Friday, November 18, 2011

Middle School Small Groups and Friendships

I am leading a volunteer through the book “Middle SchoolMinistry” by Mark Oestreicher and Scott Rubin.  Today we talked about the chapter on friendships.  If you’ve read the book, or you have worked with middle school students for more than an hour, you know that friendships can be intimate, deep, water tight, volatile, shaky, brittle, and unpredictable all in the same day.  So, how do you structure your small groups?  At the 30,000 foot level, in our ministry we have structured our groups by grade and gender.  This is a great starting point.  However, when you dig down from there, how to you break the students up within that grade and gender?  Do you keep all the friends together (they may not be friends next week)?  Do you split them all up and have a melting pot of students?  Do you keep consistent small groups each week or do you mix them up each week?  Does the answer to this question change between sixth and eighth grade?  What do you think?  How do we best set up our groups for success in not only their small group experience, but the cultivation of friendships?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Advent is coming…

Advent is just two weeks away and in our context with the coming of Advent comes a very exciting time for our push toward intergenerational ministry.  In our church, Advent is one of the times in the year where we have committed to putting student ministry on hold so we can intentionally encourage families to worship together in the corporate worship services.  The Sticky Faith research has played a large role in moving us in this direction.  You can read in Kara Powell’s new book “Sticky Faith” that although there is not really a “silver bullet” for building sticky faith in our kids, there are some trends that seems to be very significant and students worshiping in a corporate setting is one of those trends.

Involvement in all-church worship during high school is more consistently linked with mature faith in both high school and college than any other form of church participation.” – Kara Powell

In our context, families are largely single service families.  Thus, when they arrive on campus each week, students will attend the student ministry and never set foot in the worship center.  We hope to change this, little by little, as we encourage families to worship together.  If you think of it, please be in prayer for us as we seek to lead in this new direction.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Brain Quotes...

Random Quotes from “Beautiful Brains” by David Dobbs
National Geographic - Oct 2011

This article was only slightly helpful.  I found the author’s worldview in such stark contrast to my own that many of this conclusions were not helpful.  However, as with all of us, he did get part of the story right.  Here are a few quotes from the article that I found thought provoking if not helpful.

Teenagers value rewards more than consequences.  In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more than the risk or consequence.

The hunt for novelty can go awry when teens try to top each new kick with another, more intense one.  But it also helps them find their path.

B J Casey - neuroscientist:  there is nothing wrong with a teenager questioning their parent’s beliefs. That's normal and healthy. It helps a teen develop a sense of identity.

Laurence Steinberg - think of teen choices as an equation were consequences are not given the weight they should be. And when teens are around friends, that throws the equation off even more. 

Some brain scans show teens react to peer exclusion in much the same way as they respond to physical health or food supply. At a neural level they perceive social rejection as a threat to existence. 

Studies show when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand their kids generally do much better in life. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sitting in “Big Church”

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I am on a quest with our church leadership to transition the ethos of our church to a place where intergenerational relationships are the norm, not the exception.  For us, one of the flagship changes that we are seeking to bring about in this process is seeking to have more of our students engage with our corporate worship services.  If you know anything about my church, you know we are not generally considered “fluffy” in our teaching.  Our senior pastor is an amazing expository preacher and he does not “water things down.”  In the ten years I have been here I have seen our pastor come to use language that is more accessible by more people, adjust his delivery style to be less tied to his notes, and incorporate more transparent examples when appropriate.  However, in all these changes, he has not compromised his commitment to Scripture and expository preaching.  I love my pastor and enjoy sitting under his teaching each week.

One of the things I hear most often from parents when we talk about the corporate worship service centers around our pastor and his preaching.  In some form or fashion what people often say is “my kids don’t get anything out of the sermons, they are over their heads.”  This same comment has been articulated by adults when asked about why they don’t invite friends and neighbors to church.  Responses to this type of question go something like “please don’t change the style of preaching, that is why we are here, but I would not invite a friend, it’s too deep.”  All this causes me to pause a bit.  Is this a problem?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s more an issue with expectation.

Today, I received an email from our high school pastor who included the dialogue he had on facebook with one of our college freshmen.  The last line of the conversation included this statement.  “I miss pastor tom’s preaching a lot.”  WOW!  I heard the parent of several elementary students recently say how much they enjoyed having their kids in the service because of all they learn.

Another thought comes to mind when I think about the brain research that has surfaced over the past five years.  Mark Ostreicher quotes Dr. Jay Giedd and his “use it or lose it principle” in his book “Middle School Ministry”.  The concept here is that students need to be using their brains if they are going to see growth in their brains occur.  If this is the case, why not challenge our kids with more opportunity to “use it”?  Why not ask them to think about a sermon they hear?  Why not then position parents to have conversations with their teens after those services, mine nuggets learned, and share insights they themselves had?  Why not?  We expect they can’t handle it.  We expect they will be board.  We expect too little.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sharing Stories of Future Hope

I’ve written before about our desire as a local church to move to a place where we are more intergenerational.  This is a huge DNA and ethos shift, not just a slight programmatic tweak.  Intergenerational is not the result of throwing a few people from different generations into the same room.  That may be multigenerational, but it is not intergenerational.  Intergenerational ministry is when people from multiple generations are ministering together, learning together, sharing with one another, and most importantly teaching each other.  And none of these things is a one-way street from oldest to youngest.  We believe our adults can learn from our students as much as our students can learn from our adults.

However, as we seek to implement this more holistic approach to ministry, there are challenges.  I heard it said (maybe by Dr. Scott Cormode of Fuller Seminary) that people are not afraid of change, but they are afraid of loss.  This is so true and what we are trying to do has the potential to feel like loss to people.  Why?  Not because we are doing away with any one thing in particular, but because we are making adjustments that may take people out of their comfort zones and into unknown and uncharted territory.  When you leave the known for the unknown it can feel like loss. 

Dr. Cormode has also mentioned that if we are to help people through times of change one thing that can be a significant benefit to the process is sharing stories of future hope.  I have struggled with really grasping what he was talking about until last night.  My wife graduated from Wheaton College and there was a gathering of Wheaton graduates at a friend’s house last night.  At this gathering, Dr. Phil Ryken, the president of Wheaton College, took about 20 minutes to share some of his experiences on campus.  As he talked and shared stories of students and faculty, I was struck by his approach.  I am a Taylor University graduate and if you know anything about the TU culture, there is a fun rivalry between TU and Wheaton.  Thus, I have no real vested interest in hearing about Wheaton College, but by the time Dr. Ryken was finished I wanted to send my kids to Wheaton.  I was on board with the mission and vision of the college.  Through the entire presentation I found myself thinking “this is what Dr. Cormode was talking about.”  This is the power of story.  This is how we help our families to see the value of intergenerational ministry.  We share stories.  I get it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Sometimes we have theology because we have studied the Scriptures and we have concluded what we believe.  Hopefully, for the most part, we are confident in our theology, but not certain.  The older I get the less I am certain of.  However, when it comes to ministering to people, I am certain there will always be pain and suffering that we are called to care for.  Families that fall apart due to divorce are just one of the causes of such pain.

When it comes to divorce, we know from research that evangelical couples are not that much different than couples who do not profess faith. footnote  So we should not be surprised when kids in our ministries suffer this fracture in their family.  The question then is not “what if” but rather “when” students find themselves in a dissolving family, what will we do?  Here are a few thoughts…
  • We must confront the situation head on.  It’s easy to find ourselves beating around the bush when talking with students because we don’t want to break confidences or make students more uncomfortable.  Yet, when it comes to the pain and questions they ARE facing in this situation it is important we take the lead and address the situation head on.
  • We must be in it for the long haul.  Meeting with a middle school student one time and asking them how they are doing is more likely to illicit at “fine” response than a genuine one.  It takes time for students to open up to the level which allows them share their heart.  We must be in the relationship for the long haul.   The pain of divorce does not go away with a few short meetings.
  • Don’t forget the parents.  Maybe it’s because I’m the parent of teenagers and the couples divorcing in my group happen to be my friends, but this new perspective has lead me to be much more concerned for and attentive to the parents who are suffering through divorce.  Find them a support group and journey with them as well as their kids.
What do you do?  How do you help kids caught in a family that is breaking apart?  What resources do you have that have helped you?

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Intergenerational Worship...

As we have wrestled with the concept of “sticky faith” in our context, the importance of intergenerational worship has risen to the top of our list of adjustments to make.  Like so many churches, we have enjoyed years of great age appropriate and age segmented ministry.  These individual ministries have been amazing and have been effective in many ways.  However, in the past few years, we have noticed an increase in the number of students who refer to the student ministry programming at their church.  In fact, some have stated their parents go to “Christ Community” but they themselves go to “encounter” or another youth program.

In an effort to begin to more holistically incorporate our students into the life of the body, we see the corporate worship service as playing a significant part.  For this reason, we have cancelled our Sunday morning student programs for about 12 weeks of our year.  These cancellations force our families to attend corporate worship together where our students have the chance to meet more adults and feel more a part of our congregation.  In addition, it gives our adults a great chance to meet students and be positively impacted by their energy, spirit, and youthful zeal.  It is definitely a two way street and a win-win situation.

We have chosen to focus our time around Advent and Lent, cancelling four or five weeks in a row for each of these two seasons.  In addition, we have taken the opportunity around Spring Break and July 4 to also cancel.  These windows offer us a balance of age segmented and age appropriate ministry while holding up the significant value of being together as a corporate body.

Has this been easy?  No!  Has there been resistance?  Yes!  Is it worth it?  You bet!  We look forward to where we are going and what awaits us.

*This blog post was first written for Kara Powell and the Stick Faith blog.  It was recently posted on Scott McKnight's blog and received a fair number of comments (many of which challenged why we would even be in the position of offering a middle school worship service in the first place.  The following is a response to those comments).

I originally wrote this blog post for Kara and the Sticky Faith website as a way to transparently express how our church is seeking to build “sticky faith” in the lives of our teenagers. There is a lot right about age appropriate ministry in the church today, but there are some things that we are discovering may not as healthy as we thought they were, or at least they are having some unintended negative consequences we did not imagine when we decided to implement them. A large group worship service on Sunday morning, at least in our context, is one of these areas.

I am over 40 and when I was a teen, we went to Sunday School and church. We were at church whenever the doors were open as were most of our friends. However, in the context I currently live and minister in, this is nowhere near the case. Most families are so involved in other things they only attend one service on Sunday mornings. It’s all they can fit into their busy lives (a whole new matter entirely to discuss). When the student ministry offers ANYTHING during the hour they are there, Sunday School, small groups, or a large group program, most students will opt for the student ministry program rather than the corporate worship service. Most parents would encourage this choice. In fact, some of the flack we have taken for cancelling ministry like we have has included families considering moving to another church down the street where families can get what they want.

Change is hard and must be managed well. We are in a larger church context with multi-site implications and significant history and preferences to overcome. We are excited about where we are going and will continue to make adjustments and changes that hopefully lead to a more significantly sticky faith in the lives of our teenagers. The struggles your church faces may be different than the struggles we face in my context, but the question remains, how are you doing at building sticky faith in your teens? Are you going about your business blind to the realities of students leaving not only your church but their faith when they graduate or are you actively seeking ways to adapt your ministry and encourage a deep and sticky faith? What needs to change in your context and how are you going about changing it?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Daughters and Dads...

If you’re looking for a good book to recommend to the dads in your ministry, Daughters and Dads is one I would suggest.  This is a simple book, written in large type just for those dads who are not inclined to read much.  However, don’t let the layout fool you, there are some great tips and words of wisdom found within these pages.  Chap Clark has been beating the drum of how “Hurt” this generation of teenagers are, but in this book, he spends all his time helping dads invest in the lives of their teenage daughters.  Could this investment be a counter-balance to the abandonment our kids feel?  I think so.  Order a copy today, read it, and then pass it out to the dads in your group.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Boys Punch - Girls Talk

Have you noticed that when you show up to your weekly program at church the boys are running around tackling each other?  How they jump on your back, punch your arm, try to wrestle you and knock you over?  This is how boys relate to each other and how they show affection and say “I like you.”  So, when you are trying to connect with a boy like this, talking with them may not mean much.  Playing with them will mean the world.

On the other hand, although there are a few girls who will be running around, they are more likely talking or gathered in packs doing whatever it is they do in those packs.  Connecting with girls is more about verbal communication.  A colorful note means the world to a girl, and a phone call can be worth ten notes.  Someone who will listen to them is what they crave.  Will you listen?

Outside of program times contacting can be more challenging.  Volunteers have families and responsibilities that may keep them from attending sporting events and other activities on a regular basis.  However, don’t let that keep you from encouraging them to try and get to one thing this semester.  That one connection can be the thing that makes all the difference in the world.  Beyond that, will you make a phone call?  Will you take some time to shoot some hoops?  Will you go out of your way to say an encouraging word when one can be said?  These are big ways to connect with kids.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


We all know boundaries are good things.  We know that without them we can loose our way, step into territory that is very dangerous, and even get hurt or worse.  When it comes to ministry with young teens boundaries are also very important.  Boundaries for discipline, boundaries for activities, boundaries for students, and, yes, boundaries for staff.  Here are some reminders of the importance of boundaries in connecting with students.

Connecting with students is what we long for.  It’s what we encourage you to be doing.  We all know that “real” ministry and discipleship happens more effectively over a Starbucks coffee or on the basketball court.  Trouble is, in today’s culture, these connections can lead to unhealthy accusations and the blurring of clear boundaries if we are not careful.  Here are a few boundaries we have in place for the protection of both our students and our volunteer staff.

  1. Let someone know:  When volunteers are meeting with students, we ask them to drop one of our paid staff an email and let us know.  Not so we can micro-manage, but so we can cover their back and, with good conscience, let others know what is going on in the ministry.
  2. Three is not a crowd:  Although the one on one meeting is a great chance for in depth conversation, it’s becoming a thing of the past.  It is usually better to take two kids with you that one.
  3. Use your head:  Sometimes there are situations that come up that dictate you do something you may not normally do.  In all situations, use your head.  Remember number 1 above and make a few phone calls when placed in a difficult situation.  Never assume that you’ll be okay or that “just this once” you’ll take care of this or that.
Remember, you are an adult!  You have a good head on your shoulders.  Use it!  Sometimes things are not as neat as they need to be.  Sometimes it’s not possible to follow every letter of every law, yet when those rare situations arise, everyone is counting on you to act like the adult you are and act responsibly.

What boundaries to you have set up in your ministry?

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Temptation of Power…

I mentioned in my last post that I am reading “In theName of Jesus” by Henri Nouwen and it is kicking my butt.  Nouwen talks about the temptation of power and I have to say (sadly) that I think this is an issue for me.  Those of you who know me might resonate with these words of Nouwen “I had come to believe that growing older and more mature meant that I would be increasingly able to offer leadership.  In fact, I had grown more self-confident over the years.  I felt I knew something and had the ability to express it and be heard.  In that sense I felt more and more in control.”  WOW!  If I were honest, those words could be mine.  If you read my post on constructive criticismand a critical spirit, this may be a deeper look at why I have a tendency to be more critical than helpful.

Nouwen goes on to say “what makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”  Am I that much of a jerk?  I am on a quest for power?  For control?  Lord, may you work in my heart to soften me and help me learn to love.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Youth Worker Vulnerability…

This is something I have struggled with for years (and continue to struggle with).  Everyone needs a group of people they trust.  A group of people they can confide in, share with, vent to, be pushed by, be challenged by.  The question for the youth worker is “who”?  Is these people in your church or outside your church.  I have been involved with local networks of youth workers since I started in ministry for this very purpose and have found it very helpful.  Yet, I continue to wrestle with if the transparency you might have with another youth worker outside your church context might also be healthy to have with a trusted few who are a bit closer to you and your context.

I’ve been reading “In the Name of Jesus” by Henri Nouwen because my co-worker and friend Kris Fernhout (@kriscanuck) suggested we read it as a student ministry staff.  I’ve loved it!  Nouwen suggests that “ministry is communal and mutual experience.”  Later he says “I have found over and over again how hard it is to be truly faithful to Jesus when I am alone.”  Okay, so I totally buy that and have lived it with other youth workers.  But then Nouwen goes on to say “Jesus wants Peter to feed his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven, who love and are being loved…Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead.”  Ouch!  That hurts!  That suggests I need to be more transparent with people I minister to.

How can I do that?  My friends are elders in my church, parents of students in my ministry, and volunteers in our ministry (I am old you know).  These people used to be the “old” people in the church that I was intimidated by.  Now they are my friends.  My peers.  How do you tell the parent of a teenager in your ministry you’re not perfect?  Okay, I know they already know that, but in my insecurity, I want them to respect me, trust me, validate me.  They have PHD’s, I work with 12 year olds.  Sometimes that’s a bit intimidating.

How do you deal with this? What advice can you give another traveler in the trenches of ministry?