September 17, 2010

Environment Matters

In my nine years of Youth Ministry, I have read and heard over and over again about the limitations of students, specifically Middle Schoolers, when it comes to issues of attention spans and what they can understand. It's been explained to me how Middle Schoolers can only handle a maximum of 10-15 minute talks or else we will loose them and bore them. I've been told by a parent that their 8th grade daughter wasn't intellectually capable to handle a talk in the 30 minutes range. Yes...her own parent said that...

To back that view up, I have witnessed many times a speaker or leader wrestle through a 15 minute talk because kids kept talking and giggling and being disruptive. I have seen an attempted small group discussion fail miserably because all the kids wanted to do was go back to their game of Call of Duty.

On the other hand and despite the recurring theme, I have seen the exact opposite of this aspect as well. I have watched a group of middle school students have such an engaged and deep conversation that the group pushes past the hour set aside and parents begin impatiently looking into the room. I have watched students take notes on a talk that went 45 minutes and then have a great conversation afterwards. I have watched kids give their lives to Christ at camp once the speaker wrapped up after his 30 minute sermon.

So, what's the appropriate time to engage students with and why does it seem to work in one setting and not in another? Based on my experiences, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to this question isn't so much about our students and their limitations but instead it has to do with how we ourselves treat them and what kind of environment we set.

Almost every time I have seen a leader struggle through a 15 minute talk has been in settings where the environment is really built around games, entertainment and pleading with kids to just give 10 minutes of their time to listen.

My first thought is that this kind of setting builds and builds the energy in a room and then expects the kids to settle down. Sometimes this works, and it's easier with older students, but more often than not I'd say it's unrealistic to expect kids to go hard for an hour and then to just settle down. Our bodies are simply not wired that way. They are wired to either continue or increase in energy or to eventually crash down once they are tired. Thus leading either to disruptive behavior or kids falling asleep.

Second, I would argue that simply by pleading with students "just to give me 10 minutes" unconsciously communicates to the students that it's really all they can handle and they they don't really want to hear what they have to say. So, they act accordingly. They "try" to give 10 minutes but they know they are just kids with too much energy and ADD so they barely make it through the time.

These are things we have to pay attention too because I think sometimes we set ourselves up, and our kids, by setting an environment which tells kids, "You can't handle the truth."

During the times where students are engaged for longer periods of time, I have seen the environment and settings set up exactly the opposite way. The meetings maybe start with games but then are designed to diminish in energy, getting the students to a point where they are winded down when it's actually time for the talk.

Also, there is no apology or plea for time, instead the speaker just dives in a goes for it. The kids are treated like mature students, with the capabilities to handle things bigger than themselves. And more often than not, I have watched students rise to the occasion. I mean, they handle it every day for 6 hours at school, why can't they handle that in our churches and ministries. With creative teaching and treating them like the young adults they are instead of like children who need to be handled with care our students can actually go much farther than we think.

September 11, 2010

This is Church!

A couple of weeks ago on an overnight in New Hampshire, I had a really cool experience with our group of students that made me think about Church and what it’s all about.

After a long day of working for the camp and deep cleaning 3 different buildings, we decided to take some time to listen to a sermon together and talk about it afterwards.

Since I am a big Rob Bell fan, I got out my MP3 and we put on a sermon of his entitled The Weasel Effect (http://marshill.org/teaching/2010/08/01/the-weasel-factor). The sermon took a look at Matthew 5:38-42 and the importance of watching our words and following through on what we say.

I knew going in that the sermon would be a bit of a stretch for some of the students 1) because of the length and 2) because it was only the audio and most of the students would describe themselves as visual learners. Sure enough, throughout the sermon a couple of kids dozed off, one left to go to the bathroom and a couple of others began doodling as they zoned out. The grand finally was provided by a student who farted which proceeded to fill half the room with a horrible stink.

So the sermon ends and we gather together to talk about what everyone got out of the sermon and what they were thinking about now and to be honest, based on the above I wasn’t expecting much. But, God had other plans that really inspired me.

As we began to talk, one by one the students shared different pieces of the sermon and their thoughts about what stuck out or challenged them. Nolan was really challenged by one part…and that happened to be the part Gabby missed because she dozed off. Megan loved a different part which was when Nolan went down to the bathroom. Patti had a question about another part and Ashley a completely different question which were answered by two different students.

On and on our conversation went just like that until it dawned on me that we had discussed pretty much every aspect of the sermon over the previous 30 minutes. When we were done I was left with a feeling that something really cool had just happened. I looked at the students and just said, “This is what the church is supposed to be about!”

The Church is supposed to be a gathering of people who get together and encourage one another towards Christ and that was exactly what happened. No one was “the leader” of the conversation and everyone had at different points missed something but yet because of everyone being involved and giving towards the conversation we were all benefited and challenged.

There were also no bells and whistles involved. No band, no speaker and there were only 10 of us. Set up took all of 30 seconds. We just sat in a room, listened to an MP3 players and then sat and talked together and then prayed together. The bells and whistles aren’t bad in themselves but sometimes they do more to distract us from Jesus and one another when that is really what is most important.

We have made church out to be so many extra things when really it is simply about people coming together to encouraging one another to be like Christ. That’s it. It doesn’t matter where that happens, how that happens or how many are involved. If you have people and a combined effort to grow in your relationship with Christ and with one another, you are being the church. Let us focus on having more times like this in our youth ministries and churches.

September 4, 2010

The Lesser of Two Evils

My wife just wrote a blog after listening to two sermons, one by Rob Bell and the other by Perry Noble, that were ironically preached on the exact same Sunday about how there is a huge generational gap spreading in our churches. She stated that this is something we need to pay attention to as well and that this is a problem that needs to be addressed. Throughout her blog, she talks about the implications this has on marriage and relationships. (Read her blog here: http://holymessofmarriage.blogspot.com/2010/09/lets-get-together.html)

There has been a lot of conversation about this issue and topic in the Church today as we try to figure out what to do with our differing cultures that exist from generation to generation. Our young people are not being engaged in our churches very well today and many have chosen to simply leave. The 18-30 year old demographic is the biggest one missing from the church. And for many of our youth, they are clueing into the pattern that their older siblings and friends are setting. It seems that the older kids get, the more they are pulling away from the church.

As the Church figures out how to handle this, I feel that many in Youth Ministry are put between a rock and hard place trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. What do I mean? Let me explain:

For many, I don’t think it is a huge debate that segregated worship isn’t the best way to go within a church. The Bible stresses the importance of family and The Body of Christ meeting together and benefiting one another with the different gifts and experiences of each person. There is something powerful about bringing generations together. I once had our youth band play with our organist for one song and it was pretty cool! Everyone kind of got a piece of something they wanted and needed as we sang together.

I think it can also be agreed upon that one of the reasons young adults are walking away from the Church is because many of them never felt connected to it. For years in Youth Ministry, we created a one-eared Mickey Mouse that left the kids a completely separate entity. Then when they graduated from high school and our ministries, it was like they were graduating from the church as well.

On the other hand though, to just say that this isn’t healthy and that we shouldn’t segregate our youth doesn’t address the full picture of the issue at hand. The question we still need to ask is why are Youth Ministries creating separate worship services and programs for our teens? Beyond the quick answer of developmental differences or maturity level one has to consider the issue of what teens need to be fed spiritually.

One of the other reasons young adults are walking away from the church is because they simply don’t find it relevant any more. Some Senior Pastor’s don’t know how to teach in a way that engages students at the same time as adults and some topics don’t easily apply across generations. Many of our churches still rely heavily on audible learning styles when many of our young people, due to technology, are much more hands on and visual when it comes to learning. When it comes to visual learning, the church is decades behind the world that embraces and catches the eyes of most young people. And when it comes to hands on approaches, many argue they are not appropriate within a Sunday service. Also serving, which is also a big component of hands on learning, is left for the adults and watched carefully under the excuse for quality control.

So, segregating worship isn’t the best thing to do and is possibly one of the reasons young adults are leaving the church but at the same time we have young people saying they need something different and many churches are telling them no which leads to another reason young adults are leaving. Then the leadership of these generations are left to choose between the lesser of two evils: do I segregate worship and give young people a worship experience they can connect with OR do we allow young people to feel that the church isn’t relevant?

For many, including myself as we launch a Youth Gathering this fall, choose the former as being the lesser evil. But overall, it makes my heart sad that the decision even comes to this. The Church is supposed to be a place where we can all come together to give – give to one another and to Christ. But all too often Church has become about getting and not bending for others and in my experience this is much stronger when it comes to adults than our teens.

I once had a Senior Pastor who told me that I had to teach our kids about the importance of hymns and liturgy, which I agreed and did but yet when the table was turned and I expressed that the adults should be taught how to appreciate more contemporary music and a different preaching style, I was met with hesitance and concern. It’s almost like some churches have this attitude of, “The adults do church the correct way. So let the kids be kids for now but eventually they need to learn how to do church right when they grow up.” This couldn’t be any further from the truth.

Within our ministries and our churches we need to work hard at trying to bridge this gap between generations and we as the adults need to learn to lay down our pride and our likes and instead look to the next generation of church leaders and incorporate them into our worship. Sure, we will have enjoyed church and got a lot out of it but will it really be worth it in the long run? Without our young people being connected and fed, the future of our churches will be a very empty place.