Traditional youth ministry training didn’t really prepare me for the acute problems my kids were showing up with at our youth ministry. I got into to youth ministry because the first time I walked into a youth ministry gathering I felt a connection, a calling to speak into their lives. I wanted desperately to impact their lives for the Kindgom. The typical fare in most youth ministry training programs is maybe a psych 110 class or an adolescent development overview but very little in the way of preparing me to minister effectively to them.
I’ve noticed a recent disturbing trend of gangs or the threat of gang formation in suburban and rural areas? After talking to others about this, and verifying this is not just a local problem, specific variables have emerged and are occurring as we move further into the new millennium that makes gang formation a profitable enterprise in these areas.
Changing demographics: The development of diverse, multicultural communities in the United States will proceed at an accelerated rate in the twenty-first century, particularly in historically white farming communities in the Midwest (Goldstein & Kodluhoy, 1998, pg. 63-91)
Electronic Media: Cable television, the Internet, Mobile Technology, and other electronic information systems make the most pristine and rustic rural part of the global community. Glorification of violence and gangs through electronic media sends children who feel powerless against the world, messages about how they can be powerful (Goldstein & Kodluhoy, 1998, pg. 7). A brief search of the internet today will show that organized gangs have established their own web sites. Social media, web sites, and mobile communication devices will provide gangs plenty of opportunity to talk to Beaver and Wally. If the Beav is feeling alone and powerless out on Rural Route Two, he is likely to talk back.
Dysfunctional Families: One-parent poverty-line families, drug and alcohol addiction, two wage-earner parents (both of who work two jobs), child abuse, battering, vicious custody battles, and all the other ills that assail dysfunctional families are as characteristic of suburban and rural families as they are of urban ones. Gang leaders are highly sensitive to these parent-less, throwaway kids, and intentionally recruit because they potentially open up new markets to exploit. The gang becomes a surrogate family.
Desensitization to Violence: There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that watching gratuitous violence with few or no consequences to the victimizer desensitizes the viewer and allows the individual the freedom to act violently. Video game players are often rewarded for accumulating multiple kills during one melee. We have become so inured to drive-by shootings and other gang-initiated violence in the big cities that we give little consideration to them. Besides, they don’t affect us because they’re in the big cities. We are shocked by the unfathomable shootings in Paducha, Pearl, Jonesboro, Stockton, Springfield, Littleton, and Newtown because of their senselessness and that they happened in hometown America. Those are the places we live, and they are supposed to be the places we are safe. The bottom line, though, is that whether children are killed by crazed adult armed with assault rifles at an elementary school such as Newtown or drive-by shooting in West Chicago, they are just as dead, and their survivors suffer equally.
Increased Lethality: The homicide rate for juveniles has leveled off after a steady climb over the last three decades. However, there should be little consolation in that statistic. In the last three decades, the rise of violent crime has been somewhere on the order of 600 to 0ver 1000 percent, depending on how one looks at the statistics and whose statistics are used. One in approximately every three murders is now committed by an adolescent or preadolescent. Murder of adolescents is now second only to automobiles in cause of death. Girls are becoming more involved as participants of violence, and their means of attack are becoming more lethal. Teenagers in the United States are at an absolute minimum four times more likely to be murdered as their counterparts in 21 other industrialized countries (Center for Prevention of Handgun Violence).
So, if the world really is getting smaller and youth are increasingly looking for surrogate families, and the church wants to continue to fulfill its kingdom call, how are we to respond to these problems? What needs to happen for the church to be a potent antidote to the ills of modern adolescence?
Ok, this is a lengthy post today but one we felt was needed. Too often kids get a bad rap because they are resistant to engage in the life of our ministry. Here me on this…IT’S NOT ALWAYS THEIR FAULT. There are many variable that contribute to a student becoming a part of a faith community. I see this in counseling and I see it in “Big Church” as well. Let’s dissect why students are resistant and what we can do about it.
Ethan came to our youth ministry every Sunday and Wednesday. He came only because his parents made him attend. Ethan was an over-churched kid who went to the local Christian high school. He grew up in church and his dad was an elder and his mom taught Sunday school for as long as he could remember.
Whitney did not grow up in church. She was only coming because of our “evangelism daters” had convinced her to go with him. She was uninterested but came because she really liked Jake. She was emotionally distant and often snickered when another student would share openly about something they wanted prayer for.
Carissa was a wild child. She was ADHD and ran on caffeine from the minute she woke up until the moment of the inevitable crash later into the night. She was disruptive and impulsive. Carissa loved to show up late so she could make an entrance and equally loved getting attention from the boys in the youth group.
These three students have something in common; they were all very difficult to engage in the spiritual life and practices of our youth community. In spite of many attempts to get these kids under control or to peak their interest they remained stagnant and distance with their heels dug in.
It seems so obvious years later, but we learned that spiritual growth can’t occur unless a student is first engaged in a spiritual community. Most students show up at youth group or church for the first time with a combination of issues and often are on the defensive and initially resistance to change. Every student we encounter is a product of a process that has been going on in their lives that impacts how they connect and open up to others. Let’s look at some of the reason why a student might be resistant to our efforts to engage them:
They are forced to go: Many students are only there because their parents are making them go. This is not the kind of “soil” in which growth can occur. If we’re honest we’d say there are quite a few kids that fit into this category. This mandate automatically sets up resistance.
Lack of motivation to change: The great majority of young people who come to youth ministries are ambivalent about whether or not the want to stop their “sin”. Most aren’t even sure what sin really is, let alone whether they are prepared to surrender it to a God they know very little or nothing about.
Discomfort opening up in front of peers/strangers: From the perspective of the student, youth ministry can be a strange experience. It is so different than anything else they experience in their world. Often the youth leader knows something about them (because of their friends) but they know very little about the youth leader and the world of youth ministry. In addition, youth ministry thrives when its members are vulnerable and transparent, both pre-requisites for change and growth. This also creates discomfort for students to open up to a room of virtual strangers or even worse, give their closest friend ammo to use against them later.
Multiple life stressors = Spiritual growth not a priority: A combination of family stress, school commitments, relationship challenges, identity struggles, brain development, physical changes, mental health concerns and a host of other stressors can push spiritual growth down on the list of urgent needs to address.
Difficult emotions to manage: There are myriad emotions that accompany being an adolescent, including anger, rage hostility, flat affect, depression, apathy, and hopelessness as well as love, excitement, fear, exhilaration, and freedom. Likewise, there is distorted thinking to combat, such as; the imaginary audience, grandiosity, catastrophic thinking, minimizing risk, failure to see long term consequences, desire for immediate gratification, and a sense of entitlement. All of these make engaging a young person like walking through a minefield.
Initial ministry approaches that increase resistance: There are a number of ministry approaches that, when scrutinized, would reveal that they actually decrease a student’s engagement. At best the drive the kids toward shallow compliance, acting and saying the right things but not actually changing hearts. This is like cleaning the outside of the cup but not the inside. These approaches are aggressively confrontational and leave the student feeling defensive or shamed, they lack empathy, warmth, genuineness, and focuses exclusively on what students are doing wrong to the neglect of what they are doing right or have to offer.
Unresolved grief/trauma: Painful emotions connected to loss or trauma can make engagement difficult due to the anxious nature of both conditions. Fear of abandonment or exploitation can lead to a student leaving the group and never returning (early termination). There is fear that the community it not safe or may trigger the trauma or grief.
Cross-cultural tension: All ministries are cross-cultural because of issues related to race, gender, religious backgrounds, sexual orientation, age, and so forth. Tension can exist in the context of ministry and can be barriers to establishing a relationship between the ministry (people) and student (people).
Negative prior YM/Church experiences: Students who have previously attend church or youth ministry will bring with them preconceived notions about what they can expect. If they had negative experiences they will likely filter your ministry through that lens, potentially tainting the new experience.
Adolescence: Adolescence by its very nature is a journey to autonomy, making young people resistant to engaging adults. In addition, many adolescents do not believe that sin is problematic. Many simply think they are behaving normally and that it is normal to drink, party, have sex, etc.
Ethan eventually began to engage and share his gifts and strengths with the group. He entered into a mentoring relationship with Art and discovered he had leadership skills. When Ethan went off to college he became a leader at his campus ministry and now leads dozens of other students as they seek to grow in their faith.
Whitney, as it turns out had a recent suicide attempt and regularly engaged in self-injury. She had difficulties trusting others due to trauma she experienced as a child. She found hope and healing through a mentoring relationship with Jillian who taught her how to love and be loved. She is married today and lives a whole life.
Carissa has settled down, SOME. She was able to discover her heart bled for orphans after the youth group went through the 30 Hour Famine. Her heart was wrecked by the overwhelming need she saw in the kids. She finished high school and became involved in the organization International Justice Mission that her mentor Trudy told her about. She is currently in school working on a degree in International Law and intends to devote he life work to freeing captives in the sex trade and bringing justice to the oppressors.
Engaging students in an important skill youth workers must have if they are to be effective in impacting the world through the students they are called to reach. Before we can invite them into the redemptive kingdom work God has for them they first need to be engaged in a community that will equip them for such work.
So what are some strategies for engaging resistant students…
Hospitality has to be a high priority: We must invest our resources in creating a culture of hospitality. Students are more likely to let their guard down when they enter a warm, friendly environment. This includes everything from how we train our volunteers and student leaders to the décor of our meeting spaces. We lose a lot of kids within the first few minutes after they walk through our doors.
Focus on what the students have to offer: Many students feel like they are failing at life. Many reel like this faith thing is simply too complicated for them to engage. If they feel they serve a purpose and that the community is incomplete without them, they are more likely to feel valued.
Explore and validate past ministry experiences: Admittedly, the church wounds people. There is a chance that some of your students have been hurt by the body of Christ. If this is the case we increase the likelihood that those students will engage in our ministries if we validate their experiences and feel like someone takes them serious. You do not have to run down the other youth ministry but a simple acknowledgement of pain or betrayal is often more than enough.
Match levels of spiritual interest with appropriate ministry expectations: Like we mentioned earlier, most student are ambivalent about changing. When we put them directly into intense discipleship situations we end up with a mismatch of motivation and expectations. Having various points of entry for all students regardless of where they are in their walk will allow the students to experience your ministry without adding more pressure to a young person who is already overwhelmed with the rest of their life.
Minimize confrontation: There is a time and a place to share the truth about someone’s choices and the consequences. That is a right that is earned first and timing is important. A student is more likely to listen to hard truth when you have invested the necessary time for them to know you care. It may be wise to tolerate certain behaviors until a healthy and appropriate trust is established. Once this occurs the relationship will be more likely to withstand the tension of confrontation because love and trust has already been established.
Engage the student in their spiritual growth plan: Another reason students are resistant is because they typically have very little input into their spiritual growth. Each student is created uniquely by God to connect with him in a unique way. There are multiple pathways to encounter God, such as; intellectual study, worship, community gatherings, being in nature, enjoying fellowship and relationships, and acts of service. Too often we create experiences that are born out of the youth leaders natural way of connecting but don’t necessarily lead to connection for the student. Individualized feedback from the student provides a personal investment and more buy-in.
Avoid power struggles: This will lead to an immediate decrease in student engagement if they come to believe that you are a power hungry, control freak. Remember each student has a right to chose or reject God and that right comes directly from God Himself. View the power struggle as a sign that maybe you need to take another approach with the student to try and engage him or her. Pay attention to non-verbal body language. Folded arms across the chest are often a sign of disinterest. Re-evaluate your strategy with this student and try again.
Avoid labeling student: Students are constantly in development. What you see before you is not what they will be some day. Be careful to avoid labeling them with title like: He doesn’t care, she just wants attention, and He’ll never change. Grace will and should cover a multitude of sins.
Be aware of countertransference: By definition, countertransference involves negative reactions that youth workers have towards their students. Youth workers who have negative reactions to the students can contribute to those students’ resistance to youth ministry outreach. It is during these moments when we must search our hearts for the barriers that stands in the way of our being able to love this specific student. It may be as simple as a personality conflict or it may be deeper, this student may be unintentionally triggering a memory of a bad experience or relationship the youth worker has had in their past. Either way, these situations should be discussed with your supervisors and consulted with other volunteers to see who can step in and reach out to this particular student.
Maintain a sense of humor: It’s been said that the shortest distance between two people is laughter. Humor can reduce resistance in the most obstinate youth. When one individual is perceived to have the most power in a situation, humor can be the great equalizer, leaving both parties on equal footing. Humor can also make the leader more human in the eyes of the student. This requires some discernment as we can be too flip or crass or even hurtful if humor is not used appropriately. When used properly a well placed comment can make all the difference in the world.
How have you engaged those students that appear to be resistant? What strategies do you have built into your ministry that directly addresses this posture in students?
Hair, face, eyes, ears, nose, chin, lips, teeth, back, breasts, stomach, waist, hips, butt, arms, hands, fingernails, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, toes, body hair, pimples, scars, freckles, moles, birth marks, skin, sound of our voice, what we say, what we do, what we wear, what music we listen to, the list goes on and on and on. These are the things that most adolescents focus on when determining what makes them acceptable to their peers.
Self-image is a complex beast. If we have a distorted image of ourselves it becomes very easy to fill our thoughts with feelings of disgust and worthlessness. This is better known as shame and it can fundamentally change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world we live in.
Dr. Brene` Brown, in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power explains her research on the subject of shame as a study on the power of connection and the dangers of disconnection. When one considers the “process to the product” that is self-image, as individual we must first understand that our primary drive is to be connected. The longing to belong serves many purposes; survival, fulfillment, success, and procreation.
Growing up as blank slates our families, environments, and culture shape how we “learn” to connect. We are taught skills and styles of connecting to others. Sometimes the means are healthy and affirming, and God honoring, placing God at the helm and others accordingly. Other time we are not taught healthy ways of connecting. We are taught that violence, aggression, manipulation and other illegitimate means are what are necessary to get what you need and want. We are also taught that how we present to the world (immediate peer group) has everything to do with being accepted and therefore belonging.
When we are not affirmed as worthy of being connected to others we learn to see ourselves as deficient, broken, not valuable, insignificant, etc., but our need for connection doesn’t leave us, we simply learn other ways to get what we need.
Dr. Brown goes on to say in her book that when we don’t attach in healthy ways we develop an accompanying belief system that is shame based and tells us things like, “Something is wrong with you”; “You are defective”; “You don’t measure up”; “Why can’t you be like….” and when we believe these to be true it becomes impossible to be “real” with others. Shame begets shame.
She states, “When we sacrifice authenticity in an effort to manage how we are being perceived by others, we often get caught in a dangerous and debilitating cycle: Shame, or the fear of being shamed, moves us away from our true selves.” In the case of the Christian, it moves us away from the Imago Dei, which is the image of God within us.
When we fail to see the Imago Dei in us our vision becomes distorted and we don’t see clearly. It is the difference between having bad eye-sight and wearing corrective glasses or contacts. For those of us with bad eyes think about how many important details we miss when we aren’t wearing our corrective lenses. Think about the risk we are at for hurting ourselves or others while driving. The same kind of blurry vision clouds our ability to see ourselves clearly as children of God that are more precious than gold.
As we work with students it is important to know that they likely have a fractured image of who they were created to be and how we interact with them can push them one way or the other regarding their ability to see themselves the way their heavenly Father sees them. For the adolescent, image is everything and as youth workers we must have a solid theology of image that regularly challenges the cultural messages our students receive. We must help our students and their families recapture the perspective of the Imago Dei.
I recently finished reading a small yet powerful book titled, A Mind for God by James Emery White. As I thought through the personal implication of this book on my own spiritual life I couldn’t help but think about the following regarding youth growing up in today’s culture.
Emery White starts his book off with the idea that the god of this world assaults those living within it and is not without intellectual forces, which he arrays against the kingdom. Within this assault are four major ideas of which are critical to understand. I believe these to be of ultimate importance to those of us in youth ministry as well.
The basic idea of relativism is: What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me. What is moral is dictated by a particular situation in light of a particular or social location. Moral values become a matter of personal opinion or private judgment rather than something grounded in objective truth.
To be autonomous is to be independent. Autonomous individualism maintains that each person is independent in terms of destiny and accountability. Ultimate moral authority is self-generated. In the end, we answer to no one but ourselves, for we are truly on our own. Our choices are ours alone, determined by our personal pleasure, and not by any higher moral authority.
The value of narcissistic hedonism is the classic “I, me, mine” mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns. The “Culture of Narcissism” is concerned with a current taste for individual therapy instead of religion. The quest for personal well-being, health and psychic security has replaced the older hunger for personal salvation.
Reductive naturalism states that all that can be known within nature is that which can be empirically verified. What is real is only that which can be seen, tasted, heard, smelled or touched and then verified, meaning able to be replicated through experimentation. Knowledge is “reduced” to this level of knowing. If it cannot be examined in a tangible, scientific manner, it is not simply unknowable but meaningless.
- Which of the above do you struggle with the most in your own personal journey?
- Which of the above do you see most in the kids in your youth ministry?
- How do we collectively address these issues in our own lives and the lives of our youth?
As with any behavior we engage in there are payoffs and there are consequences. This post explores the negative consequences of obsessive and compulsive consumption of pornography.
- Misusing sexuality or unhealthy sexual expression for the gratification of personal lusts and desires rather than the divine purpose if was gifted to use for (pro-creation and monogamous bonding/attachment) creates a host of attachments neuro-chemically and emotionally. When we complete a sex act (climax) we have engaged a process that includes attaching (oxytocin/vasopressin) to the object of our sexual desire. If these objects are images on a screen then we form a connection with those objects that was intended for your partner. Repeated gratification to pornography can lead to difficulty bonding with a loved one in meaningful ways, emotionally and physically.
- Because of the impact of porn, our ability to connect with others emotionally is reduced. The real problem is that our understanding of the true nature of sexual relationships gets polluted with porn consumption (creates fantasy). Porn creates something less life-giving, commitment-solidifying, joy-producing for transient, sensual, immediate gratification. As a result we learn that porn consumption, leading to masturbation and climax can be a powerful “mood altering experience” helping us deal with the stress of day-to-day life.
- Regular pornography viewing can also create a distorted perspective on reality. It reinforces body types that are not natural, sexual positions that are only for a good camera angle not a natural position during sex, it creates expectations for our and our partners sexual behaviors and puts pressure on both to perform as what is seen on the screen. Neural wiring changes occur due to regular porn viewing that reinforces our desires for what we see on the screen. We begin to crave in real life what we see on screen. This can also lead to a sense of emotional disconnect in which we are observes of our own sex acts rather than fully present with our partner.
- Emotional deregulation can occur when we become dependent on porn to relieve stress or make us feel pleasure. When we are frustrated with our partner being sexually unavailable we turn to porn out of frustration or to extract secret revenge for their scorn after a fight.
- In order to consume porn regularly we must disengage morally. This is dangerous because if done frequently or repetitively we lose our ability to empathize with others. Moral disengagement allows us to do that which is socially unacceptable by blaming others, justifying our behavior as deserved or just, or by displacement of responsibility of our choices.
- Porn will likely reinforce negative gender stereotypes. Cultural messages still support traditional gender roles and elevate the notion that women exist for men’s pleasure in a male dominated world.
- The shame and guilt that often accompanies pornography related problems is intense. One the episode is over these feelings rush in and drives the behaviors underground to keep them hidden from others. This leads to isolation and disconnect from important relationships. This can lead to depression or hopelessness and helplessness. The feeling that one is trapped in a shame cycle is often reported.
This list is not exhaustive but is a good gauge of what can happen to an individual that compulsively and/or obsessively consumes pornography. In the next post we will look at ways to walk alongside someone stuck in the labyrinth of pornography.
There is a hypnotic effect of porn that is all consuming, turning consumers into Porn Zombies. Sex and the human body was meant to captivate our attention and it is good. God created sex to be shared within the boundaries He laid out but there is a level of moral disengagement via objectification that one must accept if they are to habitually consume pornography. The male brain is predisposed for this type of objectification.
A recent study found that showing men pictures of sexualized women evokes less activity in areas of the brain responsible for mental state attribution—that is, the area of the brain that becomes active when we think we are looking at an entity capable of thought and planned action. When consumed too frequently, for increasing lengths of time, compulsive pornography viewing has the potential to rewire the neural circuitry of the brain. Viewing pornography creates a superhighway to climax (dopamine reward) that was intended to be a long journey through the back roads leading to intimacy. Sex and the climax were simply meant to be the end result of that intimate journey.
Through studies, men who watch porn have shown that they are visually aroused not just by images of the human bodies they desire but also by the facial expression of pleasure shown. This is cause by mirror neurons that are cells in the brain that activate when you simply see another behavior. Have you ever watched an UFC fight where one opponent lands a giant knee to the face? What do we do in response to seeing that? We all collectively gasp and oooohh and aaaahh and wince in pain. Why? Because the mirror neurons in our brains are active, sending out signals that are similar to what the individual being punched is experiencing. As we watch porn our brains neurologically experience what we’re seeing on the screen, increasing our desire for the same experience.
Your Brain on Porn
In order to understand the effects of porn we must first explore certain parts of the brain that are in play. The following is just an overview.
The Limbic System is home to many things. First and foremost, it is responsible for rewarding behaviors the brain and body deem “good”. The word “good” is in quotes because “good” is subjective when left up to man’s definition. “Good” according to God is not defined the same way man defines it. Man defines “good” as anything that delivers pleasure or removes displeasure. Pretty simple. It’s hedonic in nature and self-serving.
Two parts of the Limbic System that are responsible for pleasure and feelings of pleasure are the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala allows us to express emotions and reward behaviors that make us “feel good” so we increase the likelihood of doing them again. The hippocampus stores and retrieves memories associated with those feelings and behaviors.
It works like this; I’m driving in my car and Never Say Goodbye by Bon Jovi comes on the radio. When my senses take those sounds in the brain begins the process of retrieving memories attached to the song. It immediately presents the memories of a high school dance. I remember all the details with vivid clarity. I remember slow dancing with Angie, the lighting in the gym, the feelings that accompanied that nervous dance and other sights and sounds that were present (this is important to remember). Those memories trigger an emotional response in my brain and send signals to the prefrontal cortex (the smart part of my brain behind my forehead that makes sense of things and add meaning to memories and events) and if the pre-frontal cortex determines that this event was good I will then feel good as I think about it.
Take a moment and just contemplate how the regular viewing of sexual material can have a similar impact on how the brain responds to porn. Here’s an example of how this plays out: You’re at home alone while the family is at the grocery store. You’re alone (crime of opportunity) and you’re on your iPad (accessibility). Before you even begin surfing porn sites (most viewers have their personal favorites and can quickly navigate right to it) we have to resolve any cognitive dissonance (moral objections) and we use a myriad of techniques to do that. After we begin viewing the porn your mirror neurons cause you to become aroused based on what you’re seeing on your screen. This arousal builds until you have to release the tension your body is experiencing and you masturbate. This results in a climax and you experience the rush of natural endorphins such as dopamine (neural rewiring is occurring during the entire process) and the body begins to return to a normal state. It is typically at this point the we re-engage our moral compass and for some a flood of emotions rush in; guilt, fear, remorse, shame, etc., all set us up for “needing” to view porn again because of powerful pleasure reward makes those negative emotions disappear for a while (it’s hard to feel bad about yourself while having an orgasm while being caught up in a fantasy).
Repeated cycles of this and its accompanying behaviors can and most certainly will lead to neural rewiring that is habitual. If the porn was heroin (a comparable experience to orgasm) this is what we would call addiction or drug dependency. The craving for the payoff of watching pornography is compelling enough to alter our lifestyle and behaviors. We may become deceitful, coming up with ways to be alone, to cover our tracks, socially isolate, or other intimacy retarding behaviors and a host of other consequences we may not even be aware of. In our next post we will look at some of those consequences.