Does Backing Down Enable Backing Out?

I have steadfastly maintained that church should be the thing that backs down in the lives of busy teenagers and that it is contrary to our purpose to get competitive with soccer and band camp in our youth ministry programming choices. Church participation really is an end in itself. Growing together in community–learning, serving, caring–is the point. You don’t advance that cause with a punitive attendance policy.

Youth will sign up for other things over church retreats and mission trips. I get that. I’m not mad about it. I’ll back down.

The instance that is harder to back down from, though, is the backing out. I’ve seen it happen more than once that the student who has already committed to the retreat gets invited to something else and so changes her mind and backs out.

What then?

Does backing down enable backing out?


I Wonder . . .

I wonder which part of this story is your favorite part.

I wonder which part of this story is the most important part.

I wonder which where you are in this story, which part is about you.

I wonder if we could take any part of this story away and still have all the story we need.

These four “wondering questions” are the exclusive discussion prompts for most of the lessons in Godly Play, a curriculum of Bible lessons for young children that I taught to preschoolers almost every week for several years. They are so useful that I have employed them in multiple settings and diverse populations of youth and adults. I’m doing it again this weekend.

One of the most fulfilling worship leadership experiences I ever had was a service to introduce Godly Play to our congregation. The teachers and I told a story from Genesis in which the teachers moved around the chancel like the implements from the curriculum. Then the four of them preached, each one addressing one of the “wondering” prompts. You could do a lot worse than that for a sermon preparation guide.

I taught my last Godly Play lesson in 2015. Maybe I’ll return to it someday. In the meantime I’m using its wondering questions liberally.


They Got You

You got took. They tricked you, fooled you, distracted and deceived you (the police report will actually charge them with (“deceptive practice”).

You were a mark. You fell for it. They got you.

Its not entirely about what they stole, is it? The credit card is cancelled with a single call, and you will be out no money. A new card will arrive in a few days.

No, it’s not just about the item. It’s about you. Thieves saw in you someone they could exploit, and they were right.

Two things about this.

1. Now you know. You’ve seen this scheme and will recognize it next time. Congratulations. You learned something.

2. Being a mark is not the worst thing you can be. They got you because they hijacked your desire to be perceived by strangers as non-threatening and polite. You don’t have to stop being that way just because this group of tricksters got one over on you this time.

The world needs people who project openness over hostility more than it needs people who will never be taken.

The Way Things Go Now

You’re in charge now. Things go the way you want them to go.

Do you know the way you want them to go?

And what is that based on, the way you want things to go? The way the experts say they should go? The way you made them go before, when you were in charge somewhere else? The way your mentor made them go? You don’t have to say, but you’ll be better off if you know why you want things to go the way you want them to go.

Of course, there is always the option to keep them going the way they’re going now, here. Just because you’re in charge and can change the way things go doesn’t mean you should. Some things are going just fine. Good leaders will recognize those things and leave them alone.

Making things go the way you want them to go is costly. But you’re in charge; you have capital to spend. Spend it wisely.

Ministry With Youth Who Have A Lot To Do Is Hard, But In A Good Way

I have a student who will miss multiple dates related to Confirmation in the coming months due to conflicts with other activities she is involved in. First there is a concert with the local youth symphony. Then there is a national debate tournament. Finally, there is citywide Model United Nations.

It is a common enough complaint that youth are over-scheduled, but read the previous three sentences again and tell me which one of those opportunities you would tell a student to pass up in deference to church. Some of us are in ministry with youth who have a lot to do because their families and their schools and their communities provide them with an abundance of enriching opportunities. Also, those students are amazing.

If your view of this situation is that it’s a problem for youth ministry, you’re in the wrong field.

Ministry with youth who have a lot to do is not the same as ministry with youth with not a lot to do. It’s harder. Not simply because youth group and the spring retreat are competing for time, but also because the value proposition of church is less explicit than the value proposition of Model UN. That church is a community of belonging where young people are known and valued because they are children of God and not because they can play the oboe is powerful and life-changing, but it doesn’t exactly sell tickets. Participation is entirely elective. There is no First Chair or Captain or MVP.

A parent once asked me to create an officer structure for the youth group so that his son could list it on his college application. I don’t think I will ever do that.

Church is the people who call you by name and embrace you whenever you appear, and no less warmly for your having missed the last three weeks conquering the world.



Showing Up Without Signing Up

The signup has become immeasurably important in my youth ministry. Volumes of communication to youth and parents are spent urging them to sign up for things on Signup Genius or through our church website.


You plan around the students who sign up, and while you should most definitely build in a contingency for attrition, the ones who don’t show, you also need to have a strategy for the opposite, the students who show up but didn’t sign up.

That feels like where a lot of fruitful ministry happens, the space where a young person showed up and said, “I’m here to be part of this thing, though I didn’t sign up.”

I don’t ever want to be irritated about a student showing up, even if they didn’t sign up.

Does Everything in Youth Ministry Happen Only Once?

Our youth ministry calendar this year has a bunch of new stuff on it. We added retreats and trips that we’d never done before, based mostly on a perception that, while regular weekly commits abound in our students’ lives, opportunities to get away overnight (or several nights) with peers are less frequent.

Each of these overnight events draws a unique community that I am certain will never be together again in exactly that configuration. Of course, that is increasingly true of the weekly gathering, too; attendance patterns no longer support a regular, repeatable community of participants week after week. This week’s community won’t be back again.

Perhaps this sounds dramatic, but it feels like a good time to start thinking of every group gathering we schedule as a one-off where we don’t assume a level of familiarity between students and we don’t expect facility with the habits and ideas we’re trying to teach.

This isn’t bad. It would be true of something brand new.

Collaborative Playlists Are Just The Best

The power of the internet to connect people around shared interests is nowhere better expressed than in the Spotify collaborative playlist. Every day now I look forward to seeing what my collaborator has added to our list. Sometimes its something i know, but often it isn’t, so im learning and discovering new stuff.

Then I get to add something in response. This is the best part. It exercises my musical memory. It reminds me of music I like but haven’t heard in a long time, and I spend entire train rides lost in songs and albums I swooned over in college, or even high school. All because it’s shared.

Seriosly, the collaborative playlist is my internet discovery of the year.

Youth Faith Formation Happens in Two Directions

Congregation-based youth ministry teaches young people how to participate in rituals of faith. A lot of this teaching is implicit, a truth that hit me in the first church I served as a watched a five year old recite the Lord’s Prayer in worship standing next to her mother. Nobody ever taught it to her; she heard it week after week and gradually learned how to participate.

At the same time, a community of teenagers will develop, sometimes deliberately and sometimes spontaneously, its own treasured habits. From inside jokes to last-night-of-the-mission-trip rituals, these can be powerful elements of youth faith formation.

I’ve seen two things happen on this front that are troubling. 1) youth don’t ever learn the congregation’s grown up habits of discipleship because they don’t spend enough time in the company of the congregation’s grown ups, or 2) youth ministry develops its own rituals that adults have no part in.

There really is no remedy for the first besides leaving time or intentionally programming it for students to be in the adult spaces of congregational life where the grown-up habits are happening. Worship, obviously, but also meetings and coffee hour, help here.

For the second, the adults accompanying youth in ministry, staff and volunteers, can incorporate the rituals that are meaningful to them into the grown up spaces of congregational life where youth may not actually be present. The youth leader at that church I mentioned above used to check in with students each week with what she called “blesses and stresses” from their week. I saw her do it one week, and the next session meeting started the same way.

Youth faith formation happens as teens’ are formed by a congregation and as their life in community forms the church in turn.

Trust The Invitation

The invitations you want are the ones to do work you’re afraid is bigger than you. If an invitation comes and those voices in your head answer back, “I can’t do that; I lack the expertise; I lack the experience; There are others who could do it better,” then take that as a good sign and trust the one inviting you more than those voices in your head. The inviter knows things you don’t perhaps. More importantly, the inviter doesn’t know those voices in your head (she only knows the ones in her own head).

There are simple answers to the voices, too:

You probably can do it; you have time to gather some expertise; this is the experience; and, of course, there are others who might do it better–but you’re the one being invited.

What else do you need to know?