Communities, Mission, and a Shared Table

Growing up, the table was always a big deal in my house. We rarely missed dinner together around the table. My parents, usually my mom, cooked a meal while the rest of us set the table and prepared for the food about to be shared.


My friends got to experience this sacred time as we had an open table. If my friends were around, they joined in the festivities. They helped set the table, prayed with us, ate my mom’s food, shared stories, and usually read Scripture with us. Most of these friends didn’t know Jesus. They came for the food and the kindness of a family in the neighborhood. Jesus was just a part of the deal.

The Welcome of the Table

One kid in particular came to my home almost every night. His name was Mikey. He wore baseball caps everyday and liked to fight with me. I don’t mean he liked to argue. He liked to physically fight with me. He was small but I was smaller. I was probably the only kid he could wrestle to the ground.

As youth leaders, we must begin to practice hospitality. We must open up our homes and prepare or buy a meal for our students. We need to commit to take time to share the table and take the posture of one who listens and not the one who has all the answers.

Mikey spent a few years growing up around our table. He would wait on our porch until we got home just so he could break bread with us. He was with my parents so much that he eventually started referring to my dad as his dad. He wouldn’t call him Mr. Penn or Brad. He simply called him Dad. Mikey became family around the table. He became a son and a sibling and he got a mom and a dad.

Jesus was part of the table at our home. When Mikey and others ate with us they didn’t just see how a healthy family functions. They experienced the presence of Christ and the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Around the table in our home, forgiveness and grace were offered. Family was made and expanded as kids were adopted into a new kind of family belonging to a different kind of kingdom.

I shouldn’t be as surprised by the power of the shared table as I am. Sharing the table was the way of Jesus and the way he sends his disciples into the world on mission. We read in Luke 10 that Jesus sends out His disciples two by two. They are to enter a town and find a place to eat and remain there, doing ministry there. The mission the disciples are sent on is a mission around the table.

Presence Around The Table

I believe that around the table we experience the presence of Jesus in ways we don’t fully understand.

In Luke 24, two disciples walk to Emmaus with the risen Jesus. In their grief, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus—that is, until he shares a meal with them. When Jesus shares the table with these two disciples, their eyes are opened and they experience the presence of the risen Lord. Before his death, Jesus had ben present with his followers at the table countless times. At this moment around the table, his disciples experienced his presence again.

Inviting Students to the Table

When we share meals with our students we aren’t simply sharing food. We are opening space for our students to experience the presence of Christ with us. As we break bread, we are sharing in eucharistic moments that remind us of the body broken and blood shed for us. The community being formed around the table is a community formed around the person and work of Jesus. He is present with us. We must discern that presence and draw students into his presence.

The shared table isn’t static. It is a dynamic event that begins with the sacrament of communion and extends into shared tables wherever Christians gather. Theologian David Fitch writes of extending the table in this way: “around the Lord’s Table, we learn to tend to the real presence of Christ at the Table. We learn the right postures which enable us to get out of our own way, tend to what Christ is doing, and cooperate. Then, what happens here around the Lord’s Table at worship on Sunday, carries over into all our other meals in our homes, neighborhoods, third places, etc.”1

In this act of discerning and extending Christ’s presence, the table becomes a place of mission. Those who know Jesus and those who do not—both experience his presence in and through the community formed around the table. The presence of Jesus is extended into new locations as we share tables in our homes, neighborhoods, and cities.

Practice Hospitality: Share the Table

As youth leaders, we must begin to practice hospitality. We must open up our homes and prepare or buy a meal for our students. We need to commit to take time to share the table and take the posture of one who listens and not the one who has all the answers.

From this posture we can pay attention to what Jesus is up to and then encourage our students and families to extend this presence and practice into every table they find themselves at. In doing this, we take the mundane table and transform it into a location for forming communities that join God on his mission in the world.

May we be a people of the table, welcoming students and parents to shared meals, and offering the peace and reconciliation found only in God’s kingdom.

About the Author: Jeremy Penn

Jeremy PennJeremy Penn serves as the college and young adult minister at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, FL. He earned an MA in Theological Studies from Talbot School of Theology. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary that focuses on The Church and Post-Christendom. Jeremy and his wife, Crystal, have a daughter, Riley, and a son, Phoenix.

The Kid Who Never Came Back

The Kid Who Never Came Back:
Handling Youth Group Dropouts

What happens when an active teen suddenly drops out of youth group?

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Do not be wise in your own eyes;”
Proverbs 3:5-7a (NRSV)

The Kid Who Never Came Back

When Young People Go Missing

“I just don’t understand why they never came back.”

This is a statement many in a congregation made after a family with five teenagers suddenly stopped showing up.

For months, they were active. Their presence was energizing. Their absence was confusing, then painful, then frustrating.

As fast as they jumped into our ministries, they were gone.

Five kids who never came back.

I had little to offer the congregation, until I remembered…

I was the kid who never came back.

Catching the Fire

FLASHBACK: Middle school was a big time for me.

I started playing the saxophone.

I had my first big crush.

And I began to ask some big questions about Jesus.

Here’s the point: a kid might show up to your youth group ONCE. They might come for YEARS. And just like that, they’re gone… You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

After a transformative summer that included a commitment to follow Jesus, a baptism in a river, and my first ministry leadership opportunity as a teacher for a large Vacation Bible School program, I returned to school in September “on fire for God.”

Equipped with my WWJD bracelet, a Bible in my backpack, and an AIM screen name that included the words “Jesus Freak,” I found a large non-denominational church that welcomed me warmly. A middle school youth minister became my hero. She really cared about what I had to say—especially questions about faith. She and the other youth leaders poured into me and quickly gave me additional roles, service opportunities, and responsibilities. Before I knew it, I was on the Leadership Team, the Welcome Team, the Worship Team… name a team that would involve me being at the church, I was on it.

After almost three years of intense involvement, I dropped off the face of youth ministry.

And I never said goodbye.

Transitions and Loss

Over-scheduled achievement-seeking and a difficult transition into the high school youth group turned me into an excuse-making machine. Theologically and spiritually shallow small group experiences left me hungry for something different—something more.

They tried to reach out.

First, there were phone calls. I ignored them.

Then, emails. I sometimes responded.

Eventually, I cut my ties. After a few months, the youth team gave me space.

I would see them occasionally at musicals, games, and other events.

I felt embarrassed for leaving, and I avoided them at all costs.

When I received a “candy gram” from my old middle school youth minister during intermission of one of our high school musicals, I felt seen, remembered, and loved—but I still wouldn’t go back.

I still prayed, sought spiritual conversation partners, and asked big questions.

I went to college, and tried some campus ministry groups, many of which involved thirty-year-olds talking to me in Christian-bro-speak. It felt too familiar.

My faith still shaped me—informing my worldview, vocational discernment, and relationship decisions.

Coming Back

Then it happened.

A summer children’s ministry summer internship led to a youth ministry position.

I reached out to my middle school youth minister for advice. We got coffee. We reminisced. She gave me books that shaped her early on in her ministry career. And yet again, she changed my life.

Though she hadn’t seen me for years, and I certainly couldn’t have been included in her attendance count, she was one of the most influential people in my faith formation, my journey with God, and my call to ministry.

Here’s the point: a kid might show up to your youth group ONCE. They might come for YEARS. And just like that, they’re gone.

Caring for One-and-Dones

Here’s what you can do about it:

  1. Reach out to them in a low pressure way. It might bring them back.
  2. If it doesn’t, they may want to avoid you. Say hi, but don’t guilt them.
  3. Pray for them.
  4. Remind yourself, even though you’re emotionally invested in your ministry—it probably wasn’t about you.
  5. Trust the LORD. Remember—you

Every now and then you’ll re-connect and learn that those conversations, silly games, and tears were worth it after all. Hang onto those moments.

Most of the time, you’ll probably never know the impact that you’ve had on the life of a teenager.

You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

So care for them, even when they’re the kids who never come back.

About the Author: Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten is a third year M. Div student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a co-pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Mount Holly, New Jersey. He has served as a minister to children, youth, and adults in American Baptist, United Methodist, and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations.

The Teenage Brain - Steve Schneeberger

The Teenage Brain

Today we’re excited to share The Teenage Brain, a talk given by Steve Schneeberger of the Youth Ministry Institute. It was given at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College.

YMI empowers youth ministers to become skilled and effective leaders.


[Steve]: What are you thinking?! If you’re either parent of a middle schooler or worked with a middle school student, you’ve probably uttered those words.

What are you thinking?! And you know what is the answer right? They’re not thinking anything! They’re just not. So that’s the nature of the brain, and middle school students, and actually, students in general.

They’re not thinking anything! They’re just not. So that’s the nature of the brain, and middle school students, and actually, students in general.

The brain is the source of all of our thoughts. It is also the source of our emotions. Over the last 20 years, brain research has uncovered a lot of fascinating results and we’re going to skim the surface of those results. So hopefully your interest will be picked.

Well here it is, the brain; 3 pounds,  140 mm wide, 167 mm long. It has two hemispheres and 5 distinct sections, that control our emotional being and our physical being, but what about our spiritual being? How’s the brain included in that? So there’s been a lot of research done in terms of how our spirituality affects the brain. In fact, when you go to the brain research, you could find that parts of the brain affect speech, parts of the brain affect certain emotions, but there’s not anything in the brain that affects our spirituality, it’s actually the entire brain itself.

The Teenage Brain - Steve Schneeberger

So how does the brain come into play when developing the spiritual lives of young people? And what part of the brain are they accessing making spirituality real? Let’s consider the brain when developing spirit. We know some critical things about brain development. The brain isn’t fully developed until age 25 approximately. How many of you are not 25 yet? So, I’m so sorry, your brains just aren’t fully developed yet! So you’re going to have to hang with this and we’ll talk a little bit more about what that means for you, but it’s good, you’ll get there, right? 

I had a guy, Josh Hopkins, in my youth group. He was in confirmation at age 12, he was talking about brain research and how the brain’s not fully developed until age 25. Then he graduated, become a volunteer in our ministry and on his 25 birthday he comes up to me and says, “Steve! My brain is fully developed today!” Dude really, you remembered that for the last 12 years?! So it’ll happen.

The prefrontal cortex is the place that’s developed at age 25 and that’s where rational thought takes place, and where you develop reasoning. So you’re in the midst of that, developing the prefrontal cortex and the ability to rationally think and consider things.

Therefore, young people make decisions out of the amygdala while the prefrontal cortex is still developing. The amygdala is responsible for emotions and impulse decisions. If you put it all together, when a young person does something unexpected without thinking based on their emotions, there is a neuroscientific reason for it. They are using the amygdala as God intended them to use. If God intended this to be the case, then how can we use this fact to their advantage in developing their spiritual being.

…when a young person does something unexpected without thinking based on their emotions, there is a neuroscientific reason for it.

Well, I know what the problem is, it’s YOU! And it’s ME! We’re all part of the problem, what happens if you’re over 25 you’ve developed your prefrontal cortex. So as you begin to consider your own spiritual life, you’ve asked all the important questions about what it means to have faith in God. You’ve kind of worked through your faith. So your faith is who you are, you’ve thought through it, all of those things have been considered. Therefore, you’re more likely to be teaching a God and a Jesus out of your own thought processes. In a sense, you have worked out of your faith, at your age you’ve considered all the hard questions, so it makes sense right? You just need to take teenagers to the same set of options that you went through, ask them the same questions, give them the same scenarios, and then they’ll develop a faith, similar to the one you have right?

Wrong! It doesn’t work that way, their brains think differently than that, literally. You’re using this part of the brain they are using this part of the brain. You will have constantly remind yourself of that fact in their development. And as they mature using more and more of their prefrontal cortex, expressing their faith progression in the way that you’ve learned it. Then they will do exactly what would all teenagers do with your youth group, they will graduate from High School and leave you. And you’ll have to work with other people in your youth group who have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, helping them develop a rational thought process, with their faith. So it continues to go on as a cycle, so what do you do? How do you help those people with and underdeveloped prefrontal cortex? That’s the question.

One way is to recognize that their feelings are important. Listen for their feelings and affirm them when they share them with you. Never, never discount their feelings just because you don’t understand what they are talking about or just because you have haven’t experienced what they’re telling you about.

When they are telling you that they’re in the middle of a crisis, don’t discount their crisis, their crisis is real even if it is not real for you. They have an emotional feeling connected with that crisis, and it’s your job not to discount it but to find out more about how they’re feeling about that crisis. Their feelings drive their decisions, and they perceive everyone else makes decisions about them, based on their feelings.

When they are telling you that they’re in the middle of a crisis, don’t discount their crisis, their crisis is real even if it is not real for you.

Do you follow me on that? Because what happens when a young person comes to you and says, I did really bad on this test or I’m getting a bad grade in my class. How do they characterize the teacher? (They give you that grade, it’s their fault, and they don’t like ‘em) Yeah! They don’t like them, I hear that all the time, that teacher doesn’t like me, they gave me a bad grade. So it’s really about that teacher’s feeling about them, that’s how they’re interpreting it.

Now the teacher might not like ‘em, I don’t really know, but their interpretation is a feeling level interpretation of the situation going on. So exercise your empathy, attempt to understand their experience, recall your experiences as a young person, growing up. I’m not saying, say the line when ‘I was your age’ cause it just makes you sound old when you say that. But in your head, think ‘When I was their age, how did I feel?’ And then begin to empathize with them and get at the feeling that they have.

We had a boy named Michael who was in our youth group and when he was in college, at FSU, as a matter of fact, his girlfriend broke up with him, and he made a decision to sleep outside her apartment door all night. He was not using his prefrontal cortex to make that decision. There was no reason or rational thought that would say that was a very good idea at all, but it was an incredibly emotional decision because he was feeling lost, he was hurt, and so that’s what he did.

When he did that a lot of his friends were really critical, adults especially were very critical of him doing that, because it then put her in an unsafe situation which was probably scary for her. As a male, even though it has a lot older than him, I can go back and remember what if felt like to experience that loss as a college student and all I can think of was that could have been me. I totally understand why he made that decision in the speed of the way he was feeling. Now does that make the decision right? No, it doesn’t, but the feelings are the critical part here.

In your lessons, when you’re giving a lesson to students are you asking them what they think about a particular thing or you’re asking them how do they feel about something? Feeling is the important piece, that we need to be asking our students, not necessary what they think about something. Now that doesn’t mean that young people aren’t intelligent, and haven’t thought out particular things regarding their faith and their belief systems, they have, but they’re feelings are the entry point by which you can get to what they think.

So I’ve given you a lot to talk about right now, so I want you to turn in your groups and talk about how do you use feelings to connect with your young people either in conservation or by empathizing or by structuring your lessons. So talk a little bit how you’re doing that or how you might do that if you’re not. Alright?

[Group Discussion]

[Steve]: Alright, good conversation.

Another way to engage their development is to activate the amygdala. The amygdala is on high alert in crisis or danger. So simply simulate crisis or danger by taking a calculated risk. You probably do this already, but you may not have connected the risk that you’re taking with spiritual development. So these may sound familiar; white water rafting, rock climbing, roller coasters, surfing, those are all examples of risk taking with safety involved, a standard per say.

According to author Michelle Icard in her book “Middle School Makeover”, these risks and others such as public speaking or playing in a band, are risky behaviors helping to activate the amygdala in a way that helps a young person develop. Therefore, when you invite young people to demonstrate their God giving gifts, in a way that honors God, they’re are making spiritual connections. Even if they don’t give in-depth lesson or they tend to sing to high when they sing in a band, they’re still actually making a spiritual connection and experiencing spiritual growth. Initiative games like a ropes course are great ways to build teamwork amongst of group of people with active amygdalas. It allows young people in the midst of imagine crisis and complicated solutions to work together.

A few years ago we were in Blairsville with a middle school group, and I had this great idea that we will do this high adventure kind of experience. So we sent ‘em off into the woods with this group that we worked with, and they were gone for three days, no showers, they had to like go to the bathroom in the woods, it was great! From my point of view, it was a lot of fun and actually, it was a great memory builder for them also. But it was difficult, it was hard, it was risky, they had never done that before. We were setting up tents with just two tarps and string and that’s all we had at night. So these are middle schoolers, like being daring out in the wilderness and I will never forget as we were hiking one day, Robin Allen was in tears, like ‘I can’t move anymore Steve! This is too hard!’ 

It was an opportunity to me to teach that God’s with us and God can help us overcome even difficult things. So drawing those spiritual connections was really important and for her later on in life, she would refer back to that camp of how difficult it was and how it was hard, but how much she enjoyed it too.

I’ll remember Steven on the rock wall, Steven was about 280 lbs and he would get, like about 10 foot up and then he would fall. Now he was belayed in so he didn’t fall and hurt himself, because it was a safe risk taking right? I learned a lot of colorful language that I don’t know that Steven knew on that day, but again it was an opportunity to teach this idea of taking risk and moving forward in spiritual growth.

So what are some of the things that you’ve done. Tying these activities to scripture is a helpful way to allow kids to experience spiritual growth and also activate their amygdala, so if you can get together in your groups, and talk about what have you done with your youth groups or what could you do as a way to activate the amygdala through risk taking. Go.

[Group Discussion]

[Steve]: So let’s hear how you’ve used risk taking to stimulate the brain, let’s share some bigger ideas so everybody can hear. I heard zip lining over alligators, at Gatorland right? You can do that at some place too? 

[Man in crowd]: Yeah, we have alligator farm here too. That just came to mind when you said high ropes course, and I thought let’s add little…

[Steve]: Were you able to tie that in with any kind of spiritual growth lesson?

[Man in crowd]: We haven’t done it, but it made me think like we’re going to, it’s gonna happen.

[Steve]: Make sure those harnesses are connected. What else? Nothing? C’mon. You guys we’re talking when you are talking about lunch and how yummy it was. Yeah, go ahead.

[Woman in crowd]: Our group talked about these mountain moments that you get from the risk taking. They’re usually at the camps, and get the Jesus high and you climb the mountain and you can see everything below you, you can see the beauty, but you can’t stand the mountain because nothing grows up there, so you have to come back the mountain into the forest where you can’t see anything but you can grow. But I think in terms of risk taking in camp, and Jesus in growing relationships in Christ, it’s like we have these experiences but what do we do with them after? So it’s not keeping them in that state of mind but I’ve seen these how to I keep going now.

[Woman in crowd]: I think the idea of that came from, I had like and immediate reaction to this, like I don’t really like this idea, like taking these risks to give these emotional experiences that aren’t lasting. I just don’t know why it’s being used…I don’t know how I feel about it.

So you talked about that these can be good and like having these risk-taking moments, allowing them to experience Jesus through these things can be really good, but it’s the idea that sometimes we need to maybe work less to create these moments and work more to help them see these moments in just everyday life and living. So they are not expecting these emotional highs when in reality like that’s not the case every day.

[Steve]: How old are you? 20. Wow! Pretty matured and you right except that’s an adult view of teenagers and how they utilize their brain. And yes if you do the risk-taking without the connection to their spiritual growth, without talking about the mountain top and nothing grows up here and you need to get down from the mountain, then yeah you’ve lost the teaching moment. Often times in youth ministry, we’ll do these really cool things with kids and then we won’t translate it for them, in terms of their spiritual development.

That’s the critical piece that we miss. It’s not that we shouldn’t do them because they need to be able to understand what God looks like down in the valley all the time, it’s that we have to translate it up here on the mountain top, before we come down to the valley, then it has more probability of lasting.

Well, we’ve all experienced it right? That last day of camp or a mission trip, kind of what you’re talking about really, you planned this epic worship service or you’re going to be part of this epic worship service and you know what’s going to happen. I mean people are going to get all emotional and there’s going to be some tears out there and some of you probably resonate with that and can’t wait to get to that last day like, ‘this is going to be so awesome, people are going to give their life to Jesus and it’s going to be great!’

I hated that, I dreaded that in fact, because I kinda felt like, kinda like how you were saying, that I was manipulating kids to make a decision about their faith in Christ and that just didn’t feel right for me. But research says that kids learn through emotional connections, that those emotional pieces are what’s embedded in their memory as being spiritually significant for them and so it’s really important that we provide those kinds of experiences for them. So the question would be how do we really do that in a way that feels good to those of us who don’t like those end of the week, emotional moments?

We have a girl named Grace in our youth group and she is known for crying on the last night. So everybody gets ready for Grace to cry. Grace bawls for like hours and that’s kind of the thing that she does. And she actually prepares for it, like ‘I’m going to cry tonight’ I mean that’s what she does, so then it becomes more about her crying then it is about the spiritual experience. So how do we get kids away from that idea of cry night, to experiencing the spiritual significance of that moment?

So most of us can recall a pivotal moment in our lives. You know I can still… when I think of my wife at the back of the sanctuary on the day that I got married, I remember how I felt that moment. That was like really, really incredible. When I think about when my children were born, especially my daughter who was our first born and that moment. I can see everything if I think about it in my head, I can see everything that was is the room and the emotions that I felt that day. So that was spiritually stamped in my brain. And likewise, all of the spiritual moments, the spiritual highs that I have had, the significant moments in my spiritual development had an emotional tag with it, that’s stamped in my brain.

So we can’t ignore those and there are tears that come with those moments for me also, but there is a difference between manipulation and letting the Holy Spirit enter into the space of the spiritual moment. It has to do with intent. Is the intent to get youth to cry or is the intent to create moments of reflection, worship, and community? Faith is an intensely personal decision that is covered in emotion, you can’t avoid it.

So every year we have, in our youth group, an all youth retreat, that’s what we call it. At the beginning of the school year, and we get everybody to go. So middle schoolers, high schoolers – here’s usually 80 to 100 plus on this retreat and it’s a way for us to kind of begin the year right, to do a little the planning for the year and also have some spiritual moments, that kind of just sets our compass the right direction. A number of weeks before the all youth retreat, several years ago probably 6 or 7 years ago, the best friend of one of our students, Cory, died of a genetic condition. His brother has died 6 months earlier, his twin brother, of the same condition. So these were two guys that Cory has lost within the period of 6 months and Cory was pretty wrecked by it, it was tough.

Cory was on our planning team, he was a senior that year and I went up to him about a week before and said, Cory, and we have talked about Mike’s death and kinda how he had been processing that and so I didn’t pull this out of the blue, it was after a lot of discussion but I asked Cory if he would like to share that experience on the trip. It fit with our theme. I don’t really remember what the theme was but for some reason, it fit, and I didn’t know if he would be willing or not and he said flat out, No I can’t do that, and I said that’s fine you don’t have to do that. I just didn’t know if you’re ready or that would be good for you to do, so don’t worry about it.

Any how, we go on the retreat, Cory’s there, Saturday night of the weekend retreat, after dinner or before dinner, Cory comes up to me and goes ‘Steve I want to talk about Mike tonight’ ‘Are you sure? Let’s talk about that a little bit’ and he said ‘Well I just think I’m ready to kind of talk about him and what he meant to me and I think it would be helpful. And I said ‘Well just know that you’re not pressured into this’ he goes ‘No, I get it, I’m not’.

So needless to say Cory shared that night, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I don’t even remember the content about what he shared but all I remember it was just gut level honest about his own grief and how God had walked with him, and his friend Mike, and Mike’s brother through this whole process that this disease that they had for, really a lifetime. And it was a moment for Cory, it was a moment for the whole youth group, and it was a moment for me.

Last week Cory was at this conference that we hosted in Orlando, he is now a volunteer in the youth ministry in Tampa, graduated from college, he’s like 23-24 years old now. And it was in the middle of the conference, I think it was like right after or right before worship started on Friday night last week, and he came up to me and goes ‘Steve do you remember when I talked about Mike at the retreat?’ ‘I’m like yeah!’ and I put my hand on his shoulder and I go ‘don’t talk anymore I don’t think I can do it.’

And even in that moment and even in this moment, that brings an emotional reaction for me, it’s an emotional stamp in my own spiritual development and Cory said ‘that was a pivotal moment in my life’ his loss and the ability to talk about it in front of the faith community that I was connected with, made a huge difference in my life. I kinda knew it did at the time, but with him telling me 6 years later that it still made a difference, was pretty incredible.

So those spiritual stamps that are stamped with emotions are really really important to young people, they’re important to you. So how do we continue to give that experience to young people without feeling like we’re manipulating the deal? What is our intent?

So spend a little bit talking about that subject with the folks in your group and talk about things maybe you’ve experienced, things that you have done well and maybe things that maybe you should have done a little bit differently.

[Group Discussion]

Teenagers are intense feelers, wanting to take risk, looking for some emotional markers to mark their spiritual life.

To close out, we know that, teenagers are a mess. Their bodies are changing and growing, they are discovering who they want to be, the chemical reaction caused by their hormones is volatile, they aren’t thinking most of the time, but they are intense feelers, wanting to take risk, looking for some emotional markers to mark their spiritual life. You can provide them with the handles by using the uniqueness of their brain to help develop their spirit. Thanks for your time.

About the Author: Steve Schneeberger

Steve SchneebergerSteve Schneeberger is the Executive Director of the Youth Ministry Institute. Beginning in 1985, Steve began a vocation as a youth minister serving churches in Kansas and Florida. He is a 1981 graduate of Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas, has a business degree from Baker University (1985) and a law degree from the University of Kansas (1988). He is married to Carol, an elementary school teacher and former counselor. They have three children.


The Pain We Carry

The Pain We Carry:
7 Strategies for Supporting Hurting Teens

Kids, Concrete, and Care

Ten years ago, while on church staff, I helped to initiate and co-lead a $4 million building program to build a state of the art youth ministry wing. One of the key aspects of the final design was a stained concrete floor.

Once the building construction was underway, I eagerly anticipated the day when the concrete floor would finally receive that deep mocha stain. Painters initially arrived with sand blasters and not paint rollers. For the next two full days they blasted every square inch of concrete.

The Pain We Carry

When a surface is placed under that kind of dynamic intensity it becomes unbelievably porous. Whatever is poured onto the surface of the concrete sinks in and fuses deeply.

Let’s play with this metaphor for a minute.

Humans are incredibly porous. We have a dynamic capacity for absorbing the hurt and trauma of others.  When we enter into the mix with hurting teenagers and their families who have experienced trauma, we can expect to carry it with us.

Being needed is very seductive. Don’t be fooled by an abyss of opportunity to respond to hurting people in crisis. It is not your job to fulfill every need.

The more intense and enduring the trauma we enter into, the more deeply we can expect it to sink into us.

If we are not careful we can get awfully lost in the trauma of those we seek to serve. Their trauma can quickly become our trauma.

I would like to suggest 7 strategies that have been helpful as my wife and I have walked with deeply hurting individuals for the last 20 years together.

Strategy #1: Show Up

There really is no need to think through helpful strategies for entering into human pain if you are not actually showing up in the life of someone who is hurting.

When you show up, be fully there. Enter into the messiness.

Practice the lost art of listening. Sit down. Relax. Breathe in deeply. Breathe out slowly. Lean in with an open posture. Make eye contact and reflect back what you hear and understand people are sharing with you.

So, be gentle. Be warm. Be curious. Be near. But be there.

Strategy #2: Move Slowly

When you orient your life toward those who are stuck in pain, move in slowly. More than likely, trust has been compromised in the life of the hurting individual. We honor their pain well by not spooking them by need to be needed.

Ease into relationships with hurting people at a pace that your own life can handle. There will be moments of overwhelm when we overestimate our capacity. We are served well when we pay attention to those feelings and make adjustments accordingly.

Don’t over-program. It’s easy to sell your soul to the devil of busyness.  Hurting people need men and women who are grounded.

“Slow” is the only way forward.

Strategy #3: Practice Saying NO

Believe it or not, it’s not cruel to tell someone NO. In fact, it may be the most loving thing they have ever been offered when it flows from a healthy heart.

Strategy #4: Don’t Go Alone

Build an infrastructure of others who will help you discern when to say NO. Invite people in around you who care more about your flourishing than what you can produce.

Cultivate a network of highly specialized clinicians skilled at entering into trauma in an ethical and competent manner. Ask other therapists who they respect in this arena.

Read. There is a wealth of wisdom available now in the area of trauma. We’ve learned so much about how the body heals. Adopt a spirit of teachability and receptivity in this area. Don’t just externalize it. Allow it to form you as well.

Strategy #5: Take Self-Care Seriously

Self-care is not selfish. It’s good stewardship. If you destroy your “self” then you really have nothing to offer.

Before jumping into the hurt of another, be willing to dive into your own. Meet with a counselor. Have lunch with a spiritual director. Seek out silent spaces for quiet reflection. Go on a soul care retreat. Hang out with monks. Incorporate play. Live!

Strategy #6: Cultivate Healthy Boundaries

Being needed is very seductive. Don’t be fooled by an abyss of opportunity to respond to hurting people in crisis. It is not your job to fulfill every need.

My brother in law says, “You have to teach people how to treat you.” My therapist told me, “No one will value your time more than you.”

Become unavailable to need. Practice sabbath keeping. Isn’t it interesting that of all the commandments God handed down to us, “Remember the Sabbath” is the only one that includes the word “remember”? God knew we would ignore this one.

Strategy #7: Prepare Yourself for Feelings of Inadequacy

It is inevitable that you are signing up for intense feelings of inadequacy. You will let people down. Accept that you can’t fix it. It simply comes with the territory of working with hurting and wounded people…which could be you or me on any given day.

We Are Called to Deal with Pain

As caregivers, we need to be surrounded by a healthy community of wise men and women who are not so impressed by us that they forfeit concern for the well being of our souls.

Over the course of the last twenty years, kindred friendships have sustained us as we have entered into the depths of pain with students and their families. Sometimes these friendships have cheered us on as we have taken those necessary risks to really be there with kids. Other times those same friends have confronted us to let go of our need to be there.

The reality is that “being there” and “not being there” are both really hard. Lingering in pain or leaving pain is the tension that we live in as those called to care for others.

Who are a handful of people who really know you and care for YOU more than your work?

About the Author: Hayne Steen

Hayne Steen - Kindred Youth MinistryHayne Steen is the Director of Counseling and Care at The SoulCare Project as well as a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice with Elbow Tree Christian Counseling. Hayne grew up on surfing on the northeast Florida coast where met his wife Ruth Ann while attending Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where they were both students and Young Life leaders together. Since then they both have been serving in full time ministry with Young Life and the local church all over the state of Florida, in Atlanta and most recently serving on the ministry staff of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church and the Chattanooga Youth Network. Hayne and his wife continue to live on Signal Mountain with their three children where they enjoy living, playing and worshipping in an amazing community of family and friends.

“Um, How Do I Pray?”

“Ms. Rachael, may I pray us out?”

I looked at David blankly for a moment, a bit in shock. Never in my year of knowing him had I ever heard him ask to pray. Even more, I’ve never even heard him share any prayer requests. I wasn’t even sure if he believed in God.

Um, How Do I Pray?

I quickly shook off my shock and responded, “Of course! Please, please pray us out. I’ll get us started and you can finish.” So I prayed for some of the prayer requests offered up then handed it over to David.

He paused for a moment, seemingly nervous. He then squeezed my hand, leaned in, and whispered, “Um, how do I pray?”

I looked around the room at the 22 other middle schoolers who, rather than seeming to judge David for his lack of knowledge, seemed to be waiting for the answer. How do we pray?

I work for an Episcopal church, which at its very center is The Book of Common Prayer. It seems as young Episcopalians who have been in church their whole lives, these kids would know without hesitation how to pray. As a person who has been praying for so long, I take for granted my ability to pray. It’s been important for me to remember that I actually had to learn how to do it.

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray. 

I was reminded of the story in Luke of the Lord’s prayer in which Jesus’ disciples – those closest to him – asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.”

In fact, an important part of my spiritual formation as an adult, has been to learn different ways to pray.

And so we have the Lord’s prayer, which we mumble off in Church on Sunday mornings or at home. We almost take for granted that Jesus taught us this prayer not as something only to be said verbatim, but as a tool for understanding what prayer is and how to do it.

Teaching Youth About Prayer

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer you the ways in which I have been teaching youth about prayer.

1. Visuals

We are blessed enough to have a whole Youth House. An entire house devoted to the youth of our church. It has all the usual markings of a youth space – a ping-pong table and a pool table. It is always stocked with plenty of snacks and soda. Even with all these youthful fixtures, it felt like something was missing. I finally realized, other than a few crosses flung here and there, there was no real visible sign that this was indeed a sacred space, or a place where as a community we pray together.

So I hung up three peg boards in our gathering room. One for hanging prayers, one for hanging words of gratitude, and one for words of encouragement. On the first wall there are tags in a basket that students can take to write prayers and supplications on. They then hang it from the wall and know that I, or another leader, will pray for those requests that week. The tags stay up as a visible reminder that we are a praying community.

On the second wall, there is a similar basket with blank tags on which students can write words of gratitude. What are they thankful to God for that week? They can write it on a tag and hang it on the wall.

On the third wall there are tags with encouraging scripture verses or quotes from theologians hanging from string. If a student feels they need a word of encouragement for the week, or a friend might need one, they can take one of the tags. My hope is that eventually the room feels like it’s full of prayer not just because we pray in it, but because we can see the prayers for ourselves.

2. Listening for God

I think one of the most valuable things we can teach youth is that God is always speaking to them; that there is always a word from God to be heard.

A few weeks ago, I read the story of Jesus’ baptism to my high school group. I had them close their eyes for a moment and told them to imagine that the words of God to Jesus in the baptism story, were God’s words to them. I said aloud “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”

I then passed out envelopes and paper and pens and asked them to spread out throughout the youth house and be quiet for 5-10 minutes as they to wrote a letter to themselves from God. I promised I wouldn’t read them, and had them put the letters in sealed envelopes and to address the envelopes to themselves. I then promised to send the letters out in a few months. I told them I’d love for them to get in the practice of sitting and listening for God speak to them – that this in and of itself is a form of prayer.

3. Praying for each other

What does it mean to be a praying community? It means to be together in prayer. Part of the value of youth group is providing a community of peers for our youth. A true community that shares in one another’s joy and sorrows. We share highs and lows at each youth group – but to be in Christian community means that we’re praying for each other’s lows and praising God for each other’s highs.

I share a story with my youth about a time when I was struggling to pray. I couldn’t quite find the words, and was afraid that my prayers wouldn’t be answered. But I had a wonderful community around me lifting me up in prayer and I depended on them saying the words I didn’t have the courage to say.

I told my students I’d like them to be that for each other. I gave them each two pieces of paper and asked them to think of one person they know who needs some prayer – maybe they’re sick or sad. Maybe they’re lonely or have a hard test coming up. Whatever the prayer was, I asked them to write the name or the initials of the person they wanted to pray for and to hang it up on the prayer wall I mentioned earlier. Similarly, I told them to use the other piece of paper to write the name of a person they’d like to thank God for, or to say a word of thanks for something good that’s happened for someone they know and to hang that on the wall.

4. Praying for yourself

Prayer of ExamenSome people feel just fine listing off a list of petitions for God. Other’s feel to self-focused. We’re taught to be humble and to lack self-interest. But the truth is, God wants us to depend on Him; to rest in God and the truth that God will cover our needs. It can be helpful for youth to sit in quiet and examine where they sense a need.

Give them examples to help start this practice. Oftentimes some of our young people haven’t been taught to understand there are needs that aren’t material. In a wealthy community kids sometimes feel they have everything they need – water, food, shelter – what could they possibly ask for?

With this in mind I introduced my high schoolers to St. Ignatius’ Daily Examen. We lit candles, and I dimmed the lights. I had them take a couple of deep breaths and get comfortable, then I walked them through the Examen (this is a good resource if you are unfamiliar with the Examen). I did an abbreviated version which was about 7 minutes long. Then I passed out an Examen guide so they could practice it on their own if they chose.

Have Faith

Sometimes when we think of asking teenagers to pray, there’s some anxiety. Surely a 14-year-old boy can’t sit still long enough to do an Examen exercise. Well, have some faith in your youth. Prayer lightens our burden and yokes us to Christ. It is an essential part of Christian identity. We see Jesus going off to pray all throughout the Gospels. But prayer can be intimidating, so offering your youth tools and most importantly – encouragement is essential when you are the spiritual leader of youth!

What tools have you used to teach your youth about prayer? I would love to read about them in the comments!

About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.

Encountering God in the Stories of Others

Mike is the drummer for the praise team at our church. He’s a young guy, a teacher at the local high school, a drum line instructor, and—perhaps most importantly—a drummer in a band that plays venues up and down the Jersey Shore. Mike is cool. And the young people in our youth ministry know he’s cool. They see him drumming on stage just about every Sunday morning, providing the real cool-factor to the otherwise baby-boomer-style praise team.

Encountering God

Heike is the chair of the finance committee at our church. She attends the traditional service where, instead of a praise team, we have a choir and an organ. Heike comes in the church office, usually when no one else is around, to do the books and make sure the church is in a decent financial position. Heike is also cool, but the young people at our church are less likely to know Heike than Mike.

What do Mike and Heike have in common? They hang out in different crowds, they occupy different generations, and they shop at different stores. But both Heike and Mike have had experiences of God. Both have stories to tell about how they’ve been encountered by God. Their stories may be about as different as they are from one another. But both of them have felt, in some way, the mysterious sense that God is present in their lives.

An Approach to Storytelling in Youth Ministry

This summer, in our youth ministry, we invited Heike, Mike, and a bunch of other people in the church—people who usually don’t go to youth group—to come talk about those kinds of experiences. Each week someone new was invited to come in and talk about a time when they experienced God. As we listened to these stories we discovered that different people encounter God in different ways but God is active in each person’s life.

What we also realized is just how rare it is to hear someone actually talk about his or her experience of God. This is probably explained by the fact that, in our rationalistic and secular society, it is increasingly difficult to talk about faith, let alone an encounter with the divine.

One question I asked each person who told of their experience of God was, “how did you know that it was God and not just indigestion?”[1]

The most common answer was, basically, “I don’t know… somehow, I just knew.” And it was remarkable how “ok with it” some people were with not knowing for sure. Mike, for example, just said, “I guess I don’t really know for sure that it is God, it just feels right to think it is.”

How can we expect young people ever to recognize God in their own lives if they’re not confronted by the stories of God in ours?

While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of answer, the honesty behind it is compelling. And it was especially compelling to the young people in our youth ministry.

One young man in the group said to me afterward, “it’s nice to know that you don’t have to know.” He was relieved to discover that even these adults, these people who were up front talking about encountering God, were as uncertain as he was. The uncertainty these adults confessed made him more comfortable thinking about his own experiences as experiences of God.

Hearing people talk about their experiences of God gave the young people in our youth ministry a new perspective each week. As common as it is to hear a preacher or youth pastor talk about God, it’s rare to actually hear about people’s personal experiences of God. But it’s extremely important that we find ways to do just that, to tell stories of God’s action in our lives.

Mundane Events as Sacred Narratives

The theologian, Eberhard Jungel wrote, “If thinking wants to think God, then it must endeavor to tell stories.”[2]

It is in God’s action in our lived experience that we are met by God, not just in a feeling or a philosophical position.

So it simply won’t do for young people to have only an emotional or rational concept of God in their toolbox. If we really want them to be able to talk about God, they’ve got to be able to talk about their experiences of God.

It is in God’s action in our lived experience that we are met by God, not just in a feeling or a philosophical position.

According to veteran youth worker and practical theologian, Amanda Hontz Drury, “Narrative does more than describe; it also constructs.”[3] Our identities and the ways we carry ourselves in the world are often shaped by these stories.

Whether we tell them as stories of God’s action or we write them off as mundane events or peculiar dramas will profoundly affect the world we live in and how we live in it. As Drury writes, “While articulation may not affect my status before God, it may affect the way I understand God to be at work in my life and subsequently how I respond to God.”[4]

But what if young people never hear others, particularly (though not exclusively) adults, tell those stories? What if young people see Mike at the drums every week but never hear the story of how he feels God’s presence with him while he’s drumming? What if they pass Heike in the hall between services but never hear the story of how God was with her during her childhood?

They’ll likely mistake these sacred encounters for merely ordinary happenings. How can we expect young people ever to recognize God in their own lives if they’re not confronted by the stories of God in ours?

In our youth ministry, we are striving to learn from the Bible… but we also want to learn from Mike and from Heike. We want to learn from one another, to hear one another’s stories of God, so that we can begin to recognize, even in our uncertainty, the mystery of God’s presence in our own lives.

            [1] I stole this question from Kenda Creasy Dean.

            [2] Eberhard Jungel, God as Mystery of the World, p. 303.

            [3] Amanda Hontz Drury, Saying is Believing, p. 25.

            [4] Drury, p. 44.

About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.

Confessions of a Youth Ministry Veteran

Confessions of a Youth Ministy Veteran

I’ve been a youth minister now for ten years. A decade—wow, that feels like a long time!

Confessions of a Youth Ministry Veteran

I was at one church for eight years, and now I’ve just completed my second year at a new church. As I look back at ten years in ministry, there are too many moments of grace to count and more than a handful of very difficult learning experiences that have shaken both my wife and me to our core.

It seems hard to believe that I’ve been in full-time ministry this long, and even harder to believe that I still get nervous when speaking to new middle school students.

While many things have become easier with age and experience, some things remain as challenging as ever. Looking back through my career thus far, I’ve begun to reflect on my vocation. Despite many moments of looking for other possible careers, I have always found that youth ministry is my home, my true vocation.

Ministry Mistakes

Quite frequently over the years, I have become discouraged by what I see in myself.

More often than I’d like to admit, I have made mistakes. I’ve dropped the ball, I’ve been rude, I’ve been sarcastic and snarky in ways that hurt people. I’ve made some flat out poor decisions.

And the truth is, these moments of selfishness—when I have acted in a manner that could lead others away from Christ instead of toward Him—allow Satan in. When this happens and I listen to the lies, I immediately question my own ability to minister.

Am I called to this? Someone actually called to this ministry would be better at it. Look at those other youth ministers; they are so much more (insert how I’m feeling that day – funnier, professional, culturally relevant, better at x, y or z) than me.

And then I think of every doubt I’ve ever had, and question my own vocation. Maybe I should be a teacher.

One recent example occurred when I got caught in a bad mood, feeling overwhelmed by my agenda and life in general, and I said the wrong thing to a volunteer. Although he was a good volunteer, he had been drinking too much in his daily life, and needed to be corrected. He had just a made a few mistakes and needed true correction with patience, love, and also challenge. But in my tired and flustered state, I said too much and did so in a most insensitive manner. You’d think that after ten years, I would know better and do better. Afterwards, I spent many nights up late, praying, frustrated, unable to sleep, simply because I was relying on myself instead of on God’s grace.

Remembering God’s Power

In light of this situation, my spiritual director asked me to reflect on the words of St. John Paul II: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”

I was snuffing out my true calling by God to serve the church through my inability to rely on God’s grace.

In reflecting on this, I realized that I had allowed the griphooks of fear and doubt to sink into my soul and eat away at my confidence in my God-given vocation. I was snuffing out my true calling by God to serve the church through my inability to rely on God’s grace. And that inability sprang from my lack of humility.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God wants to capacitate us—for salvation and for ministry. How easy it is to feel like I can do it myself, to over-trust in my talents and abilities or experience, and forget that it is God’s work I am doing and not my own. But the continual reminder is always there—my humanity. And God’s grace, sufficient and powerful, is ready to spring to life precisely through my weakness, if only I would humble myself and let him work.

…God’s grace, sufficient and powerful, is ready to spring to life precisely through my weakness, if only I would humble myself and let him work.

Ten years feels good. But one of the most important things experience has taught me is that I am human, sinful, flawed, and it is when we recognize and admit our sickness that the Great Physician can do his job. Then—and only then—grace can empower us to do ours.

About the Author: Mike Buckler

Mike graduated from the University of Florida with a BA in History and received the Master of Divinity degree from the University of Notre Dame. Currently, he serves as Director of Youth Ministry at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. Mike has over fifteen years of experience in youth ministry, including ten years in full time ministry, and has taught youth ministry training courses for youth leaders around the state of Florida. He, his wife, and four children live in the greater Tampa area.

YM in a Post-Christian World

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Two Corinthians

In the 2016 presidential primary race Donald Trump bungled the name of a book of the Bible. I heard the story over the radio in my car. It began with the quote “Two Corinthians 3:17…that’s the whole ball game…” I was alone and I laughed out loud. The follow-up to the story was an explanation of why evangelical voters would notice the gaffe. The commentator did not assume his audience would hear the difference between “second” and “two.” He laid it all out. We should be more like him.

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Preaching Was Easy in My Day!

I once heard a preacher at a Pentecostal revival explain how it was so easy to lead people to Christ when he was younger. He talked about how they already knew the Bible and had a sense of how to live, they were just running from their “default-Christian position.” He went on to about how now when someone comes to Christ their lives are a wreck and they have no sense of who God is or how to have relationship with God. That was in 1997, you can only imagine how that guy feels now.

But one thing is for sure: if American culture was ever Christian, it is no longer… America is in a post-Christian age.

I hear him, I get what he was trying to say. But I also doubt its veracity.  I mean, really, I’ve seen Mad Men…they weren’t all that holy. Just how Christian we were in the past, or what it means for a whole culture or country to be Christian—these are ideas worth exploring. But one thing is for sure: if American culture was ever Christian, it is no longer. Newsweek told us about it, The Washington Post agreed and National Geographic affirmed that the rise of “No Religion” is a world wide trend. The Christian press began wringing their hands and dreaming of new strategies in light of the stats. No one is arguing this fact, it’s just true: America is in a post-Christian age.

1) The Harvest Is Plentiful

You have to have a strategy for evangelism. You can’t just open the doors to the church and read the Bible. You are ministering to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith. How exciting is that? You have the opportunity to reach students who aren’t burdened with all of the complex and morally murky trappings of cultural Christianity.

If you are doing ministry with teenagers, You are a missionary. Even if you’re in the South. Even if your kids have parents who come to church every week. Especially if you live in a city. You are surrounded by kids who have no concept of relationship with God, kids whom God loves deeply, kids who are being drawn in by the power of the Spirit, kids who have no language to talk about faith and no sense of their place in the grand biblical story. That is exciting!

You are ministering to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith. How exciting is that? You have the opportunity to reach students who aren’t burdened with all of the complex and morally murky trappings of cultural Christianity.

2) Watch Your Language

Back to “Two Corinthians.” You would do well to shake loose the technical and loaded language the church has grown so accustomed to. You’ll need to work a little harder, but if you do you’ll communicate more clearly. Grace, Redemption, Sin, Fellowship, Accountability—these words are important to us, but you’re speaking to a generation who has been raised without ever hearing them. Explain the concepts clearly, and they’ll pay attention. Although they may not understand the words, they’ll recognize the concepts.

Quick Case Study:

If you step up in front of kids and say, “Turn to 1 John 4:16” then you are about to talk about a really great and beautiful passage. But if you immediately read the passage you have invariably lost some kids in your group. While it might sound like a silly question, ask yourself: is anyone turning? Or are they all holding phones? If they are turning, are you helping them get there?

While it may seem cumbersome, adding some simple instructions (e.g., “1 John is near the very end of the Bible, page 1,335 in this Blue Bible we are using,” or, “If you are using a smartphone just search ‘First John,’ then go to chapter 4.”) can really help young people to track with you.

3) Don’t ASSume

We shouldn’t assume kids share our common language of “Christian-ese.” We also shouldn’t count on them knowing Bible stories or theological concepts if we don’t help bring them along. When I write talks for students, I only use one or two Scripture references and I refer back to them repeatedly through the talk. This isn’t because I don’t love the Bible, but because I don’t think students keep pace the way mature Christians do. For those of us who have heard most Scriptures hundreds of times, we can hear a reference, plug it in, and keep moving. “Post-Christian” teenagers will need some time and work to get there. So go deep, using fewer stories and references.

4) Rise To the Occasion!

It’s not a value judgment to recognize that our teens are living in a post-Christian culture. It’s just a statement of fact. We have the opportunity to teach theological ideas, from the ground up. If it’s true that kids are mostly unfamiliar with the Bible, we have the opportunity to make them familiar. We are at the front lines with brilliant students, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

That Pentecostal preacher in 1997 was a fool to complain about his lot in ministry. He should have been celebrating the opportunity to live and preach the Gospel to a generation who does not take it for granted. That is our lot, let’s celebrate and get to work!

About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doing Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)

Interview Steve Schneeberger

VIDEO: The Teenage Brain – Interview with Steve Schneeberger

In this video, our own Zach Gurick talks to Steve Schneeberger of the Youth Ministry Institute.  YMI empowers youth ministers to become skilled and effective leaders.

This interview took place after Steve’s presentation on The Teenage Brain at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.  Click here for the full presentation.


Zach: Ok so we’re sitting here with Steve Schneeberger at the Flagler Youth Forum Ministry, Youth Ministry Conference and Steve you just spoke about Adolescent Development and what is actually going on in their brains as they are growing and developing. And so would you share, we have maybe 2000-3000 youth workers out there watching this video, it is really important for us to as youth workers how we can help them in this context of adolescents. What is actually happening in the brain of adolescents?

Steve: There is probably a funny answer to that too right? Not much or a lot, or it’s all confused. But what really is happening is that they feel a lot and we need to pay more attention to their feelings than maybe their thoughts. Their thoughts are important also, but sometimes we want to go right for what they know, as opposed to how they are feeling about what they know.

Interview Steve Schneeberger

Zach: Yeah you’re focusing on their feelings and the emotional rather than on just what they are thinking?

Steve: Yeah and also activating the part of their brain that likes to take risk and allowing them to take risks in ways that they are actually safe for them. You know, white water rafting, those types of things or simply getting up in front of a group of people and speaking or sharing their story. And those things help develop their brain and develop them spiritually really is what we’re after.

Zach: Okay so giving them opportunities to really participate and to embody this, whether it’s white water rafting and jumping off a ramp at the end of a ropes course. I mean all high-risk kind of adventure type things.

Steve: Yeah those ropes courses and initiative games, those play right into the teenagers’ brain. Really it’s what they need and make spiritual connections, emotional connections for them that they will remember for a lifetime. We tend to rely too much on what we say to them in a sermon or a lesson, and it is really the experiences and those things that are connected emotionally that they will remember over time.

We tend to rely too much on what we say to them in a sermon or a lesson- it’s really the experiences and those things that are connected emotionally that they will remember over time.

Zach: Well that makes a ton of sense and that’s really helpful and so I think sometimes like you said, ‘oh the ropes course, it’s fun or oh yeah let’s go white water rafting’ but it’s actually molding and forming these neural grooves on their brain that are going to be remembered for a lifetime.

Steve: Yeah, the mistake that we make is when we do those activities we do them because they’re fun, instead of drawing spiritual connections, and  close out the loop on their experiences as being also spiritual. I mean risk taking is pretty pivotal to our own spiritual experience of being Christian, so it would be important to draw that back for them as they move forward in life.

…the mistake that we make is when we do those activities we do them because they’re fun, instead of drawing spiritual connections…

Zach: That’s fantastic, thanks for sharing that. Let’s shift directions, you also lead the Youth Ministry Institute, you do a lot of coaching for youth workers, can you tell us a little about that?

Steve: Yeah, primarily we are an on-the-job training program for youth ministers. So we take people that are working in the context of the local church and we train them. Once a month we meet with them and give them some instruction, but more importantly we also, along with that, coach them. So they have a personal coach, they meet them with their own region monthly and then they also meet in a cohort with the coach and other youth ministers to do some personal development, and things that we develop. (That’s fantastic.) We see a lot of mileage out of the coaching and the personal development, which actually we segmented off this year so they can do that, without the instruction, (Oh that’s great). It’s a lower price point and allows people to really still continue to grow and feel supported, which is critical for youth ministers.

Zach: Yeah fantastic, how can people get a hold of you or join a cohort or sign up and get some coaching?

Steve: We have a website is really the main address and there is a phone number which is my cellphone so they can talk to me about that and ask me questions and there is an inquiry form that they can ask questions for that also.

Zach: that’s the place. Thank you so much Steve. Thanks for all you’re doing…

Steve: Thanks. Thank you

Rhythm, the Woods, & YM

Rhythm, the Woods, and Youth Ministry

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Henry David Thoreau wrote those words 170 years ago.  And it seems to me that, over the last two centuries, desperation’s volume has well surpassed any semblance of “quiet.”  A brief survey of the average Instagram account screams fearful discontent.  Thoreau, in response to his own contemporary situation, promptly headed into the wilderness.

Rhythm, the Woods, and YM

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.”

This past summer, I visited the very pond where Thoreau penned those words in his seminal book, Walden.  Sitting there among the trees, his thoughts and actions seemed to press several questions upon me.

“Where do I experience the nagging voice of desperation in my own life and in the lives and culture around me?”

“Why do I often retreat into the wilderness, and why do I think it important for others to do the same?”

“What does it mean to live deliberately and what is to be gained?”

“Is a deliberate and balanced life even possible?”

The Wilderness

For the past 20 years, I have been leading and guiding wilderness trips and have experienced the profound transformation that happens there.  Through the hiking of miles, the telling of stories, the chopping of wood, the silence of solitude, and the sharing of meals, I have witnessed the redemption and reconciliation of fractured lives and relationships.

Yet, the questions raised above push me to get at the heart of why and how this all comes about in places far from the comfort of french fries, central AC and a strong wifi connection.

I believe that one possible reason is that of rhythm.

Rhythm in the Wilderness

In the woods, as I’ve experienced it, days are governed by the movement of the sun far more than the movement of the clock.  When enough time is spent away from the tyranny of deadlines, soccer practices and “Dancing With the Stars” marathons, there develops a pattern of work, play, reflection and rest that is intrinsic to the physical environment and to those who have chosen to dwell there.

And in this pattern, mind, body, and soul become integrated in a way that is often absent in regular living.  For some, the virtual world dominates their modern lives and the body is neglected.  For others, the busyness of work and frantic activity make reflection impossible.  Some are consumed by worry, others by unrelenting schedules.  Most long for a place and a time to be still, to sit with a friend, to laugh at the day’s events, and to enjoy an unhurried drink.  It is in the wilderness, then, where many experience for the first time a life lived deliberately.  Or, as Eugene Peterson would say it, the  “unforced rhythms of grace.”

For many of the high school and college folks that I take on trips, the initial shock of being without phones, car keys, and hair straighteners immediately besets them with symptoms of withdrawal.  However, as the week progresses, the ever-present anxiety of regular life begins to dissipate.  They sleep well.  They take time to enjoy simple meals.  They spend hours talking, working, resting.  Days are emptied of technological and psychological distraction, and, instead, become filled with joy.

This is, of course, what we encounter in the life and person of Jesus. 

He moved effortlessly between activity and rest, community and solitude, prayer and silence, work and Sabbath, the miraculous and mundane, city and wilderness.  His life was true Incarnation where there existed no false dichotomy between body and spirit.   Wholeness and holiness dwelled together in His sacramental life.  And it is in this sacramental life which we are invited to participate.

It is in the wilderness, then, where many experience for the first time a life lived deliberately.

The Spirit pushes us into the wilderness to experience, with the Son, the words of the Father saying, “You are my beloved, so take a nap.  Walk and work in the garden.  Reflect on the suffering you have witnessed and come to me for healing.  Look at the stars.  Experience life the way it was meant to be lived.  Welcome to the kingdom of God.”

Want to Lead a Wilderness Retreat for Your Students?

If you think the wilderness could be a place where you students could grow in their relationship with God, check out David’s video guides on how to lead a wilderness retreat. To find out more about the full guide, visit The Wilderness: A Retreat Guide Focused on the Spiritual Life.

About the Author: David Johnson

david johnson - kindred youth ministryDavid Johnson has been working with students over 20 years, and leading wilderness retreats for almost as long. A former YoungLife leader, David is also the author of the Kindred Youth Ministry Wilderness Retreat Guide.