Saturday, May 24, 2014

The 2014 Blue Ocean National Summit - For Youth Workers (Part 1)

Where to start?  There were SO MANY things from last week's Blue Ocean National Summit in Ann Arbor that we could talk about!  I'm torn between all the fascinating thoughts that could be explored as a result but I'm deciding to focus on two elements of the conference: how the overall conference themes are deeply relevant and important to youth ministries today and a brief summary of the BOYM breakout session.  I would imagine those two components would be the more meaningful ones for youth workers?

The 2014 BONS - For Youth Workers

A recent lament of mine has recently been the realization that there is a lot of treasure left buried in the fields of church conferences.  What do I mean?  Well I have to confess that in recent years, despite being a trained and experienced youth worker, most youth ministry conferences have been experienced as less than helpful.  Most don't focus on the issues our church focuses on.  Half of the conference theme is to either get youth workers on life support or to keep them on life support because of the stressful, if not sometimes brutal nature of their jobs.  The other half is typically inspirational in its mission - get the youth workers rallied up to slug it out in the trenches for another year because their kids need them!  

Now, neither of those things are bad, per say.  I feel like the bar is too low.

What if, instead of providing an oasis of entertainment, we provided an oasis of imagination?  What if, instead of seeking to inspire, we sought to empower youth workers? Wouldn't that change the dynamic?  Therein lies the great potential for the Blue Ocean faith network: changing the paradigm.  

If you missed the summit, you missed some incredible thoughts on salon style small groups (weird name, I agree.  Just give it a second…) wherein a ministry model shifts to running a SEEK class in the context of our local communities.  Now this isn't a 'invite everyone over to watch a DVD idea', though it can be; instead the salon focuses on creating space to ask questions about life.  More of those 'big idea' questions like, "Why are we here?", "Does life have a purpose?", and "If I know Taco Bell is so bad for me, why do I keep eating there every Sunday?"  The possibility for launching conversations with kids are great!

Did anyone mention how EPIC the wine and snacks were?! : )

You may have also missed terrific talks on faith and science and a brilliantly led day-dream session on neo-monasticism!  And Phyllis Tickle tackled Protestant Inerrancy head-on in a profound and important way.  Where the rubber hits the road for these talks (and others that I don't have time to cover!) is that the formational processes of re-imagining discipleship, re-engaging scripture, and re-thinking the ways in which we 'do' life are foundational to our success as people working with teenagers.  

Considering that the Blue Ocean movement launched as a way to address the rising tide of the unaffiliated, areligious Millenials, what better place to start than where the church began to go awry - with youth ministry.  I'd wager to say that if we (the Church) had spent more time in previous decades forming our youth workers to be more than doctrinal inseminaters, we may have avoided this predicament.  Now, please make sure you're hearing me clearly - I will NEVER disparage the great and tender care that so many youth workers have put into their kids to grow them into the lovers of Jesus that they are today.  By no means am I suggesting that youth ministry has completely failed.  What I am saying, however, is that failure may lie on behalf of the larger Church for not giving youth workers greater roles that even that.  

I've attended more 'pastoral' or 'seminarian' conferences in recent years than I have youth ministry conferences.  It's yielded mixed feelings.  On one hand, I'm regularly invigorated and challenged by the level of thought and imagination that plays out as leaders of our churches work to discover both where God is and where God is moving.  On the other hand, I'm discouraged that many conferences, like this year's summit, lack a holistic approach that would equip blue ocean churches to have more effective youth and children's ministries.  That's where the empowerment still lacks as a movement.  

This leads me to question what the role of youth and children will look like in blue ocean church circles.  Will our primary role be to educate? To disciple? To pastor?  To lead?  To follow?  Will it be the contemporary 'all of the above' answer?  Or will it be something else entirely?  

The non-youth ministry conferences always raise the larger questions for me.  The 2014 BONS raised many, and for that, I'm grateful.  I'll leave Part 1 a little short and will focus more on the YM conversations that did and did not transpire and what that may mean for us in the coming year(s) in Part 2.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A Response to 'The End of Paid Youth Ministry?'

You had me at 'The End'

I had a chance last week to look at Group Magazine's headliner for the May/June issue and it generated a lot of thoughts and questions for me as I'm sure it may for many professional and aspiring youth workers.  Could the end of youth ministry as we know be at our door?  What will survive in the microcosm of youth ministry?  What will go?  How will this impact kid's relationships and connection points with Jesus? 

For those who haven't had the opportunity to read the article, the submission came through Mark DeVries, the founder of, a website resource that provides consulting services into the life, health, and opportunity for both potential and existing youth ministries.  The summary of the front page's question *spoilers!* is both 'Yes and No'.   Pairing together cumulative research regarding the Millenials generation and their experience of the church as well as the slow decline of wages, hours, and benefits for youth workers, the evidence seems to suggest that the youth ministry of the past is changing directions.  The 'No' aspect is simply that professional/full time youth ministry isn't likely to stop as if it hit a wall.  It will more than likely 'wind down' over time.  

Now What?

It seems at this point we have a few options as to what we might do with this.  Just spitballing here, those options may include:
  • Shrug it off.  Chock it up to poor statistics, paranoia, painful personal experiences, or something else; this isn't likely and I'll be concerned with other things until there is more evidence.
  • Accept it.  Throw up the white flag!  We're done!  The ship is sinking!  I'll put in my two-weeks notice and sell shoes at the mall!
  • Prevent it.  We might say, "These outcomes can be prevented with a little bit of elbow grease -  let's get to work!".  We'll work harder, sell ourselves and our ministries better, pray more specifically, justify our existence, earn that raise!
  • Re-Imagine it.  Take this as an opportunity to do the things that youth ministry has left behind!  Perhaps there is more good in this story than bad and that our decisions in the next 20 years will shape the face of youth ministry for the next 100?

What Wasn't Said

Here's where I'll that there's a lot behind was wasn't said in the article that should make us scratch our heads because, actually, it seemed to be the loudest part of the article.  What wasn't addressed, whether intentional or not, is the 'why' question.  Some people may blame it on the recession.  Tithing goes down when income decreases.  Decreased tithing = lower net income for local churches.  Lower income = sacrifices.  

I'm a self-professed Millenial.  I was born in 1983 and I see the Church differently than most.  I'm also highly sympathetic with my generational peers who did not grow up in a church.  We're cumulatively tired of churches that are obsessed with sex/sexuality, money, fixing people, power holds, and an unapologetic lack of courage.  If data presented by groups such as Barna and the Pew Research Center among others is to be trusted, my generation isn't rushing to get back into church just because we've had babies.  We're cautious to raise our kids in an environment that perpetuates our concerns and experiences their applause and ovations in an echo chamber.  [Please don't assume I'm speaking for every Millenial.  Many of my friends have continued in their faith alongside communities and churches that reflect their needs and values!]

However for those who grew up outside of the church, autonomy is the law of the landscape.  The ruling narrative is that we all find our own ways towards discovering the things that matter in this life and one of the greatest ways to wrong our neighbor is to assert that we know what is best for their life, even if we believe it sincerely.  Consequently, that may be the challenge with parenting and working with parents in the coming decades: How do we make a case for bringing your kid to church when faith and life has become so individualistic?

So here we go: the possible 'why' as I see it in my context and through my lens is this - evangelical Millenials aren't being represented by their values in most of our churches.  Non-churched millenials, while they have a draw towards personal spiritual experiences and the person of Jesus, the church seems too toxic to wade through.  They suspect there is a pearl buried in that field but sifting through the dirt alone is discouraging.  They'll settle for lesser treasure.  

The Cost of Re-Imagining

Re-Imagining is costly because re-imagination is threatening.  It threaten's stability.  It threatens our self-erected monuments.  Re-imagination questions our foundations and leaves us feeling uncentered.  This is where we experience the tension and I suspect, in the end, it may come down to compromise.  


The dirtiest word in our religious culture wars.  

I don't know how this became such a loaded word.  Rather than being revered as a synonym for success it has been wed to the ideas of loss, failure, caving in, and even unfaithfulness.  To re-imagine youth ministry will necessitate compromise.  It will require difficult, brutally honest conversations and examinations of where we're standing and what we're standing on.  In one of Jesus most profound statements, he declared himself to be 'the way, the truth, and the life' and this is bad news for people who don't care for compromise.   Because when the 'way' is a person, we can no longer say "my way or the highway!".  Because when 'truth' is a person, to claim exclusive truth is the equivalent of slavery.  And if we let 'life' be incarnate in Jesus, life ceases to merely be about our individualistic selves.  My individualistic self…  

The good news, I think, is that work has begun on this front.  There are many gifted minds in and across the Church that are asking good questions and getting us moved along, including but not limited to Mark DeVries.  However if we hesitate to risk, should we falter in our imagining, or might we allow our shortcomings to dictate the measures of our love for teenagers, then youth ministry should end.  Period.  

I'd like to think that youth workers aren't the roll-over-and-die types.  I think we're scrappier than that.  I also like to think that those who risk so much to put teenagers ahead of the pack would respond to this challenge.  In fact, I can't think of a better huddle of people within the Church that will play such a crucial role in redeeming the Church by allowing our younger generations to claim it.  What a ride this will be!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Parenting in a Centered-Set Church Model

The reason that I hope to never write a book on parenting is that, frankly, I don't want to read books about parenting. I find the topic in and of itself to be nearly as exhausting as actually parenting. In particular, I become frustrated by the ways in which we've attempted to introduce a simpler, safer version of Christianity into our faith practices. In part, my frustration stems from being on the early end of the Millenial's generation where everything gets filtered through the my lens of pre-packaged marketing ploys that will say, show, and sound just the way that I 'want' them to so that, in the end, my coin abandons my pocket for their coffers.

Perhaps the other half of my frustration is that, at best, guides on parenting can only guide on parenting. That's not inherently a bad thing, of course. However any "bulls eyes"that may hit my life's reality come from a line of safe social predictions, developmental research into the habits and nature of growing children, and the random shot-in-the-dark that describes my actual fears, concerns, hopes, joys, and experience. I'd take a real community of real people over a book any day.

What Does it Mean to be Centered-Set?

However - disengaging from conversations about parenting all together doesn't seem any more appetizing to me. Our other extreme seems to throw the complexities and adventure of raising children to the wind making it just another mundane task in the course of life. I think that narrative is lame and that we can do better. So my hope is to raise some questions that can guide (because its difficult to do anything else in script) us as we wrestle where faith and family collide. I will write several posts with a few thoughts on Centered-Set parenting and how it may be simultaneously the most frightening endeavor on which we will embark as well as the most rewarding. Adventure without peril isn't all that adventurous. So quick recap:

To borrow language & images from our church website - 

Bounded-Set Approach

Many churches could be described as “bounded sets.” Belonging to the church community is defined by where one is in relation to a clear boundary. Typically the boundary is composed of highly defined beliefs and behaviors. Those who adopt the beliefs and behaviors are considered “inside” and those who do not are considered “outside.”

Centered-Set Approach

In the centered set approach, participation in the church community is defined differently. In our church the center is understood to be Jesus. Those who are “in” are not defined in relation to a boundary, but by facing and moving toward the center.  In a centered set approach, a person might be quite a distance from the center, but so long as they are facing the center and moving toward it, they belong. By the same token, a person might be close to the center, but if they are not facing the center and moving toward it, they don’t belong. In both graphics, those who belong to the group are represented by white dots; those who do not belong are represented by blue dots.

The reason why having the conversation in context of Centered-Set (CS) and Bounded-Set (BS) is that I suspect most parenting ideals are grounded in a BS model. Also in a Bounded-Set Model. (See what I did there?) As you likely picked up on surrounding the language of our model descriptions, the big picture ultimately focus on Kingdom inclusion. Those of us who have been following Jesus for some time know are well aware of how the Kingdom is both astonishingly beautiful and difficult to experience. We can appreciate the tensions that exists in both the CS and BS models and my experience has told me that while most people who attend my local church will say that CS is more difficult, it is also more worthwhile. Until we talk about kids…

Centered-Set's Challenge in Youth Ministry

"I really appreciate the values and the challenge of a centered-set church model.  I just don't think it will be good for my kids."
I've heard this a few times lately. And by a 'few' I mean a lot!  More often than not, the concerns are rooted not in diversity but in morality. It's more often than not framed like this:"I'm afraid that my child will believe _____ and will ______." Now there are many possible ways to fill in the blanks - some more reasonable than others:
  • they're invincible, take unnecessary risks
  • they're always right; put down others
  • they can fly; jump from high places 
This list can go on, and on, and on, and on... The tensions with CS seem to be a little more specific. Particularly I seem to hear:
  • sex before marriage is good; have sex
  • God is not defined clear enough; reject the Church
  • behavior diversity is good; bow to peer pressures to drink, smoke weed, etc...
Parental red flags are raised when we believe that our children's morality may be compromised and that's not a bad thing. In fact, I'm more concerned about parents who lack concern for their child(ren)!  However we need to examine these concerns in light of the Cross to figure out how we move forward.  As it stands, CS is either unstable ground for our kids and the center, Jesus, is not sufficient or we need better tools to help us understand not only how to parent in such a context but also how to partner with the Church to do so. I believe it can be done. I even think that it can be done well. But it will take no shortage of faith on our part. More thoughts to come...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review - Amy Fryholm's 'See Me Naked: Stories of Sexual Exile in American Christianity'

In the event that book reviews may be helpful, I thought I might include one here that I particularly enjoyed:

I found several aspects of this book to be particularly helpful and hope that they may also benefit your student ministries.  In the introduction, Frykholm describes the tensions that she sets out to explore in the book.  She writes:

 “Spirituality and sexuality, for many people in American society and perhaps especially Christians, are kept rigidly separate, and many struggle to find a way to reconcile the religious elements of their lives and their sexual realities.”

To unpack this idea, she divides her book into three parts, each featuring three different narratives from nine individuals.  The book is unique in that it doesn’t present itself as a wellspring of information with all the research, statistics, bullet points, and practical tips that dominate most of our academic landscape.  Rather she lets the stories speak for themselves leaving the reader(s) with the impression that our approach to sexuality cannot be whittled down to simplicity as our cumulative experiences are not simple.  This is effective for those who bind sexuality to a pillar of statutes wherein the only answer is a simple answer.  Unfortunately, our habits of acceptance have reduced any plan that God may have for our sexual redemption into a plan of  mere compliance and suppression that renders our sexuality weak, shallow, and inaccessible for many who desire to see God’s presence in this part of their lives.

A Brief Summary of the Three Parts:
Part 1: Wilderness
The idea of the wilderness stories touches on the grey areas of sexual experience that many in positions of church leadership are reluctant to accept.  The stories of Sarah, Mark, and Megan summarize experiences of faithful Jesus followers who found themselves at a crossroads when what they were taught in youth no longer synced with their realities.  Their wound was a framework which taught that Christian sex is not like secular sex and that it is set apart by rules -  “Christian sex is safe and pure.  Secular sex is dangerous and exploitative and leads on a path of destruction.”  I noted that the goal of church sex-ed is to avoid the wilderness of sex.  We forget that God meets people powerfully in the wilderness and we are in need of a guide, as opposed to a map.  Particularly moving to me was Mark’s experience of a failing redemption of the Christian sexual ethic.  He observed that in both the cases of the ‘locker room’ vs. Young Life, “girls were objects whose primary purpose was to provide physical gratification.  In one case, that was allowed.  In the other case it was forbidden.”

Part 2: Incarnation
But the Christian traditions draws more value than from the wilderness alone.  Incarnation counters the Gnostic narratives that depict the body as evil, weak, and unredeemable.  It rather asserts that where God dwells is holy.  I like this as it leans a bit more towards the mystical, the artistic, and the holistic.  Monica, Paul, and Ashley share their stories about art, life as a whole person, and pitfalls of the purity-alone frameworks.
Part 3: Resurrection
Finally, resurrection stories, as described by Frykholm, “are about allowing ourselves, in spite of pain and suffering, to be vulnerable again to the world.  They are about practicing hope, trust, and openness in hospitality as we go through the ordinary acts of life.  And, finally, they are about working for the resurrection and liberation of others.  Anyone who has made it back from the dead has something profound to teach.  Quite moving to me was the comparison of Christian sexual ideals to pornography: “both were titillating and based on fantasy” according to Matthew in his story. 

Author’s Conclusion:
Frykholm concludes by suggesting an alternative ethic may include:
  • Offering the value of discernment over judgment
  • Cultivating a sense of wonder instead of fear
  • Practice living attentively with regards to our unfolding experiences of sexuality.

I’ll conclude by suggesting that this book will be most valuable for:
  • Encouraging an individual’s personal narrative to move beyond a simple-answer approach for sexuality, even if it worked for them.
  • Expanding awareness of the pain and the hope that are layered on our sexual backdrops. 
  • Reflecting personally and critically on our own narratives in light of how each story submerses our own into a different experience. 
For those interested, you can purchase a copy of  See Me Naked here.  

Friday, March 14, 2014

Blue Ocean Summit (Ann Arbor, MI)

This is a shameless plug to join us for a radical and worthwhile conference this May in Ann Arbor!  We're especially looking forward to processing Blue Ocean YM things with anyone who may be interested.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Re-Assessing Youth Ministry Curriculums

In light of a botched lesson plan from last week's youth group, I've been drawn back to a re-think of the resources we seem to ask for, and consequently get, with regards to youth ministry.

My experience of most youth ministry resources is that they seem to be written for dummies to teach to dummies.  And, depending on the resource, I question whether or not the author himself/herself is a dummy.  Here's my latest example: In a curriculum lesson on having accountable friendships, the author's Bible passage was a part of Exodus 17 where Moses needs help from his friends to hold up a staff so that their battle against the Amalekites would end in victory.

So yes.  I get it.  Moses' arms would naturally get tired.  He needed some help.  No one could be expected to hold a wooden staff over their head for hours and hours.  But… do you suppose my kids are really so dumb that they wouldn't get distracted by the rest of the story?  I mean, doesn't it seem rather arbitrary that God would let the course of a battle, people's lives, be determined by whether or not a dude could hold a stick in the air?  Doesn't that make God's view of human life seem unimportant?  And why did God give that authority to Moses?  It wasn't a command to hold the stick in the air -so is God championing superstition here?   And what about the end of the story when God swears that he will be at war with the Amalekites from 'generation to generation'?   That seems contradictory to a God that is 'for us and not against us' right?

Time after time again I see youth ministry lessons using the Bible in the most unhelpful, misleading, and dishonest ways imaginable so that the authors can cross "Biblically grounded/rooted/ centered/whatever" off their curriculum's criterion.   I think it's an easy way out.  And I suspect it sacrifices spiritual transformation for sales, approval, and/or familiarity…

Anyways, I couldn't unpack all of that in our lesson.  I'm not even confident how to unpack that!  I skipped it.  We had a generic conversation about friendship and it wasn't a great lesson.  I'd barely call it good.  But it had to be better than the alternative.

When I think about Blue Ocean Youth Ministries and how they might be different, one of the hopes I have is that it would be a more honest starting point for biblical education.  And, perhaps education is the wrong word?  I hope that a BOYM might be a more honest starting point for transformation.  One of my favorite quotes from our pastor is that, "The Bible doesn't merely tell; rather it provokes."   That's how I know if my kids are reading the Bible - they have questions about it.  They have real honest and sometimes difficult questions about it.  I'm finding that today's kids are much more critical than me and my peers were as teenagers and I don't mean that in a bad way.  I think they're tired of spoon-fed spirituality.  I think that they want something that can simultaneously ensnare their imaginations while freeing their souls.

In the midst of my venting, I believe firmly that God invites us to wrestle with things together.  I'm also see that many of our current resources only serve to widen the gap of maturation within the Church. I think this will eventually lead into a fun conversation about how Stage Theory plays out among teenagers (Who are stage 3) and what the process of discipleship looks like!  I know it can't be sloppy or lazy anymore, and we (youth workers), seem to have escaped accountability from the Church.  We have a lot of work to do yet and I'm excited to bring something better to my students.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Blue Ocean YM Concept

"This is embarrassing!  It doesn't represent our church in a positive way to the community.  So first you need to write an apology to the elder board and then you need to talk to Adam and set clear boundaries about what's acceptable."

I was turning red with anger.  My fists were clenched and shaking.  I knew that if I were to open my mouth, any number of angry retorts and profanities may spew forth and bury my supervisor in an avalanche of rage.  So I stomped my passions down to a defeated ash pile, mumbled a weak, "Fine.", and quickly left the senior pastor's office.
"Really?!", I asked myself.  "An apology AND a lecture?!  Don't they know?!  Why aren't they praising this?!  Gahhh!!!!!"  I slammed my body into my chair and stared at the newspaper on my desk.  On page three was a picture of me and my youth group, wearing our halloween costumes and standing triumphantly over the 300+ canned food items that we had trick-or-treated for a few nights prior on Halloween.  By every means it was a great event.  'Mission accomplished!' as some might say.  I even had record youth group participation this year including Adam, one of my fringe students.

Adam was the only kid in our youth group who was being raised by a single parent.  He was an outsider by almost every account.  He was shorter, heavier, and had more rural interests than most of my kids.  He was also new to church.  He had been coming with his younger brother whenever possible because he felt marginally accepted by the youth group.  I could't say that the other kids really embraced him but, more that they passively tolerated him.  I assumed that within Adam's social circles, passive toleration was a huge step up.  It was good for him, and stretching for my kids.

The controversy began when Adam's photo appeared in the newspaper alongside us.  He had dressed up as a 'pot head' for Halloween that year, wearing a white t-shirt with 'pot head' written in Sharpie on the front and donning a silver pot on his head.  The other leaders and I found it to be immensely clever!  Now, perhaps it was because he forgot to wear the pot in the picture or maybe it was that the idea that we were a church of stoners would be assumed, but the photo did not sit well with the board. They were embarrassed and it was my responsibility to fix it.  I realized then that my church didn't get it.  The kids on the margins weren't the kids that they wanted.  They didn't want kids who had glaring 'weaknesses' to represent the church.  And soon after, they didn't want me either.  I was fired several weeks later for this and a slew of other controversies.