Search

conversations on the fringe

Category

Spirituality

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

Advertisements

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

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.

A Report on Bullying by a 12 Year Old


Chloe is a 12 year old (nearly 13 now) 7th grader from Central Illinois. She wrote this amazing piece on bullying. It’s such a powerful and insightful paper and it’s written by a tweenager.

Have you ever been bullied?

In this paper, I will tell you about the effects of bullying. Being bullied is terrible. There are a lot of different forms of bullying. Some forms include physical, emotional, cyber, and sexting. Sexting can be a form of bullying. It is one that is common but no one really talks about, but can still have the same effect as cyber bullying.

There is a lot of bullying in schools. School is where a lot of bullying starts. One effect is not being able to learn what you need in life because you stop going to school because you were being bullied. Another effect is depression, anxiety, drug use, and even suicide (Effects of Bullying, 2017). Usually if you are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender), you get bullied more. If you are LGBT, people treat you like you don’t exist. Usually they will try to hurt you if you are LGBT. You could also not be able to sleep because you are worried about being bullied at school the next day. Being bullied could lead on to drinking and taking drugs, and then you could die from an drug overdose.

Cyber bullying is where people get bullied the most today. People who get bullied on social media will be more likely to have depression (Effect of Bullying, 2017).  Sexting is also a form of bullying. Sexting affects how you look at yourself and could lead to bad self esteem. Poor self esteem is when you think you are ugly, dumb and you say bad thing about yourself. Sexting is when you send a nude of yourself and then the person you sent it to sent to all his/ her friend and then they kept sending it on and on then they would begin to tell stories about you, your body, or your behavior. And then you would have bad self esteem because of what people said about your body type. Sexting could also lead to anxiety because you try to starve yourself because of how you look at yourself or how you think others look at you. Some people even take pills that say it will make them skinnier but actually can’t. You can still die from a drug overdose if you take a lot of those.

The biggest effect of bullying is suicide. There are 4,400 death per year because of bullying. One of the most common suicide death are cutting him/herself, and taking drugs to die from a drug overdose. Another effect that leads to suicide is depression. When  someone suffers from depression, they tend to think everything is sad and you feel lonely. 10-14 year old girls will be at a higher risk of committing suicide study have shown (Bullying and Suicide, 2017).  Also, people who get bullied or have depression may take drugs because they think it will make them happier, but that can and will lead to a drug overdose if you keep taking them.

Bullying is a real problem. We need to put a stop to it. The suicide numbers will go up each year if we do not put a stop to it. People who are LGBT, an outcast, or people with disabilities should be treated equally. No one should be bullied because of who they are, they are all human beings, then they should be treated the same way as everyone else. And not just them, NO ONE should be treated like that. How as a nation or school or anyone, can we put a stop to bullying?

 

Language Matters to Adolescents


How we think and what we say has the power to give life or take life. As a counselor, I spend all day helping people explore the connection between their thoughts, beliefs, and actions. This model of therapy is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is best explained in the image below:

It is important to note that everyone does this. This is the normal flow of thoughts -> emotions -> behavior. The problem occurs when the thought process is distorted. This can happen because of bias, lack of information, or the language we use to describe a situation or individual/group of people. When we do any of the above, we engage in distorted thinking and this leads to behaviors that are based on those distortions, increasing the likelihood we will harm ourselves or others. (see cognitive distortions)

When I think about marginalized or vulnerable youth, language matters. The language a society uses to refer to a person’s distinctiveness shapes that society’s beliefs and ideas about that person or group of people. Words are powerful; Old, inaccurate, and inappropriate descriptors perpetuate negative stereotypes and attitudinal barriers. When we describe people by their labels of medical diagnoses, mental health conditions, skin color, or sexual orientation, we devalue and disrespect them as individuals. In contrast, using thoughtful terminology can foster positive attitudes about persons with distinctives that are different than the “norm”.

Fag. Sissy. Spaz. Retard. Nigger. Bitch. Cripple. Slut.

Now, imagine this scenario…

Imagine you’re a gay teenager who has been struggling with substance abuse for a number of years. You have tried to stop many times but failed. You are likely to begin thinking of yourself as a failure as you heap on the shame and regret. You’ve done some pretty awful things to the people you love in the process of supporting your addiction and have also done some things you’re too ashamed to talk about, like selling your family’s stuff or sleeping with a drug dealer for drugs. You find the withdrawals are so overwhelming that you can’t just stop and you resort to doing whatever you need to do, no matter how bad the behavior, to avoid being sick again. You now stay high most days just to avoid being sick and because it gives you a break from the self-loathing. Two thoughts run through your head on a regular basis, “What the heck is wrong with me” and “I am a piece of crap because I continue doing ____”. When you have these thoughts, and they are now frequent, you use drugs, or other unhealthy behaviors, just to push them out of your mind because if you keep thinking about those thoughts you tell yourself you might as well kill yourself.

Our words and the meanings we attach to them create attitudes, drive social policies and laws, influence our feelings and decisions, impact our culture, and affect people’s daily lives and more. How we use them makes a difference. People first language puts the person before distinctives, and describes what a person has, not who a person is. Using a diagnosis or condition as a defining characteristic reflects prejudice, and also robs the person of the opportunity to define him/herself as a child of God. (i.e., person with substance abuse difficulties, student who self injures, the individual that suffers from depression vs. addict, cutter, depressed.)

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis is the basis for ideologically motivated linguistic prescriptivism. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis states that language use significantly shapes perceptions of the world and forms ideological preconceptions.

Another consequence of using labeling language is that it paves the way for moral disengagement. Anytime an individual or a group of similar individuals are marginalized, moral disengagement has occurred. Moral disengagement is the cognitive process by which one clears away any mental obstacles to treat the individual or group poorly. As social beings, we cannot intentionally bring harm to one another without shutting off our empathy. Moral disengagement makes that happen. If you are going to “other” or “vilify” a group of people, for instance LGBTQ youth, you first have to change the way you see them. It would be nearly impossible to marginalize an entire group of beloved children of God but it is way easier to marginalize a group of fags, queers, and dykes.

A theology of the Imago Dei is one that placed our belovedness as a child of God, made in God’s very own image, before any other identifiers. It doesn’t mean we don’t have those distinctives that make us unique but it does take away the ability to separate people into value-based groups based on those distinctives.

So, what is your theological starting point? Is it Genesis 1 (original blessing/Imago Dei) or Genesis 3 (the fall of man/sin)? It really does matter. It shapes the story we tell ourselves about the youth we serve. Do we approach them through the lens of the Imago Dei, believing the truest thing about them is they are the embodied image of the living God? Or, do we immediately see them as broken and in need of fixing? What we believe will ultimately impact HOW we do ministry and how we think and talk about them, as well as the words we choose to use, shapes the narrative about God, the world, and their place in it.

Reimagining Adolescence: A Workshop for People Who Love Adolescents (June 17th, 2017)


Reimagining Adolescence: Kids growing up today are living in a world that is fundamentally different from the one their parents grew up in. This poses challenges to even the most adept adult. In this workshop you will discover the systemic cultural changes that are creating a whole new developmental experience for our kids as they attempt to find out their true identity and place of belonging.

This 1 day workshop is for all of us who struggle to understand the challenges adolescents face in today’s world. Join us as we explore the developmental, physiological, social, cultural, and spiritual complexities of guiding adolescents through contemporary society. This event is perfect for parents, grandparents, teachers, social workers, coaches, youth workers, or anyone else that love kids and desire to walk alongside them as they navigate an increasingly difficult world.

Here’s a sample of what you will cover in this workshop:

Adolescent Development

  • Primary tasks of adolescence
  • What drives adolescent behavior
  • Brain development
  • Sexual development
  • The Imaginary Audience (social)
  • The Invisible World
  • The Impact of marginalization

Mental Health Considerations

  • Systemic Abandonment
  • Identity Incongruence
  • Mental Health
  • Developmental Assets/Relationships
  • Discovering mission and purpose

LUNCH ON YOUR OWN

Surveying the Landscape

  • Pop culture influences
  • Toxic gender training
  • Shame and image
  • Culture and diversity
  • Technology

Praxis

  • Understanding power and agency in adolescents
  • Universal considerations
  • Listening better
  • Revisiting Developmental Assets/Relationships/Communities/Organizations
  • Empowering and letting go
  • Becoming friends with kids (mentoring)
  • Inviting them into adulthood (celebration and ritual)

If you are interested in attending this event, register soon. Space is limited!

There are two ways you can register:

Image result for eventbriteImage result for facebook logo

Creating and Supporting Developmental Communities


Kids are going to need more than just developmentally supportive relationships with adults. They also need developmentally supportive communities. 

The Search Institute has been researching developmental assets for youth for the better part of 50 years. The higher number of assets a young person has the higher the likelihood they will become thriving and contributing adults. The lower the number of assets, the higher the likelihood they will engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as bullying, substance use, or unsafe sexual practices. These behaviors often carry over into adulthood.

Conversations on the Fringe initiatives aims to equip individuals, organizations, and communities with tools to become asset rich and therefore increase the number of assets available to developing youth. We believe this will dramatically impact the outcomes of their journey into adulthood.

In 2017, we are highlighting three community-based asset developing programs. Each program exists to equip adults, organizations, and communities with real skills, tools, knowledge, and experiences to make a greater impact in the lives of the young they love and serve. You can choose and customize the program that best fits the needs of your youth and community.

RealTalkRealTalk Drug Prevention Program

RealTalk Drug Prevention programs are geared towards those who wish to have honest conversations about drugs and alcohol, providing science-based research drugs of abuse and adolescent brain development science.

bullyinglogoNOT IN MY SCHOOL: Anti-Bullying Program

This program helps to nurture safe school and social environments through empathy and character development by equipping students with skills to increase emotional and social intelligence.

No automatic alt text available.True North Student Leadership Intensives

Every student has leadership potential waiting to be nurtured and released. When young people assert their leadership they have the potential to unleash a powerful force for creativity and change.
Contact us today to find out about cost or if you are interested in scheduling one of our community-based program at your school, church, or organization.

Conversations on the Fringe

P.O. Box 74

Delavan, Illinois 61734

Phone: 309.360.6115

Email: cschaffner@fringeconversations.com

Check out our other Fringe Initiatives too!

Conversations on the Fringe: 2016 Year in Review


2016 was our busiest and most fruitful year to date. There’s so much that happened over the year that we’d love to share with you but we’ve condensed it down to the highlights. Thanks for making 2016 an awesome year. We’re looking forward to journeying through 2017 with you.

Grace and peace,

Chris Schaffner

Founder of Conversations on the Fringe

 

Top 10 Blog Posts

  1. Youth Ministry and the Post-modern Learner
  2. Teen Gender Dysphoria and Christmas Shopping
  3. Sex, Aggression, and Adolescents
  4. How to Talk About Intimate Partner Violence with Your Students: A Guide For Youth Workers
  5. Stages of Sexual Identity Development for LGBTQ Youth
  6. Imaginative Hope
  7. Trauma-Informed Youth Ministry
  8. White Privilege
  9. Protecting Against Sexual Abuse In Youth Programs
  10. This is Your Brain On Opiates

 

Highlights

  • Youth Specialties Facebook Live Q&A Series (self-harm, addiction, depression/suicide)
  • Can the Church Be Good News to LGBTQ Youth for the Illinois Mennonite Conference
  • Can the Church Be Good News to LGBTQ Youth at Simply Youth Ministry Conference
  • Conflict Management at Youth Leadership Academy at Elgin Community College
  • Reimagining Adolescence at the Faith Forward Gathering
  • Racial Reconciliation Experience at National Youth Worker Convention
  • Student Retreat at Heights Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, NM
  • Guest Lecturing at Eureka College on Systemic Abandonment and Moral Disengagement for the Juvenile Criminal Justice Program

 

New Initiative in 2016

Innovative Disruption – Helping churches disrupt the status quo and discover innovative ways to reach marginalized and vulnerable youth.

Fringe Life Support Training – Helping churches help hurting youth through pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, and mentoring.

RealTalk Drug Prevention – Working with communities who desire to have honest conversations about effective drugs and alcohol prevention among area youth. We offer a variety of educational opportunities for students, parents, schools, and communities.

Reimagining Adolescence – We explore the developmental, physiological, social, cultural, and spiritual complexities of guiding adolescents through contemporary society. This event is perfect for parents, grandparents, teachers, social workers, coaches, youth workers, or anyone else that love kids and desire to walk with them as they navigate an increasingly difficult world.

AND…CHRIS RAN INTO BILL MURRAY!!! (That was a personal highlight, even though he locked up and could barely talk to him.)

 

Dreams for 2017

True North Youth Leadership Training Online Cohort – This online student leadership cohort is aimed at nurturing and activating your student’s leadership through individual and group projects that will directly impact the community they live in.

Fringe Learning Labs – Learning Labs fill in the gap that traditional youth ministry education doesn’t address. We provide an affordable, customized training experience for volunteer and staff youth workers to explore difficult issues facing yout today; issues such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and mental health.

Prisoners of Love: Teen Dating Violence Education

Dirty Little Secrets: dealing with the Problem of Porn

Digital and printed resources for youth, parents, and youth workers

Incorporation as a 501c3 nonprofit organization

Youth Ministry and the Post-Modern Learner


I facilitate group therapy for beautiful people. We have people of color, various sexual orientations and genders, abled and disabled, employed and unemployed, affluent and poor, mentally ill, substance abusing, and a host of others who don’t fit into a neatly defined category. The thing they all have in common is they have come to me to learn. Some hope to learn the bare minimum they needs to learn to complete the program. Others are looking for a significant life change as a result of their engagement in this learning space.

I use to hold the belief that I had something they needed and my job was to share it with them and their role was to sit passively and consume this information. It was also their job to practice these principles in their affairs when they left, often without direct feedback from others who knew what they were trying to do. I took the same approach for years in youth ministry. These teens were empty vessels that needed me to pour into their lives and fill them with the knowledge of what they needed to follow Jesus (defined by our church community and tradition).

Fortunately, I’m curious and like to ask for feedback from those who are sitting in the learning space. I also love research. I love to read it, break it down, and try to apply it in real time. Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned over the years about how people learn best and why I think we need to reimagined how we pass on our faith to the current and future generations.

  1. Students must be at the center of what happens in the learning spaces – If teenagers are going to manage their emotions and become self-motivated learners they will have to be at the center of the learning experience. Often, in our youth ministry settings, it is the your worker that is at the center of the gathering. We are the ones on the stage, behind the pulpit, in the center of the circle, hoarding the words allowed to be spoken, setting the agenda and goals for the learning. Students rarely have anything to say about what they are being taught, how they are being taught, or the reasons they are being taught. This needs to change is we hope to create self-directed learners instead of mindless consumers.
  2. Students learn better in groups and rarely happens alone – We are social beings and we learn by interacting with each other. We learn when someone takes an idea you shared and extrapolate or pushes back. This pushing and pulling of ideas, in a collaborative setting, is what sharpens our vision and understanding of the subject matter being discussed.
  3. Our most powerful memories are connected to strong emotions – Faith communities have discounted the power of emotions in spiritual formation, citing their instability as a reason they can’t be counted on. As a result, we have stripped down our faith experiences to a simple set of academic memes we cognitively ascend to. The heart and soul is largely missing in the church today. The power of emotions to motivate one to learn cannot be overlooked. Consider this, if a student has high levels of stress at home or school, they won’t learn well. Similarly, keeping a student motivated (hungry) to learn about God, mankind, and their shared story, is the starting point of faith formation. If they understand why it matters, their journey becomes more important to them.
  4. Individual learning styles are a thing – Multiple learning styles have been largely ignored among the evangelical traditions of the Christian faith. We are still perpetuating the idea that people learn best and are spiritually formed best when one person stands before them and speaks words at them about a particular subject. This style of communication only engages one, or at best two, of the senses, decreasing the likelihood of retention and transformation. Post-modern learners almost need IEP (Individualized Educational Plans). Not because there is anything wrong with them as learners but because it is the better way forward. We live in a visual, digital, social world, and they are natives in this land. We cannot afford to try and make the information fit our outdated styles of teaching but must, instead, adapt our style of communication to the mediums that are culturally dominant today. We must strive for practices and processes that help leaders engage each student where they are.                                                                                                            Image result for kolb's learning styles And then there are multiple intelligences…but that’s a post for another time.
  5. Push but don’t break – We don’t want to push beyond a learner’s capacity, where they might just give up because the rules are too hard and instead engage in “shallow compliance” to the Ways of Jesus. We also don’t want to deny accountability to excellence or striving for righteousness. We are called to take up our cross daily. This requires concentrated effort and focus and self-control but, it shouldn’t exasperate the student to the point of giving up. There’s a sweet spot where they can experience a measure of success and still experience the challenge of discovery. We must seek discernment on our facilitation of either.
  6. Learning needs to be connected across intersections – Formation needs to reach out into the real world. Life change cannot be meaningful or lasting if the students don’t know why the knowledge is useful to them, or how it can be applied in life. Understanding the connections between subjects and ideas is essential for the ability to transfer skills and adapt. Often, our faith is taught in a disjointed manner. How does our quest for social justice intersect with our real lives where we come face to face with racism? How does Jesus’ call to be peacemakers intersect with the real life violence on the streets of our cities? How do we, as people formed in the image of God, be the answer to Jesus’ prayer to see the will of His Father lived out on earth, as it is in heaven?

Most of these ideas are like water to a fish to good teachers. They seem like no-brainers. To others though, they can seem impossible to achieve within an archaic faith tradition that is bureaucratic and slow to change. What might be some practical steps you can take towards a more innovative formation culture?

  • Invite dialogue regarding the subject matter. Our church practices large group Lectio Divina at the beginning of every sermon. Often, the pastor will read a significant portion of scripture and illicit immediate feedback, saying “What did you notice?” or “What connected with you?” or “What seemed odd or weird in this story?”. This is driven by the belief the the Holy Spirit speaks in and through the entire community and prevents a single voice saying there is only one way to see or understand a passage.
  • Creating space for silence. It can be very hard to learn when there is so much noise in the learning space. Whether it be audible or visual noise, it can make it difficult to focus, be still, and allow the material being taught/discussed to penetrate at a deeper level.
    Retelling the story in your own words. This is a common practice among teachers in public schools. When information can be consumed, processed, and regurgitated in our own words there is a level of brain connection that occurs that goes beyond simply memorizing content. Try having your students rewrite Jesus’ parable with content from their lives today. This will also help take an abstract idea and make it more concrete.
  • Multi-sensory is the pathway to integrated learning. We learn best when we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste that which we’re working with. You might not be able to accommodate all five senses into every gathering but being mindful of them and intentional will go a long way to creating memorable learning experiences for your students.
  • Service-Learning Projects. Think creatively beyond a short-term mission project or a weekend service project. Have the students identify an issue from scripture (i.e., poverty) and have them research that topic in their own community. Let them discover the scope of the issue for themselves and then walk them through the process of addressing the problem. Imagine this…your students learn about the story of the Good Samaritan. As a result, they were moved and impacted by a story of someone in need of critical medical care. They then research their community and discover that many of the elderly in their town don’t have access to a myriad of medical/health resources. One of your students tells a story about how their grandmother can’t afford her prescription medication and has a hard time driving to the pharmacy. Now, imagine these same students decide to go talk to the pharmacy to see if they would consider starting a medication delivery for the elderly. Imagine they also create an educational program for the community to dispose of unused medications and work with the police department to create a medication drop off center to properly dispose of these medications because this will reduce the potential of teens accessing dangerous drugs of abuse from their grandparents medicine cabinets.

If transformation is the goal of formation we must be intentional about how we cultivate learning and formation experiences. This requires more effort from the one facilitating the learning in preparing. This isn’t just a lazy form of teaching. This will require more focus and thoughtfulness up front but the end result, I believe, will be deeper transformation of our students as they journey with Jesus throughout their lives.

Here’s a link to a free resource on spiritual formation you can use with your students, volunteers, or for yourself.

Fringe Spiritual Formation Guide

A WordPress.com Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: