Work with Youth As Individuals, Not As A Group

It was the “youth” week to make a stewardship presentation in worship, and, given that I’m the Associate Pastor responsible for the “youth,” I needed to pull something together.

Let me skip to the end and work backward.

Two students and I presented a hoaky little song-and-dance that got the message across and made ’em laugh. I wrote the thing. The students just said “yes.”

One of the students said “yes” about two minutes beforehand, when I saw him in the front pew and pitched him on taking part. “It’s super simple,” I told him, and I wasn’t lying.

The other student agreed a few days before, by way of our Facebook group for youth. That was my main strategy: Facebook. I put up a message on Monday.

This Sunday: I need students to help me with a Sound of Music themed bit about giving and stewardship. I’m thinking something Do-Re-Mi ish during the Children’s Time. Who’s in?

First response: “which Sunday?”

Second response: “I’ll do it, but do I have to stand up in front of everybody?”

A day later I suggested a specific strategy:

How about this: check out the do-re-mi song and suggest things about CPC based on all the “do’s” “re’s” Mi’s” and everything else. For example: do–the church gives/for mission trips. Re–the light that fills our church . . . You get the idea. And you guys can do better than these. Fire away!

First response: “I’m not in.”

Ultimately, a single student was interested in participating and willing to make one suggestion. I wrote the rest, texted the student a reminder on Saturday, and brought it with me on Sunday.

The episode illustrates a truth about youth ministry today: it’s less and less working with groups of students and more and more working with individuals–identifying gifts in individuals and inviting them to share those gifts in specific ways.

Our church has no “youth group” to speak of. It has multiple groupings of students who come together for different purposes at different times and for varying durations. A project like this requires a youth worker to identify particular students who would a) enjoy it and b) be good at it, and then work with those students on it. When it’s done, they’re done.

It also requires a youth worker to use a better tool than Facebook for inviting students to share their gifts, but that’s another post.

Religion Stinks (A Theological Exercise with 11th Graders)

The group of 11th grade guys that gathers at my church on Wednesday afternoons wrestled with this Soul Pancake prompt yesterday: does religion do more harm than good?

Most students expressed a conviction that religion does a lot of good for people. It’s a force for positive growth and change for millions. But they expressed with greater conviction their awareness of the harm that religion has caused in the world, namely as a goad to war.

I reflected, “It sounds like you’re saying that religion does a lot of good on a micro level but a lot of harm on a macro level.” Yes, they said. That’s it.

“I wonder,” I said, “How something that is so good on a micro level can be so bad on a macro level.” No answers.

What’s your answer?

Do We Need A Junior High Youth Group?

The high school students who gather at our church once a week seem to find in one another an important cohort where they feel they belong and can be themselves. Junior high students not so much.

Youth ministry with junior high kids has been tricky for as long as I’ve been here. Middle school is 7th and 8th grade in this community, so you’ve got half the target community as high school. But there are other obstacles. This age is characterized for most junior highers by such a high level of self-consciousness that it takes a leader more skilled than I to engage students in conversations in which they will offer anything more than a glum nod or stream-of-consciousness rant. That’s junior high for you. It’s beautiful. It’s a nightmare.

Talking with my colleague today, I started to wonder if the weekly junior high youth group is useful to our students at all right now. Maybe we can serve them better by offering them occasional gatherings that are low-risk and yet still interactive, that blend the bubbly girls with the Eor boys and the All Star boys with the wallflower girls, that are easy entry points to relationships for students and their friends with adults in the church who care about them. Maybe once a month?

Is this a junior high ministry model anywhere that you know of?

Youth Ministry And Pot

I have a youth ministry colleague who told me recently that there are students in her youth group who use marijuana, who have told her they use marijuana, and who are nonetheless high achieving students and respectful kids. She lives in a state that has legalized it.

During the conversation she shared a sense of angst about her students’ pot smoking. She doesn’t feel like she can condone it, but neither does she feel she needs to tell their parents and insist they stop (some of them shared that their parents know). I’m green enough to not have dealt with this, so I didn’t really know what to tell her.

So, on a scale of zero to 10, where zero is absolutely not a problem and 10 is call-in-the-feds, how big of a barrier to the aims of youth ministry is marijuana usage?

10 Learnings from The Youth Mission Trip

Note: this is the fourth post about a recent youth mission trip. The first three are here, here, and here.

This work trip was the first of its kind: a collaboration between four youth workers to assemble a team of over 40 high school youth from eight different churches for a 10 day mission experience. Here are the most important things we learned.

  1. A grilled cheese is a sandwich
  2. There are high school students who would like nothing more than to high five you in the face with a bus.
  3. The Abiquiu Teen Project is amazing
  4. 51 people is too many to do much meaningful work. Smaller=more flexible=better.
  5. Mosquitos have absolutely no redeeming biological or ecological function.
  6. The Dart Game is a disease.
  7. If your bus driver’s name is “Porsche,” it’s not actually that funny to repeatedly say, “Bring the Porsche around.”
  8. High school students want to worship God, especially under a blazing night sky on top of a mountain.
  9. The “O! A Milkshake” energizer is a fly that will torment your ears to the death.
  10. We’re definitely doing it again!



Why I’m Banning The Phone Ban

Note: this is the third post on our high school mission trip. The first two posts are here and here.

This is the last mission trip where I bar students from having their phones. The last.

I can’t speak for my co-leaders, but I’m done policing students on this. For a few reasons: the phone ban is difficult to enforce; phones–like it or not–are thoroughly intertwined with basic daily functions; it’s patronizing.

Enforcing a phone ban is a terrible waste of leadership time and energy on a mission trip. We asked every student before they got on the bus, “Do you have a phone?” Because they and their parents had been told in very clear terms that phones were NOT ALLOWED, every one of them answered, “No.”

Lies. We discovered at least a dozen phones during the trip. One student justified her phone’s presence by admitting that her mother had instructed her to call home every night, despite the ban. Who is she to obey? Mom or the youth leader?

A student sitting right next to me on the bus took his phone out of his pocket, and, when I called him on it (“Hey, you’re not supposed to have that.”), be blushed. I told him to hand it over.


Just no.

What could I do? Wrestle him for it?

“I’m very disappointed.”


After conscientious students who had observed the ban started justifiably complaining about those who had not, we did a sweep, promising not to apprehend the devices but threatening discipline if they were used to text or make calls–in other words, as phones. This is the part about phones’ enmeshment in our lives. Music players, video game systems, cameras: phones get used every day for so many  things unrelated d to communication, things that we otherwise allowed on the trip, that banning them creates a hardship.

Conscious of this, we leaders urged students to bring separate cameras and iPods and video games. All those things were allowed. Some students brought none of those things. Some brought three separate things. Some brought their phones.

The camera is the thorniest piece of this puzzle. Your phone camera is the one you use every day and most easily. It seems unnecessary for mission trip leaders to demand you bring one don’t normally use just because you can’t text with it.

Most importantly of all, the phone ban is patronizing. I had my phone. I used it to call home to my wife and daughter, and I was very uneasy with the distinction that practice asserted between the importance of my family and students’ families. If this was an adult mission trip, there would be no phone ban. It’s that simple. Implementing one for high school students treats them less like the adults we want them to become and more like children.

Negotiating the role of our phones is a terrific community-building opportunity on mission trips, indeed, in all of our youth ministry gatherings, because it gets at our expectations of attention and presence from one another. Inviting students to both articulate and enforce their own expectations of one another in this regard is a better practice, I’m convinced, than issuing a unilateral ban.

That’s why I’m banning the phone ban.

Forget The Instructions

Note: this is the second of four posts reflecting on this year’s high school mission trip. Find the first post here.

So it’s our last day of service. Our project is straightforward, and the instructions are simple: clear brush and weeds from a patch of dirt and an arroyo behind one of the ranch’s office buildings. There are about 20 of us. The mood is jovial. There’s even a game of Truth or Dare going on.

But a few students can’t get into it. I’m doing my best to rally some enthusiasm with upbeat talk, positive reinforcement, and even my own example as I dig in the dirt to uproot pesky weeds. But they’re not responding. They sit listless in the dirt and pathetically poke at the weeds with their hand trowels. I’m despondent.

Then, with about 10 minutes left to work, one of them catches a vision of our little dirt patch as a zen garden. He enlists two of his peers to help him clear the rest of the area of weeds, and then the three of them two-hand heave discarded rocks to form two walking paths. Then they rake the thing into a placid sea. Repeatedly they’re told to stop, that it’s time to go to lunch. But, as they’ve done all morning, they ignore those instructions and work til they were satisfied.

Mission is more than following instructions. It’s following a vision of an alternative future more compelling than mere maintenance and blowing through stop signs. Sometimes mission means making better instructions.



Of Course It Was Bad

I got back from a 10 day work trip with 51 people yesterday, 40 of them high school students. I’ve got four posts for the week reflecting on it. 

First off: of course it was bad. 

When I stepped off the bus and onto our church parking lot pavement, a parent asked me, “Everything go okay?” I reflexively answered, “No.”

He seemed startled. So I expanded with some guilt about how things are bound to go wrong in a 10 day mission effort involving that many people. On balance, the trip was good–great even: transformative, powerful, encouraging. But some things were off. Hundreds of mosquito bites, too little sleep, arguments, a midnight ER visit. 

The power of mission comes from the things that go badly more than the things that go well. The leaders of our trip became experts in arranging restaurant meals from 51 people, and they all went incredibly well, given the challenges. But I doubt our students will carry an impression of those meals as deep as the one made by their unexpected early morning embrace of a student who had to make an unplanned early departure. 


Also, if nothing goes badly, what are we learning?

School’s Out

I’m breathing a sigh of relief this week as the school year in this community draws to a close. The summer youth ministry trade off here is a couple of week-long commitments instead of five weekly ones during the year. But this time of year always gives me a strange sense that we’re launching kids into summer unnecessarily.

There’s a work trip in the summer, and some will do that. There will be a beach trip and a board game night and a hike, and some will do those things. But there have been these weekly gatherings for fellowship and learning going on for months, and now we’re stopping them because, well, because school’s out.

Here’s my question: is it a practical necessity to structure our gathering habits with teenagers around the school calendar? Or should we try to push back against that calendar a little bit and maintain the continuity of relationships and learning we’ve spent all fall, winter, and spring building?

Youth Ministry And Generation Like

Douglas Rushkoff has produced two terrific PBS Frontline documentaries about youth and media. The Merchants of Cool (2001) and The Persuaders (2004) both analyzed the embedded nature of corporate marketing in media aimed at young people. Now Generation Like probes how the advent of social media has changed the equation.

Essentially, nothing has changed. The media that young people consume is still carefully crafted for purposes of branding. Only now the process of branding has opened up, so that youth consumers of media actually function as marketing foot soldiers for corporations.

Watch the clip below, and ponder this question: what are those of us who minister to young people doing that differs from these corporate marketing strategies? The questions seems absurd, because the difference in the scale of our operations is utterly massive; I don’t know any youth groups with millions of likes on its Facebook page. Yet I wonder if we’re not sharing certain assumptions about the value of youth attention in our efforts to connect with them. Personally, I’m losing. The activities I’m inviting them to participate in, even to like, lag way behind most of their other priorities.

Should that bother me? Does my outreach need to be appeal more to my students’ sensitivity to public perception? Or is the call of youth ministry to soldier on and allow the gap between church-based activities and YouTube driven activity only widen?