I Want To Join A Traveling Band of Game Masters

I’m at the NEXT Church national gathering this week.

I went to a workshop yesterday on “Game Theory for Church Leaders” led by Ken Evers Hood (read his terrific blog here). It was interesting. It was fun–ever played Massively Multi-Player Thumb War? It was even a little controversial.

Here’s my main takeaway: gathering people together for shared mediated experiences is, like, the main thing church leaders do. Worship; committee meetings; community events; service projects; children’s lessons; youth group–church leaders’ main trade is getting people together and structuring what happens when they get there.

A tool belt full of games is a must. Not just teenager games like Sardines or Scatterball or Grog, but also group exercises with structured reflection for adults. Those are no less games. Church leaders are practitioners of games, because games are a vehicle for telling a story and experiencing transformation.

I find myself wanting to be part of a game-leading guild, to start a cohort of leaders who practice and perfect a repertoire of games. Who wants to do that with me?


Affinity or Community

Doublas Rushkoff made a prescient observation in an opinion piece about Donald Trump for Digital Trends yesterday, but instead of Trump it has me thinking about youth group. Here’s the observation:

Digital media, on the other hand, is all about choice and boundaries. We don’t have communities so much as affinity groups. We choose evermore specific sets of connections and feeds of information – and if we don’t, Facebook’s algorithms will do it for us. Your Google search is different than my Google search, because the company’s algorithms know how to parse what is different about our predilections.

I’ve been a big advocate of an “affinity-based” youth ministry approach over the past three years. My enthusiasm for it stems from my reading of Youth Ministry 3.0 and my interactions with the author, Mark Oestreicher, through of of his organization’s Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohorts.

One of Marko’s keen insights is that adolescent development has a lot more to do with finding affinity today than it did in previous iterations of youth culture, when you were either “in” or “out,” you belonged or you didn’t. Humans almost always seek out belonging, and that search is particularly urgent in adolescence. What’s important to note is that, in the Google and Facebook world Rushkoff is pointing to, “It’s easier to find a place to belong,” as Marko observes.

So I have focused a lot of my youth ministry efforts on working within groups where teens already have some affinity with one another. The best example is these weekly after school groups of youth who come as a group. They are one another’s people already, and they’re together when they’re not at church. At church, we do something different.

I’ve focused a lot less effort on building community among divergent affinity groups or among teenagers on the margins who don’t feel like there is a group for them. Rushkoff’s assessment stings a little bit and makes me want youth ministry to model a different way.

Affinity is not the same as community. Community is harder.


What Are You Reading?

Cribbing Seth Godin again for this late edition. In this post, he takes down people who aren’t doing the reading. Here’s the money quote:

The reading isn’t merely a book, of course. The reading is what we call it when you do the difficult work of learning to think with the best, to stay caught up, to understand.

So, for those of you in youth ministry, how are you doing the reading? I read everything Kenda Creasy Dean writes, and the research of danah boyd is invaluable. I also like the work that Sherry Turkle is doing on conversation in a digital age, because so much of that work focuses on teenagers and young adults. Andy Root’s writing on the theological foundations of youth ministry seems really important too.

As for non-book reading, the Progressive Youth Ministry conference is a marquee opportunity to think with some of the best youth workers in the church today.

For my money, a Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort is one of the best ways to do the reading these days.

What about you? How are you doing the youth ministry reading?

Long Live The Finger Rocket

We’re cleaning out the church resource room. Yesterday I arrived at my office to find a box of Finger Rockets on my desk, unearthed from beneath layers of curriculum and craft sediment.

IMG_20151119_113305600These things were all the rage at my youth group when I first arrived. Over time, too many were lost or broken to use them anymore. I went online to buy replacements and ended up with cheap ones that broke on the first use. I grew discouraged and Finger Rockets kind of went away as a thing our youth group played. There is no substitute for the yellow ones.

It makes me sad to know that there was a whole box of them right under my nose these past five years.

In honor of the Finger Rocket era of my tenure at Claremont, I’m posting here a poetic reflection offered by a former student, Jess Croughan, shared on Facebook upon seeing the above picture:

It was a cool June evening. There wasn’t much to be heard, save the wind through the trees and the scuff of shoes on linoleum. Suddenly from the north a snap of elastic! They came sailing from every direction; red and yellow agents of war sent with the one grim purpose of removing us all. I reached for my stash. There were screams, yells, and roars, the noise made one lose all sense of self. I was no longer just a PYG. I was a weapon, a juggernaut of destruction that couldn’t miss his mark. Victory came, but as always it was at a price. I don’t know how many we lost that night. In a way I was lost that night myself. But, we can’t dwell on the past, for there is the ever looming threat that always pushes us forward……the next round.

Long live the Ringer Rocket.

(note: always use with protective eyewear)

On Taking A New Call And Moving To Chicago

Last Sunday I was elected by the congregation of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago to be their next Associate Pastor for Youth. I will begin there on February 1st. My last Sunday at my call of the past eight years, Claremont Presbyterian Church, will be January 17th.

There is so much to say about this, and a blog post is not the way to say most of it. Let me try to say a few things, though.

I entered the conversation with the Associate Pastor Nominating Committee of Fourth Church from a position of stability and security at Claremont. I was open to exploring the Fourth opportunity, but not because I was unhappy or unfulfilled in my current call. Fourth Presbyterian Church is a one-of-a-kind congregation that wants to be in ministry with diverse youth in experimental ways. I’m into that. Also, I’m drawn to the challenge to learn and grow in a context very different from the one that has shaped me these past eight years. My months of conversation with the APNC have only increased Fourth’s allure, and now that I have been called, I can’t wait to get to work with that congregation and its staff.

The Claremont Presbyterian Church has made me the envy of my colleagues with the degree of freedom, flexibility, and permission it has granted me in my work. For example, last July the congregation very helpfully voted to amend my terms of call and my job description to allow me to begin a quarter-time post as an Associate for Ministry Development with the Presbytery of San Gabriel. That move on Claremont’s part is a testament to its support of its pastors and its commitment to our connectional denomination. Clearly, two opportunities were presenting themselves to me at the same time, one immediate and one distant (I had yet to actually speak with the Fourth APNC). That the Claremont church so enthusiastically enabled me to seize the former was a great gift to me, one that I’m sorry to say I will not be able to fully honor.

For another example, the youth at Claremont have been a gift from God to my life. They have endured countless puns and honored my every request for openness to something new. They have allowed me to lead them and they have led me. They have taught me, challenged me, and even forgiven me. They have formed my faith; I am not the same person I was when I started, thanks to them.

For another another example, The Rev. Karen Sapio is a generous and wise pastor who has taught me and cheered me on. Whatever happens next in Claremont will be thoughtful, curious, and grounded, because that’s Karen.

We are living through a complex time as the Presbyterian Church (USA). While many of the structures that have defined our life together are eroding, opportunities for new, creative ministry are everywhere around us. I chose awhile ago to chase down those opportunities publicly by blogging about my (and my church’s) experiments in ministry, my growth, and my failures. I am eager to continue that work from my position at Fourth, whose APNC enthusiastically affirmed my blogging in our conversations about their vision for that church’s future.

It’s a dicey proposition for a church to have one of their pastors writing publicly about what goes on in the pews. Yet Claremont has cheered my blogging work. The church has even seen it as an extension of my call there. i hope I have honored that view of what I’ve been trying to do here (we’ve come a long way from the controversy created by this post about my phone interview with the Claremont APNC). Likewise, I hope to honor it at Fourth.

I will do my best to say all the important things in person over the next two months and to begin this next chapter on that same foot come February.

Pick Up The Phone

Reply All co-host PJ Vogt intoned on a recent episode, “Ugh. Talking on the phone is the worst!” I forget what the episode was about, but I remember the resonance I felt with the sentiment. Talking on the phone. Ugh. Especially in light of the alternatives–texting and emailing–, seriously, a phone call? Ugh.

I knew there was something awry with that resonance at the time, and Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, is helping me to name what that was. The almost-completely-established preference for texting over phone calls (to say nothing of face-to-face conversations) is changing how we talk to one another, and in troubling ways, especially for those of us whose work is to cultivate community, particularly among the young.

Turkle documents case upon case of people in their teens, 20’s, and 30’s who quite literally fear talking on the phone. A college student describes phone calls as, “The absolute worst . . . I instantly become this awkward person. On the phone–I have to have these little scripts in front of me.”

The phone is a synchronous medium. It is not, like its digital successors, biased outside of time (I’m totally cribbing from Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed here). Digital media are asynchronous, so they give us the advantage of conversing without the pressure of responding and reacting in real time. We can compose and edit our contributions to the conversation. It feels safer.

Gone are the days, then, of teenagers hijacking the family telephone for hours on end with inane conversation, like I did. Teenagers and young adults today view the telephone as a terrifying relic that wants nothing more than to expose their un-edited vulnerabilities in real time. So they’re simply not using it.

That’s a problem.

Youth ministry is a vehicle for celebrating the un-edited and the vulnerable in the service of transformative human community. Youth groups and youth retreats should intentionally teach face-to-face conversation. Youth leaders should force teenagers to converse with them over the phone and eschew the text message. Our mission of mediating the acceptance and love of God to adolescents simply can’t be accomplished with emojis; it requires a voice. It requires those awkward silences. It requires the misspoken word and the grace that follows.

Seriously. Pick up the phone.

They Can’t Get That Anywhere

I have a nagging critique that dogs a lot of my ministry work, especially work with youth: not Christian enough.

That our relationships with youth must issue in distinctively Christian expressions, like prayer or devotional lessons–and that interactions with youth that lack those expressions are fine but not really “ministry”–is a weight that I think a lot of us are bearing for no good reason. It’s the “They could get ‘relationships’ anywhere” dig.

The problem with that thinking is that trusting and reciprocal relationships with adults who aren’t their parents and aren’t paid to spend time with them can’t, for most youth, be had anywhere. We have multiplied the number of adults in relationship with teenagers to include coaches, teachers, tutors, scout leaders, college advisers, and so on. Yet all of those adults, in addition to being paid for their time with youth, have an agenda for them. It’s a good agenda, sure. But it’s an agenda.

Youth ministry should offer teenagers relationships with adults and a community of peers that wants nothing more of them than their very human Child-of-God selves. Share the gospel with them, yes. Study Scripture. Pray, please. But let’s stop banging our head against our Bibles if our gatherings with some youth don’t contain those distinctively Christian expressions.

We are the distinctively Christian expression. Us and our theological vision that squints to see teenagers as God sees them: inherently valuable and worth a universe of attention and time.

Nobody is saying this more clearly today than Andy Root.

Progressive Youth Ministry Is Not Safe

Progressive Christians are kidding themselves in believing that their youth are somehow insulated from the influence of the more aggressive forms of conservative cultural Christianity (like this).

Teens’ disillusionment with Christianity will include its inclusive expressions too.

I know youth who have grown up in churches that have long welcomed LGBT persons into membership and leadership who nonetheless feel alienated from Christianity as an exclusive thing. These youth have been schooled in social justice in their Sunday school classes, and yet see the church as something that is at odds with their emerging sense of injustice in the world.

I wonder if our talk has come up short. I wonder if we’ve failed these youth in explaining how our church is different from the ones their friends go to, where you can’t be out and every word of the Bible is preached literally, while not demanding of them the kind of giving of themselves that characterizes Christian discipleship.

Faith, conservative or progressive, has to be lived in ways that stretch us to experience God’s heart for the poor and suffering and God’s thirst for justice in the world. Absent that, it won’t matter to anyone.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T The Teenagers

I met up with some 9th graders at a diner this week. They arrived before I did, and when I slid into the booth one of them told me under her breath that the waitress had given them the stink eye when they came in. There were six of them.

“No she didn’t.”

“Yes she did.” We dropped it.

But then one of them didn’t get the iced tea she ordered. She told me she hadn’t got it, and I said, “So tell the waitress, not me” (one of my hidden agendas in meeting youth at a diner is to join them in a space where they have to interact with adults–as adults). So she raised her hand. Like a 9th grader.

After several minutes of hand raising, she complained to me that the waitress kept looking at her but not coming over. I said I’m sure the waitress hadn’t seen her yet, but I started watching. A few more minutes and no response. Finally, I decided to get involved, and I raised my own hand. The waitress came right over.

Now, there are much bigger problems one can face than being ignored at a diner, and there are very good reasons for restaurant staff to feel intense irritation with teenagers in their place of work. They’re loud. They don’t spend much money. They sure as Hell don’t tip. As an 11th grader explained to me the next day, “I’m ordering french fries, and I’m sitting here for 45 minutes. But I have a girlfriend, so you can’t make me leave!”

Still, it’s an ugly experience for young people in adult society, glared at or simply ignored.

I would love for my church to be a manifestation of adult society that welcomes teenagers, that sees them and validates them. Teens–all teens: not just the ones we’ve baptized and taught in Sunday school–should get the message from us that they’re wanted and important for no other reason than that they’re there and they’re them. You know, the way we try to treat adults.

We’re good about this in some ways and less good in others. Clearly the kids who drop by the church after school feel welcomed, and they know there’s at least one adult there who likes them for them.

But we also have this sign on the property that says, “Thou Shalt Not Skateboard.” It’s an insurance thing, I know. But I hate it. We’re supposed to chase off skateboarders whenever we see them, but I’ve been completely non-compliant with that expectation for seven years. Once, I approached a skateboarder on our campus just to introduce myself, but the moment I said “Hello” he grabbed his board and fled, clearly assuming the worst about my intentions. The sign had done its work. Kind of.

Let’s look for ways to welcome our community’s teenagers and treat them like important grown ups.

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?