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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.

 

Bugattis

Bugattis, Disability, and Youth Ministry

Happiness from Things

“A million dollars will not make you happy.”

“Zach, a million dollars will buy me a Bugatti, and that will make me happy,” the youth quipped.

“A Bugatti will not make you happy.”

“Have you ever driven a Bugatti?”

Bugattis

I had not. There goes my credibility. Not an auspicious beginning to my start as part time youth pastor. I was struggling to persuade the youth of even the most basic and hackneyed lessons: Jesus > Money. Thanks for nothing undergraduate degree in philosophy and religion. Thanks for nothing M.Div. from a prestigious seminary. I felt despondent. I looked up where I could test drive a Bugatti.

Happiness from Relationships

Thank God for Chris. Chris is a young man with Down’s syndrome that I knew well from my other job with Young Life Capernaum, the wing of Young Life’s ministry dedicated to reaching adolescents with disabilities.

Chris started coming to our church at my invitation. Chris met the youth. They go to the same school. Then some weeks later:

“I’m thinking about joining Best Buddies (an organization that partners neurotypical youth and peers with disabilities).

“Oh?” I asked with thinly veiled surprise.

Yeah, I only want Chris to be my buddy. I won’t be buddies with anyone but Chris.

“Sure,” I mumbled profoundly, mystified yet grateful.

They began a friendship which marked a period of spiritual growth and development for the youth that I can take little credit for. By his senior year he was president of his schools Best Buddies program, and his younger brother had started up a chapter at his middle school. Chris had taught them much more effectively than I had been able to.

You Cannot Serve Two Gods

Youth pastors can be more like our youth than we would like to believe. If I asked youth pastors what would spell success for their youth groups, they might not say a million dollars or a Bugatti (although even I would give it a try if someone offered), but they may have on their mind people or things the world values rather than what Jesus values.

There are kids that walk into your youth group and you can’t help but notice their gifts. They are funny, athletic, and popular. They are the kids other kids want to be around. If you put enough of them in a room, add pizza, games, and a lesson you will be set.

Then there are the kids I work with in Young Life Capernaum. If you put enough of them in a room, you’ll have many youth pastors stammering sagely about boundaries and prudent stewardship of time. Not that those things go out the window, but there are always noble reasons to avoid the bewildering and uncomfortable values of Jesus.

We usually don’t take Jesus seriously when he tells us he values the invisible, marginalized, and needy.

What Do You Value?

We usually don’t take Jesus seriously when he tells us he values the invisible, marginalized, and needy. However, if money could help our youth groups live into God’s Kingdom, these poor ones would be reckoned as spiritual millionaires. The students with disabilities I work with may be socially awkward, or have more accessibility needs than our pre-ADA church can accommodate, but without them my youth group and I see a much dimmer picture of the Kingdom. If we want our youth to grow up with a vivid picture of God’s Kingdom, then we need to start valuing these students like they are handing out million dollar bills.

Where in your youth group would young people with disabilities be welcomed? This week, how can you begin widening the circle of young people who would be welcomed? Challenge yourself, your leaders, and your young people to love whoever might walk through your doors, embodying the welcome we hope to receive in God’s Kingdom.


About the Author: Zach Grant

Zach Grant

Zacharias Grant works as the Youth Pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in St. Augustine, FL and as coordinator for Young Life’s disability ministry in St. Augustine. Zacharias got his undergraduate degree from Flagler College studying philosophy, religion and youth ministry. He received his M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is most passionate about increasing the contact and conversation between the church and folks with disabilities for their mutual transformation.

Mentor

One Thing Every Youth Worker Desperately Needs

The Value of a Mentor

You’d think as youth leaders, we would know firsthand the necessity of a mentor—someone slightly further along the path of life that we can emulate and learn from. After  all, the entire occupation of youth ministry is built upon the value of mentoring! But far too often, we spend all our time and energy being the mentor and role model for young people. And instead of investing in our own spiritual walk, we stagnate. You need a mentor!

Mentor

This mentor can be a spiritual director, a counselor, a pastor, a church member, a business person in your town, or a parent of a student you know. Or contact our friends at PRYME, and get connected with a veteran youth worker in your town. It all depends on what you need. Let’s be clear, though—you need this person in your life! If you aren’t growing personally, your life and ministry will, without question, eventually reflect this.  As youth leaders, we are constantly pouring ourselves out. We desperately need to find people that are going to invest in us if we are going to continue to give ourselves away in ministry!

My mentor’s wisdom, counsel, advice, and affirmation help to dispel the false narratives that are trapped deep in the recesses of my mind, and replace those with narratives that allow me to become more of my true self.

Finding Your Mentor

So how do you find a mentor? About ten years ago I was challenged to make a list of the top five people I would ask to mentor me if I could ask anyone. I wrote down the list, mustered up some courage, and typed in the phone number I’d received from a friend for the person at the very top of my list. I’d only briefly met him once before and didn’t think he’d even remember me. A few minutes later, I had a new mentor. Come to find out, people with a lot of wisdom are often looking for ways to share it, and younger people to invest into… A few days later, I showed up at my new mentor’s house and found out that many years before, he’d been mentored by an older, wiser man who was a little further down the road than he was, and it had been one of the most meaningful relationships of his life.

To this day, my mentor speaks life into me. He affirms the gifts and talents he sees in me, and encourages me every time we meet. We talk about the spiritual disciplines and just by asking about my spiritual life, he holds me accountable. If I have a major life decision to make, I want his input, and I trust his voice in my life. His wisdom, counsel, advice, and affirmation help to dispel the false narratives that are trapped deep in the recesses of my mind, and replace those with narratives that allow me to become more of my true self. Because of my friendship with my mentor, I have so much more to offer to those that I lead.  He is a close confidante, he has walked with me through some very trying and difficult times, and celebrated many joyous occasions as well. When we meet, we mostly talk about Jesus, life, and what we’re learning. Sound familiar? Kind of like what you and I do with students all the time!

Who’s Your Mentor?

So, my friends, why not sit down now a make a list of five people that you know of that you could ask to mentor you? I’d be willing to bet that you will be pleasantly surprised after making a couple phone calls just as I was!

My friends and I here at KYM put together an entire e-book of ideas, tips, and tricks like this called “11 Hacks for Youth Ministry.” I hope you’ll download it today at kindredyouthministry.com, and continue to invest in yourself, so you can continue to invest in others. We hope it’s helpful for you and your ministry!

We also want to invite you to join a Kindred Coaching Cohort! Find a sense of community.  Learn practical skills like time management, team building, leader recruitment and training, and how to delegate. Have your entire year planned including all the curriculum and resources you need to make it happen provided by leading scholars and practitioners!

You are not alone! Set yourself up to thrive in the work of youth ministry and in life!  


About the Author: Zach Gurick

Zach Gurick

Zach started in youth ministry in 2001 and has developed ministries for middle school, high school, and college aged students in cities throughout the state of Florida. He’s also the co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. He loves to study theology, leadership development, and is especially interested in spiritual formation. Click here to read more about Zach.

 

11 Books to Read

11 Books Every Youth Leader Should Read

Every once in a while, the team from Kindred Youth Ministry wants to point out great resources available for youth workers. So, we have decided to put together a list of books we think every youth leader should read.

11 Books to Read

Now, if you know me personally, you know it was challenging to keep this list short. In fact, I’ve decided to do another post in the future about books we should all read that aren’t specifically about youth ministry, but are incredibly helpful. This list is short – only 11 books! And that means we won’t cover everything, but instead will offer a great list of books we think are really important.

The kids we love and serve deserve our best. They deserve pastors, leaders, and mentors who are thinking critically about life, culture, and ministry.

They deserve to have voices in their lives who have done the work trying to understand how to speak faithfully about the Lord, the Kingdom of God, and their lives.

Reading might be one of the best way to cultivate that kind of leadership in our ministries. We must be students of scripture, always pointing back to the work of Jesus, to the love of God, and to big ideas like creation, sin, justification and many more.

We must also be students of culture, able to offer developed thought on how to see the work of God in the world, how to discern what is happening through our own lived experience, and what it means to be faithful witnesses in and through our lives.

Reading great books and working through them, together, might be one of the most accessible ways to do this work. What if you picked one of these books each month and read them with other youth pastors? What if you read them with your volunteers, staff, and leadership teams? We don’t promise you will agree with everything mentioned in each of these books below. That simply isn’t the point of reading.

Somehow, Christians seem to have fallen into a trap where we believe we have to agree 100% with an author in order to learn from their work. This seems foolish to me. I imagine it keeps many of us from reading authors who might challenge our presuppositions, push us to think through our commitments, or simply read a book from another perspective.

The Plan

So here is the plan… I am going to offer these 11 books as resources I think we should all struggle with. This list isn’t exhaustive by any means. I haven’t covered every perspective or theological background and my biases will show, I’m sure. But… I think these books are great gifts to the larger church. Over the next few months, we will release in depth blog posts on each of these books in order to further invite you into the work of these authors. We hope to interview some of the authors as well.

So, in no particular order, here are 11 great books!


Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry:

From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation 

by Andrew Root

Revisiting Relational Youth MinistryThis book is a must read. Andrew Root invites the reader to reconsider what it means to be in relationship with kids. Helping us understand a theology of the Incarnation; Root rejects influence as the primary goal of ministry, as often seen in relational approaches to ministry, and helps us move towards a more faithful vision of what it means to be with and for kids. This book was convicting, helpful, and is a graduate level piece of work on theology and youth ministry.


Practicing Passion: 

Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church

by Kenda Creasy Dean

Practicing PassionWe could probably make a top 10 list of books just by Kenda Dean, but this one has to be included here. Dean is convinced that the church has lost its first love – a deep theological understanding of Jesus – and settled for educational approaches to working with kids. The problem is that kids are wondering if there is anything out there worth living for, and not experiencing that in the church. Dean helps us learn how to recover the art of cultivating this passion in the lives of the kids we so dearly love.


Sustainable Youth Ministry: 

Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It

by Mark DeVries

Sustainable Youth MinistryThis book is a must read if you want to do ministry for more than just a few years. Mark DeVries is the founder of Ministry Architects and brings a wealth of insight into the long-term health of a youth ministry. This book is simple, straightforward, and incredibly helpful not just for a youth minister, but their supervisor as well. If you want to stick around for any length of time, read this book.


Amplifying Our Witness:

Giving Voice to Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities

by Benjamin Conner

Amplifying Our WitnessAlmost 20% of adolescents have some sort of developmental disability, and I would say youth ministry, in large part, is failing these kids. We can do better. These kids, and their families, have so many great gifts to offer the church, belong in the church, and are sadly rarely even seen. Conner offers this excellent book that helps us re-imagine what it could mean to be a church that offers hospitality and friendship to every kid out there. This book has changed my own personal experience of youth ministry and church; I can’t recommend it enough!


Almost Christian: 

What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church

by Kenda Creasy Dean

Almost ChristianGrounded in the largest study on adolescents to date, Dean takes the data and gives us a front row seat to the kids we know and love. Taking a hard look at the apathetic faith lives of kids, Dean exposes “do-good, feel-good spirituality”. The scary thing about this book is Kenda suggests kids are doing exactly what we, the church, have shown them! This phenomenal books helps us recover an accessible yet deeply theological response to this crisis of youth ministry today.


Contemplative Youth Ministry: 

Practicing the Presence of Jesus

by Mark Yaconelli

Contemplative Youth MinistryThis book is a must read for those of us trying to invite kids into a deeper relationship with Christ. Yaconelli helps us move beyond a consumer model of youth ministry and goes further than a content model focused on a transfer of information. He, instead, suggests we should invite kids to walk with us as we experience and follow Jesus. This is an excellent book.


Beyond the Screen: 

Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation

by Andrew Zirschky

Beyond the ScreenAs we try to figure out what it means to faithfully minister to millennials, we must learn to engage with technology, social media, and the ultra-connected world that we live in. Zirschky does the work of theological reflection and cultural engagement, showing us a way forward that offers more than the run of the mill frustration about cell phones. This is an important and timely book for today’s youth minister.


Presence Centered Youth Ministry: 

Guiding Students into Spiritual Formation

by Mike King

Presence-Centered Youth MinistryPlacing the presence of God at the center of all things Youth Ministry, Mike King helps us reframe the work of the youth minster. Knowing and being known by God replaces the typical obsession with frantic busyness and programs. I think this is good news for youth ministry! King suggests a return to the ancient spiritual practices of the church and shows us how to carry this out.


Hurt 2.0: 

Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers

by Chap Clark

Hurt 2.0Grounded in his sociological tool-belt, Chap Clark shows us that todays adolescents have been systematically abandoned by society, the church, and their parents. Left to figure life out on their own, kids develop two worlds- the world they share and the world beneath where real life happens. This book is a helpful introduction to the reality of kids today, offering a framework for how we can better understand their lives and how we as youth ministers can relate.


Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition:

Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers

by Kara Powell, Brad Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford

Sticky FaithPowell, Griffin, and Crawford face off with the challenge every youth minister and parent wrestles with… what happens when our kids leave high school and head off to college. The terrifying number of kids who abandon their faith and fellowship warrant a read of this book for sure. Sticky Faith looks to invite parents and youth ministers to partner in more faithful practices to address these issues.


Family Based Youth Ministry

by Mark DeVries

Family-Based Youth MinistryMark DeVries wrote this book out of his own experience raising kids and ministering to hundreds of kids over the years. Here is the big idea… get more adults involved in your kids lives and embrace a larger view of family as grounded in the family of God. With an “extended family” point of view, DeVries invites us to surround our kids with people who will love them, support them, and point them to Christ.


Ok, there you have it! 11 books that are important, helpful, and easily accessible by all. Now pick a few, and get started!

But first… a question… what did I miss? Which books have been most helpful for you and your ministry? Tell us why and lets all keep the conversation going… Thanks!


About the Author: Justin Forbes

Justin Forbes - Kindred Youth MinistryJustin serves as the director of the Youth Ministry program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL and has been involved in youth ministry since 1998. He’s also a co-founder of Kindred Youth Ministry. His passion is teaching and mentoring youth ministers. Click here to read more about Justin.

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.

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.