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Youth Ministry and the Problem of Shitholes


Today would have been the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 89th birthday.  On this day, as we approach the 50th year since he was assassinated, we celebrate the radical life and legacy of Dr. King – along with others who have and continue to work to dismantle systemic racism and fight for civil rights and justice.  And yet, as we celebrate how far we have come, we must acknowledge how much farther we have to go.

Just last week, on the eve before MLK weekend began, in a meeting with lawmakers discussing immigration reform, the President of the United States called El Salvador, Haiti, and other African countries “sh*tholes” and questioned why the U.S. needed more people from these countries rather than from places like Norway.

Let’s just be clear: it is downright racist for anyone to say and believe these things.  And it is inexcusable and incredibly dangerous for our country’s president to be the one to do so and for other national and religious leaders to remain silent or to downplay his beliefs and behaviors.

God created ALL humankind good and in God’s image. God created ALL nations good. There are no sh*thole countries.  And the United States is lucky to be made up of people from El Salvador, Haiti, and other countries in Africa, who have made this country a better place.

When we wonder if anything or anyone good can come out of that “sh*thole” continent, country, city, neighborhood, school, or whatever other place we label as inferior, let us just remember who Nathanael encountered after he said “Can anything good come out of (that sh*thole) Nazareth?” (John 1:43-51)

(I think it’s no coincidence that this just so happened to be yesterday’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading.)

Yet, Philip responded to Nathanael by extending him an invitation to open his eyes and his heart and to “come and see” for himself.  Building relationships with and learning about people and places that are different from us and from what we know help us begin to break down stereotypes and other barriers that cause misunderstanding, division, and hate.  As we see with Nathanael, once he started to build a relationship with Jesus, he began his journey toward his own transformation.

As youth ministers and youth workers, we have an opportunity to invite our youth to open their eyes and hearts and to “come and see.”

And as leaders in the church who work with youth, as Christians, and as members of the human race, we have a responsibility to call out racist stereotypes, words, actions, and beliefs for what they are and to denounce them… even and especially if they are carried out by our national leaders.  When we do so, we begin to model for our youth how they – too – can and should call out and shut down stereotypes and racist remarks and actions, no matter whom the person is that is behaving in such a manner.

This is not a partisan issue.  This is not about a political party or a particular politician.  This is about the evil and harmful sins of racism and white supremacy.  And they must be shut down.

Because to be silent about these statements and beliefs is to be complicit.  To ignore such statements and actions sends several strong messages to our youth and their families.

Our silences tells our youth and families that the racist statements and beliefs of the President are normal, are true, and thus can be continued.

Our silence tells our youth of color and their families that not only are they not valued by their country and many of their country’s leaders, but that they are also not valued by us, by the Church, or even by God.

Our silence tells all of our youth and families that some people – based on skin color and/or country of origin – are superior to others.  It says that God does not actually care about the “least of these” and that people of faith should just ignore God’s call (which we hear throughout the scriptures) to welcome and care for the immigrant and refugee, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim God’s good news of justice and peace to the world.

So how can we – as youth ministers and youth workers – break our silence?  

There are many ways, but we can start by:

  • Publicly calling out all forms of racism (individual and systemic, overt and covert) on social media, in church newsletters, in our sermons, and in our worship liturgy (prayers, calls to confession, music, etc).
  • Continuously educating ourselves on racism and immigration issues and actively working to become anti-racists. (For those of us who maintain white privilege: we must listen and learn about our own racism and how we benefit from and contribute to systemic racism.  This is a life-long journey.)
  • Leading youth group discussions about what scripture has to say about racial justice and immigration and teaching youth about immigration history in the U.S. and current issues related to immigration justice.
  • Leading youth group antiracism discussions, book studies, and workshops on how youth can identify, call out, and shut down racist comments and actions.
  • Helping youth learn about and from people and places that are different from them and from what they know.  (Teach youth about the history and current contexts of other countries, cities, and neighborhoods.  Take them on trips; share stories and videos; partner with other congregations; bring in speakers from immigration/refugee resettlement organizations, etc.)
  • Empowering youth to work for immigration and racial justice.  (Help them write and call their elected officials, asking them to publicly condemn racist statements and actions and to pass just policies.  Take them to town meetings, marches, teach-ins, and rallies that call for racial, economic, and immigration justice.)

Rev. Emily Heitzman is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor serving as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households at three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago: Unity Lutheran, Ebenezer Lutheran, and Immanuel Lutheran.  She runs a collaborative, multicultural youth group that consists of youth from the three congregations as well as youth from the neighborhood. Emily loves hiking in the mountains, attending indie and bluegrass concerts, biking along Lake Michigan, and singing opera and musical theatre. She has a heart for youth, justice, and the Huskers, and can often been seen with coffee or a Guinness. Emily is one of the writers for The Pastoral Is Political feature on HTTPS://REVGALBLOGPALS.ORG. You can find more of her reflections, sermons, and youth ministry ideas on her blog at HTTP://MUSINGSFROMABRICOLAGE.WORDPRESS.COM and connect with her on twitter at @PASTOREMILYH.

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Fringe Initiatives 2018


Conversations on the Fringe has launched several initiatives in 2018 that we believe are important work. Innovation occurs on the fringes of mainstream culture and disrupts the status quo. Take a few minutes to explore the projects we are currently working on and let us know if you are interested in being a partner in innovative disruption by hosting a unique and customized event in your area.

Contact us today to schedule your training/workshop cschaffner@fringeconversations.com

Help Sheets for Youth Workers


Jim Hancock has been a mentor from afar for many of us serving at-risk youth. He and Rich Van Pelt have created an invaluable resource in the form of Help Sheets for Youth Workers. These help sheets are design for the purpose of helping youth workers where they are. They might use this as a launchpad to take a family further when a crisis arises or, for someone who‘s inexperienced, it might double their knowledge on short notice.

I have used Jim and Rich’s resources for the better part of two decades. They were, and remain, staples in my resources collection today.

Some of these worksheets are free and others for a small cost. They are worth the investment either way. You can visit Jim’s website here at The Tiny Company Called Me for more details.

Help Sheet Topics

  • Cutting and Self Harm
  • Sexual Abuse Victim
  • Asking Good Questions
  • Bullying
  • Confidentiality
  • Referrals
  • Reporting Abuse
  • Suicide and Homicide Threat
  • Traumatic Events
  • Hazing

Books We Read In 2017


The Color of Law: A Forgotten History Of How Our Government Segregated America – Richard Rothstein

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated AmericaIn this groundbreaking history of the modern American metropolis, Richard Rothstein, a leading authority on housing policy, explodes the myth that America’s cities came to be racially divided through de facto segregation—that is, through individual prejudices, income differences, or the actions of private institutions like banks and real estate agencies. Rather, The Color of Law incontrovertibly makes clear that it was de jure segregation—the laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments—that actually promoted the discriminatory patterns that continue to this day.

Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America – Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in AmericaAmericans like to insist that we are living in a postracial, color-blind society. In fact, racist thought is alive and well; it has simply become more sophisticated and more insidious. And as award-winning historian Ibram X. Kendi argues in Stamped from the Beginning, racist ideas in this country have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit.

The Hate You Give – Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveSixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

The Feminine Mystique – Betty Friedan, Anna Quindlen

The Feminine MystiqueLandmark, groundbreaking, classic—these adjectives barely do justice to the pioneering vision and lasting impact of The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, it gave a pitch-perfect description of “the problem that has no name”: the insidious beliefs and institutions that undermined women’s confidence in their intellectual capabilities and kept them in the home. Writing in a time when the average woman first married in her teens and 60 percent of women students dropped out of college to marry, Betty Friedan captured the frustrations and thwarted ambitions of a generation and showed women how they could reclaim their lives.

The South Side: A Portrait Of Chicago And American Segregation

The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American SegregationMayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel have touted and promoted Chicago as a “world class city.” The skyscrapers kissing the clouds, the billion-dollar Millennium Park, Michelin-rated restaurants, pristine lake views, fabulous shopping, vibrant theater scene, downtown flower beds and stellar architecture tell one story. Yet, swept under the rug is the stench of segregation that compromises Chicago. The Manhattan Institute dubs Chicago as one of the most segregated big cities in the country. Though other cities – including Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Baltimore – can fight over that mantle, it’s clear that segregation defines Chicago. And unlike many other major U.S. cities, no one race dominates. Chicago is divided equally into black, white, and Latino, each group clustered in their various turfs.

The Blood Of Emmett Till – Timothy B. Tyson

The Blood of Emmett TillThis reexamines a pivotal event of the civil rights movement—the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till. In 1955, white men in the Mississippi Delta lynched a fourteen-year-old from Chicago named Emmett Till. His murder was part of a wave of white terrorism in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared public school segregation unconstitutional. Only weeks later, Rosa Parks thought about young Emmett as she refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Five years later, Black students who called themselves “the Emmett Till generation” launched sit-in campaigns that turned the struggle for civil rights into a mass movement. Till’s lynching became the most notorious hate crime in American history.

Evicted: Poverty And Profit In The American City – Matthew Desmond

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American CityIn this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon To White America – Michael Eric Dyson

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White AmericaAs the country grapples with racist division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice soars above the rest with conviction and compassion. In his 2016 New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot Stop―a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted.

Nigger – Dick Gregory

Dick Gregory was an American civil rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur, cultural icon, and comedian who first performed in the 1950s. He is the author of more than a dozen books, most notably the bestselling classic Nigger: An Autobiography. He died in 2017.

Dream With Me: Race, Love, And The Struggle We Must Win – John Perkins

Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must WinAccording to recent surveys and studies, race relations in the United States are the worst they’ve been since the 1990s, and many would argue that life for most minorities has not significantly improved since the civil rights era of the 1960s. For so many, the dream of true equality has dissolved into a reality of prejudice, fear, and violence as a way of life.

John M. Perkins has been there from the beginning. Raised by his sharecropping grandparents, Perkins fled Mississippi in 1947 after his brother was fatally shot by a police officer. He led voter registration efforts in 1964, worked for school desegregation in 1967, and was imprisoned and tortured in 1970. Through it all, he has remained determined to seek justice and reconciliation based in Christ’s redemptive work.

Top 10 Highlights of 2017


Reimagining Adolescence: A Workshop for People Who Love Adolescents – We launched this training in early 2017 and receive tremendous feedback. In this training we explore how culture, biology, society, and psychology all intersect in the developing adolescent. We loved the people we met around the state; parents, teachers, youth workers, social workers, etc. and everyone of them are to be honored for their commitment to impacting the lives of young people.

Urban Youth Workers Institute National Conference – We love spending time in Southern California, on the beautiful campus of Azusa Pacific with Larry Acosta and his awesome staff from UYWI. Joining Larry and his team each year to invest in urban youth workers is always a highlight for us. The hard work of ministering to at-risk/at-potential youth is unparalleled in so many ways. The resilience of these saints and the kids they reach in inspiring.

Youth Leadership Academy – Elgin Community College hosts the Youth Leadership Academy, a six year intensive for 7th grade through 12th grade that focuses on character development, life skills, and service learning projects. Each student accepted to and completes the program will receive two years of free tuition at ECC and upon completion of an Associates Degree will receive another two years of free tuition at Judson College. This program deters the school to prison pipeline that often exists in impoverished communities.

Community Conversations – We hosted and facilitated community conversations on a variety of difficult topics this year. During these discussions, we addressed some of the following; parenting in the digital age, depression & suicide, anger & anxiety, self-harm, adolescent development, conflict & communication, the impact of popular culture, and current drug trends. These community dialogues are intended to make the general public aware of the issues adolescents face today and best practices for walking alongside them.

Faith Forward – Faith Forward is an annual gathering of forward thinking Christian leaders. This is one of our favorite annual gatherings and it continues to give us life in the work we do. We had the privilege of teaching a breakout session there on Family Systems, Attachment Theory, and the Imago Dei.

Not At My School: Anti-Bullying Program – This was a new initiative in 2017. It is aimed at elementary and middle schools to help create safer, more welcoming, and healthier social and learning environments. Working with the young children who participate in this program was so much fun. Several of the classes we worked with developed Not In My School groups that continued the work of shaping the culture of their schools. These students leaders inspired us all throughout the year, and continue to do so.

Race and Racism: A Visitor’s Guide (An Adult Learning Community) – We cautiously and hesitantly launched this class at a local church. The purpose of this class was to help white Christians deconstruct their whiteness. In the context of a learning community, several people engaged in the difficult work of learning about and challenging their white privilege and supremacy. This work continued after the class ended but this community still journeys together online and in personal relationships.

Grant Coordinator – Our founder, Chris Schaffner, took a new community-based position at the end of the summer. He continues to lead Conversations on the Fringe but in addition to that he is the coordinator for the Drug Overdose Prevention Program through the state of Illinois. He oversees 38 counties and works with three sub-contractors. The work they are doing together is making a difference in the lives of individuals and families impacted by the opioid epidemic that is ravaging our country. There were 64,000+ overdose deaths in 2016. Chris, along with his team,  trains and distributes Naloxone (Narcan), an overdose reversal medication in all 38 counties.

Foster Care – Chris and his family have also entered the world of Foster Care in 2017. Their home has always been a respite for those in need of a warm bed and hot meal but this year they began the process of becoming licensed foster care parents. They’re hope is to offer their home to older teens that are among the hardest to place, so much so, that many age-out of the system without foster care placement. Please pray for them as they continue their journey into “loving the least of these”.

Willow Jean – The number one highlight of 2017, we welcomed Willow Jean Schaffner into the world. Chris’ son and his significant other gave birth to their first grandchild. They are thrilled to transition into grand-parenting and readily accept the title. Willow represents hope and audacity at a very dark time in our country’s existence. Her smile and big bright eyes shine light into that darkness and continues to motivate us to do the work we’ve been called to.

A warm and grateful thank you to all of you who supported us in 2017. We look forward to some new opportunities in 2018.

May 2018 usher in a growing awareness of your intrinsic value to the human race and to the ushering in and growth of the Beloved Community, in which everyone is welcome to.

Grace and peace,

CotF

How Rape Culture Is Implanted In Boys At An Early Age


Just turn on the news and you will see stories from the #metoo and #churchtoo movement. This movement is driven by large numbers of men and women (mostly women) who are reporting sexual misconduct among powerful people in politics and Hollywood. It is starting to feel like a reckoning that has been a long-time coming.

As a father of three girls and a son, I am concerned with the culture they will have to navigate and the influence of that culture on their understanding of power, gender, and equality. Unfortunately, as research is revealing, our children are being indoctrinated in rape culture ideas before they turn five. Let’s look at some of the ways this happens:

1. “Go Give Everyone A Hug Goodbye”

How often do we force young child to display affection to people in their lives? Sometimes it’s a familiar person and other times it’s someone less known to the child. Yet, we push them into the arms of someone even if they have no desire. What we teach our children when we do this, is their personal and internal boundaries do not matter.

2. “Boys Will Be Boys”

When a boy makes an unwanted gesture towards someone else that is aggressive or sexual in nature, we often minimize their behavior and chalk it up to “boys being boys”. When we reduce their behaviors to genetics they cannot be held accountable for their actions. This type of entitlement can grow into unwanted sexual advances in which the young man expects sexual favors in exchanged for his attention, financial investment, and time sacrificed for the object of his affection.

3. “Dress Modestly”

School dress codes are notorious for perpetuating the idea that boys/men are weak-willed in their sexual urges and the girls/women should be hypervigilant, keeping themselves appropriately covered at all times, so as not to trigger their male peers. This idea also tells young girls that they are not in charge/have no power over, and that men define the relationship the can have with their own bodies. Another damaging concept from the modesty movement is girls who dress less modestly clearly invite sexual advances.

4. “He Must Like You, That’s Why He’s Picking On You”

Can we please stop telling our young girls that when a boy in her class hits her, pulls her hair, or calls her a name, it’s because he secretly “likes” her? This is so clearly damaging and sends the wrong messages to both the girls and the boys. Girls can learn to believe that aggression and love are inseparable, and as that plays out into the teen years, intimate partner violence  has the potential to increase as well.

The idea that if a young man loves someone he must violently protect or prevent her from leaving. This leaves our young men so emotionally fragile and gives them a ready excuse for their behavior, “I couldn’t help it, I love her”. This does not extrapolate well into adulthood.

5. “Relentless Persistence Is Romantic”

Lastly, the notion that love is persistent is damaging. It can seem innocent and passionate on the surface but it has more insidious roots. Relentless pursuit of another in the face of opposition from the one being pursued is called stalking. It is coercive, manipulative, and can lead an eager young men to challenge the idea that “no means no” actually really does mean “No”.

Our children a constantly receiving messages as they grow that shapes the way they interact with peers of all genders. Let’s be sure we are not intentionally or unintentionally laying the wrong foundation for how they connect with one another.


chrisChris Schaffner is a counselor and veteran youth worker. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Conversations on the Fringe Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Conversations on the Fringe. 

Top 10 Blog Posts of 2017


Here’s our annual list of most viewed blog posts for the year. We did not publish as much content this year as we have in earlier years but we got more traffic on the site. That’s largely due to a couple of cultural phenomenons, such as Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix and continued race and racism related issues. There were a lot of people looking for answers to some hard questions this year. Here’s what we saw from you…

  1.  Thirteen Reasons Why Discussion Guides
  2. Addressing the Racial Climate in Your Youth Group
  3. Trauma-Informed Youth Ministry
  4. Beyond Whiteness: Resources on Race for White Congregations
  5. After Text Message Case, Words Matter Even More
  6. Language Matters
  7. The Art of Connecting with Kids on the Fringe
  8. A Report on Eating Disorders (by a 12 year old)
  9. A Report on Bullying (by a 12 year old)
  10. Youth Ministry and the Post-Modern Learner

We added two new content creators this year as well, Patti Gibbons and Melissa Rau. Patti is penning our Fringe Parenting articles and Melissa helped curate and write the Thirteen Reasons Why Discussion Guides. We’re excited to share more from each of them in 2018 and are looking to add a couple fresh voices as well.

Thanks for your support this year. We believe deeply in the work we’re doing and couldn’t do it without your support.

Merry Christmas,

CotF

What We’re Watching


What We’re Watching is our new monthly review of film and screen media. We hope to share potentially useful and powerful media to discuss with others in an attempt to gain understanding of the world around us. We hope this is a helpful endeavor. Let us know if there are resources you’ve discovered that are worth sharing.

The Mask You Live In follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.

Pressured by the media, their peer group, and even the adults in their lives, our protagonists confront messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, devalue authentic friendships, objectify and degrade women, and resolve conflicts through violence. These gender stereotypes interconnect with race, class, and circumstance, creating a maze of identity issues boys and young men must navigate to become “real” men.

Experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education, and media also weigh in, offering empirical evidence of the “boy crisis” and tactics to combat it.

The Mask You Live In ultimately illustrates how we, as a society, can raise a healthier generation of boys and young men.

The Art of Connecting with Kids on the Fringe


After a workshop I facilitated on working with kids who are abused, an elderly woman approached me to ask me a question. She shocked me with the simplicity and depth of the question.  

Here’s what she said,

“I love the kids in my community but I don’t know how to connect with them. I want to reach out but don’t know where to start.  How do you do it?”

I can’t really remember what I told her, probably an overly simplified answer. I honestly never thought about it. I just did what felt natural when reaching out to others. Plus, I have the added benefit of being pretty simple, if I don’t know someone I would just introduce myself and talk to them. It wasn’t until I talked to my wife that she opened my eyes to the idea that for some this comes easy.  For others though it is an anxiety inducing event. I imagine we all long to reach out to this generation, a generation that is slipping through the cracks right before our very eyes, but the words escape some of us when needed most.  Some of us struggle with how to connect beyond a simple “Hello, how are you today?”

My wife and I talked about this for several hours over the next few days. We explored why connecting with these kids that seemed so different from us. Asking me how I connect with fringe kids is like asking a fish to describe water. I spend so much time out there on the fringe that it has become normal. Truth be told, I struggle to make connections with “normal” people. The “weirder” the better and easier. My wife often tells me I have a superpower: TEEN WHISPERER! (I think that sounds rather creepy and would definitely send up red flags to those who don’t understand youth workers.)

But, I have developed, over the years, skills to build bridges with teenagers. Still, many others report they just don’t know where to start.

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about ways to connect with teens on the fringe:

Bridge building

How to make that first contact in a meaningful way? Look for low-hanging fruit. Is the student wearing something you can connect over, like a sports jersey? I am a die-hard baseball fan. If I see a student wearing something related to baseball, I know I instantly have a bridge to walk across. If they are wearing a concert shirt from a band I know, that’s another bridge. Rainbow gear, they are likely a part of or a supporter of the LGBTQ community. Listening to Spotify, there’s a natural connection when you ask about what’s on their playlist. These are simple ways to get the conversation going.

Cultivating a spirit of learning

Curiosity is key in connecting with others.  How do we foster a spirit of curiosity? I always have back-pocket questions available when interacting with a resistant student. Such as, “Who are you listening to?” or “what have you read lately that either bored you to tears or inspired you?” Another question is, “What are you hoping to do after you graduate?” or “What problem do you hope to solve as you move into adulthood?” Occasionally I’ll bust out with a fun request, such as; “using only 5 words, tell me about yourself.” and when they give me those words, I ask them to “Tell me more about that.”

It is also important to stay curious about youth culture. What are teens paying attention to in popular culture, what type of technology are they using, and what other cultural artifacts are capturing their attention? Another area to stay curious about it adolescent development. We are learning so much about the body and brain that we can barely keep up with it. This is immeasurably helpful when working with teens.

Law of the lid

We should explore our preconceived expectations of these fringe kids and how they impede our interactions with them. Adults are prone to make quick assessments of kids, with limited information, and then make a universal determination about that particular kid is like. For example, a new student comes to youth group. You reach out and make no headway towards a connection. In fact, the student basically ignores you. If we use that single experience to judge that kid, it will likely impact all of our future experiences with them. We set a limit on what we expect from certain kids and often underestimate others who seem different. When we do that we place a “lid” on them and after repeated hitting their head on that “lid” may decide to throw in the towel and give up trying to push beyond it.

The culture of an individual

Each student is a culture unto themselves. How will we  explore that culture as it relates to effectively building a relationship with them? Some examples of what makes up the culture of an individual: Country of origin, race and ethnicity, religious background, parenting styles that shaped them, generational influences, abilities and disabilities, personality traits, gender and sexual orientation, political leanings, thinking styles, values and beliefs, as well as style and tastes.

Doing away with my agenda

How my agenda actually breeds a distrust that is nearly impossible to overcome. Teens have an innate ability to smell an ulterior motives like a fart in a car. Our approach must be genuine and sincere. For years youth ministries have been guilty of pulling a bait-and-switch on our prospective students. With this current generation, who long to belong before they come to believe, we must place a higher value on authentic friendship than on conversion experiences. So often when kids are coerced or harassed into believing something they may not be ready to believe, but do so to stay connected to the community. All we end up with then are faux disciples engaged in shallow compliance to belong. Generation Z will not stick around for that and consider it a betrayal to their values to pretend for our sake.

Checking our personal bias at the door

Often our personal biases impact how well we connect with others, especially those different from us. Let’s just all be honest together and admit that we have them. There are certain students we are drawn to. These kids are similar to us in lifestyle and values. The flesh is typically drawn to that which is familiar and often the path of least resistance. I just want to acknowledge this and say that it is alright. It’s perfectly normal. Which is precisely why we must be vigilant about our unconscious biases, because they will hinder us from reaching kids that are different from us. I’ll never forget when I came to this awareness. One day a friend, who was black youth pastor from a neighboring church said to me, “Your youth group kids look and sound an awful lot like you.” At first I thought that might be a compliment but after contemplating this for a minute I realized I had only been homogeneous group of students that looked like, talked like, and valued the same things as me. I had not helped these kids become more like Christ, I had made them more like Chris. This was not a reflection of the Beloved Community that God longs for and I became aware that my unconscious biases played a part in the development of our youth community.

Finding common ground

Discovering shared experiences, dreams, fear, and failures. Humans are amazingly unique yet, very similar. We all have the same intrinsic longing inside, the same fears and dreams. If we think about it, we actually have more in common with each other than different. This shared experiences can knit us together in powerful ways. Imagine a group that longs for belonging committing to radical hospitality for all students in their community. I honestly believe you couldn’t keep kids from coming to a place like that.

What is being said without words

What story are they telling with their clothes, hairstyle, and nonverbal communication. This goes both ways, from their non-verbals to our non-verbals. For every person we meet, there is a story unfolding that we know nothing about. If we can lay down our agenda and simply learn to listen, they will tell us everything we need to know about them. Everything from their clothing choices, music, make up, to their behaviors, attitudes, and non-verbal communication will betray their want to secretive about the hurts and hopes they carry. The discerning youth worker will master the art of listening. Maybe this is less about what we have to say to the student and more about how we are fully present to them.

By doing these things, we increase our influence over the students we serve and they are more likely to choose to follow in the Way of Jesus, not because they were coerced or manipulated to do so. Instead, they will choose Jesus because that is what we have modeled to them.

May you speak louder through your actions. May your capacity for listening grow. May your discernment to see and hear the cries of our students increase. And may they know Jesus more because of you.

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