youth ministry

My Sanctuary

Ugh. Another parking ticket. I think I already had about 10 of them. While I never intended to pay them I was still embarrassed to get ticket after ticket for parking in the women’s basketball coaches spot. She never seemed to use it anyway and the walk from the visitors lot was long. Plus, tickets were for rich kids.

I dropped the ticket on the ground and got back into my 1978 Ford LTD Station Wagon to begin the drive home.

It was the Winter of 1994 and I was spending a lot of time in Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library. You might know the building as Touchdown Jesus but I know the building as my sanctuary.

My senior year of high school was complicated.

While I did my best to maintain a front that everything was OK, everything wasn’t OK.

After spending my junior year in Germany with my mom I moved in with my dad for my senior year.

My hope was to move home and resume my life. My reality was that I’d exchanged one chaotic situation with my mom for an even more chaotic situation with my dad. While his marriage to my stepmom wouldn’t end for a couple more years the volcano of their relationship erupted over and over again. It was pretty rough. I moved in, then we moved out, then we moved back in– on and on this went. I think I moved in and out of that house 7 times in 10 months.

When we were home I tried to avoid being there as much as possible. And when we lived with grandma I tried to stay out until after she went to bed. I spent as much time as I could at school. But eventually the janitors would ask me to leave and I’d have to go somewhere else.

Hesburgh Library was on my way home from school. It was both a logical and welcoming place for me to hang out. While I wasn’t a student no one ever asked me if I belonged. As long as I was quiet, doing homework, and didn’t break rules I knew no one would complain. I was good at blending in, knew enough about Notre Dame to fake it if I got into a conversation, and knew they weren’t going to put me in Leprechaun Jail if I got caught.

So I’d disappear for hours into the stacks to read, research, dream, nap, and explore.

To graduate I needed to pass gym. So I had little homework. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t learning. I’d grab a novel off the shelf or dig into an autobiography of someone I’d never heard of. They’d refer to a piece of history I wasn’t familiar with so I’d head over to the microfilm and read the New York Times from those days to find out what the author was referring to. Anything to pass the time.

As the weeks went by I got lost in reading newspapers from the Great Depression. Over time I got pretty good at finding stuff and operating the microfilm… and then I started helping the librarian show students how to find what they were looking for. And that lead to even more time in the library “studying.” (This was a great way to meet female students, by the way.)

At a time in my life when I didn’t feel welcome at home– or really even have a home to feel welcome in– I felt welcome in the library. More than a place I trespassed at or occasionally got a parking ticket for squatting on the women’s basketball coaches parking spot, it was a sanctuary of comfort and predictability that I desperately needed.

Do you work with teenagers? Help them find their place of sanctuary. Don’t ever assume that because they look OK or aren’t saying they aren’t OK that everything is fine. Sometimes the best thing you can do isn’t talk… it’s help them find a place where they can just be.

youth ministry

4 Ways We Hold High School Students Back

Photo by Megan Ann via Flickr (Creative Commons)

In reading Robert Epstein’s book, Teen 2.0, the one thing that fundamentally shifted my thinking is that adults lament about childish behavior while simultaneously funding and celebrating it.

Politely, Epstein says we have infantalized our youth. Maybe we need to take it a step further? We treat our young like pets.

4 Quick Examples to Illustrate that Point

  1. We spend bagillions of dollars on the Rule of Law and Regulation of Teenagers: In the last 40 years we have created an immense amount of laws aimed at regulating behavior of those under 18. We force them to go to school. We regulate where they can go when school is out. We regulate when they can be out. We tell them what they can wear. Who they can be with. What they can ingest or not ingest. Epstein did a study comparing inmates to high school students and found that men in prison have more freedoms. But magically, despite 18 years old not being a significant number in physical or emotional development, we have decided that those over 18 can do whatever they want.
  2. We Celebrate Low Expectations: We have removed adult expectations from high school students. They can’t be bothered to even get out of bed in the summer, right? Forget the fact that physically high school students are near the pinnacle of their strength and can outwork their parents. Forget the fact that the adolescent brain is mostly ready to tackle adulthood, ever seen what happens when a teenage son asks his mom to help him with his physics homework? And forget the fact that teenagers can do amazing things. (Like say, discover a cancer treatment for a high school science fair) Instead of ramping up expectations for them, in our wealth, we remove expectations of productivity. We even limit the ability to have expectations of our high school students. Instead, we slyly whine about our teenage children at home and what they won’t do. Or a post-college student who has moved home but can’t find the right job.
  3. We have an unlimited spending appetite for teenage sexuality: Think of how many billions of dollars are spent annually preventing teen pregnancy? BILLIONS! But not nearly as many billions as are spent celebrating adolescent sex in advertising, television, movies, etc. Our culture has an obsession with adolescent sexuality. It’s taboo. And that taboo drives our spending on both prevention and celebration. Since we’ve labeled high school students as children, this forces a label that their sexual activities as irresponsible. Meanwhile everything in pop culture celebrates adolescent virility and fertility. (Television, music, news media, movies, etc.) Physically, the average 16 year old is completely ready for sex. But if that 16 year old wants to have a serious, long-term relationship? Oh heck no! We need to prevent it. We argue that they aren’t emotionally ready for a sexual relationship. (Hypocritically, we were but deny that even happened. And our great-grandparents married at 16 and had our grandparents at 19. Today’s teen pregnancy tragedy was yesterday’s normal sexual expectation.) Meanwhile, our Christian constructions argue for waiting until marriage… something which we’ve delayed almost 10 years on average in just 100 years! The average first marriage for a woman in the U.S. is now 26.5 years old.
  4. We Spend a Lot Keeping Teenagers Out of the Workplace: Up until the Great Depression most adolescents didn’t finish high school and entered the trades, farming, or a factory to work full-time. For the most part that is now illegal. We’ve regulated the types of and length of employment adolescents can participate in. We’ve created a false expectation that every student should go to college. (A notion our economy cannot support.) But we’ve created a multi-trillion dollar industry called compulsory high school we can’t bear to let go of or adjust in all of its disfunction. Instead, we now expect that students won’t go to work, earn money for their families, or otherwise contribute because they will perpetually get education for things they don’t want to study. We expect them to consume. And we’ve created industries around entertaining them so they have something to do while not working or not learning. (Sports, video games, summer school, camps, etc.)

Is it no wonder why this period of adolescence has extended from 4-5 years in the 1940s to 13-14 years today? 

Maybe it is time we reverse this trend? Maybe we need to start by getting out of the way and allowing adolescents to become adults?

Talk Notes

You Want Who to Do Whaaaaa-aaat?

This morning I have the honor of teaching at Encounter, the high school ministry of Journey Community Church.

I’m kicking off a series called Sea Jesus. And basically it’s stuff that Jesus has to teach us while he’s near the Sea of Galilee.

Like everything else I produce that I’m at liberty to share, I’ve made all of my notes, handouts, slides, and even Photoshop files available in my free section.

[download id=”18″]

hmm... thoughts Photo

One Sexy Beast

Man, I was smoking hot back in the day. (circa 1991-1992) Just as humble as today just twice as young.

Backstory to the picture above:

Over the last few months I’ve gotten reconnected with Joanne via Facebook. (pictured above) We went to First Pres in Mishawaka together back in elementary, middle, and some of high school. And we also shared a common bond of the same church camp each summer.

As these things are prone to happen… we lost track of one another. And, as Facebook is so good at doing, we have gotten to catch up. At one point it even looked like we were even going to be able to meet-up in Port-au-Prince this summer. We were both looking forward to reliving some old silliness from a mission trip we did to Tennessee. (I remember little else of that trip than yelling “he haw!” at people passing in cars and the drive to/from Appalachia.)

Last week Joanne sent me this picture. It cracked me up. First, it cracked me up because I had no idea why we were in this picture together. (Apparently, we went to a dance together in 10th grade. I don’t think we ever “went out” so we must have gone as friends.) Second, it cracked me up because I was so self-conscious in high school, looking back at my former self, I had nothing to be self-conscious about. Third, it cracked me because of how stinking young we were!

Do you have an old picture from a high school dance? If so, post it and share the link.



Clay High School, 1992 | Welcome to the wayback machine

When someone pitches an idea my mind is running through a matrix of questions. Is this really a good idea? Is the idea even possible? Is this the right person to turn this idea into a reality? Will enough people buy into the idea that it’ll take off? Is this the right time for this idea?

But the overarching question on my mind is simply, “Has this idea possessed this person to the point that they won’t rest– they will just be driven by this idea for as long as it takes?”

90% of the time the answer to that question is no.

“I can teach anyone enough about music to sing in the  choir.”

This was the philosophy of my high school choir teacher. The woman was possessed. I’m living proof of this truism. I have no musical ability or talent at all and I was taught enough to perform at hundreds of shows, concerts, and competitions during high school.

This woman was possessed in her belief that anyone could sing and sing well. She convinced more than 50 students per year to take a choir class at 6:30 AM. On top of that she convinced about 25 of us to take an additional music class in the afternoon. Get this, for three of my four years of high school I had two music classes every day. And after school in the Spring almost all of us were also part of a musical.

It wasn’t unusual for me to leave for school before 6:00 AM and not return home from school until after 9:00 PM.

How did she do it? She was possessed by her idea. “I can teach anyone to sing.

She had that one magical ingredient that most purveyors of ideas don’t have.

Do you?

Good News youth ministry

Good News for High School Students

I’m always at odds with this reality:

If Jesus offers good news, what is it about how we do youth ministry that is only attractive to 1% – 2% of the high school students on our campus?

That always lead same  to a place where I say, “I don’t think we’re doing this right just yet.

  • Good news spreads like wild fire.
  • Good news is unstoppable.
  • Good news releases energy.
  • Good news releases joy.
  • Good news is contagious.

In 1994, as a high school senior our basketball won the Indiana state basketball championship. If you’ve seen the movie Hoosiers than you get a glimpse of how important this is to the state of Indiana. It’s a really big deal. Not only do the finals fill the RCA Dome, the same building which hosts the NCAA Final Four, it is a much bigger tournament as every high school in the state got a chance to enter the tournament. So as the final seconds ticked off the clock in overtime and our team was up 93-88… the student body of Clay High School collectively lost it. We poured onto the court. We screamed and danced. And then when we got kicked off of the court we ran around the inside of the stadium screaming, chanting, bouncing, skipping, and dancing! And then we got kicked out of the RCA Dome and we literally just ran through the streets of downtown Indianapolis screaming, chanting, bouncing, skipping, dancing, and stopping traffic to tell them, “We won!

That was good news worth celebrating. It unleashed unstoppable joy. It was universal on our campus. It was even universal in our city as everyone felt good about this good news!

If youth ministry were good news to the high school students on our campus.. you’d see this same unstoppable release of joy. It’d be nearly universal. Even those who didn’t embrace it would be excited it. Good news is worth celebrating, dancing, and running through the streets for.

I know it. You know it. 1% – 2% of people running through the halls… that’s just creepy!

The only question is, are we will to think and dream of ways to be good news to our campus so they might desire to hear Good News?

Culture hmm... thoughts

Bad news for suburban kids

graduation-dayIn the next few weeks millions of high school seniors will hear their name called and walk across the stage to recieve a high school diploma. There is an interesting phenomonon on graduation day that I’d like to point out.

Kids in the city are typically pretty excited about the achievement. In the city graduation rates are typically lower and there isn’t the same assumption that every child will graduate. Consequently, everyone is more excited and a city high school graduation ceremony is truly a celebration. Parents go nuts when they hear their kids name called. And students literally do backflips when they get their paper.

Kids in the suburbs are typically excited about graduation for other reasons. It’s assumed they will graduate so the ceremony carries an air of “farewell to my friends” more than a true celebration of achievement. Parents take pictures and clap politely as their children achieve something they fully expected their child to achieve. Rather than this being a moment to celebrate, students are anxious about how much they will get at their graduation party or hoping to get to go to the hot girls party. It’s a nice day but lacks the flamboyance of the party in the city.

That’s not the bad news.

dorm-lifeThe bad news is that kids from the city are going to kick the kids from the suburbs butt from here on out! While their richer, more priveledged peers wallow away their days coming up with new ways to not work, take advantage of their parents wealth, and essentially avoid responsibility as long as possible, all while piling up tens of thousands of dollars in college debt. Kids from the city are taking advantage of the system and running laps around their advantaged peers.

Let’s contrast things.

1. The typical “rich white kid from the suburbs” goes to college on a combination of his parents dime and college loans. Almost none work significant hours. (20 hours per week or less seems to be the norm) They waste time professionally. They are so busy playing, going to class, and hanging with their friends that they skirt by classes without taking them seriously. I’ve met countless affluent college kids who passed all of the tests but didn’t learn a thing in 4 years of college. They graduate with $40,000 in debt and no real life experience. Without a job they move back home and hope that someone will give them a job. I’ve even witnessed these affluent college kids chose to live at home and make no money while skipping opportunities to take entry-level jobs at places in their chosen career path. The assumption is that the system will work for them. One day they will magically wake up from a video-game-induced dream get their dream job and make loads of money. The truth is they don’t know how to work hard to earn good money as they’ve never been forced to innovate solutions or hustle to make rent money. In fact, with the mom/dad fall-back plan there is no motivation to strive to achieve anything. They will always have a roof over their head, they will always have food in the belly, a car to drive, and someone to care for them. And even more true is that the silent racially lopsided system doesn’t work like that anymore. While they were watching The Hills, kids from the city took the upper hand.

2. The typical “working-class minority kid from the city” goes to college on a combination of scholarships, work study, and summer jobs. While their more affluent peers weren’t looking, their ACT and SAT scores have caught their suburban peers and the system rewards minorities who compete academically with rich white kids. In other words, a Hispanic student from the city will get a full ride with the same scores that the suburban kid had. (It’s no secret that scholarship dollars are easier to get for minorities.)  Taking advantage of that, these students work harder in class, consequently learn more, and are ultimately rewarded with more opportunities than their affluent peers. job-search-resumeWork study and summer jobs, combined with almost no college debt result in a college graduate who is highly marketable and financially advantaged for the first time ever. They are more industrious, more hungry to take responsibility, and more aware that they can make it than ever.

As an adult I look at this and slap my head. If you were an employer looking at the resume of recent college graduates… which employee would you want? The kid who came from nothing but is crawling out of poverty by his achievement and hard work? Or the kid who was handed everything and never worked a day in his life?

And that my friends is bad news for the suburban kids.

Parents! What are you going to do with this scenario? How can you change your behavior from enabler to motivator?

Video Clip

Why High School Basketball is Awesome

Church Leadership Marketing

Lies of Youth Ministry, Part One

Boys and girls in youth ministry we’ve got some problems. We in youth ministry, as a tribe, believe some lies about who we are, what we’re about, and how we should be reaching students. Let’s address these and move forward to fix them, OK?

#1 Your ministry is “successful” if you have 10% of Sunday morning attendance. My entire youth ministry career has been wrapped up in the local church so I can state this from experience. But let’s bear in mind historical perspective to understand this lie before we can look at a solution. The current version of Youth Ministry is really a reaction to the success of early parachurch ministries. Back in the late 1940s modern youth ministry was born when Youth for Christ hired Billy Graham to lead crusades to reach teenagers… and boy did that work! YFC’s crusades scratched a cultural itch since teens had been left out of the local church with the emergence of adolescence. (Adolescence is only about 120 years old!) As a strong middle class was born out of post-WWII days adolescent teen culture blossomed and the church was seen as irrelevant to teens. Gradually, in the early 1960s the American church responded in a big way to numerical victories of parachurch ministries. Churches were tired of seeing all of the students go to YoungLife and Youth for Christ… so they started hiring those organization’s staff to run programs in local churches.

It was a great concept, but from the very beginning youth ministry was seen by church leadership as a way to hold onto church kids and maybe, just maybe, reach new families. This fixed a problem parachurches had without truly addressing the church issue that created the parachurch need in the first place… no place for non-believers to be ministered to.

The truth is that local churches royally ruined what the parachurches were doing. To even call what most churches do “youth ministry” is demeaning to its evangelistic heritage. Instead of youth pastors being hired to reach a high school they were hired to grow/maintain a local church. (In fact, I’ve talked to countless youth pastors who were fired for trying to reach lost students!) The lie is that a good youth ministry is about growing a church. In most cases, a youth pastor’s job is so limited and focused on the church that it’s really not about reaching lost kids at all. (Appropriate lip service is always about evangelism!) I’ve actually sat in youth ministry networks and listened to youth pastors sound satisfied that they are reaching 50-60 students with their ministry. The target isn’t a percentage of butts in seats on Sunday morning! Reaching 50 students while 1950 have never heard the gospel is a gross failure.

True success comes when you reach and disciple brand new people for Jesus Christ! The first lie points to the fact that church-based youth ministry largely lies to itself and calls itself a success when it reaches less than 1% of students in a community. Is it the individual youth pastor’s fault? Absolutely not. It’s a design flaw worth addressing. The truly successful youth ministries in this country focus on the lost in their schools and could care less what percentage of saved church kids come to their programs.

Questions for youth workers: Do you agree with my use of the term “lie?” If so, what are some ideas for fixing this in your context? If you don’t agree, I still love you. But I’d like to hear your push back.

Lie #2 It’s about discipleship

Lie #3 You have to have a youth pastor