There they are, standing in front of you, casually chatting about their upcoming weekend plans until, BOOM, out of nowhere the question drops. It’s you and them, in uncharted territory, with nervous eye contact and weight in every word.
Perhaps it’s the question you dreaded. “I have no idea what I think of that, I’m still figuring it out. I don’t want to look like an idiot right now! What am I supposed to say??”
Or maybe you love those questions, and you excitedly try to summon all your theological wit, all your communication skills, all the hours you spent winning theoretical arguments against friends. “This is it! This is why I’m a good Christian. I’ve got this. I researched this exact question all last year. I have my elevator pitch MEMORIZED.”
Folks. Prepared or not, worried or excited, can we be honest for a minute?
Are you really going to try to change their mind in one conversation?
I mean, when you put it like that…. Ahem.
Here’s the thing. Often, when others ask your opinion on something, they’re masking the question that’s below it. Am I enough? Will they still love me? Will they still love my family? Is there understanding in them? Are they safe?
Your job, in answering the question, isn’t to answer the question at all. Your job is actually to try to figure out what the question behind the question is. “What’s your opinion” is a code that, if understood properly, can unlock some of the most meaningful conversations you’ll have. You can be right, and do wrong. Be careful with the soul in front of you.
To that end, here’s a few things to remember when a friend/spouse/neighbor/coworker/family member (who we totally now are not trying to change in one conversation) drops a bombshell question out of nowhere:
1) They trust you. (Or, they’re trying to decide if they can trust you.)
If someone is broaching a big conversation with you, they most likely care about the question and they’re looking for safe places to process. Hold that trust carefully. Thank them for sharing, and mean it. Remember this is a conversation and not a lecture hall. Play within their comfort zone of trust -- don’t push “good theology” or “social stances” too much as you get to the heart of what’s going on in their lives.
2) Respond, don’t react.
Perhaps this is better phrased: shepherd, don’t soapbox. As a Christian, you’re supposed to make disciples, not minions; it’s okay if they don’t think exactly like you. Don’t forget you’re holding fragile trust, and you need to express care here, not a perfectly crafted theological stance. Be slow to speak and quick to listen, and try to understand where they are coming from. You probably didn’t form all your opinions or convictions in one conversation, and neither will they. Take a deep breath, and be willing to say something like, “Wow, that’s a big question. Give me a minute to collect my thoughts so I can respond well to you”, or, “Could we meet up next week to give this conversation the time it deserves?” Don’t rush to fill silence. An intentional pause to form your words or sit in the weight of something shared shows genuine concern. Take your time.
3) Ask good questions.
Get out your gospels and take a cue from the one and only (um, Jesus), who did a masterful job of dodging opinion questions by asking another question -- thereby helping his listeners to think instead of react (or get the reaction out of Jesus that they were hoping for!) Good news: tact in response to alarming situations is something Jesus had in abundance, which means it’s something we have access to through Christ. You can ask God to help you grow in this area of Christ-likeness.
And, you know, you can also reference this list of responses I’ve used -- that the Lord has already graciously provided in advance answer to your prayers for wisdom! Wow!
“That’s a big question. What makes you ask that?”
“Is this something your friends/family bring up very much?”
“Wow, that’s a really controversial issue.”
“Are you nervous to ask about this?”
“Thanks for trusting me with that and being willing to ask it. That’s a big deal and I appreciate your vulnerability.”
“Have you chatted about this with your parents/spouse/friends? Why not/what did they say?”
“Have you been thinking about this for awhile?”
“Have you asked this of other people?”
“What do you think I’m going to say?”
“What do you think?”
“When do you remember first starting to really think about this?”
As a bonus -- I’ve found humor to be so liberating. It settles the nerves and helps establish a common ground. While not always appropriate, when it’s fitting, I’ve found something a little teasing really valuable: “Wow, this is a big question. Are you trying to start a fight with me?? Where’s the hidden cameras and secret microphones??”
PLEASE remember, when you hear a big question from someone, it's probably not a casual question. It’s probably also not a one-and-done conversation; make sure to follow up over the weeks and months to follow. “Have you still been thinking about ___?” This is probably something that's deeply personal to them or their loved ones. Value their trust, respond well, and ask good questions. Take your time. If you fly off the handle and speak harshly, bridges can burn. If you listen and show care, even if you disagree at the end of the day, you establish yourself as a safe place. That’s crucial in relationships.
And there’s my opinion, on opinions. You’re welcome.
There has been some discussion lately among some of my youth ministry friends about the future of our profession. There seems to be another round of shots fired across the bow at youth ministry and the professionals that lead these ministries. Sticky Faith, Family Based Ministries, and people with axes to grind continue to lay the decaying faith of adolescents and young adults squarely at the feet of us professionals and the failed models we are propping up.
Fellow professional youth workers have no fear, our jobs are here to stay!!
We have an amazing calling and part of an amazing legacy, and I am convinced that for the foreseeable future, churches will continue to do everything in their power to make sure their staffs include a paid youth worker. Here's why:
1) IF A CHURCH IS GOING TO ATTRACT YOUNG FAMILIES, THEY NEED TO PROVE THAT THEY WILL CARE FOR THE ENTIRE SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT OF THEIR KIDS.
For better or worse, a church that has a paid youth worker, signifies to the entire church family that they care about families. While children's ministry is incredibly important, many parents will tolerate poor children's ministry if they know that as their children grow into teens, there will be a place for them to continue to work it out at the church. Think of all the families that restart the church hopping process when their kids reach 4th and 5th grade. All of the sudden, that great church plant, or dynamic young preacher doesn't seem to cut it when their own kids' faith is on the line. A paid youth worker communicates care for this significant felt need.
2) IT IS A MODEL THAT HAS POSITIVELY IMPACTED THOSE WHO ARE NOW AT THE AGE TO MAKE DECISIONS REGARDING STAFFING AND BUDGETS IN CHURCHES.
It is an unavoidable truth that people invest and do the things that are meaningful to them. Think of how you choose what to do for your youth ministry program. Chances are most of what you do is based on the things that God used in significant ways in your own life when you were in student ministry. Youth ministry has now been around long enough that the power players at most churches remember the Hay Day of youth ministry and the significant role that ministry played in their faith development. They want their church to provide solid ministry for their own kids and their view of a thriving church includes a thriving student ministry. Most thriving student ministries are headed up by a paid point person.
3) STUDENTS CONTINUE TO NEED A PLACE FOR FELLOWSHIP AND LEARNING THAT IS SEPARATE FROM THEIR PARENTS AND MAKES SPACE FOR THEIR UNIQUE DEVELOPMENTAL NEEDS.
For all the talk about family ministry and integration, the fundamental task of adolescence is still individuation and separation from their family's faith. Students need a place separate from their parents where they can ask the hard questions, push back, run away, and still be seen and loved by the church at large. Student ministry provides a unique haven in this adolescent development where students can work out their faith separate from their mom while still being connected to the church. It is really brilliant if you think about it.
4) THE TRADITIONAL MODEL OF YOUTH MINISTER, RUN BY A PROFESSIONAL, CONTINUES TO BE THE MOST EFFECTIVE MODEL AT HELPING STUDENTS DEVELOP PERSONAL FAITH AND PROVIDING SIGNIFICANT WATER MARKS IN THEIR LIVES.
I know it is so cool to be pissed at the church and youth ministry for all the kids who walk away from faith. But stop and think about all the kids who have ever come through your ministry and reflect on the ways that God has grabbed ahold of. We need to actually stop and celebrate the great things that God is doing in them and through them now. This isn't something to gloss over. A vast majority of those in leadership now in the Church with a capital C are people who were leaders in their student ministries. Praise God for the gutter to glory stories of those people who find Jesus all by themselves later in life. But when you start to ask around, those people are the exception. Youth ministry is the tool that God has and is continuing to use to clarify people's call into His family, and into ministry.
5) NAME ONE CHURCH WHO HAS ALL THE RESOURCES THEY NEED WHO WOULD INTENTIONALLY STAFF THEIR CHURCH WITHOUT A PROFESSIONAL TO RUN THE STUDENT MINISTRY.
For reals, name one. I know finances are hectic and churches have to be creative. But not hiring because of financial hard times is not the same as not doing youth ministry because of conviction. And the churches who are relying on faithful volunteers, whom I am honored to count as my colleagues, would pay those volunteers or someone else if they happened to win the Mega Millions Jackpot this last week.
While I do firmly believe that churches will continue to pay for people to work with students, they will no longer pay people who do shoddy work. Financial hardship is a reality in many of our contexts and every dollar matters. If our church leaders are going to be good stewards of their resources then they will only be paying people who will work hard and do a good job.
Gone are the days where youth workers are simply paid to goof off with students, play video games, eat pizza, and have a few informal bible studies at their house. If someone is being paid to run a youth ministry, then they will be expected to run a youth ministry. This includes program, administration, duties assigned by pastor, and then video game extravaganzas, all within a tight budget.
The good news is that our profession is here to stay! The bad news is that we will continue to be expected to work harder and be more effective than our predecessors. Friends, it is gut check time!
Are you still called to do ministry in this environment and with these expectations? Do you still love students, but may be losing steam on the professional aspect of it? Is it time to maybe need to call it quits? Or do you simply think I am full of crap and protecting my own paycheck? :)
I was recently asked why the youth program at our church was so amazing. Between you and me, our youth ministry really isn't amazing. Numerically we are right there in the 10%-13% of big church attendance. Our program is fully mid-1990's, and the guy in charge used to be me. I may be a lot of things, but I am for sure not a pied piper when it comes to student ministry. I love students and love walking through this season of life and faith with them, but I feel awkward when I show up on campus, and struggle with one on one contact time. Two years ago I finally tapped out, and brought on an incredible couple to carry on our church’s student ministry tradition. And while I am no longer implementing our student ministry, I am overseeing it, championing it, and clearing the way for our student ministry directors to crush it!
As this parent and I talked, I began to reflect on his impression of our youth ministry and realized that our success in student ministry actually has little to do with me, and comes from the leadership of the church and lead pastor long before it comes from me.
The Fallacy of Big Personality
Many churches, especially in our context, hire the young, amazing, attractional, extroverted youth worker. These superstars actually turn into supernovas within two years. Before they implode, these youth workers work long hours for little pay and have very little divide between personal life and ministry. They do a great job of gathering students and begin to get some momentum. But sooner or later these youth workers get tired, burned out, graduate seminary, realize they can't support a family with this salary or some combination of these factors and leave. They are then quickly replaced by the next great personality. But after a few short cycles of this, the students as well as parents become reluctant to give their hearts to a new person who will be gone in a year or so.
It's All About The Benjamins:
I hate that this is true, but what separates amazing student ministry programs from the flash in the pans seems to come down to money. And like everything, you get what you pay for. You may be able to get away hiring a superstar youth worker for peanuts, but as soon as they realize that they are a superstar and could be making double, they are gone. If you pay bottom of the barrel salaries, you will get bottom of the barrel youth workers who will stay too long, or great youth workers who will leave too soon.
When a church invests serious resources into their student ministry program, they will enjoy a huge harvest from that investment. It can be a difficult sell to ask the church to direct so many resources towards students. Especially because students don't contribute financially, and tend to break things. But when churches see that an investment investment in students is also an investment in their families, then you can begin to make some progress.
When you invest in students you communicate to parents in children's ministry that this church is serious about the spiritual development of their kids for the long haul. It helps those parents land and commit to the church. It, of course, is blessing for the parents of students who are at the end of their rope and need all the help and support the church can give. An investment in student ministry blesses 11-18 year-olds, and parents in their 30's-50's. That is a lot of love from a specialized ministry.
Longevity Beats Personality:
After thinking about this parent's comments for a while, I had to come clean and confess that our student ministry is pretty great not because I am so great, but because for 50 years our church has invested a significant amount of resources so that they could hire veteran youth workers and pay them to stick around for a long time. And the truth is, I am simply in line behind some really amazing youth workers who have gone before me and did great ministry for a long time. And besides their legacy, I also have worked for a lead pastor who "gets it" and advocates for students and our budget. And now, I get to be that lead pastor as I advocate for the next generation of youth workers.
It is true that my personality is a little bit lacking. But the fact that I have been around for a long time and am planning on sticking around longer brings stability in the most unstable season of life. What makes our student ministry great is not that I make great videos, play hip games, or gather dozens of kids around a pizza on campus. For parents and students, what makes our student ministry great is that they know me and my team, they know what to expect, and trust that I will be walking with their kids for the duration of adolescence means that I have a pretty amazing youth program.
Thank you Marin Covenant for loving students and their families for over 50 years!
Back in the 1970’s Young Life dramatically changed how the church has done student ministry. With two key foundations, go where students are and earn the right to be heard, countless teenagers have come to know and love Jesus! The church was a little slow on the uptake, but by the time I started doing youth ministry in the late 90’s those values had become the bedrock of church based student ministry as well.
20 years later youth ministry has really taken it on the chin. We have declining numbers for programmatic ministry, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to an effective model, and there seems to be less and less money for staff. It may seem like the sky is falling, and it is, but not for the reasons stated above.
The reason for alarm is that even with all the challenge in front of those incredible people called to love students right into the family of God, it has become next to impossible to do the one thing most of us have been called to do. To make contact with students, meet them where they are, and earn the right to be heard as we love them and point them towards Jesus.
You are no longer welcome in their world!
The brutal reality is that as adults, we are no longer welcome nor can we really find the spaces where students are so we can do contact work and build a friendship. There are no longer common sporting events, band concerts, skate parks, coffee shops, arcades, fro-yo shops, you name it. No longer can an adult who loves kids show up in a space where kids are and build relationship with them.
For all the right reasons some of that contact work was shut down because some adults abused their positions of power and took advantage of students, and/or developed inappropriate relationships and friendships with minors. For these reasons, I am glad that the barriers are higher and our students are protected. I am glad that my kids, who are now teenagers are more protected from predatory adults. This is an ugly factor, but it is factor number one.
The second is the technological world our students live in. As the world has changed and every student in your ministry has a smartphone and multiple social media accounts to manage, and a variety of texting options, their real life is no longer happening in front of you. What you see, the interaction you see, the conversations you have are now the facade. Their real life is in the cloud.
The reverse used to be true and we could simply ask our kids to put their phones away and they could slip back to the flesh and bones world we call home. But that is no longer the case. Their flesh and blood interactions are the things they tolerate and have to manage so they can get back to their real life, their life in the cloud.
This life in the cloud is not for you. You are not a native to this world, and you are not really invited. Texting a kid or liking an Instagram is being a spectator in their world, but that does not make you a fellow traveler in it. And in this new reality, how are adults, youth workers supposed to connect with kids, make contact, build relationship, and earn the right to be heard.
This is the $1,000,000 question.
Are you prepared to be a true cross-cultural missionary in an unexplored context?
As adults, we know that humans need real human interaction and they need to connect with God to fully live the abundant life we were designed to have. The total lack of human connection has to be a large factor in the exponential rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide.
The church, student ministries have never been needed more. Adults who will see kids and love them unconditionally right where they are at is in short supply.
You are a cross-cultural missionary in a mission field that nobody understands and where nobody has gone before. You, as a faithful youth worker are a pioneer. So treat your calling and your ministry as a pioneer, as an outpost.
Quit doing hospice work to a dying model of ministry and be innovative, share your thoughts and findings, and teach the church how to be the church in this new world.
I wanted to thank you so much for your faithful service to the church for all of these years. In fact, you are above average in your attempt to live for Jesus and to help others do the same. In fact, for many of you called to youth ministry, your call began in your own youth ministry experience and it was during your late high school and early college careers that you decided to serve Jesus by serving kids! For this, the church, your students, and Jesus is thankful!
You spent your late teens and early 20's being a perfect model of Jesus. You actually refrained from sleeping around and for many, turned this burning passion into a young marriage. You and your spouse got married young and then together set out to change the world. Because the age gap between you and your students was small at first, you gladly gave up alcohol as to not confuse your students or their parents. And for the last 5-10 years you have been cranking along just fine.
But for some of you, including myself, there is something rumbling under the surface. Is it discontentment? Is it bitterness? Is it jealously? For many youth workers who got into this gig at an early age, there is a close identification with the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. Our younger brothers and sisters went crazy! And now our peers are slowly coming back to church, back to faith and are being welcomed back with open arms.
As they return, I sense God coming to the back yard where you / we are pouting. We gladly gave up our 20's, gave up the parties, the girls / guys, the chaos, in order to live an exemplary life for our students and for Jesus. And for the older brother, and for me, and for maybe you, the question arises, "For what?"
Before you jump right back with the Christiany answer that all we have is God's and that we did the right thing and that God is pleased by our service, or God is displeased in our religiosity, or whatever knee jerk, bumper sticker you want to put over this feeling, I am asking that you would stop for a minute and reflect.
Do you need to grieve the coming of age rebellion that everyone experienced except for you?
Have you noticed your walk with Jesus to be dry because you have remained "healthy" in your life and lifestyle?
Are you starting to act out or dancing with the line when it comes to lifestyle choices now?
For many of my friends who have spent their 20's serving Jesus instead of body shots, there is a percolating rebellion that is rising to the surface. The real question is how are you going to deal with this rising rebellion? At this point you have to much on the line, you have a career, a spouse, even a kid or two. Some drunken outburst, a flirty relationship gone too far, the darker and hidden places you go online are not permitted for those of us who have chosen to do vocational ministry. And sometimes it just doesn't seem fair that we have to keep our entire lives in check every minute, of every hour, of every day, while the younger brother gets to go crazy and seemingly come and go as he pleases. And unless we deal with it, all that we have on the line will be lost.
In fact, I am sure many of you can name plenty of fallen friends who just could not keep it together, their percolating rebellion found some unhealthy escape and that was more then they, their spouse, and even the church could handle. I have too many friends that this story applies to. I have too much on the line in my own life, and my guess is that you do to.
So, I simply would like to end this letter by asking you to reflect on this question. "Have you, or do you need to grieve your 20's?"
Because this seems to be a hidden battle for many of my friends in vocational ministry, and because I too am in this boat, and I too want to be whole and healthy as I continue to serve the church and students, I would love to know your thoughts.
How are you acting out? How are you locking it down? How have you survived? How have you grieved? How have you responded to our gracious Father's invitation to come back inside to the party and celebrate that our younger brother has been found?
Having served in youth ministry for 20 years, one of the joys, and unpredictable elements is, ‘where will my students end up.’ I refer to “my students’ to include the former athletes I have coached, as well as youth leaders. I have served in ministry and coached in places, including; Saskatchewan, Washington, Minnesota, California and finally, Kansas.
My biggest joy comes from witnessing what I taught students, and seeing them passing God’s truth on to others. I love that I get to see former students at denominational gatherings like Kara, Amy, Christian, Kara M., Nicholas & Drew who are now leading others. I kicked Drew out of youth group one time and he is now a youth pastor in rural Alaska. Maybe I should kick out more students! Also, this job sometimes makes me feel old. When at Bluewater Camp in MN, I saw the kid who almost drove me out of ministry, now counseling others.
Then the random places that students have ended up. There is Dr. Phil where Jessica was on for talking about “Internet Bullying”. Then there was Tara who was on “The Bachelor”. Tara got one rose before heartbreak. As I watched her cry and say “No wants want to be with me”, I was sad. I looked to my youth specialties resource books from the 90s and of course at www.averageyouthministry.com but there was nothing! I reached out and told her I care about you, like I would if she was still on a basketball team at Mt. Si or going to youth group at Cascade Covenant. Tara didn’t get the final rose on the show, but she “Lit the lamp” by marrying a gentleman who plays for the Boston Bruins.
YouTube is where two of my current leaders took a creative twist with farming terms and parodies. I prefer the Peterson Farm Brothers’ version of “I Am Farming and I Grow It” over “I Am Sexy and I Know It”. Thanks to the Peterson Farm Brothers and over 80 million views later they are still on the farming circuit speaking. Greg, Nathan and Kendal are incredible leaders here at Lindsborg Covenant. Greg gave a Ted talk on farming so they passed me on the public speaking circuit years ago.
When I coached basketball at Walnut Creek Intermediate the most recognized player ended up being Sabrina. Sabrina practiced with the boys because her twin Eddy was on the team. They were basically peanut butter and jelly. She was good enough to play with the boys. I asked the school if she could play. This might have been my best scouting report in my high profile basketball career, but they said no. By the way, I am glad they didn’t have good video cameras back in 1993 for my high school career or my junior varsity Briercrest prestigious career of 2 years. She went onto win the MVP at the McDonald’s All American game and be the NCAA all-time leader in triple doubles. Just to compare I had one double double (turnovers and fouls) at Briercrest when we played the high school. She plays for the Oregon Ducks and will most likely be the #1 pick in the WNBA eventually. Needless to say, she passed me too when she was in the 9th grade or 8th grade, it does not matter.
There is also the painful side to ministry, like seeing students serve time, divorces, making the news, addictions getting the best of them and suicide. The last time I saw Josh was on the side of the road at Linwood getting in a police car. He ran away from youth group one night. I was going to physically carry him back to church to give him a ride. We are wrestling on the side of the road, and someone stopped to help, and Josh says I am trying to kidnap him, and this goes from crazy to “I can’t make this up”. Josh got a ride in the police car home and I was not charged with kidnapping, this time. He went onto struggle, and I am surprised he actually lived through it all. Josh finally found God. God is the only one who could have spared him. Today Josh started his own business. I celebrate that he has been clean for two years! He is still working on his relationship with God.
So the point I want to leave you with is this; as a youth worker you have no idea who is in your youth group. The places they will go are exciting and scary. I hope to be a small footnote in the story, where most students will forget my name 5 years after graduation. My prayer and hope is that they don’t forget the name of Jesus. I know the names, faces, and most of the stories but God knows where they are going. So love them the best you can with the time you have because you never know when one of them will show up at your door, on TV, send you a text, or cry after not getting a rose. And you never know which student will lead you, or someday be your pastor!
The wiser, older version of Jeremy won’t chase kids down and tackle them. And there is the fact that I can’t run as fast. But I am still in the ministry of reaching students with an endless pursuit towards a God that loves them recklessly!
Next time I see one of my students on Dr. Phil, the Bachelor or ESPN I will smile and be thankful for the ride! And here is to hoping and praying that they don’t use colorful language on TV because they must have missed that night at youth group. To ALL my former students, athletes, and youth leaders; much love and respect. I am still cheering you on from Kansas. Keep loving Jesus!
My name is Jeremy Elseth. My biggest accomplishment in life is being married to Jaime for 20 years. We met while I was an intern at Harbor Covenant church in Gig Harbor, WA. She was a college student and I just graduated. Her mom was the secretary and tried to set me up with anyone but her favorite daughter. Jaime has run 3 marathons and I cheer her on. Most of the time we have 3 kids living at our house Jalen who is 16, looking for gainful employment and is an above average shooter on the court. Jordyn is 13 loves all animals and volleyball. Jersey is 10 and loves to tell us she loves us over 50 times every day and is full of hugs. I love being a youth pastor, currently at Lindsborg Covenant Church in Little Sweden in the middle of the US. I also play semi pro basketball in the Lindsborg semi pro league that plays Tuesdays and Fridays at our church. Currently there are no sports net works showcasing our games but if you know someone at ESPN let them know we are interested in a million dollar multi year contract.
I think Will Smith was onto something with this anthem for all those angsty kids in the late 80’s. And now as someone who works with students and has to deal with parents all the time, this anthem could be just as applicable for us youth workers today!
DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince - Parents Just Don't Understand - YouTube
As youth workers, our entire lives are wrapped up in connecting with students and helping them connect to Jesus. We spend countless hours doing contact work, developing compelling youth groups, and planning special trips and camps. And the worst part is that parents just don’t understand!
How many times have we had conversations with parents who just don’t seem to get the importance of what we are doing. It is us who are standing in the gap, who are the last line of defense in the faith development of their children. They don’t help their kids show up at youth group or our special events. They seem to think sports, school, and family vacations are more important than youth group. How do they not realize how important our programs are?
This regular frustration of mine got a major tweak this last weekend.
We just got back form an amazing time at our junior high camp. Our students had an amazing time and many of them made significant decisions regarding their faith. On the drive home I was thinking about how sad it is that I won’t see many of them until next week’s youth group. There are so many follow up conversations that I am not going to be able to have with them. This is because my time is so limited.
In Reggie Joiner’s book, Think Orange, Joiner points out that in an average year youth workers have on average 40 whole hours of contact time with our students. And this contact time is usually in the context of a group of students. Parents on the other hand have over 3000 hours of time with their own kids every year. Maybe there could be a different way we can partner with parents and use our common goal of the faith development of their kids to build synergy and have a more dramatic and lasting impact on the lives of our students.
Instead of seeing parents as the challenge to student ministry, maybe they could be an asset. Maybe instead of even asking such a slanted question us youth workers could take a back seat and see our role as a supplement to the work parents are doing. And maybe we could build a program that takes seriously the needs of families and spend our time building into the people who have 100x’s more influence and time then we ever could.
I am not going to lie, this way of thinking is not new to me, but still hasn’t made its way all the way into my heart. I am a youth worker and my entire life is wrapped up developing programs and relationships to help students know Jesus. I see the world through the lens of church and church programs. Parents are the ones who actually have the best interest of their kids in mind and they don’t need young punks patronizing or dismissing them. They need partners who will encourage and equip them so that the church and the family can partner in more effective ministry.
Why don’t you consider joining me in Atlanta, GA this May for the Orange Conference. This is an entire conference designed to wrestle with the intentional partnership between the church and the family. (Plus, I need a roommate)
If parents just don't understand, it is probably my fault. Thankfully I don't have to figure out how to do this partnership alone. There are great resources out there, the Orange peeps are ones that I have found. What resources have you found?
I actually don’t think that it is an oversell. I truly believe this with all my heart. I have always thought it was the best job in the entire world, but more and more, I am convinced that it is the most important.
Clark argued that kids have been abandoned by adults and are occupying the “world beneath.” All the organizations that were supposed to come alongside families and support the character development and care of kids have abandoned kids as well. Teachers teach to the test, coaches coach for the win, and even youth workers plan for the numbers. And in all of this kids go unseen and are living in this hidden world where it is truly the Lord of the Flies.
What none of us realized is that this world beneath has become the world above. The cloud has become the center of life for all of us, but the center of reality for students. And now, more than ever they have been abandoned because parents are just as distracted on their phones as kids are, except that parents are fully formed adults and our kids are half cooked.
We are seeing the fruit of this abandonment with the astronomical rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide. We see kids self-medicating with anything they can get their hands on and trying to be distracted by as much technology they can consume between dopamine hits from their social media.
THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN:
Students have been abandoned, they live in the cloud, and they are being destroyed internally. While this is true, they are still human beings made in the image of God and are in desperate need of human interaction, human connection, and human care.
When you step in, slow down, and actually see a kid, you make a true impact on them. By acknowledging their humanity, seeing them through the lens of Christ and speak words of love and affection on them, you are actually changing their lives.
This requires you to not be on your phone, to not buy into the dopamine rush and trick yourself that you are actually connecting with your kids because you are present in their online world. Those things are important, but that is not where transformation happens. Life change occurs in the actual human interaction, and it is that human interaction and empathy that builds the strands in their hearts so they can actually encounter God and experience the love and grace and empathy that is found in Christ.
In this brutal culture where our kids live, you are one of the only adults in these kids' lives who actually see them. You are one of the only people who doesn't need anything from them, who doesn't need them to perform. You simply only need to make eye contact with them and remind them of their true humanity and their true worth. And because you are one of the only adults who do this, this makes your job and calling the most important job on the planet!
So, don't slack off, don't lose heart. Embrace your calling and work with all of your might to love your kids, right into the kingdom of God!
Today is the final week of my Generation Z class. I am not going to lie, the study and preparation for this class has been one of the most formative endeavors I have done in over five years. I am blown away at how quickly culture is changing and it is impossible to keep up. I am not talking about understanding Tik Tok or the millions of different Youtubers out there speaking into our kids’ lives. I am talking about the core of the culture that is unseen, but moving us all whether we are aware of it or not.
With that being said, I wanted to share with you my last piece from this class, some pro tips for parents in helping their kids and their soul navigate these tumultuous waters. Without further ado . . .
THE TOP 10 PRO-TIPS FOR PARENTS WHO ARE RAISING GENERATION Z:
1) Regarding Technology: Its time to turn off the phone, manage your router, leverage apps like “Disney’s Circle” or iOS “Screentime.” You must continue to help them like you did when they were toddlers. All of their life is in the cloud. You will never see it. So, now, more than ever, you must pay attention to their heart and demeanor, not just their grades.
2) Regarding Sexuality: Sexuality is a core part of all of our identities. Our students are just now developing this major part of their life. Do not freak out. It helps to separate out the identity formation part of their sexuality from their actual putting it into practice. ;) All of us must work with all of our might for our kids to not objectify one another or be fine with being objectified.
3) Regarding Spirituality: All of our kids, including our church kids, have a spiritual world view that is very far from orthodoxy. The truth is we work really hard to cram our values down our kids’ throats. We do it with sports, education, recycling. We must do it with our faith. Plus, we have to celebrate that it is our faith that actually gives us the right framework to talk about and tackle all of the issues that matter most to them; environmentalism, sexuality, racism, #metoo, immigration, justice, art, music, and human dignity!
4) Its time to work out your own garbage: You have made plenty of big mistakes throughout your life. Just because you were in idiot in your teens and 20’s doesn’t mean that you can’t call them on their mistakes. Also, you don’t have to share them with your kids. In fact, you shouldn’t. When they grow up and are worthy of your deepest darkest, then you can share with them. And if you are compelled to do so, then do it in a way that frames it through your transformation in Christ. All that’s to say, you are allowed to have convictions and rules around sexual activity, drugs, drinking, and whatever else was part of your past that you would be horrified for them to find out about.
5) We can’t protect kids from mistakes: In fact, we stunt their development if we protect them too much. Kids need to try out their freedom as well as experience the full ramifications of their choices, both good and bad. Failing freshman math is awesome for their development. Try it out. It will actually save them in the long run!
6) Don't forget your own development: Just like this class, it has been a long time since I have taken a fresh look into a new topic and have been willing to grow and change. We must always have a posture of learning and development. This has to be true for our skills as parents, but must be even more true in our posture towards God. We must be life long learners about the most important parts of our lives, our kids and our faith!
7) Parent in such a way that you can have influence in their lives from age 25-50: So many parents, and, if I’m honest, us church professionals, parent like age 18 is the end. 18 is halfway through adolescence these days. Don’t burn bridges or fire bomb everything in order to protect them from something you can’t protect them from anyway. Play the long game. Parent in a way that you can be connected with them and influence them for the long haul. (Not just these few years of total chaos )
8) Be fascinated with the unique people your kids are becoming, not the behaviors you are trying to train: Your kids are incredible human beings. They are not you, they have agency, unique gifts, perspectives, and temperaments. Quit trying to make them like you. Use your wisdom and perspective to develop and draw out the best of who God made them to be!
9) Relax, your kids will end up just like you: At the end of the day, your kids' will 90% mirror your values in adulthood. So what are your true values? Not your stated ones? Fear, shame, performance, education, right behaviors? Or, life long learning and pursuing of Jesus, humility, service, worship, etc.
10) You have all the power so leverage it to always work to be in a relationship with your kids: One of my heroes, Reggie Joiner wrote about this in his book, Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. I high recommend the entire book. But this one idea has shaped my parenting for years now. It is funny how we always feel like the other person has power. And it is true, our kids have so much power. But we have the most and must use it well.
Ok, that is it. That is the sum total of all I have to offer. Good luck parenting, good luck youth ministering, good luck in all things! May God truly bless you and your family as we seek to love our kids (in the broadest sense of the word) love them right into the Kingdom of God!
As I have been studying up and preparing for my three week class on Generation Z, I found this last section to be the most compelling and heartbreaking. It is easy to get lost in the stats regarding technology and the correlation between screen time and depression. Or to examine the LGBTQQIP2A+ sexuality alphabet soup and the implications of that. (Both incredible topics and worthy of discussion)
But this week we take a look at the spiritual foundation for Generation Z and what is the native tongue for this generation, is not even on the radar of church leaders or parents. The spiritual moment our kids find themselves in goes all the way back to the garden. It is the total antithesis to orthodox Christianity, and the more I have been studying, I have been alarmed at how much it has influenced the church and me.
What is this new spirituality, this new religion? Humanism.
Humanism has been around for almost 300 years. It is nothing new or novel. But what is new is how this worldview, this religion has become the dominant worldview of our culture and the foundation for our kids. Simply speaking, humanism is a worldview, religion, even a spirituality that places human experience at the center of authority. Authority and meaning no longer come from God, from above, from the experts, but from within an individual person.
You can see how this has impacted you and me. In politics, we have abandoned the experts and elite class, and it is the feelings of the voters. In economics, the customer always right. In art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And in morality, it comes down to how you feel about a decision and if it is right for you. Yes, there is conflict when my desires and needs bump into yours, but our culture is wrestling how to navigate that as well. (I think that is partially why there is a rise in intersectionality, so we have some sense of who’s feelings and experiences matter more if there is a tie)
With Humanism at its core, there are really three ways this gets worked out:
Hedonism: Pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. In our context, that has lots of resources, this is the religion of the day. Leveraging wealth, fitness, yoga, travel, sex, and experiences to feel great about themselves, or to feel anything.
Nihilism: the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless. At the end of the pleasure pursuit, comes the awful realization that there is nothing left. It is all meaningless, and self-medication takes over and the long slow decline into anxiety, depression, and suicide. Between hedonism and nihilism, I vote that nihilism is taking over our kids' world.
Moral Therapeutic Deism: (Kenda Creasy Dean wrote a prophetic book regarding this almost 10 years ago, Almost Christian) This is the religion of the church. It is a feel-good Christianity where God made us and is for us when we need it. We should try to live good lives and be happy. At the core of this religious expression of Humanism, the person and their feelings and experiences are still the centers, it just has the flavor of Christianity. (To tell you the truth, this is the expressed religion of the adults in church, and our kids are just fully embracing it. Most orthodox adults can articulate orthodox Christianity but that isn’t what is lived out, and it is what is lived out, that kids internalize and come to believe.)
So with the new religious foundation firmly being Humanism, the big question is how the church is supposed to respond? How do we teach orthodox Christianity when it is an anathema to our current culture? I am glad you asked. You will have to tune in next week for the final week of my class.