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systemic abandonment

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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NEW CotF Initiative for 2018


Race and Racism: A Visitor’s Guide to Deconstructing Whiteness

We are excited about our new initiative for 2018. We have been piloting a workshop/conversation for white Christians looking to begin a dialogue in community/churches on race and racism. It is unfair to ask People of Color to do the hard work of educating us on issues related to race and racism so we have developed a one day training for white Christians who hope to lean into this difficult topic, who want to listen and learn how to become better allies to People of Color and begin the process of building the beloved community.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION

If you and your church feel stuck and are unsure where to start, this day long training will give your community the tools it needs to start their own journey towards healing and racial reconciliation.

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.

From her childhood bedroom in the Chicago suburbs, Ala’a, an American teenage girl, uses social media to coordinate the revolution in Syria. Armed with Facebook, Twitter, Skype and camera-phones, she helps her social network “on the ground” in Syria brave snipers and shelling in the streets to show the world the human rights atrocities of a dictator. But just because the world can see the violence doesn’t mean the world can help. As the revolution rages on, everyone in Ala’a’s network must decide what is the most effective way to fight a dictator: social media or AK—47s.

A few of us had the privilege to meet Ala’a at the Faith Forward Gathering in April 2017. She was humble, yet so strong you could sense it when in her presence. This moving documentary will inspire youth to be brave in the face of dangerous situations.

National Youth Justice Awareness Month October 2017


On September 30, 2015, President Obama issued a proclamation recognizing October as National Youth Justice Awareness Month. There are approximately 50,000+ youth in detention centers modeled after adult prisons. Overcrowding and ineffectiveness continue to plague the juvenile justice system. Reform is needed. If you are interested in leaning into this conversation, here’s a video to get you started, along with a discussion guide.

DISCUSSION GUIDE for Childhood Interrupted

VISIT CAMPAIGN FOR YOUTH JUSTICE for more resources

OR CONTACT THE HOPE DEALER for to schedule a training/workshop on working with youth in the criminal justice system

Addressing the Racial Climate in your Youth Group


When you spend time with youth, their parents, and your volunteers – wherever you are in your community – be alert. Are you hearing put-downs and slurs? Pay attention to tension between the different groups of students you are working with. There are early warning signs that there is racially driven tension among adolescents. Left alone or ignored, these attitudes and behaviors can create the perfect storm for larger problems.

Safety is of the utmost importance. Are direct threats being made? Are there imminent threats? These situations required an immediate and well thought out response. More direct behaviors indicate that there might be a problem with your church’s climate. Is this the type of ministry you want? Is this the type of ministry your students, parents, and volunteers want? Ask them and listen closely to how they respond.

Make sure your students, staff, and volunteers know the proper reporting system if and when they hear problems. Make this an expectation and set up an efficient reporting system, like an anonymous comment box, text or email, or a specific staff member. After those problem are reported, there must be proper follow-up.

Here’s a list from the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) of things to consider when present in your ministry, church, or community:

  • Casual Pejoratives: Do you hear certain words used regularly in a derogatory manner? That’s so gay. That’s retarded. Are the words “bit**” or “ho” casually used to label female students? Challenge the use of these slurs and work to establish and maintain a climate where casual slurs are uncommon.
  • Skits and Plays: Skits and costumes can convey bigoted and stereotypical messages: the “day-laboring Mexican,” students dressed as “rednecks,” “gangbanger/thugs,” people in blackface. Holiday plays and skits are often steeped in stereotypes and bigotry. Set expectations beforehand about appropriate costumes and cultural sensitivity. Discuss the inappropriateness of caricatures or disturbing representations that are rooted in bias and bigotry.
  • Marginalized Students: Engage students who appear to be left out of group activities, during game time and group discussions or in other ministry settings. Watch for changes in social clustering and ways in which students align. Check for signs of hostility, depression or a marked change in behavior. Reach out to the student’s parents or guardians as appropriate. Alienated students – either as individuals or in groups – are more susceptible to bias-based bullying.
  • Student Recognition: How does your church recognize student achievements? What do those achievements say about your church’s values? What messages are sent to students who don’t receive recognition? Overemphasis on achievement can lead to a sense of entitlement while reinforcing the dominant culture as well as contribute to feelings of frustration or inadequacy in others. Who is spotlighted and who is ignored? Athletes are often at the top of the food chain in many settings.
  • Staff Discussions: How are staff/volunteers/adults talking among themselves when outside of ministry settings? Are the adults making negative comments about the “kids from the trailer park”? Are they telling casually bigoted jokes? Do they define their students by a label, such as; the gay kid, the nerd, the gamer, the black kid, etc.?
  • Your Own Perceptions: Pay attention to the comments or complaints you automatically dismiss or discount. Also pay attention to your automatic thoughts about particular students. Often, your first thought is a reflection of unconscious biases. Explore those thoughts with an open mind and willingness to become more self aware and learn from others.
  • Don’t Forget Other Spaces: You will find yourself wherever students gather, such as; schools, gyms, parks, etc. Follow the general rule, “If you see something, say something”.

Every person in your church – from the worship leader to the incoming 6th graders to teenagers on social media – should understand the climate you are trying to cultivate in your spaces. These ideas are not about politically correct but are our best attempt to create spaces where everyone can belong to the community of God’s people and participate equally in kingdom service.

I leave you with this Benediction from Bishop Woodie White:

And now, may the Lord torment you.

May the Lord keep before you the faces of the hungry, the lonely, the rejected and the despised.

May the Lord afflict you with pain for the hurt, the wounded, the oppressed, the abused, the victims of violence.

May God grace you with agony, a burning thirst for justice and righteousness.

May the Lord give you courage and strength and compassion to make ours a better world, to make your community a better community, to make your church a better church.

And may you do your best to make it so, and after you have done your best, may the Lord give you peace.

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?

 

Thirteen Reasons Why Discussion Guide


WOW! In just a week’s time, Thirteen Reasons Why has become the most watched series on Netflix of all time. That’s a whole lot of teens watching and talking about the same thing at one time. The internet has been a buzz about whether or not they should be watching this show. The show is raw and can be VERY TRIGGERING to an adolescent that struggles with any of the content matter, not to mention the mature nature of the show (language, bullying, sex, rape, and suicide).

Regardless of our thoughts of the show, teens are watching it and we (adults) must be prepared to help them process the issues addressed in the series. This guide is simply that, a guide. We do not have an agenda of writing a comprehensive guide for this complex show and the complex issues it strives to address. We will also give suggestions on how to handle to the more sensitive moments of the show to reduce risk to the students watching or talking about it.

There is a leader’s guide that you will hopefully find useful. This particular guide will explore the show from a faith-based perspective but you need not adhere to a particular faith tradition to use the guide. We also attempted to provide solid clinic information to direct you and the student towards professional help if needed.

The authors are Melissa Rau, a long time youth ministry veteran and Chris Schaffner, also a youth ministry veteran and counselor. We will release these as they are completed. We’d love your feedback so don’t hesitate to contact us with your thoughts or questions.

Thirteen Reasons Why Leader’s Guide

Tape 1 Side A

Check out our RESOURCE PAGE for discussion guides for each episode. New guides are uploaded every other day.

Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why Has The Teen World Buzzing


If you haven’t heard about the new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why you’ve been living under a rock. It’s all anyone is talking about right now. This series is based on the Jay Asher novel of the same name. This story centers on Hanna, a teenager who takes her own life due to a series of events. She leaves behind a series of cassette tapes to explain what led to her suicide and the role others played in driving her to that point. Here’s the goodreads.com summary:

The #1 New York Times bestseller and modern classic that’s been changing lives for a decade.

You can’t stop the future.
You can’t rewind the past.
The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.

Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his classmate and crush–who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.

Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.

The series is not for tweens. It’s definitely for a more mature audience and should be discussed to help the students process what they’re seeing. This is a realistic expression of the rawness of teen life so there’s quite of bit of language, mature content, implied sex, rape, self-injury, and suicide. The book and the series aims to address the difficult issues adolescents face daily and it will be hard for parents and adults to watch or to believe life can be like this.

The topics addressed in the series have long been the focus of Conversations on the Fringe. Here’s a list of links to the topics explored on the show that we’ve written about:

Suicide

Depression

Bullying

Self-Injury

Dating Violence

Sexting

Look for more resources in the next couple weeks on 13 Reasons Why. We’ll be interviewing students, releasing a discussion guide, and will continue to explore themes addressed in the book/series. If your kids aren’t watching this already, they are talking about it daily with their friends that have seen it. Use this opportunity to lean into the difficult issues your teens might be facing but are often so hard to talk about.

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.

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