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White Privilege


There’s no denying who I am. I am a white, middle-class, straight, American, Christian male. I, and others like me, and we are legion, we are many, and we are in control of the American culture.

I have more power over my life than most others around the world. I didn’t steal this power from others. It was given to me by a generation of white males that didn’t steal it either. I’m not sure how far back we’d have to go to find the culprits but somewhere along the way (there are definite benchmark though), someone took power that wasn’t theirs to take. Using and benefiting from power that isn’t mine to begin with makes me complicit in the act of theft.

If someone steals a television from their neighbor and sells it to me without telling me it’s stolen, I cannot be held responsible for the theft. I may still have the privilege of using it and watching cable and movies on it but I’m not aware it shouldn’t be mine to begin with.

Once I learn the television is stolen (wake up), I have a moral and social responsibility to address this problem. If, instead, I just keep using the television, knowing it was stolen, I am complicit and an accessory to the act and I am equally responsible for the harm committed against the neighbor from which the television was stolen from.

I order to stay asleep (in denial about my privilege) I have to morally disengage. You can read about that here. Moral disengagement is the cognitive process where we justify our harmful actions towards others. It’s mental gymnastics.

I have come to the conclusion this year that I have not only profited greatly from this privilege but have sought to protect it by personally and systematically oppressing other people groups, other beloved children of God. I have undergone a personal, internal awakening, one in which I have become painfully aware of the origins of my privilege and the toll it has taken on others. Here’s a great post on how white people experience white privilege.

I once heard a talk at a conference in which the speaker talked about three phases of change; orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. 2016 has been a period of disorientation and I’m hoping 2017 will be a reorientation to a new normal. The disorientation started long ago but I became acutely aware of it this year while reading the following:

Peter’s Vision

9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.

13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

17 While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. 18 They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.

19 While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three[a] men are looking for you. 20 So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

21 Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

22 The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” 23 Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.

I spent the better part of the past year meeting with, talking to, interviewing and blogging and speaking about marginalized and vulnerable populations of people; LGBTQ youth, heroin users, racial minorities, refugees, people with disabilities, and people in the criminal justice system and the more time I spent listening to them the more ashamed I became of myself. I also became ashamed of my faith, for it was guilty of the same thing.

The focus of what I’ve learned this year is the danger of having too much (personal and corporate) dominance over a culture and how the systems that govern it may be contributing to a larger problem that will impact our personal and corporate faith for a long time to come.

As a white, middle-class, straight, American, Christian male, I am part of the power structure at the top of the ladder. When any group rises to the top it is often accompanied by a sense of privilege. It’s the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” mentality. And, it often happens without its members even knowing it. As a result of one group believing it has privilege, another group consequentially is oppressed. I have and you do not.

In other words, if people from the dominant groups, in this case, me, really saw privilege and oppression as unacceptable – if white people saw race as their issues, if men saw gender as a men’s issue, if heterosexuals saw heterosexism as their problem – privilege and oppression wouldn’t have much of a place in the future of the church. But that isn’t what’s happening. Dominant groups don’t often engage these issues, and when they do, it’s not for long or with much effect, and rarely do they address the systemic causes. I had developed throughout the course of my life; toxic ownership, entitled sense of power and control, unequal distribution of that power and control, a fear of scarcity, and a homogenous community.

When asked “How or Why?” certain responses pour out without hesitation. Because I benefited most in the dominant culture I don’t see privilege as a problem. Why couldn’t I see it?

  • Because I didn’t know in the first place. I was oblivious to it. The reality of privilege doesn’t occur to me because I don’t go out of my way to see it or ask about it and because no one dares bring it up for fear of making things worse. I also have no understanding of how my privilege actually oppresses others.
  • Because I don’t have to. If you point it out to me, I may acknowledge that the trouble exists. Otherwise, I don’t pay attention, because privilege shields me from its consequences. There is nothing to compel my attention except, perhaps, when a school shooting or sexual harassment lawsuit or a race riot or celebrity murder trial disrupts the natural flow of things.
  • Because I think it’s just a personal problem. I thought individuals usually get what they deserve, which makes the problem just a sum of individual troubles. This means that if whites or males get more than others, it’s because we have it coming – we work harder, we’re smarter, more capable. If other people get less, it’s up to them to do something about it.
  • Because I want to protect my privilege. On some level, I think I knew I benefited from the status quo and I just didn’t want to change. I felt a sense of entitlement, that I deserved everything I have and wanted, including whatever advantages I have over others.
  • Because I was prejudiced – racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist. My attitudes use to be consciously hostile towards blacks, women, lesbians, gay men, the poor. I believed in the superiority of my group, and the belief is like a high, thick wall. I developed circular reasoning to protect against myself against cognitive dissonance.
  • Because I was afraid. I may be sympathetic to doing something about the trouble, but I was afraid of being blamed for it if I acknowledge that it exists. I was afraid of being saddled with guilt just for being white or male or middle-class, attacked and no place to hide. I was even more afraid that members of my own group – other whites, other heterosexuals, other men, the ones that affirm my power – will reject me if I break ranks and call attention to issues of privilege, making people feel uncomfortable or threatened.

So there you have it. That’s me, or more accurately, the old me. A work is being done in me, as I look back throughout the last decade, especially as I look back over the last year and what has brought me to the place I am today. In my heart I want to have this vile, evil purged from me. I want to do the right thing.

Although doing the right thing can be morally compelling, it usually rests on a sense of obligation to principle more that to people, which can lead to disconnection (injustice) rather than to restorative justice (reconnection). I take care of my children, for example, not because it’s the right thing to do and the neighbors would disapprove if I didn’t, but because I feel a sense of connection to them that carries with it an automatic sense of responsibility for their well-being. The less connected to them I feel, the less responsibility I feel. It isn’t that I owe them something as a debtor owes a creditor; it’s rather that my life is bound up in their lives and theirs in mine, which means that what happens to them in a sense also happens to me. I don’t experience them as “others” whom I decide to help because it’s the right thing to do and I’m feeling charitable at the moment. The family is something larger than myself that I participate in, and I can’t be a part of that without paying attention to what goes on in it and how everyone is affected.

So, maybe that’s where I start today, maybe that’s where we all start…paying more attention to all the members of the family. Not just the few that look like us. But, it can’t just end there, as it usually does. We must share our lives and resources, breach cross-cultural barriers, take risk, and sacrifice our comfort if the church is to ever be what God intended for it to be.

Where do you see privilege in your heart and your community? Where do you see overt or subtle oppression? What unconscious biases are you becoming more aware of? What conversations do we need to start? How are our youth being shaped by privilege and oppression? Do we have real friendships with people not from our tribe? Do you have ideas and beliefs about people but don’t intimately break bread with them on a regular basis? Maybe that’s where we all start…That’s what Peter did when the Spirit showed him the vision. It took him three viewings, so know that we’ll struggle with this initially. That’s ok, embrace the disorientation and trust that God wants to reorient you to a new way of thinking, living and loving.

Building Bridges (pt. 3 – LGBTQ-Related Stress)


In the third part of our series on LGBTQ themes, our research/interviews revealed to us that there are extra layers of stress for LGBTQ students compared to their non-LGBTQ peers.

Growing up as a teen in today’s fast paced culture is hard enough as it is. To compound those struggles with stressors related directly to being an individual that identifies as LGBTQ can be overwhelming. So what are “normal stressors” all you are at risk for experiencing? Let’s take a quick look:

  • puberty/physical changes/body image issues
  • peer comparison
  • performance anxiety (school, athletics, roles at home, church, etc.)
  • pressures to engage in high-risk behaviors, such as; drug use, drinking, and sexual activity
  • academic stressors/college prep/career planning
  • family life/expectations (child care of younger siblings, household chores, etc.)
  • challenges related to managing emotions
  • onslaught of negative messages (self/family, peers, media, culture) and filtering them

Now let’s take a look at specific stressors identified by LGBTQ teens related to being LGBTQ:

  • internal/external homophobia
  • bullying/assault/death
  • stigma
  • social isolation/alienation/minority stress
  • academic struggles due to not feeling safe at school
  • higher risk of depression, self harm,, substance abuse, and suicide
  • fear of or actual rejection from family and friends
  • misconceptions by public related to what it means to be LGBTQ
  • pressure (internal or external) to suppress sexual identity/gender identity
  • incongruent identity
  • intersections, such as; disability, race, gender, gender norms, religious background/beliefs

These lists are probably incomplete but it gives you a clearer picture of what the average LGBTQ student is likely to deal with on any given day. High levels of relentless stress contribute to feeling hopeless and helpless, which is a precursor to suicidal ideation. This alone sets apart LGBTQ youth from their non-LGBTQ peers. This also contributes directly to further alienation and isolation. Regardless of your faith tradition and its respective doctrine about the issue of homosexuality, this kind of collateral damage to God’s beloved children cannot be acceptable to anyone calling themselves followers in the way of Jesus.

So, what might be a better way of engagement?

Developmental Relationships and Youth


1626473042009youth_summit_flyer_photoI came across this article from the Search Institute that is an update on their research of developmental relationships. The Search Institute adopted the term developmental relationships to describe the broader conception of relationships that are defined by the close connection between a young person and an adult or peer that powerfully and positively shapes the young person’s identity and helps the young person develop a thriving mindset. A thriving mindset is one that is focused on more than just surviving and is flourishing, thriving.

The Search Institute has created a Developmental Relationship Framework that is based on qualitative and quantitative research regarding developmental assets and focuses on making a positive impact in young people’s lives. I can’t help but think of the possible impact this research has on how we build relationships with youth in our homes, ministries, and communities as it relates to spiritual formation. There are 20 identified actions that make a relationship developmental. They are organized into the framework listed below:

Express CARE: Show that you like me and want the best for me.

  • Be present – pay attention when you are with me.
  • Be warm – let me know that you like being with me and express positive feelings toward me.
  • Invest – Commit time and energy to doing things for and with me.
  • Show interest – Make it a priority to understand who I am and what I care about.
  • Be dependable – Be someone I can count on and trust.

CHALLENGE Growth: Insist that I try to continuously improve.

  • Inspire – Help me see future possibilities for myself.
  • Expect – Make it clear that you want me to live up to my potential.
  • Stretch – Recognize my thoughts and abilities while also pushing me to strengthen them.
  • Limit – Hold me accountable for appropriate boundaries and rules.

Provide SUPPORT: Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.

  • Encourage – Praise my efforts and achievements
  • Guide – Provide practical assistance and feedback to help me learn.
  • Model – Be an example I can learn from and admire.
  • Advocate – Stand up for me when I need it.

Share POWER: Hear my voice and let me share in making decisions.

  • Respect – Take me seriously and treat me fairly.
  • Give voice – Ask for and listen to my opinions and consider them when you make decisions.
  • Respond – Understand and adjust to my needs, interests, and abilities.
  • Collaborate – Work with me to accomplish goals and solve problems.

Expand POSSIBILITIES: Expand my horizons and connect me to opportunities.

  • Explore – Expose me to new ideas, experiences, and places.
  • Connect – Introduce me to people who can help me grow,
  • Navigate – Help me work through barriers that could stop me from achieving my goals.

Spend some time with other adults and youth to flesh out these ideas. Here are some questions to get you started. Hopefully they will lead to other questions and solutions.

Beyond just understanding the concepts of developmental relationships how can we create space for and strengthen these necessary relationships in our homes, ministries, and communities?

How can we identify systems that support or stand in the way of the building of developmental relationships?

What methods and activities can we create the help new or existing relationships move towards a developmental relationship?

How can we collaboratively work with other youth oriented entities to build developmental relationships?

Visit http://search-institute.org for more information on developmental assets and developmental relationships.

A Mind For God (A Youth Ministry Perspective)


Moral RelativismI recently finished reading a small yet powerful book titled, A Mind for God by James Emery WhiteAs 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.

 Moral Relativism

 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.

 Autonomous Individualism

 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.

 Narcissistic Hedonism

 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

 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?

Sex (A little porn never hurt anyone, right…?)


porn-hook

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.

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Being Incarnational in the Midst of Tragedy


i-love-boston-by-wamWhat 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

Pre-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)

Event Factors

  •  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

Post-Event Factors

  •  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 FranklLogotherapy)

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…

Credibility in Youth Ministry


honestyWe 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.

I’m Stumped

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?

The Functionality of Sin


ducttapeTraditional 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. Take Whitney, a 15 year old high school sophomore who had recently been hospitalized for depression, self-injury and suicidal ideation. When she was brought to our youth group by one of our “professional evangelism daters” we just weren’t sure what to do in order to walk with her and her family through the next couple of years. This started us on a journey of seeking to understand these fringe issues (which really aren’t fringe any longer), to be better equipped to love these kids that God was sending us. We believed we were called to be good stewards of the kids He sent us and that meant pulling our head out of the sand, rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty.
Sin is such a complex issue, everything from understanding what it is to what it isn’t, to what are the systemic causes of it, to how we deal with the fallout of sin, to how we put programs in place to create an environment that not only discourages sin but fosters the belief that everyone, EVERYONE, is a child of God and treated accordingly.

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 a sinful individual we must first understand that our primary drive is to be connected. God first existed in community and we are created in Their image, aren’t we? 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 these means are healthy and affirming, and God honoring, placing God at the helm and others accordingly. Other times 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.

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.

If this is done well, as God first intended, then it significantly increases the likelihood of having generations of people who choose to enter into a relationship with Him, just as He ordained from the beginning of time.
When this doesn’t go as God intended the opposite result is the outcome. Brokenness in God’s creation exists. God’s children all fighting and pining instead of cooperating to satisfy the deepest longings of their heart. Longings placed in them to direct them to God and each other, in that order. We experience sin and its collateral damage when we invert that order, placing me and others before our relationship with God the Father.

This is where sin becomes functional. Sin becomes a means to an end. For a long time we have demonized our sinful youth as just giving in to their hedonic nature. What if there was more going on than just simple pleasure seeking? What is we began to ask the question, “What purpose does sin have?”. Would this change the way we approach our youth and their sinful behaviors? What if we started having conversations about other ways, more God-honoring ways, to meet the deepest longings of their hearts? What if we spoke the language of their heart and longings? What if we told them of a God who can satisfy these longings in real ways, so that it is God’s love that draws them not the fear of Him. What if we created space in our homes and gathering places where youth felt they belonged and mattered? If we could do this, with the help of the Spirit, would they drop their cheap substitute (sin) for the real deal (God)? What do we have to lose?

Bueller…Bueller…(Youth Ministry 101)



 

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?

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