youth ministry

5 tips for engaging students on a Sunday morning

Newsflash. It can sometimes be difficult to connect with a teenager at church.

Our culture does a lot to communicate to us that teenagers and adults shouldn’t engage with one another. As adults we think, “What could I have in common with a 14 year old?” And teenagers assume that adults don’t really want to be with them. So when thinking about engaging with a teenager at church or youth group you have to start with the understanding that there is naturally a gap or divide to be crossed. You’re going to have to fight past some stuff to really get there.

And frankly, I need to know that the 2-3 hours per week I volunteer with the youth group make a difference. If that time isn’t going to be valuable than I’d much rather invest that time at home than at church.

Getting past “Hi” and the craptastic world of small talk involves some skill. Here’s 5 tips for getting past small talk and helping you really engage with the teenagers at your church.

  1. Take the first step. In my life I’m used to people taking the first step to begin a conversation. But most teenagers, even the most outgoing ones, assume that you don’t really want to talk with them, so you’ll have to take the first step. So push past the awkwardness of initiating a conversation and just go for it. An easy in is always, “Tell me about your week.” Then make sure you listen, not just for an in to talk about your week, but really listen.
  2. Don’t play 20 questions. When taking the initiative to start a conversation it feels easy to play 20 questions. My rule of thumb is that I don’t want to ever get one-word answers so I tend to kick off a conversation with something open-ended. You’re looking for paragraph responses, you want to know what they think, and you want to make sure they know you are someone who really wants to talk to them.
  3. Don’t beat around the bush. About 10 years ago I had a volunteer in my ministry who taught me just to skip small talk altogether. He had this warm, strong way of putting his arm around a guy and saying, “Talk to me about your devos this week, whatcha reading?” I promise you, the reason half the guys in our group read the Bible was because they knew that question was coming and that Jeff really cared about the answer. So skip the small talk about sports, the weather, and TV shows and just get to the point. You want to make a difference and they want you to make a difference— small talk is a sell out.
  4. Go for the heart, share your heart. When we’re engaging with God’s kids at church we need to remember that God cares more about our heart than our feet. We are all going to make mistakes and part of being an adolescent involves trying to figure out who you are. Don’t make the mistake of talking to students about merely what they do. Make sure to drill into who they are when they are doing stuff. And share your heart. You don’t have to relate everything to when you were a teenager, relate what they are saying to your daily life. It’s OK to share your heart… they want to see that you are real and really can relate to them.
  5. Level the playing field. Some of this is body language and some of it is how we position ourselves in conversation. I always want to be at eye level with students. If they are sitting, I sit. If they are sitting on the pavement eating pizza, I pop a squat next to them. The same is true in conversation. They know that in society you are more powerful than they are… culture tells them that. It’s your job to communicate in word and deed that you seem them through God’s eyes… we are all human, we all have the same needs for Jesus, we all have things we are working through and big questions. I’ve found when I level the playing field I go deep, but when I fall into hierarchical habits all of my relationships with students default back to small talk.

What are tips you use for engaging with the teenagers at your church? Share your ideas in the comments. 

Culture youth ministry

Teenagers are incapable… until they aren’t

Gabrielle Douglas is 16 years old. This week she won 2 gold medals at the London Olympic games. She will be a junior in high school this year.

Missy Franklin is 17 years old. She also won 2 gold medals in London and owns 2 world records. She’s entering her senior year in high school.

If you want to see a few more stories about teenagers in the Olympics, The New York Times has a page dedicated to the endeavor.

The Capability vs. Expectations Gap

As a lover of teenagers universal and an often observer of their amazing capabilities— I enjoy the irony that America will celebrate Gabby and Missy’s victories as if they were their own daughters…

  • We acknowledge their physical prowess.
  • We acknowledge their dedication.
  • We admire the grace at which they handle their athletic events and the pressure of the world stage.
  • We admire the maturity in their handling sudden fame.

We each easily attribute downright adult descriptions on teenage Olympiads. 

This is ironic because from a societal perspective we don’t expect teenagers to be capable of such adult-like qualities. I mean… they can’t possibly be adults at 15-16-17, can they?

3 examples of this irony…

Raise expectations, friends. Most teenagers can do just about everything you can do… maybe better than you can. Let’s not just celebrate teenagers who hoist gold medals, let’s celebrate the capabilities of the teenagers in our lives.

And let’s kill agism, OK? Let’s judge people by what they can do instead.

Discover what their coaches know: When you expect someone’s very best, you’ll get it. When you expect nothing, you’ll get it.  

youth ministry

Infantilization and deinfantilization of adolescence, part 1

In the last year I read and was deeply disturbed by the book, Teen 2.0. If you are going to read a book in 2011, make it that one. It shook me.

One of the primary things that Epstein brought up in the book and has dramatically impacted my view of youth ministry is the concept of infantilization. For years, youth workers (myself included) have lamented about how students are less and less mature and less and less willing to make adult steps. Epstein points out and asks us, “Why are students less and less mature?” To that question I offer something to chew on, Maybe because we’ve made them that way? And maybe we like it that way?

I’d like to encourage you in the next 10 days to start recognizing infantilization in action.

  • Where are points where we don’t expect adolescents to take responsibilities for their lives?
  • Where are points in your ministry where you take away students ability to own their faith?
  • What are ways parents are holding their adolescent children back from healthy adult behavior?
  • What are words that you use which infantilize 12-18 year olds in your life?

Don’t do anything but observe. Write them down in Evernote or on a piece of paper so you can keep track.

And then, if you are so inclined, come back and share what you’ve observed.

Music youth ministry

Firework by Katy Perry

Gosh, I really love the message of this video.

I want to encourage youth workers to watch this video twice. Watch it the first time with your adult glasses on. Get annoyed that there are fireworks shooting out of her chest or two boys kissing or even that a girl strips down and jumps in a pool.

Those are the things you are trained to see as an adult.

The second time, put on the glasses of a high school student. Remember what it was like to be one of the people portrayed in the video. Feeling out of sorts. Feeling unpopular. Feeling isolated from the world you wanted to be a part of.

Perhaps now you can see why this message is so powerful? (More than 500,000 views in 24 hours!) Perhaps, just perhaps, Katy Perry is preaching a message you’d also like to get across?

Maybe she’s a prophetess to a generation? (And doing it outside of being a part of the church? Gasp.)

Perhaps we need to learn that her use of art and symbolism to communicate to students is something we need to think about way more than just the spoken word? Perhaps we need to continue to foster ministries that embrace and empower students to express themselves and feel safe? Perhaps we need to celebrate when students break free of peer pressure that’s keeping them down or isolating them and dance with them as they embrace freedom? Maybe the message of this video could be a halfway point to talking about freedom in Christ?

When I see people in youth ministry looking down on the powerful messages the media is portraying, I get frustrated in the realization that the church continues to perpetrate the same old lie. “If it isn’t our message shared in our way, it must be bad.” (This is a closed theory, like I talked about here.)

And I wonder when we’ll embrace openness and acknowledge that our message is true, and can be open, expressed in ways we don’t have to approve of and still be truth?

Music youth ministry

I like Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream

Currently, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream is top 10 on iTunes. It’s huge. And I am not ashamed to admit that when it pops up on my iTunes I listen to it 3-4 times in a row.

While I’m sure most youth workers groan when they hear this song… I take a totally different perspective.

I want this to be my students dream, too.

Well, not exactly— since the video leaves a lot to the imagination. Here’s what I mean by “I want this to be my students dream, too.

  • I want my students to have a fun, audacious, spontaneous, and exciting sex life. (Until they get married- “Pre-sex lives.”)
  • I want them to fall in love and be happy with that person for a long time. I want their love life to be fun, like a teenage dream.
  • I want them to fall in love early in life. I want them to grow up (meaning, take full responsibility for themselves) and get married ASAP. I believe we’re creating a self-fulfilling prophesy that they aren’t ready when they are.

Perhaps the reason this song speaks to so many people is because we tell people to wait too long for this type of relationship? Perhaps there was no room in our lives at 18 or 19 years old for a no-regrets love affair? Perhaps our parents scared us out of teenage dreams with statistics about divorce and telling us we needed to go to college first?

But this dream, I believe, is quite similar to God’s desire for us. The Bible is clear about sex before marriage. But it is equally clear about early marriage.

I just know when I watch this video I think about my relationship with Kristen. We were almost 19 when we met. We took lots of walks on the beach. (aka- free dates) Outside of the motel line– that video was us! Our parents both told us we were too young and we ignored them. (Just like they ignored their parents warnings!)

When we got married at 21 we fulfilled the dreams of this video and it was great. (Though, Kristen grew up baptist so skin tight jeans were out of the question.)

My prayer for youth ministry is that we are crazy enough to tell our students and their helicopter parents that they need to have teenage dreams for themselves. I pray that we become culture creators and truth tellers in such a way that gives our society a wake-up call. Teenage Dreams isn’t shameful. We would not exist as a people if it weren’t for generations of teenage dreamers. We don’t need to shame teenagers from their sexuality, we need to teach them appropriate ways to embrace it.

Current Affairs illustrations youth ministry

Savior: The Adult Desire to Save Teenagers From Themselves

Photo by fengschwing via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Am I the only one who notices that adults seem to obsessed about teenage lives? More to the point, we seem obsessed with pointing out how we need to intervene before they destroy themselves and the human race.

Our culture takes a very negative view of people between the ages of 13-18. If you work with them, you are used to folks turning up their noses when you tell them you love working with that age group.

Here are some recent headlines to illustrate the point:

School: Little as they try, students can’t get a D here [New York Times] more articles…

Sleep: Lack of sleep linked to obesity for teen boys [Time Magazine] more articles…

Sex: Teenage girls rely on the rhythm method [What is the trend] more articles…

Crime: States rethink “adult time for adult crime” [CNN] more articles…

Forgive me if the links provided aren’t damning evidence. You are welcome to browse my entire body of hundreds of news articles on adolescence to get a better flavor. What I am talking about is not a hot pile of evidence. It is a slow burn of negative views on adolescents as well as adult desires to fix teenagers.

Another angle that demonstrates this is our wonderment over a teenager who does something good. Sail around the world? Shocking! Raise money for a worthy cause? News at 11! Start a successful business? Give her an award!

It seems that those news stories are of interest, in part, because we expect teenagers to only do negative/self-destructive things and when they do something amazing it must be newsworthy.

Three observations I want to point out on this topic

  1. Jesus is their savior, you aren’t.
  2. Have you ever wondered why sports are so popular with adolescents? Maybe it’s the easiest place for them to achieve and/or exceed expectations.
  3. Teenagers have about the same grades, sleep about the same, have the same amount of sex, and commit the same amount of crimes that they always have. Our obsessing over it only reveals something twisted in our lives and not theirs.
Church Leadership hmm... thoughts youth ministry

Hey youth workers… do you believe?

Image by hiddedevries via Flickr (creative commons)
Image by hiddedevries via Flickr (creative commons)

Here’s the deal.

Dirty little secret time.

I think a lot of youth pastors, youth ministers, youth directors don’t believe in the power of adolescents to flip their world on its head.

Adults think they can do it all. And they backfill that belief with anecdotal information to make themselves feel better.

They think kids are too busy. They think kids are distracted by education. They think kids care more about sports. They think that you have to be spiritually mature to reach your friends for Christ. They think parents just get in the way. They think lack of resources get in the way. They think ordinary kids can’t do extraordinary stuff.

When they see inspirational stories of teenagers who have made a huge difference, they don’t think their kids could do that. And they wonder why the adults who “really lead that” aren’t in the spotlight. The aspire to see stuff like that happen in their midst but refuse to believe the style of leadership that leads up to it.

A lot of youth leaders think its their job to do those things themselves. They think that because they are “the leader” they should be the ones leading the charge. Kids are just the pawns who attract the cameras, so they think. Ultimately, they think they are the ones who are responsible for making something big happen.

They have it upside down.

Adults just get in the way with their ego, agendas, and desires to be famous. “Maybe Disney will make a movie of my awesome leadership?

Reality check– Adults who “lead” big movements of God are typically on the sidelines. They coach. They inspire quietly. They parent. They mentor. They encourage. Most importantly, they know that the best thing they can do is equip them to lead and get the heck out of the way. And then they stand by and watch. (And then coach some more, mentor some more, parent some more, encourage some more, develop some more.)

If there is a microphone, they are reluctant to step up to it. But they are quick to put a student in front of it.

The big fancy adult leadership Christians are infatuated with rarely, if ever, results in movements of teens. (Whether as movements of religion or otherwise.) We chase after it but it’s a myth. You get there only to discover you’ve wasted a lot of time, energy, and investment in the wrong stuff.

The style of leadership that seems to result in the most world change involves handing the reigns over to kids and believing in them. It’s the most organic, natural, and effective style of leadership. It’s so easy a football coach can do it. Or a high school basketball coach. Or a Little League coach.

Those leaders do their leading on practice days and give the kids the spotlight on game day. Kids step up because that coach believes in them enough to put their reputation behind them.

And that’s the problem. Most adult leaders in youth ministry don’t seem to believe in kids.

What do you believe in…?


What’s all the fuss about sexting?

There have been a lot of newspaper articles about sexting lately.

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Example 4

What in the world is sexting? Simply put, sexting is using your mobile device to send a sexy note to someone.

What’s the big deal about it? It’s nothing serious. As long as kids have communicated there have been kids who passed naughty notes, instant messages, emails, and now… text messages. (text, picture, and even video)

But let’s get real for a second. As long as there have been kids talking dirty to one another there has always been an adult fascination with their pillow talk. And since news agencies know that nothing sells better than teens talking about their sex life every newspaper in the country picked up on the study.

Next thing you know there will be a Christian company perpetrating a lie that their cell phone network screens and blocks anything inappropriate! Jesus Talk, 400 minutes and 400 bible verses per month. $129.99!

Do kids really send naughty things to one another via their cell phones? Probably. But, in my experience, this is no where near what everyone things it is. What it typically is relates more to pornography than sexting. In other words, kids send dirty notes to one another, share videos, and share pictures with their phones. (And computers, and xbox’s, and PS3s, and ipods, and any device you can imagine!)

But let’s get real. This isn’t a big deal. We need to put away our facination with adolescent sexuality and focus on teaching the kids in our lives how to value other people. No one wants to be exploited by their boyfriend/girlfriend. Doesn’t education on this really just boil down to the Golden Rule?