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The Kid Who Never Came Back

The Kid Who Never Came Back:
Handling Youth Group Dropouts

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

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

The Kid Who Never Came Back

When Young People Go Missing

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

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

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

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

Five kids who never came back.

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

I was the kid who never came back.

Catching the Fire

FLASHBACK: Middle school was a big time for me.

I started playing the saxophone.

I had my first big crush.

And I began to ask some big questions about Jesus.

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

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

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

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

And I never said goodbye.

Transitions and Loss

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

They tried to reach out.

First, there were phone calls. I ignored them.

Then, emails. I sometimes responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Back

Then it happened.

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

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

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

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

Caring for One-and-Dones

Here’s what you can do about it:

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

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

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

You’re called to do the ministry anyway.

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


About the Author: Zach Wooten

Zach Wooten

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

The Teenage Brain - Steve Schneeberger

The Teenage Brain

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

YMI empowers youth ministers to become skilled and effective leaders.

Transcription:

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

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

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

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

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

The Teenage Brain - Steve Schneeberger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Group Discussion]

[Steve]: Alright, good conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Group Discussion]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Group Discussion]

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

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


About the Author: Steve Schneeberger

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

 

Identifying Teens Prior to Crisis - Emily Edwards

VIDEO: All Signs Point To?
Identifying Teens Prior to Crisis

Identifying Teens Prior to Crisis - Emily Edwards

In this video, Emily Edwards presents All Signs Point To? – Identifying Teens Prior to Crisis. Emily currently serves as the Director of Youth and Education Ministries at Coronado Community UMC and has worked in student ministry for nine years. Emily also works with individuals (ages 6 and older), couples, and families as a therapist (Registered Clinical Social Work Intern #ISW9255) at New Smyrna Beach Counseling Center.

This presentation took place at the Flagler Forum on Youth Ministry at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.

Excerpts:

At Risk

“At risk youth is someone who is less likely to transition successfully into adulthood.”

“‘Successfully’ is often defined as able to avoid crime, achieve academic success, and become financially independent.”

“So what teens are at risk for crisis? …Really all teens have the potential to be at risk for crisis.”

Teen Statistics in 2 Hours

Recognize

How do we recognize these at risk teenagers before they hit crisis?

  • Make passive suicidal statements (“The world would be better off without me.”)
  • Begin to isolate self from family & friends
  • Display sudden change (appearance, mood, attendance, interests, etc.)
  • Usually ask for help from a friend
  • Engage in high-risk behavior

“So what teens are at risk for crisis? …Really all teens have the potential to be at risk for crisis.”

“Your friend may be mad at your for telling… but your friend is going to be alive to be mad at you.”

“Our unique benefit of being youth workers is that we have no punishing rights… but we can sit there and have very open and honest communication (with them).”

High Risk Behaviors

  • Truancy
  • Substance use/abuse
  • Unprotected sex or sex with multiple or unknown partners
  • Restricting eating/binging and purging
  • Self harm
  • Fighting
  • Running away

“Our unique benefit of being youth workers is that we have no punishing rights… but we can sit there and have very open and honest communication (with them).”

Our Role

Our Role as Youth Minister is NOT:

  • Savior
  • Parent
  • Professional Counselor

Our Role as Youth Minister IS:

  • Building relationships
    • Recognizing red flags of teens approaching crisis
  • Training and equipping volunteers
    • Involve other safe adults in the ministry as mentors/sponsors/prayer partners
  • Utilizing teens’ strength and spiritual gifts
    • Student leadership
  • Talking openly about hard issues
    • Feelings of isolation come when difficult topics are not discussed
  • Having open door with non-judgement
    • Listen and validate

Our Role as the Church

  • Consistently point teens and their families to a transforming relationship with Jesus
    • Mark 12:30-31 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
  • Provide meaningful connections to God
  • Provide safe sanctuary for all teens
  • Support Parents/Guardians
  • Provide resources or connections to resources
    • Develop a local resources list to assist with prevention of crisis
How Should We Think About Young People? - Wes Ellis

Video: How Should We Think About Young People?

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

young people - kindred youth ministry - 2

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

Wes: Cool. Thank You.

How should we think about young people in youth ministry?


About the Author: Wes Ellis

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

Stop the Chaos

Video: Stop the Chaos

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

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

Transcript:

Good morning everyone!

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

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

Stop the Chaos - Emily Felgenhauer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author: Emily Felgenhauer

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

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.

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Two Corinthians

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

Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World

Preaching Was Easy in My Day!

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

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

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

1) The Harvest Is Plentiful

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

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

2) Watch Your Language

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

Quick Case Study:

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

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

3) Don’t ASSume

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

4) Rise To the Occasion!

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

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


About the Author: Tyler Fuller

tyler fuller

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