Communities, Mission, and a Shared Table

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


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

The Welcome of the Table

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

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

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

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

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

Presence Around The Table

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

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

Inviting Students to the Table

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

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

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

Practice Hospitality: Share the Table

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

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

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

About the Author: Jeremy Penn

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

Listening Youth Leader

The Listening Youth Leader

“I won’t care about how much you know until I know how much you care.”

Have you ever heard that phrase before? It is a key phrase that I heard over and over again, emphasizing the importance of listening while leading youth ministry.

Listening Youth Leader

As I have shared in previous blog posts, I grew up in youth ministry around giants who did not know (or care) that they were giants. This is the kind of wisdom they would remind us of.

Humble Leadership

In those early days I don’t have a single memory of someone driving home the point that we needed more kids to show up. I don’t recall anyone hyper-critiquing my Young Life talks to ensure they were 100% theologically accurate or delivered with perfect diction. I don’t remember having a smoke machine or the best music. I certainly don’t remember having a multi-million dollar worship space.

There is nothing more nutritious to the soul than being listened to well.

What do I remember?

I’ll never forget the day our Young Life area director, Reid Estes, invited me as a confused college kid to drive out to the local high school with him and visit with some kids during lunches. As we pulled into the parking lot of the high school, Reid confessed he was pretty nervous and really didn’t feel like going into lunches that day.

His vulnerability left a mark on me. His prayer was no different: “Father, we are nervously here to visit with some folks who You know and love. May they be attracted to You in us, nothing more.”

I was struck by this moment. Here was a man—a leader—authentically confessing his fear and weakness.

Listening Leadership

It would be Reid’s tears the following summer that struck me again. Just like the trip to the high school, Reid invited me to join him as a co-leader in his cabin of high school guys at Windy Gap.

Midweek sometime, Reid invited me to play disc golf with him to check in. Over several holes, he gently floated a handful of questions that I casually answered as we meandered from hole to hole.

I remember glancing over at Reid at one point and noticed that he was tearing up. So I inquired and he simply said, “Hayne, I am so, so sorry.”  

My story and my pain were as common as the rain to me but Reid appeared to be listening beneath the surface. He risked allowing my pain to affect him.

Good Leadership

What do I remember? In other words, what made Reid a good leader?

  • He was really tuned in as a listener.
  • He walked with me. He stayed nearby and allowed our conversation to be the centerpiece, not the game. We walked slowly.
  • He was genuinely curious and his questions were laced with compassion.
  • He reflected my own pain back to me and gave me permission to begin acknowledging my neediness.
  • He did not offer advice or remedies…just his quiet and gentle presence.
  • He hugged me with tears in his eyes.
  • He gave me permission to cry over my own story…and the stories of others.

There is nothing more nutritious to the soul than being listened to well.

Rushed Leadership

It angers and saddens me to remember how ferociously I chased the idols of event-making and crowd-gathering. In the fury and frenzy of crafting the latest greatest pop-up events, I literally raced right past kids in whose eyes I saw a hunger to be heard and known. I write this with tears in my eyes even now…I really wish I had possessed the awareness to do more listening.

There is this idea that the most influence will be made on a platform, standing in front of a large crowd with a mic in your hand… I’ll be super honest. I can’t remember what any youth leader ever said from the platform under any spotlight. Not a single sentence.

What would those kids (now adults) remember about what we offered them?

  • Funny skits?
  • Large crowds?
  • Amazing trips?
  • Obnoxious program budgets?
  • Random event promos and flyers?
  • Packed parking lots?
  • Stuffed youth rooms?
  • Millions of pieces of pizza?

None of these are bad or evil. And I know I did some listening in there along the way. Maybe even some good listening. I grieve not having done more of it. I mean…I feel like I should write letters of apology to former students for being so unavailable.

How To Be a Listener

There is a great book that every human should push to the top of their reading lists. It could even be called “Being Human 101.” The actual title is The Lost Art of Listening, and it’s written by Michael Nichols.

Let this wisdom land on you…

“When we attempt to listen we can impart to the speaker our unawareness of hearing them, by the shift of our the eyes, our glance away, letting our eyes glaze over, looking around, or interrupting them to speak to someone else. All of these signals leave the speaker knowing they have not been heard.

Not  being heard limits our responsiveness in all areas of our living. We long to be understood by someone listening to and hearing us, with understanding and compassion. We become stronger when we are recognized.  The simplest things can trigger a sense of rejection, even an unreturned phone call.”

Do you want to know something? Listening is good for students. It’s good for you too. Listening cultivates empathy in the listener. It provides a context for noticing. It catalyzes discovery. It promotes vulnerability. It helps eradicate shame.

Ed Dobson frames it for us simply and beautifully.

“It is one broken person talking to another broken person. And there is power in that.”

How To Lead as a Listener

Allow me to offer three simple suggestions:

1) Begin with one

There is no earthly way to listen effectively to more than one student at a time. Let that be a word of freedom. You don’t have to be superhuman. Live within your means and be with kids one at a time…even in a crowd. Especially in a crowd.

Recently in a leader meeting with youth leaders, one middle-aged woman whose large heart for students could not be restrained spoke up…

“How do I offer this kind of empathic listening to the girls in our small group when there are as many as 40 girls showing up this year?”

I think you’ll see the answer slowly lift off the page. Begin. With. One.

2) Be yourself

When opportunities present themselves, avoid the temptation to be anyone other than who you really, really are. Teenagers can quickly sniff out a fraud. And they are quick to flock to someone who is willing to honest, open and vulnerable.

There is this idea that the most influence will be made on a platform, standing in front of a large crowd with a mic in your hand. I chased it for years. Like a dog chasing his own tail.

I’ll be super honest. I can’t remember what any youth leader ever said from the platform under any spotlight. Not a single sentence.

But I can tell you intimate details of moments when one of my youth leaders sat with me and simply listened. I can even remember what we talked about. I can remember their questions. I can remember the expression on their face. I can remember how it made me feel. Human. Normal. Loved.

3) Be there fully

When a student begins to speak with you…relax. Make eye contact. Be careful not to divert your eyes to more interesting things happening in the background. Lean into the conversation. Linger. Rest easy. Be grounded in that space.

So when your next event is over…

…and the crowd clears out…

…and the fluorescent lights get turned on…

…and all of the mess is cleaned up…

…and all the leaky trash bags get hauled down to the dumpster…

…and the doors are all locked up behind you…

…and you head out to your car under the glimmer of street lights…

…and on the drive home you start to evaluate the evening’s agenda…

…can you confess that you have done more listening than being listened to? 

About the Author: Hayne Steen

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

YM Out of Mission Community

Youth Ministry Out of Mission Community

Kindred’s own Justin Forbes gave this presentation, titled Youth Ministry out of Mission Community, at the annual Youth Ministry Academy conference in Orlando, Florida. This event was presented in conjunction by the Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and was sponsored by Kindred Youth Ministry.

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

Justin Forbes:

I know it’s me and then lunch, so let’s get after it…

I believe the real work of youth ministry is to build mission communities around our middle schools and our high schools.

A mission community is a group of people who follow Jesus, love each other well, genuinely care for one another, and then they look around and invite kids to participate in that experience.

This community is defined by their love of God and of one another, but they just can’t help themselves. There is this relentless impulse to go out and invite kids to come in and taste and see this experience. You know this. This is probably your story. You can’t help yourselves you want kids to experience the beauty and the fullness that you know.Youth Ministry out of Mission Community - Kindred Youth Ministry

This mission community is dedicated to practicing with one another the gospel, which they hope to proclaim to kids. They practice it themselves and hope to put in on display for kids.

The community defined by mission becomes in and of itself the medium by which they get to show people the very thing we talk about. Here’s what I mean by that.

Let me talk to you about love – and then let me come over here and show you love. Let me teach you forgiveness – and then I’ll show you what it looks like when the rubber hits the road. It’s hard. But it’s beautiful. Come. Check it out.

Our stories that we tell become embodied, enfleshed, lived out by this community instead of just spoken.

A few years back, I had an experience in youth ministry in a community just like this. I sat about 3 rows back in a mostly empty sanctuary. Everyone else had cleared out, and just in front of me, and a couple seats over, was Cameron’s mother. And just in front of her was Cameron’s empty casket. Cameron was lying there wearing this ridiculous Chicago Bears t-shirt that he would – I mean this guy wore it to school at least once a week and he was buried in his Chicago bears t-shirt. I’ll never forget that.

And he’s lying there and I’m sitting with his mom, eventually sitting next to her, just thinking what in the world just happened? How did we end up here? How is it that I’m sitting in this empty sanctuary with Cameron’s mom and Cameron’s lying in this box?

Just outside in the fellowship hall and scattered across the parking lot were hundreds and hundreds of high school kids and youth ministers the young life volunteers I was there with. We were all shocked by what had happened. Saddened and devastated. Questioning the goodness of God in the midst of such suffering. Our little community of people doing youth ministry together was hurting…badly…and but were there together.

We had known Cameron for almost four years and he had just graduated a few weeks earlier. This was in early June. He had just graduated from high school and Cameron was a wild kid, loved by everyone, especially our group of folks.

He was the first kid to show up, the loudest, most obnoxious, definitely the most inappropriate kid. He was easily one of my favorites. I know we aren’t supposed to have favorites, but I loved this kid. I had a picture of him on my desk for almost all 4 years of high school and had prayed for him often.  There was something about this kid that wanted nothing to do with the gospel, but just kept showing up that drew me to him.

Just a few weeks shy of Cameron’s graduation he walked up to me in the courtyard of Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine and he had this big announcement. He was really excited. He was like, “Justin!” And I’m like, “Yes?” “I’m going to camp!” I’m like, “Ok!”

I think he wanted me to like break out into applause you know, but truth be told, I was really excited because I knew He was about to graduate and we were going to have this amazing experience together. And you know those conversations that take place at camp and I was really excited about getting that uninterrupted time with Cameron.

And so we were super excited and he was thrilled. You know, he said, “I want one more experience as a kid before I have to adult.”  And I was like, “Alright. Let’s do that together.”

But just a few days, just days, before we left for camp, he broke his wrist and decided going to camp with a cast on wouldn’t be any fun. We missed having Cameron at camp, of course camp was great. And as we ended the week and loaded up on the bus and started to come down the mountain, we passed out the cell phones.  And that’s when the buzzing began. Just this relentless buzzing, Text message after text message… voicemails started to land. And then tears and kind of this whimpering started to come from the back of the bus. And this kind of shock hit everyone on the bus together. We had just learned together that Cameron the night before had gone to a party and mixed just too many drugs with just too many drinks and died in the arms of a friend while overdosing.

It hit while we were on the bus together. Cameron’s cousin, Dylan, who I am still friends with, was on the bus. Many of Cameron’s friends were on the bus. And so together, we were learning, oh my gosh, this guy who was right in the middle of our community, died just a few hours ago.

The leaders came up to the front of the bus and began to talk and pray. How are we going to handle this? We are locked in the bus for the next 10 hours, what are we going to do? So we just said lets spread out and just be with kids. We prayed and everyone spread out and it was just a long bus ride home.

When we got back, we invited kids to come to my house and tell stories about Cameron. I invited them to come over and be sad, be happy, to tell stories and laugh, be angry if you need to be angry. Just come and be together.

I said come over around 6 and I told the leader why don’t you come over around 4 and we will get ready. Well, our leaders showed up at 4, spent some time praying together, and we were just kind of say, “Ok, how are we going to handle this?” Probably 20 or 30 kids at least will show up. By 5, not 6, by 5 almost 100 kids were there. And we were overwhelmed, oh my gosh, kids really wanted to wrestle with this. By 6 o’clock there were almost 200 kids there and by 7 the police were there because for over 300 kids had shown up and they were all across the backyard and front yard, every room of my house, up and down the street. They were sad, they were tell stories and laughing, they were crying, they were angry they had questions, it was a beautiful sight. Painful but beautiful, Cameron’s aunt and uncle came, they were there for us in awhile, his sister came, and I cannot believe she showed up. She was so brave.

Justin Forbes - Kindred Youth Ministry

It was truly a sacred time, At the end of the night, around 11 o’clock or so, after the last kid left, I sat on the floor on my living room with about seven other leaders. We were just exhausted, were whooped, and we just looked at each other and wept and cried. It was just an intense night. I’ll never forget seeing there, looking into the eyes of this amazing people who were giving their lives away, to kids who were suffering. I truly love this men and women, we are doing life together, we have played together, worship together, been to the high school together, gone to way more football games and practices together, all of those things we’ve been doing those things.

We’ve been doing life and ministry together, our love for one another was on display, but our love for one another was not just bound up and being just together, it was born out of our shared commitment and calling to the ministry of high school. We were called to one another, yes we were, but called to one another in such a way, that naturally led us to go. And for us to go, meant showing up in High School. You know these type of people, they can walk along side lonely kids, popular kids, wild kids, church kids, whatever kind of kid and they see someone who simply needs to be told how much loved by God.

I’m that kind of person, you are that kind of person, we can’t stand the idea that the kid wouldn’t know that God’s love for them is far greater that their contempt for themselves. I want them to know that God is here, that God is present, that God loves them and Jesus has this really annoying invitation to follow that just don’t go away. This are the kind of people we were been given to be loved and loved by, us we go to the ministry together, this is the community.

This is the kind of community to be called the part of one another, this is what mission community looks like, our little team of people doing youth ministry shared the suffering of all of those kids that night, we shared the suffering of  Cameron’s family that night and at the funeral and for weeks to come. We spoke of God’s presence of love put then we put that story on display through our actions.

This is the work of mission communities. We have to figure out what it means to give our very selves away. And we need each other to figure this out. This is where we wrestle with what it mean for our community to be faithful.

So what kind of stories do mission communities tell? The story that I have shared about Cameron will forever be etched on my mind and heart because of Cameron and the stinking Chicago bears t-shirt and the buzzing on the phone and the 100 of kids spread across the street in our lawn and in our house.

But it will also be in my mind and heart because I experience a rich love and fellowship in my mission community that I really haven’t known before; the depth of suffering took us to a new place. The depth of ministry and love took us to a new place, and redefined how I understood ministry to happen to take place, it spokes to a gospel in a way that no message ever could.

So what kind of stories do your mission communities tell? Here what cracks me up, we know full well that the worst way, (little ironic) for us to teach and for people to learn is to sit back passively and just receive things thrown at them right? To be talked at? Irony… It’s not even like a thing, an educational theory anymore, we know this, we’ve grown, we’ve learned. And yet, the majority of our proclamation we think happens in our messages, in our talks and in our sermons.

So let me ask you this by show of hands… I do want you to show your hands. By show of hands, how many of you have been to church in the last 3 or 4 weeks? Oh good. Ok good. Alright… How many of you can recall the main points of a sermon from 2 weeks ago? A couple of hands… Ok, good… How many of you can recall the scripture passages and the main points of a talk given yesterday here? A couple more… Ok fine, maybe you’re an exception to the rule.

Here’s my point, I was a church going kid, actually just across the street, Presbyterian, Orlando, I grew up here. I was a church going kid as much as possible and I couldn’t tell you one thing, it’s been a few years. But I couldn’t tell you one thing that my youth ministers have said in a talk. But, I remember the other stories that they told. I remember the other stories they told that they told with their lives.

These stories weren’t talks given upfront but these stories were lived out in front of a watching little punk middle school kid named Justin. I was paying attention, I was listening and I was testing the boundaries. These stories were told by Neil and Rich and Kirsten and Matt and Beamer and Grant and a beautiful cloud of witnesses, a whole bunch of folks that walked with us. That walked with me.

Here’s what those stories spoke to me. Here’s what I heard. Justin, you matter. We notice when you’re here. We notice when you’re not here. We care about you. We think you’re gifted. We think you’ve something to offer. You are loved by God and as you follow Jesus, we want to do that with you. Wow!

I look back now and I’m so grateful for this cloud of witnesses to have surrounded me and carried me through such a crazy time of middle school and high school and to tell me those stories.

I’m sitting in a different seat now as a Father. Just last night, the reason I was not here last night, I was at a middle school information meeting. Oh my gosh! Like I saw a friend there and she goes you’ve talked a big game in youth ministry and now you’re in it and I’m like, “Oh no!”

My son is in fifth grade, this guy… A good looking little dude and there’s nothing I want more than for there to be a mission community of people that love each other, that love Jesus and invite him to come along with them. Nothing I want more than that. I would give just about anything for that to be true in his life.

When it comes to the stories we tell in the youth community, the mic is never off. Your proclamation doesn’t end after a short prayer at the end of a talk, in fact, it may have just begun. The stories you tell are not just the talks you give but in fact the stories we tell are found in our lives as we share them with one another and as we share them with kids.

1 Thessalonians 2:8 “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our very lives as well.”

Because we have such a great affection for you, because we care so dearly for you, yes, we share with you the gospel of God, but we share our very lives. We give you ourself. We share the gospel of God, yes — but we give you ourselves.Kindred Youth Ministry - Justin Forbes - 1 Thessolonians 2:8

This is the work of mission communities. We have to figure out what it means to give our very selves away. And we need each other to figure this out. This is where we wrestle with where it mean for our community to be faithful.

Our love for kids will lead us. It will drive us to this conversation. Our dear affection for them, the way we can’t stop thinking about them, the way that you walk through a hallway of a school and you have different eyes to see. You know what I mean by that? You have different eyes. You see things that other people don’t see.

That sort of affection and love will drive us but we have to do the work of figuring out what does it look like to put the rubber on the road here. What does it look like to be present in the lives of these kids we we’ve been called to love and serve? This is the mission side of mission community. Collectively giving ourselves away…

So, back to the empty sanctuary, I’m sitting with Cameron’s mother, and wondering, what in the world is going on? What is happening in this moment? How did I end up here? And I’m praying, asking where God is in the midst of such suffering? But looking back now, I see this beautiful story being told in the mist of this dark experience. There was a great lose and a great sadness, yes. But at the same time a community of people holding faith for those who couldn’t have shown up, they show up when they were present in the mist of doubt and anger and hurt feelings and sadness and they simply offered love. They simply offered their very selves.

Christ was present with  Cameron’s family and with his friends that day and one small but significant piece of evidence to that hope, was the youth ministers and volunteers that it were in the parking lot sitting with kids in their suffering. That small community of believers were faithful to show up, faithful to hope, faithful to be present and that faithfulness was born out of there love, for one another but for God, but also born out of their shared sense of call, their shared sense of mission, their sent-ness. And to be sent that day meant to be showing in a parking lot and being with an angry devastated kid for however long. You know those moments.

The mission community held each other that day. They enabled each other to be faithful and they did that hard work of showing up. What a beautiful story. What a beautiful witness, a story that points to the faithful and present love of God.

Justin Forbes - Kindred Youth Ministry

So for you, and for me, this is our work. We need to be with people who build mission communities. As you consider the middle schools you’ve been given and high school kids that you love so dearly, I beg you to consider teams of people you have called to cultivate in that ministry.

Give yourself to the fellowship of that community, invest the time and energy and doing life together, play, celebrate, rest, do the stuff of life, and then let your proclamation of the good news, flow out of the love that you have for one another. Let the proclamation of good news flow out of the love that the internal community has because together you understand your sentness. Do the hard work of discerning how it is you must give yourselves away, and Do that work in the community.

May we youth ministers build beautiful mission communities, mission communities that are deeply committed to Jesus Christ, deeply committed with each other and deeply committed to our clear sense of call to the kids that we are giving to love. Amen.

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.

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.

13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why:
A Youth Ministry Response

It was an average youth group meeting, plates with pizza crust were strewn across the floor, kids were loud and chattering, sneaking peeks at their cell phones. I overheard a group of girls gushing about “13 Reasons Why,” a show I had briefly, though with curiosity, scrolled past on my Netflix account.

After listening to them rave, it was clear to me that “13 Reasons Why” was the next “binge watch” fad. So in an effort to connect more with my kids, I decided to give it a watch.

13 Reasons Why


I was disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed because it was yet another adolescent show that played into the teenage television trope of high school melodrama, sexual tension, jocks and loners, and forays in drinking and snogging. I expected all of those things (and, let’s be real, even adults still maintain a fascination with teenage culture. My own teen years were filled with “My So Called Life” viewings and Nirvana blaring through headphones. And I still own, and wear on the regular, a pair of original black Doc Marten boots).

No, I was disappointed by just how much this show got suicide so wrong.

“Everyone is just so nice, until they drive you to kill yourself,” is one of many definitive statements made by Clay, the 17 year old protagonist in the series. “13 Reasons Why” is a story about Hannah Baker, the new kid in school, who takes her own life and leaves behind a recording of 13 tapes detailing the people and events that drove her to her death. The story follows Clay as he deals and interacts with the people mentioned in these tapes.

I was disappointed by just how much this show got suicide so wrong.

But the show isn’t really about Clay. It’s about Hannah. And its entire plot structure is about unraveling the mystery of the why of her suicide. When that’s the premise of your plot, you better do your due diligence in getting it right.

But the show is almost assuredly more harmful in its message than helpful. The series presents Hannah’s death as the product of cyber bullying, sexual assault, and other forms of victimization, all perpetuated by her own classmates.

There is no mention of mental illness.

This leaves the viewer with, as my students told me verbatim, the “lesson that we should be kind to one another and not bully each other.” Because it is, as depicted very obviously in the show, bullying and harassment that drive young people to commit suicide.

Every 17 Minutes

13 Reasons WhyEvery 17 minutes in America, someone commits suicide, and it is more often than not a young person, a kid (it is the second leading cause of death for older adolescents). In 1995, for example, more young people died of suicide than of AIDS, cancer, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, birth defects, and heart disease combined. And that rate has steadily gone up over the past decade — 260 percent in the last 30 years.

We are so uncomfortable and afraid of this epidemic, however, that oftentimes we cling to our misguided belief that it is mostly the kids who “have a rough time” and are victims of their peers’ harassment and alienation that are the ones who kill themselves.

Narratives like “13 Reasons Why” play into that misguided belief, leading my students (even after the advent of brain imaging, the new research in genetics, and the impressive gain of scientific understanding regarding the organic brain disorders that cause mental illness) to parrot “if we would only be kind, we can help people. We can save lives.”

Which, the flip side of this statement is, of course, (and Clay claims this as much in the series) that “we all killed Hannah Baker.” We are somehow responsible for another’s suicide. Survivor’s guilt, experienced by the people impacted by the suicide of their loved one, is one of the most unfortunate consequences of this widespread tragedy.

The Myth

Kay Redfield Jamison, author of Night Falls Fast, and a psychiatrist who herself suffers from Bipolar disorder, perfectly and succinctly sums up just how untrue this popular myth of “be kind and save lives” is.

Jamison recounts her own suicide attempt, explaining how her disrupted thought was equally as disrupted as her mood: ”No amount of love from or for other people — and there was a lot — could help. No advantage of a caring family and fabulous job was enough to overcome the pain and hopelessness I felt; no passionate or romantic love, however strong, could make a difference. Nothing alive and warm could make its way in through my carapace. I knew my life to be a shambles and I believed — incontestably — that my family, friends and patients would be better off without me. There wasn’t much of me left anymore, anyway, and I thought my death would free up the wasted energies and well-meant efforts that were being wasted in my behalf.

What Now?

If the answer is not as simple as “be nice,” then what can we church volunteers and pastors, who work specifically with young people, do to help? What can a Christian community offer that is unique from school assemblies and public service announcements?

For starters, the church can be a resource, connecting people with trusted mental health professionals.

But on a more theological level, Christianity has long been familiar with “the dark night of the soul.” In the traditions of the church, the liturgy of the worship service, and the verses of lament within the pages of scripture, Christianity offers a unique voice to those who are suffering from mental health conditions and despair.

The Gospel compels us to seek out those who are hurting, and to provide not just empty niceties or small acts of kindness but, rather, a community, a consistent group of people who live in relationship with the sick.

Not only does our Christian faith have a long and intimate relationship with suffering, thereby helping us to be more comfortable with hard stigmatizing topics, but our faith also places suffering in a larger redemptive narrative. It’s a narrative that tells us that suffering does not have the last word. The protagonist in our story, Jesus Christ, does not depart from us after his prayers at Gethsemane or his cries on the cross. Our savior departs from us after he has resurrected and defeated death, heralding a new season of advent, of waiting for the reconciliation of all things.

Jesus also teaches us how to behave toward those who are suffering, who are on the margins, who are sick, who are alienated. The Gospel compels us to seek out those who are hurting, and to provide not just empty niceties or small acts of kindness but, rather, a community, a consistent group of people who live in relationship with the sick.

“13 Reasons Why” is good entertainment for some. It resonates with the angst of kids trying to grow up in an increasingly complex world of mass text messaging, video capability in the palm of your hand, and split second social media posting.

But it gets the why wrong.

And so, may we be ministers of the right why, which will then powerfully enable us to be committed disciples of the right how. The right how of being a resurrected people reaching out to a dark and hurting world…in a well informed way.

About the Author: Megan Cullip

MeganMegan Cullip currently serves as a youth minister in Connecticut. Her first call in ministry was as a chaplain at a state psychiatric hospital. She is also a trained substance abuse counselor. Megan loves music, cheeseburgers, deep conversation, laughing with friends, and hikes in the woods. Her favorite theologian is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Pluralism - a new youth ministry imperative

A New Youth Ministry Imperative

My relationship with Rabbi Mark inspired me to understand religious pluralism differently and inspired me to make interfaith dialogue and cooperation not just an important part of my career, but also an imperative part of my Christian walk. It is my hope that youth leaders and ministers also begin to see pluralism as a youth ministry imperative.

Pluralism - a New Youth Ministry Imperative - Kindred Youth Ministry

Pluralism takes on different meanings depending on its context, but what I’m referring to here is Religious Pluralism. It often gets confused with unitarianism or universalism, or Unitarian Universalism, or other theological terms. Religious Pluralism, however, is not a theological term; rather, think of it as a social term.

Pluralism ≠ “Diversity”

Religious diversity exists, not just globally, but in the United States in particular. It’s important to remember that the U.S. is not just the most religiously diverse country in the world, it is likely the most religiously diverse country of all time.

So, while understanding that diversity is a fact, pluralism insists that we engage positively across that diversity.

You can contend that diversity is in and of itself valuable—and I would agree with you—but, diversity doesn’t naturally lead us to positive interactions. All sorts of conflict and violence are caused by diversity; or better put, caused by individuals or groups who are unable or ill-equipped to handle difference.

According to (a resource I would highly recommend),

“…pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.”

Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes, with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.

We don’t have to peer too far into our history to find examples of Christians not only complacently living in isolation from those who are different religiously (or non-religiously), but actively defending the mistreatment (rather, maltreatment) of those who believe differently.

On the flip side, we can also look into our history to find stories of Christians who chose to risk their lives for others, even though they did not profess Christian faith. Surely we want our youth to be the latter.

The Pluralism of Jesus

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is asked by a lawyer, “What is the greatest commandment.” As you well know, Jesus affirms, “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

The lawyer asks in response, “Well then, who is my neighbor?” The lawyer thought he was pulling a fast one on Jesus, but Jesus responded, of course, with a parable. He talks of a man who was robbed on his way to Jericho when he was suddenly robbed, beat up, and left for dead.

Two different religious elite walk by, and neither one stops to help the man. In fact, their religious obligations kept them from doing so. The Levite, being obligated to stay pure, could not touch a person if that person was bleeding or dead. Likewise, the priest would also be prevented from touching and therefore assisting the man.

And so it was a Samaritan—not only a person despised by first-century Jewish people, but also a completely different religion from Jesus—who stopped to help the man. Jesus, in the story of the Good Samaritan, holds up someone of a different religion as a moral superlative.

Not only that, but the parable seems to insist that we refrain from allowing our religious or spiritual obligations and positions to keep us from serving. Even further, the Good Samaritan gives us permission to be inspired by those of a different faith. Yes, those who believe differently from us have a moral compass, even those we are inclined to see as evil or deplorable.

Pluralism Is Imperative

Do we as Christians want a plurality of religions? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Surely, for most of us—youth ministers in particular—what we want is for young people to be in relationship with Jesus. Pluralism may seem in direct conflict with that desire, but I don’t believe it is necessarily, because (for the most part) in order for anyone to be in relationship with Jesus, they must first be in relationship with Christians.

Whether we like it or not, traditional evangelism sometimes does more to harm relationships than build them up; sometimes even ending a relationship before it’s begun. Yes, we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, but we are also supposed to bear witness to the love of God, and guess how we do that?

By being in relationship with others.

Building Relationships

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because 33% of American young people are atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated, and approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s population are not Christian. Interestingly enough, all of this diversity of religious and secular worldviews seems to get a lot of blame for the violence and war on the planet. Given that part of our identity as Christians is to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), then making pluralism part of your ethos as a youth ministry leader seems to be a no-brainer. After all, God has made us the ambassadors for the Prince of Peace (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador’s job is to serve as a go-between, and without pluralism, who would we go between?

Speaking Generously

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because the ninth commandment says not to bear false witness against our neighbor (Exodus 20:16). It is so easy to misunderstand and speak untruthfully about those who believe differently from us when we don’t know them.

Nothing is easier to misunderstand than the belief systems and ideological frameworks of others. Teenagers are curious about the world and the people around them. Inevitably, you will get asked a question about another faith—will you be able to answer in a way that does not bear false witness against another person?

Living Missionally

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because we’re raising up the next generation of pastors, deacons, lay-leaders, bishops, worship leaders, youth leaders, and tithers. The world is a changing place and the question stands for our youth—what does it mean to be a Christian in a religiously diverse world?

Does it mean we should build walls around ourselves, surrounding ourselves only with other Christians? Does it mean participating in interfaith cooperation and interfaith dialogue in order to learn more about our neighbors and to serve our communities alongside them? What does it mean?

Remember Paul’s words about Jesus in Ephesians 2:14—“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Engaging with Pluralism

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

These questions regarding intentional relationships with people of other religious and secular identities are new for the Church in general and youth ministry in particular. So while we may not have the answers, that’s okay—asking the question helps us get the conversation going. Feel free to leave comments below with your thoughts and reflections.

About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

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

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!


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, 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.


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.


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.

John Wesley

4 Reasons John Wesley Matters to Your Youth Ministry

Do you care about your youth ministry enough to ride a horse for 250,000 miles?! One Anglican minister, roughly 300 years ago, cared enough. That man was John Wesley, who accidentally started Methodism. Here are four reasons his ideas matter to youth ministry.

John Wesley

1) Go Out!

Wesley made his name by leaving the ornate pulpits of his time to preach large revival series in the fields to common folks. Later in life he began ordaining his own preachers because he didn’t want to wait for the Church of England to allow colonial Americans to take communion (note: DO NOT begin ordaining your own ministers, please). John Wesley was focused on helping people get connected to Christ, and he didn’t wait for them to come to church.

Wesley relentlessly pursued the overlooked and the lost. The world was his parish.

..above all, remember Wesley’s three simple rules:
do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

2) Bring Together!

Another revival preacher, George Whitefield, was a contemporary of Wesley. As Whitefield reflected on his own ministry, he said: “Wesley acted wisely (his converts joined groups)-—this I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” Wesley would not ride in to town and preach if there were no small groups there. Wesley knew that the big event would never produce lasting spiritual change. Long-term, relationship-focused small groups did that.

Wesley’s idea of salvation and Christian living was tied to small groups.

3) Show Grace

Wesley rejected the idea that sin had completely cut us off from God. Prevenient grace is the term he used for the work of the Spirit that draws people to recognize and connect with God before they are believers.

We Methodists baptize infants. Before they know how to believe, when they only know about milk and sleep, we baptize them. We recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in every person’s life; even before they have the capacity to recognize it themselves—, even if they never recognize it.

Wesley talked about justifying grace as the work of the Holy Spirit that draws us into a conscious relationship with God through Christ, a kind of short hand for “believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior.” But it didn’t stop at that.

Sanctifying grace was the term Wesley used to describe the way the Holy Spirit continually shapes our lives to make us live and love more like Christ.

Grace starts before we are aware, and continues on until we die.

4) Expect Works

The central theme of Wesley’s preaching was grace, there is no question about that. However, for believers, Wesley placed a strong emphasis on holy living. Wesley was a vegetarian teetotaler who believed that the power of the Holy Spirit could help a Christian to live in perfect love.

Wesley expected the lives of Christian disciples to be marked by personal and social holiness.

Now Build a Movement!

Go get kids connected to Christ, find teenagers no one is looking for, who don’t care about your programs.

Don’t let your teenagers live their faith alone, get them connected to accountability and community. Preach grace and look for it in kids before they see it themselves. Encourage your kids to live in perfect Christ-like love.

And above all, remember Wesley’s three simple rules: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

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 mega church in the panhandle of Florida (who still gets to work with youth every day!)