons within youth ministry.  Great discussion again from Clinton Faupel of Remedy FM, Nathan Elliot, Nathan Head, and Janet Dean.

– I also got to lead some discussion with some artists who were at the festival including: Skillet; Seventh Day Slumber; and Matthew West.

So now you can see why I am excited and also tired.

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7 Billion is a lot

National Geographic is working on a series around the issue of the earth’s population hitting 7 billion people very soon.  Quite fascinating stuff.

Two quick things jumped out at meet in this: The first is below, a video on the “typical human”.

The second was a stat about the country of Uganda where 1/2 of their 34 million people are under 15 years old.  What does this mean for the church there?  Youth ministry?  How can I train youth leaders that will go there and minister?

And here is another preview video

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Five Stages of Grading

In the midst of the semester, I stumbled across this link shared by a colleague.  It’s funny cuz it’s true!

Five Stages of Grading

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The Emotions of Speaking

I just returned from speaking at a youth retreat.  I really enjoy speaking and teaching and feel that God has gifted and called me to do that.  I also feel like God has placed some important people in my life to shape the ways that I approach study, preparation, prayer and speaking.  I have taken courses in public speaking and preaching at both the undergraduate and seminary level.  I have read lots of books about this.  God has given me a lot of opportunities to speak and teach.  I am so thankful for all of this and consider it all grace.

However, there are many dangers in speaking that I’d like to talk more about, as well as some of the ways that I’ve tried to deal with these dangers.

First let me identify the selfish dangers in speaking:

– Relevance – There is an incredible temptation to be seen as relevant, as having something significant of yourself to offer, of being somehow important or worthy in and of yourself to be heard.  This of course is garbage.  I am a dork.  I am so far from perfect.  Most of what speakers share is what we hope to be and hope to live into and hope that God gives us the strength to do and become.  These are important things to share to be sure, but the temptation is there to pretend that somehow we are those things.  One of my favorite quotes from Heninri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus reads, “…I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.”

Some ways that I battle this temptation is to bring someone with me who knows me.  Sometimes its someone from my family or a colleague or a student. (This weekend I traveled with a recent graduate who was helping to lead worship.)  This keeps me from telling too many tales and beginning to believe the hope that others have in me to be perfect is somehow true.  It also helps to tell on yourself in your speaking, relating stories of your failures, errors and blunders.  Another huge help in this area is preparing well, which leads me to my next temptation…

– Rely on your talent – Yes, I do believe some people are talented speakers.  This is usually why they began speaking in the first place.  Someone recognized this in them and encouraged them to do it for the Kingdom.  But what begins in that talent can become a trap that leads us to not prepare as we should and to instead lean on our talent or past preparation.  What’s even more difficult about this is that oftentimes a talented speaker can “get away with it”.  We can do a good enough job in our time to get some attention and praise, to connect with people and scratch an itch, but we are not truly connecting out of overflow of the heart.

Some of the ways that I battle this temptation is through developing a plan of preparation for every opportunity.  This begins with prayer and lots of it.  Prayer for myself, prayer for humility, strength and grace.  Prayer for wisdom, discernment, and love.  Prayer for more of God and less of me.  Prayer for those who I will be speaking to.  That God would somehow prepare a way for what He has for all of us.  Prayer that the true teacher, God’s Spirit, would be the one connecting here.  Prayer over the Scripture and preparation process.  The preparation process also requires a lot of listening – yes, to God in prayer, but also – to the leaders of the group to whom you’ll be sharing.  What are the issues that the group has been facing?  What is the group like (demographics and personal anecdotes)?  What are the kind of things that have seemed to resonate in the past?  Not?  What are the things you are hoping will happen when things are finished here?  Are there any things you don’t feel like you can say, but you’d like me to?  And so on.  There is also then a listening to the Scriptures that you will share from.  This is the development of the actual messages, but is important.  There are a lot of other resources on this that I’ll defer to here.

– Pride – There is a temptation to take pride in what you do, the results of what you may see God doing, or the praise that you get from people when you are done.  And why shouldn’t we be proud?  We could say that it was us who did the work, who developed the message, crafted the presentation, formed the word choices, framed the questions, etc.  But that would be foolish.  Yes, we need to be faithful and hard workers at the craft we are given, but let us not forget who gives us these opportunities, these words, this text, this voice, these relationships, etc.  The only one who ever exceeds the hype every time and has true integrity is Christ, so let’s get over ourselves and move on.

I battle this one through prayer and accountability.  I also work hard to turn all conversations praising me away from me and towards God and towards that person.  I ask them about themselves.  I pray with them.  I praise God for any good that comes from anything that I ever am involved in.

Finally, let me confess another important danger in speaking: emotional drain.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but I know for me speaking and teaching is an incredibly emotionally draining process.  Not because I don’t like it; I love it.  Not because it is some secondary effort or anything else less than what I feel I should be and want to be doing.  It is emotionally draining because you are working to connect people to your very inner heart, your journey, your learning, your stretching, your vulnerabilities, your passion, your dreams, your failures – and specifically God’s work in all of you.  When I speak for three times in one day – teaching or preaching – I am exhausted.  Not just tired – exhausted.  When I am preaching like that it is a true pouring out.  I am working hard before and after to refill so there is something better than me to pour out.

I think this is important to recognize because when  you are that emotionally drained it opens you up to all kinds of temptation and selfishness.  I don’t think it a coincidence that Jesus modeled this continual rhythm of filling up in prayer and time alone and the pouring out in miracles, speaking, etc.  I once had a good friend ask me why we pastors didn’t just share and copy each others’ sermons like we sing other people’s worship songs.  I asked him if he’d ever take someone else’s autobiography and put his name on it.

For those you know who preach or teach regularly, let me encourage you to pray for them, and make sure they are filling up regularly.  This is an emotional process.

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