Where is 21st Century Youth Ministry Going

Where is youth ministry going in the 21st century?  Youth ministry itself is a relatively modern invention for churches.  It wasn’t too long ago that youth came to church with their parents because they were supposed to.  They’d gather in a room, sit around a table or in rows, and listen as a lesson was explained to them by an elder or parent who was willing to do it.  It didn’t look a whole lot different from school other than you might start off by singing a few songs.  Today it’s a different world.  Full-time paid youth pastors run programs using a variety of curriculum intended to make faith exciting for teens.  But as I’ve visited churches large and small, I’ve found that decades later there really isn’t much different.  Despite the recently devoted resources students are actually leaving the church faster than at any other point in the church’s history.  Why is that?

I used to blame parents for the lack of student interest in faith and youth ministry.  After all, it’s the parents responsibility to get their kids to church.  I still put part of the ownership on parents, but also look at it as a partnership where all the individuals involved must be engaged: parents, pastors, and students.  In doing so I found a glaring flaw common in youth ministries that wind up disconnecting them from their students.  They were not speaking the language of their students.

Today’s teens speak an electronic language.  They engage each other and the world through Google Goggles with the help of their trusted guide Siri.  Twitter lets them talk to celebrities, Instagram lets them show the world what they’re doing, and Tumblr lets them share their thoughts uninterrupted.  Those aren’t even half the apps used by youth today and do you see a trend?  It’s about them expressing themselves to their friends and the world around them.  It’s about them contributing and engaging.  Engagement is this buzzword that people like to throw around.  Pastors talk about engaging their youth when what they really mean is “we need to do something that makes them come and then not fall asleep when they get here”.  But engagement for youth in the 21st century is more than being interested in what the pastor is saying.  Engagement must be about their ability to interact and possibly change the conversation as it’s happening.

Gone are the stale lesson plans with daily reading assignments.  Gone are the days when a pastor could talk at them for 30 minutes while students listened.  Students today crave a conversation.  An organic youth program that allows them to engage in expressing their thoughts and ideas with others.  And that includes others beyond the walls of the church.  Youth ministry in the 21st century needs youth leaders who can effectively use the language of students and guides students as they engage each other in expressing the thoughts that are on their mind about faith and the world.  It means youth leaders must become the shepherding guide of the original meaning of the word “Pastor”.  They must spend more time facilitating the thoughts and conversations of teens then they do in preparing their own thoughts to teach.  They must learn to allow the students to wander where their hearts take them, but always be present to guide when needed.

This is where I believe youth ministry must go for our churches in the 21st century.  It’s a scary place for many youth pastors who like myself volunteer to work with teens.  We didn’t get the training of pastors and often dread being exposed as ignorant by the questions of our students.  As I’ve been blessed with countless people who have shepherded me in my spiritual path, I’ve come to believe that God is calling me to do the same.  To help other youth ministries and youth leaders as they engage students, using their language, to discuss topics relevant to their faith journey.  It’s led me to take a big leap of faith in creating a ministry resource for youth ministry.  One that would connect youth using electronic mediums so they can share their thoughts about life and faith.  Youth leaders can help each other and in so doing help more students.  The links below will share my vision for a 21st century youth ministry unlike any that has been created.  Take a few minutes to check it out and see if you are inspired to help students have a place where they can have conversations with each other about faith.

The Organic Ministry Project


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Why I Spank and When It Goes Wrong

Like the majority of Americans I was raised in a home that used corporal punishment .  My mom broke a fair share of wooden spoons on my rear end.  To this day I take pride in the fact that my parents don’t have any wooden spoons in the kitchen because my hide was tough enough to eliminate them all.  As I got older to where my mothers punishment wasn’t quite as effective, I remember transitioning to the “Wait till your father gets home” punishment.  Looking back, I realize that half the punishment was what we would have considered a “time-out” today as I sat in dreadful anticipation of what was to come.  There was never any arguing over the punishment (except for the pleading “don’t tell dad”).  I knew that arguing or fighting back just made matters worse.  I’d take my couple of swats and afterwards sit on the edge of the bed, usually two hands under me massaging my now tender buttocks, and “think about what I had done”.  This was how I was raised and how I intended to raise my kids.  Like so many people out there my thought was “I got spanked growing up and I turned out just fine”.

I never considered my punishment a “beating” or “whoopin'” like some call it.  That always seemed overdramatizing the situation.  It was a simple spanking. I never had to “fetch a switch” or pull down my pants.  We didn’t even have an official paddle like some of my friends parents had.  Today, I don’t remember how often I was spanked or for what.  What I do remember is what happened after every time though.  Whoever gave out the spanking would come back into the bedroom and sit down next to me.  They’d put their arms around me and wipe away the tears that were still trickling down my cheeks.  It always finished with “you know I don’t like spanking you.  I love you very much and am sorry.  We know you are a great kid and want you to be as great as we believe you are”.  There’d be an explanation of why what I did was wrong and I’d be sent off to play.  But that was a different time.

Apparently corporal punishment is still very common although a bit faux pas.  According to research led by Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas nearly three fourths of US parents spank their children at least once a year.  Nineteen states still utilize corporal punishment in the school system where some 200,000 students receive spankings each year.  So at first the story of Adrian Peterson seemed a bit silly to most Americans.  In case you hadn’t heard Adrian Peterson, star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, turned himself in a week ago on charges of child abuse.  The details I gathered from the story are his 4 year old son pushed his other son off of a toy.  Peterson then used a “switch” to spank the child.  Sounds pretty normal for any of us who grew up fetching a dad’s belt from the closet, and initially many people defended his actions.  The problem arose when the child’s mother took him to the doctor for lacerations to his legs.  As I read the story the first thing that came to my mind was “why does a 260 lb professional athlete need a weapon to discipline a four year old?”.

The problem with child discipline is that there’s a thin line between discipline and abuse.  For every parent who takes the time to love on their child afterwards like mine did, there is one who uses the opportunity to relieve themselves of stress at the expense of a defenseless child; boys and girls who couldn’t sit for days or had black eyes for “sassing their parents” are all too common.  It’s for this reason that the UN passed a resolution to the basic human rights of children urging states to prohibit corporal punishment.  I realized the fine line very quickly as a father.  I scared myself as I felt myself losing control and spanking out of anger.  I had a rule that I would never use an object to discipline my boys.  I know how strong I am and I wasn’t going to allow myself to inflict harm.  But inevitably comes those moments as your arguing with your child and you lose your temper.  It was in those moments where I would grab my son and hold him tight, keeping him safe from me as we calmed ourselves down together.  I understand those parents who say “I never meant to hurt them”.  It’s so easy to lose control in the midst of a child’s temper tantrum as they are kicking and screaming at you.

What makes it even worse is trying to find the alternative.  How do you respond when a kid is stubborn and/or disrespectful?  Time-out is a joke for them.  It’s not easy reasoning with a child.  I’ve read the research and understand the Psychological effects physical violence have on children.  But for all the research that says don’t spank, there’s little to none that give helpful alternatives.  I know I can’t have the same level of discourse with a toddler about right and wrong as I can with a 13 year old due to their cognitive development.  If I take a four year old and explain to them in great detail that if you grab the dogs tail he will bite, what do you think will happen the next time that child sees a dog with it’s tail wagging?  I don’t believe they’ll stop and say “I remember that fantastic conversation with father about the perils of aggravating the dog”.  Most likely they will grab the dogs tail, get nipped at, and come crying to mom.  The reality is that the nip from the dog, the burn on the hand, or the slap on the wrist is what reinforces that was a bad decision.  It’s not a preferred consequence, but how many times have you told a child “no” to find them right back at it again as soon as you turn your back?

I don’t believe spanking is wrong, but like all things there comes a point where it is used extremely or improperly.  I don’t believe scolding a child is wrong, but I have friends who have gone through years of therapy for the emotional and verbal abuse they received as a child.  It’s hard as a parent to discover what kind of punishment is effective for your children.  There’s no manual for this kind of thing.  They don’t teach it in life skills at school, so each of us grows up making decisions about our parenting based on our childhood experiences and the personality of our children.  Every kid is different.  For some a time-out is all that’s needed.  Others need to lose their toys and others don’t respond unless there’s a physical response, be it a slap on the wrist or a swat on the rear.  There are plenty of us out there who got spanked and grew up just fine and there are plenty of people out there who know first hand what a parent losing control and using extreme measures looks like.  My boys are just now in elementary school and thankfully they are smart enough that I can’t remember the last time one of them got spanked.  And I’m thankful every time I don’t have to either.


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If We Learn One Thing From the Ice Bucket Challenge It Should Be This

According to Forbes, the ice bucket challenge has generated $100 million in just over a month for the ALS foundation.  It’s mindblowing to think about really.  How is it that such a silly thing as dumping ice on your head and daring your friends to do the same can result in over 3,000,000 people donating to a cause that they had likely never heard of prior to their Facebook challenge?  I could rant all day about the merits of non-profit organizations using viral marketing for fundraising or why people should/shouldn’t participate.  But at the end I can’t argue with the results going to a good cause that seeks to help makes the lives of other people better.  After all, isn’t that the case for nearly every non-profit charity out there?  So as I broke down what this really meant, what it was accomplishing and why, I came to one realization that I hope doesn’t get lost in the midst of it: together we make a lot bigger difference than as individuals.

Organizations for years have tried to find the key to social media engagement.  Remember Invisible Children’s campaign to arrest Joseph Kony in 2012?  It seemed that just like the Ice Bucket Challenge, every time you turned on the news or logged online you saw a KONY2012 update.  The problem was when the campaign was over and people went back to other things and nothing ever happened to Joseph Kony.  The difference here is that dollars carry a lot more weight; buttons, posters, and “awareness” don’t do a thing.  Here we have millions and millions of dollars that will live on long after the novelty has worn off.  The challenge shows no signs of slowing down either.  Who knows how much money it could raise by the end of the year; possibly $200 or $300 million dollars.  That will change the lives of countless current and future ALS patients as they battle the disease.

Imagine what would happen if we all stopped and realized the power of what just happened.  For a moment when you and I were dumping ice water on our heads and calling our friends out, we felt like we were part of something bigger than ourselves.  We were engaging our friends, contributing to a worthwhile cause, and having fun doing it.  It gave us something more to have at stake than just a guilty conscious about donating or not.  Regardless of ethnicity, income level, religion, or political affiliation people joined together in support of a common cause.  It’s truly amazing when you think about it.  And if we can do that what’s stopping us as a society, as members of humanity from doing more?

What if we decided to focus on one disease per year?  Could we cure AIDS or Cancer?

What if we focused on one cause?  Could we put an end to hunger or poverty?

It almost sounds like John Lennon as he was writing the words to Imagine.  However, this feels a bit more tangible than “All the people living in harmony”.  I’m sure that charitable organizations and research foundations are already trying to figure out how they can be the cause du jour for 2015.  And while I may be a bit curmudgeonly about it, I’ll go along for the ride.  I’m at a point where I don’t really care what it is, because I see a bigger picture of how much people united for a common cause can truly make a difference.  And I hope people don’t get bored with it or tune it out like the infomercials telling you “for the price of a cup of coffee per day…”.  Because afterall, how many buckets of ice are you willing to endure to make this planet a better place for all of us?


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The Tragedy of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

ALS Thank YouWell, unless you’ve been living in a hole you’ve seen/heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the millions of dollars it’s generated for the ALS Foundation. Everyone is doing it from George W. Bush to Lady Gaga. Frankly I find the whole thing very annoying. What really bothers me about this “challenge” is how much it highlights our shallow, calloused, ADD society. While wars rage on all around us and people die from Ebola, we’re obsessed with running around putting ice down each other’s back like we’re middle schoolers.

As I watched the phenomenon build this past week I shared some of my observations via social media. I asked questions like “How many of you cared about ALS a month ago and how many will care in a month from now?” and “What’s the point of the Ice? Just make the donation. If you want your friends to do stupid things play truth or dare.” Responses varied on both sides of the spectrum:

I feel like the awareness is good but most of the videos are hollow. – Lindsey

ALS broke the heart of my family recently. The disease is Brutal. Glad it’s getting the attention – Tim

So for those who have challenged my sincerity toward the situation, please don’t misunderstand my reasoning. My point isn’t that this is a bad charity. It’s quite the opposite. My point is, if you’re passionately defending the gimmick that is the ice bucket challenge now, how passionate were you a week or two weeks ago about ALS? How much had you donated to the ALS foundation so far this year or even in your lifetime?

My wife is a physical therapist who works with children who suffer from all sorts of disease; ALS, Cystic Fibrosis, Fibromyalgia, MS, or a host of other diseases that affect the muscles, skeletal system, or mental capacity in one form or another. Our family gives year round to helping her non-profit clinic raise awareness and money to stay open so that they can provide treatment to help make life easier for those who suffer. There’s nothing more humbling than standing at a booth selling rubber ducks to raise money next to an 8 year old girl who has never walked and may never walk independently. Insurance alone doesn’t cover enough to keep my wife’s organization in business and they rely on donations as much as any other non-profit. Where’s their Ice Bucket? And why do they have to do it?

Why are gimmicks needed to get people’s attention? It’s as if compassion must come with a condition of reward. It’s like telling your children if they eat all their vegetables they can have dessert. Make a donation and get a t-shirt. Sure, you want to show the people who make a donation that you appreciate them, but isn’t the best reward in doing something responsible and showing results with what you’ve raised funds for as well?

Then where does this stop. Am I going to see my pastor get up in December and pour a bucket of ice on himself and challenge me to tithe more? I’ve already seen articles about charities trying to find the next “challenge” to replicate the effect. There are hundreds of charities begging every day for another dollar to help one more life put in their care. Is ALS more worthy than March of Dimes, St. Jude’s, The Red Cross, or AIDS research?

I wondered what Bill Gate’s thought as he dumped his water and made his donation. He’s been fighting Malaria for decades and it seems like no one cares or notices. I’ve tried for years to bring attention to childhood poverty through World Vision and find myself banging my head against the wall. 5,600 people are diagnosed every year with ALS while 20,000 children die EVERY DAY from poverty.  What would your response be if I poured a bucket of ice on my head and challenged you to adopt a World Vision child?

No this isn’t about the ALS foundation or how much they deserve the money for research (which they do). This is about you and me and everyone else who under normal circumstances wouldn’t have cared about ALS and wind up ignoring all other pleas for help on a regular basis. We wanted the attention and thrived on the peer pressure as we claimed our 15 seconds of fame and attention from all of our friends and family by posting a video of ourselves online. I wonder how much money ALS would have raised if it was merely a “donate and post to your FB page”. How many of us would have read the research and cared about how this brutal this horrible disease attacks people. I’m guessing it would have been ignored. And that’s the tragedy of the situation.


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Before Robin Williams Shows Up in Your Sermon, Think Again

Ben Moushon:

I have several students in my youth group I’ve been counseling for depression. If you’re a Christian leader, do not be flippant and take these suggestions seriously. It could literally mean life and death for someone in your church.

Originally posted on Allen White's Blog:

By Allen White robin williams

Most people are well aware of actor Robin Williams’ passing this week. The public outpouring from every sector is tremendous. This man touched a lot of people’s lives. Whether they embraced him as Mork from Ork, or “Captain, my captain,” or a DJ in Vietnam, or a loveable, hope-inspiring doctor in Patch Adams, Robin Williams connected deeply in a lighthearted way with such a broad cross section of people. His inner child was his outer adult, which shows bravery most of us lack. But, pastor, before Robin Williams appears in your sermon, here are a few things to consider:

1. Suicide has had a Personal Effect on Your Congregation.

Somehow, someway, everyone’s lives are touched by suicide. For me, it was a friend who took his life during the last week of Bible college, because he lived in such turmoil he could see no way forward. Most…

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How Do You Know You’re a Christian

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For Those Who Have Lost Hope for the Church

Several weeks ago I wrote a post called  The Adventist Church Needs You Now More Than Ever.  It was a response to the cancellation of a film project the General Conference had commissioned which had garnered a lot of enthusiasm from the younger generation.  In the post I encouraged people not to give up on their church, but to get involved.  The response I received was tremendous.  It definitely struck a chord with many who like myself are tired of watching the church lose more ground than it’s gaining.  But mixed within the ra-ra cheerleading were heartfelt responses from individuals who appreciated the hopefulness, but still could not see a brighter future in front of them.  Those sentiments echo with a lot more people than optimism does and I wanted to take some time to respond to them.

“I tried to make changes and finally gave up”

This sentiment was reinforced to me this past weekend as I took my youth leadership team to Willow Creek Church in Chicago, Illinois.  After being blown away by what Willow Creek does, we sat down and I asked what we could do at our church to get us to that point.  “Quit” was the first response.  “We should just move to Chicago and transfer here”.  Sadly, this is the reality for some of the most gifted people in our churches today.  I know many gifted musicians who have left my church because their talents are not utilized.  I’ve been tempted many times myself.  Rather than seeing a new vision and finding ways to use such talent or even stepping aside to let it happen, church leaders try to plug them into programs that waste their talents.  It’s as demoralizing to ask a contemporary worship leader to lead hymns with an organ in the same way it is to ask a classical pianist to play children’s songs for the nursery department.  Not that these things are bad, but if this is the best and only use you have for their talent you’re wasting a gift.  Within churches across the nation are designers, musicians, actors, artists, writers, and so many more people bursting to use their talents in service for their God and church.  And sadly they fall away, feeling they are not wanted.  They’re told God doesn’t use those kinds of talents.  Anything new and creative is “of the world”.

For the people who have quit, I can only say “I’m sorry”.  I understand.  The church has been a poor steward of it’s talents.  Your creativity and work have been placed in a category similar to science within the church walls.  It’s Religion versus creativity.  I hope you’ve been able to use your talents for God somewhere.  But I also must say thank you.  Because you planted a seed.  In 2010 I went as the pastor for a group of students on a mission trip to Mexico.  Once down there I found that the greatest hurdle wasn’t the sleeping conditions, food, heat, or work.  It was the construction supervisor who believed that we were there to build a church only.  He didn’t care about worship or spiritual growth.  So we worked 10-12 hour days and skipped spiritual programs.  The students were so tired they barely responded to the few worships I was able to fit in.  I felt like a failure.  Our final night in Mexico as we sat in a hotel before flying out the next day, I went for a walk with our site coordinator.  I poured my heart out, feeling very disheartened that I didn’t see and experience great spiritual growth with the youth on this trip like other trips I had been on.   She put her arm on my shoulder and said “you never know what seed you’ve planted”.  As we returned to the hotel we found all of the students sitting in the hallway together signing each other’s bible’s like yearbooks.  That night I sat up all night with them laughing and talking, all of us making up for what was lost time.  A seed I thought had been carried away by the birds had actually fallen on fertile soil.

People get frustrating because they expect sweeping, dramatic change overnight.  And it can’t happen that way.  You can’t remodel a kitchen in an evening and you can’t expect an acorn to grow into an oak tree in a few weeks.  But little seeds do grow.  While many may not be here anymore to see the results, that seed has grown.  The seeds planted by a generation fed up with the same old thing are beginning to come to fruition.  If you don’t believe me, check out movements like Epic Church in Chicago or The 1 Project.  I’m watching seeds I planted five or ten years ago just now happening in my own church.  It’s an amazing sight.

“I don’t know what to do”

There are more than a few people sitting in pews each week who would love to see something different happen, but just don’t know what or how.  They have talents and skills that they may not even be aware of.  Others just don’t know where to start.  They think they need to go through formal plans and board approval.  For these people it’s not quite as frustrating, but almost more disheartening.  They feel there’s nothing they can do to make things change.  I was there ten years ago, wandering around the church foyer with no idea of how I could be part of the church.  It was then that one of the pastors took a gamble and asked if I’d help with the high school students.  Sometimes it’s not so much us knowing what we want or can do, but putting ourselves in a position to be noticed.  Those of us with the ideas can’t do them alone and often don’t know where to look to find people to help us with the crazy plans bursting out of our head.

Beyond putting yourself in a place to be noticed is not overcomplicating what “ministry” really is.  Ministry doesn’t happen during specific hours, on church property, led by a member of the pastoral staff.  Think about what it is that you like to do and do that as a “ministry”.  I often joke that the reason I stuck with youth ministry is because I wanted people who would paintball and play video games with me.  Bible study and worship while important parts of what I do, actually take the least amount of time.  The rest of the time is spent listening to how the week has gone while playing foosball or watching a movie.  My wife is part of a group I call “parents without a home”.  It’s a group of parents whose children don’t need them for supervision in Sabbath school anymore.  They sit in the sanctuary and talk instead of blending into a lesson study somewhere.  And more than anything this group is what gets my wife out of bed and to church anymore.  As a Christian, every moment of every day is ministry.  There are ministries just waiting to be started for people who play Ping Pong, for coffee snobs, yoga, campers, runners, gamers, movie buffs, book lovers, and even dried fruit connoisseurs.  You don’t have to have grand plans or change existing ministries.  Just find a few people and do something as people who love being together through your relationship with Jesus Christ.

Giving up on the church and quitting is like giving up on the government and moving to Canada.  

What point does it serve? You’re only hurting yourself. Millenials in 2008 showed up in droves for one thing; HOPE! That was the idea that helped Barack Obama win the presidential election and eventually a Nobel Peace Prize. Sure there were other platform items, some good and others not so much. But what he showed is that if you care, you don’t walk away. You stand up and do something.  There are those who have left the church because they gave up fighting because they felt nothing will ever change.  They will read this and say “you’re wasting your time”.  And on the surface I would agree.  But they also haven’t caught glimpses of the future of the church the way I have.  When students are not afraid to ask questions the previous generation wouldn’t even acknowledge I know something bigger is coming.  So I would ask…

How much are you trying to change?  The whole denomination?  Or just your little piece of it, even if it’s you and three friends playing monopoly.

What are you trying to change?  How?  Why?

Are you looking for big, instantaneous results or sprouts from little seeds?

If you’re looking for bigger ideas to reimagine the entire church, stay tuned in the coming weeks for more ideas.  In the mean time, start small and see where God takes you when you just put yourself out there.


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