Shame and stigma are difficult barriers for juvenile offenders to rise above after an arrest or in making the transition between incarceration and the community. Some of those barriers are juvenile peers that have pro-criminal attitudes and reinforce the criminal behavior/thinking as well as there being no clear pathway from juvenile criminal behavior to responsible, pro-social behaviors as an adult.
One effective approach to rising above this stigma involves encouraging ex-offenders to become active as a volunteer in support of community activities. Providing an opportunity for individuals to make a positive contribution to the community – to “give back” – may reduce feelings of alienation and build empathy and positive self-regard, paving the way to a life that has been restored.
If you serve in ministry, there are youth all around you that are engaged in criminal behaviors. Regardless of the reasons for their behaviors, we are called to “put on the flesh of Christ” and pursue them.
How might your ministry create opportunities that could lead to restoration for these youth between themselves, their communities, and God?
I work in the clinical world and often can’t help but wonder if the changes we are seeing in treating adolescents are parallel to what is happening in youth ministry as well. I know it is audacious to think I have any more or a crystal ball that anyone else, but here’s my two cents regarding the future of youth ministry.
As I see more and more adolescents in our offices presenting with significantly more acute distress I am immediately concerned at how overwhelmed youth workers will be when and if they bother to show up at their church door. Long gone are the days when you could single out the one or two problems kids had and walk alongside them as the work it out. We are seeing more young people with co-occurring disorders, meaning they are presenting with any of the following in combination; substance use disorders, mood disorders, criminal or legal difficulties, family system breakdowns, and higher levels of stress that youth have historically been accustomed to.
What will this mean for how we train the youth workers of the future? What kind of supervision will they need? Will they all need to grow in competencies not typical to youth ministry, such as criminal justice, advanced counseling, developmental psychology or a host of other disciplines? How will they increase their support network with others in the community? Who do those in the support network need to be?
We will see significant change over the next ten years in youth culture. I suggest developing competencies in the following areas:
- Adolescent Culture: We are and will likely continue to be a youth-focused nation and products and marketing will continue to grow in these areas. We would serve our kids better if we understood how consumerism impacts their beliefs and views of the world, as well as their place in it.
- Adolescent Development: We are learning new information at a break-neck pace about the human body and brain. How that will impact our ministry practices has yet to be determined but it undoubtedly will.
- Criminal Justice: In increasing number of youth (urban, suburban, and non-urban) are finding themselves in legal trouble that could create significant barriers to entering adulthood intact. We could better serve our youth by developing partnerships with probation, courts, police departments, etc. What if the church was the first place these entities turn to when a kid breaks from the social norms?
- Technology: There will be an ever increasing focusing on technology as a means of reaching and staying connected to youth in our communities but also around the world. The internet makes the world small. For volunteers technology increases access to advanced training opportunities to be better equipped to help our students.
- Minorities: With the changing face of America it is imperative that we grow in our cultural intelligences. There will be a need for more culturally relevant and culturally sensitive expressions of Christian ministry.
- Families: We’ve already begun to see a trend of moving to a family oriented expression of ministry. This is a positive trend and I pray it continues. It’s hard to remove a single part from its whole and try to impact it outside of it’s natural ecology. Family ministry is necessary for the future of our churches.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Every crystal ball is foggy at best. What are other trends you believe will need to be addressed to ensure the viability of youth ministry in the next ten years?
We all know youthworkers who have lost credibility with their students. We often pass judgment on them and know personally what we would have done differently. However, what makes a youthworker credible in an teenager’s eyes may be different from what a youthworker thinks will make them credible. Credibility is often confused with trustworthiness and likeability, with the youthworker more concerned with with being liked than respected. But teens are smart consumers, and they know the difference between authentic adults and those just trying to sell a product.
We want to look at the ways adults in youth ministry often lose credibility with the students in their ministry. Usually the intentions are good, but sometimes the outcomes of our ministry efforts are not. Adults in general can try to hard, control too much, or pretend something is working when it clearly in not, and this is typically because they don’t know what else to do.
Craving the Teen’s Approval
For some of us the validation we receive from the teens we serve can be a powerful experience. Many of us involved in youth work are there because we had a particular experience in our own adolescence. For some of us, it is an opportunity to return the favor and investment made on our behalf. It is a chance to make a difference in the lives of the youth in our community and we have a sense of calling and/or obligation to do this.
For others though, it may be a more pathological motivation. I have met, on more than one occasion, the youth worker who is trying to re-live their teenage years vicariously through the students they minister to. This is an insidious and often beneath the surface drive but is none-the-less real. It plays out like this; I didn’t get validation from my peers during my formative years so now I am living that out in ministry and trying to gain their approval today, as if my intrinsic worth is tied up in their opinion of me.
This typically results in shallow ministry fruit because the goal, intended or unintended, is not spiritual growth but personal validation from the students to the adult. This does not mean that God won’t use an person’s past hurts in ministry today but if these hurts cloud your ability to see things clearly then the individual may do more harm than good.
Being too Cautious
As a result of seeking the student’s approval the youth worker must then measure everything that said to the youth. This is much like a couple’s first date. The individual does not want to say or do anything that would reflect poorly on them and end the chances of future endeavors.
This can occur in ministry as well. During the early stages of rapport building this is quite understandable but as time goes on trust and trustworthiness should develop. These two things cannot develop is one party has an ulterior motive. Also, once the relationship does develop it is difficult for the youth worker to speak challenging truth into the lives of their students for fear of losing their affirmation. A wise man told me once that I should “love people enough to tell them the truth”. This can’t be done if one can not remain objective.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
Rainbows, Pixies, Jelly Beans, and the Warm Fuzzies are not the substance of (most) teenagers lives. Often, we sell them a fantasy world that says, “If you just accept Jesus then everything magically gets better!” Ta-Da! The quickest way to lose credibility, and therefore your influence, is to pull a bait-and-switch regarding what it means to follow Jesus.
Trying too Hard
Sometimes we can try way too hard to convince the students that they need Jesus. I know that sounds antithetical to what we’re trying to do but kids can tell when the experiences they have with us are more about us meeting an objective that genuinely loving them. Sometimes we need them to believe because we are the ones that doubt. It’s like them coming to believe in Jesus validates our own faith. This can be dangerous to both the students and us. A faith that is built on “sand” is shakey at best and the damage it can do to the budding, young faith of a student is very real. We must get this in check.
Lastly, we lose credibility when we try to be the expert on all things. There is nothing so apparent to teens than a know-it-all youth worker. We mask the fact that we don’t know the answers and kids can pick it up in our voice, our choice of words, body language, eye contact, and the stammer in our speech. Our attempts to cover this unknowing only reduces our credibility and makes the situation worse.
This list in not even close to being exhaustive. We should constantly be aware of those practices that erode our influence over our students. It is our belief that students are looking for credible adult guides to lead them out of the wilderness of adolescence. Teens will usually follow those worth following and their loyalty remains for many years after they leave our ministries. Are you leading in such a way that you keep up a strong level of credibility? Are you leading and serving in a way that young people know you are trustworthy of following? And if you are, who is it you are pointing them toward?
Remember this scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Man, this scene resonated with me because I had experiences like this when I was a student. I have also, unfortunately had youth ministry experiences like this when students wiped their saliva off their cheek after nodding out from listening to me drone on and on…
Our first objective as teachers is to capture our students’ attention. If we don’t gain their attention, the chance that they’ll learn anything is remote at best. The process of attention serves two primary purposes, the first of which is survival. The brain kept our ancestors safe by alerting them to possible hazards in their midst like strangers, thunder clouds, or wild animals. Fortunately, it is the rare occasion that survival is at stake in youth ministry. Instead, attention serves its second purpose – maintaining pleasurable feelings. The hot girl with the pierced tongue, a double chocolate ice cream bar, and listening to pop music are pleasurable diversions for modern teenagers. So are funny stories, terrible tragedies, and first loves, which the bible is full of.
So why does it seem that our kids are tuning out?
The brain is bombarded with information from the senses. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste finds its way to the sensory receptors, from the clothes on your back to the beige walls of the youth group room and the radio playing softly in the back ground. At the base of the brain is the brain stem, which controls involuntary actions like breathing, blood pressure, and heartbeats. Deep within the brain stem is the reticular formation, a system of neurons that gathers information from all of your senses and controls your awareness levels. Some awareness is at a conscious level (what you see and hear a speaker do and say) and some at an uncounscious level (the color of the walls or the socks you are wearing). It would be impossible for the brain to consciously focus on each bit of data it receives. You may be oblivious to the feel of a baseball hat on your head while the cute girl beside you captures your full attention. Consider the immense amount of information the brain is capable of absorbing, from the food stuck in your teeth to the lint on your coat, we are fortunate to be able to forget most things. Otherwise, we’d overload.
Ask a group of teenagers what they think about youth group teaching times and you might hear answers like: “Boring.” “Stupid.” “It sucks.” Of course, friends, potential dates, meals, and doodling don’t bore them; the adolescent brain is fascinated by (and seeks out) novelty and emotion (Koepp et al., 1998; Spear, 2000). Sitting through a youth group lecture (especially one that is self-indulgent) that fails to include either is the real test of a teen’s attention. Many teaching strategies have a great deal of difficulty keeping attention and arousing emotion, both of which are necessary to stimulate change in behavior. Lecture, which can be an efficient way to deliver information, is often not emotionally charged. Objective memorization rarely generate emotion and are often difficult to apply to real-world applications. Yet lecture is still a dismayingly popular means of presenting content. We miss opportunities when we overuse strategies that neglect our emotional and cognitive constitution – two powerful memory builders.
I’m not suggesting that we dress up like clowns and juggle for our students. I am suggesting that we understand their learning abilities and compensate for their developmental limitations and strengths.
How can we engage our students cognitive and emotional abilities in ways that motivate change in their hearts and their behaviors?
The age of one-size-fits-all youth ministry is over. It has to be. We live in a dynamic time filled with diversity. This is an exciting time to be in ministry to youth. Our world is smaller than ever before. Cultures are not only clashing but blending to create new expressions of culture. In this new era of modern life(culture) context is king.
Think about your average youth group gathering. Think about the different elements that are present in your group:
- Countries of origin
- Race and ethnicity
- Religious background
- Parenting styles that shaped them
- Generational influences
- Abilities and disabilities
- Sexual orientation
- Political leanings
- Thinking styles
- Values and beliefs
- Style and tastes
Historically we would rush in with an attempt to connect with kids on our terms with our own personal culture leading the way (just a heads up, I’m pretty sure nobody listens to Petra anymore so don’t lead with that). In other words, just like early missionaries did, we would try to strip them of their own culture and colonize them to be, think, look, and act just like us. It’s no wonder they have gone underground.
Instant digital music, iPods, YouTube videos, Facebook, etc.
What other cultural artifacts can you think of, as it relates to contemporary youth?
Values and Assumptions:
Individualism, consumerism, instant gratification, collaborations, cause-driven, tolerance, etc.
What other values and assumptions can you identify that are held by youth today?
Where did these values and assumptions come from?
Jocks, emo, nerds, Queen Bee, bully, outgoing, shy, obnoxious, flirty, school spirit, etc.
What is the current dominant personality being presented by each individual student?
Is there a connection between the personality and behaviors?
Often, all we see are the cultural artifacts and we base our own assumptions on these.
“When measuring your Cultural Intelligence, a few questions to ask yourself include:
- Am I conscious of what I need to know about a culture that is unfamiliar to me?
- Am I conscious of how my cultural background shapes the way I read the Bible?
- Do I determine what I need to know about a culture before I interact with people from that culture?
- Do I compare my previous ideas about a culture with what I actually experience during cross-cultural interactions?
- Do I check for appropriate ways to talk about my faith in cross-cultural situations?”
Is it fair to expect that we should be intentionally asking ourselves these questions as it relates to working with youth today? Can you image the amazing discussions you can have with your volunteers as you wrestle with these kinds of questions?
One of the Apostle Paul’s most famous speeches took place at Mars Hill, the Areopagus, in Athens. He noted that they appeared to be a very religious lot of people due to the sheer number of statues they had to their gods. In a brilliant move he identified the one statue that was for the “unknown” god and he saw his bridge. Paul then launched into his epic sermon about the “unknown” God and described our Father to the Greeks. He masterfully used a technique called bridge building to connect with his audience.
Kids today are completely enmeshed in pop culture. We could, and should be aware of what is shaping our youth today and much of what we see and hear impacts them more than we know. But I’m not simply talking about knowing what the newest Katy Perry song is blazing up the charts, what I’m talking about is building a bridge with a language of the soul.
In order to connect with young people they first have to know that you’re interested and trustworthy. They are most likely already suspicious of adults anyway. Too often we have an agenda for them and they know that. It’s what drives them underground many times. What we’re talking about here is a fundamental belief that we have something in common with the young people we love and hope to reach.
If we say things like, “Teens today are just so much more _________ than we were.” or “Kids today are just lazy and apathetic.” we create distance between us and them. If we fail to see that they have the same longings that drove us then and drive us now there will be no bridge to walk across. All we will have to work with is a shallow relationship and all the change we’re likely to affect is shallow compliance to an empty belief system. We have to find common ground and that common ground should be our shared humanity.
In his ground breaking book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Chap Clark identifies six intrinsic longings of all students. Those longings are: to belong, to matter, to be wanted, to be uniquely ourselves, for a safe place, and to be taken seriously. Who among us can’t relate to those longings? I work with drug addicted emerging adults. Daily they express to me their desire to satisfy those very longings and that much of their behavior was an attempt to do just that.
After some small talk I usually ask a student where in their life do they feel they belong. Where do they and what do they do that makes them feel like they matter? Who takes you seriously? Where are the safest places for you to just be yourself? These are the questions that matter to students even if they don’t have the language to articulate them.
What the Apostle Paul did was provide an opportunity for those in the crowd to have their longings satisfied in a permanent manner by depending on the One true God. A civilization that worships everything is an empty civilization desperately searching for meaning. They apparently hadn’t found that in the many false gods they worshipped.
We have the same opportunity to connect the kids in our community to the very God that Paul preached about to the Greeks but first we must take to time to build a bridge by learning about them and their longings. There is ALWAYS a bridge and it’s up to us to find it.