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Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

Youth Ministry Games: Play As Ministry

Some of us youth workers have found ourselves in the habit of compartmentalizing the games we play from the theology we teach. And that’s not all unhealthy. It’s good that youth ministry is shifting away from some of its more frivolous entertainment strategies to something more meaningful.

Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

But in our search for meaning and spiritual depth in youth ministry, games have become, for some of us, just a pesky means to an end. We’ve got to play the games because kids like them (and we like them!) but, beyond that, they’re fairly superficial. The real ministry is the worship time and theological discussions…especially when they get emotional and people start crying.

But what if I told you that play is not just a pesky means to an end, but a vital element of our ministry and of our theology itself? What if I told you that, from a theological standpoint, play might be central to ministry, not superficial?

The games we play in youth ministry, when they are truly playful, will offer a space that anticipates young people’s liberation from the need to be useful, the need to constantly worry about status, the constant pressure to improve and mature… Our play can be our ministry.

To think theologically about how we play, we’ve got to think about play’s conceptual counterparts: joy and happiness.

Augustine and Joy

Joy and happiness have been important to Christian thought throughout church history (and they aren’t peripheral to Scripture either!). As early as the fifth century, people have been trying to figure out joy. What is joy? How do we get it?

You could say that these questions were important to Augustine, one of the church’s first and greatest theologians. Augustine determined that “happiness is knowing, loving, and enjoying God securely.” But throughout history, human beings have tended to look in all the wrong places for joy.

Luther and Joy

By the time Martin Luther started writing, about a thousand years after Augustine, this tendency found a home in people’s fear and anxiety about their status with God. People were afraid of God’s wrath and were longing to relieve that fear by finding their joy and happiness through whatever means the church offered them. But Luther, a faithful reader of Scripture (and of Augustine), insisted that the gospel proclaimed freedom from this kind of anxiety, from this preoccupation with “the law.”

Luther taught that justification through Christ and freedom from the fear of wrath is our real joy. Happiness comes from the assurance that “divine mercy will overwhelm divine justice on judgement day.”

Calvin and Joy

John Calvin thought this tendency to look elsewhere than God for joy was located in human arrogance. People have a tendency to search for joy by elevating themselves, by putting themselves first, and seeking their own temporal interests. As Calvin saw it, the search for joy could not end in such prideful self-seeking, but only in total humility before God.

For people to authentically find their joy in God, they must know their place before God and perceive the great chasm between God’s goodness and human sinfulness. This means, instead of coercing our circumstances to serve ourselves, we are to search for God’s goodness even in the worst circumstances. Even when bad things are happening to us, we can, according to Calvin, humbly look away from our own powers and rest instead in the assurance of God’s love and sovereignty.

Joy as… Worthlessness?

Later, a genius by the name of Blaise Pascal would come on the scene and double-down on Calvin’s call to humility. For Pascal, real joy came not only through humility before God but through utter self denial and even downright self-hatred. To put God, the true source of joy, at the very center, meant to put yourself completely on the outside. For Pascal, our joy comes through being “worthless” before God.

It’s a little counter-intuitive, isn’t it? The search for joy in Christian history, at least the strand of it we’re talking about here, has lead further and further away from the concern for the self. It’s especially strange to the ears of this generation, perhaps, that has been told over and over again, in myriad and subtle ways, that happiness comes through what we can own and what we can achieve. We, and the young people with whom we do ministry, are told to search for happiness in ourselves. This is, again, the wrong place to look.

But while Luther, Calvin, and Pascal can help us think through these things, perhaps we should reframe how we think about the search for joy. Self-denial is hardly helpful to a generation that’s already plagued by the brokenness of the world. And humility can be easily manipulated into a weapon for people with power to use against people suffering under their oppression.

And what on earth does this have to do with games at youth group? The joy Pascal described is hardly compatible with our current understandings of dodgeball and four-on-a-couch. Who can help us reframe our understanding of joy?

Moltmann and Joy

Perhaps no living theologian has had as much to say about joy and play as Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann shifted the conversation about joy away from “self-denial” and toward playfulness. In the face of the horrors of this world, the horrors to which the young people in our youth groups have almost immediate digital access through one screen or another, Moltmann asked the question, how can we play in the midst of suffering? He suggested that, through play, “we can anticipate our liberation and with laughing rid ourselves of the bonds which alienate us from real life.” Playfulness is the mark of human beings finding the true source of their joy in God. And thus, the recovery of faith itself depends on the recovery of joy.

In a world stricken by the need to achieve and produce, a world so anxious about purposes and improvements, a world where human beings are so often reduced to their function and usefulness to society, Moltmann offers joy as a gracious interruption of our compulsion.

Essentially revisiting Luther’s perspective on joy as freedom from the law, Moltmann argued that “Where everything must be useful and used, faith tends to regard its own freedom as good for nothing. It tries to make itself useful and in so doing often gambles away its freedom.” In joy, a person comes before God not because they’re useful to God, nor out of necessity or obligation, but out of delight. Joy “abolishes the intent of such questions as: …for what purpose am I here? For the answer does not indicate ethical goals and ideal purposes but justifies created existence as such.” The question of a person’s worth, a person’s value to God, is not a joyful question. In God’s joy, “our existence is justified and made beautiful before we are able to do or fail to do anything.”

We Need To Play

So Pascal was right! Real joy does come from being “worthless” before God… but probably not in the way Pascal thought about it. Embracing Luther’s doctrine of joy as freedom from fear of the wrath of God and Calvin’s doctrine of happiness as humility before God, we can say that real joy comes from being “worthless”… that is, being in such a relationship with God that “worth” has nothing to do with it. We call this relationship friendship.

The games we play in youth ministry, when they are truly playful, will offer a space that anticipates young people’s liberation from the need to be useful, the need to constantly worry about status, the constant pressure to improve and mature. When we have fun, and discover that God is there in the playfulness of joy, we are inviting young people into the experience of true spirituality, a coming before God in the “worthlessness” of free joy and friendship with the God who is joyful in God’s very being. Our play can be our 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.

Youth Ministry Games: Do We Need Them?

Keep the games. Youth in Hong Kong need to play.

This was the first advice I received from Dale, one of my parents-volunteers, as we were chatting over a plate of sushi about my arrival as the new Youth Director. It was a few weeks ago in Lai Kwan Fung, one the busiest neighborhoods in Hong Kong. “Gotcha,” I replied.Do we need games?

But inwardly, I was not convinced. As I went back home that day, I recalled all my experiences being a youth leader in churches and scout troops. “I have always played with youth,” I realized. Games are not only needed for the youth in Hong Kong. All youth need to play. We all need to play. But why?

We all know that games are great tools to be used when working with youth. Games are the best icebreakers, they create a good atmosphere within a group, they help to tire out our super-energized teens, and—let’s be honest—games are also an easy way to fill empty time.

All these arguments are legit. But they are also superficial. Could we try to go a little bit deeper into our theological understanding of games?

In order to offer a theological frame to the action of playing, we must look for our underlying motivations beyond just the utilitarian use of games.

To Be in the Present Time

A recurring theme that I have observed in many parts of the world is our human nature to worry about the future. In Western Europe, where the economic situation is depressing, I have seen young people starting to think of their retirement as soon as they got their first job. In Asia, I have seen parents worrying way too much about the future of their kids.

Games do not answer questions… Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant.

Games do not answer questions… Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant.

Therefore the first theological theme that I see about games is time. When playing games, we don’t usually worry about the future. Games represent a “time-out,” when no one needs to answer the dreaded question: “What’s next?

When they play games, kids are allowed to forget for a few minutes what they want to do in the future or who they want to be. Games are about enjoying the present moment. And I believe that the enjoyment of the present time is a value we need to rediscover.

Jesus talked about it long before me, and more beautifully, in the famous parable of Matthew 6:25-34, when he asks us to consider “the birds of the air.” The conclusion of the parable turned out to be not advice, but a command: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”

We play because games help us to be in the present time, and not to worry about the future.

To Feel Joy

Close your eyes for a few seconds and try to recall the best games you ever experienced. What do these games have in common? For me, the best criterion to differentiate a good game from an “okay” game is the level of joy that is felt during the game. The more laughs there are, the better.

Maybe we ought to play games with youth simply because it makes us laugh a lot and have fun. Games are important for everybody because they inherently provide joy. If we believe that joy is at the heart of the Gospel, then games become a way to share Christ’s love and joy authentically with others.

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Joy is a spiritual practice. The more we play, the more we are transformed into the joyful people we are, in part because we train ourselves to see real life as a wonderful game.  Slowly, repetitively, the joy that is developed in the games starts to spread to other parts of our life. Maybe that is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she told us: “Life is a game, play it.”

To Affirm Irrelevance

I am a newbie in Hong Kong, but it did not take me long to realize how this society is heavily driven by material success. It is a place where kids have very few opportunities to play because worried parents who aim for their kids to triple-major in an Ivy League University a few years from now see games as unproductive and useless.

I have been told many times that the calendar of a 12-year old kid in Hong Kong is just as jam-packed as a senior executive. Therefore I fully understand Dale’s visceral attachment to games.

But sadly, this situation is not just the case here in Hong Kong. Most of us are doing youth ministry in content-oriented cultures and performance-driven environments. In all these places, irrelevance is not welcome.

The theologian Paul Tillich, in his great lecture The Irrelevance And Relevance of The Christian Message, defined irrelevance as not answering “the existential questions of the humanity of today.” Games do not answer questions. They do not provide any measurable content and knowledge to the kids. Unlike competitive sports, music or volunteering activities, games cannot be added on a résumé. Games are irrelevant by nature.

Henri J.M. Nouwen based his book on Christian leadership, In The Name of Jesus, on the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the desert. For Nouwen, the first temptation that Jesus had to face—to change rocks into bread—was the temptation to be relevant.

By turning down Satan’s invitation, Jesus refused to be useful to the world. Of course,  Jesus was ultimately relevant to the world! But he also knows that one cannot always be relevant.

Games are more than time-killers.

Relevance and irrelevance are both needed, but each in its own time. What we need is a healthy blend of relevance (trying to answer the questions of the world) and irrelevance (not answering these questions).

Games are a proclamation that our actions should not always be utilitarian, useful, and relevant. Games help us to overcome a temptation that Jesus himself went through: to always make things relevant. Irrelevance becomes a virtue to develop, and games a great way to develop this virtue.

Keep the Games!

Games are today usually limited to a very narrow segment of our church population: children and youth. After a certain age, we stop playing games, falsely believing that older teenagers and adult would find them childish. But that should not be the case.

Games are more than time-killers. They help us to be anchored in the present moment, they are amazing tools to develop joy, and even more importantly; games can be used to reclaim the spiritual virtue of irrelevance.

So please—fellow youth workers, parents, volunteers, youth—follow Dale’s advice: “Keep the games. And not only in Hong Kong. Everywhere.


About the Author: Antonin Ficatier

Antonin Ficatier - Kindred Youth Ministry

Antonin Ficatier studied in three different continents and holds two Master Degrees in Business and Education. Born in France, Antonin is currently based in Hong Kong, where he works as Youth Director for an international and interdenominational church.

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.

YM & Kids with Disabilities

VIDEO: Youth Ministry & Kids With Disabilities
Interview with Zach Grant

In this video of the “Zachs”, our own Zach Gurick talks to regular Kindred author, Zach Grant, about how we practice youth ministry with kids with special needs.

This interview took place after Zach’s presentation at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. We’ll be releasing the video of some full presentations from the forum here on Kindred Youth Ministry in the coming weeks.

TRANSCRIPT:

Zach Gurick: We just wrapped up the Flagler Youth Ministry Forum and we are sitting with Zach Grant, who is one of the Princeton grads, writer for Kindred, practicing youth ministry here with kids with special needs and also with neuro-typical students as well. What is something that stood out to you that you would love — you might be able to share this with 2 or 3,000 youth workers out there — I would love for them to hear this, that you learned from the last 24hrs?Youth Ministry & Kids with Disabilities - Zach Grant
Zach Grant:
Yeah, there were a lot of really valuable things that came out of this time and I feel like it was wonderful to learn as much from the wonderful speakers that we had, as well as just being here with the bunch of other youth ministers who are going to these things, working through them. We were in a wonderful kind of a breakout session about the mental health. I think that was probably where I was throwing around the word ‘neuro-typical’. And just talking with folks, it was, I sometimes feel like disability ministry seems like a niche ministry. It seems like something that, maybe churches might do out of their excess or if there is a particular, you know, special ministry opportunity to reach out to folks who has disabilities in the area.

But it was interesting because we are in these conference about mental health and that’s what we are discussing with other youth ministers. It was very interesting to hear how the tenor of the conversation in my church because of doing this ministry with kids with disabilities. The tenor of it was changed because people were kind of thinking about mental health or people that didn’t feel in the main stream cognitively, and so had generated these sensitivities and also for them to hear and get good feedback from the mental health side because that I have a lot of experience working with kids with disabilities but I think there is a lot of overlap. There is a lot of places where these things are clearly distinct, but I think they can speak to one another.

Zach Gurick: Yeah, you pointed out before how having kids with disabilities involved with typical neuro-typical students as well allows this space were the typical kids are more okay and more comfortable to be open or to reveal those things that might otherwise kept hidden? Tell us more a little more about that.

Zach Grant: Yeah one of the best things that I think it does is, that it really kind of undermines this idea of a normal kid or that I have to fit within this kind of paradigm on what is normal. And so kids can be very honest about, here is this thing that I am dealing with or I take medication for this particular mental… that you will never notice about me but I feel comfortable to reveal it to you because I understand that this is a place that can accept differences and we do that in a very visible way through this outreach to kids that would be in a special education class at the High School or might be in a self contained classroom where everybody is in a wheel chair. And so it helps kids understand – Boy! These are people that going to love me no matter what the world kind of puts on me in terms of a stigma or label. 

I understand that this is a place that can accept differences and we do that in a very visible way through this outreach to kids that would be in a special education class.

Zach Gurick: That’s fantastic. Well, you’re doing an amazing ministry here. Beautiful ministry that is touching lives far beyond, just this community so thank you for what you are doing and we really appreciate it.

Zach Grant: Thanks for putting this on.  It’s great to talk to you.

Being Present After Christmas: The Ministry of Presence

Like many of us, I spent the Christmas season reflecting on the presence of God amongst us. God is a God who is present with His people and His creation. His presence is the best gift He can give to us. Because this is most clearly experienced in the incarnation, Christmas drives us to reflect on the way God is present in our lives and communities.

Present After Christmas

As the body of Christ, we are extension of God’s presence in the world. As we chose to be present with our students and their families, we are extending to presence of Christ into their lives. This means that, while our programs and games are important and necessary, our presence is the best gift we have to offer our students.

I have been blessed with a steady stream of people who chose to be present in my life. By their presence, these people have shaped me into a person who more accurately looks like Jesus. More than any program or sermon, being in the presence of these people has transformed my life. Here are three things I have learned about being present from these people in my life.

1) The Mundane Is Sacred

Nate and Julie started hanging out with me in my freshman year of high school. They were in college and my parents, without my knowledge, asked them to mentor me.

Of all the things I remember about Nate, the most memorable was that he took me out to boring places. He took me to the bank to deposit his paychecks. He took me grocery shopping. He invited me to his rehearsals for a play he was in.

The ministry of presence is not flashy or exciting… However, this is the way of Jesus.

These places and events were boring and mundane, but they also changed my life. I wasn’t being invited to an event. Nate was inviting me into his life. I learned what it looked like to follow Jesus in the everyday events of life. Through Nate being present with me in the mundane, the mundane became sacred.

Being present with our students requires an invitation into our lives. Our lives are more mundane than we like to admit. However, when we chose to be present with others in the mundane, even trips to Target can become sacred.

2) Validation Is Valuable

One night Julie—the other half of Nate and Julie mentioned above—was listening to my doubts. I have a bad habit of thinking too much and my intellectual pursuits were leading to a crisis of faith of sorts. I unloaded my doubts and waited for Julie to rebuke me and put me in my place for doubting. Her response to my rant was simple and life changing. She told me, “Your brain is a gift. Keep asking big questions even if you don’t find the answers.”

We want to give advice and answers but often the best response is to validate the experience of students and affirm their strengths.

Julie didn’t offer me answers or a quick rebuke. She validated my experience and affirmed my gifting as a “big questions” thinker. It was a simple act but it changed the way I processed doubt and faith. It changed the way I followed Jesus.

When we offer our presence to students we will hear doubts, pain, suffering, joy, and celebrations. It is a temptation to become “theology answer people.” We want to give advice and answers but often the best response is to validate the experience of students and affirm their strengths. Offering rote answers can actually stifle faith. Offering validation and affirmation can push students toward Jesus.

3) Silence Is a Gift

Last year I walked into Pastor Kevin’s office with a headful of confusion. I had just received news that a doctor had found a tennis-ball sized tumor attached to the spinal column of my mom. It was also presumed to be cancerous.

I told Kevin the sad news and he simply said, “Damn.”

And then we sat. I talked a little more and then we sat some more. Kevin didn’t say anything. He just sat and listened. After long moments of silence followed by shorter moments of me unloading, I stood up and left his office. I left reassured that God was at work in all this. I didn’t leave knowing my mom would be okay, but I was assured God was moving.

The silence was the best thing that Kevin could offer. No answers needed. I simply needed the presence of someone else and that is all Kevin had to offer.

Silence is painful and awkward. We can feel tempted to fill the space with wise words or a clever turn of a phrase. When the temptation arises to fill the silence and space when we are with students with noise, we should remember these words from MaryKate Morse, “It doesn’t matter what disgust, anger, distancing, or frustration you might experience with their story, you are still the incarnational presence of Christ to them by fully listening without comment.”

Interrupt and Be Interrupted

The act of being present means we offer ourselves to others and invite them into our lives. This is what Jesus did in the incarnation and this is what we must do now. As we choose to be present in the lives of our students, we will have to be okay with interrupting their lives. We must also become accustomed to our lives being interrupted.

Those of us called to ministry must begin to welcome interrupted and interrupting lives, recognizing the sacredness of the mundane, becoming people of validation, and learning the art of silence.

The ministry of presence is not flashy or exciting. No one writes headlines about the pastor who was present. However, this is the way of Jesus. He shows up in our world, he turns mundane meals into sacred practices, connects with our experiences, and listens through our struggles and doubts.

May we allow ourselves the freedom to be present with our students and their families. May we invite students into the patterns and rhythms of our lives. And through this, may the faithful presence of Christ be extended into all the world.


About the Author: Jeremy Penn

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

Summer Camp & YM Dreams

Summer Camp and Youth Ministry Dreams

I really believe in summer camping. When I was a kid, a week at a Young Life camp changed the trajectory of my life. I have spent a lot of time since working at summer camps and taking kids to them. I love it.

Summer Camp & YM Dreams

Weaponized Truth

There is one thing about it that I wish would die, though.

One recurrent, disappointing fruit of an otherwise life changing summer camp experience is the in-your-face self-righteousness.

Kids step off the bus filled to overflowing with enthusiasm and freshly-dreamt possibility, and often enough they squander it by acting like jerks. Parents who are not in theological lock-step with camp pastor Craig (name chosen at random) get an earful. Peers that do not measure up are given detailed accounts of their shortcomings.

They say they are just speaking the truth in love, but the truth of self-righteousness is a half-truth. They are lobbing the truth like grenades from a place of safety. They “lovingly” drop these truth bombs on those around them while staying safely out of the blast radius.

I think it is annoying to be around, but the worst part about it is that it allows kids to avoid the real changes to their lives the Gospel wants us to be about. At best, it is merely shuffling one vice into the place of another.

I would like to think that churches would be the most welcoming of places, but people with disabilities often find that their welcome does not have much substance behind it as soon as their special needs present themselves. Their presence in communities is at once a blessing and a threat of change.

While some responsibility falls to the individual, I know some of the blame is ours. Just as summer camps create a type of space that gives kids room to change their lives, the communities they come home to cultivate the character of those changes. If we are honest, our communities are better models for this self-righteous sentiment than we would like to admit.

Dreams of Risky Generosity

The Christian Church is generous. We give tremendously. However, this loving generosity is often lobbed into needy situations from a place of safety. We want to help the needy, but we do not want the needy close enough to help us, influence us, or even affect us. We stay out of the blast radius. Instead of the Kingdom of God, where the first are last and the last are first and it is somehow better for all, we settle for a social club where we fulfill the expectations of that club, one of which is to give some of our excess.

Often our communities are not worthy of the dreams and enthusiasm of kids. We must dream bigger dreams for our communities so kids’ dreams can grow robust in the humility of striving for the Kingdom of God rather than wither in the self-righteousness of satisfying the expectations of a social club.

Dreams of Real Community

I am trying to dream bigger. I have a dream for my church and the kids of my youth group that I hope would be big enough to squash some of that self-righteousness.

When I dream for my community, it is hard not to think about my friends with disabilities I have met through my work with Young Life Capernaum (Young Life is a Christian youth ministry organization and Capernaum is the wing of that ministry that intentionally reaches out to kids with disabilities). I think about them because, when I notice our dreams for our communities are too small, it is primarily because I see how my friends with disabilities do not fit easily into the churches we come up with.

I would like to think that churches would be the most welcoming of places, but people with disabilities often find that their welcome does not have much substance behind it as soon as their special needs present themselves. Their presence in communities is at once a blessing and a threat of change.

I have a dream where each one of these people with disabilities is embraced.

It is a big community—one that can embrace all of these people.

It is a compassionate community—one that is so deeply concerned with the welfare of their neighbor that they might lay themselves aside to embrace people they would not naturally come into contact with.

It is a blessed community—one that has so many wonderful gifts in these people; gifts the world has in many cases cast aside, but that Scripture assures us are in each and every person.

It is a close community—one where the divisions that split them between able or disabled (Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female) fade with proximity.

It is a dynamic community—one that avoids the ruts that divert us from this life-giving work and the barriers that tell us it cannot be.

It is a vulnerable community—one that risks the changes closeness brings.

Make Your Dreams Come True

Perhaps there is someone else on the margins that comes more readily to mind; someone whose inclusion expands your vision of your church community. By all means, dream with them in mind. However, I challenge you to think about my friends and I pray you will challenge me to think about yours. Hopefully, together we will dream a dream so vast for kids we will cling to Christ and each other in humility as we step off the bus from camp. Hopefully, this dream will enable us to be more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, but instead to nurture a community of love.


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.

Mos Def, Jesus, and the Numbers of Youth Ministry

Every minister I know is obsessed with numbers.

I have spent a dozen years in ministry counting and recounting: butts in seats, kids at camp, decisions for Christ, volunteers, dollars, and on and on. I know my value, by the numbers. I know your value too! Love it or hate itthis is what we do.

Mos Def, Jesus, and Numbers

We sense that we are good when the bus to camp is full, or we are failures when no one comes down at our response time. The problem isn’t our numbers, it’s our insecurity.

Numbers Are Tools

There are plenty of things numbers cannot do, but one thing they are capable of: Numbers keep us accountable. That’s a simple fact. When you choose to measure an aspect of your ministry, you are opening yourself up to comparison, and that is okay. We are admitting that it is possible to quantify parts of what we do.

Some youth ministers run from numbers in order to ensure their performance won’t be measured. After all, you can’t use numbers to describe how God’s Spirit moves, right? But how do you know if you are achieving what God has called you to do if you’re not evaluating? And how do you evaluate without data? Numbers aren’t inherently virtuous or vile, they are tools. And we need all of the tools we can get.

Don’t Measure Yourself

Numbers aren’t out to get us—they don’t care how we feel. Numbers are not the problem. The problem isn’t that we count, the problem is that we tie our identity into our performance. We sense that we are good when the bus to camp is full, or we are failures when no one comes down at our response time. The problem isn’t our numbers, it’s our insecurity. We don’t measure distance with a hammer, so don’t beat yourself up with an attendance roster. Use the right tools for the right jobs!

Mos Def and Jesus

It was the mighty Mos Def who taught me “it’s a numbers game but $h*t don’t add up, somehow.” It is impossible to find validation in a head count. Although your budget may be cut, your self-worth doesn’t have to be. Was Jesus a success because multitudes gathered to hear him preach? Was Jesus a failure because of the 1:12 ratio of disciples at the crucifixion? Did Jesus really tell me to leave the 99 for the 1? That doesn’t add up at all!

Crunching the Numbers

Because numbers are tools, they can do fantastic work when used correctly. But to use them correctly, we need to know what they can and cannot do.

Numbers can:

  • Reveal your priorities—what are you counting?
  • Indicate changes and patterns (you have to figure out what those changes may mean)
  • Inform future planning
  • Clarify your goals
  • Impress your boss
  • Feed or destroy your fragile ego—if you let them

Numbers cannot:

  • Give your ministry meaning
  • Comfort a grieving kid
  • Keep you in ministry for the long-haul
  • Coax God into loving you more or blessing you more completely

Go Forth, and Multiply!

Don’t get cocky when your attendance roster looks good, don’t give up when the bus isn’t full, and do good work. Be brave enough to measure it, and don’t measure yourself by it.


About the Author: Tyler Fuller
The only job I have ever pursued is vocational ministry. I spent over a decade doingtyler fuller Young Life and church Youth Ministry. I am now the Missions Pastor at a megachurch in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)
The Kid Who Never Came Back

The Kid Who Never Came Back

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

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

Kid Who Never Came Back

When Young People Go Missing

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

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

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

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

Five kids who never came back.

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

I was the kid who never came back.

Catching the Fire

FLASHBACK: Middle school was a big time for me.

I started playing the saxophone.

I had my first big crush.

And I began to ask some big questions about Jesus.

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

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

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

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

And I never said goodbye.

Transitions and Loss

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

They tried to reach out.

First, there were phone calls. I ignored them.

Then, emails. I sometimes responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Back

Then it happened.

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

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

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

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

Caring for One-and-Dones

Here’s what you can do about it:

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

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

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

You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

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


About the Author: Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten

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

Top Ten

Top Ten Posts of 2016 from KYM

As 2016 comes to a close, we wanted to take a moment to look back. Kindred Youth Ministry launched just a few months ago and we can’t believe how welcoming you have been!

Our hope for Kindred Youth Ministry is to build a community of people dedicated to helping one another in the sacred work of ministering to young people.

Top Ten

 

We know youth ministry can be hard. We believe that youth ministry is incredibly important.

We want to be a meaningful part of your ministry, supporting you with an experience of community and resources like no where else. Here you will find thoughtful dialogue around the work of ministry to include biblical studies, spiritual formation, the intersection of youth & theology, and leadership development.

We are deeply committed to youth ministry, and we want to be for you in the struggle.

This year, we have been able to post articles from youth ministry veterans we admire. Here is just a small snapshot of some of the posts you have responded to most. We hope you enjoy!


Communities, Mission, and a Shared Table

Communities-Mission-And-A-Shared-TableJeremy Penn shares with us how as youth leaders, we must begin to practice hospitality. We need to commit to take time to share the table and take the posture of one who listens and not the one who has all the answers. (Read more…)


Let’s Talk About Sex

Let's Talk About SexJoin in the conversation with Justin Forbes as he shares how the Church may speak into the lives of kids as they wrestle with what it means to both follow Jesus and grow into their sexuality. (Read more…)


Worst Youth Pastor Ever

the worst youth pastor ever“But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches. I figured it was mostly my fault. If I was a better youth pastor, I’d be influencing these kids to become better Christians. So, under the weight of my own standards and under the pressure of what I thought was the “goal” of youth ministry, I was being worn down….” – Wes Ellis (Read more…)


The Listening Youth Leader

Listening Youth LeaderHayne Steen shares how there is nothing more nutritious to the soul than being listened to well… Listening is good for students. It’s good for you too. (Read more…)


Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian WorldHow do we minister to a generation raised by parents who started our monumental cultural shift away from a default-Christian faith? Tyler Fuller shares some insights on Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World. (Read more…)


Youth Ministry Games: Do We Need Them?

Do we need games?All youth need to play. We all need to play. But why? Join in on the conversation as Antonin Ficatier takes us a little bit deeper into our theological understanding of why we should keep the games! (Read more…)


Pluralism: A New Youth Ministry Imperative

Pluralism - a new youth ministry imperativeIf pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity, how can we address pluralism within youth ministry? Rachael McNeal is asking the important questions to get the conversation going. (Read more…)


Bugattis, Disability, and Youth Ministry

BugattisZach Grant challenges us with the questions where in your youth group would young people with disabilities be welcomed? How can you begin widening the circle of young people who would be welcomed? (Read more…)


Ubuntu: An Invitation Into Full Humanity

Ubuntu - Kindred Youth Ministry“I did not know that what they were actually offering me was quite simply permission to be human…to be myself, the truest version, to lay down striving, to rest in my inherent unearned value as a son deeply loved by the Father. This is what it means to be human. To be Ubuntu.” – Hayne Steen (Read more…)


How to Think Theologically About Youth Ministry

31280_Blog Post Image_082416“To be a good youth worker is not just to know what Karl Barth’s answer would be to a practical problem, it’s being able to see what God is doing and to participate in it, inviting young people to do the same.” – Wes Ellis (Read more…)

 

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.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” –Luke 6:20

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.