What’s Right About Youth Ministry

As I was placing an order on the The Youth Cartel website, I saw a new book had recently been released : What’s Right About Youth Ministry.  It was on sale (I think) and I had already qualified for free shipping, so I thought, “Why not? I’ve been trying to do more reading and it looks like a good read.” It was.

The book was authored by Mark Oestreicher (Marko). He has been a part of the youth ministry world for a number of years and has served in a variety of capacities.  He has a unique perspective as both a volunteer in his church’s youth ministry, a trainer of youth workers and a recognized speaker.

Kurt Johnson, Junior High Pastor at Saddleback, wrote responses at the end of each chapter. I found what he wrote to be helpful. He sometimes underscored what was said and other times provided a different perspective on the issue.

I’ve never met either of these men personally, but have read other works they’ve written, listen to them via video or audio recording and have heard them speak live and in person.  I value their experience and passion for youth ministry and appreciate the insights they have.  While the book is fairly short (just over 100 pages), it contains some great thoughts and challenges for youth workers.

There were a few things that stood out to me.  I love this “equation” or “magic formula that Marko gives for a great youth ministry.  He shares in the book that he was speaking to a group of Spanish-speaking youth workers and felt compelled, with all the other information he was sharing, to kind of simplify things.  He said there are three things necessary for great youth ministry: 1) You Like Teenagers 2) You Are a Growing Follower of Jesus 3) You Are Willing to Live Honestly in the Presence of Those Teenagers You Like.

I thought that was so helpful and a good description of my small group leaders and volunteers.  Marko then kind of expanded it to say this:

A grace-filled caring adult who’s willing to be present with teenagers
+
A small-ish group of teenagers
+
The power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Jesus
=
Fantastic youth ministry!

While there is no much we need to know about youth culture and helping students in crisis and relating to parents and communicating well and managing details and staying organized, I thought this “equation” was right on.

I’ve been in full-time youth ministry for nearly 30 years, yet still can fall into the comparison trap where I look at what others are doing and see how I measure up.  Whether you are brand new to youth ministry or have been doing it for decades, it’s something we all can find ourselves doing.  Marko’s encouragement is for everyone.

God isn’t calling you to be just like the youth ministry from that other church, even if that youth ministry is fantastic; God is calling your youth ministry to discern and embody the unique contextualized expression of youth ministry he has dreamed up for you.

Bigger isn’t necessarily better and smaller doesn’t trump bigger.  Being faithful to where God has placed you and knowing the context in which you serve are important elements.

In an earlier chapter Marko also talked about the importance of keeping the course and not just changing up programming to get a different result.  I think this is connected with the idea of being who God has called you to be.  He talks about the misplaced gorgeous value of patience and the mundane way of steadfastness.  I agree that we need to modify our methods as culture changes, but there is also the reality that we should be steadfast and consistent in our ministry to students. Many of my leaders have great relationships and influence with students because they have been steadfast and consistent.

As youth ministry as a profession has changed over the last few decades and, as some have said, has gained legitimacy as a career path, it has led to so many different voices and resources available for youth workers.  I love the fact that I can read a blog, subscribe to an email list, join a Facebook group or watch a video that provides training and information I couldn’t get as easily before.  It has opened the door for other voices that you would most likely not have ever heard from before.  Kurt Johnson, in one of his responses, talks about this very thing and offered a great insight: But, just because somebody has a voice doesn’t mean you need to listen to what the person says, nor does it mean that person’s insights are as valid as somebody else’s. These days almost everybody has something to say and thinks he or she is the person to say it.

I found that to be helpful and echoed what I found myself thinking when I would read something someone wrote.  Just because I have some kind of platform (like a blog perhaps?), doesn’t mean I necessarily have the wisdom or insight a particular situation or issue requires.  Sure we can all disagree on issues (just look at the comments on any Facebook group you are a part of), but I think we need to be discerning in the voices we listen to and ideas we adopt.

What’s Right About Youth Ministry was encouraging to me because it affirmed some of the things we’ve been trying to do, but also provided some challenges as we move forward. I found it to be helpful to me and think it would a good read for other youth workers.

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The Jesus Gap – What Teens Believe About Jesus

jesus-gapOne of the books I wanted to read as 2017 started was The Jesus Gap. I started reading it months ago, but somewhere along the way got off track. So, I decided to get back on track and set aside some time to really dig into it.

After reading it, I went back through the things I highlighted and marked.  Once I typed it up, it filled almost four pages in a Word doc.  Needless to say, there is a lot of useful information in the book.

Bradbury shares the motivation behind writing the book.  She was taking a class on Christological foundations.  The final project was to conduct a small research study on your own ministry to determine what teens believed about Jesus.  She was surprised by the results from her group.

As she continued to study this topic, she decided to find out if what was true of the teens in her youth ministry was true of others teens.  That brought about her survey and this book, The Jesus Gap.

For those who work with students, the question that will linger in your mind as you read this book is this:  “Is this true of the teens in my church?”  I asked that question a number of times as I read the results of her research.

While there is too much information in the book to boil down to one post, a couple of things kind of rose to the top in my thinking.

One is how students look at Jesus as both God and as being sinless.

According to Bradbury’s research, when students were asked the question, “Is Jesus God?”  44 percent of students answered Yes,” 44 percent said No,” and 12 percent confessed, I don’t know.”

There are a number of conclusions a person could draw, but the numbers are a little startling.  Consider that the teens from the survey had a church background, were active in their congregations, and yet under 50% of them agreed that Jesus is God.

When asked if Jesus was perfect (or sinless), 34 percent of teens affirmed Jesus was perfect. 57 percent said Jesus was not perfect9 percent said, “I don’t know if Jesus was perfect.”

So even a smaller percentage agreed that Jesus was perfect.

Along with sharing the statistics and results of interviews, Bradbury also shared some practical steps youth workers can take to strengthen the Christology of the teens in their churches.

One area where I think The Jesus Gap is helpful is that it removes the blinders from our eyes.  We have to assume that what is true of Bradbury’s original research study in her group and then the following larger study she did, is also true on some level for the students in our sphere of influence.  One of the take-a-ways I have from this book is to find out where our students are and what particular truths about Jesus we might need to address in the future.

Another interesting thing Bradbury brought out is why students question that Jesus was perfect.  Early in the book she referenced some research done by Scott McKnight in Christianity Today where he concluded this:  “We all think Jesus is like us.  Introverts think Jesus is introverted, for example, and extroverts think Jesus is extroverted.  To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image.”

Students seemed to carry this idea when they viewed Jesus.  Here are a couple of quotes from students in Bradbury’s book talking about why Jesus wasn’t sinless:

“Jesus was God’s Son, after all He was human.  It’s really hard to know.  You’d think he would be perfect.  But humans – it’s impossible to be perfect.”

“Jesus sinned because he was a human being like the rest of us.
Even the best people in the world sin.”

One challenge to students seeing Jesus as perfect is wrestling with His divine nature.  If He was human like us, the conclusion many of them draw is that He sinned, because all people sin.

Bradbury also revealed a distrust for Scripture.  She shared responses from students that shared the opinion that the Biblical writers left our Jesus’ sin intentionally, in an effort to make Him appear more godly.

After sharing results of her research, she offered this conclusion:  Don’t assume teenagers view Scripture the same way you do.  Perhaps we operate under the assumption that because we have talked about the Bible and have a certain set of beliefs, our students hold those as well.  The Jesus Gap reveals that for a large number of teens, it’s not true.

The challenge is to not only read the results of Bradbury’s research, but then apply it to your particular context.  This is a good read for those who work with students and could create some good discussion.

Conforming Jesus to our Own Image, Part 2

facesofjesusEarlier today I posted some thoughts on how some recent surveys indicate that students (and adults, too) conform Jesus to our own image. The prompting came from a book I started reading called The Jesus Gap. The book takes a look at what teens believe about Jesus.

A few hours after writing it, a Facebook friend shared a link to an article that was written somewhat in response to a video posted by BuzzFeed called “I’m a Christian, but I’m not.” I had not yet seen the video (I have watched it since) and there was a link in that article to another blog post talking directly about the video. One particular point in the article echos what was shared in The Jesus Gap.

Mollie Hemingway shared five observations regarding the BuzzFeed video, but her first one was dead on. While the BuzzFeed video may have had some good intentions and helped communicate a message to a particular group of people, it left out one thing – Jesus.

Here’s what Mollie Hemingway wrote:

When you build your faith around what type of Christian you’re not, your faith is not built around Christ. Below is the text and transcription of the viral video. Note the absence of any mention of Jesus.

Text: “BuzzFeed presents, I’m Christian but I’m not…”

I’m Christian but I’m not homophobic;
I’m Christian and I’m definitely not perfect;
I’m Christian but I’m not close-minded;
but I’m not unaccepting;
but I’m not uneducated;
but I am not judgmental;
but I’m not conservative;
I’m not ignorant;
but I don’t place myself on a pedestal;
I’m Christian but I don’t have all the answers.

Text: “What are you?”

but I am accepting;
but I am queer;
I am gay;
but I am a feminist;
I’m a feminist;
definitely am a feminist;
but I do believe in science, in fact I think science makes God look really cool;
I’m not afraid to talk about sex;
I love me some Beyonce;
but I love wine;
I do believe in monogamy before sex but I will give you sex advice if you need it;
but I do go to church on Sundays;
I was a YoungLife camp counselor;
I do listen to Christian music, Christian rock, Christian rap, T-Mac, all the cool kids;
I have friends from all walks of life and different religions, and I love them all.

Text: What do you want people to know about Christianity?

I guess what I’d like people to know about Christianity today is that we’re all kind of not crazy;
We shouldn’t be judged on just the people that you see in the media, or just the people that you’ve met in everyday life. every Christian is different, and we deserve a chance to explain ourselves;
A lot of people think Christianity ruins people, but to me I think it’s people that are ruining Christianity, you never really see the good that happens, you only see the hypocrites, and the people who put themselves on a higher pedestal;
But at its core it’s really about love and acceptance and being a good neighbor;
Just because we prescribe [sic] to a faith that has some really terrible people in it doesn’t make all of us terrible;
I don’t think that Christians should judge people for who they are or what they do, I think everybody is in different part of life on their own path to wherever they’re trying to go. we’re all people and love is the most important thing.
Not a single mention of Jesus, the author and finisher of the Christian faith. In fact, you could easily switch out all references to “Christian” with any other religion or belief system and it would have the same amount of meaning.

I don’t question the intent of the people making the video or their desire to communicate what Christianity is to people, but it is somewhat disturbing that within all of what was said, there was no reference to Jesus. I think this is one example of many that seems to indicate that we can be guilty of conforming Jesus to our own image. Jesus is this or isn’t that based on the fact that I am (or am not) certain things.

In the opening pages of The Jesus Gap, Jen Bradbury shares a story told by Donald Miller in his book, Searching for God Knows What. Miller is teaching a class at a Bible College. He shares the Gospel with his class, but leaves out one element. The class has to determine what he leaves out. He talks for quite a while about sin, repentance, the promise of forgiveness and heaven. After a rather lengthy explanation, he asks the class what was missing. They have no response. The missing element: Jesus.

Miller doesn’t berate the class, but makes the observation that sometimes we get caught up in our own approach to Christianity, that we miss Jesus.

I found it interesting that this the video and subsequent articles came across my news feed on the same day I started to digest the information in The Jesus Gap. Perhaps God is gently nudging me (and obviously others) to make sure Jesus is the center of my faith, life and teaching.

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

YM in a Post Christian WorldI (finally) finished reading Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World. It was one of those books that stirred my thinking, but I kept experiencing interruptions in my reading.

I referred to this book in previous posts that have talked about the issues the church faces when it comes to our post-christian culture. In this video, you can hear the author, Brock Morgan, talk briefly about the basis for the book.

In the opening chapters, Brock Morgan shares both his experiences and statistics that point to the fact we are living in a post-Christian world. He referenced a Barna study in the first chapter that speaks to the change that has been occurring in our culture: “The younger the generation, the increasingly post-Christian it is compared with its predecessors. Nealy half of Mosaics (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared with two-fifths of Busters (40%). One-third Boomers (35%) and one-quarter (28%) are post-Christian. These patterns are consistent with other studies that show the increasing percentage of “Nones” [i.e., adults who claim no religious affiliation among younger generations.”

Basically our culture is moving away from the church being the authoritative voice in our culture. With each generation, a larger percentage claim to have no religious affiliation. One speaker I heard describes it this way: the church used to be the majority and speak with authority. Now, we are in the minority and don’t have the same authority.

Morgan offers a unique perspective in his book as he shares about his experiences ministering in New England. When he first arrived at the church he serves, he was described as very “Jesus-y,” which he later learned wasn’t a compliment. Some of his stories would shock those of us who live and serve in the Bible Belt.

While pointing out that we live in a post-Christian culture, Morgan also talks about how to effectively minister to students in this context. He offers some defining characteristics of students who are post-Christian and shares some practical things he has done to connect with students and help them connect with God.

While ministering in New England is a lot different that being in the mid-West, there were several observations Morgan made with which I could relate. This book offers some good ideas on how to serve in our ever-changing culture.

I love what Morgan wrote about our approach in chapter 6: “Our goal should not be helping 15-year-olds become godly. Our goal should be that one day when these 15-year-olds are 30-year-olds, their faith will influence who they marry, what careers they choose, what habits they form, and how they raise their children.”

Whatever generation we serve, our goal should be to help foster a relationship with Jesus that impacts all facets of our lives. Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World offers some insights to those who are serving students today.

Brock Morgan – Post Christian Youth Ministry

In a post back in January I mentioned that I’m reading a book called “Youth Ministry in Post-Christian World.” Unfortunately, I’m still not finished with it (been doing some other reading), but I have it bookmarked and ready to pick up on my Kindle.

Yesterday, the Youth Cartel shared a 15 minute or so video of the author of the book, Brock Morgan, talking about the basis for his book. (I guess this talk was the springboard into the book).

I thought what he had to share was worthwhile and pushes those who serve in youth ministry today to take a look at our approach to current culture.

Bible on iPads, iPhones and Other Devices at Youth Group

youversionWe have a number of our students who use their iPhones, Kindles, iPads and other devices to look up scripture. Most of the time I’m doing the same thing. This article was posted today on The Youth Cartel website. Thought it brought an interesting perspective to whether a youth worker allows these devices or not.

This is a link to the entire article. I just pasted in the reasons they offered. Thoughts?

1. Brain Based Research demonstrates kids learn best when we integrate technology into the classroom. So why wouldn’t this also apply to the youth room? “Technology is valued within our culture. It is something that costs money and that bestows the power to add value. By giving students technology tools, we are implicitly giving weight to their school activities. Students are very sensitive to this message that they, and their work, are important.” – From article “The Effects of Technology on Classrooms and Students”

2. They are on their devices anyways. You can monitor and police and take away… but that is exhausting. It’s easier to allow the devices and set some ground rules and gasp in shock… kids will usually respect the rules you set. When you show them enough trust to allow them the use of electronics, they will not want to lose the privilege.

3. I am training for real life. Our students do not live in a bubble void of Apple products. When students leave our youth ministry they will still be bombarded with technology and the distractions there of. I would rather train and equip my kids to be able to use technology effectively in and out of the church setting. I want my own kids to acknowledge and be prepared to handle the “temptation of distraction” of the devices in their possession. Isn’t it better to be able to learn how to use technology to learn God’s Word, as opposed to sneaking it under their jackets and running off to the bathroom to text? I want my kids to know that technology IS distracting, so how do we deal with it and turn it around for our benefit instead?

4. I want the challenge. If church is boring and kids are playing Star Wars Angry Birds during my youth talk, then I have not done my job of engaging them. Same holds true for big church. People vote with their attention. When something is captivating, interesting and well executed it commands attention. Like a movie or TV show that has won me over… I close my laptop when I am really engaged with what I am watching on TV. In church… I fiercely take notes on Evernote when it’s “that good.”

5. It levels the playing field. Yes, I am all for Bible literacy and for knowing how to actually use a hard copy Bible. We still play the books of the Bible song in the car on the way to school, so my kids are not ignorant of such things. But we don’t teach Latin anymore either. Is the only Bible on our shelves the Latin Vulgate? We live in a new day, with the Bible available and accessible to us in so many wonderful ways. Why not embrace that reality and use it to help kids learn? Kids with learning disabilities or ADHD can often participate much more effectively when technology isn’t banned from church. Some kids learn best with a hands on hard copy edition of the Bible. Some kids (and adults) do not. Technology can help kids who struggle. Many students will track with your lesson much more efficiently and accurately than without their devices. When a brand new kid walks into church and sits at my table, I hate seeing them feel dumb when they have no idea (because they are new to church) of how to look up a Bible verse. Everyone stares at them. They shrink in their seat and fumble through the pages. Instead, I can in 30 seconds install the Bible app for them on their phone, and they can easily navigate through that. And guess what? This un-churched kid now has an easy to use Bible in their possession that didn’t cost anything from my youth budget.