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.
What is trauma and what does it mean to survive and heal from it? This is a poignant question on the heels of another attack on our country. The bombings at the Boston Marathon will naturally impact those in attendance differently than those who watched the events through a screen, but we will all be impacted regardless.
Have you ever been just sailing along smoothly in life and then BAM? Trauma strikes and nothing in your life will ever be the same again…
Maybe it’s because of a talk you had with a student, maybe it was the phone call where you found out that one of your students was killed in a car accident, or worse, they died at their own hands. Maybe it is a natural disaster that wrecks your community like a flood or tornado. Maybe it is a senseless school shooting like Newtown. And in that moment, nothing makes any sense. What do you do? Do you run away? Do you decide you are not cut out for this kind of work? Do you just withdraw or run to something that will anesthetize you from the hurt? What do you do?
Before trauma occurs you and your students operate from a belief that the world is orderly, that most people are kind, and that there is meaning to life. You believe that God is in control of all things but prior to trauma that is a shallow belief because it has never been tested. Post-trauma you are awakened to the awareness that you are not in control of anything and that you are vulnerable. You begin to realize that you are no longer safe and secure. Often, what gave you meaning before the event leave in a smoke cloud and we are left grasping at straws. Life no longer feels fair or just.
In the PSTD Workbook (2002) Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula inform us that many factors impact how an individual reacts to a traumatic event. Age, time preparing for the event, amount of damage done to you, (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), the amount of damage witnessed, and the degree of responsibility one feels for causing or not preventing the event (pg. 5).
The authors go on to say that there are three major types of factors that influence the development of PTSD. They are pre-event factors, event factors, and post-event factors.
- Previous exposure to severe adverse life events or trauma or childhood victimization, including neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or witnessing abuse
- Hx. Of clinical depression
- Poor coping skills
- Unstable family system
- Early substance abuse
- Family hx. of anti-social / current anti-social behavior
- Poor social support
- Multiple early losses of people, places, or things
- Gender (women 2x as likely to develop PTSD)
- Geographic nearness to event
- Level of exposure to event
- The event’s meaning to the individual
- Age: being young at the time of the event
- Being victim of multiple traumatic events
- Duration of trauma
- The existence of an ongoing threat that the trauma will continue (e.g., war)
- Participation in an atrocity, as a perpetrator or witness
- The absence of good social support
- Not being able to do something about what happened
- Indulging in self-pity while neglecting oneself
- Being passive rather than active – letting things happen to you (disempowered)
- Inability to find meaning in the suffering (Viktor Frankl – Logotherapy)
The PSTD Workbook by Williams and Poiluja, New Harbor Publications, Inc. 2002
As I read through these lists I can’t help but think that our ministries could play a central role of addressing many of the present factors surrounding traumatic events.
Spend some time this week talking with your staff or volunteers and discuss the factors on these lists and ask, “How can we be incarnational in the midst of trauma and tragedy?” I’d love to hear your ideas on this…
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.
It is not enough for a youth ministry program to simply be ready to serve the Disabled Youth Community. Rather, the ministry should be proactive in making the Disabled Youth Community aware of it’s accessability. It is hoped that any ministry targeting youth with disabilities will be in contact from the outset with any known families or organizations serving them. It would not be a bad idea to contact such agencies to present your willingness to provide ministry opportunities for students and families that are interested, thereby providing a person contact for any of the referring staff. Of course, the best promotion for your youth group are students with positive experiences of interacting with your youth group.
Outreach material should assure potential students that your ministry gatherings are able to provide accessible, age appropriate youth ministry experiences for persons with a disability. In addition to stating that accommodations and alternative communication strategies can be provided as needed, you may wish to assure the students with disabilities that they are welcome by including the universal accessibility symbol on your literature or website.
There are many facets of an outreach ministry that can be modified to accommodate the needs of youth with disabilities:
- Tailor marketing materials, including signage, messages, brochures, website, and yellow pages ads to people with disabilities. Have all such material state that accommodations are available.
- If the ministry is committed to serving persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, have a dedicated line for a TDD, and have that TDD number printed on all outreach communications.
- Provide a sign interpreter if one is available.
- Create and use mailing lists of organizations that serve people with disabilities.
- Conduct specialized training and presentations (include students with disabilities in the creation of) for adult volunteers and student leaders.
- Adapt conference trips, camps, retreats, etc. with the disabled youth in mind.
- Recruit students with disabilities to the student leader team or hire an intern/staff with a disability.
- Work with family and support agencies (if necessary) to determine style of learning for students with cognitive impairments.
- Link with particular disability groups for their expertise and to create staff training opportunities.
- Be conscious of intersections (e.g. Latino youth who is gay and disabled)
Every ministry should expect to have students for whom they will have to make accommodations, but many of these accommodations will not require extensive or expensive changes. Perhaps even more importantly, making accommodations and adapting your ministry for youth based on their functional limitation should create and environment in which they can be restored to community. Often these disabilities carry with them stigmas that separate and isolation occurs. God’s purpose for all of us is to participate in the restorative activity of God in this world. This is just one of many ways we can do that.
As a general modification to the typical youth ministry gathering, it is necessary to accept different types of body positioning for people with disabilities – some people may need to stand up or move during group, and this activity should not be considered rude. Youth workers may have to keep group meetings short or schedule frequent breaks to help people who lack physical stamina and make allowances for increased travel time to gatherings for people who use wheelchairs or rely on public transportations.
Sometimes students with spasticity or other motor problems, such as those associated with quadriplegia, have voluntary or involuntary movements that are sudden and unusual for people not familiar with them. The youth worker should ensure that group members are not distracted by these movements and understand that they are a normal manifestation of some disabilities.
Youth workers are weary, and rightfully should be, of personal boundary issues (e.g. the side hug with members of the opposite sex). With a student with a physical disability that sense of what is proper may need to be modified for some in need of assistance, such as adjusting a wheelchair, etc. When the proper course of assistance is not apparent, ask the student of family for guidance.
The relative height of the youth worker and disabled student, when seated and talking, may also be an important consideration when working with a student who has a physical disability. Disproportionately great differences in seated height can hinder communication, especially relative to body language.
If a student with a disability has limited transportation options, the creative youth worker will find ways to minster to them and their family. Often visiting them at home or at an alternative site is will allow the youth worker to gain valuable insights into a person’s life and ultimately facilitate effective ministry. It also communicates to the student that they are valued enough to make the effort (we’re hopefully doing this to all students). Going to the residence of a student with disability also provides invaluable information about that student’s lifestyle, interests, and immediate environmental challenges.
Lastly, we must take into consideration not only the physical limitations the student might have, such as; playing certain games or traveling over certain terrain, but also the psychological and social consequences of the disability. Issues that may need to be addressed can include impulsivity, social isolation, low self-awareness relative to medical or psychological needs, anger, feelings of hopelessness, or outright fear at living life with the disability. These issues are hardly new to a seasoned youth worker, nor are the unique to persons with disabilities; however, a disability may exaggerate the severity of these conditions or their impact on your ministry efforts.