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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.

Transcription:

[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.

 

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.

Transcript:

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

Steve: Thanks. Thank you

How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes Ellis

Video: How Should We Think About Young People?

In this video, Zach Gurick of Kindred talks with Wes Ellis about how we as youth pastors should think about young people.

Transcript

Zach Gurick: Alright so we’re here with Wes Ellis, just finished up the Flagler youth ministry forum, we have these amazing people all gathered together, so we had to take the opportunity to hear from Wes who is somewhat of an expert of bringing together youth ministry and theology, studying for your Ph.D. at Aberdeen right now. Maybe you could tell us a little about, how should we as youth workers think about young people? We call them youth, kids, teens, adolescents; tell us about that because you’re one of the leading experts on this.

Wes Ellis: Haha well thank (you). First of all I don’t know if I’m a leading expert but yeah there is… there has been, always been this debate about, what should be call kids? Obviously a bias right there, but how should we think about young people, what we call them and does that matter. I think it matters because I think there’s a sort of an impulse in youth ministry to think about young people as sort of potential adults, and that’s sort of what adolescence is all about, what adolescence means.

How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes EllisThat has been, kind of the running theme and the strongest paradigm in how to think about young people in youth ministry, and it’s been helpful to us in so many ways, but I also think that when youth ministry is about developing young people, developing adolescents, into mature Christian adults, what tends to happen, is we as youth workers feel like we failed when our young people in our churches aren’t developing the way we think they should. Also, we tend to leave behind those young people who aren’t developing the way we think they should.

So we elevate the kids who fit our paradigm, the kids who model those things in the present that we look like what we want to exist in the future. And, as youth workers with limited time having to choose where to invest that time, we tend to leave some kids behind.young people - kindred youth ministry - 1

And I think it would be powerful for us to begin to think about young people not as adolescents in a stage of development toward adulthood, but actually to think about them as human beings who are engaging in a practice, in a social practice of youth, and teaching the church some things about the way God is working in their lives. The fact is, the God who’s working in the lives of young people is not a junior Holy Spirit, this is not… this is the same God who is working in you and me, is working in 13 and 15 year olds, and we have some profound things to learn from that.

So youth ministers can think of young people as people, as human beings, and expect to find not just a ball of clay to be molded into an adult, but someone who can actually reveal to us something that God is doing in the church.

Zach: That is a fantastic paradigm shift for us, and I think that as you are talking I’m thinking about kids in my mind that I have learned so much from by doing this and I’m getting just as much out of it as I’m giving to them.

Wes: Yeah it’s a two way street like we are…

Zach: … God is revealing to us through them as well and us.

Wes: Absolutely, we always sort of co-mentoring each other. And the church, we can think about all the ways youth people can transform and give energy, we don’t even know all the potential for what they can teach us because I think we’ve been so set on what the path of development should look like. So maybe let’s just get out of this… let’s stop thinking about a path of development and start thinking about ministry. And I think there is a difference.

young people - kindred youth ministry - 2

Zach: Yeah. That’s fantastic, I think that’s an amazing overview of who you are and what you’re working on and I can’t wait for more to come.

Wes: Cool. Thank You.

How should we think about young people in youth ministry?


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.

Stop the Chaos

Video: Stop the Chaos

Emily Felgenhauer gave this presentation, titled Stop the Chaos, at the annual Youth Ministry Academy conference in Orlando, Florida. This event was presented in conjunction by the Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and was sponsored by Kindred Youth Ministry.

Below the video you can find the transcription, if you prefer to read Emily’s content, as well as images and links from the presentation.

Transcript:

Good morning everyone!

I’m so excited to be here, I love talking with youth ministers cause you get it, we get it, not a lot of people get it. So I’m so glad that we are all here together this morning.

This documentary called Race to Nowhere was done in 2010 and it calls us to challenge current thinking about how we prepare our children for success. It features heartbreaking stories of students across the country who’ve been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing, and relentless pressure to achieve. Race to Nowhere points to a silent epidemic in schools through the testimony of educators and parents and educational experts. It reveals an educational system where cheating is the common place for our students. Students have become disengaged they have stress related illnesses like depression and burn out is rampant among our students and young people arrive at college and the work place unprepared and uninspired.

Stop the Chaos - Emily Felgenhauer

So I want to ask you guys, I need some audience participation her, I want to give you some scenario’s I’ve encountered in the 10 years that I have been in ministry and I just want to see if you’ve encountered them to with your families and your students. So if this is you, if you relate, if you can stand.

So the first one is – How many of you have noticed that your youth program dwindles in attendance in as the school year goes on because kids are in extracurricular activities and they have taken over? Okay, alright thanks.

Here’s the second question – Do you often hear your students tell you that they have too much homework or need to study for a test and that’s why they can’t make it church? Wow, okay.

And the last one – Do you have students who seem to be going a million miles a minute trying to keep up with the pace that has been set by them, by their parents, their peers, their schools, and the colleges that they are applying to? Please stand.

This is our America. This is what’s happening to our students. Thank you so much for participating and honestly it made me feel lot better because I’ve gone through the ringer about this and I’ll get to why.

How does the church fit into the chaotic schedules of our students? Are we part of the problem? We’re going to discuss today, and today my workshops I’m going to be talking at 2 and then again at 3:45 about some ways that we can help stop the chaos that our students are going through.

So it is clear chaos that ours students have little to know down time, right? Because they have so much going on. So many youth are over achievers and they strive to have several above average classes like AP classes and IB classes, it’s more unheard of now to hear of students not in extracurricular activities.

How does the church fit into the chaotic schedules of our students? Are we part of the problem?

So according to a survey done in December of 2015 by PEW research center about 7 in 10 parents, 73%, with at list one child the age 6-17 say that their children participated in sports or athletics in the last 12 months prior to the survey, okay. So most of the time, school activities take up several nights in a week and especially weekends too while we are doing programming.

A group of professors from Stanford and Villanova had been collecting data since 2007 on the issue of ‘how much is too much’ when it comes to managing after school activities. They surveyed 8,838 students attending 15 different schools, 9 were private schools and 6 were public. The magic number is 20 hours. That’s where they started to see some health issues with our kids. The kids spend an average of 9.6 hours, Monday thru Friday on outside activities and that is an average, meaning half of those students were over that number. And this with private schools putting in 20% more time than the public school students.

When do they study? When do they get their homework done? When do they have social life? And when do they actually get alone time just to be with themselves? When do they get family time?

You know if you’ve got programming and Sunday nights like we do, that’s when I hear the most push back for families and from parents saying, this is the only time we get to spend as a family. It’s hard.

So, according to US news report in June of 2015, the national sleep foundation recommends that adolescence get 8-10 hours of sleep each night. However, High School students, drawn from dozens of high performing High Schools from across the country, report an average of 6 hours during the week nights. Again, an average, meaning half of them get less than that.

I know that you feel the stress of your kids and your parents and I have heard many from my youth director friends that it makes them want to pull their hair out at the thought of the constant battle of trying to make church a priority with families, when the reality is success has become the priority of our kids.

Harvard Graduate School of Education released a project in 2016 called, Turning the Tide. It’s a report that has concerns for students going to the college admissions process. It says that Generation Z, students who were born from 1995 to 2010, are obsessed with personal success over their own common good. Which means that they are involved in extracurricular activities and higher level classes in order to find personal success over balance of what we truly now is good for them, for their heart and their soul which of course we say ‘it’s church and Jesus.’

It’s becomes so obvious that our students are completely stressed out and over worked with their busy schedules, even colleges are responding with solutions to help our children chill out. So let’s take a look at this clip from Today’s Show, it was done in January of last year, and it addresses the pressures that High School students have and how it’s getting greater and greater and greater. And several ivy leagues schools are calling for some stunning changes, let’s take a quick look.

Alright, so this is a three year process that just came out last year. We’ve got two years still to go to see colleges actually making significant changes and getting the word out to our kids that they don’t need to be doing so much. So, colleges are noticing our depressed students as they’re coming in and colleges are adjusting. So, it’s time we as the church that we take knowledge of this and we adjust as well.

You know I will get so frustrated at my parents and our you know our students, why aren’t they making church a priority? Why aren’t they making God a priority? So I aired my frustrations to my leadership team one day and they’re made up of parents and small group leaders and I just shared, you know, like ‘what’s going on with our kids, our attendance is going down?!’ like ‘why are they in so much many extracurricular activities? …all this kind of stuff.’

Colleges are noticing our depressed students as they’re coming in and colleges are adjusting. So, it’s time we as the church… adjust as well.

And I have one of my parents, one small group leaders, her name is Anne Crownan, and she has students that are in my programming and she shared the frustration that she felt as well as a parent. And, you know you know sometimes her kids, she’s always there on Sunday night, she is always a faithful volunteer but sometimes her kids miss church, they miss programming, they miss events but her mom is usually there, her mom’s made the commitment, but their kids has such crazy schedules.

You know, she’s got two daughters; one’s a freshman, her name is Julia, and the other is a junior, and her name is Suzanna. Both of them go to two different magnet schools to specialize in their fields, so eventually major in college. Julia the youngest, precious little thing next to the tree, she wants to be a professional trumpet player, and Suzanna, standing by her daddy, wants to be a veterinarian.

So, Anne shared with me in the meeting that night the real struggle and frustration of the expectations that those two girls’ schools have put on their family, have put on their family. She’s not excited to run her youngest daughter back and forth to marching band practice, and she’s got an ankle injury that she has to hurry up and get ready for marching season to make sure Julie can do it. Suzanna doesn’t drive yet and she has to do experience for veterinarian school, at farms, at veterinarian offices, at pet stores. All that kind of stuff. And she babysits to make some money too – to eventually buy a car. So you know their driving all over!

You have the exact same families in your youth program. You know exactly what I am talking about.

So after they get home from logging for hours, for their specific fields, then they have to still do homework, right? So their up until the middle of the night and Anne and her husband are like ‘our daughters aren’t getting sleep, their like malnutritioned.’ Like you know they’re going through the ringer about this.

This is not a choice that Anne would have chosen for her daughters, but this is what expected of them to the school system.

You know this was really enlightening to me to hear Anne’s story because I don’t have kids yet and you know at the end of the day, just like all of us, I just want to do a good job at youth ministry. I do! You know, and honestly, there were some hard adjustments that I needed to make, and how I was viewing family priorities.

There was also some program adjustments that I wanted to talk to my leadership team about, you know with how do we make quality programs and a time with our students really matter? We need to stop the chaos of over-programming and we need to start helping parents escape the success driven pressures that society has created.

You know through the years after I referred myself as Martha in scripture. You guys know the story, Marian Martha was sisters and Jesus comes and spends time with them and Martha is busy in the kitchen and you know she was doing stuff around the house. She wants to be the “hostess with mostest”. And their her sister Mary sitting on Jesus’s you know feet, listening to him, taking in every word and Martha’s like ‘I need some help Mary.’ You know and she goes to Jesus, ‘Can you please ask Mary to help?’ and Jesus says ‘No, but Mary’s doing is a good thing.’ It’s a good thing.

We need to stop the chaos of over-programming and we need to start helping parents escape the success-driven pressures that society has created.

I know the truth of the matter for me is I needed to own that I was making students attendance to our programming and the church more of my priority that the success of our students growing in relationship with their Savior. Ouch. So I could relate to them, I could relate to them.

My success is my career right? Youth Ministry. I was wanting our families to make church a priority because that’s how I would look successful, and I needed to own the reality that I related with our students in this area. I want to look successful in my life and career. Would guilting them work? No. Would complaining about them work? No.

It’s our job as the church to work with families to help unify them with God. We as a church need to look at our programs and how we are creating space for families to strengthen and grow. It’s our job to come alongside them and be their cheerleaders and not guilt trip them, which I was doing.

You know according to Miriam Webster, success is labeled: the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect or fame. Our students and parents are being groomed by our higher education that if they take the harder classes, they take more curricular activities, which causes them to stay up later, sleep less, and aim for perfection in grades and competition amongst their peers, that this will lead them to a successful life. We as the church can come alongside them and offer our families, parenting classes on how to relieve stress and be the bright light to them in their future.

We can stop over programming and look at our programs to be more quality oriented than quantity. We can be their cheerleader even when they’re too busy to come to church and help them feel valued, loved and wanted without putting pressure on them. They’re getting pressure from everywhere.

You know Jesus told Martha, the fact that Mary was sitting with Him and just being with Him was right instead of being too busy and over stress and chaotic. This is contrary of what American success driven culture is telling our families and our students. I’m naturally an A type personality and I’m detail-oriented I’m a doer by nature. So my next step of wanting to make some real changes for our program and for our families wants to answer the question of how? ‘How are we going to be a participant in stopping the chaos?’

During my workshops today we will be exploring more of implementing these things and discussing practical ways for any ministry and any minister to be part of the solution and not the problem of our society’s chaos and drive for success. Thank you.


About the Author: Emily Felgenhauer

Emily FelgenhauerEmily Felgenhauer is a graduate of Olivet Nazarene University in Kankakee, Illinois, with a degree in communications and the Youth Ministry Institute in Orlando, Florida. At a Chrysalis retreat her freshman year of high school her life changed. From that point, “I understood what a ‘relationship with Jesus’ really meant,” she says. Emily is the proud aunt of two nephews, She has a chocolate lab, Bear, “who means the world to me.” She currently is the youth minister at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. Emily teaches Delivering an Effective Message for the Youth Ministry Institute.

Risky Business

Youth Ministry is a Risky Business

Reckless Risk-Taking

In my late teens, I was a reckless driver. I wasn’t a reckless individual, generally speaking; I was a responsible, straight-A student and a committed Christian. I drove with a wooden cross swaying from my rearview mirror as my little car rocked under the stress of high speeds.

Risky Business

On open stretches of four-lane highway, my speedometer pointed to three digits. On the winding back roads, I took delight in doubling the speed limit. I drove like this until I got my first speeding ticket at age 20. Lucky enough to get caught in a milder instance of speeding, I avoided a reckless driving charge.

The shame and expense of paying that speeding ticket sparked a sudden change in my driving habits. No longer was the reward of arriving sooner at a friend’s house worth the risk of being fined a 12-hour day’s wages. Although I had never driven recklessly while carrying passengers, I realized how fortunate I was not to have caused harm to myself or others on the road. After all, adolescents—despite enjoying the best physical health of the human lifespan—are three times likelier to die or sustain serious injuries from preventable incidents such as automobile accidents.

Risk, Dopamine, and Jesus

Daniel Siegel describes the neurobiology of adolescent risk-taking in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Penguin, 2015). In this accessible must-read for youth workers trying to understand what’s happening in adolescent minds, Siegel explains how we are drawn toward high-risk behaviors during adolescence more than at any other stage of life.

The culprit is the brain’s release of dopamine, which increases during puberty. More of this chemical is released in response to thrilling experiences, rewarding adolescents for taking risks. This results in greater impulsiveness, susceptibility to addiction and an overemphasis on the positive possibilities of an action. The greater the risk—the higher the release of dopamine—the greater the reward… which reinforces the risk-taking behavior. Until a negative outcome becomes reality, like in the case of my speeding ticket, adolescents will minimize the cons in favor of the pros of risky behavior.

Several months ago, I was reminded of this risky business while listening to an Advent sermon from my pastor, Rev. Lynn Parks. She framed the choices of Jesus’ parents in terms of risk. For Mary, a teenager, the risk was readily accepted. Mary said yes to God quickly, according to the birth narrative in Luke 1. But in Matthew 1, Joseph appears to undergo a great deal more consideration before he is willing to say yes to God’s call. Based on Jewish culture in first-century Palestine, Joseph was likely several years older than Mary, who was perhaps 14 or so at the announcement of her pregnancy. In reflecting on this sermon, it occurred to me that Mary’s reaction represents typical adolescent risk-taking; Joseph’s represents a post-adolescent calculated risk.

Reckless Optimism?

During my tenure as a youth pastor, I once preached my own Advent sermon on the annunciation of Mary and her response to the angel. The heart of this sermon featured three 14-year-old girls from the youth group sharing how they might have reacted if they had been in Mary’s place. Their honest responses revealed humility in being honored to carry the Messiah, an acknowledgement of fear and being ostracized, and a deep willingness to accept the risk based on positive outcomes. While they had the advantage of knowing the ultimate significance of Jesus’ birth, they reasoned through the risks with a clear focus on the reward.

I’ve often wondered, why did God choose Mary? I think it has a lot to do with dopamine. Mary had the ability to focus on positive outcomes, as we read in her song (Luke 1:46–55). She isn’t naïve; she is aware of the power dynamics in her society and her position as a young woman, but believes God will turn the tables. She has unwavering hope and expectation for what God will do through her.

Why did God choose Mary? I think it has a lot to do with dopamine.

Let me be clear: there’s quite a difference between the risk-taking behavior I described from my days of reckless driving, and Mary’s risk-taking choice to say yes to God’s plan. When God gives the mission, we are called to act in faith and wholeheartedly place our trust in positive outcomes—which may not necessarily seem positive according to the world’s judgment.

Joseph, for example, reasoned through the social implications of his choice to marry Mary, and in the end, he determined that saying yes to God was more important than negative social effects. Both Joseph and Mary were willing to accept immediate negative outcomes for the sake of the larger positive outcomes of God’s mission in the world.

What Could Go Right?

Just like the risks Mary and Joseph accepted with their roles in the birth of Jesus, being a follower of Jesus involves great risk. In Luke 14, Jesus admonishes the large crowds to count the cost before committing to being his disciples. He speaks of a builder and a warrior king who carefully consider the amount of risk they are undertaking and the potential outcomes (v. 28–32). This resembles Joseph’s process of following through with marriage to Mary. But it’s not like Mary was oblivious to the potential outcomes of saying yes to God’s risky proposal.

I am not suggesting that God manipulates us by catching us off guard, taking advantage of Mary’s brain development to con her into doing something she would not otherwise choose. Teens are usually well aware of the cons for risky behavior, but because of their increased dopamine levels, they focus more on the potential positive outcomes.

Because of this, adolescents are in a unique position to respond to God’s call. They are not unaware of negative outcomes. Rather, they have a special capacity to focus primarily on God’s redeeming vision without being distracted by the cost. Throughout Scripture, we see young people called to key roles in God’s mission. For example, while the age of Jesus’ apostles is unknown, scholars speculate that some of the twelve were probably teenagers. When Jesus calls them, like Mary, they respond with clarity and focus on what God is doing in the world.

Adolescents are in a unique position to respond to God’s call. They are not unaware of negative outcomes. Rather, they have a special capacity to focus primarily on God’s redeeming vision without being distracted by the cost.

Embracing Risky Business

As my pastor pointed out in her Advent sermon, Joseph’s yes depended on Mary’s yes. We might speculate that if Mary had rejected the role of carrying the Messiah, Joseph would never have had an opportunity to be faithful. When it comes down to it, Joseph’s ability to respond willingly to God depended on Mary giving her response first. I like to think that Joseph and Mary, with their different expressions of spirituality, were the ideal couple for raising Jesus. And there is something instructive here for the body of Christ.

What if we, as adults, need adolescents to reorient our focus on God’s mission in the world? So often, we become distracted by the costs that come with following Christ. Rather than considering the risk-taking spirituality of adolescents immature, what might happen if we cherished and cultivated it?

Following Jesus, after all, is an inherently risky business.

Maybe our faith communities need a little more dopamine.


About the Author: Sarah Ann Bixler

Sarah BixlerSarah Ann Bixler is a Ph.D. student in practical theology/Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she earned her Master of Divinity. She treasures her rich experiences with adolescents as a youth pastor, classroom teacher, youth program director, residence director and curriculum writer. Sarah lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband and three children.

The Teenage Brain - Steve Schneeberger

Video: 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.

Transcription:

[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.