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I’ve Seen a Thing or Two,
Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies

“We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” This is the tag line of what I believe is one of the most effective marketing campaigns over the last year. A veteran State Farm representative always delivers the line after highlighting an interesting, almost unbelievable story of a mishap that State Farm has faithfully covered in the past.

“We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two,” is a tag line I can identify with after 42 years in youth ministry. Over four decades, there were times when I was convinced that I had seen it all only to be surprised, once again, by cultural shifts or movements which seemed newly birthed by the Holy Spirit. At these times, I knew I could resist or in humility be open to change. I’m still trying to learn that if you are not willing to change, you love yourself more than the truth. One thing I’m certain about is that there is never an arriving.

Life with Christ is always a journey requiring continual and relational discernment and openness to God’s future breaking in on us. Few would disagree that our current cultural realities are not fraught with confusing dissonance and stressful civil conflict. Yet, it is in the midst of this very cultural milieu that we must work out our faith, seek understanding, engage in serious theological reflection and passionately proclaim a hope-filled Gospel.

As a youth minister, I am extremely grateful for theological conversation partners and resources that help me navigate through what it means to practice youth ministry in our cultural context in a way that leads to Christian formation of young people. Andy Root’s book Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science couldn’t be more timely or relevant.

In the genre of youth ministry books two of the following three things are normative. 1) A quirky, clever title that is culturally relevant. 2) Important content providing help in dealing with the emerging generation of young people. 3) A theologically robust, conversation-moving discourse that is really for the whole church, not just youth ministry.

While many youth workers are ok with two out of three ain’t bad, more and more of us are not. Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is a theologically robust, conversation-moving book important for the whole church, not just youth ministry. And yet, I wonder, will Andy’s book be accessible to youth workers? After all, that is the targeted reader. I don’t wonder because I think youth workers aren’t intellectually curious or committed to the discipline of study. I wonder because too often the youth ministry environments in which we minister are pragmatically focused, program driven and action oriented, leaving little time for theological reflection and face to face encounter with the young people we minister with.

I’m concerned about the state of youth ministry and youth workers when we don’t give serious attention to books like Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies. While I’m proud that a book of this caliber is written for my vocation of youth ministry, I actually wish this book were titled, Ministry to Emerging Generations in a Scientific Age, or something like that so more people in ministry would read this important work, instead of just youth workers. And I’m concerned that a youth worker drawn to read it because of it’s catchy title might stop reading when the challenging content unfolds in the book.

This book is really critical for all youth workers to read, contemplate and learn. The issue of the relationship between science and faith is really important. We have been confronted by many studies revealing the perceived conflict between science and faith as a leading reason why many young people feel that the church has become increasingly irrelevant for them and the broader culture. When a church community articulates a narrative that either science or the bible is true but they can’t both be true, it leads to an unfortunate exit ramp for many. Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

For many others the apparent conflict between science and faith, or the way they interpret the bible, results in a plan to avoid the subject and pretend a tension between science and faith doesn’t exist. This course leads to a faith that looks foolish to the broader culture for all the wrong reasons.

Too many young people have either been escorted out of the church community for their unwillingness to embrace a blind faith that contradicts with the way they view reality.

I am grateful that, Andy Root, whom I believe to be a world-class practical theologian and Christian thinker, has continued to write books and engage in theological reflection for youth ministry. Along with new theological work concerning faith formation in a scientific age, Root also strives to make it accessible and practical to youth workers by weaving a storyline of youth ministry life in between chapters on science and theology.

The narrative woven throughout the book focuses on Jared, a 12-year youth ministry veteran who is trying to determine if he is going to continue in youth ministry or move into a new role in the church.

Aly is a 24 year old, who Jared watched grow up in his church but who is now in a full blown crises of faith feeling that science is more reliable and logical than the idea of a God that we can’t see.

Martin is a current high school youth group kid who has a vivid imagination and believes that mass extinction is on the horizon because ecological science, evolution and The Walking Dead point to a coming apocalypse. He wonders if God will intervene.

Sasha is a middle school student who is super smart and wrestling with how to integrate faith and physics. Sasha doesn’t want to embrace a belief system so feeble that science has to be viewed as an enemy of faith.

Sarah is a youth worker from another church who is dealing with the issue of Science and Faith in a different manner than Jared, so we get to consider other youth ministry contexts.

Jared also has to deal with a host of parents who often have a quite different way of seeing the world than their child. Those of us who have been in youth ministry for any length of time know what it’s like to encounter an anxious parent. Anxious parents of the kids in our churches can range from the parent who hopes that you can help their kid through this stage of life without falling off the deep end to the parent whose anxiety leads them to blame the youth worker for all that is wrong in their world. Often this doesn’t go well and the horror stories youth workers tell are legendary.

Few issues, except maybe sexuality, can stir up a parent like science, especially if you find yourself in a church where creationism is a view held by many. Root’s book is more geared toward a post-liberal mainline and a progressive evangelical context. Should evangelical youth workers read Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies? YES! If you are in a typical evangelical church you might be trying to convince yourself, “The youth I work with aren’t asking these kinds of questions.” If you believe this, I think the reason why is that your youth for some reason have chosen not to raise these kinds of critical questions in the place where they should – your church. They may hold their questions because they know how politically incorrect it is in your church. And yet, few issues are more important for the Christian formation of young people than the relationship between science and faith, and science and the Bible.

Why Young Christians are Leaving Church

David Kinnaman, President of the Barna Group wrote a book entitled, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church. The book was based on research pulled from eight national studies. According to the Barna Group, the national studies, included “…interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.”[1]

Kinnaman’s book focuses on six themes that he thinks most impacts the disengagement of late adolescents with their churches. I think four of the six themes are directly related to the content Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies deals with. They are:

Churches seem overprotective.

Kinnaman argues that the reality is that today’s adolescents and young adults have unparalleled exposure to worldviews. When a narrow-minded, overly contextualized and limited view of faith restricts their understanding of a broader world context this is deemed irrelevant and parochial by the emerging generation. While they feel disappointed with their churches, they often believe that God has a more gracious view of the world than their church. According to the research cited, “one-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said, Christians demonize everything outside of the church.”

Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.

Young people want to engage in a faith that deals with real life issues. They are not afraid of issues that are not clearly black and white. They are drawn to a faith that encounters the other with love and inclusion. Many don’t feel that the Bible is hanging by a literal thread and therefore requires us to defensively ignore new information that is constantly emerging.

Churches come across as antagonistic to science.

From a summary of the findings of the Barna Study and the content of Kinnaman’s book  “a big reason young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that ’Christianity is anti-science’ (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’ Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.”[2]

The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

For youth workers who have focused deeply on classic Christian formation of young people, we know that there is no strong faith without good doubt. Good doubt that is properly wrestled with is vital to the Christian life. There is so much fear in so a majority of our churches today that the idea of creating an environment that is a safe place for young people to express their doubts is very threatening to many church leaders, parents and grandparents. This unfortunately leads to an inability to walk with young people through their intellectual doubts and the struggles they are having trying to make meaning out of their lives and the reality they are experiencing.

Of course, the above statistics stated by Barna research could and should be challenged. And for every study that states that the conflict between science and faith leads to young people feeling disillusioned about the church or concluding that faith is irrelevant, there are opinions or studies stating the solution to fix the problem is to double down on discipleship in order to turn these trends around.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life.

Root works hard in this book to present real youth ministry complexities in a scientific age. He engages in deep scholarship to present philosophical and theological dialogue with science.  He spends a lot of time carefully helping the reader understand that while many in our culture define science as “objective” and faith as “subjective” the reality is that both science and faith are socially constructed. Root knows that one of the most powerful statements in our culture is “Science says, …” The Social Practice of Scientism declares a position of “non-biased objectivity.” The Social Practice of conservative Evangelicalism declares a position of “Objective Truth.” A rigid social practice of Christianity smirks at the “objectivity of science” position and believes that the absolute truth of the bible always forces a checkmate on science. Root goes after both of these arrogant positions and invites us out of the battle between scientism and a faith built upon certitude.

The most wonderful part of Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies, however is the truly extraordinary section of the book where Root explores reasons the Scientific Revolution occurred in the Christian West and not in another part of world civilization. Root fleshes out the story of Athanasius dealing with the challenge of Arianism and the consequent development of the Nicene Creed describing Jesus Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted orthodox Christian statement of faith, embraced by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and most forms of Protestantism.

Root takes considerable care to describe how the work of Athanasius, a Doctor of the Church, is picked up by the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory Nazianzus were able to profoundly and creatively work out the theological basis for the Nicene Creed, particularly how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine. Root, building on the work of Scottish Theologian Thomas Torrance, fleshes out the brilliance of the Cappadocian fathers working out the hypostatic union, Trinity as the three in one and one in three, while showing how Jesus Christ could be fully human and fully divine of one substance (ousia) and being with the Father but differentiated by a being that is constituted relationally. This formula developed by the Cappadocian’s is beautiful, paradoxical and mysterious all at the same time. But Root shows how this kind of thinking, which shaped the imagination and mental constructs of the western mind, ultimately led to an epistemological framework that gave birth to the scientific revolution.

Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies is ultimately about faith, seeking understanding. A flourishing faith is one that passionately seeks deeper understanding. I don’t believe this book is just about helping young people find answers to their big questions and seek understanding for the formation of their faith. I want youth workers to read this book because I believe it will also expand their faith in the midst of this scientific world in which we live.

Our youth are asking lots of questions, important questions. They are not just looking for the answers but for those who will engage them in serious dialogue with a curiosity and wonder for this thing called life. Of course, not every conversation with young people will focus on the finely tuned universe or the big bang but when these conversations happen they are often seminal, epic, shaping the imagination and faith journey for a lifetime. Are you prepared for these moments?

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/ accessed November 26, 2017

[2] Ibid.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.

Science, Youth Ministry, and Prayer

Recently Andy Root wrote Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in the Age of Science, an interesting and timely addition to an ongoing conversation surrounding the relationship between faith and science.  Root’s charge to us in youth ministry is simple: we stay silent on this contested relationship to our own peril.  Kids have questions about the universe—micro- and macroscopically—and we in youth ministry have not only an obligation to attend to those questions, but with Andy Root’s help, also a unique and exciting opportunity to share the gospel in relevant ways.

But why talk about science?

No doubt a few of you reading this need some encouragement.  Let’s name and respond to some of the reasons that might keep you from picking up this book:

But none of my kids are asking science questions of their faith…

Yes they are.  Maybe not to you, but they are asking these questions.  Would you really rather they went elsewhere to get the answers?

But I’m not a scientist, I’m not equipped to handle the conversation…

You’re likely also not an economist, but I bet you’ve talked to kids about how to use their money.  You’re likely not a licensed sex therapist, but I bet you’ve talked to kids about sex.  There are an endless number of things outside your training that ministry requires you to weigh in on.  Science might be more intimidating or confusing than others, but it’s still something we’ve got to address.

But we’ve already got a policy at our church/institution that clearly states what we should say

The most successful folks in ministry are those that keep digging deeper.  This doesn’t mean your opinion ought to always change.  There are things we ought not budge an inch on.  This also doesn’t mean you should be insubordinate with those you work under.  Even so, continuing to come back to important topics by reading and interacting with thoughtful folks is always a good tactic in ministry.  This is an important topic.  And this is a thoughtful account of how to talk about it.

There are an endless number of things outside your training that ministry requires you to weigh in on.

Put another way, Root is not so much telling youth pastors what to say (as in, the “answer” to questions surrounding Noah’s arc and the theory of evolution) but how to have the conversation.  The latter is often a much, much more difficult thing to do.

So how do science and faith relate?

Convinced?

Let’s assume you are, that you’re past the threshold of wondering if you should read about science and faith.  Let’s move on, then, to what it is that Andy’s telling us (of course it’d be infinitely better for you to simply read this book on your own or as a staff, but here’s a rough sketch).

Move #1: Getting us on the same page regarding science and ‘science’

Andy Root gets his project off the ground with some much-needed brush clearing.  There’s a lot of unhelpful talk surrounding science and faith and he wants to make sure we’re all on the same page.  As is the case in all good arguments, Root reminds us that in this debate it’s often the case that folks are using the same terms but in different ways.  In other words, Andy tells us that often times when we talk about science, we don’t actually mean, science.  Let’s explain.

According to Root, there’s a world of difference between scientific findings and ‘science.’  Contrary to much popular belief, there is no essential rivalry between science (as a method for the pursuit of knowledge regarding some material reality) and faith (an encounter with God).  As a methodology, science isn’t a good or a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily for or against faith.  That there are scientists all along the spectrum of belief testifies, in some sense, to this reality.

‘Science,’ however, is a different story.  According to Root, what most of us have in mind when we talk about “faith and science” are not specific scientific findings.  Instead, we’ve got ‘science’ in mind: to borrow his phrase, a “comprehensive social practice.”  In other words, often when we talk about science we’ve got in mind something that more closely resembles a religion-like thing insofar as it makes claims on what we ought to live and do and why.  Which is to say that religion and ‘science’ both require loyalties and, unlike (neutral) scientific findings and faith, these two are at odds.

At its most basic, the Christian faith tells us we live in a personal universe, one made and sustained by a God who is intimately related to what He makes.  ‘Science,’ on the other hand, promotes and assumes an impersonal universe.  See the bind?  These two ways of seeing and participating in the world—faith and ‘science’—are diametrically opposed when it comes to describing that very world, and so anyone caught in their crosshairs must make a choice: faith or ‘science.’

The effects of this dilemma in the church are obvious and often polarizing: should I choose faith (and thus downplay the import of scientific findings) or should I choose science (and thus downplay the import of faith)?  At its worst, the first option leaves a church on a lonely, overly skeptical island, completely cut off from the insights of entire scientific community.  And the second option, at its worst, leaves individuals with a withered or non-existent faith.

By making a distinction between scientific findings and ‘science,’ then, Root helps us to get the heart of the matter.  The issue is less one between faith and science.  There are a host of ways that we can make meaningful connections between the findings in biology, chemistry, and physics, for example, and our faith.  The issue, instead, is with the assumption of ‘science’ that since the universe is impersonal, to be a faithful Christian is to intentionally choose to be mute, immoral, or childish when it comes to dealing with how things really are.  Without making this distinction, then, we see far too many kids thinking they must make a false choice between believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ or believing in the Big Bang theory, for example.

Move #2: Getting a picture for how faith and science do relate, then

To put it far too briefly, ultimately Root ends up arguing for an asymmetrical but generally harmonious relationship between science and faith wherein the claims of the former can and do fit quite nicely within the broader context of the former.  It’s an asymmetrical relationship precisely because once we get straight what it is we’re doing in faith—“seek[ing] the face of God in mystery”—we’re poised to be able to rightly weigh in on the “faceless answers” of science. 

The bulk of the book is thus devoted to exploring just how it is that the faithful can, have, and perhaps ought to relate to a small sample set of scientific claims that intersect with core Christian beliefs.  That Root does this through both argument and imaginative conversations between a youth pastor named Jared and a host of his youth group attendees keeps the book lively and engaging.  I could imagine a church or lay leadership team taking up the narratival portions of the book as a focus for discussion: reading the fictional conversations that prompt Jared’s own journey and reflecting on how his conclusions/foibles/confusions do or do not mirror the their own.

A friendly critique

As much as I would recommend this book as a source for churches and faith-based organizations working with kids, I’d still like to offer a friendly challenge to the essential distinction Root draws between faith and science.  According to Root, what best accounts for the salient difference between faith and science is seen when their aims or goals are made explicit.  Whereas faith “seeks the face of God in mystery (this is its soteriological goal),” the scientific “can only offer faceless answers” (139-40).  Elsewhere, faith has a “moral goal” (144) whereas the “goal of the scientific is to empirically deliverer results, solutions, answers.  But faith has little of this as its pursuit.  Faith reaches out not for results, solutions and clear answers, but for encounter with a transcendent personal reality that remains always shrouded in mystery” (112).  Generally speaking, Root’s claims are sound.  There’s an intuitive logic nicely captured in his image of “faceless answers.”  So to be clear, I am not saying that what Root claims here is wrong, per se.  I am saying, however, that at important points his rhetoric runs the risk of outpacing his argument.

Take prayer, for instance.  As a reminder, Root tells us that the “goal of the scientific is to empirically deliver results, solutions, answers.  But faith has little of this as its pursuit” (112; emphasis mine).  To drive home his point Root returns to the life and death (fictional) drama surrounding Gena and her cancer:

The health sciences see Gena mainly as her illness, and see her illness as the problem of low white blood cells.  But faith sees Gena as a person who must be ministered to.  The goal for the scientific in relation to Gena is to functionally overcome her sickness (something Jared, Aly, and her family yearn for).  But faith, on the other hand, asks, Who is Gena, and how does she live and participate in this personal world?  What kind of life and death upholds her personhood in love and mercy?  And in life and death, how might we help her commune with this personal God and those she loves?  These are quite different aims. (112)

In laudable effort to distance faith from mere instrumentalization (I pray X and I’m guaranteed Y) and emphasize its personal, experiential aims, Root runs the risk of blunting the scandal of petitionary prayer.  In other words, petitionary prayer—where we ask for things we do not have, for things to be different than they currently are—is certainly more than functional in its goal, but it is never less than that. 

Indeed, the practice of prayer perhaps pushes back even further on Root’s essential distinction between faith and science as one of aim or goal.  From the ancient world to the present, prayer has been described—with rare monotony!—as a dialogue between God and humanity.  Importantly, our prayers are always a response to a conversation God prompts (by the teaching and example of Christ), maintains (by the Spirit who speaks when we cannot (Rom 8)), and answers (by the Father to whom we direct our pleas).

If prayer is, as Robert Jenson argues, a distinctively human act, then perhaps one way of accounting for the difference between science and faith (as both human endeavors) rests not so much in aim as in object.  For in faith—of which prayer is its principal act, so says Augustine, Thomas, and Barth, for example—we approach truth (as an aim) in, through, and by our interaction with God as Truth (as Object).  In other words, what accounts for the most important distinction between faith and science is that in the former, its Object talks back.  In faith our truth-seeking is a response and so a secondary, not principle, move.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.


About the Author: Lindsey Hankins

Lindsey Hankins is a PhD candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary with previous degrees in Historical and Systematic Theology (MA) and Christian History (MA) from Wheaton College and Biblical and Theological Studies from Bethel University, MN (BA). Her MA thesis, Making Martyrs Male: A Reappraisal of Gendered Rhetoric in Ancient Martyrdom Accounts, was written under the support of Wheaton’s Center for Early Christian Studies fellowship grant. She is currently completing a dissertation on Thomas Aquinas and prayer.

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.

Church vs Culture

Church vs Culture

I was a 16 year old, trained to battle the world… 

I have spent a lifetime in church. I was baptized as an infant. I was the perennial second place winner of Sunday School Bible memorization. I was unflinchingly committed to my youth group, a hard-core every week kid. And sometime in 80s and 90s, with the rise of the religious right, I was drafted into the Evangelical culture wars.

Church vs Culture

We built our camps… 

In my formative years of youth ministry history, in the Evangelical Deep South, we had a well defined war strategy: Copy-Replace. I think I was in ninth grade when I realized that “Christian” was an adjective that could be applied to anything (thanks Rob Bell, for the language to describe that phenomenon).

You like punk rock? Try Christian Punk Rock! You play basketball?  Try Church League Basketball! Your breath stinks? Don’t use those worldly mints, use these! We sat together in the lunch room, we wore WWJD bracelets and carried Bibles in the hallway. We skipped prom… well I didn’t actually skip prom, but my buddies did! Like dating? Kiss it goodbye—Christians court! You get it, we did things differently.

We lost… 

I feel like it would be counter productive to lay out all of the specific issues that we chose to be our “hill to die on.” If I defined the battle lines, I think we would be in danger of missing the point. Suffice to say the issues that were paramount in my context—at the conferences I went to, in the music I listened to—are no longer a part of the wider cultural discussion.

Since we build culture, it seems safe to say that culture needs redemption. We cannot call culture holy in a sweeping, uncritical way. We can find God in grimy places, and we can call out sin in places that look all put together. We are blessed with God’s Spirit that allows us to live in tension.

Fifteen years later the dust has settled and across the board we have lost or fallen out of relevance in the conversation. We’ve got some stragglers like the Japanese soldiers who were still fighting  in the 1970s, but the culture as a whole has moved on, with or without us. So what do we do?

Christ and Culture

Richard Niebuhr started a conversation about this 60 years ago, and the church has been fumbling through it ever since. He lays out five possibilities for Christian engagement in culture:

The “Everything is evil, let’s get out of here” approach (Christ Against Culture)

My experience was close to this approach. “Christ against Culture” draws a thick black line between church and culture, then backs as far away from that line as possible. It looks like total separation: Mennonites and monks. In youth group terms, this is the purest form of the “Christian bubble.” I’m not here to tell you which approach to choose… but don’t choose this one.

 The “This is fine everybody, nothing to see here” approach (Christ of Culture)

This one is pretty rare, because it’s nuts. Essentially this view understands the incarnation of Christ as an affirmation of humanity and human aspirations. Therefore human culture is celebrated, taken as fundamentally good in an un-critical way. No tension, no difference between Christian values and cultural values. In short, culture is goodan extension of God’s Kingdom. Please don’t teach your students to accept culture as holy without using the Spirit-guided critical senses. That’s nuts.

The “Let’s get real, guys” approach (Christ above CultureSynthesis)

Recognizing that the first two approaches are extremes, Niebuhr offered the Lite version. In short, culture is not fundamentally evil, but it needs Gospel influence. That may sound like common sense, but the implications may go further than you’re comfortable with.

When missionaries affirm pagan practices as reflections of God’s truth they are practicing the synthesis approach. When you quote the Bible in your talk, then use a movie clip to say the same thing, you are doing a tame version of synthesis.

The “It may not be evil, but I am uncomfortable” approach (Christ above CultureParadox)

The only difference between this view and synthesis is a healthy dose of skepticism. Or perhaps a more honest assessment of the effects of sin. Christ is Lord of the church and culture. Culture is good. Well it’s pretty good. The synthesis view may still sound like a celebration of culture. The paradox view is characterized by tension. The world isn’t fundamentally evil, culture is not bad. However, it is broken and so are we. God’s Kingdom is breaking through in beautiful ways right now. But it’s hard to find and the night is dark and full of terrors.

The “It’s kind of evil, let’s change it’ approach (Christ above CultureTransforming)

Add one more dose of skepticism to the paradox approach and move two steps towards your sense that the world is really broken. That is where the transforming approach is born. Culture may not be totally evil; like us, it was designed by God. However, it is fundamentally broken and our energy should go into changing it, not celebrating or co-opting it. This is different than the “against” approach because it believes culture can be changed. It isn’t broken in a way that puts it beyond redemption or the authority of Christ. This was my late 90s wheelhouse.

So What Do I Do with My Students?

If the world were somehow fundamentally evil, then what is the Incarnation about? Did God inhabit an evil shell? No! And because God created the world, the world reflects God’s nature. God’s Kingdom is peeking around the corners of our culture. Also, kids are swimming in culture. You cannot remove them, or yourself! We aren’t doing kids any favors when we teach them to shut it out and push it away. And we ignore our own blind spots when we pretend we are not part of culture.

It’s also clear that we are broken in some way. Since we build culture, it seems safe to say that culture needs redemption. We cannot call culture holy in a sweeping, uncritical way. We can find God in grimy places, and we can call out sin in places that look all put together. We are blessed with God’s Spirit that allows us to live in tension.

We have the power to find God in the culture and find places in need of redemption. We are charged with giving our teenagers that same power—to recognize the world they are immersed in, and begin to critically engage it for the sake of the Gospel.

Interested in more? Comment, or read Niebuhr!


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!)

Think Theologically

Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry

Youth workers haven’t always been famous for deep theological reflection.

In fact, youth ministry has been blamed by some for the bigger problem of the church’s lack of theological depth.

ThinkingTheologically

But even though youth ministry is more famous for games like “Chubby Bunny” (which, if I’m not mistaken, has been mostly banned) and other strange games involving food, there has been a shift—a “theological turn,” if you will, in youth ministry (see Kenda Creasy Dean and Andrew Root’s The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry).

The Shift

Thinking theologically is more commonplace in youth ministry than ever before in the United States, as more and more youth workers are realizing the theological nature of the task of ministry. It’s not strange anymore for a youth pastor to know something about John Calvin or Paul Tillich or to find youth workers having theological conversations at their conventions and conferences.

But the theological turn in youth ministry is more than just a revival of theological interest. It’s not just about youth workers reading more theology and applying it to their situation. It’s about youth workers seeing their youth ministry itself as theological—as a place to learn more about God, and as an opportunity to attend to and share in what God is doing in the midst of what young people are actually experiencing.

To be a good youth worker is not just to know what Karl Barth’s answer would be to a practical problem, it’s being able to see what God is doing and to participate in it, inviting young people to do the same.

How You Can Think Theologically

So here I want to give you a very basic outline of how, if ministry is theological, youth workers can think theologically about their youth ministry.

(If you’re up for the challenge of reading some more academic material, the stuff I’m about to talk about comes mostly from Richard R. Osmer’s Practical Theology: An Introduction and Andrew Root’s Christopraxis.)

It’s about youth workers seeing their youth ministry itself as theological—as a place to learn more about God, and as an opportunity to attend to and share in what God is doing in the midst of what young people are actually experiencing.

According to Richard Osmer, practical theology—the kind of theological reflection that attends specifically to human experience and practice—includes four movements. Good practical theologians are already in the habit of moving in these four movements, not necessarily always in the same order, and I think that youth workers would do well to get in the habit too. I would encourage you to try thinking through these four movements, or “tasks,” whenever you’re trying to figure out how to handle a situation.

Movement 1: Describe the situation

The first movement is the descriptive movement. Ask the question, What’s the situation? What’s going on?

You can imagine any situation you are facing in youth ministry—conflict between people in the youth group, the overuse of social media among teenagers, a young person with a mental illness, whatever. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a “problem,” per se. It just has to be a situation or an incident worth your attention as a youth worker.

The hard part about this movement is to do your best not to assume too much. In other words, don’t start interpreting the situation just yet (leave your psychology text books at home for this one). Just be a good listener and listen carefully to what’s actually going on.

I should note at this point that this is already a theological movement. When we come to any situation as youth workers, we come with the expectation that God is moving. Our starting point is God… and the conviction that when we listen carefully, we’re listening to the Holy Spirit.

Movement 2: Interpret the situation

After you’ve listened carefully and can describe the situation in a way that would be familiar to the people in it, it’s time to ask the question, “Why did  this happen?” or “Why is this happening?”

This question will lead to the question, “What kind of problem is this?” (Hint: now it’s ok to bring your psychology text book… or your anthropology textbook… or your philosophy book… just depends on the situation).

Maybe it’s a psychological issue. Maybe it’s something you can understand better if you understand culture. Maybe it’s got something to do with how the world perceives truth. Maybe if you knew a little more about the history of the church you’re working in you’d understand why a conflict exists. Trust the situation, and the Holy Spirit in it, to guide you. This is all happening because…???

Movement 3: Name God’s action in the situation.

As I’ve already said, these movement are theological from the start, but this third movement, what Osmer and Root call, “the normative task” is the most explicitly theological task. If I was forced to rank them (I’d resist, but…) I’d say this is the most important movement if ministry’s really what we’re up to.

This is also the task that people are most likely to skip. It’s natural to say, “I know what’s going on, I know why, now I’m gonna fix it!” But before we move to strategizing and fixing things, we’ve got to be clear about what God is doing or wants to do. That means we have to spend some time talking about God.

Osmer says that the question of this movement is, “What ought to be happening?” Andrew Root adds a caveat: “What ought to be happening… now that God has encountered us…” (Christopraxis, p. 26).

This movement is all about figuring out what God’s presence in a situation says about the situation. Although I already said that the theological turn in youth ministry is not about applying theology to things, reading theology and understanding the bible will be really important for this movement—it will help us attend to God’s presence in the experience. The simplest question of this movement, I would say, is, “What theological questions does this situation raise” (tip: it’s helpful to go ahead and name what kind of theological problem we’re facing… is it a Christological problem, an eschatological problem, an ecclesiological problem?… and start from there).

Movement 4: Do something.

Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for (or at least the part that most youth workers are eager to get to)… now do something. The fourth movement is the “pragmatic” or the strategic movement.

Now that we know what’s really happening, why it’s happening, and what ought to be happening, we can make something happen!

You might discover that you need to make a real changes in your youth ministry. You might still decide that food games are the right thing to do in your youth ministry.

You’ll still be doing what you signed up to do, but this time you won’t just be doing it because it sounded fun or because everyone else is doing it. You won’t even being doing it just because it works. You’ll be doing it because it’s what God’s doing. (tip: it might be tempting, but do not forget what you learned from the normative movement!)

Try it!

Next time you’re facing a tough situation (or even an easy or good one), you can still crowd source your favorite youth ministry Facebook page, but also try thinking theologically through these four movements. There aren’t really any rules. You don’t have to do everything in perfect order. In fact, you can enter the process through any of the four movements.

I’d also recommend doing this with a group. It’s a great way to organize your conversations with your youth ministry volunteer leaders. The most important thing is that you’re thinking theologically… you’re looking for God and participating in God’s action, and you’re part of the theological turn in youth ministry.

How to Think Theologically About 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.

 

9 Ways to cultivate community

9 Ways to Cultivate Community

Is it possible to have a team that cares deeply for one another, shares life together, encourages and supports each other, and loves each other so well that ministry naturally flows out from within?

That’s a tall order, but one that we should all strive to make a reality amongst the teams we work with.

9 Ways to cultivate community

What if our big goal was that kids, other leaders, church members and the community around us would all say about our teams, “Look at the way they love each other, I want to be a part of that!” Loving our team well, and putting into practice with one another what we’re asking students to do may be the best witness we have to offer!

So, how can we work to cultivate missional community on our team? Here are nine very practical things you can start doing now that will move you and your team in that direction.

1. Share life stories.

Over the course of a month, semester, or year, depending on the size of your team, start off every meeting by giving team members a chance to share their story. Take 15 minutes to do this—ten minutes of sharing followed by five minutes of questions. It’s helpful to set a timer at the nine minute mark so people know to wrap it up soon. Be the first to go to set the standard of how you want people to share.

This will allow everyone on your team to have deeper insight and understanding into one another’s lives. It allows for grace and understanding about choices, actions, and motivations that team members bring to the table.

2. Get away together for an overnight.

Just do this. Spending time doing an overnight retreat can dramatically strengthen a team. The best parts are the unscheduled, late-night conversations. Plan some time to celebrate what God has done or is doing in your ministry. Play a game or two, or make up a new team tradition like a corn-hole tournament or whiffle ball game.

A team that can play together will grow deeper as a missional community. Plan some time for strategizing and planning the year together as well, of course…

Loving our team well, and putting into practice with one another what we’re asking students to do may be the best witness we have to offer!

3. Have them over for a meal.

There’s real power in breaking bread together. Great conversations happen around a table. Practice hospitality when you do this and show your team what it means to invite people into your life. Break out the good dishes, prepare some good food, and go all out to make it a great time together.

4. Start every meeting with five minutes of silent, centering prayer.

This is a great way to practice praying together. For starters it allows you and your teammates to be more present in the meeting by letting go of all the distractions and things you’ve had on your minds leading up to the meeting. It also reminds you all that you’re God’s beloved, chosen and called according to His purposes, and teaches you to listen for His one voice to speak to all of you collectively. I’ve found that even in silence God draws us together as one in Him, sometimes moreso than when we’re speaking.

5. Encourage one another on a regular basis in your team meetings.

Every couple meetings, take five minutes towards the beginning of the meeting and ask team members to share ways they’ve seen God at work in and through one another. Doing this will help to cultivate a culture of encouragement and gratitude on your team. Team members will be empowered and uplifted as this becomes a regular practice. Encourage team members to do this outside of meetings as well.

6. Read The Following Article Together

Read Henri Nouwen’s article, “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry,” together and discuss it as a team.

This short article outlines a template for how ministry should naturally flow, starting with our internal, loving union with Jesus. Through our solitude with Jesus we should be naturally driven to long for and move towards community and fellowship with others. Out of community and fellowship, ministry should naturally flow. Read this together and teach your team to live in this way!

7. Start and end every meeting by circling up and holding hands or grabbing a shoulder in prayer.

Our physical posture points to and represents what we want to simulate or create internally or emotionally. If we are physically joined together this will help us think of ourselves as one unit, one body, working together. I’ve done this with groups of as few as three or four, and with groups of as many as 150—it’s always a powerful picture of what we are really after. It’s so simple, just make it a point and give it a try!

8. Lead in transparency and vulnerability.

Have time in your team meetings to share what’s happening in your lives and lead that off by being honest, transparent, and vulnerable about real struggles and joys that you are experiencing. Invite your teammates into the realities of your life and ask them to do the same. We are after authentic relationships and authentic ministry. You have to lead this with your team to make it okay for others to do the same. Create a space that welcomes vulnerability and honesty.

9. Have a giant late-night nacho party after an event!

Cover a table with nacho chips and pile on the cheese and toppings, then invite your team to share stories, laugh, and play games as you try to take down the whole table of nachos. Be creative and create fun memories of warmth, hospitality, and authentic friendship.

Summary

These are nine practical things you can start doing today! Go try at least one of these ideas and see how God brings your team together so ministry can naturally flow out of community. Add a comment to the section below about your experience with one of these nine tips! Also, we’d love to start a dialogue below about other ways you’ve cultivated community. Let these nine tips be just a starting point for a conversation and add your own ideas to the comments section below. Let’s see how many ideas we can come up with collectively to spur on missional community for the Kingdom!


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.

the worst youth pastor ever

Worst Youth Pastor Ever

I used to think I was the worst youth pastor ever.

the worst youth pastor ever

When I was a young youth worker, fresh out of college, a small church took a chance and hired me as their Director of Youth Ministry. But about two years into the job, I started to feel burnout.

I began to feel like I just wasn’t doing a good job. Though I tried my darnedest, the young people at my church just weren’t developing the way I wanted them to. They didn’t really know a lot about the Bible, they weren’t into doing their “morning devotionals,” and no form of bribery could coerce them into praying out loud. It seemed like all the youth pastors at other churches had young people in their groups who had the Bible memorized and sang Hillsong music in the shower.

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

But no matter what I did, my group just wasn’t changing into the super Christians I saw at the other churches.

When I was beginning to question my calling to youth ministry, I picked up a book called Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root. I can distinctly remember how deeply Root’s story resonated with me.

He wrote of being a youth worker reared in a tradition that saw influence as the end-goal of youth ministry, desperately trying to influence young people toward participation in the church and its faith. “I didn’t blink twice at the expectation,” Root writes, “…[but] I was clearly failing to get them to commit themselves to the importance of the church and (more significantly) the faith” (p. 14).

What’s the Point?

Root’s big question in the book turned out to be my question: “What is the point of our relationships with kids?”

I’d been trained and educated to believe that the point of relational youth ministry is to influence young people, to develop Christian maturity in them, to make them into better Christians. I thought success in youth ministry was measured by how well young people know the bible, how eager they are to pray, how enthusiastically they engage in evangelism.  In other words, I thought the point of youth ministry was to influence, to get something out of young people. But through deep theological reflection, Root opened a new possibility. Taking his cues from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Root suggests that the point of a relationship… is the relationship.

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry. Grounding relational ministry in the incarnation itself, Root suggests that

“…a more honest theological understanding of the incarnation is to assert that God entered our foreign world not to convince or save it but to love it even to the point of death… In this perspective salvation is not being convinced of a certain perspective, but coming to recognize that we have been deeply loved and so are given the power to live as children of God… This means relational youth ministry is not about convincing adolescents by influencing them; rather, it is about loving them by being with them in the messiness of their lives. It is about suffering with them.” (p. 41)

It is in relationship for the sake of the relationship that we discover God and learn the heart of God’s ministry.

A Weight Lifted from my Shoulders

As I read these words in my burnout, I felt a weight lifted from my shoulders. I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered the faces of the young people in my group… those same young people who just wouldn’t become the super Christians I thought I was supposed to make them.

I remembered Eric, a young man who was tossed about in the foster system, separated from his sister who’d been adopted without him.

I remembered Samantha, a seventh grader who was cutting and struggling with suicidal thoughts.

I remembered Chris, a bright and clean high school senior who got all the best grades but suffered the stress of believing his life’s value was in what he could achieve.

I remembered Harper, a high school sophomore who came out to me that same summer but confessed she could not come out to her conservative parents for fear that they would reject her.

I remembered all the suffering of the young people in my group. I remembered the hard questions, temptations, and fears they faced. And I remembered all the times I’d sat with them in those questions, temptations, and fears. I remembered honest conversations we’d had, stories I’d been told, and I began to imagine a new “goal” for my ministry.

Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor was not my ability to create mature Christians but my patience and willingness to sit, to “place-share,” with young people just as they are, in “the messiness of their lives.” Perhaps what made me a good youth pastor wasn’t the change I could conjure, but the love that I could give.

All of a sudden, I began to think that, just maybe, I could keep going. Perhaps I wasn’t the worst youth pastor ever.


About the Author: Wes Ellis

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

Youth Ministry Games: Do We Need Them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be in the Present Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Feel Joy

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

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

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

To Affirm Irrelevance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games are more than time-killers.

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

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

Keep the Games!

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

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

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


About the Author: Antonin Ficatier

Antonin Ficatier - Kindred Youth Ministry

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

Confessions of a Youth Ministry Veteran

Confessions of a Youth Ministy Veteran

I’ve been a youth minister now for ten years. A decade—wow, that feels like a long time!

Confessions of a Youth Ministry Veteran

I was at one church for eight years, and now I’ve just completed my second year at a new church. As I look back at ten years in ministry, there are too many moments of grace to count and more than a handful of very difficult learning experiences that have shaken both my wife and me to our core.

It seems hard to believe that I’ve been in full-time ministry this long, and even harder to believe that I still get nervous when speaking to new middle school students.

While many things have become easier with age and experience, some things remain as challenging as ever. Looking back through my career thus far, I’ve begun to reflect on my vocation. Despite many moments of looking for other possible careers, I have always found that youth ministry is my home, my true vocation.

Ministry Mistakes

Quite frequently over the years, I have become discouraged by what I see in myself.

More often than I’d like to admit, I have made mistakes. I’ve dropped the ball, I’ve been rude, I’ve been sarcastic and snarky in ways that hurt people. I’ve made some flat out poor decisions.

And the truth is, these moments of selfishness—when I have acted in a manner that could lead others away from Christ instead of toward Him—allow Satan in. When this happens and I listen to the lies, I immediately question my own ability to minister.

Am I called to this? Someone actually called to this ministry would be better at it. Look at those other youth ministers; they are so much more (insert how I’m feeling that day – funnier, professional, culturally relevant, better at x, y or z) than me.

And then I think of every doubt I’ve ever had, and question my own vocation. Maybe I should be a teacher.

One recent example occurred when I got caught in a bad mood, feeling overwhelmed by my agenda and life in general, and I said the wrong thing to a volunteer. Although he was a good volunteer, he had been drinking too much in his daily life, and needed to be corrected. He had just a made a few mistakes and needed true correction with patience, love, and also challenge. But in my tired and flustered state, I said too much and did so in a most insensitive manner. You’d think that after ten years, I would know better and do better. Afterwards, I spent many nights up late, praying, frustrated, unable to sleep, simply because I was relying on myself instead of on God’s grace.

Remembering God’s Power

In light of this situation, my spiritual director asked me to reflect on the words of St. John Paul II: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”

I was snuffing out my true calling by God to serve the church through my inability to rely on God’s grace.

In reflecting on this, I realized that I had allowed the griphooks of fear and doubt to sink into my soul and eat away at my confidence in my God-given vocation. I was snuffing out my true calling by God to serve the church through my inability to rely on God’s grace. And that inability sprang from my lack of humility.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God wants to capacitate us—for salvation and for ministry. How easy it is to feel like I can do it myself, to over-trust in my talents and abilities or experience, and forget that it is God’s work I am doing and not my own. But the continual reminder is always there—my humanity. And God’s grace, sufficient and powerful, is ready to spring to life precisely through my weakness, if only I would humble myself and let him work.

…God’s grace, sufficient and powerful, is ready to spring to life precisely through my weakness, if only I would humble myself and let him work.

Ten years feels good. But one of the most important things experience has taught me is that I am human, sinful, flawed, and it is when we recognize and admit our sickness that the Great Physician can do his job. Then—and only then—grace can empower us to do ours.


About the Author: Mike Buckler

mike-buckler-kindred-youth-ministry
Mike graduated from the University of Florida with a BA in History and received the Master of Divinity degree from the University of Notre Dame. Currently, he serves as Director of Youth Ministry at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. Mike has over fifteen years of experience in youth ministry, including ten years in full time ministry, and has taught youth ministry training courses for youth leaders around the state of Florida. He, his wife, and four children live in the greater Tampa area.

Video: Youth Ministry & Mental Health

Youth Ministry & Mental Health

In this video, Anne Reid Broos, Director of Ministry Children and Young Families  at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, FL, and Sarah Kamienski, licensed mental health counselor and faculty at Flagler College, present about Youth Ministry and Mental Health.

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

Excerpts:

“Mental Illness is a mainstream issue. National Institute of Mental Health has a statistic that out of all 13-18 year olds, 1 out of 5 of them has a mental health issue.

“I think it’s easier for us to pray about a cancer diagnosis or a divorce that’s going on in one of our kids’ families rather than praying about someone’s bipolar disorder by name or a panic disorder or anxiety disorder…”

“If we look at scripture, I think that Jesus show’s us that his healing ministry was encompassing of our physical health, our spiritual health, and our mental health.”

Being faithful to the call here is to be curious and humble….Recognizing that I have nothing to offer on my own apart from my relationship with Jesus Christ. If the goal of counseling to create a safe space for someone to be where they are, to feel what they are feeling, I have to enter into that safe space knowing that I bring nothing on my own to offer this person. If I’m in touch with my poorness in spirit, then I am able to curiously draw out the other person’s heart.”

If the goal of counseling to create a safe space for someone to be where they are, to feel what they are feeling, I have to enter into that safe space knowing that I bring nothing on my own to offer this person.

“As the objective third party… our task is to assess for imminent danger and to be that objective third party, when (family) is freaking out that you would not be the reactive freaker outer, but… the one who can assess – is this imminent danger.”

What is not our job? It is not our job to fix. It is not our job to give advice… What is our job? Is to create a safe space.”

“If Jesus is the Great Counselor and I would emulate Him, then my call is to be with people and to walk alongside them, to sojourn with them, not to fix or heal, or to make feel better, but create the safe space.”

“Statistically, people who deal with a lifelong mental illness, 50% of them experience the onset of that illness before the age of 14.”

If Jesus is the Great Counselor and I would emulate Him, then my call is to be with people and to walk alongside them, to sojourn with them, not to fix or heal, or to make feel better, but create the safe space.