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Kingdom Diversity

This post also appears on Canadian Youth Worker here.

If you study the life of Jesus you will not only discover a God-man full of integrity and character. You may also discover that He likes to do things differently…a lot.

When I first started out in ministry as a volunteer and then young ministry leader, I was convinced that the way I was doing things was the best possible way to minister to teens and families. Call it arrogance, call it being naive, or simply call it being blind. Many years later as a seasoned ministry leader I’m learning to appreciate the richness that diversity has to offer.

Diversity is an interesting word. To some it means embracing a laissez-faire attitude towards life and leadership, while to others it means uncovering and celebrating the different personalities, character and dreams that people possess. For me, diversity is a value; one that liberates a leader from a narrow frame of modus operandi.

Back to Jesus.

If you study the miracles that Jesus performed during His time on earth, you will discover that each one is uniquely different and yet completely amazing. He spits into mud and rubs it onto the eyes of a blind man restoring his sight, He changes water into wine through a simple exercise of refilling empty wine barrels, He speaks to a dead man inviting him to step back into life, and he prays over a small lunch in order to feed a gathered crowd of over 5000 people. And these are just a few of the miracles Jesus performed!

If you take a deeper look into the people that Jesus interacted with, you will again discover this theme and value of diversity. Jesus took the time to notice and to befriend anyone who was willing to be known by Him.

If Jesus embraced and lived this value of diversity, shouldn’t our families, churches and ministry communities do the same? Is there room for diversity in your current ministry context, or are you asking everyone to be like everybody else?

Here are a few questions that I’m asking in my life and in my ministry to help me refine the value of diversity:

1. Do I create space where people with different stories, personalities, abilities and learning styles can connect?
2. Do I take the time to celebrate someones uniqueness as well as to look for something that we might have in common?
3. Do I encourage other ministry leaders who do ministry different than I do to keep leading into their uniqueness, or do I suggest that they should copy what I do?
4. Do I possess a balance between creativity and imitation in my pursuit of embracing diversity as a value?

So what about you…how have you seen the value of diversity impact the lives of people? Are there additional questions you’d add to this list to help refine the pursuit of diversity as a value?

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What’s the role of conscience in teenage impulsivity?

ventromedial prefrontal cortex

ventromedial prefrontal cortex

I’ve been intrigued by both the volume of studies about neuroscience and the quick acceptance of early findings. Perhaps that’s why I found it so refreshing to see this article entitled Why Teenagers are So Impulsive.

At first, I thought this would be just another example of scientists arguing that humans, especially teenagers, don’t have a mind of their own but are essentially just responding to neurotransmitters… reacting their way through life from one experience to another. (A rather shallow and dangerous way to look at humanity)


It’s hard to generalize about teenage impulsivity, because some adolescents clearly have more self-control than many adults, says principal investigator B. J. Casey, a neuroscientist. Still, a growing body of evidence suggests that, in general, teens specifically struggle to keep their cool in social situations, she says.


Those adolescents who did manage to restrain themselves showed significantly higher activity in a brain region called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which is involved in top-down control of behavior. “You could think of it as the brake,” Caudle says. “It’s as if the teenage brain might need to work a little harder to hold that response back.” This could help explain why teenage criminals are less likely to be repeat offenders, the researchers say—as their brains develop into adulthood, it gets easier for them to rein in their behavior.


“This work strongly suggests that the teenage brain is highly impulsive in the face of threat and points to unusual vmPFC activity as a possible biological underpinning,” says Jon Horvitz, a neurobiologist at the City College of New York. “It is an exciting finding.”

Read the full article

As someone who has spent tons of time with teenagers I read these studies and wonder: Does anyone really think people are so simple? For example, the reason a person reacts is far beyond simple neurology– people make decisions, even impulse decision, for a wide variety of reasons. And even in an instant, part of what makes us human, is our ability to make a reasoned decision in instant.

If you walk up to someone and punch them in the face, the same person is going to respond a bunch of different ways depending on a million variables. So to say that a teenager is more impulsive than an adult is, in itself, a question a scientist would ask because it’s an interesting question but anyone who has ever been a human will know is an impossible question to definitively answer.

To study that with the expectation that you’d come to a definitive answer would be as arrogant as studying the physics of dropping pixie sticks. Sure, you could figure out a single instance within a certain degree of variation, but you’d never be able to say exactly how the pixie sticks would land as there are infinite variables.

What about the conscience?

To see humans as conscienceless arrays of brain matter and neurotransmitters is not helpful or even interesting. While the study of impulse is intriguing and, no doubt, a well-funded question academically, we simply cannot separate teenage impulse from teenage conscience any more than you can separate personal history from impulse. Yes, some teenagers are predisposed to have negative impulses. But all teenagers are innately made in God’s image, complete with conscience.

What say you fellow youth worker?

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Lucas Leys: What You Can Learn From Latin American Youth Workers

Lucas Leys leads Especialidades Juveniles, the Spanish sister of Youth Specialties. He’s also the publisher for Spanish resources for HarperCollins Christian Publishing (which includes both Zondervan/Editorial Vida and Thomas Nelson/Grupo Nelson). In other words, the dude knows his stuff.

Last year at The Summit, we asked Lucas to speak to us about what we gringos can learn from Latin American youth workers. Here’s his fantastic presentation in its entirety:

Dreaming Big and Bigger
The theme for The Summit this year is ALL. Riffing off both the Shema and Jesus’ quote of it in the gospels: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27)

Each of the main sessions will have 5 to 6 presenters carefully selected for what they will bring. We’re not just inviting “good speakers” or big names; we’re choosing (and working with) presenters who will help us pull a thread through the entire event.

Session 1, on Friday evening, will focus on SOUL, the inner life of youth workers.

Session 2, on Saturday morning, is called MIND, where we’ll explore new thinking and hear ideas.

Session 3, on Saturday afternoon, will bring our attention to STRENGTH, where we’ll hear more about praxis and action.

Session 4, early Saturday evening, will offer a keynote speaker focusing on HEART to wrap things up, as well as some extended worship.

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Youth Ministry is Risky Business

youth-ministry-risky-businessThe parable of talents (or bags of Gold) has taught me many different leadership lessons over the years, but perhaps the most eye-opening and convicting of them all has been with regard to the concept of managing risk.

Risk Management in Youth Ministry

There is a lot to be said about the concept of managing risk when it comes to youth ministry. I’ve spent countless hours navigating through complex situations that required great sensitivity. I can remember losing many hours of sleep agonizing over different leadership questions and conversations that dealt with matters of great risk. Perhaps you can identify with some of these sleepless nights if you’ve ever been in a situation where you are contemplating a major shift in your youth ministry. Maybe you’ve even made a list of pros and cons for or against your proposed change or risk, and based your final decision on what the cost of the risk might be.

The Upside of Risk Management

While there is a great cost associated with risk, there is also a great reward. The story of the bags of gold reminds me of this. Two servants found the courage and inner resolve to risk what they had in order to pursue more. And while we may apply this concept to the materialistic pursuit of happiness as a society, I’m not convinced that the material gain these servants experienced had anything to do with materialism at all. Take out your leadership lens and re-examine this story once again. Two leaders with ample resources invested what they had in pursuit of greater things. Sounds like a basic youth ministry principle to me, doesn’t it?

Leadership Lessons

What if leadership is more about learning to take appropriate risks rather than managing the risk itself? If it is true that great reward comes only through great investment or risk, shouldn’t we spiritual guides of the emerging generation become expert risk-takers for the sake of Kingdom extension?

I’m beginning to wonder if my strategic plans, strengths assessments and evaluation of weakness would be better served as filters for questions about my ability to embrace risk as a leader. No general wins a battle by choosing to play it safe. If we agree that this emerging generation cannot and will not be disciple in the ways of Jesus through entertainment based illusions, are we then willing to risk what we know for what we do not know, trusting that the leading into risk will provide great returns if the risk itself is simply an extension of a invitation by Christ to come and follow after him?

Youth ministry might just be about risky business, but then again, so is life itself! May we learn to navigate, embrace and lead into risk as invited by the power and presence of God’s Spirit.

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You can always get better

Tonight I got a call from Brian Berry. Brian is the high school pastor at our church. (Actually, his title is way bigger than that but he’ll always be the high school guy to me.) He called to remind me to come to his 2011-2012 eval and 2012-2013 planning meeting Wednesday night.

It’s a good thing he called because I had completely forgotten. 

My first instinct when Brian called was to think… “Realistically, what in the world do I have to offer Brian Freakin’ Berry? I mean, this guy has 20 years of youth ministry experience, he’s been at the church 8 years, has a team full of great staff, and so many volunteers that if I didn’t show it really wouldn’t make that big of a difference.

He asked me if I was coming and I said yeah– but that’s what was really going through my head.

Here’s what I’m learning from Brian that you see on display in the video above: You can always get better.

That’s a leadership posture more than an axiom.

Just like the Sponge Bob cast practicing their technique on some clips from Casablanca probably wasn’t required… it’s still one way that the cast gets better. They tried something different. They stretched themselves. And they rolled with it.

It’s the same way with Brian. I love that his posture is always to make things better. He doesn’t rest on his experience. He doesn’t just coast because his staff is great and they’ve got it all nailed. Nope… that’s not in his DNA. Those 20 years of experience have made him the kind of leader who constantly listens, constantly asks for feedback, and constantly tries to make the high school ministry better.

It probably isn’t popular  to say, but there are reasons why some youth workers last 2-3 years and some last 20 years. You learn, you get better, and as a result you get to stick around.

I suppose this is true in youth ministry but is also true in a lot of areas of life. It doesn’t matter what you do or how long you’ve done it: You can always get better. 

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Ministry Implications of Early Onset Puberty

Now most researchers seem to agree on one thing: Breast budding in girls is starting earlier. The debate has shifted to what this means. Puberty, in girls, involves three events: the growth of breasts, the growth of pubic hair and a first period. Typically the changes unfold in that order, and the proc­ess takes about two years. But the data show a confounding pattern. While studies have shown that the average age of breast budding has fallen significantly since the 1970s, the average age of first period, or menarche, has remained fairly constant, dropping to only 12.5 from 12.8 years. Why would puberty be starting earlier yet ending more or less at the same time?

Puberty Before Age 10, A New Normal – New York Times, March 30th, 2012

Statistically speaking doctors aren’t worried about a 2nd grade female to beginning puberty. That takes a while to sink in, doesn’t it? As the father of a 10 year old girl I digested that article from a bit of a terrified position. I read a bit of the article, looked at Megan. Read a bit more, looked at her some more. I know middle school is just a few months away but I’d really like to hang onto the book reading, origami folding, hold dads hand on the walk to the yogurt shop little girl for a bit longer! My wife and I are in absolute denial of the signs of puberty we see in our daughter. It’s not exactly denial. It’s denial that we’re in denial about her approaching early adolescence.

I don’t think we’re alone. There are likely millions of parents like my wife and I who are in denial that they are in denial of the rapid approach of adolescence.

If you’re a youth worker here’s a scary reality for you: We’re looking to you for help! You know teenagers, we have one that looks like a teenager… help us!?!?!!

Practically speaking what does early onset puberty mean for youth ministry?

  1. Fortunately, at least for now, there’s little evidence that females who enter puberty younger are emotionally entering adolescence. At least not in any research I’ve seen. So I don’t think we have to worry much about somehow pulling out the early bloomers to stick them in the middle school group to be developmentally appropriate.
  2. Unlike boys, girls who “blossom early” are often picked on. I think it’s especially important that we are creating a safe place for all students to explore a relationship with Jesus. While you might think you’re doing this well, you’ll never know until you start asking students if they feel like your ministry is a safe place to be, talk about God, and free from getting picked on.
  3. It’s OK to talk about. If a 5 foot tall 3rd grader is seen in the hallway before high school Sunday School, I think it has to be something you’re willing to talk about.
  4. You don’t have to know why it’s happening. I think it’s funny that parents come to pastors and ask them why something is happening. I don’t ask my tax guy why my car is burning oil, so why do I think it’s OK to ask my pastor why some 1st graders are developing breasts. If you’re asked, the best thing you can possible say is, “I don’t know I’m not an endocrinologist.”

What other implications or ideas do you have for youth workers about early onset puberty? 

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Failure to launch camp

On the eve of next week’s Extended Adolescence Symposium, this story caught our attention:

They are the modern-day lost boys, who suffer from “failure to launch,” a term made popular by a movie of the same name. While at least one critic deemed that film “completely unbelievable” at the time, five years later real life is imitating fiction.

Federal statistics show that young men are, for instance, nearly twice as likely to live at home with their parents than young women their age. They’re also less likely to finish college, or to have a job. The struggling economy has only made things worse.

“We see more failure to launch because there’s less to launch into,” says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist who is the co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit organization that tracks trends in American families.

Read the rest

Did you catch the subtlety of Coleman’s statement? There’s less to launch into. As if adulthood had less to offer today’s 18 year old than say… 40 years ago. (When turning 18 meant receiving a draft card– perhaps eliminating the possibility for such a thing as failure to launch?)

Is it that adulthood really offers less to launch into or is it that we have changed expectations for our young men.

A couple weeks ago we went on a men’s retreat with our high school ministry. In the last session the leaders were asked to share some advice for the guys in our small group. My advice? Sell your toys and start acting your age. Take your XBox to Gamestop and cash it in for some cash. Then tell your parents you’d like to figure out how to move towards financial independence. 

I wonder if we are seeing failure to launch or if we are seeing parents unwilling to launch?

What do you think? And how can youth workers prepare our young men to launch?

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“The” Future of Youth Ministry is less important than “My” future in Youth Ministry

A lot has been said in recent years about the future of youth ministry. Some great books have been written and much has been mused about what the likely direction things will go. I have read most of the books and to a large extent I agree with what many of the writers are saying. If I had to summarize what I think are the three major trends and shifts in the direction of future youth ministry I would say they are: Intergenerational, Family focused and containing a more robust theological reflection.

If I’m honest though I should admit that I care less about the direction we “think” it will go and more about my continual place within it. I decided to make a list of things that are a part of my present call to youth ministry and how I believe they will continue into my future because it’s what I’m passionate about. This list is in no particular order it’s just things that I think I want to keep focusing on that get me excited to keep doing youth/family ministry after 20+ years. Many of these things line up with what others are saying the future will look like which is great because it shows maybe I’m not completely off base on what I value and think I should focus on.

Here’s my hope is that you do the same thing for yourself. What makes you tick? What gets you up in the morning and excited to do your job? What are the things that you feel are non-negotiable things that you want to hang on to for a long time. Find them and do them and your future in Youth Ministry will be so much brighter and longer.

Mentoring younger leaders- One thing I love doing is caring for people younger than me. I should first say that I believe this is a 2 way street. I gain so much from the perspective of younger leaders and feed off their energy, passion and new ideas. I’ve always be in places where this is an organizational value. I particularly love connecting the right people and getting out of the way to see what happens. I think that many of us older leaders have a lot to offer as we share about our experiences, failures and successes.

More connection to parents/families- An area I’ve gotten more and more convinced is my future is that of whole family ministry. I am no longer satisfied to only be involved with students (and their parents) once they enter into the youth ministry. I want to be involved in their lives from the beginning. I think my future (and I hope all of youth ministries future) will be about more integration between children/youth/family ministries. This is way more than a programmatic hope too. I think that on a developmental level there is a huge need for us to think about the entirety of the family’s experience from birth through college. As a parent myself with three young kids I just see this as more and more of my role and focus. I can speak to parents in a completely different way as I have my own kids now.

Encouraging two-way dialogue between the academy and the church- I am a bit of a closet academic that teaches adjunct youth and family ministry courses. Because I went to school for an awful long time I feel like I actually have the ability to be a bridge between the academic institutions and the church. I think we need to figure out a way for learning to go both ways and there are some of us that are in good spots for that to happen. Maybe a better way to say this is I believe the academy desperately needs the church to help frame and shape the education and skills they are teaching.

A network of influence- I love to network but it’s not simply because I love people. I do it often because I recognize the gifts and skills that people have and I want to put them in the right places to maximize their influence. The National Network of Youth Ministry has had “we are better together” as their slogan for a long time and I believe it’s true. We need to continue building relationships and maximizing gifts and skills. It is easier to be connected to each other and with all the communication tools we have now we need to leverage our networks. I want to keep doing that.

An Advocate for children/youth/parents/families- Ask me what my job description is and I will say I’m an advocate. What I mean by that is I think my job is to speak truth and care for families and always be thinking about how I can do that in every setting. So when a senior pastor makes a comment about middle school students that perpetuates a stereotype I talk to them. When we need to become more intentionally intergenerational I will voice that thought. When we spend significantly more on pipe organs than we do on marriage enrichment I will speak to that.

Push the Intergenerational Envelope- I think a lot of churches do lip service to this area of ministry. Yes we say we care about having the whole church together but in reality it’s often a children’s sermon and then sending children and youth back to their areas. I have a huge heart for the church living in to baptismal vows that in my PCUSA world say we will commit as a church to disciple children and students. Part of my hope is to continue pushing to encourage older congregants and people who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as having much to offer to children and family ministries to step into roles where they are able to use their
gifts. One of my favorite books now is “Sticky Faith” by Kara Powell and Chap Clark. They state that this intergenerational piece has a huge impact on the faith lives of students continuing past high school.

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the three components of great youth ministry

have you ever said something, off the cuff, then realized after you said it that there’s more truth to it than you even intended? that happened to me yesterday.

i’m in orlando, speaking at the especialidades juveniles (spanish YS) convention. i love these things. after attending so many of them in argentina and guatemala over the years, i haven’t been to one in a couple years, and i’d missed it. the energy is higher than at the regular NYWC. the attendees are noticeably un-jaded. they are genuinely eager. and that’s infectious.

i was teaching a 2.5 hour “super curso” on youth ministry 3.0, of course with a translator. i’d barreled through the cultural creation of adolescence, the extension of adolescence (both the beginning and the end points), the three tasks of adolescence, and the shifting prioritization of those tasks. the standing room only group in the room was totally engaged, and asked fantastic questions. their body language was all “i’m in”. so, i should have closed it out with a handful of suggestions and patted myself on the back.

but, with about 15 minutes to go, i had a sense. call it the holy spirit, or call it reading something subtle in the responses, or — more likely — just stepping outside of myself for a moment and noticing how passionately i was speaking (hyping?) about this stuff that is, to one extent or another, merely my opinion and conjecture. i had this sense that i was burdening my latin american youth working friends with a bunch of technology that they didn’t need (i’m using technology in the broadest sense here, meaning the systems and methodologies and scaffolding we construct and perpetuate).

i stopped. i said,

let me be clear about the three things that are necessary for great youth ministry:
1. you like teenagers.
2. you are a growing follower of jesus.
3. you are willing to live honestly in the presence of those teenagers you like.

after i said it, i thought to myself, “that was actually true!” it had a sense of surprise to it.

my friend kurt johnston, who shapes me and my youth ministry thinking more than he probably realizes (mostly through the depth of his character), responded, when i asked him to give a 7-minute “soapbox rant” at the middle school ministry campference, by ranting about how ‘the youth ministry sky is not falling.’ he wasn’t only responding to my ongoing “we must change or die!” diatribes, to be sure; he was responding even more so to the panic so many feel in the wake of so many voices telling us we’ve got it wrong, we’re doing it wrong, our teenagers will all fall away, this is the last generation of christians, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah (crap, am i making a living by spreading fear, just as those i’ve always railed against?). sometimes i think kurt gets a little too much orange county sunshine. but i also think he’s onto something.

do we need more theological reflection in youth ministry? yup.
do we need to rethink our assumptions and practices? sure.
do we need to study the changing face of the american teenage experience and adjust accordingly? yes.
do we need a revolution in youth ministry? i think so.

but what we don’t need is to replace one technology (“programs are the answer!”) with another technology (“post-programming is the answer!”).

what we need, and why i’ve always felt that some of the best youth ministry happens in little churches with zero technology, is:
adults who like teenagers
adults who are actively growing in their own faith
adults who will live authentically in relationship with those teenagers they like

i’m gonna keep harping and ranting and instigating. but i can’t get caught in the trappings of a “new way” of doing youth ministry, and i don’t want to lead others down that dead end. and, really, a little sunshine ain’t such a bad thing.

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Intense Friendships Common Among High School Guys

Photo by the waving cat via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Listening to boys, particularly those in early and middle adolescence, speak about their male friendships is like reading an old-fashioned romance novel in which the female protagonist is describing her passionate feelings for her man. At the edge of manhood, when pressures to conform to gender expectations intensify, boys speak about their male friends with abandon, referring to them as people whom they love and to their feelings as, to put it in Justin’s words, “this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it.” They talk in great detail and with tremendous affect about their best friends, with whom they share their deepest secrets and without whom they would, according to 15-year-old Malcolm, “feel lost.”

“Deep Secrets”: Debunking Misconceptions About Adolescent Boys – MSNBC

In many ways this quote and the research behind it seems to be obvious. Anyone who works with high school students knows how powerful friendships are with guys. While we jokingly refer to this phenomenon as a bromance, that isn’t too far from what it really is.

Youth ministry implications

  1. When two close guy friends are actively involved in your ministry it can be fantastic. You can always count on both of them.
  2. When one best friend is involved and the other either isn’t involved in the ministry or is not a believer, this causes a conflict that can lead to mixed loyalties.
  3. Some youth workers may mislabel them a clique and try to break them up by putting them on opposite teams or different small groups, this can backfire as that friendship is more important than your youth ministry.
  4. It’s easy to be dismissive of this friendship and unintentionally damage your relationship with both young men.
  5. It’s better to make space for best friend relationships than it is to fight against them.