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Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

Youth Ministry Games:
Play as Ministry

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

Youth Ministry Games - Kindred Youth Ministry

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

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

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

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

Augustine and Joy

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

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

Luther and Joy

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

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

Calvin and Joy

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

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

Joy as… Worthlessness?

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

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

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

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

Moltmann and Joy

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

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

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

We Need To Play

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

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


About the Author: Wes Ellis

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

youth ministry games

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.

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.

Pluralism - a new youth ministry imperative

Pluralism: A New Youth Ministry Imperative

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

Pluralism - a New Youth Ministry Imperative - Kindred Youth Ministry

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

Pluralism ≠ “Diversity”

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

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

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

According to Pluralism.org (a resource I would highly recommend),

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

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

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

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

The Pluralism of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pluralism Is Imperative

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

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

By being in relationship with others.

Building Relationships

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

Speaking Generously

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

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

Living Missionally

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

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

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

Engaging with Pluralism

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

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


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

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

Youth Ministers, Politicians, and Other Liars: Five Tips for Honest Counting

I know a lot about ministers, and a little about politicians, and I know we both lie about numbers.

5 tips for honest counting

We lie about the numbers themselves, and we lie about what they mean. We have learned that data has power, so we game it (just like everyone else). A lot of this has to do with our collective insecurity around numbers.

Where I am from there is a common phrase: “Preacher’s Numbers.” Preacher’s Numbers are numbers that are made up, inflated numbers, fake stuff. Because metrics and data are an important part of ministry, we need to use them in a healthy, honest way. Here are five tips for using numbers well: 

1) You Need More Categories.

You need more than weekly attendance or camp sign-ups. We count what we value, so think creatively about your core values and find ways to quantify them. How many kids are giving money away? How many students graduate and join a church ? How many leaders know the parents of your most difficult kid? What percentage of kids make the transition from fifth grade kids program into sixth grade youth group?

2) Be Accurate, Be Consistent.

Don’t look at the room and guess how many people are there. In fact, you shouldn’t be the counter at all—you’ve got a conflict of interest. Create repeatable systems and stick with them so that when you look back through the years you can compare apples to apples to see what God is doing. Communicate to your mathiest engineer type what you want to count, and let them do their thing!

3) Dig!

Numbers are not value judgments. They don’t tell you anything by themselves—we assign meaning to them. Once you have accurate and consistent data, look hard for meaning. Talk with other youth leaders, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal things. Saying, “We want the graph to go up and to the right” is not enough: if you double your attendance without doubling your volunteer leadership you’ve still got work to do.   Look for the patterns and stories underlying the numbers.

4) Call a Spade a Spade.

So you created categories that reflect your core values, and you found ways to consistently quantify them. Congratulations! If they reveal that you are not meeting your goals, don’t ignore them. The thing about setting goals is that we know if we have failed. And we will. So fail away, then move forward in grace as the beloved of God. Don’t pretend you didn’t fail, and don’t stop improving.

The thing about setting goals is that we know if we have failed. And we will. So fail away, then move forward in grace as the beloved of God.

5) Celebrate!

Look at your accurate, consistent data and find places that God is moving. Fall in love with the categories that define your core values, and relentlessly pursue them. Identify some wins and shout it from the rooftops: I HAVE DATA!

Let us be ministers who don’t play fast and loose with numbers to inflate ourselves. Instead, let us be pastors who know what we value, and use data to pursue it relentlessly.


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!)

thinking theologically

How to Think 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.

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).

thinking theologically

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.)

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.

 

Confessions of a Youth Ministry Veteran

Confessions of a Youth Ministry 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.”

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.

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.